Nightstand Reads: Jane Wong

Our guest blogger today is Seattle poet Jane Wong, visiting Assistant Professor at Pacific Lutheran University and author of Overpour, shares with us her current project and a few books of inspiration. She will be at MadArt at 7pm on Nov. 8 for the event “The Poetics of Haunting.”

Dear Readers,

My project, The Poetics of Haunting, considers how social, historical, and political contexts “haunt” the work of contemporary Asian American poets. How does history – particularly the history of war, colonialism, and marginalization – impact the work of Asian American poets across time and space? How does language act as a haunting space of intervention and activism? The digital site insists on invocation: a deliberate, powerful, and provocative move toward haunted places. It is my hope that you will explore the website, which features audio and video conversations, poetry, photographs, and multi-modal ephemera. And join me on November 8th, 7:00pm with poets Don Mee Choi, Pimone Triplett, and Diana Khoi Nguyen at MadArt for a powerful performance.

Below are a few of the books I am currently reading and returning to when I think about the poetics of haunting:

Year Zero by Monica Sok

This striking chapbook, selected by Marilyn Chin through the Poetry Society of America, year-zerolooks history in the eye. As Chin writes in the forward: “In clear song and soft assonance, ghostly remembrances of these times are spoken in the voices of ordinary people: mothers, aunties, fathers, uncles, girls selling tamarind, villagers going about their day in a lush tropical landscape of octopus trees and betel leaves.” Sok responds to the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime through the filtering brightness and darkness of poetry in Year Zero. This is a voice that can not be stopped – moving from generation to generation with such force, sadness, beauty, and hope. The poem “Here is Your Name” is a declaration of visibility, of keeping our ghosts with us: “But he’s still up there in that tree / and here you are still writing your name / and your brother’s name, now your mother’s / and father’s name, as though writing them / might make your names true.” Please spend some time listening closely to Sok’s interview, images, and poem on the website.

hardly-warHardly War by Don Mee Choi

Hardly War is an experiential book; in this way, it is a book full of texture. And what is history if not layered, fragmented, textured, fraught? In “Woe Are You?” she writes: “It was hardly war, the hardliest of wars. Hardly, hardly. It occurred to me that this particular war was hardly war because of kids, more kids, those poor kids. The kids were hungry until we GIs fed them.” Choi calls upon the ghosts of war; the book uses artifacts from Choi’s father, a photographer during the Korean and Vietnam wars. In her essay “Darkness – Translation – Migration” which I also return to, Choi speaks of the intensity of translation, her close connection to Kim Hyesoon, and gathering darkness: “Like rats, children can be happy in darkness. But the biggest darkness of all was the midnight curfew. I didn’t know the curfew was a curfew till my family escaped from it in 1972 and landed in Hong Kong. That’s how big the darkness was.” Darkness blooms. Choi also has a page on the website with poetry, imagery, and music. Please also read The Morning News is Exciting!, Choi’s first book.

The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúythe-gangster

I’ve taught this book many times in my Asian American Studies courses. I first read it in college and it stayed with me over the years –particularly the scene with the shattering butterflies. Migration, displacement, the desire to return to that which is already gone. The prose is full of lyric lament. The book’s epigraph reads: “In Vietnamese, the word for water and the word for a nation, a country and a homeland are one and the same: nu’o’c.” Written in vignettes, the novel draws a thread across each story, gathering the distance separating family, country, and home in the wake of the Vietnam war: “I don’t know how time moves or which of our sorrows or our desires it is able to wash away.”

Jane Wong’s poems can be found in anthologies and journals such as Best American Poetry 2015, Best New Poets 2012, Pleiades, Third Coast, and others. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the U.S. Fulbright Program, the Fine Arts Work Center, Squaw Valley, and Bread Loaf. 

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