2019 Asian American Literature Festival

2019 Asian American Literature Festival


>>Robert Casper: All right. I think we will begin. Hello and welcome to
the Library of Congress. I’m Rob Casper, the head
of the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center. And I’m thrilled
to kick off day two of the Second Asian American
Literary Festival here in our historic Thomas
Jefferson building. First of all, let me say thank
you to the other partners in the festival, the Smithsonian
Asian Pacific American Center and the Poetry Foundation. I have to give thanks to the
force behind this festival, Lawrence-Minh Davis who of
course as per usual is running around making sure
everything’s going to work. In the almost three decades
I’ve spent championing poetry and literature I’ve never worked
alongside someone as visionary, committed and compassionate
as he. So too bad I don’t
get to tell him that. Oh there he is. [ Laughter ] That’s my little shout
out to you, Lawrence. [ Applause ] And of course I also want
to thank Jennifer Chang from George Washington
University. You’ll hear from
Jennifer a bit later as a feature poet
here on the stage. But she deserves equal
praise for her organizing. It’s with both Lawrence and
Jennifer that the Poetry and Literature Center dreamed
up today’s Intimate Lectures and Secret Histories programs, both of which explore
the festival’s theme of care and caregiving. Let me tell you a little
bit about the Library of Congress Poetry
and Literature Center. Its mission is to foster and enhance the public’s
appreciation of literature. To this end the Center
administers the endowed poet laureate consultant
in poetry position, coordinates an annual season
of readings, performances, lectures and symposia. And sponsors high-profile
prizes like the Bobbitt Prize, the Library of Congress
Prize for American Fiction. To find out more about our
programs and initiatives and to explore features
such as our online archive of recorded poetry
and literature, you can visit our
website, loc.gov/poetry. The Center is honored to
co-sponsor today’s events with the Library of
Congress Asian Division and Asian American Association. Starting with an 1869
presentation of 933 volumes by the emperor of
China, the collections of the Asian Division have
grown to represent one of the most comprehensive
collections of English language
materials in the world. It now provides public access
to more than 4 million items in over 130 Asian languages
and covering an area ranging from the South Asian
subcontinent and Southeast Asia to China, Japan and Korea. The Division also contains the
Asian American Pacific Islander Collection established
in 2007 by a mandate and annual appropriation
from Congress. This collection includes
a wealth of materials from literary manuscripts,
theater scripts and oral history interviews
to conference papers, community newsletters
and yearbooks. Were it a weekday, we
could all just head down to the Asian Division
reading room which is on the opposite side
of this first floor. Alas, it is not open today. But we’ve arranged a sneak peak of its Chinese Rare
Book Digital Collection, and the computer that’s showing
that collection is right there in the back of this room. We hope that in between today’s
events you’ll get a chance to check out the collection. And we hope you go to
the Division’s website, loc.gov/rr/asian to see more. I also want to give special
thanks to the Library of Congress Asian
American Association. Founded in March 31st, 1994, the
Association traces its origins to the 1991 celebration of Asian and Pacific American
heritage month at the library. The event brought together
a group of staff eager to raise awareness of Asian
and Pacific American heritage in the library community
and to encourage fellowship and support among staff
interested in Asian and Pacific American histories. On behalf of all the sponsors
here at the Library of Congress, we welcome you and we
hope you enjoy the day. And with that, let me
welcome Lawrence-Minh Davis onto the stage. [ Applause ]>>Lawrence-Minh Bui
Davis: Thank you, everybody. Thank you to Rob. I want to say first, in thinking
a little bit about the festival, that it grew out of a shared
reading series hosted here at the Library of
Congress between the Poetry and Literature Center
and my center, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific
American Center, out of a series of conversations
that Rob mentioned between our teams
and Jennifer Chang. And Rob and Anya’s
commitment to — and the Poetry and Literature
Center team’s commitment to Asian American literature. We wouldn’t have this
festival without them, so we want to start
by recognizing that and thanking them
for that commitment. If I could have a
round of applause. [ Applause ] It means a lot for the
Library of Congress to recognize the
importance and make this kind of long-term commitment to Asian
American literature and I want to be appreciative
of that to start. I like to — I’ve
been taking the saying that it takes a village
to throw a festival, so I’m really thankful to a
lot of the folks in this room who have taken part in
kind of that process of community curation, a
whole series of organizations and individuals who have
put in the kind of thinking and creative and organizing
work to make it happen. We like to think
about the festival as a cooperative space rather than simply a performative
space, an opportunity for the co-creation
of the future of Asian American
literature even as we also honor its
present and its past. I want to recognize my center
where I’m proudly a curator, the Smithsonian Asian
Pacific American Center. Our director, Lisa
Sasaki, is here. And can we have a round
of applause for Lisa? [ Applause ] Lisa has been a steadfast
champion of the festival and for that we’re all deeply
appreciative. APAC, Asian Pacific
American Center, is a museum without walls, rethinking what museum
experience can be and serving as the nation’s resource
on Asian American and Pacific Islander
art history and culture. I want to thank our other
central festival partner Poetry Foundation and Steve Young. I’m not sure if Steve is here. But thank you to the Poetry
Foundation for its support and for helping us make
this festival possible. Thanks also to our
sponsors ARP and Eaton DC. Special thanks to
Kundiman Kayapres, the Smithsonian Arthur
Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian’s National
Postal Museum. Hold on for this last one — my wife has helped me practice
trying to pronounce it — Consadear de lete de
Quebec for their support. My French is terrible. As a child of an immigrant, the colonial legacy
didn’t stick with me. Or maybe I’m like
rejecting it in my blood so I’m terrible at French. Apologies to the
wonderful council. [ Laughter ] Who is not responsible
for that colonial history. [ Laughter ] And great appreciation to all of our festival’s participating
community partners. I’m going to bring up Kate Hao who will be introducing
our first speaker today, Monique Truong. [ Applause ]>>Kate Hao: Hello. Before I get started, I just want to let everyone
know we have five accessibility copies up here in the
front if anyone wants any. You can come up and grab
it or raise your hand and we can make sure you get it. Yes, we have someone
right there. Hang on. Yeah. Could you raise
your hand again, please? Yeah. Yeah. And we have one more right here. Oh. Cool. Thanks, Lawrence. So I first encountered
Monique Truong’s work in an undergraduate class
called The Ethnic Bildungsroman where we read her novel
Bitter in the Mouth. Now white western
literary tradition dictates that in a bildungsroman
or a coming of age story the
protagonist always leaves home and family behind
to forge an identity for themselves in
larger society. In contrast, Bitter
in the Mouth shows that for its protagonist Linda
the journey is not so simple. In order to gain some
clarity on her identity and where she belongs in
the world, Linda must return to her childhood home in
small-town North Carolina where trauma and fraught
familial relationships await here. Monique’s first novel,
The Book of Salt, although not quite a
coming of age story, explores similar hauntings. The protagonist Bin, a
fictionalized version of the Vietnamese chef
employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tockless,
pulls together the threads of his adolescence in
Saigon, his years at sea and his adulthood in Paris
to show that for those in the margins, there is
no straightforward journey to find belonging. No easy salve to heal
one’s longing for homeland. Monique Truong’s novels
are master classes in exquisite craftsmanship
and lyrical prose. The Book of Salt,
published in 2003, was a New York Times notable
book as well as the winner of the New York Public Library
Young Lions Fiction Award and more. Bitter in the Mouth
was published in 2010 and widely hailed as one of
the best novels of the year. Her third novel,
The Sweetest Fruits, is forthcoming this September and I’m sure will follow
in similar footsteps. She is the recipient of the
Penn/Robert Bingham Fellowship, Princeton University’s
Hodder Fellowship and the Guggenheim Fellowship. With her many awards and
accolades, Monique Truong through her nuanced explorations
of diasporic identity as shaped by war, colonial violence and forced migrations
has established herself and her books as crucial
touchstones in the landscape of contemporary Asian
American literature. And a perfect author to deliver
one of the intimate lectures at this year’s Asian
American Literature Festival. I’m thrilled and honored to
be introducing her today. At the time that
I took that class where I first read
Monique’s work, I was at the very
beginning of my education in Asian American
literature, a mere sophomore at a college I had picked
especially for being as far away from home as I could go. Monique’s novels pose questions
that were relevant to me then and continue to challenge
my notions of what Asian American
literature is and can be now. How do we, the members
and children of diaspora, negotiate the confusions
and contradictions that line our notions of
home, family and identity? And how can we understand such
tensions as being not problems to be solved but rather
a locus of possibility for radically expanding how we
think about our relationships to our families,
to our communities and the land that we occupy? To quote Linda in Bitter in
the Mouth, we all need a story of where we come from
and how we got there. Crucially, the stories
gifted to us by Bin and Linda are often
cast with doubt. The possibility of falsehood. Truth is not a given. Instead, Monique shows us that
in our search for these stories, the ones that we need to
fuel our journeys homeward and to form answers to our
literature’s deepest questions. We can and should cast truth
away when it begins to limit us in favor of the full and
unfettered witnessing of our bodies, our histories
and our desires brought to the page in our own tongues. Please join me in welcoming
Monique Truong to the stage. [ Applause ]>>Monique Truong: Kate,
that was an amazing — hello. [Laughs] It’s hard to see
you below that podium. That was an amazing
introduction. I’m honored. I’m equally honored to see so
many faces and bodies here. And it’s very touching. An intimate lecture, that was
how Lawrence, one of the members of the village that brought
this festival together, described in an email to me in
terms of what he had in mind for today’s presentation. When I first saw that
phrase, I laughed. I thought of intimates as in the
euphemism for women’s underwear. [ Laughter ] That I would be standing
before you today clad only in my skivvies. Or that you, dear audience, would be required
to attend in yours. Or maybe both. But then I saw the time for this
lecture, 10:00 AM on a Saturday and thought, “Well, that’s just
way too early for such hijinks.” [ Laughter ] Then I thought about the
other meaning of intimate, the one that is surely intended. Intimate as in a feeling or
quality of closeness engendered by trust, friendship or love. And I laughed again because
that connotation suggests that I should invite
you up here one by one and whisper this lecture
directly into your ear. Not because its content is
full of secrets meant for each of you, but because this
lecture’s intent is to share with you what is tender,
fragile and true to me. A plain song to the literature
of Asian America and how and when their voices have
spoken directly to me, whispered themselves
directly into my ear. So let’s begin this way. Let’s imagine that I am not
standing in front of you but that I am seated
by your side. Imagine that for this moment
the two of us are alone, which is not at all the
same as being lonely. And I’m saying soto voche
into your ears the following. “You and I may have never met. But I have been here for you
as you are here for me now.” The writer and the reader, that
is our intimate relationship, our trust, our friendship,
our shared love for the literature
of Asian America. This nation state of
our voices full-throated and passionate amid the
raucous multi-phonic chorus that is American literature. It’s a pleasure to be in
your company this morning. Pleasure is in fact the theme,
the organizing principle of this intimate lecture. In an environment of
heightened anxiety and daily attacks upon the
marginalized communities of this nation, I submit to you that pleasure is a
radical state of being. A disruptive feeling
to claim as our own. To gather here this morning on
this day and to take pleasure in the literary traditions and
the imaginative present day of Asian America is
to affirm that we and our creative labor belong
here at the Library of Congress, belong here in Washington DC. That we and our allied
communities belong in all of the 50 states of this
union and the territories of American Samoa, Guam, the
Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the
US Virgin Islands. What does pleasure
mean for this reader? Because we are all
readers first. It means opening
a book and seeing for the first time the body,
the Asian American body. And it means recognizing that
body, that Asian American body. It means holding a
mirror in my hands when I have never seen
my reflection before. It was during my
sophomore year at college that I began enrolling in
Asian American studies classes. Let me be clear,
I began enrolling in the one class per semester
that was being offered. In the years that I was
an undergraduate at Yale from 1986-1990, that institution
did not have a commitment to Asian American studies. And there were no full-time
faculty in this area of studies. Instead, Yale, like many other
universities, preferred to bring in — and again, let me be clear
— to exploit a rotating roster of adjunct instructors. These adjuncts, Grace Yun
and Oscar Campo Monez, were my intellectual lifelines. Without them, I would not
be here today as a reader, a writer or anything else. Some of you may remember a song
from the early 80’s that began, “Last night a DJ saved my life.” [ Laughter ] Well, beginning in 1987,
adjuncts saved mine. [ Laughter ] Yun and Campo Monez taught
classes that introduced me to Asian American history
and Asian American writers of poetry, fiction and plays. For those of you
who are younger, I think it may be difficult
to grasp how like unicorns, mythical creatures Asian
American writers were in 1987. I had never read one. I had never met one in life. And nor had I even
seen their photographs. I want you to take
that sentence in. Their literal body in
addition to their body of work were unknown to me
until I was 19 years old. Among the first books
that I bought for an Asian American studies
class was called Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian
American Poets, which had a publication
date of 1983. I remember flipping through its
pages and fixating on the black and white photographs
of the contributors that preceded their works. 45 of the 49 contributors
had sent in a photograph. Garett Hongo, George
Leong, Wing Tek Lum did not. And Alan Chong Lao sent in a small potato block
print of a human figure. The photos that were
sent in varied. But most of them weren’t
sleek author photos. And pre-1983 was of course
many years before the iPhone and the selfie. So another human being, most likely a friend,
took those images. I took in every detail
offered by these photographs, from the shape of the poet’s
face, the length of their hair, to the items of clothing
that they wore. And also whatever I could gather
about the room or the setting where the poets had
situated themselves. On the pages of Breaking
Silence I saw for the first time a photograph
of Jessica Hagedorn, her short, spikey hair, her
off-the-shoulder blouse, her arms crossed in front of
her chest, her cruel girl smirk. She looked back at me as if
she was going to kick my ass. [ Laughter ] If I didn’t love
her and her poems. Now that I have met
Jessica in person and I consider her a friend, I know that was exactly what she
meant to convey with that photo. [ Laughter ] Songs from My Father
was one of the poems that she had in Breaking
Silence. And here’s how it begins. “I arrive in the
unbearable heat, the sun’s stillness stretching
across the land’s silence, people staring out from airport
cages thousands of miles later. And I have not yet understood
my obsession to return. And 12 years is fast, inside
my brain exploding like tears. I could show you, but
you already know.” Yes, Jessica Hagedorn,
you were right. I did already know about
the obsession to return, about the unbearable heat
about the land’s silence. But what I did not know and what
I had rarely seen was the Asian American body, your body or
mine, documented in this land. Below each of the contributors’
photo there was also a short biographical statement. This was Jessica’s. She, “Currently lives in New
York City where she writes, performs in the theater
and performs in her band, the
Gangster Choir.” There was more to
this statement, but I didn’t need any more. She had me at New
York City, writing, performing and in a band. [ Laughter ] That was a life, a possible life that I hadn’t even
begun to map for myself. And there it was being lived. There it was encapsulated in
a succinct sentence that read to me like an epic poem. Break Silence also introduced
me to Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. Her long hair parted down the
middle framing her elongated oval face, fresh and lit by
the sun or some other source of light which had landed softly
on her right shoulder as well. Mei-Mei’s biographical statement
was bursting with place names. Peking, China. Massachusetts. Alaska. New Mexico. The last line said that
she was currently living in El Rito, New Mexico. To me she seemed more nomadic
than settled in any one place. And the adverb currently
suggested that there could be a change
in her locale at any moment. A sudden flight,
a flash of wings. Again, here was another
life, another possible life that in the years to come
would become a template for how I wanted
to be in the world. On the pages of Breaking
Silence I saw for the first time also
photographs of Marilyn Chin, Kimiko Hahn, Joy Kogawa,
Janice Mirikitani, Cathy Song, Kitty Tsui whose poems would
become familiar and dear to me. As I would continue
to meet their works on the pages in the
years to come. The pleasure of seeing the
body, the Asian American body, as I have just described
it may sound too literal, too documentarian,
and have little to do with literature per se. Maybe that’s why Garett Hongo,
George Leon, Win Tek Lum and Alan Chung Lao did
not submit a photograph. I note, by the way, that all of the women poets
contributed a photograph. Now that’s a topic in
of itself that’s worthy of a dissertation, young people. [ Laughter ] To see the Asian American body,
a reflection, a refraction, a near or a distant relative
of your own in a photograph on the page, on the
screen, on the stage, in the day-to-day world for
that matter, is the beginning of being able to imagine
that body and your own body within a multitude of places,
environments and possible lives. And that imagining was
for me the beginning of writing the fiction
of Asian America. The pleasure of seeing and of recognizing the
body cannot be devalued as something less
than literature or separate from literature. The written word
begins with the writer. The writer who lacks
the occasion to see and to recognize her body is
alone, as in profoundly alone. She can write and create
in that state, in that void because the imagination
is resilient and will find for her other narrative vessels. But this lecture,
remember, is about pleasure. And pleasure in the context of
Asian American literature is about not being lonely. Before we leave the pages
of Breaking Silence, I want to share with you a poem
by Yuri Kageyama whose photo in the anthology was a canvas of
pitch black with only her face, the waves of her hair and a standing mic
emerging from the darkness. Her eyes are cast downward,
focused on the instrument that is amplifying her voice. Her biographical statement
identifies her as a performer who was born in Japan and
grew up in Tokyo, Maryland and Alabama and San
Francisco is now her home. The poem is entitled
My Mother Takes a Bath. And the body is at its center. This is how it begins. “My mother sits in the round
uterine rippling green water, hazy, vapor gray,
depthless, soapy-smelling. In the air, a circle cloud
above the tub of a bath. The wet old wood sending sweet
stenches, sometimes piercing to her nose and sometimes
swimming in the hot, hot water. Tingling numb at the
toes and fingertips when she moves too quickly, but
lukewarm caught in the folds of her white, white belly. Her face is brown spottled,
beautiful with dewdrop beads of sweat lying neatly where
her forehead joins her black, wavy, tired hair. And above her brown-pink
lips, one drop lazily hangs, droops over, sticking
teasingly to her wrinkle. Then pling! Falls gently, playfully
disappears into the water. She sighs and touches her
temple, high and naked. Runs her fingers
over the lines deep. Her hand has stiff knuckles, enlarged joints crinkled
and hardened. But her thick nails
thaw in the water, and her hand is light
against her face. And gentle and knowing. And the palm next to
her bony thumb is soft. Her breasts are blue-white,
clear with soft brown nipples that dance, floating with
the movements of the waves of the little ocean tub. Slowly, a step behind time,
slowly, she sighs again.” The pleasure of recognizing
a kindred body, a family of kindred
bodies, was for me followed in quick succession
by the pleasure of recognizing the
kindred spirit. By the age of 19 when I
thought of a kindred spirit, I was already thinking
of a kindred writer, the guild of wordsmiths
that I most wanted to join. The literary form that
I admired the most and still do is the short story,
as it is dependent on concision and upon the economy of
words which is not the same as the parsimony of words. In Oscar Campo Munez’s Asian
American literature class I read for the first time Yoneko’s
Earthquake by Hisaye Yamamoto. It’s a short story that has
stayed with me, instructing me in terms of substance and craft
every time that I’ve reread it. But perhaps because
I was introduced to Asian American history
and Asian American literature at the same time, at the same
impressionable moment during the intellectual growth
spurt of my youth, they are to me entwined
forms of storytelling. Sometimes complementary and
oftentimes contradictory. Perhaps this is also
why I’ve gravitated to historical fiction, that
genre that is the hybrid above. But I’m getting ahead
of myself here. Before there could be
the writing of fiction and certainly before the intent
of writing historical fiction, there was the deep
pleasure of reading fiction. In Yamamoto’s short story, I
met a writer who was a master of her craft, who used the long
arc of history, what the reader in 1987 possesses for instance
and what the characters in Yoneko’s Earthquake set
in 1933 did not possess. This long historical arc
imbues each act and detail of this narrative with added
significance, and subtle but devastating weight. Written in 1951 and set
in California in 1933, Yoneko’s Earthquake is at its
heart about the earthquake to come: Executive Order
9066 signed on February 19th, 1942 authorizing the internment of Japanese Americans
during World War II. And the resulting
near-destruction of the social fabric of the Japanese American
community that followed. That metaphorical
earthquake caused by greed, hubris and hatred makes the
literal earthquake experienced by 10-year-old Yoneko Hosoume and her family seem almost
benign in comparison. The tectonic and
emotional shifts within Yoneko’s family are
painful and irreparable. But that actual tremor
is a precursor for that wide-scale trauma and manmade destruction
that were to come. What Yamamoto’s short story
teaches me then and now is how to use history in order to
create a double narrative, a double jeopardy
for her characters. Listen for example to this
brief except and listen for how Yamamoto foreshadows the
executive order, the internment and the war, all vis-à-vis
a single household item. This is Yamamoto. “Marpo had put together a
bulky-sized radio which brought in equal proportions of
static and entertainment. He never got around to
building a cabinet to house it, and its innards of metal and glass remained public
throughout its lifetime. This was just as well,
for not a week passed without Marpo’s deciding to
solder one bit or another. Yoneko and Saigo became a part
of the great listening audience with such fidelity that Mr.
Hosoume began remarking the fact that they dwelt more with Marpo
than with their own parents. He eventually took a
serious view of the matter and bought the naked
radio from Marpo who thereupon put away his radio
manuals and his soldering iron in the bottom of
his steamer trunk and divided more time
among his other interests.” Marpo here is a young
Filipino American farm hand who works on the Hosoume farm. He fascinates Yoneko
and her mother as well and it’s the latter’s attraction
to Marpo and vice versa that along with other events
precipitates a weakening of the foundation
of this family. The radio which Marpo has
built represents their interest in him, that Mr.
Hosoume has noted with irritation and
with jealousy. Mr. Hosoume in turn decides to
acquire this object for his own. That radio takes
on another layer of significance and foreboding. When a reader considers the
history that was to come and the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the days immediately
following when Japanese Americans were
promptly deemed suspicious and traitorous for
simply owning items such as a radio or a camera. That radio also speaks
to how members of the Roosevelt administration
even prior to the signing of Executive Order,
that executive order, had wanted to confiscate without
warrant radios and cameras from Japanese Americans. And how Japanese Americans
were subsequently forced to sell the majority of
their household belongings, including their radios, when they could only take
the essentials with them to the internment camps. Marpo’s radio which then becomes
Mr. Hosoume’s radio is the equivalent of a loaded
gun or a knife. Yamamoto, a skilled
builder of short stories, would not have introduced
such a weapon without an implied
threat or danger. What she teaches me then and now
with that radio is the necessity of knowing Asian
American history. Without it, the radio
remains a radio. Without knowing Asian
American history, I the reader would
have had a lesser, only partial understanding
of Yoneko’s Earthquake. It is important to note
that Yamamoto’s short story, devoid of any explicit
foreshadowing or historical framing,
does not aim to teach this history
to the reader. That is Yamamoto’s
most important lesson. The literature of Asian America
is not here to provide a service or to enlighten, functioning
as a quasi-native guide or cheat sheet to history. The literature of Asian
America is a participatory act. As a reader of it, you and I
have to step up and do the work. That seems fair to
me, then and now. In 1996 I was living
in New York City. I had fulfilled that one
component of the possible life that I had glimpsed in Hagedorn’s biographical
statement. But there was no pleasure
whatsoever in the life that I had created for myself. I graduated from Columbia
Law School the year before and was working as a litigator in a law firm whose
name I often forget now. [ Laughter ] I remember its joke name more
often than the actual name, because the joke name
is closer to the truth: Huge Cupboard of Greed. [ Laughter ] Pleasure was a completely
alien feeling to me. I had become a stranger
to writing with not a word of fiction written since 1992, the year when I entered
law school. My body was rebelling
against this stranger, threatening to shut
itself down entirely. I had a facial tick. One of my shoulders was raised
higher than the other and frozen in place because of stress. And I was having nightmares
in which I was fighting, as in trying to punch the
partners whom I worked for. [ Laughter ] But the momentum of my arm
would slow to a standstill as I got close to the face. And my fist never
manages to make contact with the skin or skull. In the mornings I
would put on the mask of unquestionable competency
and wear the thick skin demanded by a corporate law firm. A space where I was
assumed to be a secretary on more than one occasion. As for my spirit, it
had gone nearly dormant, retreating deep inside
the failing body, hoping to find their safety
from the daily onslaught of toxic testosterone levels
from the bruising egos and from the grotesque
flexing and posturing of an unchecked hierarchy. Whenever I could,
I sought refuge in Asian American literature which in New York City
occupied a physical space, the Asian American Writers
Workshop located then in the East Village
on St. Mark’s Place in a basement below
a GAP clothing store. The workshop had low
ceilings, no windows and questionable
wall-to-wall carpeting. [ Laughter ] It hosted readings that
were literally hot. You were going to sweat
because of the incendiary words and because of the lack
of circulating air. In that space, in that literal
underground, I would hear and meet in person the
poets Jessica Hagedorn and Mae-Mae Berssenbrugge
and Kimiko Hahn. I would also meet writers who
were in their 20’s like me then. [Laughs] But who didn’t
have facial twitches and frozen shoulders. One evening in 1996 I
remember leaving work early, which meant I had
already sealed my fate of never becoming a
partner in that law firm, and going to a poetry
reading at the workshop. I knew nothing of
the poet’s work. I only knew from her last name that Barbara Tran was
Vietnamese American. In 1996 a Vietnamese American
writer was still a unicorn among unicorns. I have sought out and read all
the voices that I could find. The linguist and literary
scholar Win Sum Tung, the theorist and filmmaker
Trinh T. Minh-ha, the journalist and memoirist Nun-Wi Dook,
memoirist Jay Quang Huynh, Vietnamese Canadian poet Thuong
Vuong-Riddick and journalist and short story writer
Andrew Lam. Who in 1995 had co-edited
the first Vietnamese American anthology called
Once Upon a Dream, which I had not found a
copy yet at that time. In 1990 I had written my
senior thesis on the emergence of Vietnamese American
literature. I had focused on the earliest
wave of Vietnamese voices in the US beginning in 1975
and the refugee respondents who were interviewed
by sociologists and other academic
fact gatherers. I analyzed how these
refugee voices and stories were translated,
grouped and organized to further an agenda and
a narrative intention that were not necessarily
their own. My essay then focused on two
works published in the 1980’s by mainstream US publishers. When Heaven and Earth Change
Places by Le Ly Hayslip, co-written with Jay
Wurts, and Shallow Graves by Tiang Ti Hao co-written
with Wendy Wilder Larson. Those co-written memoirs
I argued were examples of the continuing mediation of Vietnamese American
voices and stories. My 1990 thesis essay was
subsequently published in Adoration Journal
out of UCLA in 1993. I tell you this because
when I say that Vietnamese American authors
were unicorns among unicorns, I had a clear idea
of the landscape in which Vietnamese
American writers could or rather couldn’t be found. I had read and studied
their works. I had written and
published about their works. But I had never met
a creative writer who was Vietnamese
American until 1996. I was 28 years old. I want to let that
sentence sink in. Hearing Barbara Tran read her
poems that night made me weep. I still cry every
time that I hear her. It is something about
the cadence of her voice, about her words so well chosen
that they are iridescent as they float in the room. Her subject matters that are
so near and dear to my own yet clothed in other
more brilliant garments. Her hybrid forms that
defy the lines drawn between poetry and prose. And certainly there’s also the
fact, the pleasure of seeing and recognizing that standing
before me is a Vietnamese American woman writer
who was born in 1968, that year of turmoil in the
US and in South Vietnam. Barbara’s city of birth was
New York, and mine was Saigon. Our families were
equally nomadic but on a different timeline. Our fathers charismatic
and multilingual. Our mothers inspiring us
with their personal histories and day-to-day lives that
differ so much from our own. Listen to these two pieces by
Barbara that appear side by side in her chap book, In the
Mynha Bird’s Own Words. Which was published in 2002. The first one is called Rosary. “Do I begin at the here and now, or does the story start
with the first time? My mother took the wheel,
the first woman to drive in a country where men
were afraid to walk. My mother’s story begins
when the steam rises. It ends when it’s ready. Taste it. Does it
need more salt?” On the facing page Barbara
placed a poem entitled heat with a lowercase h. And
its form is not of stanzas and line breaks like that of
Rosary, but of a block of text, a non-indented paragraph,
a prose poem that is so tightly constructed that it
astounds me with each rereading. Here is heat. “Today at 67 she stands
at the stove at work. The heat overcomes her. She thinks she is
standing at the shore. The steam is like a warm breeze
being carried out to the sea. My mother hears the
seagulls circling above. She feels the sun on her skin
and admires the reflection on all the shining fish bodies. Her father’s men have
been collecting the nets for days now, laying the
fish out for fermenting. The gull with the pure white
underside swoops toward the fish farthest away, lands
on an overturned boat, its sides beaten and
worn, its bottom sunburned like a toddler’s face
after her first day of work in the rice fields. Beside the boat, a palm hut where the fishermen hang their
shirts, where their wives change when it’s time for a break
from the scooping and jarring. When their black pants become
hot as the sand itself. And then the laughter starts
and the women’s bodies uncurl from their stooped positions,
their pointed hats falling back, the men treading
anxiously in the water as they imagine a ribbon pulling
gently at each soft chin.” Hearing Barbara that
night at the workshop, seeing her at the front of
that low-ceiling, airless room and then meeting
her afterward — when I declared to her that I too am a writer
despite the blue suit and the black briefcase and
the dull hair pulled tight into a neat flavorless
bun, that was a pleasure. The pleasure of seeing and recognizing both a kindred
body and a kindred spirit. Her presence in that space
as writer and my presence in that space as listener and
soon to be a dedicated reader of her work disrupted the
misery that had overwhelmed me, silenced me, nearly broken me. The pleasure of the
literature of Asian America is about not being lonely. I’ll leave you with this. The pleasure of body and
spirit are not distinct; their borders are nonexistent. Asian America knows that borders
are fiction written by war, conflicts, manmade
disputes and avarice. Asian American bodies and
spirits have found a way to defy, to deny and to breach
the barriers of this land. This is the refrain
of our plain song. And I encourage you to sing
it at every standing mic on every social and media
platform in every hallway of power, at every demonstration
in the streets of this nation and in every word that we
contribute to this raucous, multi-phonic chorus that
is American literature. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Lawrence-Minh Bui
Davis: Thank you, Monique. We have time for some questions. We ask if you do have a
question that you wait until we can bring a
microphone to you and remind you that we are recording. Kate has a microphone
and will bring it over. If you could please raise your
hand and Monique will point you out and answer questions. Thank you.>>Kate Hao: Thanks.>>Monique Truong: Oh, okay. Kate, over here. Ed Linh in the house.>>Okay. Hey, Monique. Awesome. Why do you write
fiction and not poetry? [ Laughter ]>>Monique Truong: Well,
probably because I’m a coward. [ Laughter ] I think poets are very brave. I think the more — I
think poets get to a truth that prose writers
write around in circles. [ Laughter ] For hundreds of pages. [ Laughter ] By I am — I have been working
on a libretto which feels to me very much like
writing a form of poetry. And that gives me
great pleasure.>>Hi, Monique.>>Monique Truong: Hi.>>I had a question
for you in relation to Asians being stereotyped
as the model minority and only having certain career
choices being prestigious and other ones not so much. So just curious to hear kind
of your own personal story and how it’s connected to kind
of this interest stereotype.>>Monique Truong: Right. Well, I certainly
went to law school because of family pressures. And it took me a
long time actually to understand really what was
at the heart of that pressure. At first I thought it was very
much about wealth acquisition. And I think that that’s not
a deep enough understanding. It’s really about stability, and
this is what our parents lost. And that is what
they want for us. So I think once you’re able
to unpack those pressures — because those to me
are the more important of the exterior pressures
versus the, you know, sort of the greater
societal expectation that all we can do
is math, you know. Once you understand
where your family, that source of tension is
coming from, I think it’s easier to live and to create
your life within it. And I clearly was not able as
a young person to say, “Well, you know, I’m going to go my
own way and become a writer.” You know? I think
you’ll find that writers of my generation were often
dual personalities, like Lan Cao who wrote the very first
Vietnamese American novel in English, Monkey Bridge. She is also a lawyer [laughs]. And sometimes I am very grateful that I do have this other
component to my life. Because what I know
it has allowed me to do is not to be afraid. And I remember when I read about
the Japanese American internment in college, I didn’t study
it when I was in high school. I had no idea. I was afraid. And so if I’m being very
truthful, I would say that, you know, becoming a lawyer for me was not only my
parents’ desires and wishes, but it was also coming
from inside me. That somehow I felt that
would become a shield, right? But then ultimately
what happens is — and this is one of the
reasons why I talked about the facial tick
and the frozen shoulders, is that your body
and your brain, your mental health
will start to go. It will tell you what
it needs for you to do and you have to listen. And once that started to happen,
I had a talk with my parents. And I told them that
I couldn’t survive. I could not literally
live in this profession. And so then I took a
plunge into what, you know, has really given me
the ability to continue to live in this world.>>Hi. My name is
[inaudible] and thank you so much for being here today. Good. Okay, can you hear me now?>>Monique Truong: Yeah.>>As a fellow Vietnamese
American woman who is a reformed and recovering lawyer who also
went to Columbia Law School, I very much related
to your discussion of feeling that tension. I think a lot of people in this
town understand that tension and the coupling of working
hard, grinding and feeling that that leads to success. And at 36 I discovered
the pleasure and frightening feeling
of leisure. And you described that so
eloquently in your talk. And I was wondering if you
could talk a little bit about how you overcame
the discomfort of learning to enjoy yourself, to
enjoy life’s pleasures and feel happy without guilt.>>Monique Truong: Wow. [ Laughter ] I think that’s a
lot of assumptions about my mental health. [ Laughter ] Well, I’ll begin by saying that writing is the hardest
thing I’ve ever done. Law school and being a
lawyer is a breeze compared to being a writer. And there are many
moments where I question — I continue to question
the decision. Financial reasons, you know. So many reasons. But what I think I try to
come back to and hang onto, and I would — is the fact
that now my day is my own. My hours are my own. I don’t have to account
for it, you know. You know what I’m saying. You know, increments. And it is that kind of — that’s the freedom that I think
my parents ultimately wanted for themselves and for me. And so when I can remember
that is when I can truly say that this is the path
that I should be on. Yeah. You had a question? Yes?>>Thank you.>>Monique Truong: Sure.>>It actually follows
very much.>>Monique Truong: Yeah.>>Because I wanted you to
speak more about pleasure. I think that you started to
suggest that pleasure was a form of resistance actually to
much of what we’re kind of talking about here. And could you speak a little
bit more about how pleasure and engaging in pleasure can
actually be a kind of stability or a kind of resistance?>>Monique Truong: Well, I
think it follows in the sense that it’s necessary
for your mental health, for the preservation of you and
your family and your community. And in this moment in this
nation, I think we are — let me pull back and say that I
am in a constant state of rage. You can add your name to
that list if you’d like. [ Laughter ] And rage — Rage is consuming. It consumes your energy. It consumes your body. It consumes your mental health. It consumes your
day-to-day actions as opposed to turning it into, “This
is not what we want.” I think part of pleasure is to
say, “This is what we want,” as a community, as a country. And once we can define and
articulate for ourselves and to focus again on what
it is that we desire and need and enjoy and find
true happiness in, that is when we can go out
there and create and change. So resistance, right? Yes?>>Hi.>>Monique Truong: Hi.>>This is on, right? Would you talk about your next
book, The Sweetest Fruits? I understand that it’s
on Lafcadio Hearn.>>Monique Truong: Yes.>>Who is the — I guess he was
an American journalist who went to Japan and became
kind of native, right? [ Laughter ] Anyway, I would be
very interested in hearing you talk
about your next book.>>Monique Truong: Thank you. Thanks for that question. Yes. So my next novel is
called The Sweetest Fruits and it’s coming out
in September. And it is essentially about Lafcadio Hearn
who’s actually half Greek and half Irish. He was a British citizen. And he came to the US as a young
man right after the Civil War and lived in Cincinnati
and New Orleans. And then the last 14 years
of his life he went and lived in Japan, Meiji Era Japan. And became known as an expert on
Japanese folklore, fairy tales, ghost stories, culture. Yeah? But my story Lafcadio
doesn’t get a word in. It’s told from the point of
view of four women in his life. Three of the voices,
first-person voices, I wrote. And the fourth was
his first biographer who was a white woman
named Elizabeth Bisland who was a very well-known
journalist at the time. And I excerpt from her
biographies of him, yeah? So the voices that I
write are the voice of his Greek mother Rosa,
his first wife whom he met in Cincinnati who was a
formerly enslaved woman named Alathea Foley. And the third voice is Setsu,
and that’s his Japanese wife. And the reason why I started
to read his work was — and became fascinated by him — is that one, very few
people actually I would say in the States remember his work. He’s known for a collection of
ghost stories called Kwaidan. But he’s also known in
the States and remembered as being the author of the
very first Creole cookbook. And I read cookbooks
all the time. If I’m not eating,
I’m reading cookbooks. And so I started to read
his work and everything about the little —
the brief biography or biographical statement
that I started with seemed improbable to me. It just made no sense,
none of it. And then, you know, it was
very clear in the beginning that this was a man who had
made the reverse migration that I did, right? He went from west to east and
then he also had the hubris of claiming that he was more
Japanese than the Japanese after 14 years of living there. You know? And so I [laughs] — so as I did more research about
him, I started to see the women in his life and the way that they certainly shaped
him as a human being. And also the way that they were
also incredible border-crossers. Not in the same way as
getting on a ship, perhaps and sailing the world. But their lives were also
about crossing boundaries and being intrepid and being
cultural facilitators really. And that’s why I
focused on them. So the story ultimately
is, how far do you have to travel to find home? Right? And who gets to
say, “Oh, I’m at home now”? And who never gets to say that? Yeah. Thanks. Right behind you. One more question. Okay. Yeah. I don’t think it’s on.>>Hello, my name is
Maddie and I’m adopted. And there is a large
community of Asian adoptees that I have just
become aware of. But one of my main things that I’ve always
recognized was pleasure. But until now, you’ve only
worded it so succinctly that I am able to
recognize what it is now. It’s pleasure, being
known and being seen. But as an adoptee, I
don’t always have access to my own history, even
my own personal history. So how do you find the strength
or even the courage to seek out your history knowing that it
might bring you as much pleasure as it might bring you pain? I know you were talking
about the rage you feel and how you studied the
internment in college. But how did you continue to go
on with studying the history and then writing your
own histories as well?>>Monique Truong: Wow. For the last question,
that’s a doozy. [ Laughter ] Huh. Well, maybe I’ll begin this
way, by saying that if you open up the definition of pleasure
to include knowing, right? So not only seeing
and recognizing, but to know that that is also
part of being healthy, right? And so the second part of your
question was, how do I go on? Gosh. Well, sometimes I
wish I could just not write another word. Really. You know,
sometimes it feels — I mean, let me just say
that unlike this morning where there’s a room full of
incredible faces and people, sometimes it doesn’t
feel that way. Sometimes it feels like no
one is listening or reading and you wonder, what is this? You know, what is this thing that I have contracted
myself to? Right? But I think ultimately —
I think most writers would say that it’s not about
wanting to write. It’s about having to. And there is something about the
process of it, how it allows you to slow down the world and to actually ask yourself
these questions that, you know, that you can’t just
tweet an answer to. You know, that it takes time. And you can immerse yourself
into a particular moment in history or in a
particular community that is also pleasure, right? But again, then you have to open
up the definition to knowing. [ Applause ]>>Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis:
Wow, we’ve just started. We’re going to have
a quick break. Take seats in the front. There are a few here. Thanks for being here. In five minutes well
have Cathy Park Hong and Jennifer Chang talk
about secret histories. So don’t go anywhere. Okay. Hello. For those of you
just joining us, welcome to the 2019 Asian
American Literature Festival. [ Applause ] I’m Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis, curator at the Smithsonian
Asian Pacific American Center and humble sender of
emails to many of you here. [ Laughter ] Thank you to the Library
for hosting us today. Thank you to Rob and
Anya and the team here. I loved Monique’s
opening theorization of the intimate lecture,
both the inter or transpersonal dynamics
and the underwear part. [ Laughter ] When Juan Felipe Herrera was
finishing up his first term as US poet laureate
several years ago, he gave a closing
lecture on Chicano poetry. It was a personal walk
through literary history, people he remembered, key
moments, excerpts of poems. Afterwards we called
it an intimate lecture. I think that Rob coined the
term, but maybe Juan Felipe did. Intimate as Monique intuited
indicating the kind of history, connective rather than
individual, private, away from the public
historical eye. A way to/from the noisy
markers of awards and acclaim and critical attention. Instead wanting to
attend to quieter moments, off-to-the-side exchanges,
personal relationships, forgotten poems,
forgotten poets and writers. We thought afterwards about
what it means to pass this kind of intimate history down
or perhaps laterally across generations or across
regions of writers and readers as a kind of gift and
a kind of inheritance. How Asian American literary
community might nourish itself by remembering and
sharing this way. These are the origins
of the sessions today, the intimate lectures by Monique and later Arthur Sze following
lectures by Karen Tayamashta and Kimiko Hahn last
festival in 201. New this year we are proud to present the Secret
Histories series. The series comes from
a similar source. It takes a focus on the
lost, the under-attended-to, the elders that we have
forgotten to honor properly because history and maybe even
their own times did not give them the proper care. Secret Histories begins with
or opens through the eyes of mid-career poets and
writers and the question of where they fit in this matrix
of inheritance of veneration, of portaging the things we
need to live from one place to another and one
time to another. Jennifer Chang came
up with the idea of the Secret Histories series
based on her own ongoing work to excavate the Oovan
life of the poet Wong May. What if, we thought, we asked
others how they had already begun this kind of work and
for whom, or if they wanted to embark anew on
this kind of work? And in a broader sense, what
would it mean for all of us to embrace this work as
necessary and ongoing? So other mid-career
poets and writers, what lost writers’ secret
history underpins what we understand now as Asian
American literary culture? Whose — this is the
task that we set out. Whose work and life and circuits and passions have invisibly
shaped your own work? We proudly open the
series with Jennifer Chang and Cathy Park Hong who
will give brief talks and then read poems inspired
by their chosen figures. Briefly introductions
for the two about whom one could say much. Jennifer Chang is the author
of two books of poetry, Some Say the Lark, and
The History of Anonymity, which I want to say are
on sale outside later. And I encourage you to
go and buy those books, as well as Monique’s
books and Arthur’s books. Jennifer serves as an
assistant professor at nearby George
Washington University. Associate professor, apologies. [ Laughter ] And congratulations. No demotions happening
here today. Cathy Park Hong’s poetry
collections include Engine Empire; Dance, Dance Revolution;
and Translating Mo’um. She is the poetry editor of The
New Republic and a professor at Rutgers Newark University. Her book of creative
nonfiction Stand Up will be published
in spring 2020. Please join me in
welcoming the two. [ Applause ]>>Jennifer Chang:
Thank you so much. Can you hear me? Oh wait. Do I have
to get closer? How’s that? Let me just arrange
all this paraphernalia. I have these things. Thank you for coming. It’s such an honor to be here,
and especially an honor to read after Monique who made
me cry three times. So I am feeling the emotions. I’m going to read what
is essentially a story. And it’s a strange story. And I’ll follow it by
reading a poem of my own. And each of us will be
doing a similar format. [ Inaudible ] Sure. How’s that? [ Inaudible ] The title is Looking
for Wong May. There were two things I
wanted to do in Ireland. I wanted to go to a bog and
about this I was emphatic, reminding my husband daily that
the trip would be a failure if there were no day at the bog. Any bog would do. [ Laughter ] The second thing I wanted
to do was find Wong May, a poet with whom I’d
begun corresponding in the months preceding. I was quieter about
the second desire because I knew the
trip was precious time. It was our first trip alone
after the birth of our firstborn who had just turned one. And we knew that
such an opportunity to wander countless hours
through unknown streets and fields, to stay
late at a pub and then sleep it off the next
day would not come again easily or soon. It was safe to assume that the
last thing my husband would want to do on his trip is track down an elusive expatriated
poet I’d only just recently discovered. And yet, since we began
planning the trip, I fantasized about my rendezvous
with Wong May. I could take her out for
whiskey at Temple Bar. We could stroll the paths
at St. Stephen’s Green, stand side by side in front
of the Henry More sculpture of Yeats and recite by heart our
favorite lines from his poems. Whatever the scenario, I
was convinced that by virtue of our cosmic affinity for
each other we would end up at her house drinking
tea and whiskey in her primrose garden sharing
secrets about our poems, our ancestors and our anxieties about reading too much
Kafka and Ezra Pound. [ Laughter ] But I could not tell my husband
about these fantasies as much as I was sure they
were premonitions of what would become
a lifelong friendship. It did not escape my
attention that Wong May in my imagination had
become like my husband and myself another rapid
literary tourist enthralled by Ireland’s cultural heritage, despite her having lived
there for 30-some years. In fact, I had no idea what
she thought of Yeats or Joyce, though in one email she
responded indifferently to my query about Seamus Heaney. She wrote, “How did I manage
to spend 35 years in Ireland without meeting Seamus Heaney? Well, do I regret not
having met the Dalai Lama? There must be certainly
a perverse streak in me.” Her response was not
merely indifferent. She was mocking my
fangirl solemnity for capital L Literature. She was by nature irreverent. I found this quality
utterly bewitching. “There must be certainly
a perverse streak in me.” My correspondence with Wong
May began in July 2014. Earlier that year I had caught
sight of her name on the website of Octopus Books,
the small press about to publish her
first book in 36 years, Picasso’s Tears:
Poems 1978-2013. I was as curious about her
name as I was about that span of time, years that comprised
nearly my entire life. But I was also embarrassed by
my curiosity which struck me as slightly solipsistic,
slightly egotistical. Born in 1944 in Chungking, China
and then raised in Singapore, Wong May was roughly
the same age as my mother whose family
had also migrated from China as world and civil wars
besieged their country. But Wong May, I conjectured,
did what my mother could not. In 1966 she arrived
in the United States to attend the Iowa Writers
Workshop, staking a claim on an independence that
my mother never could. She published her first book
in 1969 with Harcourt Brace and published two more
with the same house in 1972 and 1977 before relocating
permanently to Ireland in 1978. She had an Irish
husband, two sons. Her fourth book would not
appear until August 1st, 2014, days before I found myself
in Dublin scanning the crowds and cafes, bookstores
and buses for a face that looked like mine. But I’m getting ahead
of the story. I had a basic biographical
sketch in my superficial projections. The subtitle Poems 1978-2013
suggested she had not stopped writing. However, she had, it
seemed, stepped away from a particular
career trajectory either because of migration or
because of marriage and family. Or perhaps it was both. I thought about my own mother
who had felt equally trapped by her life as an immigrant
and by marriage and family. Again, I was projecting,
indulging myself in self-reflection rather
than thinking critically. I recognized this and decided
then to set aside everything to properly answer the
question of Wong May. In truth, I was desperate
for distraction. There was my infant son
who measured the time of my day like a clock. It was always almost time
to pick him up from daycare, to put him down for a nap,
time for the first snack, the second snack,
bedtime, waking. I was in the first year of
my second tenure-track job which was another clock, the
seconds ticking away faster and faster with no
poems, no new book. And there was languishing
alongside all this a dissertation I had managed to still not finish five
years into beginning it. Now time suddenly stopped. I had discovered a poet I
had never before heard of. The title of her first book I
soon learned was A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals. What a coincidence, I thought. I am a bad girl. I love animals. [ Laughter ] She must, I deduced in my
delirium, be writing to me. [ Laughter ] In Wong May’s first
book I found this poem. This is on page one
of your handout. The American Bestseller. “”This is me, your murderer
calling from Florida at 3:15. Sorry to wake you up. I’m describing that scene. I need your help.” “Let me think about it,” I say. And I walk barefoot to the
bathroom and wash my face.” I looked for the animals in
A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, eventually realizing that
the poems are the animals. Vivid, evasive, brutally
intelligent and driven by the heat of instinct. The poems baffle,
inviting readers to reflect on their unease. The murderer in The
America Bestseller leads us to a speaker, the designated
victim whose mundane actions make a mockery of
various forms of violence, American capitalist culture. The rhetorical tool of iron and
self-erasure as subjugation. Wong May’s response to the
threat, “I walk barefoot. I wash my face” — who
exactly does the poet mock? Her reader, America or
literary convention? Let me think about it. Is it so wrong to want someone
to write to you, for you? If I was delirious or
distracted or desperate, it was because I sensed
in Wong May a possible end to the loneliness that has
marked my life as a woman, a poet and a Native American. Let me be clear: so many
poems and poets, so much art and conversation, certain
people, particularly nature, have nourished me,
made living meaningful. But the loneliness of the
Asian American poet can be unfathomable, boundless, acute. And I wanted always,
why not, more. I want more. I was encountering Wong May
for the first time in 2014, but I’m writing this in 2019. The difference of this
five years reveals itself in how I read her poems today. For example, a poem in
her second book reports, evokes an ominous
humor reminiscent of The American Bestseller. But the poet permits the
patriarchal critique that is as relevant now as
it is startling. That’s also page
one of your handout. Testicles. “The right is plum-colored. The left is a blue egg and
looks older than the right. Both have no shell,
are not in danger. At rest they dream
of unknown countries in individual sleeping bags. The weight grows in my hand till
my arm branches out for support. Before I know it, I am
there waist-high in earth. I know my power.” Wong May permits
her poem to teeter between devastation and might. Her irony cuts to the
quick of social convention without relinquishing
a potential for humor because she understand
humor arises out of our most terrible
shared vulnerabilities, which shapes us, what we
resist and cannot resist. The last line, “I
know my power,” resolves the poem by force. A speaker’s assertion,
a subjectivity that shatters the poem’s
performance of delicacy. Such brutal poems become for
me mirrors of what I feel. Earlier I called
this loneliness, but it may just as well be pain. Pain that is privately
and collectively felt. We sense this pain in the next
poem I’ll read which responds to the assassination
of Martin Luther King. It’s on the second page. I’ll present it with a
comment for the sake of time. In Memoriam, Martin
Luther King, spring 1968. “And if you come to my
party, I will come to yours. There will always be
parties and poetry. Evening comes soft and gray
like a gracious hostess. Somewhere she dances for St.
John the Baptist, his head. Listen. I am not sick. You are not sick. The inpatients are indoors. The outpatients are outdoors. The world is not sick. After a few martinis
people with glasses in their hands touch each
other, imagine blood. Spring is here in
April as always. Assassins spring up
everywhere like prophets. Donations, donations. What is the occasion? Did someone drive into the cows? Some white men imagine
they are in Africa. Listen, if you listen
carefully for long enough, you will hear nothing. They want peace. It’s catkins falling
off willow trees” In July 2014, I introduced
myself to her over email as a poet and professor
working on an article about her forthcoming
book, Picasso’s Tears. It was true. I had done the research and then
successfully pitched an article providing professional cover for
my unprofessional obsessiveness. She consented and we
remained in correspondence until January 2015 with
occasional stretches of silence. In an interview included at
the end of Picasso’s Tears, Wong May explains, “Looking back
on my life I say I am grateful to my two sons for
having brought me up. For me it was a poetry workshop, a way of doing poetry
by another means. In no sense a continuation
of Iowa, as well as the sort of upbringing I never
got from my mother.” When I asked her
about this statement and how having children affected
her writing, she was terse. “The poetry of motherhood
is the poetry that survives motherhood.” This was full of capitals. She capitalized a lot
of words like Dickinson. My question about Iowa
she ignored entirely. I asked no questions
about her mother and told her nothing about mine. At her request I sent
her a picture of my son. I wanted to know if she thought
of herself as an American poet or an Asian American poet. Or was she Chinese? Singaporian? Irish? At the heart of Picasso’s
Tears is a magisterial poem of 69 pages called The
Making of Guernica. It intertwines the 1937
bombing of Guernica with the 2013 bombing at the
Boston Marathon while ruminating on making art out of war. Wong May imagines expansively
as if the poem were both essay and panoramic painting
and posits how the history of violence troublingly unites
us in a global citizenry. Amidst lyric fragments,
the poem laments, “America, if you know how much I miss
you, how much I miss Manhattan.” She seemed impatient with
my question about identity, writing, “I’d say I’m
from all the places, all the countries
I have lived in. And home is wherever
I happen to write. Poetry is always precarious,
hand-to-mouth existence. One never knows where one’s
next poem is coming from, if it comes.” She continued, “Persistently
stateless between suitcases as between continents,
it permits me to say certain things.” I would be in Dublin
in mid-August. Would she be willing
to meet me for tea at the Colbuck Café
or Marian Hotel? Another question
she did not answer. [ Laughter ] But it is hubris to claim
I discovered Wong May. No, I did not discover her. Like everyone else, I was
not paying enough attention. Years later I pulled from
my shelves Juliana Chang’s anthology Quiet Fire, a book
I’d had since graduate school. There in the table of
contents I saw Wong May’s name and the titles of two poems
from Bad Girl’s Book of Animals. The bibliography includes
her first three books, though the dates of publication
are incorrect, and her name and the pages of the poems
is inverted to May Wong which is also incorrect. I had done the very thing I
criticized the canon makers about: I had overlooked a
poet who had the potential to meaningfully complicate and
enrich our literary imagination. What would it have
meant for my poetics and my pedagogy had I read
Wong May as an MFA student? In my MFA program, the professor for whom I felt an aesthetic
kinship told me my poems reverberated with the
voices of the Tang Dynasty. Never mind that I had read
scarcely any classical Chinese poetry. Never mind that I shared with
this man the same heroes. I forgave him because I knew
he hadn’t meant to hurt me and because, as I’ve
said, I was lonely. About Wong May I
did discover this: in the September 1969 issue of Poetry Magazine
her poems are nestled in close proximity
to my professor’s. Their first books would appear around that time
mere months apart. Crocus Review would describe
Wong’s book as containing, “Difficult, unpleasant poems.” [ Laughter ] Whereas my professor got
a reprieve from harshness. Despite his unevenness, he
still emerges a sensitive, accomplished poet. On our fourth day in Dublin
we rented a car and drove to the bog of Allen
in County Kildare. In borrowed goulashes
too big for our feet, we galumped across ground
that felt like cake batter. As we were the only ones
there that afternoon, the woman at the nature
center had time to be curious about what would compel
Americans to visit a bog. Surely there are no
bogs in the States. I was elated from moving
through the air’s cool moisture, exploring the planetary
strangeness of this environment and so cheekily recited
the Emily Dickinson poem about nobody, emphasizing
the conclusion, “How dreary to be somebody. How public like a frog to tell
one’s name the live-long June to an admiring bog.” I really did that. [ Laughter ] The woman was not familiar
with our American poet, but noted that Seamus Heaney
had been a friend of the Bog of Allen’s nature center
and had contributed money and once a poem to
their newsletter. Everyone in Ireland seemed to have met Seamus Heaney
except for Wong May. This was not the
last conversation about poetry we would have
with strangers in Ireland. Of course my husband
and I talked about poems and poets by force of habit. We haunted the hangouts of
Yeats, Joyce, Shaw and Wilde. And there was that other
conversation about poetry that kept almost not
happening each night when I would check
my email again hoping to see Wong May’s
name in my inbox, wondering which questions
she would answer and which she would
leave for myself alone. [ Applause ] One of our tasks too
is to read a poem that was somehow influenced
by our Secret History subject. So I’ll close by
reading this poem. My Own Private Patriarchy. “One father was driving
a gold Mercedes-Benz. One father was listening
to the Beach Boys. One father was having an affair
with every woman in California. One father asked me if I preferred Hemingway
or Fitzgerald. He had never heard of Juna
Barnes or Jessie Faucet or Laura Riding Jackson. One father mowed the lawn
every Sunday of every summer. One father wanted
another grandson and another and another. One father had a mouth that flattened whether
grimacing or smiling. One father had never
before sat on a beach. Never before had he
let the tide rise up and turn the sand
liquid under his skin. Never before had his swim trunks
filled with salt and shells, his whole body toppling over
by the force of the Atlantic. One father sat quietly in his cell reading
books he once found dull. This father could make
friends even in prison. One father would
dog-ear the last page of the book he just
finished reading. One father had been attacked
by a cocker spaniel as a child and couldn’t stand to
be in the same room as the neighbor’s beagle. One father sliced the
cantaloupe, the honeydew, a dozen golden delicious. He sliced the Bartlett pears,
the mangos, the papayas, the watermelon, the pineapple
we only had at Christmas. One father washed and
ironed his dollars, and for a long time I thought, this is what money
laundering is. [ Laughter ] One father kept a closet full of
suitcases; inside ever suitcase, another smaller suitcase. One father thought
there was nothing better than having another,
another, another. One father was afraid to enter
the woods behind his house. One father shelled the
peanuts before handing the bowl to his wife. One father watched his wife
eat the shelled peanuts. One father changed his mind
and ate the peanuts himself. One father had no patience
for teaching his daughter how to ride a bike, how to drive
a car, how to tell the truth. How are driving and lying
not the same motion forward? Faster and forward,
keep going, keep going. One father called Beijing,
Hong Kong, Taipei, Busan, Tokyo the last hours of dawn. One father had frequent
flier miles he distributed to his family like the dole. One father ran five
miles every morning in whatever weather the
weather happened to be. One father could say hello in almost every language
you’d find in Queens. In Mandarin, in Cantonese, in
Urdu, in Spanish, in Portuguese, in Korean, in Polish, in
Russian, in Tagol, in Chechen, in Fujianese and Arabic,
in Hindi, in Asamese, in Italian, in Hebrew, in Greek. And once he said
goodbye in Galecian. One father for 17 months
rode the elevator up and down a Park Avenue midrise. One father said he was American. One father said one
day he’d go home again. One father forgot all
his children’s birthdays but remembered to pay off
his credit card bills. One father thought
freedom was lying or that lying would free
him, or he lied again and I forgave him again. And now we are free
and still lying. One father said, “Good night. Good night. I miss you. I miss you.” One father did not say anything. Or maybe I never listened
to his voicemails. One father was not the
only father I had.” Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Cathy Park Hong:
Can you hear me?>>Yes.>>Cathy Park Hong: Okay, great. Thank you so much, Jennifer,
for that really powerful and moving tribute to Wong May. I’m going to talk about
the untold Secret History of what happened at
the night of artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung
Cha’s rape and murder. Some of these are
based on interviews with families, court documents. And the essay is going to be
in my book, Minor Feelings. I changed the title from
Stand Up to Minor Feelings. It’ll be published
in February 2020. And this is just a partial — I’m just only going
to read a part of it. Okay? And trigger warning, there
is sexual violence in this talk. On the first cold day of
fall, November 5th, 1982, 31-year-old artist and poet
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha left her job at the textiles department
of the Metropolitan Museum. She wore a white angora sweater, a red leather coat
and a maroon beret. She rode the subway downtown
to The Artists Space, a nonprofit gallery on Hudson, to drop off a large manila
envelope of her photos for an upcoming group show
with the curator Valerie Smith. Cha’s photographs were of hands
in various gestures cropped and reproduced from
ancient Chinese prints to modern French paintings. Smith, when she testified at the New York State
Supreme Courthouse recalled that Cha looked tired,
tense and stayed for 15 minutes signing
promotional material for the show. She said Cha left The Artists
Space sometime around 4:00. From the gallery,
Cha walked northeast. From here I see her
in my mind’s eye like I’m watching an
old 16-millimeter film. Her shoulders are
hunched from the wind as she hurries past abandoned,
boarded-up cast iron buildings and old Chevrolet
Capris taxis trundling over old steel road plates. The red of her leather
coat is washed out in the film’s
granular light. I imagine her passing the office
of her publisher Canon Press on White Street where she spent
hours editing her book Dictee. Then she turns left on Broadway where there is a white
cast iron building that once manufactured
textiles for ship sails. 25 years later I will live in
that building with my husband in a rent-stabilized sublet. Cha was already sick
of New York. She moved to the city
two years ago in 1980 with her husband
Richard to be part of the New York conceptual
arts scene. But the underground art
world was already dead, taken over by a gilded
era of art stars like painters Julian Schnabel and Francesca Clemente
and David Sally. In the letter dated June 25th, 1982 sent to her
eldest brother John, Cha writes that to be successful
is to embrace the “dregs of morals, money, parasitic
existence” what she finds “in all honesty disgusting.” That night Cha planned to meet
her dear friends Susan Wolfe and Sandy Flitterman to
watch a film at The Public. Despite her unhappiness
with the city, her career was now
going somewhere. She was in a group show which
was going to open in December. And her book Dictee which
she had been working on for the last few years
had just been published. In that same letter
to John she writes, “It is hard to say what I feel,
how I feel, except I feel freed, and I also feel naked. The manuscript never
left my body physically, even when there was
no time to work on it. I carried it around everywhere. I practically slept on it,
and now it is finished.” But before the movie
date with her friends, Cha had to meet her
husband Richard at 5:00 in the Puck building on
Lafayette where he worked as a photographer documenting
the building’s renovation. The Puck is a massive
red brick landmark that covers a whole block
on Lafayette and Soho, reaching nine stories. The building has arched
windows and a bright teal trim. It’s ensconced with a gold
cherub statuette of Puck in top hat and frock
jacket unbuttoned to expose his potbelly at the
building’s front entrance. Puck holds a fountain pen
as his staff and a mirror in which he gazes lazily
at his own reflection. Right after sundown, Cha
walked into the back entrance of the Puck on Mulberry Street where she saw Joseph
Sanza the security guard. I first discovered Cha’s Dictee when I was a sophomore
at Oberlin in 1996. I was in my first
poetry workshop with a visiting professor,
the poet Yung Mi Kim. Kim assigned Dictee and
I was more intrigued by how Dictee looked
than its content. Although it’s classified
as an autobiography, Dictee is more a bricolage
of memoir, poetry, essays, diagrams and photography. Cha’s Dictee is about mothers
and martyrs, revolutionaries and uprisings, divided
into nine chapters named after the Greek muses. Dictee documents the
violence of Korean history through the personal
stories of Cha’s mother and the 17-year-old martyr Liu
Gon-Soon who led the protest against the Japanese
occupation of Korea. In other chapters, Cha
invokes Joan of Arc but as a character
recreated by other women. Cha avoids traditional
storytelling in favor of structure that I can
only describe as the script for a structuralist film. Scenes are described
as stage directions. Poems are laid out
like enter titles. Cha never directs your
reading of Dictee. She refuses to translate
the French or contextualize a letter. The reader is a detective
puzzling out her own connections. At the time, I couldn’t
relate to some of the Asian American fiction and poetry I read,
I came across. They seemed, for the lack of
a better word, inauthentic. Like they were staged
by white actors. I thought maybe English
was the problem. It was certainly
a problem for me. English tuned an experience
that should be in the minor key to a major key, in that there
was an intimacy, a melancholy in Korean that was lost
when they wrote in English. A language which I from
my childhood associated with customs officers, hectoring
teachers and Hallmark cards. Even after all these years
since I learned English, I still couldn’t
shake the feeling that to write anything
was to fill in a blank or to recite back the origin. Cha spoke my language
by indicating that English was
not her language. That English could never
be a true reflection of her consciousness, that
it was as much an imposition on her consciousness as it
was a form of expression. And because of that,
Dictee felt true. I first heard that Cha was raped
and murdered by a security guard in New York City in Kim’s class. I don’t remember how
Kim presented it. I just vaguely remember
the facts. Since then, throughout all
the years that I reread Dictee or taught it or presented Dictee
for a talk, it never occurred to me to find out what happened. And Dictee’s death saturated
my reading of the book, giving the book a
haunted, prophetic aura. Dictee is, after all,
about young women who died violent deaths,
although I would never admit to that interpretation
in a talk. A few years ago, when I was
writing about Cha in a review, I decided to check on the
date of her rape homicide. Digging into Cha’s
bibliography, I was surprised that no one wrote
anything about the crime. If her homicide is
mentioned at all, it’s treated as an unpleasant
fact acknowledge in one terse sentence before
the scholar rushes off to write about narrative “indeterminacy
in Dictee.” More disturbing is that no one
admits that Cha was also raped. An omission so stubborn I had to
consult court records to confirm that she was also
sexually assaulted. Did they not know? Were they skittish? Murder has been desensitized
to a crime statistic. But combine it with
the word rape and it forces you to
confront her body. It’s difficult to find
reliable statistics on Asian American women who
have been sexually assaulted. The Asian Pacific Institute
on Gender Violence found that 21-55% of Asian
women experience physical and sexual violence which
is a very broad range. Another survey excluded Asian
Women altogether because “the sampling size
was too small.” I have a hard time trusting
any of these findings. Growing up I overheard
stories of women who disappeared or went mad. What happened, I
asked my mother. Nothing, my mother would say. And then I was hushed. In every Asian culture, stories
abound about women disappearing or going mad without
explanation. The most that would be revealed
was that something bad happened. How many Asian women would
then feel bold enough to report in their culture of
secrecy and shame? To talk about it would be to
heap upon the family great pain. I asked a friend who’s an Asian
American scholar why he thought no one has written
about Cha’s death. “They probably don’t want to re-traumatize the
family,” he said. After I said that,
I couldn’t help but see Cha’s critics including
myself as part of her story. I think of Sylvia Plath, the
titan of tragic female poets. A cottage industry of biographies have
cropped up around her. Everyone from the casual reader to the most devoted scholar
is a sleuth trading gossip, poring over letters and
journal entries to find that one stone left
unturned about her life. But much of Cha’s personal
life has remained sealed. The length to which scholars
will argue how Cha is recovering the lives of Korean
women silenced by historical atrocities
while remaining silent about the atrocity that
took Cha’s own life has been baffling. There have been important
scholarship about Dictee such as the compilation of
criticism, writing style, writing nation and
essays by scholars like Ann Lin Chang
and Timothy Yu. But the more I read about
here, the less I knew; and the less I knew, the more
I couldn’t help but regard cha as a woman who also
disappeared without explanation. Cha was born March
4th, 1951 in Busan, South Korea at the
height of the Korean War. She was the middle
daughter of five children. Her family along with thousands
of other refugees fled south to Busan from Seoul to escape
the North Korean invasion. Her family remarked her
eldest brother John was always on the run. The parents first
escaped to Manchuria to escape the Japanese
occupation, then to Seoul to escape the Soviet
invasion, then to Busan to flee North Koreans. And finally to the US to escape
the South Korean dictatorship. Her parents hoped that in the US
they would finally find peace. He said that Cha and her
mother were extremely close. Her mother wanted to be
a writer too and told Cha and her siblings stories
that are retold in Dictee. She taught them to love
books and care for them by lining the covers
with butcher paper. Dictee is primarily a
book about her mother. In the chapter Calliope, Cha
writes the history of her mother as a homesick 18-year-old
teacher in Manchuria. In other sections Cha retells
her mother’s shaman tales. When Cha was 12, her family
left Seoul and immigrated to San Francisco in 1963 and there Cha found her
calling for art and poetry. She had a tenser relationship
with her father who, having once had the ambition
to be a painter himself, opposed Cha’s desire
to pursue the arts because of its hardships. As a graduate student, Cha
often fought with her father who couldn’t understand why she
had to be in school for so long. In her poem, I Have Time,
there’s an unattributed quote that John wagers is
probably her father. “All the years you spent here, all the literature
courses you studied in — is this what they taught you? I can’t understand a thing. My dictionary has no
translation for this.” After Cha died, Dictee
quickly went out of print. Then after a decade of silence, critical attention
began to trickle in. Now Dictee reprinted
by the University of California Press is
regarded as a seminal book in Asian American
literature and taught widely in universities while her
video, art, sculptures and photography are preserved
in the Berkeley Museum of Art and Pacific Film Archives
have been exhibited worldwide and in major museums. When I emailed the
curator Constance Llewellyn if she could talk about Cha’s
rape and homicide, she deferred with this short response. “We have always tried to focus
on Cha’s amazing work and not to sensationalize her story.” Another scholar responded
saying that she also refrained from mentioning her death,
“Out of respect for her family, not to overshadow the work. And I was trying to accommodate
the personal and work in a different way than a
traditional biographical read.” These are valid objectives. It was essential early on
to foreground the importance of Dictee, to champion her
innovations while deflecting what happened to her, lest
the public become diverted by her appalling death. It was as if her minders had to
protect the legacy of her art from the sordid forces
of her rape and murder. But I wonder if their
protectiveness may have been too effective. Right after her homicide, there
was no news coverage except for a brief obituary
in The Village Voice. This lack of coverage I
suspect is because she was, as the police described
her, “an oriental Jane Doe.” But since then, despite court
records that are available to the public, there has been
no other story about her rape and murder, enshrouding Cha
in mystery and hushed hearsay. Cha, I should note, developed
an aesthetic out of silence, making it evident
through her allusion that the English language is
too meager and mediated a medium to capture the historical
atrocities her people had endured. It was more truthful to leave
historical horrors partially spoken like saphic
shrapnels and ask the reader to imagine the unspeakable. In a way, the scholar is nearing
Cha’s own rhetoric of silence by disclosing her death in
the most [inaudible] manner, “On November 5th, 1982 Cha was
killed,” the scholar indicates that her homicide is
too horrifying to impart through biographical summary. And that it is up to the reader
to imagine what happened. But where does the silence
that neglects her end? And where does the silence
that respects her begin? The problem with silence
is that it can’t speak up and say why it is silent. And so silence collects,
becomes amplified, takes on a life outside
our intentions. And that silence can get
misread as indifference or avoidance or even shame. And eventually the silence
passes over into forgetting. Joseph Sanza, 29 years
old, of Italian descent, was a serial rapist who was
already wanted in Florida for nine counts of
sexual assault. He fled to New York
City and lived with his sister while
working at a security guard. Puck building management hired
him simply on the grounds that he “knew English.” Cha was one of Sanza’s
many rape victims but his only known
homicide victim. Contrary to common belief,
Sanza was not a stranger to Cha. Because her husband
Richard worked at the Puck and Sanza worked
there as security, he knew the couple enough
to know where they lived. He knew the couple enough that there was even
a friendly photograph of them posing together. Unlike Sanza’s other rape
victims who were all strangers, Cha could therefore identify
him, which was motive for him to murder her and
remove her body from the crime scene premises. Cha’s body was found a few
blocks away from the Puck in a parking lot on Elizabeth
Street right by her home. Joseph Sanza dumped her body
there in a van that he borrowed from another security guard. After Sanza raped her in
the subbasement of the Puck, he beat her with a nightstick
and then strangled her to death. A belt was found tightened
around the broken hyoid bone of her neck and there
were lacerations on her head deep
enough to expose skull. Her pants and underwear
were down around her knees. She was missing her hat and
her gloves and one boot. When police found her
at the parking lot after 7:00 her body
was still warm. Specificity is the
hallmark of good writing. Except when too much detail
becomes lurid, gratuitous and turns Cha after years of
dedicated labor by her critics and curators back into
“an oriental Jane Doe.” Doubt creeps in as I write this. What do I add? What do I leave out? Do I include the rug in
which her body was rolled, the straw in her hair that
matched the straw in the van, the scrapes on her body that
matched the pattern of abrasions of the floor of the
elevator shaft? Detail in this case
is also evidence. There is no room
for indeterminacy. The Puck housed primarily
printing presses until it’s $8 million renovation
at the time of Cha’s death when this interior was
updated into condos which are now owned
by Jared Kuschner. During the building’s
renovation, the police scoured the building
for weeks for the crime scene. They even had a bloodhound
named Mandrake at the site. But much to the shock and
embarrassment of the police, it was actually Cha’s two
brothers John and James and her husband Richard who
after they decided to go on the search mission
themselves found the crime scene in the building’s
unused subbasement. The first trial in 1983, the
prosecutor brought in three of Sansa’s victims from Florida. One woman testified how
Sansa broke into their house and sexually assaulted her
with a gun to her head. Afterwards he tried to
steal her wedding ring which is a gruesome
trademark of his. He also stole Cha’s
wedding ring as well. He was convicted in
that first trial, but the decision was
overturned in 1985 because the court found there
wasn’t enough similarities between Cha’s case and the
other three rape victims who testified against Sansa. Among their terrible
reasons, Sansa was “polite” when he raped the other
women in Florida compared to his vicious assault
against Cha. The second trial in February
of 1987 ended in a mistrial when the prosecutor Jeff Slanger
referenced a polygraph test which was inadmissible in court. Finally, for the third trial in December 1987 the
detectives found a key witness, Sansa’s ex-girlfriend Lou who
testified that before Sansa fled to Florida he called her
from a payphone the day after the homicide
and confessed that he “fucked up” and “killed
someone.” It took the jury less than
one hour to reach a decision. Sansa was found guilty
of first-degree rape and second-degree murder. Writing is a family
trade, like anything else. You are more entitled
to the profession if your descendants have
already set up shop. By introducing me to Cha, my professor Kim established a
direct if modest literary link. Cha, Kim, myself. Not only did they share
my history, they provided for me an aesthetic
from which I could grow. In writing about her death,
I am in my own way trying to pay proper tribute. But once when I read an
excerpt of this essay in public, someone asked if Cha would have
written about her rape homicide in the fairly straightforward
narrative account that I’m writing in. “Not at all,” I said, “But I’m
trying to write what happened.” I found that formal
experimentation was getting in the way of documenting facts. The younger version of me
would have been appalled by this opinion and argued that
biographical narrative is just as artificial as any other form. The younger version of me
would have also been annoyed that I’m now imposing a
biographical reading of Dictee, like her life is an answer key
to a book that refuses answers. Not only that, I am
imposing myself onto her, filling her in with myself as if
I’m some kind of cotton picking. If her portrait is in danger
of fading, I can interject, “But here I am at
least to compensate.” Maybe I’m just tired
of Cha’s ghostliness. If she’s known at all,
she’s known as this tragic, unknowable [inaudible] subject. Why hadn’t anyone reached
out to Cha’s relatives? Why hadn’t anyone looked
at the court records? But why hadn’t I
bothered to find out about her homicide earlier? Didn’t I also type and then
delete the word rape before murder when I wrote that
review where I mentioned Cha? Rape burns a hole in the article
and capsizes any argument. There’s no way to continue
on with your analysis, no way to make sense past it. You can only look
at it or look away. And I looked away. But it’s not just because
her death was so grim. I sometimes avoid reading a news
story when the victim is Asian because I don’t want to
pay attention to the fact that no one else is
paying attention. I don’t want to care
that no one else cares. Because I don’t want to be
left stranded in my rage. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis:
Thank you Jennifer and Cathy. Before we open to
audience questions, I thought we would allow for a
brief moment for the two of you to perhaps respond to
one another’s lectures and place them more directly
in conversation if you would.>>Cathy Park Hong:
I was really moved by your talk about Wong May.>>Jennifer Chang: Maybe we
should — should we stand up? Maybe we should open
up to questions.>>Cathy Park Hong: Yeah.>>Jennifer Chang: Let’s
first do that and then we can, you know, talk about
each other’s talk. Yeah, organically.>>Cathy Park Hong: Yeah.>>Jennifer Chang: Yeah.>>Cathy Park Hong: Yeah.>>Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis:
Are we able to hear Cathy? Cathy, can we do another
mic check from you?>>Cathy Park Hong: Hello. Can you hear me now?>>Lawrence-Minh
Bui Davis: And Jen?>>Jennifer Chang: Hi. [ Laughter ]>>Lawrence-Minh Bui
Davis: Okay, sure. Happy to open up to questions and then we can maybe
circle back around to one another’s talks. And we’ll have mics that
we will pass out to you if you could please
speak into the mic.>>Hi. Thank you both so much for these really wonderful
presentations on two poets, two writers I’m really
interested in as well. Cathy, I feel since
you mentioned me by name I should
probably say something. But you know, having
written about Cha, I did precisely what
you have described as I think most critics of Cha
have done, which is not to talk about the circumstances of her
sexual assault and her death. I think the reason that
I did not do that was when I read the very
early scholarship on Cha, especially by non-Asian
American writers, I did feel that her death
was sensationalized, that she was kind of portrayed
as a sort of martyr figure who simply corresponded to the martyr figures
that she wrote about. And it did feel, I think as many of the critics you described
talked about, that it did kind of get in the way of our sort
of appreciating her work. But I think the intervention
you’re making now is to sort of ask, what have we done to our understanding
of Cha by doing that? What have we not
wanted to look at? And so you know, I really
take that sense that, okay, why have none of us
actually looked at that? And you really did that work and
I’m, you know, very appreciative of the unflinching way
in which you did that. I guess now my question is to
you, if we put this you know, kind of — if we look at
this straight on again, how does it change
the way we think about Cha’s work as a whole? How does it change the way
we read her as an artist if we stop looking away from
the circumstances of her death?>>Cathy Park Hong: That’s
a very good question. I think, I mean, it was very
tricky writing this essay and writing not just
about her death but also why there was this
silence around her death. And I completely understand why
very important Asian American scholars such as yourself
chose not to do it. I know that she was — that avant-garde
critics in the beginning, I think they called her like
Persephone, I don’t know. Persephone of New York
City, the Asian Persephone of New York City or
something like that. And so it was a way of kind
of separating yourself away from that sensationalizing. But I also think that —
I actually do, I meant it. I think your essay on Theresa
Cha was really informative and influenced my
thinking of her work. But I’m just thinking
about her criticism, the scholarship as a whole. You know, and as a whole
there was a hole, you know, in what happened to her. And that hole became deafening
when I was just reading one after another and it was one
after another after another where they just couldn’t
even use the word rape. And I just thought we
can’t continue doing this. We have to face it, especially
I think in the service of — sexual violence and Asian
American women are not talked about enough. It’s silenced and that needs to
be — it needs to be discussed. Now the question is, how
do we talk about her? You know, I looked at her
death as directly as I could. But I think I also had
the privilege to do that after criticism
like yourself and by many other scholars. There’s been a lot of
work done about her. If I were to write about
her death right after — let’s say in 1990, then
I think that would have, people would have
focused too much on her. And I’m thinking by the
fact that there’s already such a wealth of
scholarship around her that this will be just one part of her legacy, what
happened to her. And I think maybe what I
would say is that, you know, there’s been a lot of — not
to get a little wonky here, academic here, but it seems
like a lot of criticism about Theresa Hak Kyun Cha was
from a post-structural lens. And if we look at
post-structural criticism, there’s a real kind of aversion
to the body and aversion to attaching the
author to the text. And always really treating the
text as this kind of, you know, messages in a bottle that wash
up onto the shore for the critic to dissect on its own. And there’s a kind
of coldness to that that I was — I resisted. And it was not just her life. I write about her life
too and I didn’t talk about that in the essay. And I thought I just wanted
to know about Theresa. Like I wanted to
know about her life. I wanted to know about her. The essay is called Portrait of
an Artist, and I wanted to know about Theresa as an artist. How she struggled,
how she survived. Her death is one part
of her life, you know. I focus more on her
death in my talk. But it’s more about,
okay, there’s been a lot of discussion about the book. What about the artist? There’s a person over there. Yeah. Yeah?>>Can you all just
say a little bit more about personal poetics changes or personal aesthetics changes
given the fact that in both of your essays — Jen, you
mentioned for instance the fact of loneliness, sort of
looking back at the professor. My question has to do with how
might things be different now or would they be different
now from a different lens? Part of your essay
was, you mentioned if I had paid attention
to this name in the book, how things would be different. How would things
then be different? Or how are things sort
of actually different in terms of appreciation? Same thing, Cathy,
in your essay. I love this moment where you
say my younger self and you sort of go back and forth fighting with my younger self
in that moment. So can you talk just
more directly about what those changes are in
terms of what your reading is like for anyone or for anything? And whether or not you’re
sort of always sort of slapped into the awareness of this
younger self over and over again as a present-tense person.>>Jennifer Chang: Yeah. I really appreciated
what you wrote, Cathy, about finding hard times — having a hard time finding a
model that was truly speaking to you as a student of poetry, and Cha being that
person for you. And at the same time I thought,
“Oh my God, you’re studying with Yung Mi Kim and
reading Cha in college.” I mean, for me I feel
that my sort of racial and social consciousness
came very late, in part because I had
gone to a university that didn’t have any Asian
literature professors or Asian American
literature courses or Asian American studies. And it was entirely mysterious
to me and unheard of to me that there were these writers. And when I did encounter
the writers, it was in graduate school
where there’s a different kind of valuation of —
it was so much more about career trajectories
and, “You don’t want to write like this poet because you
want to get these awards and these conference
fellowships,” and blah, blah, blah. That was almost always — the subtext of that was
always don’t write about race. Don’t think about race. Pretend you’re a white writer. And I think had I
encountered Wong May earlier — I mean, for one when I did
encounter her, it was stunning to me that she was so
insistently herself. That although she wrote
about identity and gender, it was in addition to a
lot of other questions which were both formal
and sociopolitical. I don’t know. One never knows what
would have happened. But I do — I think it’s
similar to your talk, Monique, where you know, you were 28 when you met another
Vietnamese American poet. I mean, for me when I
became a part of Kuniman, that was life-altering
and it changed my life and it changed my conception
of myself as a writer. And I guess I would have — I mean, maybe I wouldn’t be
so old now and still shy. I feel like I’ve just
figured out why I’m a poet because of those encounters. And I don’t know. I don’t regret that entirely. But that loneliness
because it was felt at such a formative time,
I feel will never leave me. So I’m grateful for today. But that loneliness is just a
residue of how I think about art and myself as an artist.>>Cathy Park Hong: Yeah. I was struck by that
too with your talk. It’s like you kept talking
about feeling lonely, and even in your
correspondence with Wong May, you’re just like waiting
for her to respond or not. And then feeling
buzzed with anticipation but also just like neediness.>>Jennifer Chang: So needy.>>Cathy Park Hong: Which
I really related to.>>Jennifer Chang: Yeah.>>Cathy Park Hong: And I think
that — and I also feel that. You know, I think it’s really
radically changing now, but with our generation
it was really lonely to be an Asian American poet. There was like no models. None. I was very
lucky in college because I had Yung Mi
Kim who introduced me to Theresa Ha Kyung Cha. I was at Oberlin. And I also write about
this, I had two best friends who were also artists
and interested in poetry. So I had a community. And you know, Oberlin even back
then was super PC and all that. So I was I guess — like
I did have sort of my “awakening” in college. But then it was sort of
reversed when I graduated. You know, I was in New York, I worked for The
Village Voice, you know. And they were dealing with
the police brutality cases like Dialo back then. And then from there I went to
Iowa and I was very curious.>>Jennifer Chang: I was
so curious about her. I kept asking her.>>Cathy Park Hong: About
Wong May’s experience at Iowa. Because I was like — it was
like moving backwards, you know?>>Jennifer Chang: Yeah. Yeah.>>Cathy Park Hong:
It was like uurch.>>Jennifer Chang: MFA
programs have that tendency.>>Cathy Park Hong: Huh?>>Jennifer Chang: MFA
programs have that tendency.>>Cathy Park Hong:
I know, I know. And I was like — you know
that scene in Get Out, you know the movie Get Out
where he’s on the phone with his friend and he’s
like, “It’s really weird. It’s like the movement
never happened.” [ Laughter ] And that was Iowa. It’s like the Civil Rights
movement never happened, the feminist movement
never happened. I was like, what is this? Everyone’s writing about God. This is so weird. [ Laughter ] So it was very estranging
and I think that was when I felt quite — you know,
where I really acutely felt that kind of loneliness. But I think I was very lucky in
that I discovered Cha early on and was always not just
interrogating the content of what I could write about. It wasn’t just for me — and
I learned this in college from Yung Mi Kim and
teachers and so forth, that when you’re
writing about race, it’s not just telling
your stories. It’s not just about
telling your stories; it’s about how you
tell your stories. And that too is an
interrogation. And that was drilled
into me early on, and that was always a core
part of who I was and am as a poet and essayist. And that I have found
foundational and very valuable.>>Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis: We
have time for one more question.>>I asked about
pleasure in the last talk. And I want to do it again because I feel this time we
have a really interesting case where both of the bodies
can’t be accessed it seems. At least as far as we know
from what you’ve told us. So in the first case Wong
May never appeared it seems. I mean, I don’t know
if that’s true. And then in the second
one, Cha is gone. And yet at the same time both of you are clearly
experiencing something by way of these bodies and their work. And I would love for you to
speak a little bit about kind of the absence of these bodies
in terms of the pleasure that you actually experience
while you’re thinking about these people.>>Kate Hao: Well
it was incredible when she first wrote me back. And the generosity
of her responses. Well, the volume of her
responses were generous, even though the content
was often withholding. I couldn’t believe I was having
that conversation with her and that she wanted to
see pictures of my son, and that she was so free with
talking about motherhood and art and her conceptions of
herself as an artist. That remains a pleasure. And I will say that when I
was working on this talk, I was a little afraid to go
back to the correspondence because it was so intense. It was clearly — part
of my neediness arose from having just become a
mother myself and recognizing that the way I was
mothering was different from the way my mother
had mothered me. And I don’t know if some
of you feel this way, but you feel like,
“Well, where’s my mom? Where’s the mothering
that I’m giving my child? What person gave
me that mothering?” And I think in some ways my
neediness came from wanting her to give me a kind of
nourishment to be seen as me rather than
something else. Which is unfair to my mother. So I was scared to look
back at the correspondence because all those
feelings came up again. And at a certain point I
actually stopped writing to her because it was too much. And in one of the last
emails she wrote me, she was always traveling and she
would be writing from Mongolia or western China or Sweden. And she’d say, “I had
a dream about you,” and would share the dream. And I would be like, “I
can’t deal with this much.” I don’t know. It’s probably a deficiency
in me. But it was maybe
too much pleasure. I don’t know. I couldn’t continue
the correspondence. I don’t know if that
answers your question.>>Cathy Park Hong: There was no
pleasure in writing this essay.>>Jennifer Chang: Yeah.>>Cathy Park Hong: It was
really hard to write it. I kind of kept giving up. And then whatever, I
just felt compelled to continue the research. But it really was
not pleasurable. I will say there
were — I don’t know if pleasurable is
the word I would use. I think there were
revelatory moments. You know, I think that same
kind of correspondence. I talked to John Cha her brother and it was really
amazing talking to him and hearing his story. I don’t finish the
story of what happened. You know, what’s
remarkable was talking to him about what Theresa
was like as a sister. And also the very
strange story about how he and his brother found
the crime scene. And this is also interesting,
is that you think — what I was trying to do was
sort of de-mythologize Theresa, sort of that kind of shroud
of secrecy around her. And you can’t control
that, you know. I think everyone is
always kind of trying to either control her
story in some way. And I was like, “Well,
I just want to write about the facts,
get the facts down.” But the way he found the crime
scene was really bizarre, you know, almost supernatural. Where he was saying that —
and this is in the essay — where he was like, “Our mother
had this dream about numbers.” It was like 77 something
or other. And then no one could
find the crime scene. And they were just searching. And you know, the basement
was a bunch of rooms — I mean, it’s a big building. And the police couldn’t find
it and no one could find it. And then they saw the numbers
that were in her mother’s dream and then they followed those
numbers and they came to a room where there were her
gloves and other, you know, evidence of the crime scene. And so — and there were other
elements of it where I was like, “Wow, I can’t put this in the
story because that’s going to just mythologize and just
per her in this sort of — enshroud her in this
kind of mystery again.” You know? But then I was
like, “This is his story. This is the way he saw it.” You could believe whatever you
want to believe and so forth. But I think it’s — maybe
the word is gratifying. It was really gratifying
to talk to his — and moving too, and powerful
to talk to her friends and her relatives and to
really get their story of what Theresa was like. You know, she was also a very
funny and sweet person as well. And it was nice to
get that perspective.>>Jennifer Chang: Yeah. I would add it sounds like part of what was gratifying was you
finally had control over a kind of story that everyone
else is telling you. And it felt intuitive. It was raw. I think from my experience with
Wong May, I think it was a story about Asian American poetry and
Asian American women’s poetry that I felt needed supplement. And I needed the story
to be more complicated. And I think my desire in
writing her was to get a kind of story, to rewrite history.>>Lawrence-Minh
Bui Davis: Okay, we are at the end
of our time for now. A round of applause please. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Anya Creightney:
Hello, everyone. Hello. This is mobile. Hello, everyone. Welcome back. Thanks for joining. Welcome back. Thank you for being here. I’m going to do the very formal
Library of Congress thing and give you the full welcome. Those of you who have
heard again, welcome back. I’m Anya Creightney. I’m the programs manager
at the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center
housed right here. We’re excited to have you back
for this afternoon’s slate at the Asian American
Literature Festival. And thanks again
to our partners, the Smithsonian Asian
Pacific American Center and of course the
Poetry Foundation. And a big round of
applause please for both Lawrence-Minh Davis
and Jennifer Chang, please, organizers of the festival. [ Applause ] The Library of Congress Poetry
and Literature Center fosters and enhances the public’s
appreciation of literature. To this end the center
administers the endowed poet laureate consultant
in poetry in position. This year Joyjo. Coordinates an annual season
of readings, performances, lectures, conferences
and symposia, sponsors high-profile
events such as this and fellowships for
literary writers. To find out more
about our programs and initiatives please
do take a look at our website loc.gov/poetry. We’re also honored today to be
co-sponsoring with two other — one division and one
association in the Library. The Asian Division which my
colleague Rob Casper talked about a little bit this morning. But it bears repeating. The Asian Division here
started in 1869 with 933 volumes by the emperor of China. The Division now holds 4 million
items from over 130 countries. We know that the Division
is itself closed today, but we wanted to give you all
an opportunity to look at some of the digital items that are
in a couple of the collections. So we’ve put a computer here
in the back, so at the end of the day browse a little. I hope it whets your appetite. Come back to the
library, get a reader card and spend a little
time in the Division. It’s a place that
holds real treasure. I also want to give
thanks to the Library of Congress Asian
American Association. Founded in 1994, the
Association traces its origins to the 1991 celebration of Asian
Pacific American Heritage Month at the Library. The event brought together
a group of staff eager to raise the awareness of
Asian Pacific American Heritage in the Library community
and encourage fellowship and support among
staff interested in Asian Pacific
American issues. So on behalf of all the sponsors
here at the Library of Congress, we are delighted
to have you here for this afternoon programming. I am going to go
ahead and turn it over to Jenna Peng who’s
going to introduce Arthur Sze and we’ll kick off
our afternoon. Jenna, you want to come up? [ Applause ]>>Jenna Peng: Hi. Can you hear me?>>Anya Creightney: Yes. Yes.>>Jenna Peng: All right. In considering Arthur Sze’s
body of work I want to speak about a poetics of notice. Specifically what occurs in an
act of notice in the processes of looking and listening. What is political about notice? Who is overlooked? What objects interrupted
by power, overdetermined by culture are prematurely and
sometimes violently gleaned? For Asian American literary
life, a life often experienced in discontinuities and
strange synchronicities, how can notice be a practice
of living, a ritual way of moving forth with fracture? And for Asian American
literature, a genre often read as partial, as bound
to its particular brand of fragmentation of and to a
presumed whole, how can notice, this ordinary attentiveness,
this duration enclosing act, inform how we care for
literature and for others? In his poetry, Arthur Sze writes
the act of notice as an act not of focus but of shift. His lines flit among
ordinary objects and unassimilated sensations, blink into what Babylonian
astronomers are seeing, rescale into python
skin soundwaves. As a reader, you
enter this momentum. You drift and you
leap, wondering what in the shifting process of sensing are we
becoming attentive to — are we becoming more
open and alive to? Sze writes a compliant sort
of sensation, what pulls over. An elastic sort of
sense-making, what evokes what? What happens when? In his poetry, the
objects of our every day, seeming underground
and isolated, comprise a world made connected
and coeval, form the touchstones of a kind of meaning making. As Sze writes, suddenly
small things ignite. Fragments of noticing put into couplet make visible the
magnetic lines of a moment. These fragments accumulating
throughout a poem, a collection, a career, generate
intimate geographies, converge in timescapes. A feeling of staying
with and beyond. Arthur Sze is the author
of ten books of poetry, including Sight Lines which
was released earlier this year, and Compass Rose which was a
finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Sze is also a celebrated
translate of Chinese poetry whose book
Silk Dragon was selected for a Western States Book
Award for Translation. Sze is the recipient
of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation,
the National Endowment for the Arts and the
Widder Binner Foundation. His additional honors include
an American Book Award, Atlanta Literary Award, the
Lyla Wallace Readers Digest Writers Award. It gives me great pleasure
to introduce Arthur Sze. [ Applause ]>>Arthur Sze: Thank you
for that introduction. I’m going to move the mic
just a teeny bit closer. So my talk is called The
Streams Streaming Through Us: The Rich Diversity of
Asian American Poetry. It’s a pleasure and honor to
give this informal talk today which can be best
described as an intimate walk through Asian American
literary history from my personal
experience and perspective. In 2014, Lawrence-Minh
Davis and Gerald Ma, the editors of the Asian
American Literary Review, invited me to engage
in a letter fellowship to nurture emerging
Asian American writers and grow community across
literary generations. I accepted their
invitation and corresponded with Ocean Vuong two
years before he was to publish his celebrated book
Night Sky with Exit Wounds. We exchanged three
sets of letters and at the outset Ocean
immediately articulated his Asian American identity
through language. He wrote, “I am starting
to think that to be an Asian American is to build one’s own
nation within one’s body. And maybe my best tools happen
to be words and language. Through language my
nation remains malleable, ever-changing and borderless. My citizens are words and words
belong to all who use them.” I’ve made only one out
of an enormous number of possible selections to
highlight the rich diversity of Asian American
poetry through the stream of personal experience. I’m going to begin with a
brief biographical sketch. As the son of Chinese
immigrants from Beijing, I grew up in suburbia in
Garden City, New York. I felt a lot of pressure
to pursue something in the sciences or engineering. And I came to poetry
rather late. As a freshman at MIT, bored
in a calculus lecture, I wrote my first poem. [ Laughter ] Soon I was writing all the time. In my sophomore team, Denise
Lebertoff came from California and taught a poetry workshop. She made the Bay Area sound
exciting and I transferred to the University of
California at Berkeley. There Josephine Miles
became my mentor. Derek Walcott once said to
me that because the path of a poet is arduous,
there is always someone who tells a young poet that
poetry is worth committing to. For him, it was his mother. For me, it was Josephine Miles. After I graduated from UC
Berkeley, I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico and joined
the New Mexico Poetry in the Schools program. The group of poets I met
in that program included Mae-Mae Berssenbrugge. Mae-Mae and I have
been friends since 1973 and over the years we have
shared drafts of poems at countless lunches, talked
about poetry while we hiked from the bottom of the Santa
Fe ski basin to the top of Lake Peak, 12,409
feet above sea level. And for a few years as
faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts,
when the budget was tight, we even shared an office. During that time we were
also contributing editors to a small experimental literary
magazine, Tioni, a Carasan word that means The Meeting Place. That sought to bring
multicultural poetic perspectives into
conversation with each other. I’ve picked the opening
of a relatively early poem of Mae-Mae’s Chinese Space
with this signature long line like the horizon line,
stretching across a mesa in northern New Mexico, even though the place described
here is in China, Chinese Space. “First there is the
gate from the street; then some flowers
inside the wall; then the inner roofed gate. It is a very plain wall
without expressionistic means, such as contrasting light on paving stones
inside the courtyard to the caligraphed
foundation stones. My grandfather called this the
façade or baroque experience, rendering a courtyard
transparent. The eye expecting to
confront static space, experiences a lavish
range of optical events. Such as crickets in many
jars, their syncopation like the right, then left, then
right progress into the house. An experience that cannot be
sustained in consciousness because your movement itself
binds passing time more than entering directs it. From Mae-Mae I heard
about Basement Workshop in New York City
and Jessica Hagedorn who was curating the
poetry series there. Here’s the opening to
Picture This After a Series of Paintings titled Gift-Wrapped
Dolls by James Rosencrest. “A woman hurled, hurled out. A woman hurls herself out the
window, exits out the window, expects to crash land on the
sidewalk, crash land bones and skin into sidewalk below.” Through Basement Workshop
I also met Francis Jung and Kimiko Hahn. Admiring Kimiko’s adaptations
to the Japanese form Zuihitsu or running brush, I’ve
chosen this passage from Opening Her Text. “I nestle with my
daughter in her bed in the room painted
pink a decade ago, half the pink now covered
with glossy clippings of this or that star, male and female. Her reading light spots
a book in my hands. She is the oldest of two
daughters and on the verge of one of those beginnings. Remove approach, reproach. Outside boys kill one
another over sharp lyrics. Girls slash strangers
across the face. In Prospect Park the fireflies
begin their mating flares while other insects settle
into moist foliage.” As I became better known as
a poet, I started to travel and in 1985 met Pat
Matsueda in Honolulu. Pat has served for years as
managing editor of Manoah, a Pacific Journal of
International Writing. The undertow of her poem
Shika Dear Shrine Japan for My Sister has
stayed with me. Two years ago — I’m sorry. “Two years old, you have
a mouth like a split plum. Our mother is braced
against the tree trying to conceal her wound. Oblivious, we follow our
father beneath the iron woods, through the stains of shadows
on the ground in silence. We feed the deer
at Shika Shrine.” On that trip I had
lunch with Wing Tek Lum in Honolulu Chinatown and we discovered we
shared an admiration for the ancient Chinese
poet Tau Chen. In fact, a line from one of Tau’s poems was displayed
prominently in his office. Here’s an excerpt from To a Poet who Says he Stopped
Writing Temporarily. “These periods are as
essential as that moment you sit down in a rush, your
favorite pen in hand, pulling out that journal
you’ve always carried for this very purpose. And when the point scratches
surface, flesh is made word and these small truths of your
existence illumen the pate like laser light scorching
our hearts forever.” During this time I joined
the board of a small press, Tooth of Time Books located
in Guadalupita, New Mexico. The founder, John Brandy,
had reissued my first book and also published my
second book of poetry. I looked for books
by emerging poets and sponsored Carolyn Lao’s
[inaudible], My Way of Speaking that was published in 1988. Here’s Carolyn’s
quirky telegraphic style in a complete short poem. Being Chinese in English. “The man in the night
reading by lamplight, nearby the men playing checkers. All the varieties of
crickets, nervous, cringing. The balcony gardens insisting
we better not show our interest in orgasm. Outside, babies questioning
their ears. Therefore shifting twilight
upside down in soft spots. Dear ox, how desperate we are. Certain only in this
thing we can call ours, urging life to feel
so good in pleasure.” At Tooth of Time I also helped
to publish another first book by an Asian American poet,
Circumnavigation by Sinh Sarco. Here’s the opening
stanza to her book. “Gustavo said your poems are
like samba, some even tango on the page as if part
of some strange ritual, what the rooster does
before mounting.” Living in New Mexico,
I found connection to other Asian American
poets through publication. When Joseph Bruchak edited and published his groundbreaking
anthology Breaking Silence in 1983, I found
myself in the company of so many poets I admired. And a decade later, Garret Hongo’s anthology
The Open Boat brought many of us a wider audience. Here’s the opening to Garret’s
Oban Dance for the Dead that begins with the
important work of reclamation. “I have no memories
or photograph of my father coming home from
war, then as a cane worker, a splinter of flesh in his
olive greens and khakis and spit-shined GI shoes. Or of my grandfather in his flower-print shirt
humming his bar tunes, tying the bandana to his
head to hold the sweat back from his face as he bent
to weed and hoe the garden that Sunday while swarms of
planes maneuvered overhead.” Around this time I also
developed a friendship with Marilyn Chen. At first I came across
her translations of the Chinese modernist
poet Hai Ching. Many of her poems are
informed by a knowledge of classical Chinese poetry
and here she adapts the Fu or rhyme prose form
in this passage from Rhapsody in Plain Yellow. “Say, a scentless camillia
bush bloodied the afternoon. Fuck this line. Can you really believe this? When did I become the
master of suburban bliss? With whose tongue were we born? The language of the masters is
the language of the aggressors. We studied their cadence
carefully, enrolled in a class to improve our accent. Meanwhile they’d hover over,
waiting for us to stumble, to drop an article,
mispronounce an R. Say softly, softly the silent
gunboats glide.” During the mid-1980’s I met
Cathy Sung several times when she came to Santa Fe. Her husband Stanley lived
in town and we used to meet at a local coffee shop. She was completing
her second collection, Frameless Windows:
Squares of Light. I remember she talked about how
it was a struggle to be a mother and balance those
demands with invitations for readings and workshops. And she prioritized her family. Here’s the opening to Litany. “She gave you the
names of things, each word a candle you held
between yourself and the dark. The litany of the alphabet
like a rosary before sleep. Then the shadows on the
wall became familiar, the storybook shape
of elephants.” In 1981 the University
of California at Berkeley held an Asian
American Literary Festival and I met John Yao there. We developed an abiding
friendship and shared an enthusiasm
for the difficult and challenging Khan Dynasty
poets Li Xiao Yin and Li Hu, as well as surrealism
and experimental poetry. He came out to Santa Fe several
times and we usually stopped in at a few art galleries. On one visit I told John I had
met Agnes Martin and he wondered if we could drive at to
Galisteo to see where she lived. I didn’t know Agnes
well enough to call her, but I knew where her house was. I drove John out and
remember he was so excited to take a few photographs from
the road of her adobe house and the surrounding landscape. John often writes in sequences
and I selected the last section to Borrowed Love Poems. “Now that the seven wonders
of the night have been stolen by history, now that the sky is
lost and the stars have slipped into a book, now that
the moon is boiling like the blood where it swims. Now that there are no
blossoms left to glue to the sky, what can I do? I who never invented anything
and who dreamed of you so much, I was amazed to discover
the claw marks of those who proceeded us across
this burning floor.” In the 1990’s I met
Walter Lu in New York. Walter was the editor in
chief at Kaya Additions and assembled a sprawling
anthology of Asian American
poetry, Premonitions. He wanted to widen the
range of aesthetics to include the astonishing
diversity and eloquence of new poetries spread out among
numerous networks and poetics, both esoteric and activist,
imagist and deconstructive. Pigeon and purist,
diasporic and Americanist. High literary and pop cultural. Here’s the ending from Walter’s
opening poem, In Trade Winds, which is, as every
poem is, an ars poetica and includes the
French word “fe” or fax. And even borrows a phrase
lake of the heart from Dante. “We make up our laws out of
fear and tenacity and find in them fax about the light,
its aberration and flying. Whenever a planet wheels all
hell-like grinding in the wrong, as the mouth or angle of right
ascension coordinates deep in the lake of the heart.” On the trip to Minneapolis
I reached out to David Mora and we had lunch together. I believe it was shortly after he published his second
book, The Colors of Desire. Here’s the opening
from the title poem, Photograph of a Lynching
Circa 1930. “These men in their
dented felt hats and the way their fingers tug
their suspenders or vests, with faces a bit
puffy or too lean, eyes narrow and closed together. They seem to like our image
of the south, the 30’s. Of course they are white. Who then could create this
cardboard figure, face flat and gray, eyes oversized, bulging like an ancient
totem this gang has dug up?” Around this time I came into
contact with Eileen Tabios who is active with the Asian
American Writers Workshop. Eileen interviewed me
about my poem Archipelago and our discussion
gave her the idea to interview 15 Asian
American poets. She assembled the
anthology Black Lightning: Poetry in Progress. And the Writers Workshop
published it in 1998. This was the first anthology to
share working drafts of poems as well as interviews
with each poet. Here is the opening to
our manifesto poem I Do. “I do know English. I do know English for
I have something to say about the latest piece stirring between a crack that’s split
a sidewalk traversing a dusty border melting at noon
beneath an impassive sun. I do know English and therefore
when hungry can ask for more than minimum wage
pointing repeatedly at my mouth and yours. Such a gesture can only mean
what it means: I do not want to remain hungry and I am
looking at your mouth.” In 2000, Aladdin
Foundation in Santa Fe which sponsors the Readings and Conversations series
brought Li-Young Lee to town. Li-Young read to a packed house
and I include here the ending to his classic poem Persimmons,
or His Father Has Gone Blind. “He raises both hands
to touch the cloth, asks, “Which is this?” “This is persimmons, Father.” Oh, the feel of the wolf tail
on the silk, the strength, the tense precision
in the wrist. I painted them hundreds
of times eyes closed. These I painted blind. Some things never
leave a person. Scent of the hair of one you
love, the texture of persimmons in your palm, the ripe weight.” In 2003 in New York the Asian
American Writers Workshop hosted Intimacy and Geography, a National Asian
American Poetry Festival. And among the many readings and
conversations I remember talking at length with Meena Alexander
about literary translation, its impossibility and
also its necessity. We talked about translations
of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita
and the Kamasutra. Meena moved fluidly between
languages and cultures. And she ended her
poem, Black River, Walled Garden with these lines. “The leaves of the rose
tree splinter and flee. The garden of my childhood
returns to the sea. The piecework of sanity, the
fretwork of desire, restive bits and pieces edged into place. Satisfies so little. In dreams come calling
migrant missing selves. Fire in an old man’s sleeve. Coiled rosebuds stuck
from a branch. Our earthly world slit open.” Around this time visiting Naropa
University I mentioned Yu Pai who has a strong connection
to the visual arts. Instead of work from that
time, I’ve selected an excerpt from a more recent poem, Burning
Monk, that describes the protest and death of Thihk
Wong Duk in Saigon. “His body withering, his crown
blackening, his flesh charring, his corpse collapsing, his
heart refusing to burn. His heart refusing to burn. His heart refusing to burn.” As I look back, I see that I met so many Asian American
poets in New York. In 2009 the poet and translator
Kaveh Bassir invited me to read in his cryptic reading series where he invited three
poets to share the stage. I read with Cathy Park Hong
and Alisson Dennis White. Here’s a complete short
poem of Cathy’s, Elegy. “Awaken, ball finch. Your noon blink readily. I know the noontime, noon. Awaken. You left me slurred, tongue still bobbed,
robbed of politsun. [Inaudible] dreadnaught
from sand dunes’ shoulder. Noon lashed shut. Nodded dots dim horizon. A tremble chill betwixt
if a flood in desert dread,
our waters rush. Our swamps gamblers flush. I plunge waters surface
and look noon. Look for the cold
meat of your hand.” The next stage of this walk
involves the importance of translation. Unlike most of my
friends, I did not go to graduate school
and get an MFA. I learned my craft
through translation. At UC Berkeley I translated
the Tung Dynasty poets. Over time I reached out to poets
of other dynasties and then in recent years with trips to international poetry
festivals I’ve translated poems into English by contemporary
poets in China and Taiwan. In 2008 Edward Hearsh invited me to edit Chinese Writers
on Writing. Around this time I came
in contact with Gerald Ma who as a graduate
student at the University of Maryland was excited by and translating the
important Chinese poet Hai Zi. For the Chinese Writers on Writing anthology Gerald made
I believe the first translation into English of Hai Zi’s essay,
The Poet I Most Love, Holderlin. Here are the opening
and closing passages. “There are two types
of lyric poets. The first kind of
poet loves life, but what he loves is
his own self in life. He believes that life
is only the endocrine or the synaptic sensations
of his self. But the second type of
poet loves the vista, loves the landscape, loves the
winter horizon at dawn or dusk. What he loves is the
spirit in the landscape, the breath of existence
in the scenery. To become a poet you must
love the secrets of mankind in holy night roaming from
one place to the next. Love the happiness and
suffering of mankind, endure what must be endured. Sing what must be sung.” While I consider the stream of
translation, it’s a good time to reach back to the
poems of Angel Island. Two years ago in
her inaugural talk, Kimiko Hahn called these
poems the roots and branches of Asian American poetry. I too have found these
poems important to remember as part of our history. And because translations
renew their source texts, I’ve included a recent
translation by Jeffrey Liang. His poems don’t replace the
translations by him, Mark Li, Jenny Lin and Judy Yung, but
they add to the discussion. Here is number 40 or A
Chinese Man Incarcerated on Angel Island Looks
at Nature Around Him. A lee is a Chinese
mile about a third of the distance of
a western mile. “A waterscape like kelp
entwined a thousand lee. The shore path with no
bank is difficult to walk. Calm breezes enter
the heart of the city, such tranquility and joy. Who knows I reside
in a wooden barrack?” In juxtaposition I
jump-cut to Santa Fe, New Mexico to recover two poems by Japanese Americans
incarcerated there during World War II. Most people know about the
Japanese American internment camps at Mensenar
and Heart Mountain. But few know there was a
small camp in Santa Fe. Through a mutual fan
I met Koichi Okada who is a graduate student from Tokyo attending
Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Koichi invited me
to read a draft of his thesis Forced
Acculturation: a study of Isai and the Japanese internment
camp during World War II. And I was excited to discover
three Tanka poems by Isai poets. I include two of them here. The first is by Muin Asaki. “I stand in line morning after
morning for the cold icy cup that pierces into
my bare hands.” A second Tanka is by Kaho Soga. “Since there is no
one to kiss here, I devour one raw
onion after another.” In addition to these poems,
I want to include an excerpt by an overlooked poet,
Josephine or Josey Foo who lives in Farmington, New Mexico
and who works in law for the Navajo, the Na tribe. She collaborated with
a dancer Leah Stein to create a book-length
performance work A Lily Lilies. Here’s an excerpt from
View for an Afternoon. “It is a Saturday at
the old uranium mine, therefore machines are resting. They are stripped of their skin. A dog nearby searches for a
heartbeat among the curves and slants, their
interlacing nerves and veins. There is a heartbeat
a long way off. A surge in the woods yields
bone-like pieces of steel. I throw one 20 feet. The dog runs. There is a hard square,
right angles, steps rising no higher
than a man. Dark, velvety, vast,
infinite interior. There is stretched weight,
a bridge on a hill, gravity, reflection and a mirror.” Kundiman, an organization
dedicated to fostering Asian American
writing was founded in 2004 by Joseph Legaspi
and Sarah Gambito. I’m a member of the advisory
board and have twice served as faculty member at the
Kundiman Retreat that encourages and mentors emerging
Asian American writers. In 2015, Joseph and
Sarah invited me to share a Saturday
evening mainstage reading of the associated writing
programs in Minneapolis with Vijay Seshadri along with
Tina Chang who introduced us and moderated our discussion. I first encountered
Tina’s work in 1996 when I guest edited
the poetry for an issue of the Asian Pacific
American Journal. I remember reading through
a pile of submissions and one poem Fish
Story leapt out. I was excited to select
it for publication and I believe Tina
was a graduate student at Columbia University
at that time. Here’s the opening. “It is the hour of news. The television cracks its voice over the radiator
and the blue carpet. Always that same
cooked silver of you, oil spilling from the mouth. Ginger and scallions
burning through the scales.” And here’s an excerpt
from Imaginary Number, the opening poem to Vijay
Seshadri’s celebrated book Three Sections. “Consciousness observes
and is appeased. The soul scrambles
across the screens. The soul, like the
square root of minus one, is an impossibility
that has its uses.” To come back to Kundiman,
Joseph and Sarah have so generously promoted
younger emerging poets. I want to give their
own work some attention. Here’s an excerpt from Joseph’s
leaping one-line stanzas in Ferlan on the
Lower East Side. “I do what you hope
to find interesting. You do what I pray is magical. Our tails twist like
tongue-tricked cherry stems. Face of a fox, heart of a dog. Are you someone I would
buy a breadbox with? This dialogue hopes for
more beyond social codes and rudimental mimicry. Outside darkened and taxis
circling the thriving, heartbreaking avenues glow. Corkscrew curl of lemon rind, a
Mobius strip suspended in vodka. The twisting forks of
my ribs are closing in on my beating liver.” And here’s the opening
from Sarah’s poem On How to Use this Book. “You deserve your beautiful
life, its expectant icicles, the dread forest that is not our
forest, and yet we meet there. The streams streaming
through us, the leaves leaving through us. Once I was black-haired and
I sat in my country’s lap.” So many streams run
through the work of Asian American poets today. I’ve only pointed
out a few of them. In his second letter, Ocean
Vuong wrote, “I think writing, to me, is not so much an
architecture for closure but rather a searching
for a myriad existence.” I believe the poets I’ve quoted in this talk are
actualizing myriad existence, and this is cause
for celebration. I’d like to close with a
trans-Pacific poem I wrote after participating in the
2007 Fameer Poetry Journey at the Yellow Mountain Poetry
Festival in Anhui, China. Some of the Chinese poets who
attended included Yang Lien, Shi Twan and Yan Li whose poems
I later translated in English. My poem is called Pig’s Heaven
Inn, and I add a quick note. A shun is a small
ceramic vessel with holes. By covering and uncovering
those holes set to notes on a pentatonic scale
one can play music. Pig’s Heaven Inn. “Red chili’s in a tilted
basket catch sunlight. We walk past a pile of
burning mulberry leaves into Shidi village. Enter a courtyard, notice
an inkstone engraved with calligraphy, filled
with water and Casea petals. Smell Ming Dynasty
redwood panels. As the musician lifts a small
shun to his mouth and blows, I see kiwis hanging from
branches above a moon doorway. A grandmother, once the youngest
concubine, propped in a chair with bandages around her knees,
complains of incessant pain. Someone spits in the street. As a second musician
plucks strings on a zither, pomellos blacken on branches. A woman peels chestnuts. Two men in a flat-bottomed boat
gather duckweed out of a river. The notes splash
silvery onto cobblestone, and my fingers suddenly ache. During the Cultural Revolution
my aunt’s husband leapt out of a third-story window. At dawn I mistook the
cries of birds for rain. When the musicians pause, yellow mountain pines sway
near Bright Summit Peak. A pig scuffles behind
an enclosure. Someone blows his nose. Traces of the past are whisps of mulberry smoke
rising above roof tiles. And before we too vanish, we hike to where
three trails converge. Hundreds of people are
stopped ahead of us. Hundreds come up behind. We form a rivulet
of people funneling down through a chasm
in the granite.” Thank you. [ Applause ] Thank you. We have time for a
few questions, yeah. Yes, let’s start over here.>>Hi. I just want to
thank you, first of all, for your generosity in bringing so many different voices
throughout the kind of history of Asian American
literature that you have lived and experienced into the room. I think it’s such a
testament to the work that you yourself
have done as well. I am curious — you spoke
a lot about the friendships that you’ve had and the
professional relationships that have knit a community, knit the Asian American
literary community together and your involvement
in that along the way. But I’m curious to know,
who are some of the poets who were formative for you when you were starting
to write as well?>>Arthur Sze: When I
first started to write, I would say the two
teachers I mentioned. When I was a student
at MIT, I was amazed. I mean, I was like
desperate to get out of there. I was amazed to see at the
end of my freshman year that Denise Levertoff was
coming to teach a poetry class. And I’d read her work my
last semester of high school. And I knew her work
and liked it. So when Denise came to MIT, she made students submit
portfolios of like 10 poems. And actually there were a huge
number of students from Harvard and Radcliffe who wanted
to be in the workshop. And the workshop ended up being about half Harvard/Radcliffe
students and about half MIT students. And if you knew Denise, a
few people who just lived in the community who worked. And Denise was really
formative for me because she was the first
living poet that I met who was so passionate about poetry. And she never went to
high school or college. She was homeschooled in England. But she was trained as a dancer. So I’ll never forget the
way she sort of read poems with her breathing
and with her body. And so that was really
formative for me. And I only took two
workshops as a student. As I said, I didn’t
go to graduate school, but when I transferred to
the University of California at Berkeley, Josephine Miles
was really important to me. Because I was in a
workshop of hers. Berkeley classes were enormous, if you have any experience
there. And the poetry workshop was
like 65 students and I thought, “Oh my God, she’ll
get to two poems in the semester by
each student.” And I went up to Josephine
by the first or second class and I said, “I don’t know if
this is going to work for me.” And she was very sweet. Well, first of all, she
had rheumatoid arthritis, just so you know. So her fingers were like this. They were all disfigured. And her ankles were swollen. She had to be carried
into a classroom. And as background, she was the
first woman to receive tenure in the English department in
the history of UC Berkeley. And she said to me, “Well, I
want you to come by my house for tea on Saturday and
I’ll give you some feedback on your poems.” I was like, “Oh, great.” And so I went over on Saturday
and sort of went to her house. I still remember it’s like 2275
Virginia Street, north of campus under some big bird of
paradise that was sort of blooming in the yard. And I went in and sat
down with her and she went through my poems and
she took them apart and put them back together. And she said, “You
know, work on these. And have you read Rilka?” I was like, “No.” She was like, “You’d better
read everything you can find of Rilka. And when you’ve revised
these poems, call me and I’ll meet you again.” And I did and then she
would go through the poems. And she would say,
“Have you read Naruta?” I was like, “No.” Okay. She would be
like, “I want you to read everything you
can find by Naruta.” It was never for a class. It was never college credit. It was just such a
generosity of spirit. And in many ways, you know, my
teaching at Kundiman or teaching at workshops, I feel like
that’s a way of passing it on. So those two poets were
really important to me as a student at UC Berkeley. Just about everyone came
through the Bay Area. So I remember hearing Gary
Snyder, Robert Creeley, Galway Kinnell, and being
interested in their work. And Bob Creeley was very, very
supportive of me when I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1977. Albuquerque was having a
Revive the Downtown series. And a poet named Larry
Goodell called me and he said, “I want you and Bob
Creeley to read together.” I was like, “What?” And he said, “Yeah, I
want both of you to read.” And I called Bob who lived in
Placitas and I said, “Well, I’m just introducing myself. I’ll meet you at the
reading at this gallery.” And Bob said, “You are
not going to do that. You’re coming to dinner
at Placitas because that’s on the way to Albuquerque and
then we’ll drive together.” So he became a very important
poet as a formative influence, someone again so devoted to
poetry, but also so generous. And I would see him
occasionally — actually often. So those are a couple
of the poets. And then I have to
say that in 1972 — I’ll just give you a
little fun background. But it talks about
formative poets. When I was getting ready to
graduate from UC Berkeley, I wanted to go somewhere
I’d never been before. And Josephine Miles said,
“You should go to Santa Fe. It’s very beautiful. A young poet can
live cheaply there.” That was important. And she said, “I’m
giving you the names of three people to look up. Maybe something will happen.” And the second person I called,
Stanley Noy, said, “Arthur, we’re putting together a
Poetry in the Schools program. You should apply.” And I did and in that group
the next year was Mae-Mae Berssenbrugge, Joy Harjo,
Leslie Silko, Simon Ortiz. It was an amazing group. They all had their MFA’s and
had frankly terrible experiences at Iowa, Columbia, wherever. And it made me keep delaying
going to graduate school, and eventually I didn’t go. [ Laughter ] So that’s a long answer. How about other questions? Yes, back there. Uh-huh.>>Thanks. Hi. The first lecture
this morning, Monique, remarked on the difference
between poets and those who create pieces
of literary fiction. She said that basically poets
are “brave” because their style and personality is quite evident through they’re relatively
short pieces. While fiction writers
are “cowards” who use submerged motifs and
lessons through like hundreds of pages of, you know, work. As a poet, what are your
thoughts on this matter? [ Laughter ]>>Arthur Sze: Let me just make
sure I heard the last part. As a poet, what are my
thoughts about this? Well, obviously it’s not true. [ Laughter ] I mean, I think prose
writers are brave. I don’t know how prose writers
can write a novel or sustain it. And I can attest once
when I was trying to write a short story I ended
up cutting it and cutting it and saying it’s a prose poem. And I couldn’t make it. I wanted to make it a
short story or, you know, I had this idea of
this could be a novel. So I think it’s just
a different muscle. It’s a different energy. I think Faulkner said most
fiction writers are frustrated poets that maybe they
start with poetry because that can teach you a
kind of intensity and concision and precision of language. And you need that for
any form of writing. But you know, good
prose writers, it’s like reading poetry
just in paragraphs and pages. And I admire the
stamina to be able to write and extend like that. So I think it again has to
do with different energies and different muscles
and using it. I wouldn’t privilege one
over the other, just as sort of in my list of
excerpting I didn’t want to privilege one style
or example over the other because I think they all
have their important place to play in the larger scheme. And I would say poetry
and prose work together. Yes? David? [ Inaudible ] I guess you’re wondering, is
the legacy being passed down or being eroded or lost? I think it has to be
renewed by each generation. And I think it has to be earned. I think young writers
can’t just — or we as older writers can’t
just assume work we’ve done will be passed down or that
younger writers will just sort of absorb it. I think there’s always
a struggle against what I would call
oblivion, against forgetting. And that means one might
actively have to search for the writers that are
inspirational, that count and mean so much to you
in those early stages. So I would say there’s
no guarantee, you know. We don’t know. In many ways I think it’s for
the younger generation to decide or redefine who continues
to speak to them. Yes?>>All the speakers who have
spoken this morning mentioned the words loneliness and rage. And I think perhaps all poets,
not just Asian American poets, have thoughts about
loneliness and rage. Could you speak about it?>>Arthur Sze: Writing
is a solitary act. You know, nobody can — I think
I like to call it or think of it as the terror of the blank page. You know, you can sit down, you
think you know what you’re going to write about and
then it’s not there. Or the real poem isn’t there. And it’s a lot of arduous work
where the writer is struggling to not just write what might be
there but to discover what can, you know, sort of
come into being. What I like to think
of as below surface. And there’s no substitute for
the solitude one has to have. Nobody can give that to you. Nobody can do that for you. The writer has to do
that and earn that. So in that sense, writing
is lonely and a struggle. On the other hand I also
feel like writers are writing out of necessity, out of
a deep need and there’s that sense that, I think,
writers will find a way to communicate and connect. So when I for instance
first moved to Santa Fe, I was incredibly poor
in those early years. I did odd jobs. I worked as a poet
in the schools. But you know, it was
very much of a struggle and isolating experience. And the one thing that saved me
was that group of poets I met in the Poetry in
the Schools program. Because we were all young poets. We were hired by the
state arts council and they sent us
all over the state. And I worked for ten years
in the program and I worked at one point in the prisons
and maximum security. I worked on all the
Indian reservations. I worked in Spanish-speaking
communities. And yes, I was alone, but I was
also exhilarated and feeling like I was discovering a part of America I could never
have imagined before seeing. And I got to share it with this
other group of young poets. And I think that’s what
was really crucial for me. I would sit down at the kitchen
table with Mae-Mae Berssenbrugge and Joy Harjo and say,
“Who are you reading? Who interests you? You know, whose reading
are you going to?” That kind of thing. And a community eventually
develops. I think one has to
find one’s way. I also think, you know,
in the process of writing, you can write for so
long but another set of eyes will be so
helpful to you. Sometimes I’ve been working
on a poem and then I show it to Mae-Mae or someone else
and they’ll say something. It’s like, “Oh God,
why didn’t I see that?” You know, I obviously knew
that the comments were right and I needed to make
adjustments. And so then it becomes
a kind of sharing where you can help each other. You find a group of
people who can sort of nourish and sustain you. And in terms of rage, I think
there’s a rage to maybe write from one’s deepest
self to sort of be — and that takes work again. And that’s also something
one has to do oneself. But I think there’s a sense of
being impassioned for the truth, that no one else
can do this for you. And there’s that kind
of strong emotion. Last question? Let’s stop here. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Lawrence-Minh Bui
Davis: Thank you, Arthur. Thank you everyone
for being here. If you’ve just joined us, welcome to the 2019 Asian
American Literature Festival. [ Applause ] I’m Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis. I’m a professional Asian — I mean, I’m a curator at the Asian Pacific American
Center at the Smithsonian. Very glad to see
all of you here. We’re going to take a few minute
break and come back in time for our next session,
Secret Histories with Kazim Ali and
Ching-In Chen. See you in a few minutes. Thank you.>>Jennifer Chang:
Okay, hi, everyone. Hello. Is the sound on? Hi. Thanks for sticking with
us today and for being here and listening so attentively. I’m delighted to get to
introduce the second half of our Secret Histories talks. And in particular the chance
to introduce Ching-In Chen and Kazim Ali, two poets,
writers and visionaries who I’ve known for
a very long time. Here I go. In her introduction to
the anthology Quiet Fire: Historical Anthology of Asian
American Poetry 1892-1970, Juliana Chang writes, “I
was constantly confronted with the specter
of lost history. How many copies of
these fragile, dusty books were
left in the world? How could we begin to
find out about some of the more obscure poets
whose books were published by small presses that
have long since vanished? How are these pieces relics
of a now-gone life in history? How do we read in the present
these remains of the past?” This was published in 1996. But these words remain
relevant today in 2019. And they are the questions that inform the thinking
behind Secret Histories, remembering lost voices. A collection of talks
that recover writers and artists missing from our
literary cultural discourse, and then imagine what
their inclusion might do to embolden Asian American
writers and poetics. In Ching-In Chen and Kazim Ali
we have two formidable artists and literary citizens whose
voices are among the most distinctive and capacious in contemporary Asian
American poetry. But beyond their
accomplishments, the reason I asked
them to participate in the Secret Histories was
that I strongly suspected that they had secrets. [ Laughter ] Selfishly too I wanted
to spend more time in their mischievous
imaginations which always surprised
with their formal dynamism and historical consciousness. After sharing their talks, I
hope you will feel this way too. Ching-In Chen is the author of
The Heart’s Traffic, a novel and poems recombinant, and
To Make Black Paper Sing. After teaching at Sam
Houston University in Texas for many years, they will
begin teaching this fall at the University of
Washington at Bothell. Kazim Ali is the author of
numerous books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and hybrid
experiments including most recently Inquisition
and Silver Road: Essays, Maps and Caligraphies. After teaching at Oberlin
College for many years, he will be professor of
literature and writing at the University of
California San Diego. We’re very happy to
have them here today. Shortly after they’ve relocated, I will give you our
wonderful writers. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Ching-In Chen: Hi, everyone. How’s it going? Have you been having
a good weekend at the Asian American
Literature Festival? [ Applause ] It’s so good to be here,
to see old friends. I made some new ones. I hope they’re still my friends. And I just want to give a
shout-out to all the organizers, Lawrence, Mi Mi, Jennifer, Anya. Thank you to everyone
who has been hard at work behind the scenes
and people I don’t even know who are probably
working on our behalf. So thank you so much. It’s been such an honor to
be here with Kazim and Cathy and Arthur and Monique
and everybody else. So today I want to — well, I’m
going to tell a story of sorts. And it’s a story of the
artist who you can see on the screen I hope
up here, Mark Aguhar, also known as the
Call-Out Queen. And I’m excited to
chat about Mark. And I only see this
as a beginning, an opening, an invitation. It’s also a story
about me and about — well, you’ll get to
hear some of my secrets. And a story about you. So let’s begin. So just so I can get a
sense of who you are — and I’ll be asking
you some questions. This is just going to be an
interactive participatory event. So that’s a trigger
warning, if that is something that you’re not wanting to
do, you can step out now. And I will be talking
about Aguhar who did die by suicide, so just so you know. So how many folks know
Mark Aguhar’s work? I just want to get a sense? Oh yah, there’s a few people. A few friends. So Aguhar was born in 1987 in
Houston, Texas which is the city that I’ve just spent
a few years living in. We never met each other. But I feel like we were
in transit in parallel in many different ways. Mark Aguhar was born
when I was nine years old and that was a time when
I was in middle school, which many of you probably
know can be a very rough and cruel time. I was a lonely gender
curious kid who didn’t fit in. I was often bullied for
being the wrong weight, the wrong race. I was often imagined to
have the wrong accent, though I was born in
the United States. And I often had the
wrong name of sorts. So much so that I renamed
myself when I was young. And later on Mark and I — I’m
imagining this sort of kinship. And I see this almost
as a letter to her. Because we were both
graduate students in the snowy and lonely Midwest. I went to school at University
of Wisconsin Milwaukee which was both a beautiful and
very challenging experience. And she was an MFA
student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And also as someone with fluid
gender nonconforming experience. So this is a screenshot
of Call-Out Queen which made Mark Tumblr famous. And this is a page from Mark’s
2012 which was the last set of entries that were published. And I just wanted to show you because I think this is
an archive of self-making, self-construction of
our everyday lives. And some of it is petty,
some of it is beautiful. Some of it is self-inferential. Some of it honors others. Some of it is painful
and difficult. And I think it’s something
that is worth coming through. There are many, many,
many entries. And I followed a link early on
in this process and it took me to a page that said, “This
archive doesn’t exist anymore.” And then I panicked. I was like, “What?” And then I found another link
and I found my way back there. But it also is ephemeral. And Mark never had a
book that was published by a major university press. Or a critical book. So this is the book. This is what we have and
this is what survives. So these are some questions
that I’m going to throw out, and I’m going to ask
us to participate. And I want you to, you know, if you have this experience
either raise your hand or stand up as you can. And the questions that
I want to ask are, who do we want to remember? Whose work survives? Whose work is visible? Who is honored? How do we learn about the work
of those who are adjacent to us, are walking in parallel to us? Why don’t we learn about them? How do I know that the stories,
experiences of API trans and non-binary elders will
live with us in this room? And I want to ask you as an
audience, what are you going to do to include us, to love
us and to cherish us as someone within your community? And how will we survive? So if you had a writing
teacher in K-12 who identified as an API trans or
non-binary person, could you either raise
your hand or stand up? If you had a writing teacher
who was API trans or non-binary as a college student,
could you please stand up or raise your hand? And those of you who
had this experience, I want you to keep your
hands raised, okay? And look around and see
how many or how few. Those of us who went to grad
school who had an API trans or non-binary teacher, please
raise your hand or stand up. And those of you who had
already raised your hands, please keep them raised. Now take a look and see how
many or how few there are. Those of you who read
literature in K-12, how many of you read a piece
of literature by someone who identified as API
and trans or non-binary? Please raise your
hand or stand up. Now look around. How many of you in college read
a piece of literature by someone who was API trans or non-binary? And take a look. How many of you in grad school,
if you want to grad school, read a piece of literature
by someone who is API trans or non-binary? How many of you count as
someone who is beloved someone who is API trans or non-binary? Please raise your hand. And look around and
see who’s around you. Those of you who are
teachers and teach literature, how many of you teach a piece
of literature by someone who is API trans or non-binary? Please raise your hand. And those of you
who are editors, how many of you publish
pieces of work by folks who are API trans or non-binary? Now keep your hands up
and look around and see. So I want to talk about Mark
Aguhar’s work in this context. In the context of a world which doesn’t often
acknowledge that we exist. Sometimes, but often doesn’t
acknowledge that we are here. That often doesn’t even
acknowledge that we write, we’re creators and often
doesn’t publish us. And this is what I think
this work is about. This poem Litanies to
My Heavenly Brown Body, circulated after
the Pulse shooting. And it started as a Tumblr post. And in 2019 I walked
into the Brooklyn Museum and I saw this post made large
on the wall of the museum. And what I love about this
poem is that it’s celebratory and it calls into the room folks
who are often not celebrated. So I want to read
this poem with you. And I encourage you, if you
can see it, to read it with me. Litanies to My Heavenly
Brown Body. “Blessed are the sissies. Blessed are the boy dikes. Blessed are the people of
color, my beloved kith and kin. Blessed are the trans,
blessed are the high femmes. Blessed are the sex workers. Blessed are the authentic. Blessed are the disidentifiers. Blessed are the gender
illusionists. Blessed are the non-normative. Blessed are the gender queers. Blessed are the kingsters. Blessed are the disabled. Blessed are the weirdo queers. Blessed is the spectrum. Blessed is consent. Blessed is respect. Blessed are the beloved
who I didn’t describe, I couldn’t describe, will learn to describe and respect
and love. Amen.” Thank you. [ Applause ] So as I mentioned,
Mark’s work is “published” on the internet via Tumblr
and YouTube performances which you can still find. And after Mark died by suicide
in 2012, some of her writings and images were collected
into the zine Call-Out Queen by Rona Peralta and Roy Perez. And they called through
the archive, mostly from Tumblr I
believe, and organized them around these principles. These are the axes
which is from the blog. So I’m going to read them. And I think that they are
very reflective of Mark’s work which I believe is — they seem
very simple, but then I feel like if you think about them and you get deeper,
there’s often a bite. And I’ll show you
some more of her work and we can talk about that. I hope to talk about. These are the axes. One, bodies are inherently
valid. Two, remember death. Three, be ugly. Four, now beauty. Five, it is complicated. Six, empathy. Seven, choice. Eight, reconstruct, reify. Nine, respect, negotiate. And I want to read you from
Call-Out, the Call-Out zine, this is one of the
editors’ intros. “Dear Mark, girl, did you get
that text that I sent you? It’s been hard not
being able to call you. Tumblr doesn’t feel
as satisfying. I have one message left in
my ask box from you and it’s about blank being a white person
and saying something gross. The world is gross. You changed my life. You changed a lot of people’s
lives with your words, with your pictures, with
your rage, with your laugh. How much of Call-Out
Queen is Mark Aguhar? How much of Mark Aguhar
is Call-Out Queen? I know that you always told me
it was about survival, but girl, that is some stylish
surviving you did. I loved to see a post go up
after a long night of dancing, or a movie night where we
talked about fury and dates and lovers and our frienemies.” So now I’m going to show you an
example of a video performance that was meant to
be watched online. And it’s called, Why Be Ugly When You Can Be Beautiful,
from 2011. [ Music ] There we go. So the Filipino writer and
scholar Enti Vierta has written that this video “demonstrates
how for someone whose
everyday existence as a queer transgender person
is vulnerable to harassment and violence, the daily act of
fixing one’s hair can be a form of radical resistance. In it she flips the script
on normative standards that declare fat, brown and
trans-feminine bodies too “ugly” for dominant culture,
insisting on their beauty.” And these everyday acts of
resistance, this showing up and being present, looking
yourself in the mirror, that’s something that I
take away from Mark’s work. So from Mark’s artist statement,
“My work is about visibility. My work is about the fact
that I’m a gender queer person of color, fat femme,
fat feminist, and I don’t really
know what to do with that identity
in this world. It’s that thing where you grew
up learning to hate every aspect of yourself and unlearning
all that misery is hard to do. It’s that thing where you kind of regret everything you’ve
ever done because it’s so complicit with
white hegemony. It’s that thing where you
realize that your own attempts at passive-aggressive
manipulation and power don’t stand a chance
against the structural forms of domination against your body. It’s that thing where the only
way to cope with the reality of your situation is to
pretend it doesn’t exist. Because flippancy is a
privilege you don’t own. But you’re going to
pretend you do anyway.” So you can see this flippancy
in this visual art piece. You can see in the art,
“Who is worth my love, my strength and my rage?” And the answer is in the
title: Not You, Power Circle. So I wanted to show you an
image from Lawndale in Houston. This is a local art center. And I don’t know if you can
see the image very well, but the text says, “Why
is everyone so obsessed with my beautiful brown body?” And then the bodies are
underneath the text. And — And this is very emblematic
of the work that is shown. And much of Mark’s work not only
dealt with fatness, body image, visibility and thinking about
self-care in those terms, also about kink, about
leather and about sex in very explicit ways which are
also that form of self-care. Soo I’m going to close
by showing you — this is the work of Antonius Bui
who’s a gender queer Vietnamese American artist. Who last year put up a show at
Lawndale of life-sized portraits of API artists who
are queer or trans and also community activists. And this is a life-size
paper cut of me. And this is something that
I found very beautiful and very honoring,
and I also thought, “Oh my God, I can’t look at it.” And this is something I
feel all my life, you know, I probably won’t — I know
that this is being videoed. I probably won’t
look at it later. Because I feel like
I see an image of myself and I want to cringe. And I know I’m not the only
one with this experience. And you know, growing up I often
avoided looking in the mirror. And I want to return to
that question that I started with at the beginning. Who will remember us? Who will cherish us? Who will love us? And that’s also a
question for me. Because we’ve been taught
to hate ourselves so much. And so the Lawndale Arts Center
invited me to write an essay in response to Bui’s show. And I was really honored
and excited to participate and then I couldn’t
produce when it was time. I felt bodily implicated
in the show, which I was. And so I had a really
hard time responding. And to respond, I ended up
using the words in the title to generate an entry point. And the title is Me
Love You Long Time. And it was a yearning to
belong and to situate myself into that kind of community
that Bui’s work helps to dream into solid material shape. And I see, and I’m drawing a
lineage between Antonius Bui and Mark Aguhar and then to
me, and then I hope to you. So I want to close and
read this lyric essay. “The story begins and ends
with cuts on the body. The story begins a doorway. One in which you
expect to be fed. You enter the doorway,
see a familiar object, one which accompanies
you late night jaunts. Cheap, quick food, right? Sold to be scarfed, to fill
you up, oily and tummy. An object holds promise. Sweet, possibly stale remnant. A night fragment, a love time. A body, if you open paper,
holes or light or wind. Does one or a double take
to make up, make birth. Do you blame paper
which jabs your skin? Do you nerve surprise? Of space, innocent
opener of mail, adjacent to pain,
a clean ambush. Who would allow them,
waiting by paper deities? If a deity could tread love. If doorway a cocoon. If you become large as room,
red as luck, luscious as fire. If you encounter
hand-drawn, hand-cut yourself against a habit of
environmental diminishing, a kind of anxious deterioration. Social tradition,
not always true. You match up against brother,
sister, cousin, your auntie. Not auntie. House noisy as backyard party. An opening too for song. Which taught you to
match up, back up. To celebrate our
large and divine, our sly accoutrement armor. Our recognizable grand slam. To mesh pattern you scrap, save,
flip a blade, save a wrist. To arrest a page requires
sly placement, solid planting of figure against pale backdrop. A shredded line becomes curved. To look completely required head
back, unlearning accompaniment. Adornment, ornamentation,
a filling in shadow line. When lines settling into rest, story gathers and
learns adornment. Recognizes its own threshold
and crosses into dusk. Come morning, if I
visit, alter again, thumb through slender volumes. A line of spiders down a page. In a nestle of smoke, place
my forehead against earth. I ask when story ends, who shreds long love
from page of body? A surprise opener to pain. Who smokes promise
settling into skin? A paper ambush, cocoon
drawn luscious for opening.” And I want to close
by asking you as an opening, who
will you invite? Which API trans or non-binary
artists will you invite into your world? Who will you teach? Who will you read? Who will you invite
to be your beloved? Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Kazim Ali: Hello, everyone. I have to call up my
little presentations which are not as exciting. They’re just pictures. Here we go. Is that what I want? [Laughs] Okay. Hi, everyone. My name’s Kazim Ali and it’s
a great pleasure to be here. Thank you so much to the
organizers of the festival and to Jen also who invited
me to talk about Shreela Ray. I’m a little discombobulated. Hold on a minute. Okay. When thinking about the
notion of the Secret History, I think about those writers who may have had an unknown
influence on all of us. There are many ways that
a writer can be forgotten, but their work while they’re
alive, the people it affected and how it comes to us matters. The influence is
there regardless of whether the writer’s
work is read. The importance of bringing it
out again and recognizing it, there’s three main
reasons I think. First of all and foremost which
might be the most obvious is to give that writer their due,
to honor and respect the work of the people that
came before us. It’s also to understand
our own craft because they may have
had influences on people who are influencing us. And if that is unknown, then
we don’t even see what there is to learn. But we also are constructing
a lineage or excavating perhaps
a forgotten lineage. And by doing that we are
able to influence the present and of course the future. In my case, Shreela Ray’s poems
were among the earliest poems in English that I’d
actually encountered. I’ve written in other places
about my earliest encounters with poetry which were the
devotional poetry in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi of my family. And because we are Shia Muslims,
we’re always singing the Marcias and Nohas in Maharam which were
the morning songs, basically. So I grew up with that
language in my ears, very much. But Shreela Ray’s poems
were given to me I think when I was 13 or 14 in my
first year in high school when I was taking a
creative writing class. My teacher who I understand now
to have been very precocious in giving us these very mature
poems as young lads and lasses, and non-binary beings
in the room. They’re stark, they’re
tart, they’re sharp. And I was immediately
taken with them but I never encountered
a book by this writer. And in all the years since
I’ve never encountered her work again. Shreela Ray was born in Orissa,
India, now called Odisha, in 1942 to a mixed Hindu
and Christian family. She moved to the United
States for college in 1960, and after graduating
she attended the Iowa Writers Workshop. We just figured out she
was there with Wong May. So if these walls could talk, it would be really
interesting to know. And she received an MFA from
the Iowa Writers Workshop and she later attended Bradlow. So she was at the center of
the literary life at the time as Indian American writer. She encountered, as I came to
learn in my research for talking to you about her, she
encountered Ogden, Robert Frost was apparently one of the people she
encountered at Bradlow. Berryman, she knew Berryman,
she knew William Meredith. She had a very apparently
close relationship with Isabella Gardner and
Galway Kinnell as well. And later she did an MA at
the University of Buffalo where she became a student of
and close with Leslie Fielder and John Logan who actually
wrote the introduction to the book Night
Conversations with None Other which was the one single book that Shreela Ray
published in her lifetime. It came out in 1977. My talk is like — perhaps like
as it’s a metaphor for history, it’s in pieces and spread
across many platforms for which I apologize. But we’ll find it. So Ray eventually married and
settled in western New York where she became part of
the burgeoning poetry scene that then centered around
Al Poulan who is a professor at SUNY Brockport, and
later on a little bit after this founded
Boa Additions. So that’s who Al Poulan was. And he had an organization
called the Brockport Writers Forum that was a lot of
the writers at the time. It just became a kind of a
center of literary activity, itself perhaps forgotten. But for example this is
the reason Bhanu Kapil who may be well-known
to many of us ended up attending SUNY Brockport and
graduating from SUNY Brockport. Ray began publishing her work in national venues
including Poetry Magazine around the mid-1960’s. And to me, I know in her
work it has very urbane and cosmopolitan phrasing
and a dark with that to me is influenced by the multiple lineages
from which it drew. As much from a contemporary
Indian lineage that might include writers like
Kamala Das and Eunice de Souza as well as a more global
Anglophone approach to the lyric favored perhaps. Examples might include Seamus
Heaney and Derek Walcott. And yet at the same time her
poetry feels fully American. Let’s put it in quotes. We don’t know what that word
means, especially — anyhow. Conversational — [ Laughter ] I mean, I just want to recognize
just because I’m up here, like I am standing in a
room that was not built to hold someone who
looks like me. [ Applause ] It was not expecting me. It didn’t know that
it wanted me. But here I am. Her poetry felt fully
American, conversational, funny and even tender, maybe
with the bravado of something like the second generation
New York school. So her son Gawin Dalieu
who I contacted and talked with a little bit about
this remembers her this way. “She could be a big exhausting, in part because she had very
iconoclastic or idiosyncratic or revolutionary views that she
was not shy about revealing. She was the embodiment of”
— this is Gawin’s words. “She was the embodiment
of Gayatri Spivak and Bell Hooks before
they were who they were.” [ Laughter ] Her son is saying
what he thought about his mom, so you know. “But she was someone who
was certainly the product of empire while also
a great critic of it. A cosmopolitan who
settled for a stable life in a minor town in
Western New York.” So the minor town he
talks about is Rochester. It’s not so minor, but at the
time maybe it was more minor than it is now. So on the surface of it she
was what we kind of call maybe in a diminishing way
a “regional poet.” But she was publishing
nationally and her work was
championed by major voices in American literature
including the writers that I mentioned earlier. After that one and only
book was published in 1977, she mostly worked under the
radar publishing individual poems but also raising
her two sons and teaching an ongoing creative
writing workshop whose attendees included Cornelius Eady
who has said that Ray “had a great impact
on the way I look at what you should be
doing with your students. You go for a sense of community. Like-minded people sitting
around being really passionate about the things that
they really care about.” And later he wrote, referring to the organization support
African American poets that he built with Toi
Derricotte that Ray’s house where he once lived briefly
when he was a student at Empire State College was
“One of the strands of the DNA that built Cave Canem.” So that to me is a
very beautiful thing because this is a woman whose
work is basically forgotten. If I did the poll here,
if I asked anybody — I don’t even want to
ask because I don’t want to see the absence of hands. But if you knew her
work, you wouldn’t say. But to hear the founder
of this organization that has impacted American
literature so strongly and has impacted all of
us who have read the poets who were supported by
that organization say that this woman created an
environment that in a way led to the creation of
that organization. You really understand how
we don’t have to be awarded or canonized or widely
published to have a strong, huge impact on the
field of literature. Of course what I want to do
today is bring her poems to you. She passed away in
1994, complications due to smoking too many Beady’s
to be honest with you. She was a heavy smoker,
apparently. She knew how to live hard and
well, live hard, die young. She passed away in 1994
having published many poems in journals but not
another book. Cornelius Eady and others
have occasionally tried to bring her work back
to a broader audience but there hasn’t yet been a
major career retrospective besides a few journal and
anthology appearances. She’s been mostly
unpublished since her death which was now 25 years ago. So I’d like to — I’d like to read to you a couple
of poems and say a few things about her as we go along. I’m checking my time
because I want to make sure. So interestingly, this
is interesting to me, is like I think maybe these
poems were maybe the first appearance of the Indian
landscape in American poetry. I don’t really know. Maybe you could roughly say
she was of the same generation as Aghad Shahid Ali
and Meena Alexander, but she was around ten
years older than them and started publishing
earlier than they did. And both of Aghad Shahid Ali and Meena Alexander’s
earliest books were published in India but not in America. So I think Shahid Ali’s first
American book was actually 1987, and Meena Alexander’s first
American book was something around that same time. It was a book called Shock
of Arrival which was poetry and essays published
by South and Press. And I don’t remember the year. So this book came out in 1977. And this poem is called A
Miniature for Hamonth Kumar. “The March snow is with us
between the two stalled maples. Its rude white silence glitters. I will not come to terms. I back up. The glass behind me breaks. Ropes of red onions
scatter on the floor, but I never take my
eyes off and retreat. Your pure voice Hamonth Kumar, that once could drug my peevish
self and make me move once in the sunlight,
once in the evening, like a dancer, keens
for an alien. Hi, Bhabu. I should care if the sun warms
the fields and Rhata’s feet, or that spring comes again
to Kashi and Brindhaban.” You can hear in this very short
poem the multiple influences that I talked about. This is a combined voice. It has that sharp
conversational, blunt — “its rude silence glitters. I will not come to terms.” You can’t see on the page,
but it’s all stanzas except that line, “I will not come to
terms,” is just a lonely line. One of the innovations that
Kamala Das and Eunice de Souza, the two women poets of India
that I mentioned earlier — one of the innovations
that they brought into Indian English poetry
is there was a reaction and a reaction in Indian poetry. The earliest Anglophone poets
in India were poets who were — even if they had very
revolutionary politics, they were drawing from the
British literary tradition. So you have someone
like Sarojini Naidu who was a revolutionary. She was part of Gandhi’s team. She was one of the people who
went to the sea and made salt and was actually a key
organizer in that movement. And yet the poetry
that she writes — and Meena Alexander has actually
written a really smart essay about Sarojini Naidu that
appears in her book Shock of Arrival that I
mentioned earlier. Naidu was writing these sort of
quatrains in iambic pentameter, this sort of really
Wordsworthian, what have you, you know? So there was a little
bit of a disconnect between how the colonial
language was being used and what the actual
politics were. We have you know, Alzner,
whoever, where we say like the form has got
politics, you know? And so the Kalagora poets which
was like the first generation of resistance against that
previous, they are the ones who started in Mumbai a literary
movement where they said, “We’re going to introduce
kind of plain speech into Indian English poetry.” And you had someone like
Kamal Das who’s somewhat older than those dudes. But she was writing in English
and she was really writing a lot about the woman’s body,
sexuality, physicality and it’s almost like
you can consider her as an experimental poet,
even though the poems of Kamala Das are so plainspoken
and almost prosey in terms of their anti-lyricism. But they’re experimental
in what they confronted. And then you had Eunice de
Souza who was contemporaneous with these Kalogora guys, Arvan
Krishna Marotra, Aran Kolakhar, Kekida Dorwal, Adul
Jesuwal, et cetera. These names, I don’t know if
they mean anything to you. But you should check out
the introduction that Rajiv and I wrote for the current
issue of Poetry Magazine that focuses on global Indian
writing to find out more about the Indian literary scene
that informed Shreela Ray. That’s my “available
on iTunes” moment. [ Laughter ] But to be honest, I’m joking
with you, but for me all of this is like very
connected, you know? And the conversations — I think
one of the reasons why this is such a rich gathering is that
we really are having one big conversation across
all of the borderlines of these separate sessions. So what was unique
about Eunice — to backtrack to Eunice de
Souza before I continue to tell you about Shreela Ray. What was unique about
Eunice de Souza is that she took Kamala
Das’s frankness about particularly
gendered experience that was considered
even impolite to talk about in poetry, and then then
she took the Kalagoras’ approach to form and she was able
to marry it into this sort of like very — poetry
that had multiple lineages. And I think Shreela Ray
is drawing from that. “Your pure voice, Hamonth Kumar, that once could drug
my peevish self.” You know, she’s falling
into meter here too. So as much as you look at it and you think this
is a free verse poem or a conversational
poem, she has flickers of these musical
moments that kind of interrupt and come into it. “And make me move once in the
sunlight, once in the evening, like a dancer that
keens for an alien.” You know, so it’s not a
“free verse” poem actually. It has that secret undergirding. And she also deals —
she too deals a lot with race and gender. She was Indian American,
I guess as you say, and of a mixed religious family. And she married a European, a Swiss guy who was
also a graduate student at the University of Buffalo
with her, named Hendrick Delieu. And she writes poems
to her two sons. Her one son Gawin Delieu and
her other son is named Khabier. She writes poems
to them that kind of engage this mixed-ness
or mestico-ness. You know, on the other
side of the continent. And framework from what
the theorists [inaudible] who were creating around
mixed-ness, she was in this sort of suburban middle-class
experience with these mixed-race children. So I just want to read what she
tries to engage in this poem. And there are ways where it can
maybe feel like a little dated or old-fashioned in its
treatment of this stuff. But it’s the mid-70’s. So this is the poem for Gawin. I’m just going to read the
first two sections of it because it’s a long poem
in multiple sections. So I’ll read the first two. “Half-breed child, you are
the color of the earth. Limbs of trees and deep rivers, only in them can
you find sanctuary. You remind me of my
country, its divisions, its inalterable destiny. The white sands of
Puri turning red, the Decken a table
land for scavengers. I would like to save you to
search for a second home. There is none, because
we are the poor and the elders of the earth. So use my body as a shield and behind its metal
sing of the dark. So when death comes you
will think it is the sea. And this casket, this
body, lie on it, warm, familiar as though you were in
your own room in your own bed.” Here’s number two. So of course I mentioned to
you she married a Swiss man. It was the 60’s. She was an Indian
woman in the States. Her parents probably
had a few things to say to her about her decision. “If you should find yourself one
day in love with a Chinese girl in a café in Paris, do
not tell her to stay with her own people,
even tenderly. Follow her home, stand under
her window in the rain. But on no account
give her five dollars and send her off in a taxi. She may have more sense and
decide to go on living anyways. And if you should meet
Aristophanes first, ask him when a man
goes in search of his sundered female half,
must she be of the same race?” So as Gawin pointed out earlier
in the email that he sent me that I read to you, she
was extremely political. She was very influenced by
third-world liberation movements of the 60’s and 70’s and
extremely, gravely disappointed and further radicalized
by what she perceived as a global shift
towards neoliberalism. She was right. That was evidenced
by Reagan’s election. Although of course as
Nancy Fraser has pointed out in her excellent new book
from Verso which I recommend to everybody, that project of neoliberalism was largely
orchestrated legislatively by Bill Clinton. But we won’t say
anything about that. We’ll just move on. [ Laughter ] That’s called something. There’s a rhetorical device that
has a name where you say like, “I’m not even going
to talk about.” [ Laughter ] I want to read to you a poem — so this is a poem that
has some politics to it and also maybe has a little
bit of — not old-fashioned, but it has a view of gendered
roles of like women in combat and that kind of like — a woman’s role in the peace
movement I guess you might call it. And so it’s a poem called Fern and we think it was
published in 1986. And what I want to tell
you about it first is that I don’t have the
text for this poem. This poem was actually
sent to me via email by my high school English
teacher Mary Rickert. And she said that this is a
poem that she loved of Shreela’s and that she memorized and
carried around with her. And she wrote it
down from memory. And she bracketed a
certain place in the poem where she said she couldn’t
precisely remember what Shreela wrote but it was
something like — and the phrase that she
did is souls on fire. She said it was something like
souls on fire, but I’m not sure. And so if that phrase to you
sounds like a little cheesy or something like that, we
just have to know that may or may not be what
Shreela wrote. But why I want to point
all this out to you is that when we’re engaged
in looking at the work of forgotten voices,
this is the kind of work that’s actually
done, this archival work. It’s physical mostly. It’s hard. You’re doing it for
somebody else’s — you’re taking away from
your own writing time to fly to some university and
go down into the archives and spend a day going
through boxes. I mean, it’s like
real, you know, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
stuff where you’re just — you’re not fighting the battles. You’re back in the library
going through books. It’s important. And the other thing that I
really want to point out is that a lot of lineages,
especially writes of color and marginal writers and women
writers and queer writers, the transmissions are like that. We don’t have like a clean
manuscript of something. We might just have, “This is a
poem I heard once and I remember and I think it went like this.” You know? And so even though
this is Mary Rickert’s transcription of the
memory of the poem with a phrase that’s missing — I’m going to read it to you with the substituted
language in there. It might be the best
that we have in terms of like a poem by Shreela Ray. I’ve written to the two
sons and said, you know, “This is the poem
that Mary read to me. Can you provide the text? Do you know about it?” And we’ll see what happens. But that’s one of the conditions
of doing this kind of work. So this is the poem. It’s called Fern. “Light and sweet is
the fern in the woods. And Gregari curled up
sleeping by the fire. How was Kason possible? How Beirut? Weren’t there enough
women with souls on fire and tongues unflagging,
saying, “No. Not this one. And not this one either”?” I love about that poem
that it’s called Fern when that’s not the
central drama of the poem. It’s just the plant that happens to be nearby while
it’s happening. The woman by the fire. I’m going to read a
couple more poems to you to close, if that’s okay. And then I’ll read
something of my own. Okay. This is a poem
called Night in April. “The voice of the April wind
addresses the unmanageable” — excuse me. I said that wrong. “The voice of the April wind
addresses the unmarriagable awake in the real
sleep of the body. The windows are open
and the sleepy violets of the blood stir
toward the dark outside. That final nakedness in
the silhouettes of doorways and branches ascending
and descending. To stay would mean for
always I would remain to weigh and measure. Let your breath enflame a
second marriage for that end. As for me, there is some other
livelihood when the essences of things call me sister. Before I draw back my wings
and fall into the keel of birdlike flowers, by God, I will make a garden
of this place.” That’s Shreela. That’s her little
Beady cigarette there. She’s smoking. And there she is
again, smoking again. So in Shreela Ray, the plainspoken is
radical, it’s experimental. But she has her music too. She uses the unsaid
and frayed silence, what she doesn’t include in
the poem, to very great effect. I’m going to read this poem
to you now called Absence and Others on Main Street. “These from a well-stocked earth
flies footprints, crow’s feet, the greater half of a man and how many creatures
dead in the arms of time. The only son and
I at noon go mad, so tomorrow when the
sun rises, this devious and cat blood will be
modified by its ninth death. There are those who will always
be after pale centers of pistol, white stamen, yes, in the ethical climate
of these hemispheres. But how far the wind carries
the dust of wild weeds, capsules of poppy burst in sand. Here, there, and what is
the Lord’s plan in the hip of the dark solitary rose? And you know the way back:
tarmac and planes ahead. Flowers, one belongs to
convulvulous and one [inaudible] and one, “I should know best.” The inadequate flowers. The skulliest rote
of yew, Saffo, as having been very
ugly, small and dark. But like the nightingale with deformed wings
enfolding a tiny body, Saffo, a song before you drown. For the ferryman, a song
even for the girl who walks in the scent of violets. As for me, there is always
a boy in the hyacinth. And because one summer in
Vermont I stood among bulrushes in the water and suddenly
the sun pared me to the skin. I felt the green world
like a he” — h-e — “like a he tripped
me with one blade. I gathered twelve rushes as if
the twelve tribes of man were in my arms, singing in me. Why is it wrong to
ache for the sea? Supposing the sun would say,
“I am not bright enough,” and think fast, you
sleep in the eye of another summer
whom time foraged and saved and proved a friend. I speak and raise the black rib of the phone turning
seashell in my hand. And the shell in ear awakes and
listens and moves at the sound of the gentle sea far off. I dread afterwards you would
look on me twisted and rotten on a New England shore and
say, “Is this your sea? The evergreen, the
way arms should hold? Answer me.” Even the waters turn you back. In sleep, the indwelling
sunflower is brightest. The cochina is washed by the
sea until he comes on gravel, his bruised leg ascending
the stair, his frayed sleeve
wiping his forehead. Nothing is the same as before.” So yeah, Shreela. [ Laughter ] It’s amazing. Powerful. We need to — I’m
going to read you some poems because I want to read you
three short poems of my own. They’re short. Because I meant to, but I
want to bring up before I move into that — I want to say
that we need to discuss. We’re going to have a little
question and answer period. And in our question and answer
period, we really are going to need to discuss this issue. Not just who is remembered,
but also — and why they are remembered
and who is forgotten and why they are forgotten. Fine. I think we can come to
quick agreement about that. But the issue is how. How are the people who
are remembered remembered? And how is it that
people are forgotten? Shreela Ray had an MFA from
the University of Iowa. She rolled with Ogden,
Berryman, Frost, Kinnell, right? I mean, who stands
a chance if someone like that doesn’t
stand a chance? So we have to figure
out the how, okay? All right. So I’ll read you a couple poems. But what? Okay. Just a couple of ones. This is a poem called Peter. “It is unthreaded without
music I come to silence of God as the ruin of belief. All the strings of the body
resound its own orchestra of always opening. Outside the sparkling silk
rope of river marked by time and wind, history
recording its milky account. Water and light are granular. We are multiple beings, always
impossible to hold or bind by the sin’s wild wind. By the first gold dawn denying
I ever knew this world barely holds me, seen through water
or seen through light on rain or snow, makes your more blind. Why am I bound to not
declare in public my griefs or rapture the way a body
opens in love or death? A peony wilting past summer. How can we live past
animal urge? To be measured or known like
that, a chill in the air to mark that twice-yearly chore
of carrying the plants in or out so they can live. All the while knowing
how ill-equipped I am to help things live. It is true. It is true, I denied. But I did not lie. The cock kept crowing. What I said was, “I
do not know him.” And it is true. I did not know him.” This is a short poem
called Names of Things. “It is you who have
named the universe. Stars and chemicals and
animals had Arabic names once and [inaudible] ones and
others, and their own besides. Beasts do speak. We had driven three hours
into the mountains to stand in the churchyard of some
thousand-year-old ruin. To figure out what
still may speak. In the second part of
my life I learned how to live while losing.” And the third poem
I want to read to you is one that’s very
fresh and new and it’s in this little notebook. And I probably can
do it from memory if I don’t find it
in here quickly. Okay. I walk instead. I went to Paris and everyone
wanted to ask me if I wanted to go see that cathedral
that burned. And honestly I am an Arab so — [ Laughter ] But I know it was a
beautiful building. “I walk instead along the
river, my cathedral not of stone or God, but water-made. A woman standing in the
median talking loudly into her cell phone,
using repeatedly one of my favorite French words. Frenchman. The Louvre roof’s riveting
tight, the short horizon. Who was I when I
came here before? What were all those reasons
that I found to all of this? So beautiful and unspeakable.” [ Applause ] Thank you. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Jennifer Chang: Thank you
for those beautiful talks. Let’s open this up
for questions.>>Kazim Ali: Questions?>>Jennifer Chang:
We could also start with the question you asked,
Kazim, about how are we going to — for both of you. How are we going to keep — on the one hand you
have Shreela Ray who in some ways was
institutionally sanctioned. And with Mark Agohar, you
used this word a couple times, his archive is ephemeral. Or her archive is
ephemeral, sorry.>>Kazim Ali: Yeah,
I think that’s — I would love to hear you
talk a little bit about that. I mean when I talked about going
into the basements and looking through papers, that’s
not what’s happening here. So there’s like a practical —
every answer to the how is going to be practical in a way. So hopefully we’re not going to be saying flowery
intense things. We’ll just be saying
ordinary things. But still, you know. Do you have a thing?>>Ching-In Chen:
Oh, I have a mic. Okay.>>Kazim Ali: Yeah.>>Ching-In Chen: I forgot. I actually forgot. I wanted to bring it
up and I forgot to say that there is an
archive of letters. I think I did say that. Sorry. I have a headache. But there’s an archive to
Mark of people writing letters and saying — this is — you know, I found letters
from last year, this year. Kind of like repeatedly saying,
“Your work mattered to me. I found your work.” Or “I never met you,” or “I
passed by you in the street, but your work mattered to me.” And I mean, I think
that’s how we do it. We just keep writing
and sending that. And her archive — it
is not institutional. I mean, I guess Tumblr
is institutional, but it was circulated. It was circulated and shared
and not relying on gatekeepers in the way that I think my, you
know, having entered academia, — you know, having to
submit my work to an editor at a prestigious
press kind of way. And I think that oftentimes
that work isn’t valued. And so part of that is, you
know, valuing that work, that grassroots work which
I know there are a lot of little presses and little — you know, like even like
Lantern Reviews like stickers. You know, putting
our last names there. That’s kind of like
a grassroots way of honoring who’s in the room. Question back there.>>Kazim Ali: Yeah.>>Ching-In Chen: Can we
give the microphone to –>>Kazim Ali: We’re going
to bring a microphone.>>The question that
both of you asked in your presentation
was how do we preserver or how do we remember,
how do we cherish? So how would you translate
that question with regard to current voices, present
voices who may risk the kind of erasure, you know,
the work of Shreela Ray or Mark Agohar may have faced?>>Kazim Ali: Well, I think we
are living in a really rich, you know, literary moment. There are a lot of — there
is a level of inclusivity that to me feels, you
know, really precious. To be in this room with all
of you in terms of, you know, what a — you know, we
went upstairs for lunch to where the poet laureate
hangs out, you know? And the floor is shared
with the historian’s office. And so there was a long like
panorama type of picture hanging in front of the elevator of a
US Congress from the 1920’s. It was the whole Congress,
all of them sitting out there. And you know, the old white
men — like it’s a joke. But they really did
used to run the place. I mean, for real. And it was like there
was one woman, Jeanette Rankin from
I think Wyoming. She was sitting in the
middle on the front row. So this room looks way different
than a room would have looked like even ten years
ago or 15 years ago. Honestly, I can tell you that. And so we have a great moment. However, if the goal is to — all due respect to
the New Yorker — but if the goal is to
like be in the New Yorker or like publish a book with this
particular big press or to get that fellowship that everyone
has, it’s the same old racket. This is just like the three
brown people that got it or the two queer people
or the one trans person, it’s like we have to
continuously do the work of broadening supporting
smaller and independent presses. Actively seeking out
marginalized voices. You know, I founded and now
edit books with Nightboat Books. We published Josey
Foo’s book A Lily Lilies that Arthur brought up. But when Ching-In asked the
question of which API trans and queer writers
do you publish, I couldn’t raise my hand. But you better be damn sure
that I thought like, “Okay, better get on the program. Keep your eyes open.” You know, so it’s
an ongoing process. That’s the one thing
I want to say. The other thing really
I truly — I say this with my whole heart. And I have no other wish other
than you walk out of the room with like chewing it
over a little bit. Is this idea of aesthetic
quality or aesthetic beauty or craft is politically
mediated and racialized. What we think of as good —
because you always say, “Well, it’s one thing to be
inclusive, but you still have to separate the good
from the bad, right?” If that “good” — it’s for
what’s already in power to determine who the
chancellors are and what this is and who gets in there. Do you see what I mean? So we have to do both. We have to support the actual
institutions that exist, these amazing small presses,
organizations like Kundiman and Kaya and many others. And then we also have to be doing the critical
interrogative work reviewing — those of us who have a
stomach for the academy have to do the critical work. Those who don’t have the stomach
for the academy can do curating, promoting those writers. You know, and really,
really, you know, creating and privileging a
new kind of art.>>Hello. Hi. I’m on Tumblr and I
really love Tumblr. It’s one of my favorite
things to look at memes and to see people’s opinions
and things like that. But I notice a lot
that the things that I see are often the posts
that get like in the tens of thousands of reposts, right? And for me who’s really just
sort of entering poetry by way of — actually I went to GW and I had classes
with Jane and Feng. Anyway, so like I’m like
just beginning these things and I look at websites
and I’m like, “Oh my God, there’s so many.” And it’s kind of like
Tumblr, I feel like. I only see the things
that get hundreds of thousands of reposts. So I guess for me I want
to ask, if there’s so much, how do I remember
who to look for?>>Ching-In Chen: I mean,
I think that is our work. How do we, you know, do
the practice of not staying where it’s comfortable? I know when I have to edit
something, for instance, it’s easy to just tap my five
people that I’ve been talking to for like the last month. And I know they’ll do it. I trust them. But there’s something also — so it does take more work
to actually say, “Actually, I worked with you already.” And to look at like
where I don’t know. It’s also very exciting
too, to say — you know, and I’ve done this
in terms of like looking through syllabi and saying — I don’t necessarily want to
just say, “One of this and one of this and one of this.” Because there’s a lot of
intersecting identities. There’s a lot of
different kinds of voices. Just because we share an
identity doesn’t mean we write the same. So I’m thinking about
all those things. But a lot of times I’m like,
“Well, I want to mix it up.” So you know, if I know
that I have a weakness in this particular area,
then that’s like my work. And if I have that
entryway, that’s my work to, you know, to do that work. And it’s an ongoing practice. It’s not perfect. It’s never perfect.>>Kazim Ali: Can
I add something? I want to build on something
I had said earlier which is that when Ching-In asked if
we published an API trans or gender non-binary writer
and I said I really wanted to keep my eyes open for that. I’m not talking about tokenizing
or just figuring out who’s in the room, you know? So when we first started
Nightboat in around 2004, it took us four or
five years to realize that even though we were
searching for the books that we like, our list
was still skewing white. Maybe default. We’re doing okay on the gender
stuff and we’re doing okay on the sexuality stuff. So we made like a very concerted
effort to not just like — we really wanted
to support writers who are out there doing work. So we contacted lots of
different writers of color who have done one, two, three
books, to check in with them, see how they’re feeling,
what their new projects were. And I developed ongoing
relationships with people who eventually down the road,
some of them gave their books to other people, and some of
them gave books to Nightboat. And we were, you know, finding
out who was going to Cave Canem and going to readings at
AWP and listening to people. Like we wanted it to be — we
wanted to be developing writers. We don’t want to be just
choosing like a mascot or something like
that, you know? So it’s important work to kind
of — it’s community work. It’s what Cornelius
talked about when he talked about what Shreela
Ray taught him. Because she was actually famous
— Mary Rickert told me she used to have these long — like
she kind of ran an open house where people would just sort
of drop in around dinnertime. And there was always food on
and people would just hang out and there were endless,
you know, bottles of wine coming
out of the kitchen. And there would just be
these, you know, conversations about literature and
sort of building. Like it’s a different model
for community building. And you know, it’s a model that you don’t often
see in the MFA world. But you can. But it’s pretty much the model for most smaller
literary communities. And so in that respect, to be like a regional poet
is not such a bad gig. Because you don’t have people
coming for you all the time. And when we were
in Albany together, I was in the spoken
word scene in Albany, New York in the mid-90’s,
that’s what we did. We would get together and
just read poems to each other. And we didn’t give a rat’s ass
whether we were publishing it or what happened next. It was about the art, you know. So you know, I think
that’s important. Sorry. [ Inaudible ]>>Thanks. So I wanted to go
back to something — sorry, I can’t actually
see Kazim.>>Kazim Ali: Hey.>>But something
Kazim had said — hi.>>Kazim Ali: Hi.>>About, you know, the role
of the academy in some of this. And you know, the academy if
you can kind of stomach it. I’m thinking back to
sort of the origins of Asian American
literature and you know, it’s based in this
historical recovery. It’s based in, you know, young
writers going out and looking for these predecessors like, you
know, John Okata or [inaudible] and sort of finding that. But of course they
had to then kind of put these anthologies
together themselves and try to find people who would
publish them and stuff. And you know, one thing that
didn’t exist then, you know, was a kind of academic or
scholarly support for that. Because the university just
wasn’t interested in that, didn’t know that existed. Today maybe that’s
somewhat different. But I guess I was curious
to hear your thoughts about what role sort of academic
scholarship, the university has in — because if the question
is how do we find, preserve, remember some of these
writers who’ve been forgotten, academic scholarship has been
a way that that’s been done. Especially in earlier periods. But that’s complicated
because of the sort of complicated relationship
that you know, contemporary Asian
American writers can have with university and so on.>>Kazim Ali: Yeah.>>But obviously much
of what you’re doing is that recovery work.>>Kazim Ali: Yeah.>>So I’m just curious if you
have thoughts about how that, you know — what academic
scholarship can do kind of vis-à-vis that,
what its relationship to this work of recovery is.>>Kazim Ali: Yeah. So when I said if you have
stomach for the academy or not — I mean, it’s sort
of being a flip reference to the particular
challenges that exist in the academic milieu which
I’ll talk about in a second. But also acknowledging
that a lot of important work does
happen outside the academy. And to value and privilege
that work as well, you know? And to say like just
because you — you know, you were
talking about a work that maybe we would term — again, this is like
a weird term. I don’t love it. But to say like amateur
scholarship. But like people who weren’t
in the academy but were taking on those curatorial roles
of creating anthologies and doing the reviews
and stuff like that. So there’s that. We do have this really
different landscape right now in that we have a lot of
people coming through, joining a professorate. You know, although
they had especially on the scholarship side,
of course, you know — you know this better than I do. But they had their own
challenges in terms of they would say
something like, “Well, I want to do my dissertation
on such and such a writer.” And the committee would
be like, “Who is that? That is not an important
writer.” So there’s this sort of Catch-22
around who becomes important and how they become important. And you kind of have to negotiate those
type of pathways. Meena Alexander herself,
she’s a great example. She was hired as a British
romanticist at SUNY. And then she began, you know, publishing these
novels, essays, poems. And she has this famous meeting with the dean whose
name I don’t know, but she recounts the story. Who was like, “This
stuff is not going to count towards
your tenure file, because you were hired
as a romanticist. And so we need the
scholarship in romanticism.” And so there is like particular
vagaries of the academic world that you know, we of a
certain generation — and I’m like the
third generation of folks, right, or fourth. But people who entered into
this world have had to support and guide one another
through it, you know. Is Carmen in the
room at the time? She was here earlier. I mean, she’s a magnificent
example of someone who’s like — she, you know, turned around
and helped to mentor plenty of people through, you know,
applying for these jobs, hiring, getting them, what do you
do after, career strategy. It’s like a pretty
Byzantine structure. And I feel like good about the
fact that there are Tim Yu’s out there in the world and
Carmen Jimenez’s out there in the world, and Kazim Ali
who’s very humbly participating in this enterprise. But it’s not the only path,
is what I meant to say. You know, one can engage in
you know, creative events like this outside the
academy, you know. Do anthologies, do, you know —
do this kind of archival work that you’re talking about. You know, so it’s a space and it
can be a well-funded space, TBH. But it’s not the only space.>>Jennifer Chang: I think
that’s all we have time for. Thank you so much for coming. Thank you to our speakers. [ Applause ]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *