Saturday, July 07, 2012

Reading Interweaving

Reading Aloud: I don't know why, but sometimes reading aloud is the only way that I can read.  I started reading David Mura's Angels for the Burning, and I couldn't get into it.  I think I was at Starbucks, though, and maybe Starbucks is just not the place to read Mura.  I ended up going home and starting to read his words aloud, and bam, suddenly he was speaking to me, and I could hear him.  I especially enjoyed "Suite for Miss Saigon," which mentions protesting the musical and details some difficult conversations with white friends about why; Mura strikes me as very passionate and brave.

Ginsberg, Reyes, and Murakami: Timothy Yu's Race and the Avant-Garde is a particularly exciting read for me--so far, in surprising ways.  While the introduction gave me new ways to think about Asian America (as more of a political idea than a cultural fact) and the avant-garde in relation to myself as an Asian American poet, chapter one delves into Allen Ginsberg's revision process and has shown me--surprisingly enough--how much it resembles my own.  Yu discusses how much of Ginsberg's work is rooted in a negotiation between private and public/political; many of his revisions remove or alter personal elements to create more room for the reader to insert her/himself.  Yu also discusses Ginsberg's use of mystical elements and myth, which seems to overlap with my reading of Barbara Jane Reyes's Diwata.  The two cannot really be compared since their projects are so different, but I can't help but see a connection simply since I'm reading these at the same time.  I've only begun to read Diwata, but it is reminding me of Woman Warrior with its weaving of myth, family history, and autobiography to create a seamless tapestry.  

Myth also reigns in Haruki Murakami's 1Q84; I'm almost done with the first book right now.  I think magical realism is usually associated with Latin American authors, but I always think of that term when I read Murakami.  He only has a few mystical elements in play at the point where I'm reading now, but it is enough to add significant depth and intrigue to keep the reader occupied on many levels.  

Reading these three books at once, I cannot help but think of my own experiences with the mystical and mythic.  Not being a very religious person nor someone who reads a lot of historical texts or folklore, I have my own strange contemporary ideas of where myth comes into play in my life and will soon enter into my poetry.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Summer Reading: The Beginning

I just ordered Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 by Timothy Yu; Angels for the Burning by David Mura; Diwata by Barbara Jane Reyes; and Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone by Matthew Shenoda.  The last 3 are from Boa Editions.  Boa rocks.

I also just started reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, which one of my UC Santa Cruz professors called a very Murakami Murakami.  So far, so true.  I'm loving it.  I probably will never finish it, as it is long, but I will do my best.

I'm also on my 17th revision of a poem that I started a while back.  Yay! 

Monday, June 04, 2012

I prefer "Poem of Color"

I found this random message board (from 6 years back) where this professor/poet, David Landrum, was talking about my poem "Thank You."  For context, this is towards the end of a conversation where Landrum is championing the importance of cadence in "memorable" free verse, and a few others are arguing that cadence may not be the end-all be-all.  This is what Landrum said:

"I'd be interested, nytcom, to read some of the poets you like who don't follow the general strategies I've discussed. Give me some names or titles.
I teach poems like 'Thank You' by Heather Nagami, an ethnic poem that does not draw on metrics in any way. And while it is good, I think the text doesn't give it enough of a dynamic for it to endure as a work of art for very long. It is admirable but not enduring and many poems are like this. I like to think it is the lack of poetic dynamic, the lack of poetic energy in the poem, that does this. And I can't help but think the Whitmanesque tradition provides more poetic language than just the poetry of flat statement."
--David Landrum

First I need to say that I really do appreciate that Mr. Landrum has taught my poem.  I also admire that he finds something in it that's intriguing enough to teach (assuming he's not teaching it as an example of a bad poem :) ), even as he seems to be strongly engaged in the idea of musicality in a poem, which "Thank You" really does not contain.

One part of me says stop there; another part says let her rip... so here I go.  What is an ethnic poem?  Is "Thank you" an ethnic poem because I, an "ethnic" person, wrote it?  However, everyone has an ethnicity...  Is it an ethnic poem because it discusses issues of racial prejudice and ignorance?  If so, can a white person write an ethnic poem?  What gives a poem ethnicity?

In some ways, I would hope "Thank You" is not enduring.  "Thank You" (see below) is a list of/response to all of the ignorant things people (including other Asians) have said to me over the years, like "I like your cars," "You speak English good," and "I thought Heathers were blond."  I would hope that years from now, some person of Asian or partial Asian descent might read my poem and say, "What is this person talking about?  I have no idea of what this person is refering to."

I do agree with Landrum in that it does not draw on metrics, and the truth is that I also highly value some type of cadence in poems.  I get extremely impatient when I read a poem that does not seem to have a sense of music.  However, there is something to be said for not making something ugly beautiful.  The essentialist way of thinking about culture, the unspoken entitlement involved in the types of statements "Thank you" addresses is ugly.  Music and rhythm would make it pretty; it is not pretty, and I'd rather strip the language down to show it as it is than pretty it up for a pleasant, even quaint, reading.

I do not, however, agree that it lacks poetic energy, but I believe I am simply defining poetic energy differently from Mr. Landrum.  If poetic energy comes simply from music, then yes, it lacks poetic energy.  However, if poetic energy is what is produced from emotional content infused into the poem and the feelings, questions, and ideas that are stirred in a reader who connects with the poem, then it is certainly brimming with poetic energy.  I also would not consider this "the poetry of flat statement" either, since none of the statements I make in the poem are what the poem is actually saying.

I wrote "Thank You" over 10 years ago, and it used to be on, a Japanese American community website; it was also published in Rattle, Winter 2002 (Thank you, Rattle!), though I still maintain the rights.  I don't think it has a web presence any longer, so I'm reposting it here.  If you have only read this poem by me, please also read "Acts of Translation" for a more complex and interesting take on being fourth-generation Japanese American.

Thank You
by Heather Nagami

Why, thank you for the compliment!
Yes, I do speak well, don't I?  I've studied hard
these 24 years, well, 23 if you don't count
that mindless baby talk.  And no, I don't speak
my own language, but thank you for your concern.
I'm sure it is very much your business.  I know
it is a shame.  But I'll promise you one thing.
I'll learn someday!  Yes!  I thought
that would make you happy.  And, you're so right; I will
need it when I go back.  Oh, how I long to go back!
Where everyone's hair is black, eyes are brown, and they think
I'm just as much a foreigner as you think I am.

And, may I ask, what is your ethnic background?  Oh, regular?
Yes, it must be boring to be so normal.  I agree that a beautiful accent
like your sister-in-law's would make you seem so much more
interesting.  But you do enjoy ethnic foods?  Well, that's a start.
I mainly like California rolls, kappa maki (the cucumber rolls),
and tamago, you know--the egg one?  American sushi?
I guess you could call it that.  Oh, you think so?  Maybe,
maybe I'm not Japanese.  I'm sure they do all love raw fish.
I bet they eat it everyday as they sit on their mechanical toilets
with buckteeth and slanty eyes, saying, "Ahhh, sooo."
Oh, you think that's funny?  What do you think "Heathers" look like?
And I'm more like a "Lin," your Asian sister-in-law?
Now that I think of it, that does match my last name much better.
How could my parents have been so foolish?  I wonder if it's related
to the Internment Camps.  Dad went in as Koichi and came out as George.
You should have been there to tell my dad, then seven years old,
that simply changing his name wouldn't make him American.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Timothy Yu

Timothy Yu has some interesting poems in the latest issue of Lantern Review, as well as some thought-provoking commentary.  I hate learning new, disappointing facts about poets, but if a poet is a disappointment, I guess I'd rather know than not know.  So, bye, Billy Collins: you are officially off of my radar.  Hello, Mr. Yu.  I'm looking forward to reading more of your work.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Remembering What Matters

I often forget what is most important when writing poetry, but this morning as I read Barbara Jane Reyes' blog post, I began to remember.  After my book got published, I felt this overwhelming sense of a larger audience that has given me a type of writer's block for these past seven years.  It's not that I haven't been writing, but I've been thinking of the finish line, wanting only that, and forgetting that the process is equally important.

When I first began writing in high school, it was for many reasons that had nothing to do with publication.  Part of it was that I had a hard time expressing myself verbally, and I needed to revise what I wanted to say before it came out how I wished it to be heard.  I suppose another part of it was that I needed to purge certain demons; getting out some of the negativity I had built up inside seemed to help.  Later, when I was in college and grad school, I became extremely focused on studying other writers, understanding the choices they made, and trying new techniques in my own work--searching for just the right combination that fit with my subject matter at the time.

Today, I can express myself verbally pretty well, and I hardly have any of that old negativity left in me.  I love my life, I like myself, and I love my job, so all that old angst is gone.  So, why write?  I think I still need to write because of this question that Reyes asks: "Who is out there producing the work that you need in your life?"  Although I haven't been reading much new poetry these days, I do hunt around here and there, and I've come to the conclusion that I need to be the one producing that work.  There are many writers out there who are writing quality poetry, which to me (right now) means poetry that takes risks and is meaningful to someone other than the writer.  However, there are only a handful of living writers that I know of who write poetry that is meaningful to me, in particular.  And even so, I have my own stories--stories that are not theirs, stories that only I can write and only I know how to write.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Plan for the summer: read poetry, write poetry, dream poetry.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron

At the suggestion of artist Melinda Esparza, who was a student in one of the poetry classes I taught at UofA when I was a grad student and with whom I recently connected, I started reading The Artist's Way. I think since I was 16, different wonderful people in my life have suggested it to me over the years. However, I was always so driven to write that I saw no need for it. Over the past few years, though, I've put less and less of a priority on writing, making it more and more difficult to write poetry that satisfies me.

I sat down and read the introductory pages and most of the Week 1 section just this weekend, and I can't believe how much it's already helped me to be more emotionally and creatively open. I've been doing the morning pages, but the morning pages seem to just be a gateway to other writing that I inevitable actually want to do during the day and evening. I haven't actually wanted to write for a while, it seems. I've felt obligated to write, but I haven't felt an actual desire to do it for a long time.

The Artist's Way seems to be helping me work through certain misconceptions I've created in my head about writing and what writing means to me. It's helping me to put all that baggage down and just write.