Monday, July 21, 2014

Word for Word Poetry Editions with Kundiman (Week of July 21st)

We have a collection of very talented guest bloggers to cover the Word for Word Poetry series this summer. They capture a first-hand account of the poetry readings, as well as help to interpret the work of our visiting poets who present at the Bryant Park Reading Room sponsored by HSBC.

Safia Jama for Word for Word Poetry, July 22, 2014
Featuring the poets of Kundiman

On Tuesday, July 22nd, the Bryant Park Word for Word Poetry series showcased four Asian American poets, all Kundiman fellows.  Curator Paul Romero hosted the event, which attracted a record audience eager to catch the latest leg of the Honey Badgers Don’t Give a B**k Tour.

Patrick Rosal
Patrick Rosal is an acclaimed poet who also happens to put on a great show.  He got the poetry festivities going with a hip hop-infused call and response poem steeped in the scratchy vinyl of his working class, New Jersey roots.  Reading from a new manuscript, Rosal expressed a wish to reconcile the minutia of daily life with the horror we see on television.  Moreover, how do we explain this disconnect to young children?  In one poem, the speaker struggles to explain a catastrophic earthquake to a child—in a reversal, the child herself becomes the source of wisdom, ordering the grown-ups to “dance”; that play creates a ripple effect: “Even the planet’s axis budged,” the result of “her running man in a borrowed t-shirt.” Rosal, most recently the author of Boneshepherds, manages a combination of humility and bravado in his lucid, syncopated verse. He reflects upon the past with a cinematographer’s eye for detail.  As his poem’s speaker concludes, in the face of horror, “sometimes this is all you can do.”

Cathy Linh Che
Cathy Linh Che quoted the pop singer Feist to describe how she felt on the heels of touring the country and reading from “Split,” her Kundiman Prize-winning debut collection.  “I feel it all,” she said, with a smile.  Che’s book is both painful and cathartic, bearing witness to the public trauma of the Vietnam war and the private trauma of sexual abuse.  Linh, who studied with Sharon Olds, breaks the silence surrounding abuse by weaving the stories of three generations of women—daughter, mother, and grandmother.  The daughter’s half-hidden memories contrast with the sharp precision of each line. In “The German word for dream is traume,” the speaker juxtaposes sexual abuse and the objects of childhood: “I was seven./ The training wheels/ were coming off.”  At the center of the book is the poem “Split,” which portrays the mother, who came of age in Vietnam during the war.  The speaker hints at the threat presented by the American soldiers: “With scissor-fingers,/ they snip the air,/ point at their helmets//and then at her hair.”  The daughter wants to believe in the soldiers’ innocence: they are “just boys.”  Nonetheless, the sinister truth is in plain sight—the girl’s hair is as good as a rabbit foot: “All they want is a small lock—/something for a bit of good luck.”  Che ended her reading with the poem “Burial,” in which the daughter-speaker visits her grandmother’s grave in Vietnam.  Each line forms a kind of hallowed ground: “I bury your hair”; “I bury it all.”  Yet the poem also honors the small acts of those still living: “We lit the joss sticks and planted them./ We kept the encroaching grass at bay.”

Eugenia Leigh 
 Eugenia Leigh read poems from her moving debut collection Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows.  Leigh’s book is replete with vivid characters—from the resilient girl-speaker who battles severe depression; to the violent, incarcerated father, begging his family’s forgiveness; to the caring, if shadowy mother.  Leigh’s speakers capture a child’s hope and rage with great clarity: “I beat the new moon/ with crumpled drawings.”  In “Every Hair on Your Head,” the girl-speaker toys with suicide and does her homework in the same breath.  The result is startling and vulnerable: “I tested five pills.  My stomach barely ached, I ate Ramen, lived, solved/ math problems.” The poem is addressed to a rock musician from the band Sparklehorse, who took his own life.  “Which was the bigger surprise--/the gun punching    or the angel catching you?”  Leigh’s work does not glorify or glamorize depression.  Instead, she weaves back and forth between violence and grace, paying homage to we who “weld our wounds/ to form tools.”

Sally Wen Mao
Sally Wen Mao has a powerful stage presence.  The poems in her debut collection, Mad Honey Symposium, often begin with a word or phrase before zooming down to the molecular level of language to examine misogyny, bias, and beauty.  Mao opened her reading with a poem titled “Yellow Fever,” explaining first, “It’s not about the disease.”  Instead, the poem addresses a man who would objectify women of Asian descent: “I know what you crave. It is larger than me. It is the pretty/ face on the library book—the fallow field.”  Mao’s tone is refreshingly brazen, almost daring the man to objectify her, so that he in turn may be exposed.  Yet the poem isn’t just about the man, it also takes on the Western cannon, history, and novels like Memoirs of a Geisha. Here the woman on the colorful book jacket is talking back: “the woman/ with a comb in her hair, a grin about her like so many/ hives.  It is squalid peonies, murderous silk. It is febrile butterflies// and it is slave.”  Mao’s speakers always push diction into new and risky territory. As she explained to the Bryant Park audience, a number of her poems involve a honey badger, a totem that appears throughout the book that is inspired by a meme that went viral on the Internet.  In “Honey Badger Palinode” the speaker points out the badger’s vulnerability, left out of the Internet meme: “Even the thickest skin is still a membrane.”  Mao closed her reading with exciting new work inspired by the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, a trailblazing film star whose legacy in Hollywood is framed by slights and triumphs.

The Kundiman reading brought to mind the words of poet Toi Derricotte: “I am not afraid to be memoir.”  Though all four poets take a range of stylistic approaches—from narrative to lyrical to metaphysical—all of their work contributes living, breathing voices to today’s new American poetry.


Safia Jama currently teaches writing and pursues an M.F.A. in poetry at Rutgers-Newark. A Cave Canem fellow and a graduate of Harvard College, her poetry appears in Reverie and The New Sound; her nonfiction appears on NPR's SchoolBook and The Volta.

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