From Poetry Magazine

Angel Island: The Roots and Branches of Asian American Poetry

Image of Kimiko Hahn

Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Kimiko Hahn’s poem “Foreign Body” appears in the July/August 2017 issue. This lecture was presented at the Asian American Literature Festival on Saturday, July 19, 2017 at the Library of Congress. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.


What an urgent time for a radical soul. What a time to reaffirm that our histories are not that of obedient Orientals. In fact, not any kind of Oriental.

We carved protest poems on the walls of our detention centers. We rebelled against the lunas in fields of volcanic-black soil. We protested when forced to live in horse stalls in the desert. When asked to serve the country while our parents suffered illegal incarceration, we said NO and NO. We also volunteered for the armed services to prove patriotism, forming the 442nd Infantry Regiment Combat Team, the most decorated unit in U.S. history and whose motto was “Go for Broke” (one was my Uncle!). We immigrated. We were born right here. We assimilated and we challenged the assimilationist paradigm. We wrote poetry.

What a radical moment for us to be together. Over the past several elections, candidates have either connected or missed grassroot movements. Yes, grassroot organizing AGAIN for basic rights from voting to immigration to healthcare. I am so proud and honored to be here at the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center whose mission is to be a cultural laboratory [envisioning] curation as a form of community organizing. Curating, anthologizing, and performing are all means of expression and connection.

I’ve been invited to give a sense of our collective story from my personal and modest point view. And I’ve taken the lead from our former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. In one of his Library of Congress speeches, he said of his own coming of age and offbeat education: listening to the poets around and ahead of me, I was taking notes, so you know, society was our workshop ...

How unlikely that a little Eurasian girl—you know hapa haole—born and isolated in Pleasantville, N.Y., would be here to address you. Thankfully, I came of age in the sixties and seventies. Thankfully, after a year living in Japan, my parents enrolled my sister and me into Japanese language classes and Japanese dance lessons at the New York Buddhist Church on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. How could my parents have known that in dance class I’d meet Aichi Kochiyama and come to know her radical family (her mother Yuri Kochiyama, well known for her radical politics, held the dying Malcolm X in the Audubon Ballroom). Saturdays in the city were my workshop.

By high school I was pretty steeped in Japanese culture, more than most Asian Americans of my generation. My politics were limited to rock ’n’ roll (not too shabby if you consider: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming ... Four dead in Ohio”; and “We don’t need to escalate/You see, war is not the answer/For only love can conquer hate”). But, how could my parents have figured that after dance class I would hang out in the dojo, watching the judo boys. Or to rephrase disco diva Grace Jones, “checking out the race.”

Enter a young man, a Japanese American radical whose mother had been incarcerated in the infamous Topaz War Relocation Camp. Dating him, I hung out at Chinatown Food Co-op meetings with the likes of Peter Kwong and sat in on Marxist study groups. And culture was never marginal. The city on Saturdays is where I felt alive.

In 1970, the Basement Workshop was opened by artists such as Tomie Arai (a distant relative as it turned out) and writers such as Fay Chiang. Here are the opening stanzas from her poem “Chinatown”:

mahjong and dice on the tables upstairs
            confusion of trucks and cars and calls and
                        children and cats and dogs and
                                    stream of people
                                                falling off the mountain of gold:

eddie died yesterday
            another street kid shot his fucking brains out
            and eddie’s in heaven east river
did you know about
            mrs. tong jumped off a building
            looking for peace six stories above mott
and hey, old louey
            just passed away in his sleep
            the fool, sleeping with the gas pipes on,
did you hear about lee?
            that he couldn’t take his henpecking wife and
            screaming babies and rotten kids and his
            waiter job and promises that couldn’t be
            bought with pennies
            that he split, before his head did.  

From these Asian American circles, I became acquainted with those on the West Coast. Not surprisingly, their militancy was ahead of The Movement in New York. There were poets such as Mitsuye Yamada, who wrote “Evacuation”:

As we boarded the bus
bags on both sides
(I had never packed
two bags before
on a vacation
lasting forever)
the Seattle Times
photographer said
so obediently I smiled
and the caption the next day

Note smiling faces
a lesson to Tokyo.

And there was Nellie Wong—here’s an excerpt from “Away from the Blue Swans”:

Away, away from antlers,
dried lizards’ necks,
hidden like pearls in herbalists’ shelves,
women warbling Chinese songs, their voices drifting
out the hot summer air,
hanging onto men and grey felt hats
with silver dollars jangling in their pants pockets.

Crossing the boundaries
to the T&D on 11th and Broadway
past Jack’s foot-long hot dogs,
smelling popcorn at the antics
of Abbott & Castello.
Arm in arm, our bravery
slung by our mothers’ warnings
uptown to the Paramount
all its silver and purple
and red velvet carpets
chewing spearmint
through the double feature
and returning to Chinatown
sucking preserve plums
and agreeing to lie.

And across the Pacific, in the Hawaiian islands of my mother’s birth, there was a burgeoning Asian American writers scene and the group Bamboo Ridge. One of the writers from this same generation, Juliet Kono, had her very excellent collection Hilo Rains published as a double issue of the journal. Listen to this excerpt from “Smoke,” an apostrophe to the speaker’s mother:

You are thirteen.
Your father has made you
quit school. You can
no longer play
with the other girls.
You must now cut cane
like a man. And every day
you watch the lunas burn
adjacent fields
where yellow flames crackle
and lick high into smoke
filling your coughs.
Soot rains. The skies
look overcast as if someone
has tossed a throw-net
over you and hauled you in—
a good day’s catch
for the next day’s work,
and the next.

In concert with community organizing, writers and educators published newsletters (mimeographed), journals, and anthologies. The first one I ever held was AIIIEEEEE!, published in 1974 by Frank Chin, Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong. Ten years later, Native American Joseph Bruchac published the anthology of Asian American poetry Breaking Silence. These anthologies sparked my self-education in Asian American poetry. The legendary West Coast radical Janice Mirikitani opens her poem “Breaking Silence” with the Executive Order, “Take only what you can carry.” She uses quotes from her mother’s testimony before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Japanese American Civilians.

            And then
all was hushed for announcements:
            “Take only what you can carry…”
We were made to believe
our faces betrayed us.
Our bodies were loud
with yellow
screaming flesh
needing to be silenced
behind barbed wire.

“Mr. Commissioner ...
... it seems we were singled out
from others who are under suspicion.
Our neighbors were of German and Italian
descent, some of whom were not citizens…
It seems we were singled out…”

She had worn her sweat
like lemon leaves
shining on the rough edges of work,
removed the mirrors
from her rooms
so she would not be tempted
by vanity.
            Her dreams
honed the blade of her plow.
The land,
the building of food was
noisy as the opening of irises.
The sounds of work
bolted and barracks…

Mr. Commissioner ...
So when you tell me I must limit testimony
to 5 minutes, when you tell me my time is up,
I tell you this:
Pride has kept my lips
pinned by nails
my rage coffined.
But I exhume my past
to claim this time.
My youth is buried in Rohwer,
Obachan’s ghost visits Amache Gate,
My niece haunts Tule Lake.
Words are better than tears,
so I spilled on.
​I killed this, the silence.

No surprise that there were those in the Asian American Movement who didn’t consider a biracial person truly Asian American. The issue of whiteness was a part of the various “minority” group discussions and arguments. And, I wasn’t completely at home in those circles. So, determined to learn my craft, I put in undergrad-time at the University of Iowa. There I studied with Marvin Bell, Louise Glück, Charles Wright, and the then-graduate student Rita Dove. These were radiant workshops but the writing community was also pretty darn white (Rita being the exception). From there I returned to New York to find more of my self. Poets were reciting poems on the street and continuing to ally themselves with social issues. Pedro Pietri, one of original founders of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, handed out poems written on condom wrappers (this before the AIDS crisis!). Louis Reyes Rivera told me more than once, “Kimiko, take your poem off the damn page.” The city was again my workshop.

I would soon meet radical feminists like Patricia Spears Jones, Sandra Maria Esteves, and Frances Chung. From her posthumously published Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple, the poem Double Ten (10/10 day):

early morning
the Sunday sound of an accordion
a conversation with two Ukrainian women
about calling the plumber
taking baths in our kitchens
you like the green stone around my neck
later on the Bowery
black man struggling along singing a Chinatown ballad
as I sing one of Billie’s songs
in your kitchen warmer than mine
a strong smell of black mushrooms

In 1981 I organized a panel of Asian American writers for the American Writers Congress that was sponsored by the Nation Institute. In hindsight, I’m not sure that the organizers comprehended the depth of the turbulence that would simmer up. Especially by so-called minority writers. It was absolutely thrilling. Not only did I meet Jessica Hagedorn and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, I connected with poet comrades Luis J. Rodriguez (of Tia Chucha Press and Community Center) and Michael Warr (now at Africa Diaspora Museum). And later, Jessica invited me to read at the Basement Workshop. How could I have known just how cool it was to be the warm-up act for Sekou Sundiata, who then became a dear friend. Being friends mostly meant cultural organizing together: for starters, we presented a political cabaret in Harlem.

Around this time too, there was a changing aesthetic in the air. Jessica’s Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions would present in print the kind of lyrics she sassed out in clubs (and later, her poetic voice would grow into the characters in her later novels). Here are the last two stanzas from “I Went All the Way Out Here/Looking for You, Bob Marley,” written with the end-note “Kingston, Jamaica 1977”:

and this just isn’t fair
because you are the only one
i trust
i have to know
were you shot in the arm
like they said
and don’t they know
they can’t kill music like that?

they should take heed
from america
and relegate you to the
sheraton hotel’s junkanoo lounge
as a malnourished dance band

and this just isn’t fair
because you are the only one
i trust
and i haven’t even met you yet
and i am

There was a continuing debate on whether one had to write about Asian American issues to be an Asian American AA writer. Thank heaven for Mei-mei and her innovative spirit. Here is an excerpt from a more recent piece, “Hello, the Roses”:

The rose communicates instantly with the woman by sight, collapsing its
boundaries, and the woman widens her boundaries.

Her “rate of perception” slows down, because of its complexity.

There’s a feeling of touching and being touched, the shadings of color she can sense
from touch.

There’s an affinity between awareness and blossom.

Thank the heavens, too, for lending us Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, whose avant-garde polyphonic cross-genre Dictée was published in 1982, the same year she was murdered. An excerpt:

She would take on their punctuation. She waits to service this. Theirs. Punctuations. She would become, herself, demarcations. Absorb it. Spill it. Seize upon the punctuation. Last air. Give her. Her. The relay. Voice. Assign. Hand it. Deliver it. Deliver.

Cha was a first-generation Korean. Of course, all along different waves of immigrants mixed into Asian American groups of second, third, fourth generations. One of course is Meena Alexander, born in Kerala in southern India. Here is an excerpt from Meena’s poem “Muse”:

In cloud cover, a jagged music pours:
gash of sense, raw covenant
clasped still in a gold bound book,
pusthakam pages parted,
ink rubbed with mist,
a bird might have dreamt its shadow there

spreading fire in a tree maram.

Myung Mi Kim was born Seoul, Korea. Here is the opening from “[Exordium: ’In what way names’]”:

In what way names were applied to things. Filtration. Not
every word that has been applied, still exists. Through
proliferation and differentiation. Airborn. Here, this speck and
this speck you missed.

Myung and Mei-mei, unlike most of the poets I’ve spoken of today, had Masters of Fine Arts. Then along came Marilyn!

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g
of “becoming.” Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated “Mei Ling” to “Marilyn.”
And nobody dared question
his initial impulse—for we all know
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic white woman
swollen with gin and Nembutal.
My mother couldn’t pronounce the “r.”
She dubbed me “Numba one female offshoot”
for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die
in sublime ignorance, flanked
by loving children and the “kitchen deity.”

That’s the opening to her most well-known poem, “How I Got That Name.”

Marilyn’s poetics were an exuberant mix: an elegant strictness learned from classical Chinese poetry and also from apprenticing with Donald Justice and Jane Cooper. It is with Marilyn that I most share aesthetics, although where she calls on the formal to be reckless, I do the opposite.

I first made the acquaintance of Marilyn’s work when I was co-poetry editor at Bridge magazine in Chinatown in the 1980s. I was also studying Japanese at Columbia University, which did not lead to a PhD mainly because I could not focus on memorizing kanji. I had one foot on campus and the other in the streets: or more literally at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Ave. where I’d sit with a yellow legal pad and pen writing what would become Air Pocket and Earshot. Although I did not become fluent in Japanese, I did begin an awareness that my incipient poetics were a part of my body. Classical Japanese poetics, as much as William Carlos Williams’s declaration no ideas but in things.

During this time, too, there were a number of growing political cultural movements: Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, Artists Against Apartheid, and several allied with organizing around issue of homelessness. We organized readings, published, went to Nicaragua, danced, had babies, looked for teaching jobs. Hung out with Adrienne Rich and June Jordan!

Curating pushes one to widen circles of people and aesthetics and that is just where I found myself: when Basement Workshop shut its doors, I opened Word of Mouth, a series that found a home in the Chatham Sq. Public Library. Curating also allows one to meet much admired writers. For me, I was pleased to have a full-house for Trinh T. Minh-Ha (born in Hanoi), the innovative filmmaker and poet, who wrote the ground breaking book of theory, Woman Native Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (1989).

The Story Began Long Ago . . . This is the world in which I move uninvited, profane on a sacred land, neither me nor mine, but me nonetheless. The story began long ago ... it is old. Older than my body, my mother’s, my grandmother’s. As old as my me, Old Spontaneous me, the world. For years we have been passing it on, so that our daughters and granddaughters may continue to pass it on. So that it may become larger than its proper measure, always larger than its own in-significance.... The story circulates like a gift.

At this time, too, my contemporary Cathy Song won the 1982 Yale Younger Poet Award for Picture Bride. Here are the closing lines from a later poem, “The Pineapple Fields”:

Don’t talk like you came from the pineapple fields
meant we couldn’t talk with our mouths
full of broken sentences,
couldn’t shovel “yuh?” like food
heaped onto spoons.
Don’t talk like you just came from the pineapple fields
meant we had to speak proper English.
We remained silent instead,
our tongues harnessed by the foreign shoelaces of syntax
restrictive as the new shoes Father brought home for us to wear.

But, you may wonder, what happened to the whole “roots” thing in my title? You know, who knows what the roots are until someone has the courage to dig or someone notices something that seems out of place?

Back in 1991, the first edition of Island was edited by Him Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. This and a section of the anthology The Big Aiiieeeee! literally brought to light both the original Cantonese and translated poems that were carved onto the walls of Angel Island Detention Center by Chinese hoping to immigrate between 1910–1940. From Island:

Instead of remaining a citizen of China, I willingly became an ox.
I intended to come to America to earn a living.
The Western-style buildings are lofty, but I have not the luck to live in them.
How was anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison.

From The Big Aiiieeeee!, the section “Songs of Gold Mountain,” translated by Marlon K. Hom:

I have walked to the very ends of the earth,
A dusty, windy journey.
I’ve toiled and I’m worn out, all for a miserable lot.
Nothing is ideal when I am down and out.
I think about it day and night—
Who can save a fish out of water?
From far away, I worry for my parents, my wife, my boy;
Do they still have enough firewood, rice, salt, and cooking oil?

In 1988, financial redress was awarded to 82,000 of the 120,000 detainees of Japanese ancestry who had been incarcerated in wartime detention centers. There followed a renewed focus on those who had struggled to survive. And because of what poetry can do, give song to protest and passion, we have books such as Poets Behind Barbed Wire:

Fifty and more
Of us prisoners gather here
To burn incense
On an empty sardine can
For the repose of a departed soul.
                                    Sojin Takei [on a death at the camp]

We have in Yoshiko Uchida’s memoir Desert Exile, poems by her mother whose pen name was Yukari.

Four months have passed,
And at last I learn
To call this horse stall
My family’s home.

Rereading the work of Violet Kazue de Cristoforo was surely one of the most exhilarating moments in preparing this talk. I was astonished to recognize a literary root that hadn’t struck me when the collection came out in 1991.

Strong Sun Rays Barracks Are All
Low and Dark
Sun Rays

The arrival of spring and summer is typically late in the high plains of Tule Lake, the largest of the ten internment camps built to house more than eighteen thousand detainees on about six miles of black volcanic ash.

After the long, gloomy winter days the intense glare of summer creates a strong contrast and makes the low, dark, tar-papered barracks even more dismal and disheartening for the internees.

The section in which this work appears is “Poetic Reflections of the Tule Lake Internment Camp 1944.” What may not be apparent by this title is that “poetic reflections” are a form in Japanese literature: you may know it as haibun, a mixed genre that typically combines prose and haiku. Here is one of her longer ones:

Flowers on Tule Reeds and Sandy Flats
Brother Confined over 200 Days
Brother’s Imprisonment

The November 4, 1943, warehouse incident, caused by reports of thefts of food for the internees by War Relocation Authority (WRA) personnel, resulted in confrontations and disturbances at Tule Lake.

Brother Tokio, an innocent bystander, had been asked to help restore order among the agitators. As he was about to do so, he was arrested by WRA Internal Security Personnel and accused of taking part in the disorder. During a night of brutal interrogation he was cruelly beaten and, not only was he denied medical treatment for his injury, but he was a prisoner in the “Bull Pen” of the camp stockade – a place of maximum punishment for serious offenders.

Following the occurrence, army troops took over control of the camp and martial law was declared at Tule Lake.

Then came spring, the snow melted and the Tule reeds sprouted and grew. By July the reeds even had blossoms. Brother Tokio was still confined in the “Bull Pen,” after nine months of imprisonment without trial or a hearing. Fall was about to come again and, under those conditions of dark uncertainty and desperation, everything was measured in terms of the growth and death of the Tule reeds.

I have been writing in a form known as the zuihitsu, a classical Japanese form that is neither poetry nor prose although a piece can resemble either or a combination. Haibun, for example, is considered zuihitsu. Also, Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Interior (a title I stole for my collection of zuihitsu).

I felt a shock of recognition: a writer who expressed herself in this cross-genre form, a mutual literary heritage. I recognize this foremother for what she is. A writer, a pioneer, and an Asian American woman who defiantly gave her name as Violet Kazue Matsuda de Cristoforo, formerly Kazue Matsuda, Internee ID No. 29001

Thank you organizers: this summer has been my workshop. Returning for a moment to Juan Felipe’s talk: society was our workshop ... it is always our workshop whether we write alone or whether we write out in the open it is not possible without social combustion, social change, social human beings with voices and hearts. and struggles and conflicts and happiness and joy and riding on horses in full regalia.

In closing, I have a gift for you writers, a cento.


II. Angel Island: A Cento


Let the walls hiss/and smoke when/I return to shore.
Someone is scolding a dog, barking now for/decades ...
I don’t have emotions right now
I like that he expresses himself to me as a kind of witness in transition.
By “women,” he meant/Arab and Muslim women.
A cop arrested her, trapped/her in the back of the police van.
… hope wrapped in old newspapers and thrown away like offal – cleaned from a fish the size of     a man.
This place in which I dream the new body—whole & abiding—
all the girls go suzie
Dance is a body’s refusal/to die.
... as foretold by the Muslim woman from Hornachos
Shutters/over the eyes.
(the CD:/Converge, Jane Doe)
Once, I was afraid/of being changed. Now that is done.
To be an artist, you must not blunt your/Troubling vision, no matter how queer.
D’où Venons Nous [Where Do We Come From?]
… when the rains arrive/we should be delighted to be taken/in drowning, in devotion.

The car radio/plays its one song. The song, therefore, is important.
Where are we going, Wayne Kaumualii Westlake?
Can’t they hear kalapani/in my voice …
I am trying to be marvelous.
Wow – wow – wow – wow – wow – w – o – o – o – o – o – o – w
The trick of the model/minority


I try to imitate them at home – mírame, mama – but my mother yells at me, says they didn’t             come here so I could speak some beggar language.
Now that the hillbilly whisper guides me which way to turn how far up the turn is
For the bird, everything hangs in the air.
“Ay Dios,” she exclaimed/surrounded by photos – niños and nietos –/where I’m the only chino.
You speak of a very good sort of Englishness.
Who are you to mix up languages?
grouse, crow, craven
Oh half/in the past.

His tongue tingled ripely.
To make you a noun forever.
“A cunning rabbit needs three holes” ...
But I have never seen/the field.
All my life I hid in the library reading about Greek heroes smiting their enemies.
Mother died a refugee, she thought the status/was a promise of return.
… tonight, spring infuses fall,/ and memory’s wick …
Observatories rise above the snow.
I think I could wrap my arms all the way around/the 24,901-miles-circumferenced Earth.
“Encircle” and Contain
I worry that when I love him he will die too.
The radio in the kitchen is stuck/in the year I was born./The capitals of the world are burning.

NOTE: all the lines are taken, chronologically, from the July/August 2017 issue of Poetry, and presented at the Library of Congress.

Originally Published: August 29th, 2017

Kimiko Hahn was born in Mount Kisco, New York, and grew up in Pleasantville, New York, and Tokyo, Japan. She earned a BA from the University of Iowa and earned an MA in Japanese literature from Columbia University.    Hahn is the author of nine books of poetry, including  Read Full Biography