Thursday, July 24, 2014

Speakeasy #14 Gwee Li Sui and Koh Jee Leong

Read with Gwee at Speakeasy #14 organized by Pooja Nansi at Artistry Cafe last night. Video taken by Alvin Pang.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Open Letter Regarding the National Library’s Book Ban

Open Letter Regarding the National Library’s Book Ban

What the National Library has done—banning, and pulping, three children’s books because they depict untraditional families—horrifies and saddens me. I love the National Library, first in its original Stamford Road edition, and then in its modern translation in Bras Basah, for its vast repository of knowledge and pleasure. But the “generous giver,” as poet Edwin Thumboo calls it in his poem on the old library, has now taken away with a closed fist, and not just taken away, but will destroy the books.

I feel the destruction on the pulse because I identify as gay. All the ways in which the state, supported by an apparent majority of citizens, criminalize and discriminate against the LGBT community have not hit home as hard as this act of vandalism. The object to be pulped is so innocuous. And Tango Makes Three, one of the three books, is about a pair of male penguins hatching an egg and caring for the chick. It is about love and family. It is based on a true incident. But it is deemed so corrupting of our youth that it must be indexed and banned. Nothing before this act of censorship has shown me the true extent of the fear, loathing and hostility that are directed against LGBT persons and families. It stops the heart.

But this destructive act also offends me deeply because I identify as a Singaporean, and what the state does, through its agencies, misrepresents me and my values. I have lived for many years in the USA but I visit Singapore every one of those years because I have the means and the inclination. I have a green card, but I will never give up my Singapore citizenship. Singapore is still my country. In the years away, I have discovered the truth of the truism: you can take the boy out of Singapore, but you cannot take Singapore out of the boy. Against the forces of homophobia, I will insist that I am a gay Singaporean. Whether you like it or not, I am a part of your “social norms” and “family values.” You have to take my pink I.C. and my red passport, my National Service dues and my Education Service record, into account.

Finally, and most personally, I am outraged by the book ban because I am a writer. Writers often compare books to lives for very good reasons. Not only do books distill the best thoughts and feelings of writers, they conduct the widest and deepest dialogues with their societies. Books are the founders of global democracy. So it is with great admiration that I read about the principled stand that some Singapore writers have taken against the book ban. Ovidia Yu, Cyril Wong, Tania De Rozario, Gwee Li Sui, Prem Anand, Felix Cheong, Adrian Tan, Joshua Ip and others are boycotting National Library events; a number are also boycotting the Singapore Writers Festival, for which the National Library is a program partner.

I have never been invited to participate in National Library events nor the Singapore Writers Festival, so it is presumptuous of me to say the following, but in order to express my solidarity with these courageous and thoughtful writers, I will not participate in a National Library event nor the Singapore Writers Festival, if I am asked, until the National Library restores the three children’s books to their proper shelves, unsegregated and unmarked by any warning label. Because books are like lives, these books must be treated the same way as other children’s books. They should not be herded into a reservation nor forced to wear a Star of David.

Instead of destroying books in the name of protecting our children, how should a National Library provide for its youngest guests? In the heart of the Bras Basah edifice stands a special collection of books donated by Edwin Thumboo, who is, according to the National Library website, “widely regarded as the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore.” In his poem “National Library, 2007, nr Bugis” about this new library, the grandfather of seven expresses his hope for the library and the country in this way:

“Let the young, including my seven butterflies, explore,
Grow, discern and cherish; test shifting worlds, judge and
Prefer. Learn to check their walk and track that serpent
As we re-arrange our gardens, our declensions of heart…”

Koh Jee Leong
New York City
July 13, 2014

Monday, July 07, 2014

Received & Recommended

My Seven Studies for a Self Portrait has been "Received and Recommended" on the MANOA blog. Frank Stewart and Pat Matsueda, thanks for liking the book so much. The blog is a treasure of contemporary poetry, much of which is from Asia.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Summer Exhibitions at MoMA PS1

Just want to remember that I saw the installations and political performances of Christoph Schlingensief, the paintings of Maria Lassnig, the painting and installation of Korakrit Arunanondchai, and the sculptures and ephemera of James Lee Byars. Had a lovely lunch with LW at a Peruvian restaurant around the corner afterwards.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Donate to Singapore Literature Festival in New York

Dear Friends and Readers of this blog,

For three days in October (Oct 10th to 12th, 2014), sixteen Singapore writers will converge on New York City to share their exciting works. It is a wonderful opportunity to hear and engage with the most distinctive voices of the island-state, which celebrates its 50th year of independence next year. The Singapore Literature Festival will help deepen the dialogue between East and West, between Asia and America. 

The festival will take place in various locations around New York City including 92nd Street Y, NYU Writers House, Book Culture, and McNally Jackson. 

Ten writers will be flying in from Singapore, to be joined by six writers based in the US. The exciting line-up: Alfian Sa'at, Alvin Pang, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Christine Chia, Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo, Cyril Wong, Haresh Sharma, Jason Erik Lundberg, Joshua Ip, Kirstin Chen, Ovidia Yu, Pooja Nansi, Tania De Rozario, Verena Tay, and Wena Poon. 

We need your support to make this dream come true. We are a group of volunteers, Singaporean writers and creatives who are proud to call New York City home. We have secured sponsorship for the costs of mounting the festival. The writers have received partial funding for their airfare and are willing to make up the difference, even if it means crashing on someone’s couch. As the organizers, we want to help our writers by raising funds for them. Your donation will go toward paying the writers. It will also pay for professional video recording and photography, so that the readings and conversations will be preserved and made available for future use. 

Please contribute generously to our Kickstarter campaign. We have come up with some fantastic rewards for various levels of sponsorship. How would you like to own a piece of art by one of our writers? Or have your name written into a poem or story? You can show your support by contributing an amount as large as $1000 or as small as $10. Every dollar counts. 

Please feel free to forward this appeal to family and friends. You can follow us on the festival website ( or on Facebook (

Make history with us by supporting this independent literary venture!

Yours sincerely,
Paul Rozario-Falcone and Jee Leong Koh
Co-chairs of Singapore Literature Festival

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Cover for Japanese Translation of "The Pillow Book"

The cover for the Japanese translation of my Pillow Book. I love it! It pays tribute to the original cover by Math Paper Press, but the new design is at the same time so typical of Awai Books. Thank you, Matthew Chozick and team! Thank you, Mariko Hirasawa, for the wonderful illustrations! And Keisuke Tsubono for translating it.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Banana Yoshimoto's "Kitchen" and Tse Hao Guang's "Hyperlinkage"

The two books are linked only by being carried in my bag to Fire Island last weekend. Banana Yoshimoto's book Kitchen is really two stories, a longer one, "Kitchen," and a shorter one, "Moonlight Shadow." Both deal with mourning for loved ones who died. After the death of her grandmother, her last relative, Mikage was "adopted" into the household of transgender woman Eriko and her son Yuichi. Neither Mikage nor Yuichi quite comes into focus, for me, as characters. It is Eriko, the embodiment of charm, who dominates the story with her personality, and whose death constitutes the true tragedy of the tale. She is Yoshimoto's update of the famous Chinese story by Li Yu, "A Male Mencius's Mother." The ending of "Kitchen" is charming. It is about the power of food, in particular, katsudon, to save one from numb despair. It reminds me of the nori-wrapped cucumber in Murakami's Norweigan Wood.

The other story in the book, "Moonlight Shadow," as its name promises, is more mystical. The narrator, another young woman, always parted from her boyfriend Hitoshi at the bridge over a river. When he died after a car crash, she is given a chance to say a final good-bye to him at the bridge by a mysterious woman called Urara. The story itself refers to the Chinese legend of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd. Translated by Megan Backus, the writing is simple, light and fresh, and despite of the literary allusions, not overly literary.

Hyperlinkage is Tse Hao Guang's first book of poems. There is intelligence here, both in the handling of the subject matter and in the lyricism of the voice. The poems in the voice of a Mrs. T (a figure presumably based on the poet's mother) are observant and musical. Tse wears the feminine voice lightly and convincingly. The poems inspired by the Internet (the hyperlinkage in the book's title) are far less moving, to me. They seem overly cerebral and calculated. The second-to-last poem "Frangipani" is a stunner, however. The poet is experimenting with different methods in this debut, as he should, and I very much hope that he will find the right one for his talent.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Celebrating 10 Years of Being Queer

In gay terms, I am ten years old this year, a young un. I was not out as a gay man to myself for the first thirty-four years of my life, even though I knew since primary school that I was strongly attracted to boys. I had to move from Singapore to New York in order to come out as gay. Unlike many friends, I lacked the courage to come out in Singapore. It was not easy to come out in New York either. I remember walking back and forth in front of a gay bar, terrified of going in. I had to join a coming-out group at Identity House for group therapy and discussion. I was not sick, but you don’t need to be sick to need therapy. You only need to be damaged. The first time I plucked up the courage to attend a meeting of the Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY), I made sure I did not cross my legs in the room filled with gay Asian men; I did not want to appear effeminate.

But it was at the next GAPIMNY meeting, which of course ended with supper in a Chelsea restaurant, that I met my first boyfriend. Winston was smart, kind and gentle. We took long walks in the city and talked and talked and talked. I was studying creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College at that time, and could not wait for the weekends when I would take the half-hour Metro-North train ride from Bronxville to Grand Central Station, and then the subway to Brooklyn Heights to see him. Once, watching a movie alone in Bronxville, I decided to surprise him by seeing him mid-week. The visit was more for my sake than his, but he welcomed me, though it was past midnight, and I returned to the campus by train early in the morning.

It was easier for me to come out to my parents when I had a boyfriend. I did not make it easy for my parents, though. After telling them that I was gay, I told them next that he was visiting them in Singapore in three days’ time. They rose gallantly to the occasion. It was very difficult for them, for it was like mourning the death of a son whom they thought they know, but they welcomed Winston warmly. We went out for a satay dinner at Lau Pa Sat, or Old Market. It was harder for my sister, for she was a sincere Evangelical Christian. My parents were Christians too, but they came to Christianity late in life and, anyway, kinship, for them, trumps religion. Still, my sister asked both of us to her home for dinner. It was a magnificent gesture. Not of acceptance, mind you, for her religious belief forbids it, but of love. My parents still attend Faith Community Baptist Church (yes, where the senior pastor is the homophobic Lawrence Khong). My sister and her family are looking for another church closer to their home, the last I heard.

This summer I will visit Singapore, as I’ve been doing every year. Guy my boyfriend will join me there, for the second time. During his last visit, two years ago, he hated the crowded shopping malls, but he loved Little India, for its architecture, food and atmosphere. We will again stay with my parents, taking up one of the two bedrooms in their tiny apartment, my old bedroom, in fact. I’m looking forward to introducing him to my sister and brother-in-law, who were living in New Delhi at the time of Guy’s first visit. I don’t know how my sister will introduce Guy to my young nieces. She and I have not talked about it. We are very loyal to one another, but we don’t talk much. Some things do take time. I myself took a very long time to come to terms with my sexuality. The least, and perhaps best, that I can do is to give others time too.

Coming out does not mean I have all my questions answered, but it does mean that I can answer life’s questions more truthfully. What is the balance between freedom and responsibility? What are the claims and limitations of love? Why do I hit the gym so obsessedly? And it is not just a matter of truth. It is a matter of liberation. For only by understanding the truth about oneself and others can we expand the ambit of our freedom. The Bible has at least this right: the truth shall set you free.

What about the role of the law in guaranteeing our freedoms? The words of Michel Foucault are the lodestone to me in this respect. Asked by an interviewer if he saw any particular architectural projects, either in the past or the present, as forces of liberation or resistance, Foucault replied, “The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions and laws that are intended to guarantee them. This is why almost all these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because “liberty” is what must be exercised.” He does not mean, of course, that we should not try to change the laws and institutions to gain our liberties, but he insists that we cannot depend on laws and institutions to guarantee our freedom. For, as he puts it succinctly, “Liberty is a practice.” We must act as if we are already free.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Osamu Dazai's "Self Portraits"

Translated by Ralph F. McCarthy, Self Portraits: Tales from the life of Japan's great decadent romantic comprises 18 short stories by Osamu Dazai. The long introduction by the translator provides a useful biographical context for the stories. Dazai wrote a form of biographical fiction, which amounted to a light fictionalization of his actual life. The life was certainly decadent. Born into a wealthy and politically influential family, Dazai left his class by marrying a young geisha. He forsook his university education in order to be a writer. He had romantic liaisons with many women. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol. He tried committing double suicides with his lovers, and finally killed himself at the age of 39.

The Tales are, however, not romantic with a capital R; they do not seek transcendence of the mundane. Instead, they are wistful, even comical in places, full of consciousness, and self-consciousness, of life's suffering. They are non-resistant to life. "Cherries," the final story of the collection, is particularly self-lacerating. The shorter stories, such as "Female," "Seascape with Figures in Gold," "A Promise Fulfilled," are shapely and striking. The longer stories are ambitious and complex. His famous "One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, " though not quite providing the number of views promised in the title, gave a variety of fresh expression of the beauty and meaning of this touristy icon. Not least among these views is a view of art, an ars poetica:

To take what is simple and natural--and therefore succinct and lucid--to snatch hold of that and transfer it directly to paper, was, it seemed to me, everything, and that thought sometimes allowed me to see the figure of Fuji in a different light. Perhaps, I would think, that shape was in fact a manifestation of the beauty of what I like to think of as "elemental expression." Thus I'd find myself on the verge of coming to an understanding with this Fuji, only to reflect that, no, there was something about it, something in its exceedingly cylindrical simplicity that was too much for me, that if this Fuji was worthy of praise, then sow ere figurines of the Laughing Buddha--and I find figurines of the Laughing Buddha insufferable, certainly not what anyone could call expressive. And the figure of this Fuji, too, was somehow mistaken, somehow wrong, I would think, and once again I'd be back where I started, confused. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rachael Briggs Reads "A Lover's Recourse"

The wonderful poet Rachael Briggs read and recorded the entire divan of 49 ghazals that concludes my book Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. What a feat and honor! The hero of the ghazals is a man whom I dated only twice, but fell head-over-heels for. The ghazals, however, are also crowded with other lovers. In her dramatic reading, Rachael teased out a great variety of tones and moods. Find a comfy seat. The whole reading takes only 1 hour, 12 minutes and 43 seconds. Let Rachael Briggs take you through "A Lover's Recourse."

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Starry Island

Order information for "Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore," the summer 2014 issue in the MANOA series of international literature published by the University of Hawai'i. Edited by Frank Stewart and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, this issue features the work of over two dozen writers and translators, including Kim Cheng Boey, Philip Jeyaretnam, Jee Leong Koh, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, O Thiam Chin, Wena Poon, Alfian Sa'at, Jeremy Tiang, Toh Hsien Min, and Cyril Wong.

Friday, June 13, 2014


smell of garbage
no garbage truck in sight
the fly follows me inside

Thursday, June 12, 2014


short summer night
in two months I will be tramping
the streets of Edo

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore

I'm in this anthology of new writing from Singapore, the 2014 summer issue of MANOA, published by the University of Hawai'i, edited by Frank Stewart and Fiona Sze-Lorrain.

Subtitle and Haiku

I think I may have the subtitle of my next collection: an album of haiku-like pieces.

girl on bike
grandfather on foot
short summer night

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Monday, June 09, 2014

Kafka on the Shore and a Haiku

In alternate chapters, two plots that begin far apart come together. In the first, Kafka Tamura, a fifteen-year-old abandoned by his mother at the age of four, runs away from home and finds refuge in a library. There he meets Oshima, a young transgender man, and Ms Saeki, who may or may not be his mother. Before reaching the library, he also has his first sexual experience with Sakura, who may or may not be his sister. Kafka's father is murdered, and the cops start searching for Kafka. In the second plot, Satoru Nakata lost all his memories, including the ability to read and write, on a mushroom-hunting expedition with his schoolmates. As an old man, he is an expert cat-finder as he is able to speak to cats. His murder of a cat-killer Johnnie Walker, however, puts him on the run. Helped by the young truck driver Hoshina, Nakata tries to find the entrance stone and is drawn inexorably, and mysteriously, to the library where Kafka hides. The novel is a good read, but I find it ultimately unsatisfying. There are many vivid scenes, such as the horrible one in which Johnnie Walker slits open the cats to eat their beating hearts, and the confrontation between Oshima and a pair of self-righteous feminists looking for sexual bias in the management of the Nomura Memorial Library. Also, the sex scenes are frank and stimulating. But the symbolism of the woods behind Oshima's mountain house feels heavy-handed. Telling Nakata's backstory through U.S. Army intelligence reports is also a less than fresh device. Minor characters, such as Oshima's surfer brother, appear incidental to the plot. The novel consists of disparate elements that seem to cohere only accidentally. Fate in the novel, a theme often evoked with reference to Greek Tragedy, is less inevitable than unavoidable.

the rain outside
sounds like white ants
gnawing through the roof

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Friday, June 06, 2014

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Monday, June 02, 2014

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Films and Haiku

Watched Stranger by the Lake at Ty and Di's house last weekend. Good movie directed by Alain Guiraudie. Also enjoyed Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, though I couldn't see why it should win the Oscar, as so many wanted it to. It's just a well-made movie, not that special. Last night, after dinner with Tim, I watched X-Men: Days of Future Past. Bryan Singer directed. Sexy scene with Hugh Jackman buck naked but he seemed strangely beside the point in a plot that really revolved around Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and her paramours Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (a very hot Michael Fassbender). Even minor characters such as Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Major Bill Stryker (Josh Helman) were more interesting.

from Panama
the first hummingbirds
schoolchildren at a waterfall

Friday, May 23, 2014

Bach and Haiku

Heard István Várdai play Bach's Cello Suites 1, 5 and 6 last night at Armory Park Avenue. Impeccable technique and dynamic shading. I thought that he lost the plot in some middle sections of all the suites. Suite 5 was especially moving. The experimental Sarabande--I want to hear it again. The performance took place in the recently refurbished Board of Officers Room. A stunning salon. Wine was served during intermission. The ticket cost only $25. A steal.

damp clothes
in a crowded bus
late spring

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Monday, May 19, 2014

Book Launch and Haiku

John Marcus Powell launched his book Glorious Babe at Suite Bar last Sunday afternoon. Published by Nemo R. Hill's Exot Books, and designed and illustrated by Julio, the book was celebrated with the artistic respect and warm affection that John Marcus has garnered in years of reading poetry around New York City. Hosted by Cordis Heard and John Foy, the launch was the last installment of the Red Harlem Readers series this season. Nemo led off the reading, followed by Thomas Fucaloro, me, and David Yezzi. As Nemo observed, all of us read a little like John Marcus, so powerful was the influence of the man's voice on us. The original came on stage and read for a most entertaining half-hour.


I started posting the first two lines of a haiku on Facebook, and invited other people to complete it. The results were certainly interesting.

a tiny leaf drops
into my cup of tea

Gwee Li Sui provided the humorous "I ask for refund"; Eric Norris the witty "like Basho's little frog"; Zhang Jieqiang the luxurious "no need to look up"; Chia Foong Yin the childlike "Splash! Caterpillar!" My attempt:

a tiny leaf drops
into my cup of tea
and then another

The next day I posted two more lines.

under the dry moss
yesterday's rain

Desmond Kon completed it with the excellent "no lovers back home"; Adam Alex Sage the earthy "still tastes of dirt"; Yong Shu Hoong the meta "acerbic subtext." My attempt:

under the dry moss
yesterday's rain
soaks my sneakers

Today's haiku, quite a grotesque one:

a dropped napkin
dabs at the corner
of a field

Friday, May 16, 2014

Poetry Reading and a Haiku

Dorothy Wang invited, and we attended, a reading by John Tipton, Mary Margaret Sloan, and Michael Autrey at at Berl's Poetry Shop in Dumbo last night. Tipton read from his forthcoming book Paramnesia and his translation of Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes. The poetry of Sloan, a friend of Dorothy's, was more experimental. Autrey read from his book Our Fear. The rumbling of trains over the Manhattan Bridge made it quite difficult to hear the readers, especially since the men insisted on not using the mic. Before the reading, Dorothy and I had dinner at Almar, an Italian place just a block away from Berl's. We had a lively discussion, as usual, about poetry, politics, and friendships.

divided on race
while sharing a side
of broccoli rabe

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Monday, May 12, 2014

Downtown Fair and a Haiku

The Downtown Fair was better than I had expected. I especially liked the paintings of Sheba Sharrow, and the photographs of Eric Forstmann and Julie Blackmon. Too many boring color field paintings and pop nothings.

a sandpiper
miles from the ocean
or a sparrow?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Second Saturdays #3 and Haiku

Jeremy Tiang hosted the third edition of the Second Saturdays reading series. Joseph Legaspi read as the feature. It was good to hear new and familiar voices reading their work: poetry, the opening of a novel, an academic treatise on the performing arts in Singapore, and the dramatization of a scene from local play. As before, the evening energized me for the work of writing and organizing.

behind the blinds
ruled like foolscap
a crow calls

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

ALSCW Salon and Haiku

Heard Philip Lopate and Patricia Hampl read their essays at an ALSCW salon on Monday. The essays were about many things, and one of the things was about the writing of an essay. In reflecting on writing, both essayists traced their inspiration back to Montaigne. I particularly enjoyed hearing Lopate, whose writing was suffused with irony directed at himself. A modest life modestly lived. The essay will never attain the prestige accorded to the novel and to poetry. It is capable of great beauty and even profundity, but it is not as various as the novel nor as sublime as poetry.

early morning
smell of diesel
in the garden

Monday, May 05, 2014

Deep Gossip and Haiku

I met Henry Abelove at Dorothy Wang's book party, and was introduced to his book of essays called Deep Gossip. The title is taken from Allen Ginsberg's elegy for Frank O' Hara. After describing O'Hara as a "Curator of funny emotions," Ginsberg praises him for his ear "for our deep gossip." The essays are as engrossing as gossip, an apt compliment if we think of gossip as the sharing of information between disempowered people. In these essays, Abelove performs careful and gracious corrections to what has been underestimated, overlooked and sidelined. 

Like many gay men, I have read Freud's letter to the American mother, but had not realized that it was his last riposte to the moralism of American psychoanalysts. In the next essay, the suggestion that other sexual practices besides "intercourse so-called" have been redefined as foreplay in the late eighteenth century is brilliant. Since I am not a fan of marriage, Abelove's reading of Walden in the third essay resonates strongly with me. An anti-novel, Walden delineates pleasures outside of bourgeois society and family. An essay interprets the interpretative community of queer students in Abelove's classroom. Another looks at the beginnings of American Studies through the lens of the work of F.O. Matthiessen, and the subsequent contestation of those queer beginnings.

The last essay of the  collection is especially meaningful to me. It argues that the Gay Liberation Front was influenced in its liberationist rhetoric by its reading of post-World War Two queer writers such as James Baldwin, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles, and Frank O'Hara. These writers, having spent long periods of time abroad, witnessed the decolonization of the world and wrote about it. The college students of the GLF read them avidly. Having grown up in Singapore, a former British colony, I was happy to discover the American link between gay liberation and decolonization. Abelove ends the essay, and the book, with three suggestions, the last of which resonates powerfully with me:

The common view of early gay liberation as an identity politics is mistaken. New York's GLF was not predicated on a commitment to a suppostitiously stable or definite identity. It was rather predicated on a commitment to a worldwide struggle for decolonization and its potential human benefits.

The implications of the statement and immense, and I will be thinking them out in the days to come. 

skipping brightly
a great spangled fritillary
a loose thread

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Friday, May 02, 2014

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Monday, April 28, 2014

NaPo 27 and 28

in the manila folder
the color of forsythia
a festival program

running into
a peck of pigeons

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thinking Its Presence

As a poet, I'd be deeply grateful to any reader who reads my poetry as closely as Dorothy J. Wang does the writings of Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, John Yau, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Pamela Lu. The quality of attention in Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry is strongly sympathetic, though never uncritical. Wang shows how the racialized formation of the poets' identity is, not a cause, but a determinant of the form and language of their poetry. To ignore such influence is to read them willfully with one eye closed. Whether the poet treats race thematically, as Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin and John Yau do, or through formal means and experimental strategies, as Wang argues for Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Pamela Lu, he or she has to confront the realities of American racial politics.

In her readings, Wang uncovers the complex deployment of the individual poet's dominant trope. She shows, for instance, that Li-Young Lee is a much more interesting poet than usually credited, by analyzing his slippery use of metaphor. Irony in Marilyn Chin and parody in John Yau are multi-directional, at once defensive and hostile. Even grammar bears the impression of race, in the participial phrases of Berssenbrugge, and the subjunctive subjects of Lu. Wang's analysis is informed by theorists such as Aristotle and Paul de Man on metaphor, Claire Colebrook and Linda Hutcheon on irony, Margaret Rose and Mikhail Bakhtin on parody, and Khachig Toloyan, William Safran and Paul Gilroy on diasporic writing, but she does not forget that poets have things to teach theorists too. So John Yau's poetry displays heteroglossia, a quality that Bakhtin reserves for the genre of novel.

Quite unusually too, in a book of literary criticism, Wang is fearless in calling out prejudice and bigotry in the pronouncements of white critics. Two important chapters deal with the separate involvement of Marilyn Chin and John Yau in two critical controversies over race and literature. The chapters show how avowedly liberal white writers and translators arrogate to themselves the power to decide what is racial, what is literary. These chapters are integral to the thesis of the book. They make concrete the alienating circumstances under which Asian American poets write. "Racialized formation" is a very abstract notion, until one reads what has been so openly said, and nastily implied, in letters to public journals.

As I read this volume, I hear echoes of the ideas that arose in my conversations with Dorothy, usually over brunch. Dorothy is a generous and exciting teacher, as her former students at the book party told me. I always leave her with new things to mull over. This book is the fruit of many years of thought. I will return often to it, and to the poetry that it celebrates.