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
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."
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 janet.org, 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.
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.