Take Note: Eleven New Collections by Asian American Poets
In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, poet and author of the new collection Oceanic (Copper Canyon Press, 2018), notes eleven poetry collections by Asian American writers she can't wait to read this summer and fall 2018.
When I was first discovering poetry late in my undergrad years, you could usually find me sitting cross-legged in the Humanities wing of our mighty campus library, pouring over collections and dusty back-copies of hallowed literary magazines. This was pre-blogs, pre-online journals, pre YouTube—the popular internet as we know it was just starting to crackle alive in those years. 1995: I was just issued my first email address. I didn't know what to do with it except to say hello with perhaps a goofy joke to my dorm friends or younger sister.
During that year, I was always surrounded by friends, and I have been an extrovert most of my life, but there was a loneliness I couldn't quite place, a silence and quiet as I flipped the pages of those books and journals. It's only now, twenty-three years later, that I can even find the source: I barely (if ever) saw any Asian last names in those pages. I certainly couldn't find any poet who even remotely looked like me as I scanned our already large poetry offerings. So I clung to the poems of Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Sharon Olds, and devoured whatever I could find of Latino and African American poets, photocopying my favorites so I could tack them above my dorm desk. It wasn't until grad school that I discovered Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, Jessica Hagedorn, Fatima Lim-Wilson, and the like.
But where were the poets my age? Surely I couldn't be the only one out there. I think of how not knowing other Asian American poets my age for so many years sprung forth a longing and aloneness that I didn't even have the vocabulary for. How I wish I could whisper into the ear of twenty-year old me and say, hold on, hold on: two poets (Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi) who share your poetic hunger across the country will soon join forces to create their dream, this magical group called Kundiman for community and kinship. Other writing groups like VONA will hold workshops for writers of color in all genres and life-long friendships and connections will be forged. That, as hard to believe as you thumb through the (literally and metaphorically) pale pages of these top journals like Poetry and American Poetry Review, Asian American poets will eventually be regularly published and featured and celebrated, and you will find kinship and joy in finally finding others who were there all along and more who paved the way in their own brave and brilliant time, but because you were never taught their poems, never taught they even exist, eventually you won't feel like the odd duck sitting there with your feathers tucked around you, backpack already heavy and bulgy with books at your side. That in 2003, you'd make your own debut and this college would have your first book on these very shelves. And zipping to mid-2018: a whole bevy of Asian American books are about to storm the contemporary poetry scene—have been storming the scene—but I can't time travel yet, and so here, for you all here in the now, for Asian American and Pacific Islander Month: stand up, stand up and take notice:
1. Hey, Marfa by Jeffrey Yang
(October 2018, Graywolf)
Yang returns with a truly unique project of text and visuals and a synthesis of lyric and history and landscapes. Paintings and drawings of Marfa's landscapes and substations by artist Rackstraw Downes connect with Yang's texts throughout this incredible collection.
2. Isako Isako by Mia Ayumi Malhotra
(Alice James, September 2018)
This collection sings and whirs with mighty sustenance, food and blood and praise: "O praise…to the girls swatting birdies/ and shooting hoops when their husbands weren't looking,/ to the coed who crossed the country, where men spat/ why ain't chu in camp, youjapyoudog, who was held by/ the lady at the railway station. Lord knows her name/ but glory hallelujah to her too, whoever she may be."
3. Landia by Celina Su
(Belladonna*, May 2018)
Landia refers to a made-up word, sort of an in-between place. Maps and belonging and not belonging encourage the reader to cross various terrains of family and the family we make on our own among aubades and delicious lyric registers: "My hands are frostbitten, his bear the burns from last summer. Still, this is migration, this is the making of homes."
4. Republic of Mercy by Sharon Wang
(Tupelo, October 2018)
In Sharon Wang's collection, both desire and grief intertwine for a urgently original offering:"Each time I try/ an algal bloom/ replaces language's surface. Ruby-red & unmoored/ waves over laminate surfaces…/ Everything alive aching/ for more aliveness."
5. A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems by Marilyn Chin (W.W. Norton, October 2018)
Thirty years of pioneering and groundbreaking poems from Marilyn Chin showcased here provide a solid backbone of the corporeal and feminist wisdom I've admired and hungered for—a poet who understands the many shapes of what it means to cross-pollinate genre.
6. A Cruelty Special to Our Species
by Emily Jungmin Yoon
(Ecco, September 2018)
This book confronts the histories of sexual violence against women who were forced into sexual labor in Japanese-occupied territories during World War II. You'll be stung with lines asserting magic still remains with women no matter what: "Let us keep/our stars to ourselves and we shall pray/to no one. Let us eat/what makes us holy."
7. If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
(One World, August 2018)
Asghar's much-anticipated collection promises more of her bountiful vision and cross-cultural celebrations and lamentations. This is a poet to watch and let yourself be awakened to worlds where, "The kids at school ask me where I'm from & I have no answer./ I'm a silent girl, a rig ready to blow. The towers fell two weeks/ ago & I can't say blow out loud or everyone will hate me."
8. Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi
(Copper Canyon Press, October 2018)
In her stunning third collection of poetry, Tishani Doshi addresses violence against women and gives voice to a feral song, releasing tenderness and wisdom in gorgeous spools. Simply one of the best collections of the year for me because I'm haunted by the various speakers in these pages—such brutal, beautiful truths uncovered on each page.
9. Inside Me an Island by Lehua M. Taitano
(WordTech Editions, June 2018)
This exciting collection from the queer native Chamoru writer explores notions of home and what it means to bravely wrestle the notion of belonging anywhere and to anyone, a place where one can demand such things as, "Give me your birds, she will say, and I will tell you a story./ A stone, too, admits hunger./ The boy is willing. Loses all his beaks."
10. ever really hear it by Soham Patel
(Subito Press, 2018)
You'll flip for these sonnet-like poems that try to demystify the lure of American popular music. The title of this collection comes from a sentence in James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" and the poems beautifully sing homage to various women musicians.
11. Marianna's Beauty Salon by Bushra Rehman
(Sibling Rivalry Press, May 2018)
Bushra Rehman's first collection of poetry is a love song for Pakistani girls from Queens. Feminist, fierce, and often funny, her poems bring us into a world of Bollywood movie stars, mice stuck in glue traps, and queer heartache at the Museum of Natural History.