In the latest edition of “Village Voice,” Richard Blanco kick starts National Poetry Month with poems by Chen Chen, Ocean Vuong, and Li-Young Lee.
“The children of immigrants need to embrace a given culture, but it is a negotiation, sometimes a struggle, sometimes a growing into an appreciation of recovering a past story and trying to understand your parents. [These poems] honor the stories of parents and grandparents while still carving space for themselves, exploring the trauma we inherit.”
Richard also spoke about “Hemingway,” the documentary by Ken Burns which aired on PBS recently, and within which Richard appears. He comments on Hemingway’s famous quote as one for writers to lives by: “Today I need to write one true sentence.”
“If I can write one true first line, that’s the line on which I can build the rest of the poem.”
To expand our horizons for National Poetry Month, Richard recommends exploring The Academy of American Poets. “They curated an anthology of Asian American voices in response to the rise of violence against Asian Americans. You’ll find plenty of poems to dive into with resources for educators.”
Read along with the poems listed below and enjoy the conversation!
“Poem in Noisy Mouthfuls”
By Chen Chen
Can’t stop eating you, movie-style extra butter microwave popcorn.
Can’t stop watching you, rented movie about an immigrant family
from Lebanon. Can’t help but weep, seeing the family wave
goodbye to relatives in the Beirut airport—tear salt mixing with
popcorn salt. Can’t hide my mess, myself from the friend beside me.
Can’t answer his question, Does it remind you of your family, leaving China?
I want to say, No, it’s completely different, which in many ways it is, but really
I’m remembering what a writer friend once said to me, All you write about
is being gay or Chinese—how I can’t get over that, & wonder if it’s true,
if everything I write is in some way an immigrant narrative or another
coming out story. I recall a recent poem, featuring fishmongers in Seattle,
& that makes me happy—clearly that one isn’t about being gay or Chinese.
But then I remember a significant number of Chinese immigrants
live in Seattle & how I found several of the Pike Place fishmongers
attractive when I visited, so I guess that poem’s about being gay
& Chinese, too. So I say to my friend, I’m not sure, & keep eating
the popcorn. Thank god we chose the giant “family size” bag. Can’t stop
the greasy handfuls, noisy mouthfuls. Can’t eat popcorn quietly.
Later, during my friend’s smoke break, still can’t come up with a worthy
response to his radical queer critique of homonormativity, of monogamy,
domesticity, front lawn glory. These middle-class gays picking out
garden gnomes, ignoring all the anti-racist work of decolonization
that still needs to be done—don’t you think they’re lame? I say, Yeah, for sure,
but think, marriage, house, 1 kid, 2 cats—how long have I wanted that?
Could I give that up in the name of being a real queer? Probably can’t.
& it’s like another bad habit I can’t give up. Eating junk, can’t. Procrastinating,
can’t. Picking scabs, can’t. Being friends with people who challenge
my beliefs & life plans, can’t. Reading & believing in Ayn Rand, though?
Can, Brief phase as a Christian because I liked the cross as an accessory? Can.
WWJD? Can. White heterosexist patriarchy? Can. America . . . can’t.
Can’t help but think, when we get back to the movie, how it was my father’s
decision to move here, not my mother’s, just like the parents on screen.
Can’t stop replaying my mother’s walk onto the plane, carrying me,
though I was getting too old for it, holding me, my face pressed into her
hair, her neck, as she cried, quietly—can’t stop returning to this scene of leaving,
can’t stop pausing the scene, thinking I’ve left something out again,
something else my mother told me. Like my grandmother at the airport,
how she saw my small body so tied to my mother’s body, & still she doubted,
she had to say, You better not lose him. & my mother kept that promise
till she couldn’t, she lost me, in the new country, but doesn’t
that happen to all parents & their children, one way or another,
& don’t we need to get lost? Lost, dizzy, stubbly, warm, stumbling,
whoa—that’s what it felt like, 17, kissing a boy for the first time.
Can’t forget it. Can’t forget when my mother found out & said,
This would never have happened if we hadn’t come to this country.
But it would’ve happened, every bit as dizzy, lost, back in China.
It didn’t happen because of America, dirty Americans. It was me,
my need. My father said, You have to change, but I couldn’t, can’t
give you up, boys & heat, scruff & sweet. Can’t get over you. Trying to get
over what my writer friend said, All you write about is being gay or Chinese.
Wish I had thought to say to him, All you write about is being white
or an asshole. Wish I had said, No, I already write about everything—
& everything is salt, noise, struggle, hair,
carrying, kisses, leaving, myth, popcorn,
mothers, bad habits, questions.
Kissing in Vietnamese
By Ocean Vuong
My grandmother kisses
as if bombs are bursting in the backyard,
where mint and jasmine lace their perfumes
through the kitchen window,
as if somewhere, a body is falling apart
and flames are making their way back
through the intricacies of a young boy’s thigh,
as if to walk out the door, your torso
would dance from exit wounds.
When my grandmother kisses, there would be
no flashy smooching, no western music
of pursed lips, she kisses as if to breathe
you inside her, nose pressed to cheek
so that your scent is relearned
and your sweat pearls into drops of gold
inside her lungs, as if while she holds you
death also, is clutching your wrist.
My grandmother kisses as if history
never ended, as if somewhere
a body is still
I Ask My Mother to Sing
By Li-Young Lee
She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.
I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.
But I love to hear it sung;
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.
Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.
This episode first aired on GBH Boston Public Radio on April 5th, 2021.