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  • Michelle Fung

A List of Names I Wish To Join: Notable Chinese-American Poets

When asked about my writing, I usually tell people that I was first introduced to poetry in third grade. Third grade included the American classics: Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams, I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman. Those are good poems, and I still sometimes quote the lines “But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep.”


That story is not technically true though. The actual first time I was introduced was years before third grade, when my mother had my sisters and me memorize ancient Chinese poetry. That was part of our Mandarin lessons, so for several years, I had the works of Li Bai, Wang Zhihuan, and Meng Haoran in my head. But I hadn’t realized then that I was reading poems, and I didn’t realize until quite some time after. This made the primary influence on my writing those mainstream American poets, whose work I enjoyed and back then, referred to as the highest standard.


I love writing poetry. It is easily one of my favorite pastimes, and I have long wished to publish a book of poems of my own. But this felt unattainable, as I had grown up with a certain image of what poetry should look like and as a result, what a poet should look like: not me. I certainly was not going to be the next Robert Frost.


So, it was a surprise that should not have been a surprise when I came across the work of many Chinese-American poets, all of which were well-established in the writing industry and had found great success, with works taught in classrooms internationally–just not mine. Poets who I wish I had known about when I first began writing poetry, with three of them, separated in their own category, now added to my list of favorite poets: Marilyn Chin, Arthur Sze, and John Yau.


Marilyn Chin

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Oregon, Marilyn Mei Ling Chin is a poet and novelist on top of being an anthologist, translator, and educator. Her writing primarily focuses on her life as an Asian-American woman and a feminist, featuring themes of, in her words, “exile, loss, and assimilation.” Chin is known for the confrontational nature of her poems, addressing both difficult topics such as systemic oppression and what may be considered taboo, like female desire. On top of writing original poetry and fiction, she has also translated poetry by Asian poets such as Chinese poet Ai Qing and Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Hunong. Chin’s work has won her several awards, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2020. Her most recently published poetry collection is titled A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems (2018), and her upcoming and sixth collection Sage is expected later this year in early May.


Chin’s background drew me to her work initially, as my father is from Hong Kong. I had never heard of any Asian-American poets from Hong Kong before Chin, so I was immediately intrigued. What kept me reading is Chin’s contrast between the elegantly masked and painfully overt within a piece. Metaphors are cut by hard-hitting lines, and her use of colloquial language brings a contemporary and human feel to the work. It captures the wave of emotions associated with the aforementioned themes of her writing perfectly. She also utilizes unconventional spacing to control the pace of the story as opposed to standard punctuation, creating a visual effect that emphasizes each broken fragment. My favorite example of this is in the second stanza of From “Beautiful Boyfriend”, where a gap between “Perhaps” and “I could love you like no other” makes the line all the more heartbreaking. Chin’s control over written emotional impact is incredible, and each read only compounds upon the lasting effect of her work.


Personal recommendations: How I Got That Name, Formosan Elegy, From “Beautiful Boyfriend”


Arthur Sze

Arthur Sze is a Chinese-American poet, translator, and educator from New York. Sze's poetry career began during a calculus lesson at MIT in undergraduate studies, when he flipped to a notebook and began writing. This led to him leaving the school in his second year to attend the University of California in Berkeley, where he studied ancient Chinese poetry. Sze worked as a professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts for twenty-two years, encouraging Native writers to incorporate their languages into their writing as he is fond of creative use of syntax in his work. Sze has been the recipient of many awards, including the Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers and a Lannan Literary Award. His most recent book of poetry out of the eleven he has published is titled The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems (2021) and explores transformation through varying forms and stories.


When it comes to Sze’s writing, I am in awe of his ability to leap between subjects and emotions to emulate an entirely new experience. In an interview with Phillips Exeter Academy’s literary journal The Exonian, Sze talks about how his technique comes from “trying to destabilize place” to stray from the traditional linear narrative, which is typically localized in some capacity in order to establish a setting. This is meant to introduce the complexities of life into his work, as things do not tend to progress in an organized fashion. Many autobiographical poems I have read and enjoyed before tell a story chronologically, so Sze’s work is especially refreshing and thought-provoking. He accomplishes autobiographical without confessional, instead obscuring personal details and his intended messages. It is all purposefully not in your face, so there is an existential quality to his work. Even if you don’t understand the words, you can feel them.


Personal Recommendations: Streamers, Floaters, Miracles


John Yau

John Yau is a poet with over fifty published books of poetry, fiction, and art criticism. Born in Massachusetts, he is the son of Chinese immigrants and is known for illustrating both his Chinese and American heritage in his writing. His teaching experience includes time at Brown University, University of California–Berkeley, and Rutgers University among other institutions. Yau has been awarded many times for his work, including the New York Foundation for the Arts Award and being named a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by France. He has also been recognized for his work as an art critic and has written about several well-known artists, such as Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. Yau’s next book, titled Please Wait by the Coatroom: Reconsidering Race and Identity in American Art, will feature a series of essays about ethnic identity in art and is expected to release in June 2023.


I fell in love with Yau’s Ill-Advised Love Poem the moment I read it. His writing style is similar to the voice I try to create when I write—one of plain honesty mixed with a few twists and plays on the English language. It reads like confessing followed by a small smile, as if you are in on a secret that you do not actually know. Yau’s conversational tone fosters a close relationship between the reader and the text, asking questions like “Why do you need an expensive phone?” in his poem First Language Lesson and addressing the audience’s perception of the poem’s direction in Introduction, saying “Doesn’t this sound like it might turn into a love poem or a prayer / Well, you are wrong.” Imagery is thoughtfully crafted and wrapped within soft storytelling, and even his poems centered around more emotional themes, like grief, contain a sense of peace. Of all the poets I have enjoyed the work of, Yau’s work contains some of the most comfortable poems I have read.


Personal Recommendations: Ill-Advised Love Poem, Something To Look Forward To, Introduction



When I first realized that I had been reading Chinese poetry all along, I found that even though I knew I did not have enough control over the language to write in Chinese, I wanted to incorporate aspects of that literature into my writing. I just didn’t know how, nor did I feel like writing about my Chinese heritage had a place in poetry.


That turned out to be incorrect. After reading the work of many poets of varying backgrounds, especially the three poets above, I feel more confident in not only writing about my cultural identity, but simply writing about whatever I want to write about. Changing the image of what a poet looks like altered my mindset as a writer and although I know that becoming a successful poet is a difficult feat, being represented in the industry makes that dream feel slightly more attainable. There isn’t the imposter-feeling roadblock anymore.


Maybe I’ll be among those notable Chinese-American poets someday, maybe not. Either way, the poems of Chin, Sze, and Yau have had a profound influence on my life, and so if you’re ever looking for some good poetry, you already know who I would recommend.


Sources:


“Arthur Sze.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/arthur-sze.


“John Yau.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/john-yau#tab-poems.


“Marilyn Chin.” Wordpress, Marilyn Chin, 17 Jan. 2023, http://www.marilynchin.org/.


“Marilyn Chin.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/marilyn-chin#tab-poems.


Yeung, Felix. “9 Questions For Arthur Sze.” Phillips Exeter Academy, The Trustees of Phillips Exeter Academy, 15 Nov. 2019, https://www.exeter.edu/news/nine-questions-lamont-poet-arthur-sze.


Walter. “John Yau.” Iterant, Iterant, 8 May 2022, https://iterant.org/john-yau/.


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