She got me praying all hours of the night, say she want my heart,
She pulling me to the river, drawing me with her siren's call,
Done gave her my heart but now she wants my soul,
Well I already sold it to the man in red,
"Fell in love with your charm," but its a curse; cos am dead,
Girl you're not who you say, bad girl they say you are
Innocence isn't where am at, wear your crucifix bae
Don't make me out all serious bonnie, slave to this bad religion,
Unrequited love, praying at my shrine, cos I don't have a heart
Like a dead man walking, I lay at your side,
Make sure you're alright in my world, atleast that for you girl,
We don’t want to talk about that guy, though. He doesn’t need our or anyone’s attention. Instead, we’ve been going back through some of our favorite poetry from some of our favorite Asian American poets, many of whom have done us the great honor of gracing our stage as competitors, features, team members, and staff. Below is a woefully incomplete list so you can come on this journey with us. Please reblog and add a poet so we can keep the list going!
Language excites me. Irrational thought excites me. I spend most of my time listening instead of writing. A shard of language might come: a phrase, a word, an anagram, and I’d just keep it in my pocket, like a little seed, warming in my fist.
Ocean Vuong, interviewed by Sally Wen Mao for the Best American Poetry blog’s APIA Series
Be greedy and indulgent when you read the work of the poets of color in this year’s BAP like Saeed Jones, Claudia Rankine, Chen Chen, Rajiv Mohabir, Monica Youn, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Evie Shockley, and Airea D. Matthews. And beyond this book, beyond this moment, I encourage everyone to seek out the work of Asian American poets who weren’t included in the anthology but whose poetry we ought remember long after we forget this white guy in yellowname: Cathy Hong Park, Ken Chen, Tan Lin, Hoa Nguyen, Jason Koo, Jackie Wang, Wendy Xu, Trisha Low, Patrick Rosal, Brandon Shimoda, Bhanu Kapil, Wo Chan, Sally Mao, Ginger Ko, Muriel Leung, Jennifer Nelson, and Geraldine Kim. If that’s not enough, you can find more on Twitter under the hashtag #ActualAsianPoet.
The cold of London is forgotten in the glow of a lighter,
It is all you do to kill the grey,
Numb at the tips and you flick it right up,
And a dead man they say,
as you get High another day,
Just a drag to a smile, its chocolate.
Just a dab you use it,
Get high to get calm,
Paranoia but you do it,
Sweet lies its all like chocolate
You and your friends call it chocolate,
The lyrics of the song called it fate,
Roll up and strum the strings, chocolate to forget,
Dead inside and sad soaked futile hate,
You bite her lips, taste like wine and chocolate,
You call it chocolate, just a lie; you dead?
Your lungs they take it in like a friend,
Your heart breaks again, remember why you like it?
She broke your heart so you broke your head,
Bent with drags of chocolate, loved her but she didn’t know,
Bite your lips, light it up and inhale your fate
Inspired by the 1975 chocolate and my own addiction and self destruction
This has not been a very good year for poetry - or, at least, not for ignorant white poets. The spring brought us the appropriative practices of Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, which Ken Chen aptly described as an “avant-garde minstrel show.” These startlingly insensitive and tone-deaf performances anticipated the scandal in which we currently find ourselves embroiled. This year’s Best American Poetry collection contained work by a poet named Yi-Fen Chou - which is, as it turns out, the pen name of Michael Derrick Hudson, who began using a pseudonym after his poem was rejected 40 times.
Editor Sherman Alexie was consciously trying to include “poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past,” which yielded a wonderfully diverse anthology:
However, it also caused Alexie to pay “more initial attention to [Hudson’s] poem because of [his] perception and misperception of the poet’s identity.” To fully own up to his “racial nepotism,” Alexie allowed the poem to remain in the collection. Outrage, obviously, followed.
As Jia Tolentino points out, “the ratio of white to non-white writers published and reviewed in literary outlets appears to be holding strong around 9 to 1” - and Hudson’s poetry is Not Good. Part of what drew Alexie to the poem, as he explains in his statement, was his wonder about “the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to
write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and
Christian imagery.” To Alexie, because the poem seemed like it could have been (and was!) written by a white guy, it interestingly illustrated our cross-cultural present. In truth, it’s a mediocre poem about tired imagery drawn from a very established, very white, poetic tradition.
This isn’t the first example of white writers assuming other identities for their own gain. The New Yorker draws parallels to the case of Araki Yasusada, the invention of another white male poet. Horrifically, however, Yi-Fen Chou was not invented: she was Hudson’s classmate, a Chinese American woman he knew and exploited. “I suppose it could be that easy to wear one of us like a mask,” writes Soleil Ho, “as long as all the
tedious aspects of our identities and politics were stripped away.”
This “laziest act of yellowface” completely overlooks the struggles a writer of color faces daily: fetishism, tokenism, the demand for single stories, the denial of due credit, the reduction to traumas, which are searingly enumerated in Jenny Zhang’s must-read essay. As she illuminates, white writers who talk wistfully about the “authenticity” and ease of her experience are sorely misguided:
The long con of white mediocrity may never be exposed because there are
too many people invested in making sure not a single instance of white
excellence is overlooked but quickly drop the vigilance when it comes to
the excellence of those of us who were never afforded such protection.
And in the words of Alexie himself, “I am sorry that this Pseudonym Bullshit has taken so much attention away from all of [the other] great poems.”
In a way, the fire escape achieves what I aspire to do with poetry: explore my own fears and desperations without shame or guise—and I think: how can my work as an artist be as honest and clear as the fire escape? What would the poem look like if it was all fire escape and no building? All bones for departure? What formal enactments, what rhetorical gestures would have to occur for the poem to inhabit such a space? And, most importantly, how does the view differ from up there?
Ocean Vuong, interviewed by Sally Wen Mao for the Best American Poetry blog’s APIA Series
Whose books are getting published? Who is getting chosen to be on the committees and boards that set the agendas for professional conferences? Who is “curating?” Sherman Alexie disappointed me so much when he characterized his very correct instinct toward inclusivity as “racial nepotism.” He compounded that disappointment by arguing that “most” white writers who benefited from nepotism were good writers, so why complain? And then of course the worst part: even after discovering that Hudson has adopted a Chinese pseudonym he allowed the poem to be published, thus cinching for me the irrelevance of his particular kind of editorial acumen. There’s no such thing as reading “blind.” Context always matters.
My name is Brandon Shimoda. I’m a poet, writing from west Texas. I was just turned on to Sherman Alexie’s issue of Best American Poetry, including a poem by Yi-Fen Chou. Deeply disturbed to read, in the notes/commentary, that Yi-Fen Chou is actually Michael Derrick Hudson, a white man in Indiana, and even more disturbed to read Hudson’s shockingly uncritical and unaware explanation of his use of the name. The measure of his supremacist entitlement is profound. And though not surprising, it is, and will always be, shocking. Therefore, I felt the immediate compulsion to write. Assuming that Hudson’s note was, at some point in the process, read, reviewed, and edited, by the BAP editors, I’m sincerely wondering: Does BAP’s decision to run the poem and it’s commentary suggest a tacit acceptance and endorsement of Hudson’s cultural appropriation/obliteration of an Asian name for—as Hudson writes—personal success? (Hudson: “As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful.”) Does BAP see or recognize or appreciate in any way the inherent violence of Hudson’s lazy, facile, yet specific and reiterative, racist “strategy”? Though it is clear that poets, especially poets of color, cannot entrust any literary institutions—including Best American Poetry—with upholding any semblance of a responsible (i.e. non-racist, non-supremacist, non-misogynistic) ethics and practice, it is still incredibly disappointing and deeply disturbing to be confronted, yet again, with such a blatant and unapologetic example of a complete disregard for such responsibility, for such basic necessity. Though I don’t expect BAP to retract either Hudson’s poem or comment, I do hope that BAP is generous enough to offer a statement concerning this issue. If you feel that it’s not an issue, then I suppose another light has gone out on this infinitely regressive landscape, POETRY, that so many of us are at pains to care so deeply about.
from Charles Simic, "Introduction to Best American Poetry 1992"
The task of poetry, perhaps, is the salvage a trace of the authentic from the wreckage of religious, philosophical and political systems.
Next, one wants to write a poem so well crafted that it would do honor to the tradition of Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens, to name only a few masters.
At the same time, one hopes to rewrite that tradition, subvert it, turn it upside down and make some living space for oneself.
At the same time, one wants to entertain the reader with outrageous metaphors, flights of imagination and heartbreaking pronouncements.
At the same time, one has, for the most part, no idea of what one is doing. Words make love on the page like flies in the summer heat and the poet is merely the bemused spectator. The poem is as much a result of chance as of intention. Probably more so.
At the same time, one hopes to be read and loved in China in a thousand years the same way the ancient Chinese poets are loved and read in our own day, and so forth.
The is a small order from a large menu requiring one of those many-armed Indian divinities to serve as a waiter.
One great defect of poetry, or one of its sublime attractions – depending on your view – is that it wants to include everything. In the cold light of reason, poetry is impossible to write.
Years ago when writers started asking for my advice, I always gave pep talks. I don’t do that anymore. Now if someone sings the blues to me about how hard it is to write, or makes excuses for why they don’t have time, I just nod. ‘I hear you,’ I say. 'Writing is really difficult. It’s so difficult that if you can live without it you probably should.’
I particularly love Robert Lowell’s “Memories of West Street and Lepke”:
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston's
"hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is "a young Republican."
I have a nine months' daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear.