asian-american poetry

Kay Ulanday Barrett is a celebrated and award-winning poet, performer, and cultural worker. Their work explores life in the US as a disabled, pilipinx-amerikan, transgender and queer person.

Kay’s writing weaves together reflections on family, growing up working class in the Midwest, disability and ableism, tenderness, and brown boi resilience.

You can find Kay performing on stages internationally, and featured in outlets like Vogue, POOR Magazine, Huffington Post, Colorlines, and BuzzFeed. Published in 2016, When The Chant Comes is their first collection of poetry. Their second book, More Than Organs, is forthcoming.

A Brief History of Asians in America

Yesterday, someone on facebook called me a “paper American”
because my citizenship came to me from ink printed on a piece of paper 
and not blood shed on the floor of an American hospital,
and somehow something that happened before I was old enough to remember
makes me any less knowledgeable of American history
and civics
and culture
and customs.

(Say that to my A in AP US history 
and my perfect score on the citizenship exam 
and my blog full of memes and American political commentary.
They say that most “real” American can’t even do that well.)

My family might not have set foot on the North American continent
Until the airplanes struck the twin towers, 
But my race has been enmeshed in American history
For as long as there has been “American history”.
And longer.

“Blood and soil!” they shouted at me thru cyberspace,
“BLOOD AND SOIL! BLOOD AND SOIL! BLOOD AND SOIL! 
THAT’S WHAT IT SAID ON THE LIBERTY BELL!
BLOOD AND SOIL”
They chanted as if they were marching in Germany during the 1930s
With a red band on their arm 
Framing the askewed Jain symbol of Suparshvanatha.
“Blood. And. Soil.”

I swallowed the troll bait.
You want to talk about "blood” and “soil”?

Let’s talk about the Filipino blood shed on the Spanish galleons
Off the coast of California and Louisiana,
Escaping colonialism and Catholic proselytization in their home country, 
Looking for peace in a time of white men taking whatever the fuck they want
Under the guise of “spreading civilization”.

Let’s talk about the blood of the Chinese and Japanese sailors that runs through the veins 
Of the people who lived on the sugar cane plantations
And toiled under the heat of the Hawaiian sun
For the profit of the white businessmen, 
Who yet aims to erase their culture and their history.

Let’s talk about the sweat of the Asian American laborers, 
Whose blood tempered the steel of the Transcontinental railroad tracks
And shined the gold of the American gold rush
And fed the animals of the Western cowboy days
And whose memory are forgotten
While their blood and their sweat and their tears
Stains still the soil of the American West.

Let’s talk about the blood of the Japanese American soldiers 
Shed on foreign soil for American victory,
Even as the blood and the bones of their family
Lie buried in soil of the American concentration camps.

Let’s talk about the blood of the Asian American farm laborers
Who fertilized the rich Californian soil and on whose sweat grew
The grapes and
The almonds and
The cotton and
The peaches and
The plums and
The potatoes and …

Let’s talk about Asian American blood
shed on the streets of the peaceful demonstrations of the civil rights movement

Let’s talk about the sweat of Chinese Americans 
Shed in the kitchens that made Chinese Takeout an American experience.

Let’s talk about the Asian American scientists and engineers
On whose brilliance the Silicon Valley prospered.

You want to talk about “blood and soil”?

Asian American blood has fertilized the American soil
And tempered American steel
And formed the brick and mortar of American history.
Our history is as long as the Europeans settlers;
Our food is as American as apple pie.

Your racist history books might have forgotten us -
But we are here. 
We’ve always been here. 
And we will always be here. 

My mother yells at me for going out too often
paying too much for dinner cooked by strangers
yearning for cities too far away to reach by train
she tells me she wants to keep me for a bit longer
in the nook of her arms and bend of her elbows
because I am her dream
a flower seeded in America
blooming far more gracefully than she could have imagined
growing up too fast and leaving too soon.

My hopes and aspirations saturate thoughts of my future
her hopes and aspirations have come to fruition
but they are slowing slipping into the past.
—  American Dream

& because you aren’t here (won’t ever, again, be here)
to cover my mouth, I’ll confess, out loud, my love, so maybe
perhaps, you will hear me & join me, here where the sun is sweet
against the water & because I love you, I will gut this distance
with nostalgia, because grief can taste of sugar if you run
your tongue along the right edge,

Hieu Minh Nguyen, from “Still, Somehow,” published in The Margins

There are words I wish I could say to you that are lost at the bottom of the sea. When you first came here, you taught your mouth the right way to speak to keep them from questioning you. You tried your best to scale the accent from your serpentine tongue, you were afraid they would find the foreignness unsettling and dangerous. But in secret, you raised me to speak the language of your home because it was the only way you could understand what love sounded like. I have lost it over the years. Left pellets of warmth buried underneath the sand. Unraveled history by the frays from my tired attempts of stringing together a coherent sentence for you. Spilled a cleaner, more eloquent, but American hue on our colors. They say English is the language of success. But I watched you struggle to find the right words to tell your boss you would work overtime. And you watched me give up on finding the right words to say you mean everything to me. How did I not see that there was something missing to this? That I lost something when I stopped trying to get you to hear me. That I let you go when I stopped trying to listen. Sacrifice is hard to grasp when you don’t know you have anything to lose. I didn’t know I had everything to lose.
—  Speak English Unless You Want To Go Home
“MUSHROOMS” by Brandon Shimoda

Asian American women
Appear to me in dreams

Mushrooms
Or rather women
Wearing mushrooms


I am standing in a house overlooking the sea
The house is on stilts, but short
The bluff is tall with cloudy grass
The sea is soundless, white
There is nothing in the house
There are windows, a doorway, no door

I watch a group of Asian American women walk up the bluff
Enormous mushrooms on their heads
The mushrooms look handmade
Flat-topped or bowl-shaped, Brandon, are you home?
This isn’t my house, what sea is this?
The water is white. It looks hot

The women form a circle in the grass. I stand in the doorway
The women sit down. The circle becomes mushrooms
Shy and embarrassed. I want to join them

I recognize my hands outlined in black
On both sides of the doorway
Left hand on the right, right hand on the left
To reclaim my hands, I must resist interrogation
What are you? I am …
Sorry. We do not have one

The sea is apocryphal
White enamel
Floating surfactant over the bluff

The sun is eclipsed. It is day. I could go, but

The Asian American women are inviting me

I cross my arms before the doorway. I want to jump through the doorway
But I have candy The sea has several


Why do I feel shy and embarrassed?

Returned like a parcel, told
GO TO YOUR HUSBAND
GO TO HIS FOOT

When I was young, I wore a fox mask
I took it off, and smashed it
Against a rock

When the sound was right
I wore it beneath

The sea does not encourage me. The sea is ugly
The high, white tide
Stings the shore

Image: Bao Phi. (Anna Min/Courtesy of Capstone Publishing)

When Bao Phi’s family fled Vietnam in 1975 and settled in Minneapolis with other refugees, he was just a few months old. He was too young to understand the scene at the airport that day: Communist soldiers were firing rockets at planes filled with people trying to escape, incinerating them in the sky. Phi’s parent’s told him about their family history bit by bit, and he began to form a stronger sense of his own identity.

His new book, Thousand Star Hotel, is a cutting collection of poems about growing up a refugee, becoming a father, feeling surrounded by police brutality and the invisibility of poor Asian-Americans. Phi says that when he was young, he never saw experiences like his taught in schools or talked about. He hopes that his new work might serve as a “guidebook” for his 7-year-old daughter, Song, and other Asian-Americans looking to see their own experiences reflected.

The Poet Bao Phi, On Creating a ‘Guidebook’ For Young Asian-Americans

i’ve learned over time that no matter what, every relationship you have with someone will involve some sort of tangled knot in your wiring. i think ultimately, we just want to be with someone who’s tangled mess, out of everyone else, will feel the easiest to untangle. however, some people have a harder time than others trying to approach that mess. others might not be able to gauge which knots are more worth the trouble of untangling. still others have no interest at all in trying to untangle them.

in the end, we’re all just doing our best with one another.

Mom, we have walls
brick and mortar 
layered between our generations
mom, I love you
but sometimes we don’t understand
palms pressed to the barriers
keeping us apart
I try to tell you that maybe
it’s not our fault
that I was born with the audacity
to exist
and you were born under the impression
that another son couldn’t hurt
sometimes I feel like I cannot go to you
because I will never be the daughter
you taught yourself to be
sometimes I feel like I am rotten
with America
and I only say that because
I don’t even know how to speak my way home
mom, I know we have our differences
and it’s not always easy to remember
that heritage is an honor
but it is, it is
and I promise to make a lasting legacy
I won’t let your life fade away
just because we are on the other side
of the sea
sacrifice is in our lineage
and remembering the taste of 
soil and rice fields and mosquito territory
is the least I can do to say
I am grateful for all the goodbyes 
you have ever stomached and all the
faces you never got to see again
just so you could give me my best chance
in this new homeland and I am sorry
I am sorry that the transition hasn’t been easy
and I am sorry if I had ever been a part
of making you feel like you were unwanted–
mom, we have walls
but I won’t let them keep you out.
—  Confessions of a Chinese-Vietnamese American Daughter

Yes,

           there is a way
           to define oneself
           in this skin
           without violence.

                                                  No,

           I have not
           found said way,
           yet. I know no metaphor
           untethered to death.

Hazem Fahmy, from “Hiding Skin” published in The Margins

The Poetry of Carlos Bulosan

(from Bulatat.com)

If You Want to Know What We Are
by Carlos Bulosan

If you want to know what we are who inhabit
forest mountain rivershore, who harness
beast, living steel, martial music (that classless
language of the heart), who celebrate labour,
wisdom of the mind, peace of the blood;

If you want to know what we are who become
animate at the rain’s metallic ring, the stone’s
accumulated strength, who tremble in the wind’s
blossoming (that enervates earth’s potentialities),
who stir just as flowers unfold to the sun;

If you want to know what we are who grow
powerful and deathless in countless counterparts,
each part pregnant with hope, each hope supreme,
each supremacy classless, each classlessness
nourished by unlimited splendor of comradeship;

We are multitudes the world over, millions everywhere;
in violent factories, sordid tenements, crowded cities;
in skies and seas and rivers, in lands everywhere;
our number increase as the wide world revolves
and increases arrogance, hunger disease and death.

We are the men and women reading books, searching
in the pages of history for the lost word, the key
to the mystery of living peace, imperishable joy;
we are factory hands field hands mill hand everywhere,
molding creating building structures, forging ahead,

Reaching for the future, nourished in the heart;
we are doctors scientists chemists discovering,
eliminating disease and hunger and antagonisms;
we are soldiers navy-men citizens guarding
the imperishable will of man to live in grandeur,

We are the living dream of dead men everywhere,
the unquenchable truth that class-memories create
to stagger the infamous world with prophecies
of unlimited happiness_a deathless humanity;
we are the living and the dead men everywhere….

If you want to know what we are, observe
the bloody club smashing heads, the bayonet
penetrating hallowed breasts, giving no mercy; watch the
bullet crashing upon armorless citizens;
look at the tear-gas choking the weakened lung.

If you want to know what we are, see the lynch
trees blossoming, the hysterical mob rioting;
remember the prisoner beaten by detectives to confess
a crime he did not commit because he was honest,
and who stood alone before a rabid jury of ten men,

And who was sentenced to hang by a judge
whose bourgeois arrogance betrayed the office
he claimed his own; name the marked man,
the violator of secrets; observe the banker,
the gangster, the mobsters who kill and go free;

We are the sufferers who suffer for natural love
of man for man, who commemorate the humanities
of every man; we are the toilers who toil
to make the starved earth a place of abundance
who transform abundance into deathless fragrance.

We are the desires of anonymous men everywhere,
who impregnate the wide earth’s lustrous wealth
with a gleaming fluorescence; we are the new thoughts
and the new foundations, the new verdure of the mind;
we are the new hope new joy life everywhere.

We are the vision and the star, the quietus of pain;
we are the terminals of inquisition, the hiatuses
of a new crusade; we are the subterranean subways
of suffering; we are the will of dignities;
we are the living testament of a flowering race.

If you want to know what we are
WE ARE REVOLUTION!

They don’t want to hear poems about this

I am nervous before my performance
a girl with yellow skin
about to rip the land from right under their feet

they don’t even know I speak English

not that that matters
I prefer Vietnamese or Cantonese anyways
they make me feel at home
I struggle to recall the correct words
and to curl my tongue around them just right
but they pull me closer to my parents
to far away places I’ve never been able to visit
to a land where my ancestors claimed their lives
and the label ‘Made in China’
wasn’t a sign of something unauthentic

they see me scared
the light caught in my eyes
probably makes them smaller
chinkier

I grew up hating my favorite part of a body
everybody says eyes are the windows to the soul
but I couldn’t see anything through those slits
I couldn’t see the beautiful
I thought that I was less human because you couldn’t find
the light glistening in my irises
I purposely widened my eyes in pictures
held back my smile so my cheeks wouldn’t hide them–

there was nothing wrong about growing up Asian
except maybe your eyes are ugly
because racism is over
I just can’t take a joke now, right?
I can almost hear them mocking me
'So what if we don’t like sushi? It smells.’

I’m not even Japanese
it doesn’t make sense that they see us as one
Asia is the largest continent on this planet
how do you even mix up cultures like that
I don’t get it because 
nobody assumes anything from white people
but the moment our skin shows pigment
we are a stereotype
they don’t bother to understand
we are different
that not all of us speak Chinese
that, yes, we really are from here
that Asian is not a damn nationality

and then I get angry
because this is exactly what they want from me
quiet, submissive, anxious to please

No.

I will not let them rest easily
I’ll let my words crawl under their skin
maybe it will give them some color
let them feel vulnerable
attacked
it will never be as bad as what
we have had to deal with

or maybe they will just think
I’m an angry bitch

Good.

I bet that’s not what they were expecting
I bet that will get their blood boiling.
—  An Asian American Poet Stands Before a Crowd of White People Who Think Talking About Race is “Too Uncomfortable”
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Here’s a poem I wrote about the white washing that’s been happening in Hollywood and the lack of Asian American representation in the media. Shout out to Write About Now for filming and hosting a dope ass midnight cypher at CUPSI 💕