Introduction: July/August 2017
“Decades pray me,” writes Brandon Som. This special issue of Poetry is the product of a new partnership between the magazine and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and it launches as part of the Smithsonian Asian American Literature Festival, held July 27–29, 2017, in Washington, DC. It is meant to be an archive, a commemoration, and an incubator. The festival, too, is a moment of commemoration, a pause to assess the state of Asian American literature, a dreaming session. Issue and festival alike are potential seedbeds for the futures of Asian American poetry. “Asian American” has always been an inelegant conglomeration, of peoples from all across the world, from nations and cultures too disparate to gather coherently, and equitably, together. But since its coining in the late sixties, “Asian American” has also been a necessary means of organizing in the face of social injustice. “Decades pray me”: I am or we are the prayer of our times. “Asian American” is a fabrication, a blinkered prayer for something like solidarity. We have always imagined our cultural landscapes and broken diasporic supply chains and bomb-shelter ethnic enclaves into being, again and again — and always, from early on, to invoke the characters carved into the wooden walls of Angel Island Immigration Station off the coast of San Francisco, by way of poetry.
— Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis
Asian American poetry has changed with the contexts surrounding it. Some of the earliest Asian American poems emerged from the nineteenth- and twentieth-century experiences of migration, labor, and exclusion. Asian American poets have shaped, and have been shaped by, the tectonic shifts of modern writing. In the seventies, the Asian American movement gave a new name and a pan-ethnic political identity to a group that had been in the United States for over a century. The political ferment of this era found voice in writers like Janice Mirikitani, Al Robles, and Lawson Fusao Inada. By the eighties, poets such as Cathy Song, Li-Young Lee, and Marilyn Chin were gaining mainstream recognition, and anthologies such as Garrett Hongo’s The Open Boat (1993) and Walter K. Lew’s Premonitions (1995) helped establish the range and depth of Asian American poetics. “Asian American poetry” is itself a political category. Like the term “Asian American,” it is a category constantly redefined by new contexts; yet it is also one that demands attention to the intersections of poetics and race, and that claims value for the act of placing poems within an unfolding Asian American literary tradition. While this selection cannot capture the full historical range of Asian American poetry, it does include new work from poets who played a central role in the flowering of Asian American letters in the seventies and eighties, as well as work from newly emerging writers. We hope to demonstrate the ever-increasing diversity of Asian American poetry, reflecting the waves of migration that have reshaped the Asian American population over the past fifty years.
— Timothy Yu
My favorite moment of Portishead’s Roseland NYC Live album is the orchestra tune-up, right before the theremin starts its wondrous whine and the beat blissfully drops. In that moment are hours of individual and cumulative practice, the commitment to one’s own instrument, and the agreement with fellow musicians to embark forward. It’s a sacred moment, as sacred as the pauses in the conversations Tim, Lawrence, and I had as we, sometimes clumsily, shared our individual rubrics. We insisted, we questioned, we changed our minds, we delighted in reading lines aloud. I’m breathless — for every one of the poems chosen, there are countless others already written or beloved, and many more not yet written. We need these arrows to disrupt the noisy lies of dictators. We need to never forget these silences we must record. We need to delight in and reckon with these poems that are unabashedly strange, brave, and bristling with song, like each of us. We need to keep tuning in, together, all along, and beyond. Please join us.
— Tarfia Faizullah
Poet and scholar Timothy Yu was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. He earned his BA at Harvard and a PhD at Stanford University. Yu’s scholarly and creative work explores the intersections of race and avant-garde writing traditions; his first book of criticism Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental...
Bangladeshi American poet Tarfia Faizullah grew up in Midland, Texas. She earned an MFA from the Virginia Commonwealth University program in creative writing. Her first book, Seam (2014), won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Focused around a long sequence “Interview with a Birangona,” the book explores...
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis is Curator of Asian Pacific American Studies at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. He is also founding director of the Washington, DC-based arts nonprofit the Asian American Literary Review.