Thursday, July 28, 2005

Word for Word Poetry: Tina Chang, Major Jackson, Tom Thompson

The Academy of American Poets presents a new reading series this summer in the Bryant Park Reading Room. Free and open to the public, the readings highlight emerging poets and take place on June 14, July 12, and August 9. The featured poets on August 9 will be Tina Chang, Major Jackson, and Tom Thompson.

Tina Chang is the author of Half-Lit Houses (Four Way Books, 2004). She is currently co-editing an anthology of South Asian, East Asian, and Middle Eastern poetry. She teaches at Hunter College and Sarah Lawrence.

Major Jackson’s collection of poetry, Leaving Saturn, a Cave Canem Poetry Prize selection, was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His second collection of poetry, Hoops, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton. He teaches at the University of Vermont and Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Tom Thompson is the author of Live Feed and the forthcoming collection The Pitch, both published by Alice James Books. He works at an advertising agency, and lives in New York City with the poet Miranda Field and their two sons.

Sponsored by Academy of American Poets and Bryant Park

from Academy of American Poets,

Monday, July 25, 2005

Hmong Visual Arts Exhibition at the Institute for Health and Healing

The Hmong American Institute for Learning and the Institute for Health and Healing are holding a 2-month exhibition of Hmong contemporary and traditional visual art from July 8th until August 29th in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

This unique show highlights the work of over 6 different Hmong artists from across the country, including Kou Vang, Yeng Lor, Chengkou Tongkhuya, Alyssa Valasquez, Pheng Lor, Sai Vang, and Boonma Yang and explores the relationship of art to the healing process at both the individual and community level.

A reading of contemporary Hmong women poets is scheduled at the Institute for Friday August 19th at 7:00 PM. presented in part with the Hmong Women's Giving Circle.

The Institute for Health & Healing is located at 2833 Chicago Ave. S. Minneapolis, MN 55407, the corner of Chicago and 28th Street in Minneapolis at: 2833 Chicago Ave S. Minneapolis, MN. For further information you can visit

Sunday, July 17, 2005

On Rick Barot's "Magnolia"

There is something indefinable about Rick Barot's "Magnolia" that feels just right to me. I think it achieves a level of perfection that very few poems do. I've always found it simpler to justify why a poem is stylistically perfect and substantively competent than to explain why it reaches another level, but I'll give it a shot here and go through the poem.

Most fundamentally, the poem contains a few of my personal favorite "moves" in poetry -- shifts in setting and time, original language and imagery, and unspoken yet meaningful and profound emotions hidden just below the surface. An aura of wonder and sorrow permeates the poem, which deals (if not directly then obliquely) with life, death, companionship, everyday conversations, small town life, class, and love, and you feel that Barot is going for more octaves than a lesser poem would dare to attempt.

I do not think that the opening two and a half couplets are the strongest lines in the poem (I'm not sure where the poem wants to go at this point, "small" is a bit of a cliched adjective to describe noise and "small noise" itself is a bit of a cliche, "small noise" and "small bird" are somewhat vague descriptions, and "birds" have gone-a "chirping" before in many pieces of writing.) Still, if I was a conscientious and not autocratic professor, I would note that these opening lines may be necessary for the rest of the poem, and Barot at least partly compensates for these choices with the second line of the fifth couplet -- "now I have you listening." Indeed, throughout the poem, the form of couplets is really quite effective at keeping the reader's attention.

In any case, I feel that the poem picks up with the second line of the third couplet/first line of the fourth couplet -- "one more office for the eye and ear/to momentarily inhabit" -- which I found to be pleasing in both a linguistic and sensory sense. As is fairly typical in Barot's poetry, and which is done quite well here, there is a series of transitions between brief and nicely turned phrases that evoke mood and place (for example, "the radiator" makes me think of an old couple in a cozy urban apartment, the stuff about the miners makes me think of laborers and the work of ordinary townsfolk, and the "cold light of a all-night laundromat" makes me think of loneliness and isolation but not necessarily sadness).

More on the "all-night laundromat": as I've read the poem, most of the poem is apparently set in a laundromat late at night. Being a night person, I especially appreciate the calm and subtle intellectual energy generated by two people conversing in easy tones late at night here. No one is around to judge them, and they can carry on with the pedantic chore of doing laundry while talking to each other to pass the time. I usually like stuff about ordinary life, and here people are talking about the news. Also, there is something oddly provocative about laundromats -- with the "personals" of private articles of clothing being washed and dried in a "public" arena in front of other people.

The description of the train carrying the body of the president is done well. The "vivid grief of flowers" and the smell of the body covered by flowers returns to the image of the magnolia, which becomes more important later in the poem.

More powerful, however, are the transitions from these "flowers" to the "psychidelic circle of colors spinning/ in the glass of a dryer" to the "magnolia/ opening and destroying" itself. Read these couplets carefully, because I think that the five or six couplets starting from "mean something..." are some of the strongest and most magical in the poem. To have the "pyschidelical circle of colors spinning" is one thing, but to immediately follow that up with "white clothes/ spinning in another dryer" is a brilliant move, not only because it eases the reader into the image of the magnolia but because the contrast of colors and tones provides a lovely spectacle.

Of the descriptions of the "doctor," the "boy," and the "flight attendant" that Barot lists after his solid description of the magnolia, I think that the one about the "boy" interests me most. It is sandwiched between two descriptions which work fine but are a bit more purposefully garish in terms of style and substance. The line -- "...the boy who/ finally understands that the secret to/ getting hit is knowing that you will be hit" -- presnts a fascinating and frightening paradox; the boy gets physically hit but the harm done to him paradoxically prepares him for being hit, and Barot leaves it up in the air as to whether it is good or bad that the boy comprehends this "secret."

Finally, and I'm sorry for going a tad long here, I really enjoyed the ending of the poem. I am not sure that I quite understand who the "her" is that is referenced in the line "place/ it into her mouth" in the third couplet from the end of the poem (Is it the mouth of the "word" or the "flight attendant"?), but it doesn't matter too much. The poem makes a wonderful metamorphosis into a love poem with the simple but direct lines, "I would find the right for you" and "I would correct the world in this manner, because you are listening," which is a move that a less confident poet writing a less confident poem would not make. We are returned to the laundromat, having traveled far and briefly with two interesting companions in a small town/urban laundromat who may or may not be ourselves on a warm summer night.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Rick Barot's "Magnolia"


It gets told, holds fast or it doesn’t,
and like rain brings back a thing more

than just itself, one more small noise
appearing in the laundromat, small bird

or cell-phone ring suddenly chirping,
one more office for the eye and ear

to momentarily inhabit, the work of my
nearness that much more urgent, now

there is this story I can tell you about,
now I have you listening, the way

the radiator has kept us listening all of
these nights, the din of its dreaming

the noise of picks and axes deep inside
a mine, the steam in its pipes forcing

a drowsiness on the miners, listening
for some other dream it could have:

say, that two people are quiet within
the cold light of an all-night laundromat,

the only thing open this late, this dark,
one of them telling a story of the dead

president traveling days past the big
and small towns, his train a vivid grief

of flowers thrown by the townspeople
beside the tracks, one telling this

story while the other only half listens,
until the story gets to the part about

the summertime heat, the body traveling
for days, the flowers a necessary cover

for the smell the body is giving out,
there is this other way that flowers can

mean something, not just mourning, not
just beauty, but a necessity that keeps us

awake through the story, the radiator’s
other dream, half of their clothes making

a psychedelic circle of colors spinning
in the glass of a dryer, the white clothes

spinning in another dryer, like a magnolia
opening and destroying itself over and

over, the image a nearness, my being
near, my being afraid that this is already

the past I will remember in the future,
this is the meat that the mind’s mandibles

get to have, dying, because death gets
to have all it wants: say, the doctor’s

funhouse reflection in the patent-leather
shoe of the dead president, the boy who

finally understands that the secret to
getting hit is knowing that you will be hit,

the flight attendant mis-speaking to us
as the plane glided toward the starry field

that we would be in the ground shortly,
and though I laughed at that, I knew

I would find the right word for you, place
it into her mouth, the flower of it in her

mouth, I would correct the world in this
manner, because you are listening, it is

raining outside the laundromat, the driest
part of your body the small of your back.


Biography: Rick Barot's first book of poems, THE DARKER FALL, was published by Sarabande Books. He has poetry and prose in recent and upcoming issues of "TriQuarterly," "New England Review," and "Virginia Quarterly Review." This fall he will begin teaching at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Where Are You From? - Les Regles Des Jeux

If you are Asian American, you know that one of the most awful, awful cocktail party questions that anyone can ask you is "Where are you from?," especially if the person who asks the question persists after you have given a locale in the United States. But I'm here to say that this question might not be that "awful, awful," and if it is that awful, perhaps we, both Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans, can make it less awful. Perhaps we can think more critically about when and how the question may be posed.

So, in this spirit, I'm proposing and discussing a list of standards on the "Where are you from?" question to Asians in America. Some of the standards may be cool. But some may be way off-base, but hey, someone's got to start somewhere. And I'm not really proposing standards in some of these points but merely raising issues based on my own empirical observations. In general, however, this list represents my own little "hints from Heloise" for the asking of the "Where are you from?" question.

1. One Time Only: You can ask the question once, as you can with all other folk. If you ask the question once, and the Asian American responds with an American city, you should, in most circumstances, not ask the follow-up, "But where are you really from?" or any question of that nature.

2. The question is NOT "What country you are from?": You shouldn't word the question this way, of course, because you would be presuming that the Asian American is from another country. You can't tell with anyone -- even Asian-looking folk with heavy accents may be Asian Americans who have recently become citizens.

3. Having Lived/Travelling Abroad and Curiosity: One exception the "one time only" rule is if you have been, or about to, go abroad. On a related note, you may be particularly curious about one Asian country or more for other reasons and think that the Asian American that you come across would know.

There is a tactful way to go about things here: explain your own personal reasons for asking the question before asking it. And don't be overly blunt and command, "But where are you really from?" or "I meant, which Asian nation are you from?," or "Give me an Asian nation." Say something like, "Would you mind if I asked you what your ethnicity is?" and then go from there. If the Asian American person gives you her or his ethnicity and seems receptive, then you can ask "What generation Asian American are you?" Chances are, you'll get more info than single word responses.

4. Strangers vs. Friends: The better you know the person, the better it is to ask these questions. You'll also have the advantage of being familiar with cues to tell whether you're making the other person uncomfortable and whether to press on. This one ain't rocket science. It's the same with all types of questions that you ask friends vs. strangers.

5. Context: If you are in a crowded room with only one Asian-American who is a stranger, you probably wouldn't want to go up to him or her and ask the question. Conversely, if it someone that you know well and it's a comfortable, informal, one-on-one setting, then you can go up and ask the question. Just basic ettiquette again.

6. Asian Americans vs. non-Asian Americans asking the question: This one is difficult. I've noticed that Asian Americans asking the initial "Where are you from?" question often get more of a pass than non-Asian Americans asking it. One could then argue that Asian Americans themselves are feeling unduly and unfairly uptight about non-Asian Americans posing the question.

If you are non-Asian American and have been following the standards thus far, though, you should be ok, and the burden falls on the Asian American if he or she gets uptight. Some Asian Americans will get uptight at a non-Asian American asking the initial question. It is your choice whether to take it personally, though you should understand that the Asian American probably just anticipates that you're about to give her or him the third degree about being a foreigner, and your thus perceiving yourself as more authentically American, based on negative past experiences.

7. Socioeconomic status of person pressing on the question: This one is also difficult. It's not too politically correct to say, but often the people who blurt out, "What Asian country are you from?" to an Asian American are not exactly people of the highest socioeconomic and educational levels. Even if one might call them less worldly or less tactful, that doesn't mean they're xenophobic people or people out to embarass Asian Americans in any way. I don't have an answer here, unfortunately, and one party or both parties are typically left upset by these exchanges.

8. Reciprocation: Regardless of whether you are Asian American or non-Asian American, you're asking the question allows the same question to be asked to you. One way to think about the question is to ask yourself how you would feel if you were in the position of the person being asked. Again, it ain't rocket science.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Commentary on/Review of Shin Yu Pai's Unnecessary Roughness

Shin Yu Pai's most recent work, Unnecessary Roughness (2005), is a visual and linguistic maze that explores the insular world of high school athletics with a violent curiosity. It is also a chapbook in the classic sense -- it is a unified work in which all the poems direct their gaze towards sports, our idealization of sports from the beginnings of youth, and our societal obsession with sports with an unyielding focus. You will either like it or you won't.

To be truly appreciated, I think that Unnecessary Roughness should be read as a whole, preferably on one sitting (it's less than 35 pages, and the poems flow easily). This is why I am breaking from the recent pattern of posts again, apparently breaking from my own self-doubts about book reviews of poems as described in the previous post, and writing what is basically a book review here, as opposed to a review of any individual poem in the book. This review/commentary, of course, will necessarily be incomplete, but I'm hoping that it will be consonant with my belief that the best reading of the book is to read all the poems together as a unified entity.

In terms of style, about a third of the poems in the book are "visual poems," while most of the rest are of a more slender, traditional format. In general, I would argue that the visual poems work better than the other poems not just because of their stylistic ambition but because the ambition manifests itself in charming, innovative, beautiful works. In particular, take note of "dodgeball," "and round and round it goes," and "the wet area." Pai is clearly skilled at conjuring up unique patterns and anti-patterns and sensitive to visual space.

In terms of content, Pai intermingles themes of masculinity/ femininity, adolescence, sexuality, patriotism, high school athletics, and violence in sports with relative ease. The poems are not bluntly judgmental, but at the same time, they remain highly critical of a society mesmerized by the violence of athletics, which Pai suggests has subconscious sexual elements as well. At its core, the poems are also critical of the often physical, sometimes brutal nature of team sports, which function as a kind of proxy for the idea of a "fascist-socialist dictatorship" that conceals and distorts the individuality of human beings.

Reader be warned that the poems are not easy listening. The language and content of the poems are explicit though definitely not exploitative. In fact, Pai presents these issues/themes but allows us, the readers, to arrive at our own conclusions about whether, say, as in "P.E.," her criticism of team sports and school spirit is valid or not. In essence, as usual when we read poems, we carry our own heavy baggage into the poems and read them in light of the baggage that has formulated our personalities and perspectives on life.

As for myself, I have mixed feelings about the implicit contentions of the poems. You can say that the poems caricature high school athletics almost but not quite to the point of stereotype. Or you can say that the poems represent an intersting exploration of the subconscious underpinnings of high school athletics and sports in general. Or you can say both, and I say both. Actually, I like pretty much every sport and enjoyed my high school years, but at the same time, I recognize that most sports are violent and my high school years were no picnic either. In its most effective passages, Unnecessary Roughness captures the ambivalence of it all.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Shin Yu Pai's Unnecessary Roughness



there is something
for everyone and for
everyone else
there is

running or jumping
in place a basic
knowledge of the body’s
locker room

unlettered sweatshirts
and white crew socks
rubber shoes and rubber
pants’ed again, show

your school spirit or
just your undergarments
soiling the parquet floor
of the gymnasium

on a rainy day,
the school colors are drab
grey as any prefab notion of
taught "fitness"

a sense of team or
tribe, it’s cannibals
and rats who delight
in eating their own

- from Unnecessary Roughness (xPress(ed), 2005)



Shin Yu Pai is the author of Unnecessary Roughness (xPress(ed), 2005), Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003), and Ten Thousand Miles of Mountains and Rivers (Third Ear Books, 1998). She is currently artist-in-residence at the University of Texas at Dallas.

For more examples of the vispo in Unnecessary Roughness, please visit:

To purchase Unnecessary Roughness, please visit:

For more information on Shin Yu Pai and her poetry, please check out her blog:

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A Philosophy of Poetry Book Reviews

I have never read a "complete" book review of poetry. Never. Of all the genres of books -- including novels, works of nonfiction, etc. -- I think that books of poetry may be the hardest to completely review. In fact, I have not yet discovered a way that any reviewer of poetry can efficiently write a "complete" book review for poetry.

That is because (I feel and, I'm guessing that most poets and poetry fans share this sentiment) each poem is a work of art in and of itself. Each poem merits discrete attention. Poems in the same book, by the same poet, can vary widely in content, substance, tone, length, and quality. They are often written in different years, serve different purposes, and perhaps most importantly, have effects upon the reviewer in different ways. To reduce all poems in a book to a generalization that constitutes the singular entity that is "a book of poetry" is quite difficult.

I guess my point is that the problem here is that book reviews of poetry cannot possibly cover every poem in the book (in theory, you could, though I've never witnessed it done in practice). Typically the majority of poems in a book of poetry are not even mentioned in the review.

In fact, most book reviews of poetry that I've come across follow the same pattern of making generalizations about the book of poetry as a whole, quoting passages out of several poems, and possibly identifying several additional poems as worthy of attention. But wait a minute here! -- just because you, the reviewer, have reasoned that three or four poems are of high quality doesn't necessarily mean that I, the reader, should conclude that the whole book of poems is of the same quality from your reasoning. The leap from three or four awesome/awful poems to an awesome/awful book should not easily be made.

I'm not saying here that poets and others should refrain from trying to write book reviews of poetry or that fun, entertaining book reviews of poetry have not been/are not being written. I'm just saying that such reviews are incomplete. And I'd like book reviews of poetry to be complete, or at least closer to complete, which is the main point of my making this post in the place -- to get people to think about it more, and to get myself to think about it more, so perhaps I may have less qualms about reviewing individual books of poetry by individual poets in the future.