Hi! I’m very excited to be guest blogging for The Best American Poetry this week, as I’ve been an admirer of the series for a long time and am a fan of the persons editing the series and this blog. I love that writers here have the leeway to talk about anything, and if I do this again I may write about ‘70s divas, the perfect Manhattan, and what my dog would say if he could talk, but for this, my first run, I will keep my posts poetry-centric, writing today about three Korean American feminist poetry panels that I’m participating in or have recently produced.
The first of these panels took place last March at the Thinking Its Presence: Race, Creative Writing, and Literary Study Conference at the University of Montana, Missoula, an invigorating new forum produced by the poets Prageeta Sharma and Joanna Klink, who founded the conference in 2014 to “examine innovative creative writing and scholarship that re-thinks the complex and inseparable links between literary forms and the racialized thinking, processes, and histories that have shaped this country since its founding.” The conference takes its title from scholar Dorothy Wang’s book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2013), which in turn takes the phrase "thinking its presence" from Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's poem "Chinese Space" from her collection Empathy. As Adrienne Rich said, one never knows what the life of a poem will be.
Featured readers at this year’s conference included the keynote speaker Claudia Rankine who delivered a mind-rousing reading from Citizen, John Keene who read a terrific story from his new fiction collection Counternarratives, William S. YellowRobe who read from his strange play Native American Paranormal Society, and the irrepressible Marilyn Chin. Panel topics encompassed technoshamanism, how translation fractals race, tributes and responses to Amiri Baraka’s work, and the personal essay, among other lively subjects.
I produced and moderated a panel titled Why KA? FP with the poets Youna Kwak, Hannah Sanghee Park, and Franny Choi. (The “F” stands for feminist. I like the idea of Feminist Poetry as the answer to most questions.) I wanted to enact this panel to feature the writing of these talented and forthright writers, to discuss phenomena we address as KAF poets, and to draw attention to these experiences through our very presence. Small though our numbers were, this was one of the largest gatherings of KAF poets we’d known, and certainly so including the audience.
Gathering together in person affords the opportunity to have a fluid conversation, so after reading new work, we discussed a few questions including the following:
- Where did you see yourself in children's stories when you were children or young writers?
- What is an enjoyable racialized poetic moment that you've experienced lately?
- What is the most annoying question that you're frequently asked?
- What is a question that you would like to be asked?
- How do you write good poems?
Then we opened up the discussion to the audience who asked excellent questions, making for an enjoyable, idea-provoking, sustaining experience.
I will mention that these poets’ writing styles vary tremendously, as you may see by reading the poems below, and as I expect they will among the poets on the two Korean American female poet panels I’ll be participating in next April, both produced by the young award-winning writers Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello and EJ Koh. The first panel will take place at the AWP Conference in Los Angeles; the second will happen at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, D.C.
The presenters on the AWP panel will include Marci, EJ, Hannah, and Franny; Arlene Kim will also present on the Split This Rock panel. We’re working out the details of what we’ll be focusing on, but here’s a list of “13 Reasons to Do a Korean American Female Poetry Panel" that we’ve come up with:
- To feature new writing by exciting poets.
- To redress underrepresentation of new writing by KAFP.
- We are tired of hearing, "Your English is great. Where are you from?"
- To disabuse the notion that we are overrepresented.
- Korean adoptees coming of age now are seeking someone to speak to their experiences and discovering silence.
- To do something other than eat Korean BBQ in LA.
- Korean Americans are more than K-pop, kimchi, and great skincare products.
- Though we’ve been confused for each other, we are only sometimes confused.
- To deflate the distrust engendered by misogyny and white hegemony.
- To speak to Korean American women who are not pretending to be Korean American women.
- To express solidarity (yep) with other women of color.
- To respectfully disagree.
- To disrupt centuries of silence.
Throughout the week, I’ll be featuring new poems by contemporary American poets whose work and persons I like. The first poem is by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello from her collection Hour of the Ox, winner of the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, forthcoming in 2016 from the University of Pittsburgh Press. This poem originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Thrush Poetry Journal.
Brother Returns As Chrysanthemum
Didn’t we think we were more than this—
little suns unfurling above the earth?
We thought we were constellations
in soil, entire galaxies anchored to dust.
Ravenous, we believed our thousand
arms could hoard the horizon—
eclipsing ourselves even as we waned,
bereft of all but shadow.
Arlene Kim, author of What have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes? (Milkweed Editions), wrote the following poem, which first appeared on diode:
American Gothic: Revival
. . . these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys . . .
—from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet
Dear Rilke, I am not young and I am not a poet. I slink around the city, disaster-footed, sure for danger, face unknown, I pull my hoodie up. I snick around, I slink around the city’s back. Short for danger. My motherless face bagged. I like a girl at Taco Bell but she knows only my voice. I wear my clothes like a blanket around the shipwreck of my body, the et cetera of my body. Like Dracula, I don’t exist. There is no such thing as a moonless night. There are only nights and nights in a blown together indigo accordion. I’m there at 2 a.m. to shut down Leilani’s, pilfer burritos and lumpia. I like to keep zippered all the way. I like the sound my skateboard makes on the asphalt. I think dreadlock is a funny way of putting it. I call my face a jihad. I, the lesser victor. I call my face a tattoo. One my father gave me—someone else’s face Frankensteined to mine. Inside my head, my father’s words, notations, fatwas. My father stalks me like a footnote. Follows me— when I see boards pasted with pictures of the missing, I look for my face. That is me, gone. It’s been much more than 24 hours. In society. Among citizens. I never take off my hood, because inside I’m all wolf. My reasons are still unknown.
Dear Rilke, I read your book. I read your book anyway.
The next poem is by EJ Koh, a Kundiman and MacDowell fellow and visiting scholar at the University of Washington, from her collection A Lesser Love:
To My Mother Kneeling in the Cactus Garden
For a month I tried to think of what to say.
How many times you’ve swept a kitchen knife
across your neckline and said, This is how
you end a marriage. How many more wicks you light
for god. I could tell by your eyes you’ve never
seen him. What would you call the feeling
of abandon and caution and relief that keeps me
tethered to you? Let me be the husband
you prayed for, the son you wanted, or mother
who held you. I’ll build your new patio swing
and fold your coffee linens, wash your hardened
feet in warm water. To me you have become a prison
of its own light. I’ll grow greens and the parsley
you love and wrap them into cold sandwiches.
I will place them where you can reach with ease.
Here’s a fablesque poem by Franny Choi, the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing):
There’s fancy footwork in this poem from Hannah Sanghee Park’s collection The Same-Different, which won the 2014 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets:
And I’ll conclude today’s post with a verse/essay by Youna Kwak that appeared this summer in The Offing. Among other accomplishments, Youna recently earned her Ph.D. in the Department of French at NYU. I think of our fellow poets and friends in France in posting her verse essay “You”: