Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 – Gwee Li Sui interviews Timothy Yu

 Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965

 by Timothy Yu

Stanford University Press, 2009



Gwee. Your book Race and the Avant-Garde, published in 2009, gives voice to the racial complications in the poetic avant-garde of America since the 1960s. You strongly suggest that its various formations have never been defined by mere abstract aesthetic principles. How do you describe the gap between white experimental poetry and Asian-American poetry and the development of this gap?

Yu. Part of my point is to question the existence of such a gap–or perhaps more precisely, to historicize the emergence of this gap.  I argue in the book that at the time of its emergence in the 1970s, Asian American poetry was highly experimental.  Asian American poets had as part of their challenge the task of defining what an Asian American poetic voice would sound like.  So they experimented with different forms, styles, and influences.  And I also argue that white experimental poets of the same period–particularly those associated with language writing–were quite self-conscious about their racial position.  So while these two groups of writers may not have sounded the same, I’m suggesting that they shared similar impulses at the outset. 

The idea of a gap between Asian American and (white) experimental writing seems to have emerged somewhat later, when both modes of writing had become more institutionalized, and the idea that Asian American writing was primarily autobiographical and narrative had gotten quite entrenched.  In the book, I quote Ron Silliman stating that writers of color primarily want to “have their stories told,” while white progressive writers seek to deconstruct their own speaking positions (i.e., write “experimental” work).  The perception of such a gap has persisted.  What I tried to show is that this gap has a history and that it isn’t something essential about Asian American or experimental writing.

Gwee. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is an enigmatic figure for you. Her ethnic identity used to be suppressed in white avant-garde discourse while her experimentalism was overlooked by Asian-American criticism. How is she central to your argument?

Yu. Cha is fascinating to me because, as an avant-garde artist, she was originally not seen as fitting into Asian American literature at all!  I quote a number of Asian American critics saying that they initially hated the book and couldn’t identify with it.  Later, in the 1990s, of course, Cha’s Dictee, her best known work published in 1982, was embraced by Asian American readers, who hailed it as marking a new moment of hybridity and experimentation in Asian America.  But in my view, many still couldn’t quite come to terms with those more abstract or avant-garde elements of the text, instead trying to link it to more traditional narratives of Asian American identity.  Cha’s work seems to have this unique ability to disrupt our critical categories, and the reception of her work shows us the histories of categories like “experimental” and “Asian American.”

Gwee. You point to how black experimentalists are able to absorb and deploy a rhetoric of dissent in a manner that escapes Asian-American writers. Does this trajectory not fall back on a measure of cultural stereotyping: eg. Asians are more practical-minded, have an inassimilable, ancient culture, etc.?

Yu. My point isn’t that Asian Americans don’t have a history of dissent and resistance; they do, of course.  But many Americans who saw themselves as progressive or radical in the post-1960s era tended to look to the African American example of struggle, particularly in the civil rights movement.  I cite a number of examples of Asian American activists quite consciously taking African American activism as their model.  Remember that “Asian American” was an invention of this activist era; Asian Americans as a pan-ethnic coalition didn’t exist before that.  Of course, white radicals often felt the same anxiety with regard to the African American example; for example, I cite Tom Hayden saying of African American activists, “We should speak their revolutionary language without mocking it.”

Gwee. There is a word you appear to resist using directly in your book: racism. Is there a reason for this? What do you think the scope for such a charge in the various relationships you observe is?

Yu. That’s an interesting observation.  I’ve heard at least a few people say of the book that I should have been far less hesitant to label particular attitudes or statements as racist, and that I went too easy on certain figures in this regard.  I even read one review that said I embraced a “post-racial” viewpoint!  Well, I didn’t consciously try to avoid talking about racism–obviously the entire Asian American political project is an anti-racist one.  But if I did avoid labeling certain writers or works racist, it was probably because I wanted to contextualize and historicize rather than to issue an easy judgment.  I was more interested in the fact that for Silliman and many other white experimental writers, there was an active conversation going on about race, behind the work and often within it as well–even if some elements of that conversation might create some discomfort as we read it. 

It may be true that racism isn’t a major focus in my discussion of Asian American poetry, perhaps because I’m looking at the constructive dialogue happening within Asian American writing (during the 1970s particularly) about the invention of an Asian American voice.  Of course responding to racism is a part of that, but it was also a matter of how Asian Americans would address each other in literature and form a literary culture, perhaps distinct from that of the (racist) mainstream.

Gwee. The term “Asian-American” is itself broad, compounding multiple distinct traditions, journeys, and private struggles. Does an insistence on the singularity of dislocation, alienation, and adaption not prove ironically restrictive in some way?

Yu. I certainly wouldn’t insist on the singularity of Asian American experience.  I hope one thing I did in recovering some of the history of Asian American poetry was showing how much struggle there has been over its definition and how capacious it has been as a category.  Anyone who thinks that Asian American writing is restricted to a limited number of themes probably simply hasn’t read very much Asian American writing.  To be fair, though, even most Asian Americans are unaware of the breadth of work that has been done by Asian American writers.  Asian American critics have often been as guilty as anyone about returning to the same narratives and the same few canonical works.  What I find most interesting in Asian American poetry is its interest in opening aesthetic and thematic questions rather than limiting them.

Gwee. What do you see as the challenges to Asian-American writing today?

Yu. In a lot of ways, Asian American writing is more vibrant than it has ever been.  We now have several generations of prominent writers who can serve as models and mentors, a growing number of organizations and publications devoted to Asian American writing, and a truly astonishing number and range of young Asian American writers.  What I think leads a lot of younger writers to still feel that being an Asian American writer is a struggle is a continuing sense of isolation–a sense that they are working on their own.  One thing that I think can help in this respect is simply more knowledge–an awareness that there is a powerful tradition of Asian American writing out there, and that they can find in it support for almost anything they want to do.  Universities are still doing a pretty poor job of informing young writers about this tradition; although the situation has certainly improved, I still find that most young writers are hungry for more knowledge about Asian American writing, past and present.  I’d like to hope that as a critic and teacher, I can provide some help to younger writers who are seeking to understand the tradition from which their work emerges. 

Gwee: Thank you for this opportunity to engage you and for your insightful answers.


Gwee Li Sui is a literary critic, a poet, and a graphic artist. He wrote Singapore’s first comic-book novel, Myth of the Stone, in 1993 and published a volume of humorous verse, Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems?, in 1998. A familiar name in Singapore’s literary scene, he has written essays on a range of cultural subjects as well as edited Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II (2009), Telltale: Eleven Stories (2010), and Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore (2011).

An Intimate Violence by Meena Alexander

There is a painful edge to the word race. Sometimes I cannot help thinking of it as a wound, something that cannot be cleft apart from my femaleness. And yet there, at the same time, when I step back a little, there is always the sense that race is an illusion, something made up. Otherwise why would I be so different in different places—by which I mean seen differently, treated differently, almost becoming another I? So it is that when crossing borders—between India and America, or even between the rich multiethnic mix of New York and the white suburbs—I feel a transitoriness in the self, the need for a febrile translation. And somehow there is a violent edge to this process of cultural translation, the shifting worlds I inhabit, the borders I cross in my dreams, the poems I make.

I was giving a reading in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a bookstore. I read prose pieces, poems, ending with the last two sections of the poem “San Andreas Fault.” A woman raised her hand. She picked out details from the poem: “How can you allow these facts of the world, terrible things we would not normally want to think about, get into your poem? What does it do to your life?”

Quiet for a bit, I took a while to respond, musing on the section of the poem she had picked out. It begins with a speaker, a woman, who enters a dream state. At the end of her vision she faces her muse, a weightless creature, born of air, who has forced her to this:

Late at night in Half Moon Bay
hair loosed to the glow of traffic lights
I slit the moist package of my dreams.

Female still, quite metamorphic
I flowed into Kali ivory tongued, skulls nippling my breasts
Durga lips etched with wires astride an electric tiger
Draupadi born of flame betrayed by five brothers stripped
of silks in the banquet hall of shame.

In the ghostly light of those women’s eyes
I saw the death camps at our century’s end: 

A woman in Sarajevo shot to death
as she stood pleading for a pot of milk,
a scrap of bread, her red scarf swollen
with lead hung in a cherry tree. 

Turks burnt alive in the new Germany,
a grandmother and two girls
cheeks puffed with smoke
as they slept in striped blankets
bought new to keep out the cold.

A man and his wife in Omdurman
locked to a starving child, the bone’s right
to have and hold never to be denied,
hunger stamping the light.

In Ayodhya, in Ram’s golden name
hundreds hacked to death, the domes
of Babri Masjid quivering as massacres begin—
the rivers of India rise mountainous,
white veils of the dead, dhotis, kurtas, saris,
slippery with spray, eased from their bloodiness.

Shaking when I stopped I caught myself short
firmly faced her “What forgiveness here?”
“None” she replied “Every angel knows this.
The damage will not cease and this sweet gorge
by which you stand bears witness.

Become like me a creature of this fault.”1

She was in the back of the room, a small, neat-looking woman, her brown hair drawn back, and she was waiting for an answer.

“There are two things,” I began, “and they stand apart, then come together. One is the music of poetry. Not something I am altogether conscious about, but it works with the language, and it allows the thoughts, the ‘facts’ if you will—the terror, the violence—to be raised up, so that even as we see them imprinted in consciousness, there is a hairbreadth that allows release, allows for the transcendence poetry seeks.

“Then my personal life.” At this I stopped, took a sip of water, looked around the small room, the faces listening intently, the windows with the white shutters letting in a pearly light. The shutters looked as if they were cut from rice paper. Outside was spring sunshine, magnolias on the brink of bursting into light, crocuses prickling through the grass, spurts of purple among the old parked cars, the gas station on the other side of Hampshire Road.

I took courage from all that lay around and the women and men listening in the small back room.

“I bring the intensity of my inner life, very personal emotions, into relation with these ‘facts’ of the world. I may be standing in the kitchen looking out of the window, or washing grains of rice for dinner. Or I may be folding a pile of laundry, yet within me there is an emotion that the gesture of my hands cannot reach.

“And often there is news of the world that reaches me. And I contemplate it. So really it is by looking long and hard, allowing the intensity of that otherness to enter in, that the charged rhythm of the poem, its music, comes. Breaks out onto the page.”

I may not have said all this, there and then. And I wanted to speak of something that was too hard for me at the time: the migration of sense a poem requires, the way writing is tied up, for me, with loss, with what forces forgetfulness and yet at the very same time permits passage.

“A bridge that seizes crossing,” I wrote in a poem, trying to touch the edge of migrancy that underwrites the sensible world for me. This was at a time when I felt that I needed to begin another life, to be born again. And now I think, for me, to be born again is to pass beyond the markings of race, the violations visited on us.

Awhile back there were a series of racial incidents in New York City. Two black children were spray-painted white, a white child raped in retaliation, an Indian child stoned. Haunted by these events, I made a poem called “Art of Pariahs.” Pariah is a word that has come from my mother tongue, Malayalam, into English.

Perhaps one of the few benefits of colonialism is being able to infiltrate the language. I imagined Draupadi of the Mahabharata entering my kitchen in New York City. The longing to be freed of the limitations of skin color and race sings in the poem.

A year later I was in Delhi for an international symposium, put together by the Sahitya Akademi. Writers, artists, filmmakers were invited to ponder the ethnic violence that was threatening the fabric of secular India. Worn out by the flight that got- ten me in at one in the morning, I turned up a few minutes late for the start of the conference. The hall at the India International Center was packed. There were half a dozen people on the dais, dignitaries including Mulk Raj Anand, grand old man of Indian letters, the novelist who had written about the lives of Untouchables. There was no room in the auditorium, nowhere for me to sit. I stood uneasily at the edge, casting about for a place to sit, watching as a man dressed in white khadi, looking much as I would imagine a contemporary Tagore, spoke eloquently about the destruction of Babri Masjid and the communal riots in different parts of the country. “Our novelists will write about this,” he said, “but it will take them several years to absorb these events.” He paused, then added, “As the poet said.” After what seemed like a space for a long, drawn-out breath, he recited the whole of “Art of Pariahs.” He did not mention the poet’s name, but anonymity made the matter more powerful as the poem, in his voice, flowed through the packed room. And listening, standing clutching my papers, I felt emotions course through me, deeper than the power of words to tell. For a brief while, a poem composed in solitude in a small New York City room had granted me the power to return home.

Art of Pariahs

Back against the kitchen stove
Draupadi sings:

In my head Beirut still burns. 

The Queen of Nubia, of God’s Upper Kingdom
the Rani of Jhansi, transfigured, raising her sword
are players too. They have entered with me
into North America and share these walls.

We make up an art of pariahs:

Two black children spray painted white
their eyes burning,
a white child raped in a car
for her pale skin’s sake,
an Indian child stoned by a bus shelter,
they thought her white in twilight.

Someone is knocking and knocking
but Draupadi will not let him in.
She squats by the stove and sings: 

The Rani shall not sheathe her sword
nor Nubia’s queen restrain her elephants
till tongues of fire wrap a tender blue,
a second skin, a solace to our children 

Come walk with me towards a broken wall
—Beirut still burns—carved into its face.
Outcastes all let’s conjure honey scraped from stones,
an underground railroad stacked with rainbow skin,
Manhattan’s mixed rivers rising.2

What might it mean for Manhattan’s mixed rivers to rise?

How shall we move into a truly shared world, reimagine ethnicities, even as we acknowledge violent edges, harsh borders? These children in Manhattan, the Muslim women raped in Surat, the Hindu women stoned in Jersey City, coexist in time. Cleft by space, they forge part of the fluid diasporic world in which I must live and move and have my being.

I think of Derek Walcott’s “terrible vowel, / that I!”3 And I understand that my need to enter richly into imagined worlds cannot shake free of what my woman’s body brings me. I cannot escape my body and the multiple worlds of my experience.

And the sort of translation the poem requires—“translate” in an early sense of the verb, meaning to carry over, to transport, for after all what is unspoken, even unspeakable must be borne into language—forces a fresh icon of the body, complicates the present until memory is written into the very texture of the senses.


1. Meena Alexander, `San Andreas Fault’ in *River and Bridge*( Toronto South Asian Review Press, 1996) pp.85-85

2. Meena Alexander, `Art of Pariahs’ in *River and Bridge*p.35

3. Derek Walcott, “Names,” in Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986), 306.



This essay was first published in Transformations 9:2 (Fall 1998), a special issue on race and gender. It is reprinted in Meena Alexander, Poetics of Dislocation (University of Michigan Press, 2009) c. Meena Alexander 1998, 2009 all rights reserved.


On Search and Recognition: Jennifer Kwon Dobbs

On Search and Recognition:

Adopted Korean Diaspora and Poetry


Unlike the stranger returning home to discover his childhood village disappeared, the poet enters Korea as a social ghost resisting erasures that stripped him of family, geography, history, language, and memory and sent him overseas for adoption to one of 15 western receiving nations.

One of an estimated 200,000 adoptees from the world’s largest and oldest adoption program that has continuously sent children overseas since 1952, the poet transgresses simply by arriving again in South Korea because her Korean passport and orphan paperwork were designed for a one-way trip overseas. With this arrival, the poet breaks the original adoption contract predicated on alienation and authorizing someone else to design her identity.

As an adult, the poet can speak for himself. The poet can represent herself. Imagining themselves, they betray the bureaucratic abbreviations, shorthand, dashes, and blanks facilitating their forced child migrations:

Father’s Name: No Records. Mother’s Name: No Records
Father’s Residence: No Records. Mother’s Residence: No Records

                             …. Include here guardian’s attitudes and motives in
                            Releasing child: President Kim would like the baby in a nice home.
                            $450 Payable, Dec. 76. Remarks/File No. ___ Child’s attitude: N/A

                                                           (J. Kwon Dobbs, “Face Sheet”)[1]

This agency language devours itself, rips out a Korean tongue even as its syntax describes an orphan’s mouth, “N/A” as in Not Applicable. Yet he talks anyway speculating on what songs his omma might have sung before she surrendered him for adoption. He listens to the tremulous quiver:

…that deep chant of a mother
saying goodbye to her son. Who can really say?
Sometimes all we have is the blues. The blues means
Finding a song in the abandonment, one

you can sing in the middle of the night when
you remember that your Korean name, Kwang Soo
Lee, means bright light, something that can illuminate…

                                                           (Lee Herrick, “Salvation”)[2]

She reads each hang’ul letter as a gesture: tree, kneeling tongue, unlatched door, bird meat. She builds a vestibulary:

hanging, an execution of duty;

                             crow approaching unfamiliar limb;

letter folded into flag;

infinite tympanum of God.

                                                           (Sun Yung Shin, “ciue  ㅈ”)[3

They began as Seeds from a Silent Tree (Pandal Press 1997), edited by Tonja Bischoff and Jo Rankin, the first anthology of adoptee poetry and writing. Now a diasporic grove, they include Them Averick, Thomas Marko Blatt, Dana Collins, Molly Gaudry, Lee Herrick, Anyssa Kim, Eva Tind Kristensen, Casey Kwang, Maja Lee Langvad, Mara Lee, Katie Hae Leo, Anneli Östlund, Nicky Sa-Eun Schildkraut, Sun Yung Shin, Kim Sunée, myself, and others to come. Not a school or even an organized literary community, they nonetheless share a common history of erasure through overseas adoption to which they have responded with vigorous experimentation ripping apart their adoptive languages and sometimes fleshing it with the Korea they know or dream of. Hungry for embodiment, they write in the language of their assimilation – English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, French, German, Italian, or Spanish – which is also their first language of desire. They publish books speaking to their adoptive countries and win awards and grants for these acts of psychic survival.

Without the dongpo’s (동포) usual cultural resources inherited through family and immigrant community, the poets’ imaginations turn to blood, skin, hair, and teeth – the body’s vocabulary – and to speculation, tectonic movements, winged migration, shreds of paper collaged together, fragments, found and destroyed documents, military maps, botany collections, syntactical disruptions, and multiple voices stitched together for words truer than flesh and more sturdy than bone to give erasure a face and to name its movements.

Sometimes she searches as an artistic impulse through the Korea she cannot forget even as Korea has unremembered her while constructing its economic miracle.

Sometimes his syntax limbs in the direction of search, not for nostalgic relics, but for historical remnants to imagine beyond absence widening as progress quickly strips the forest for graveyards and razes buildings for new urban construction. His mapping stakes a claim in the direction of possibility. What place might the poet, who was never supposed to return after his adoption, create through this undeniable document, this map of blood – his body inherited from generations before him?

How might the poet’s family recognize her? How might they reach across the table without tripping? Can this poet’s dream pass through translation to touch a Korean audience who might be her father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, grandparent, or even you reading this?

It’s an understanding of languages’ vulnerability to each other that possesses more feeling and insight than the correct textbook answers:

det koreanske ord도 er en lyd, der ifølge 15.000 tegnsordbogen har 121 forskellige betydninger…
Jysk udtalemåde af du[4]

(Eva Tind Kristensen, do/)[5]

Like reuniting with family, reading this poetry might be discomforting as a translating stranger leans in whispering, and yet it’s the promise of felt insight that compels this act of attention, this difficult yet necessary dialogue turning erasure inside out:

Are you disappointed that I was adopted to Denmark and not to the US, as you have always believed?

Should you have not given me up for adoption: What consequences do you imagine it would have had for my sisters, my father, and yourself?

(Maja Lee Langvad, “20 new questions for my biological mother”)[6]

 Diverse in prosodic style and wildly resourceful, these poets present a new diasporic literary direction that offers an embodied vision of reconciliation with the very erasures that produced them as adoptees. They give witness to that violence’s vicissitudes or speak from an intimate knowledge of silence’s cleaving embrace:

                    if last night was a dream, I remember
                    not her words but what I felt when the silence
                    turned white and

                    the lonely piano drowned in smoke.
                    much (and much too often) strays off beat

                   when the lion roars for no reason like
                   the gaping waves of the sea that curl above
                   a lost child:

                                                 (Them Averick, “Baffoon”)[7]

At language’s source – smoke, the lion’s roar, and gaping waves — the poet finds himself a maker of a beauty that cannot be easily forgotten. Like him, she remembers the proper names against linguistic deprivations while inventing new ones that have the power to renew. May they be recognized not as strangers but as poets and welcomed as kindred and kin.


JENNIFER KWON DOBBS, Ph.D. is assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at St. Olaf College and has received awards and grants for her writing.

[1] Dobbs, Jennifer Kwon. Paper Pavilion. Buffalo: White Pine Press, 2007. Print.

[2] Herrick, Lee. This Many Miles from Desire. Cincinnati: Word Tech Editions, 2007. Print.

[3] Shin, Sun Yung. Skirt Full of Black. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2006. Print.

The Korean word 도 is a sound that has 121 different connotations according to the 15,000 characters dictionary.


The Jutlandic pronunciation of you.
(Danish/English Translation by M.J.T. Nielsen.)

[5] Kristensen, Eva Tind. do/. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2009. Print.

[6] Langvad, Maja Lee. “New Questions.” Journal of Korean Adoption Studies 2.1 (Spring 2010): 157-168. Print.

[7] 김성현and Them Averick. 메트로폴리스. 서올: 한솜, 2008. Print.


Kundiman, an Introductory Love Song by Joseph O. Legaspi

Kundiman is a literary organization dedicated to the creation, cultivation and promotion of Asian American poetry.  Founded in 2002 by two poets, Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi, Kundiman supports the artistic and professional development of emerging Asian American poets, and aims to preserve and promote the cultural legacy of the Asian American diaspora.  It is the only non-profit of its kind in the U.S.  But what does the Tagalog word “Kundiman” mean?  Kundiman is a classic form of Filipino love song—or so it seemed to colonialist forces in the Philippines.  In fact, in Kundiman, the singer who expresses undying love for his beloved is actually singing for love of country.  The name then serves as inspiration to create and nurture artistic expression.  It also acknowledges the political struggle that fuels change, and harkens to the shared roots of hyphenated Americans.  Building community and fostering the voices of Asian American poetry are at the heart of Kundiman’s mission.  They go hand in hand.  Kundiman gathers together Asian American poets, providing them with a safe, creative space.  To accomplish its goals, Kundiman has three main programs: an annual poetry retreat, a book prize, and a reading series.

Started in 2004, the Kundiman Poetry Retreat is a five-day residency program open through a competitive application process to emerging Asian American poets who seek to improve their skills in a rigorous yet supportive environment.  Kundiman fellows—those who are accepted and attend the retreat—immerse themselves in poetry through workshops and mentorship sessions with renowned Asian American poets, salon readings, talks, community-building activities, and, most importantly, writing.  For the past two years, Kundiman has made its retreat home at Fordham University’s beautiful Rose Hill Campus in New York City.  Our roster of faculty members and guest speakers are a veritable list of who’s who in the Asian/Asian American poetry world: Lawson Inada, Bei Dao, Myung Mi Kim, Kimiko Hahn, Arthur Sze, Marilyn Chin, David Mura, Tan Lin, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Patrick Rosal, Prageeta Sharma, Paisley Rekdal, Regie Cabico and many others.

But why sponsor a retreat solely for Asian American poets?  One cannot argue the importance of people, especially members of a minority group, being in the same company as those who share their background.  There is an innate sensitivity, an immediate understanding of common histories and cultures.  Kundiman fellows frequently express how they don’t have to “explain themselves” while at the retreat.  Many of them arrive from places where they feel isolated as Asian Americans and/or as poets—as Asian American poets—therefore, a safe gathering ground becomes even more vital and crucial.  Beyond the racial and cultural, however, the most enduring bond at the Kundiman Retreat is the collective love of writing and poetry.  In its history, 92 emerging Asian American poets have attended the Kundiman Retreat at least once.  Each fellow can attend up to three times and then they “graduate.”  This format is utmost important in building a solid peer group. New fellows find mentorship and camaraderie not only with staff and faculty but also with returning fellows. Graduated fellows are at times asked to return as part of the staff in subsequent retreats, acting as liaison, as bridge. 

The created community extends beyond the summer retreat. Through the Kundiman listserv, fellows continue to interact online.  They share everything from creative and professional accomplishments to writing prompts to pedagogy. They form writing groups, virtual and real. They sit on panels together, curate readings, exchange poetry postcards, meet up in foreign cities.  I once overheard a fellow exclaim that because of Kundiman, she has many family members sprinkled all across the country. The Kundiman Alumni Association raises funds for scholarships to the retreat. As the organization grows, it radiates outward like tree rings.

Outside of the Retreat, Kundiman reaches out to the community by creating a wider audience and broader appreciation for Asian American poetry.  The Kundiman Poetry Prize is one such vehicle.  Awarded in partnership with Alice James Books, the Kundiman Poetry Prize guarantees the annual publication of at least one collection of poetry by an Asian American.  It is open to all Asian American poets, previously published or not.  In addition to book publication, the winner receives a cash prize and a feature reading in New York City.  In fall 2011, Alice James Books released Janine Oshiro’s Pier, the inaugural winner of the Prize.  Janine launched her book with two Kundiman-sponsored readings at Fordham University and NYU.  Forthcoming is the second winner of the Prize: Matthew Olzmann’s Mezzanines.  These publications help to diversify the American literary landscape.  Our written words help give voice, tell our stories, and strengthen our people’s presence in pluralistic society.  Many Kundiman fellows have followed suit: to date, thirty-one fellows have published, or will be publishing, their books and chapbooks.

Finally, Kundiman maintains its vibrant presence in its NYC home base by running the Kundiman & Verlaine Reading Series.  Housed in an artsy lounge in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the reading series, now in its 9th year, has featured over one hundred Asian American poets.  It has created new audiences for Asian American poetry by showcasing the works of emerging and established poets.  Moreover, in the past few years, as part of its community outreach initiative, Kundiman has invited poets from other literary organizations serving minority groups, such as Cave Canem and Acentos, to read.  This has not only boosted the organization’s audience base, but also established and strengthened relationships with like-minded institutions.

In keeping with giving voice to the Asian American community, Kundiman is developing an oral history project called Kavad. As part of Kavad, Kundiman produced the multi-media show Together We Are New York to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11. In this community-based arts project, Kundiman poets interviewed Asian Americans affected by 9/11 and wrote poems in response to these interviews.  This enables Kundiman to further community documentation, healing and dialogue. Tapping on its core of poets, Kundiman hopes to narrate the stories of Asian Americans as a people, and so strengthen Asian American solidarity and identity.

If American literature is going to help us understand our place in a multi-racial, multi-cultural global society, it needs first to reflect the racial and ethnic complexity of American society and American experience.  In training and supporting the next generation of Asian American poets, Kundiman is playing a transformative role in American culture and history. Through vital programming, mentorship and advocacy, Kundiman is building a vibrant community of committed poets. This commitment then translates into empowerment for our diasporic and marginalized communities.  Kundiman envisions the arts as a tool for community engagement and social activism, encouraging Asian American poets to find their true desires and perfect their skills through education and performance.  Consequently, Kundiman strives to create a rich legacy.


JOSEPH O LEGASPI is the author of Imago (CavanKerry Press). He lives in Queens, NY and works at Columbia University.  He co-founded Kundiman (www.kundiman.org), a non-profit organization serving Asian American poetry. 



Janine Oshiro’s Pier reviewed by Wendi M Lee

Alice James Books
by Janine Oshiro
ISBN: 9781882295883
Reviewed by WENDI M LEE

Janine Oshiro’s first poetry collection, Pier, is a haunting masterpiece tinged with fantasy and the shifting landscapes of nature, decay, and creation. Oshiro writes of family histories: a deceased mother and ailing father, growing up in Hawaii and living on the Mainland. This is far from narrative poetry, however. Strangeness lurks on every page. Spoons swim through the ocean, dancers twirl without the use of legs. The possibility of dark magic is imminent. Oshiro’s beautiful, off-kilter images are often tempered with large segments of white space, revealing to the reader what cannot be expressed with words alone.

Everywhere is a potential
exit, except the door

I drew a high wall at the skin;
at the bottom I drew a gutter. 

I was eleven.
These are the words I have for it.

Creation plays a central role in this collection. In “Praise,” the speaker “is clapping my hands” in anticipation for her siblings to “invent the world” via the stage, a world closed to her by normal means. The elegiac “Move” is composed of very short stanzas, hinged upon an image reminiscent of a biblical creation story. “On the first day,” is the recurring phrase here, as we move from “sea squirts” and “frogfishes” to the slow and steady disintegration of a beloved father.

In “Anniversary,” a kingdom is erected piece by piece, the protagonist carefully inserting houses and daughters into a landscape of wildness, willing domesticity and nature to collide. Order is of utmost importance here, perhaps to soften the chaos of everyday life, but so is the bated apprehension of disaster.

I kept an eye on the animal and nothing happened.
The mountain blistered and popped into its plural.
I kept an eye on the animal.
The sky remained where it was, distant.

The obedient daughters kept their houses neat.

Creation then is uncertain, a metamorphosis always on the brink of occurring, a disappointment when it does not arrive. Sight and language also produces unease and uncertainty. Potentially traumatic events occur without the awareness of the protagonist, yet nonetheless accepted as factual. Sometimes these experiences can be named. Others are so mysterious they remain shrouded in the spaces off the page, referred to only in passing.

Having not seen it
happen but knowing
it happened 

a black snake
crawled down my spine. 

Even sight ultimately proves to be unreliable as what is proven to be “fact” crumbles. A mother’s likeness is caught in a passing cloud formation. Ghosts walk unbidden into rooms, to reassure grieving daughters. Nature itself becomes a landscape of startling revelation.  

Before I saw snow, I saw
pictures of snow and believed
in it. And so of bears.
Snow blinded I am. A bear
is nothing like its picture.        

The dichotomy of what is seen/not seen, witnessed/believed resonates. What gives these poems so much power is Oshiro’s ability to transform the landscapes of her experiences. I also grew up in Hawaii, but the world she presents to her readers exists in the twilight of unreality, where grief and beauty can be fully explored. Her words illuminate and mystify in equal measures. Pier is an impressively startling first collection, and well-deserving of the 2010 Kundiman Poetry Prize. I am fascinated to see what she has to offer next.



WENDI LEE was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and currently lives in Pittsburgh. She has a chapbook, Knotted Ends, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, and poetry and fiction published in Karamu, Portland Review, Oyez Review, weave, Passages North, and Hawai’I Pacific Review.


Zhang Ruihe reviews The World Must Weigh the Same by Carol Chan

The World Must Weigh the Same

by Carol Chan

Math Paper Press, 2011

Reviewed by ZHANG RUIHE

Since its inception just over a year ago, Math Paper Press’s Babette’s Feast chapbook series has introduced a host of new voices to the literary scene in Singapore. The voice that emerges in Carol Chan’s first collection is lyrical, ‘ever soft, gentle and low’, and, like Cordelia’s in King Lear, it is both compassionate and unafraid to speak its truth. The World Must Weigh The Same is an examination of the connections between the personal and political in contemporary Singapore – a tentative attempt to articulate a vaguely-felt malaise that Chan names in one poem as ‘first-world boredom’ struggling to find purpose in the face of ‘human dreams’.

It is hard not to take a topical reading of some of the pieces here. Published in 2011 after Singapore’s watershed May 7th polls, the collection contains coy references to ‘elections’ and ‘rallies’ tucked into poems addressed to unnamed interlocutors who could be friends, lovers, government, or State. ‘Common State’ is perhaps the most successful of these, and incidentally, also the most representative of the concerns of the collection as a whole. Read as a love poem, it is a heartfelt plea for ‘difference’ in a relationship that has gone stale from too much predictability; read as a political poem, that same plea acquires additional resonance in the context of a ‘dead silent country’ where the ‘future you think is possible’ is ‘one I do not see’. These would have been brave words twenty years ago, before Alfian Sa’at’s One Fierce Hour, especially in a first collection. Now, they are typical of a sentiment that, thanks to the Internet, has become a commonplace. Lamenting a lack of vision in the nation’s leadership and bemoaning a sense of personal disempowerment have become national pastimes, like shopping and eating. And Chan does it more eloquently and poignantly than most; at times, as in ‘Electives’, even playfully:

         & not to be soggy but there are limits to how much
        we care about whatever. Say nothing / say love / say war.

In ‘State’, the speaker wonders if
                           …… what you run
                           up against          
                           is only the lines
                           from your dreaming 

        or the language to speak
        out of line.

The self-reflexive awareness of the perils of sogginess, of our complicity in our disenfranchisement, rescues these poems from cliché.  

Yet, the question is – what is the expected readerly response to such discontent? At the risk of reproducing the standard discourse pattern of Singaporean bureaucracy, the instinctive reaction is to wonder what sort of aesthetic vision is being offered as an alternative. ‘Briefcase’, the gem of a  short story that opens the collection, proposes an answer – love, commitment, the comforts of familiarity and domesticity, and the hidden beauty of the everyday. After going through something of a midlife crisis in which he questions, for the first time, the way his life has turned out, protagonist Mr Zhang arrives at a place of contentment, learns compromise. Forget politics, forget idealism – there is ‘something precious’ in the life that happens to us, or, at best, that we meander into. ‘(T)he memory of soft-boiled eggs with dark soy sauce’, a letter from a daughter, these are the compensations for our choices – or non-choices, enacted in the very language of the story: an ordinary, homely diction most noticeable for its plain-spoken poignancy. And this in itself isn’t a bad answer. It may not even be an unsatisfactory answer. I like the empathy, and the clear-eyed honesty – these qualities were what first drew me to Chan’s writing, and make for a heartfelt story that gently criticises without condemnation. But the story’s placement at the start of the collection, rather than at the end, suggests a tentativeness, a refusal of closure; and the reader is left looking to the rest of the pieces for some development in the dialogue, a new way of seeing, perhaps, or an aesthetic space with room for imagination and change.

And there is certainly some of that. ‘Key Performance Indicators’ satirises standard bureaucratese with deliberately unintelligible consequences; while ‘File > My Scans’ fits a series of gnomic musings into the linguistic structure of a computer filing system. And then there is the delightful whimsy of ‘Trees Don’t Have Midlife Crises’ that segues into a quiet meditation on identity and change. On the whole, though, the collection doesn’t quite take flight. The reader is left with the sense of having been comfortably disturbed, but the sparks of conflict and friction are never allowed to develop into a full-blown conflagration, which, granted, was probably never Chan’s intention in the first place. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if it is possible to write about smallness and limitation, in a way that transcends, or at least, transforms that limitation, makes it new – and does so in ways that do not sacrifice sense in the process. What to make, for instance, of lines like these?

Say the answer lies
in our denial of this crate; 

Don’t pretend
the lack of dream thinks.

Why ‘crate’, and what is it a metaphor for, and even supposing that the closing of ‘State’ is an abstract, Ashbery-esque comment on how a lack of vision (‘dream’?) is often excused in the name of reason or rationality (‘thinks’?), the suddenly awkward syntax is distracting and not well-integrated with the rest of the poem.

Such awkwardness is, thankfully, confined to only a few of the socio-political pieces in the collection. Where Chan excels, however, is in her sensitive rendering of the personal and familial. And when the personal becomes a lens through which the political is examined, it reveals a subtle, self-questioning poetic sensibility that should, with time, grow in its ability to weigh the world without getting weighed down by the world.


John Yau

John Yau has published many books of poetry, fiction, and criticism, as well as contributed essays to art monographs. A book of poetry, Further Adventures in Monochrome, is forthcoming in 2012 from Copper Canyon Press. The recipient of fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Ingram-Merrill Foundation, New York Foundation of the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, he teaches in the Visual Arts program at Mason Gross School of the Arts (Rutgers University). He and his family live in New York.




In the film, before the hero’s train is intercepted and parboiled by hoary hooligans, a woman in a white chiffon dress is seen ascending the marble stairs of a casino in the resort town of Deauville, which, as many cinephiles know, is the name of the little station where a French writer, who was possessed by dubious habits, was scheduled to disembark at the beginning of each summer, ready to author a succession of hand-painted postcards for the amusement of his friends stuck in menial jobs back in Paris.

The bandits’ costumes ran the gamut, from mid 19th century aristocrats with swords to a Hollywood Chinaman’s get-up, complete with rifles and binoculars taken from dead cavalrymen, complete with yellow bandanas. (The color provides a crucial clue to the sequel).

The leader wore a stovepipe hat festooned with black lace. He had a wooden leg, which he placed on the chair beside his bed when he slept at night.

Once the cast of characters is introduced, the water rises further, and the train crew battens down the hatches, and the flooding of outside influences takes hold. Clearly, they had started the wildest leg of their journey, and, from now until they reach what some scholars conveniently designate as the terminal departure point, the situation becomes increasingly fraught with potential disasters.

The suspension bridge with its missing slats and frayed rope would have proved a welcome distraction, but it was, sadly enough, inserted rather early in the first reel. All was in turmoil. Entire villages and towns cursed the night and whatever else befell them, including rust and unharvested grain. Blame was assigned, and firing squads were dispatched to all parts of the fading empire.

The bank’s doors are stamped CLOSED. Money becomes a source of shame, which the young woman finds amusing as she lights a cigar with a greenback.

Outside the window, volcanoes stir their vats of inoculated pyres.

Fires race down the mountains, eager to embrace their guests.

He was part of the first wave of immigrants to climb the rope ladder they – and “they” will always be called that – dangled down the moss-covered wall of success.  They said it was slippery, but that is only the tip of the iceberg, what gets put down on paper, the tales taught to children so they will accept disappointment and believe they deserve their fate.

I sometimes refer to him as my “father,” but that only serves to indicate a biological relationship. There are many kinds of bonds, and these have been dated and preserved in the appropriate places, such as the magazine rack in corner drugstores.  It’s not that this story is different. It’s not even that this story is the same. About the rest, I will not say more.

She was raised to be in the background, but its flowers did not suit her. If you need be told, she is (was) my mother. Dead now and part of the wallpaper with a floral motif interrupted by disasters, sickness, and war.

After winding its way through the lower Alps, the train descended the slopes and began chugging through the rainforest until, after many days, the fog parted and the coast became visible. That, the engineer thought, is where the beaches are, and where I first saw my bride-to-be standing alone under the sun.  Unbeknownst to the passengers sitting in their compartments, Eugene Boudin was at the beach that fateful afternoon, and his painting has become known among a select few as The Engineer’s Dream. This group is not universally recognized because, as a minor character in the author’s masterpiece points out, it was too big and unselective to be memorable.

Things turn out very differently, which is a necessary condition of starting out, though this sticking point is never mentioned in any contract.

Amidst the beginning of an era, end of an epoch, turning of the steering wheel.

We declare these groups and groupings to be self-evident, which preoccupies later generations of scholars and judges, some of whom carry shotguns under their robes. If there is any doubt, your reaction is all that is needed.

Seeing eye to eye is fruitless since mine are crossed and one of yours is missing.


Shot In The Documentary Mode

I sit on a scarred wooden bench in an olive-colored bus with rows of other shoeless boys.  A bird with black feathers studies the bus’s inhabitants.  The tarred blue road on which our vehicle has been placed, vanishes at the blue horizon line, leaving the passengers perplexed as to what happens next.

Tonight the moon is made of pearlescent paint and gum arabic. 
Tonight the moon is a crow with one red eye
dangling upside down from the ceiling. 

A machine-made voice announces that we are a herd of cows on our way
to becoming cowards. 

The clouds temporarily obscuring the moon reflected in a boy’s eyes are interrupted by an omniscient narrator, who tells the audience that the evening’s itinerary includes being transported to the outskirts of the mortal sky, its carousel of gilded horses surrendering to the pink and green clouds.

This is the legacy of being born in another century.
Before electricity is collected in jars.
Before colors had names like Scarlet Lips and Whiplash Watermelon.
Before a man immerses his skinny legs in baggy shorts
and picks out his favorite polka dotted shirt.
Before melancholy, mellow, and memorable are removed
from the approved adolescent vocabulary.

The bus rolls through small towns pockmarked with faded signs staring down from dusty brick walls.  Red dust settles onto the window ledges.

Angry that a busload of children are passing through their town, smooth-faced adults stream out of diners and drugstores, howling and wildly throwing debris at the gleaming, riveted dirigible.

Meanwhile, we are taught that hag collectors have become increasingly difficult to identify. First, in a world where everyone wears gloves to ward off germs, you have to find someone with gnarled hands and a predilection for warts, but after that everything gets hazy, and those who have ventured into these ghastly woods have seldom returned. 

Someone in the back says we are having a dream, that the lessons we are learning are discarded by-products of bad poetry, which children have been forced to memorize for years.

Someone else says that by sitting on our hands, and acting dumb, we can learn to sleep in a deeper cave, where dreams are unable to penetrate. 

But for others – the ones who read poetry in the dark—these answers only make matters worse.



Noisy cloud cover dissuades us from bubbling over.

After we pull into the truck stop, get off our camels, and enter the pinball arcade, the air slims down to a silvery glimmer.

The three men in blue uniforms should have warned us of the consequences, but, according to the instruction manual, their sole function is to greet and direct strangers down the path, leading to the warehouse of hidden treasures on sale. On polished stones fitted together, like gears, we pass blue pediments embalmed in hair, a row of empty barracks.

Tom, Dick, and Harry––their shirt pockets were embroidered with a message of subtly increasing size. At first, we didn’t think anything of this warning sign for the hazards of infinity, but the worms they spawned grew under our skin.

Our group leader, Hermes Trismegestus, pointed out that each path leading into the arcade was lined with identical rows of lampposts, and that all the paths radiated from a central marble arch, while retreating neatly toward the gold leaf horizon. It was as if a man with an inverted glass eye had invented this perspective.

What happened next to the crystal orb remains a mystery, which is why it is the subject of numerous late night television documentaries devoted to separating half-truths from complete fiction. Some of us are intrepid travelers in the labyrinth of half-truths, while others prefer to be enthralled by complete fiction, its various branches and outposts, including the ones overrun by bougainvillea. But such differences should be expected among those who guide wooden tubs to their demise for a small but earnest wage.

Sinbad’s interpretation revolved around an alchemist who first became famous in Baghdad for the invention of a garden that fit easily in a young girl’s tattooed palm, but which contained examples of flowers so rare that there is no record of them having been seen elsewhere. At dusk, herds of yellow deer emerged and munched on leaves, assiduously ignoring everything that was shiny but wasn’t colored green.

A warm, well-modulated voice calmly interrupted him.

I am not actually doing any of the speaking, but it is my voice (in its new guise) that I hear clattering outside my head, rather than just rolling around inside it, like a ball bearing in the maw of a broken machine. I have become the unwarranted object of a ventriloquist’s attention. This is how I fell out of the sky and landed in the parking lot of a truck stop that ended with the letter, “a” (Arizona, Montana, and Samoa). Since then, many months, moons, mopeds, and morons have scooted by.

Butterflies continue feeding on the corpses of old statues.

Foxes sit around and recount tricks they played on humans.

Regrettably, I have settled into a routine that includes waiting for my friends to catch up with me or, in some instances, leave me behind, alone in a forest presided over by an owl with one eye, its semi-solid mass of particles moving surreptitiously through time and space’s bumpy terrain.



Wendy Chin-Tanner

Wendy Chin-Tanner’s debut collection Turn is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in March, 2014. Her poetry has appeared in Softblow, The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge, The Saint Ann’s Review, and The Raintown Review. She is a Founding Editor at Kin Poetry Journal, a Poetry Editor at The Nervous Breakdown, and the Staff Interviewer at Lantern Review.



No Moon

In the old beige station wagon straining forward
on the road like a dog 
frantically sniffing for the way home, 

we are lost in the winding countryside, overgrown
branches scratching the roof
as the signs bearing route numbers grow
too dark to read after a day spent hunting real estate;

a house, some land, some water
where we could run, a precaution after Chernobyl
when we drank only powdered milk and frozen juice for a year.

In the front seat, Ma and Ba sit
silhouetted in silence, sustained in the green glow
of the dashboard, a play
of shadows flitting from the landscape over their faces.

Across the broad lap of the leather backseat, I lie
supine as the daylight that had earlier been
so dazzling and bright dancing
in the paisley of the real estate agent’s scarf

fades from dusk to a black
whose dense immensity, though the opposite
of light, holds its own kind of clarity,
a reminder of how far 

you could fall, and I imagine that the car door
could suddenly unlatch and I would fly
out into that darkness, into the woods, into the universe.
Outside my window above the blur of dark shapes,
I scan the horizon for a steady still spot,

but a shooting star screeches like a skidmark
across the night and amid the clouds tumbling
thick and ink-smeared and round, 

there is no moon to be found until long after we arrive
when its battered face appears, 

a pale ghost hanging in the bright morning sky.


Little Death

Grandma, your tongue twists, making half-joined
sounds. Your good hand points to the bandages, asking 

why and when we will go. The nurses studiously
avoid your eyes, accustomed in their way to such 

little scenes; another day, another little death.
The summer I learned to read, I asked you the questions 

for the citizenship test. We rehearsed them
over and over again: Are you a Communist? 

No! you’d cry and I’d nod yes, smiling but afraid you might
not pass until finally, standing before the judge, you pledged 

your allegiance, hand over heart.  Your skin is soft and
plump like a girl’s, swollen from the IV, liver spots scattered 

sweetly like Brown-Eyed Susans in a field
of bruises. I massage your insteps, running 

my thumbs again and again over
your warm little feet. In my hands, 

they fit perfectly, arching and curling, toenails like pearls
clipped into miniature half moons. Each visit, we do this 

and then I leave. At home, with strong soap, I scrub
my hands clean. And I lead my husband to the bedroom.


Floyd Cheung

Floyd Cheung teaches at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.  His poems have appeared in various journals including The Apple Valley Review, qarrtsiluni, and Rhino.





brought a book
but watch her instead
only the width of the bar
between me and her workstation,
heat of the wood-fired oven 

she kneads expertly
her brown fingers slender and sure
but must be in training
while twirling the dough
says shit when she rips it
mounds my green salad too high
popping into her mouth
the fallen leaves


Crow Catching

A few deft steps.
Striking with both hands,
my father caught the crow–
wings pinned,
talons pointed away. 

We had been strolling–
my mother and father,
my wife and me.
Their first visit
to our first home,
an apartment overlooking
a dumpster near the levee. 

I never saw him
do this before,
though I knew
my grandmother
sometimes made
bird soup.

Performance now,
provision then.



Billy Collins writes of readers
who tie up poems, beat them with hoses,
torture confessions out of them. 
But some poems are so strong
they cannot be bound. 

We can wrestle with them
like Jacob with the angel,
but they grant us no blessing.
These seraphim–
ropes burn right off their blazing bodies.

Only turn the page and hope
they let us be.


On Eating Peanuts

It only hurts when I chew
on the left side of my mouth.
My dentist tried three times
to fix the offending tooth,
but I will not let him try again.
It’s not his fault. He trained at Harvard. 

Who am I to live pain-free?

Now I’ve the opportunity to remember
frailty, mortality.  Pain
a part of life, each peanut a jolt
of awareness and sin.
Thomas More had his hair shirt,
I molar #19.


Kim-An Lieberman

Kim-An Lieberman is a writer of Vietnamese and Jewish American descent, born in Rhode Island and raised in the Pacific Northwest. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. Her poetry collection, Breaking the Map, won the 2008 First Book Award from Blue Begonia Press.




Unearthing Song

Today I am a child, leaping from bank of silt
into chest-deep canal, droplets silvering my brow
in the flat sunlight. Yesterday I was my uncle, 

my grandfather, my grandmother, a nameless row
tied at the hands to haul buckets of dirt away
for a whisper of grain, chopping the steel-hard ground 

to the clashing of hubcaps, staccato bullet-spray
breaking time apart. Gun muzzle jabbed in the back,
we slash at the land until its arteries lie splayed 

and splashing, surging, indelibly green. We take
what we are given. We swallow what we must.
We clear skulls and jawbones from the floodgate

and burn what we are told to burn. Then today I am just
anyone, some random onlooker reading a dispassionate
news clip about the children of a faraway harvest,

six boys leaping from mudbank to silvering wet,
fed and happy, ignorant of what soft soils they till,
what buckets and buckets of blood. Every night

we rinse the white dust from our rice, let it boil
until the pot’s steaming broth is fragrant and clear,
no trace of iron or salt, no tang of human ill.

Meal after meal, we refuse to taste the labor,
the dark coagulate lodged between tongue and teeth.
So close the eyes. Swallow. We will dream our water 

and bread in the sweetest light, will fully believe
our foods pure and close to the source, will live days
drunk on ash and bone-flake, hungering for need.
Every season a communion. Every year another seed.



The Anti-Chinese Riot at Seattle, Washington Territory, Drawn By W.P. Snyder, From Sketches By J.F. Whiting, of Seattle (Harper’s Magazine, March 1886)

A century’s span—candles to streetlights,
horsecarts to highways, whole city blocks
rising and crumbling, ungathered, remade—
but surely that morning was Seattle as ever,
drizzle and damp, cool salt-cornered air,
sun not yet risen between sheets of grey.

One man graved this image, line by line,
carved out jackets, shirtsleeves, collars, fists,
a dark throng of hats. We do not need captions
to understand the crowd’s clamoring roar,
the police guard swashing rifles overhead,
or the begging, frenzied figures at the center.

Their billowing black sleeves, their slippers.
Their long manchurian braids. Loudly limned
even in miniature, faces oval and eyeless,
absent any tint to warm the honey of their skin.
Some stand in profile, arms reaching outward.
Some run, but not far. Some kneel as if to pray.

But no hurried fear in the artist’s arrangement.
One strong line sweeps sharply left to right,
cordoning the bullies, centering the victims.
The reporter’s type tells how the quarter doors
yielded to quiet force, to a shivering multitude
dragged from sleep and herded to the harbor.

Decades shy of the flashbulb, the halftone,
we can only imagine the truths of this tale.
A terrified boy stuffing his bag, no time to find
the silks that his sister hand-stitched to fit.
A pile of gambling counters, an upturned chair.
Blood and breaking. Cold tea in half-empty cups.

All we have here are faint echoes of memory,
an after-hours geometry, a footnote on the fold.
And just one clear face frozen in the scene—
low, corner right. Thick mustache, dark felt hat.
He is cheering the mob. Or protesting. Or simply
bearing witness, pencil in his upraised hand.