Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Asian-American Poets Not Named Li-Young Lee

How many Asian-American poets do you know? You might be able to name Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Justin Chin, Garrett Hongo, Eileen Tabios, and Nellie Wong off the top of your head. You might think that you know most, if not practically all, of the Asian-American poets out there. But do you really?

On her blog, Barbara Jane Reyes recently made an insightful commentary on the general preoccupation with Li-Young Lee, and it made me think. It made me think that, for a greater understanding of Asian-American poetry, we should read a wider range of poets. It made me consider the possibility that all of us -- even Asian-American poets, even people who study Asian-American poetry closely -- may not know as much as we think we know, as far as appreciating the scope of Asian-American poetry goes.

There are at least several dilemmas with this lack of knowledge. First, it renders any of our assertions of "what Asian-American poetry is" less accurate, given that we have only a limited, partial view of this body of literature. Second, it prevents us from making comparisons between the poetry of, say, a "Justin Chin" and the poetry of a perhaps lesser known Asian-American poet. Third and related to the previous points, it makes progress in defining and comprehending "Asian-American poetry" (and perhaps in the writing of such poetry itself) more difficult. There may be a constant reinvention of the wheel, a swinging of the pendulum between "language" and "political/identity" poetry camps in both the poems themselves and the scholarship on the poems, fostering "schools of thought" that are not terribly original and cannot fully negotiate all the nuances of "Asian-American poetry."

Where am I going here? In the remainder of post, I want to introduce three Asian-American poets that we should know. I say, "introduce," because I have never come across a discussion of any of these poets, or any of their poems or books of poetry, on any poetry blog. In fact, I have very seldom encountered their names or poems anywhere and thus do not know much about their poetry. But I say, "we should know," because all three of these poets have something in common -- in the past seven or eight years, important publishers have published their first poetry collections.

It is somewhat of a puzzle to me that certain poets are more generally well-known than others. Does the popularity of the poet correlate with the perceived quality of the poetry? I really cannot say. I cannot say, because these poets have something else in common -- relatively few of their poems are online, which makes it difficult for me to form a judgment. Now I could buy their books, but the catch-22 here is that I actually do not know enough about their poetry to make an intelligent decision as to whether I should purchase them. Perhaps these poets and/or their publishers had not done quite enough in terms of publicity. Or perhaps it is those of us in the blogosphere who are behind the curve. I don't know. At any rate, I'd like to give their books of poetry another look with this post:

Arlene Biala: In 1999, West End Press published her first poetry collection, Continental Drift. Here is her biography: "Arlene Biala was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area. Her poetry explores stories of the generations who have left their native lands to live in America, particularly Philipino/a people. A performance artist with an MFA from the New College of California in San Francisco, she has studied under poets Genny Lim, Juan Felipe Herrera, Margarita Luna Robles, David Meltzer, and Lyn Hejinian. She performs with her brothers, Jimmy Biala on percussion and Billy Biala on saxophone, throughout California. Her stark, tender, sensual and political poetry goes beyond chronological storytelling into the dance of simultaneous experiences called forth by tragedy, family, and love" (

David Chin: In 2000, Mellen Poetry Press published his poetry collection, The China Cupboard and the Coal Furnace. Here is his biography: "David Chin grew up in Jersey City. He received his PhD in English from Binghamton University. His poetry appears in various journals, anthologies, and in a chapbook, Chalked in Orange (Mbira Press). He has been the recipient of a Clara Woo award" (

Richard Hamasaki: In 2001, the University of Hawaii Press published his poetry collection, From the Spider Bone Diaries: Poems and Songs. Here is his biography: "Richard Hamasaki's home is in Kane'ohe, on the island of O'ahu. He has published two poetry chapbooks, 7 Poems/8 Photographs (with brother Mark Hamasaki), and virtual fleality. Hamasaki co-produces a series of publications, including spoken word and music recordings, and he writes articles, reviews, and essays, as well as poetry" (


Blogger Tao Lin said...

i'm an asian american poet, have you heard of me?

tao lin

10:00 AM  
Blogger EILEEN said...

Since she just came out with her first book, I'm going to "spam" your comments box with a marketing pitch (moi Meritage Press is her publisher) to "introduce" Bruna Mori (hope you don't mind the spam since Bruna really is a terrific poet):


A Special Pre-Release Offer For:

poems by Bruna Mori
paintings by Matthew Kinney
ISBN-10: 0-9709179-6-1
ISBN-13: 978-0-9709179-5-9
Release date: November 2006
Distributors: Small Press Distribution, &
For more info:

Relevant categories: Poetry. Creative Nonfiction. Urban Studies. Cultural Studies. Women's Studies.

Meritage Press is delighted to announce the release of Bruna Mori's long-awaited first poetry collection, Dérive, which also presents reproductions of paintings by New York-based artist Matthew Kinney. Drawn by the New York cityscape and encounters found there, physical trajectories are mapped in words and sumi-ink. Poems that depict an ever-shifting subjectivity within the urban sphere are interspersed with paintings of architectures dis/assembling.

From Second Avenue to 242nd Street, spanning mahjongg parlors and halfway houses, "Bruna Mori creates a lyrical alchemy of the debris and mythology of New Amsterdam (Brenda Coultas)." "Mori rides the New York City subway to its terminus, and in so doing reminds us that those oft forgotten souls who inhabit urban outreaches are adamant bridges between their old world and new (Martine Bellen)."

The book honors (and strays from) the Situationist theory of the dérive, or "drift"--where one or more persons during a certain period let themselves be attracted to the terrain, détourning one's steps on noncapitalized time. Through drift, Mori "found" collaborator Matthew Kinney painting the skyline in sumi-ink on a torn-edged canvas--a carryover from his skate-punk days when he regularly made impromptu washes on cardboard kept in his backpack. Not long after, they decided to combine their work.


To celebrate Dérive's release, Meritage Press is pleased to offer a Release Special through November 30, 2006. For $11.00, you can obtain a copy of Dérive—a savings off the book's retail price of $14.95—plus free shipping/handling to U.S. addresses. Just send a check made out to "Meritage Press" to:

Eileen Tabios
Meritage Press
256 North Fork Crystal Springs Road
St. Helena, CA 94574


"Mori is not only a cogent observer of life and its environs but a magnanimous participant who shines a light on the profound beauty of no-name pizza parlors and sweaty flesh that bears green tattoos of the heart."
—Martine Bellen

"Dérive is an animated guidebook to the boroughs of my city and should be required reading for travelers and residents alike."
—Brenda Coultas

"Much to admire. In the range of experiences detailed and the ever-shifting vantage point, the city and its inhabitants emerge as vastly various and yet inextricably bound to one another."
—lê thi diem thúy

"A deft poetic journey through the fissures and ironies of city life."
—Norman M. Klein

Bruna Mori was born in Japan and has lived primarily in the United States--mostly in New York, and Louisiana and California. Tergiversation (Ahadada Books, 2006) and The Approximations (2nd Avenue Poetry, 2006) are her first chapbooks, and Dérive is her first book. A writer and editor, she teaches at Art Center College of Design and the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Her BA and MFA degrees were completed at the University of California, San Diego and Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.

Matthew Kinney was born in Georgetown, Massachusetts. A visual artist with an emphasis on painting and sculpture, he presently has a studio space at Spire Studios in Beacon, New York; also an advocate of sustainable agriculture, he works at Windfall Farms in Montgomery. He attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Tao, thanks for stopping by. I hadn't heard of you before, but I think that there are quite a few Asian-American poets out there who I don't know, and it's always good to learn new names.

4:19 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Eileen, I hadn't heard of Bruna Mori before, but the new book sounds fascinating! Hope the book sales go well.

4:21 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

now the question begs, when is roger pao's book of poetry coming out? i've seen a few good poems here and there but we want more!


7:18 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Nick, good question! One of these days, eventually, hopefully...and in the meantime, there's always blogging about poetry.

7:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Lois-Ann Yamanaka counts as an Asian-American poet eventhough she's considered "local" literature of Hawai'i. I suppose you have to consider what constitutes Asian-American: is it the genetic make up of the poet or is the subject matter (and biology)? Ed Bok Lee also comes to mind--and Linh Dinh (he's amazing).

12:16 AM  

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