blog post by Laura Yoo
Ilya Kaminksy’s poetry collection Deaf Republic (2019) is a book that should be studied from cover to cover. Start with the brick wall of an ear against the black and white background. On the very first page inside, read the praises for Deaf Republic. Back of the inside cover page – note the names of all the artists who contributed to the book: the cover designer, the cover artist, and the artist of the interior illustrations. Read the “Notes” at the end of the book for the poet’s comments on signs and silence. Read the “Acknowledgements” page for the poet’s dedication of certain poems for fellow poets like Jericho Brown, Brian Turner, and Patricia Smith. You can see that it took a village.
Turn to the back cover: “What happens when the citizens of a country no longer hear one another?”
Deaf Republic tells the story of a town that goes deaf in the face of brutality and oppression, and the collection includes drawings of hands that represent signing. The first image is a sign for “town” – two hands held up facing each other, tips of fingers touching, making a tent-like shape. Later, we see signs for “town watches”, “army convoy,” “hide,” “match,” “curtain,” “the town watches,” “story,” “kiss,” “be good,” “earth,” and “the crowd watches.” At the end of the book, the poet writes that the “In Vasenka, the townspeople invented their own sign language. Some of the signs are derived from various traditions (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, American Sign Language, etc.) Other signs might have been made up by citizens, as they tried to create a language not known to authorities.”
In appreciation for the visual art of Deaf Republic, HoCoPoLitSo invited Jennifer Whitten, the artist responsible for the hand drawings in the collection, to share her experience of working with Ilya Kaminsky and his poetry as well as her vision for the project. We invite you to visit Jennifer’s Instagram page for examples of her art and to take a look at the videos of Jennifer at work (at the end of this article).
For those who are new to your art, how would you explain your aesthetic?
I began my career as a student of medicine, and though I made the difficult decision to pursue my passion for art over what many called the ‘sensible’ path of a doctor, science still colors my aesthetic. I’ve been called a hyperrealist painter, but my dogged attention to detail has very little to do with a metric for skill; after a great deal of reflection, I realized that my meticulousness was my response to a chaotic and troubled upbringing, one riddled with tragic death and loss. In this sense, I relate very deeply to Deaf Republic, insomuch that it serves, as a work of art, to process the past, and, to connect with others, even if their experiences aren’t facsimiles of our own. When you’re entranced by the process, you can tune out the external cacophony over which you have no control. So I make that process as difficult and all-consuming as possible; to make a reverse glass painting, not only do you have to contend with an incredibly slick and disobedient surface, the image is painted both backwards, and flipped. I first discovered reverse-glass painting in a private collection in Lake Como; while teaching myself the process, I grappled for information, anything that could help me navigate such difficult and uncharted territory, but learned that there are only a handful of other people in the world mad enough to take it on and they aren’t very vocal about their methods. Treading water in the deep-end left me a little more open to error and exploration than I had ever been before, which led to more ambitious installations and the incorporation of 3D, even 4D (time-based) media, like live music and video, into the 2D medium of painting. I think this experience prepped me in how to understand sign language illustrations as 2D representations of a 4D gesture.
How did you come to do the artwork for Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic? Can you tell us about the process of working with the poet and/or the poetry?
In 2017, I did a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. VSC has a unique advantage in that they bring in established writers and artists to offer the residents mentorship. Enter Ilya Kaminsky. The whole cohort was buzzing with talk of him and I confess that at that stage, I didn’t know who he was. But boy, did I find out, crammed into a main hall packed with people eagerly awaiting his reading. How can I describe what it was like to hear Ilya read, other than to say it was like keening, preaching and crooning all at once? The room was riveted, people were in tears. I only realized that I wasn’t breathing when he paused. And then, it was like the séance ended and the medium was back to his smiling, affable self. At some point during the week, VSC conducted Open Studio, where we would wander through each other’s workspaces to reflect on what we’d made so far; Ilya and his agent joined in. The next day, in the lunch line, he approached me and said he’d been quite taken with what he’d seen in my studio and asked if I’d be interested in collaborating, in illustrating his upcoming book of poetry. I was so flabbergasted, I nearly dropped my tray, while somehow managing to blurt out a resounding ‘yes’.
What was your approach to creating the drawings for Deaf Republic? Are the drawings a representation of American Sign Language or another sign language?
What Ilya had seen during Open Studio that night were the line drawings I do in preparation for the paintings on glass […]; although minimal and unfinished, these lines were the aesthetic Ilya had had in mind. From what I gather, some of the signs are actually ASL (I recognized “Kiss” for example), while others were invented by Ilya. It was a challenge to distil my usual aesthetic, turning what normally serves as preparatory into a finished work (people often misinterpret simplicity for ease, but distillation is difficult!). The reference images provided to me were very sparse, so I relied on verbal descriptions for guidance—luckily, Ilya is a poet (and a damn good one)! This highlighted the intersection between the verbal and the visual for me. There was a bit of back and forth, particularly with “Hide”, where Ilya asked me to conceal the thumb behind the fingers a bit more, as though it were hiding. This made me hyper-aware of how creatively illustrative sign language can be. I saw my hands in a new light, anthropomorphized. To use my own as reference was so meaningful and it’s an honor to literally have had a hand in Ilya’s masterpiece. To form the signs with my fingers as I read meant that I wasn’t a passive reader, but rather one actively and corporeally engaged.
How do you think your drawings contribute to the meaning of the poems?
In Ilya’s words to me, “the image and the narrative are so connected, their moods often depending on each other”; it was important to me to capture the simultaneous blunt force and tender intimacy of Ilya’s poetry visually. Again, in Ilya’s words, “the lines [in your drawings] create their own continuum among the signs, how they present themselves eloquently, assertively, yet intimately.” Hearing readers are conditioned to associate the written word with sound, which is a part of language that is inaccessible and therefore meaningless/superfluous to a Deaf or Hard of Hearing individual. The written word was originally created as a representation of linguistic sound; my illustrations serve to question that automatic association in Hearing readers. I hope that my images reinforce what poetry, what sign language do in their own right, which is to remind readers that the written word has a visual component, both in terms of its morphology, but also in terms of its placement on a page and the negative space with which it interacts (I see a strong link in the way in which the naked glass in my painted works relate to the negative space on Ilya’s pages, both communicating absence, loss and silence). Blocks of text in prose do not use the visual aspect of language to drive the narrative—not in the way poetry can, or illustration can. The creativity behind sign language compels us to linger on individual words, the visual asking us to pause and consider what a word means at its core. Which is what poetry does. It’s a beautiful experience, like knowing that the German word for “lightbulb” is “glow pear”.
On your Instagram page, I love the astrology series, which are hand-painted backwards on glass. (I’m an Aries, and the image of the ram is stunning!) Can you tell us more about that collection?
The Zodiac series has a bit in common with the images I did for Deaf Republic, in that both have semiotics at their core. But honestly, it began as a break from the scholastic, theory-laden vantage point I’d developed during my Masters program. I just wanted to reconnect with paint itself, to relish in the feel of it sliding over glass and in the satisfaction of creating the illusion of a variety of textures using only black and white. Working with the imagery of the Zodiac let me indulge in the exquisite differences between wool and scales, tentacles and horn, a butterfly’s wings and a crab’s claws. However, given the fact that a painting takes me not hours, but months to complete, I found myself, before long, listening to scholarly podcasts about astrology while at the easel. Some of my favorites were about Jung and archetype and I learned that astrology itself is a language, a system of intricate geometry and symbol.
Moreover, I realized that this incredibly rich, cultural mine has been largely left out of art historical discourse and scholarship, despite its prominence, and has been entirely rejected by the Science it originated. This is something astrology has the misfortune of sharing with glass painting, which, though once esteemed enough to be considered holy, devolved into a decorative/utilitarian craft over time. Though I hadn’t taken the Zodiac seriously at the outset, I’ve since been thoroughly moved by how it has captured the imaginations of civilizations all over the world and by how it’s a way for human beings to systematically apply meaning to the patterns we seek and find in chaos.
This is something that the Zodiac shares with language and music as well (how humans are able to apply pattern to random sounds and call it musical); my Zodiac paintings are part of a larger installation for which I developed an algorithm to translate the Zodiacal constellations (upon which the animals are based) into notes for cello. As a whole, it’s a translation from literal to abstract and calls attention to the impulse to do this, which is uniquely human.
We are profoundly saddened and outraged by the recent violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people and by the ongoing systemic lack of accountability. We stand in solidarity with all those seeking to create long-lasting change in our communities.
HoCoPoLitSo was founded to celebrate diverse literary heritages and to foster literary appreciation in diverse populations, including varying gender, ethnic and cultural identities, age groups, and income levels. We believe that opening a book, reading a poem, or attending a literary event can be a powerful humanistic journey of exploration, education, and enlightenment.
To this end, over the years HoCoPoLitSo has hosted an inclusive list of authors, and our video series reflects that diversity. We are committed to the ongoing collaborative process of inclusion. As a way to address, extend, and deepen these crucial conversations about the AAPI experience, audiences can watch featured authors reading their work, with introductions by local actors.
Poetry Moment and Writing Life videos by HoCoPoLitSo include:
Though this list is not exhaustive, HoCoPoLitSo also recommends these works by AAPI writers. Look for these titles on Bookshop.org to support independent booksellers around the country.
- Go Home! edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
- Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers edited by Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada and Shawn Wong
- We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang
- How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
- All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
- Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
- The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East West Culture Gap by Gish Jen
- The Magical Language of Others by EJ Koh
- The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee
- Fairest by Meredith Talusan
- Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank H. Wu
- Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
- White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
- The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata by Gina Apostol
- Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
- Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang
- Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
- The Resisters by Gish Jen
- East Goes West by Younghill Kang
- The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim
- The Interpreter by Suki Kim
- The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
- Drifting House by Krys Lee
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
- Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- No No Boy by John Okada
- The God of Small Things by Arundati Roy
- The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
- Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
- Pilgrim Bell: Poems by Kaveh Akbar
- The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan
- Hybrida by Tina Chang
- Obit by Victoria Chang
- A Portrait of the Self as a Nation by Marilyn Chin
- DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi
- Soft Science by Franny Choi
- Bodega: Poems by Su Hwang
- A Lesser Love: Poems by EJ Koh
- The Last Incantation by David Mura
- Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
- Nightingale by Paisley Rekdal
- 3 Sections by Vijay Seshandri
- A Nail the Evening Hangs On by Monica Sok
- Peach State: Poems by Adrienne Su
- A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon
HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College Present
The Thirteenth Annual Blackbird Poetry Festival
Russian-born poet Ilya Kaminsky headlines the Blackbird Poetry Festival to be held virtually on April 29, 2021. The festival is a day devoted to verse, with student workshops, readings, and HCC Poetry Ambassadors on social media.
The Sunbird Reading features Kaminsky, Teri Ellen Cross Davis, local authors, and Howard Community College faculty and students. This free daytime event starts at 2:30 p.m., with registration required — click here to register.
The Nightbird program, hosted on Zoom, begins with a pre-show at 7:20 p.m. Presented live, the evening features an introduction by Cross Davis, a reading by Kaminsky, and an audience question and answer session. A link to the online event will be emailed to ticketholders. Nightbird tickets, $15, are available on-line. If you need help with your order, the Horowitz Center Box Office (443.518.1500) has limited phone hours to answer your questions.
Kaminsky, hard of hearing since the age of four, is the author of Deaf Republic, a 2019 National Book Award finalist. In Poets & Writers Magazine, Garth Greenwell wrote “Deaf Republic is a dramatic masterwork, a parable-in-poems that confronts the darkness of war and terror with the blazing light of ‘a poet in love with the world.’ ” The BBC selected Kaminsky as “one of the 12 artists that changed the world” in 2019. Kaminsky is also an editor, translator, and professor at Georgia Tech, where he holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry.
Kaminsky authored an earlier poetry collection, Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004). Shortly after the release of that collection, Kaminsky won the Whiting Award and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Carolyn Forché noted he was “more than a promising young poet; he is a poet of promise fulfilled. I am in awe of his gifts.”
Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of a more perfect Union (The 2019 Journal Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize) and Haint (2017 Ohioana Poetry Award). She is the 2020 Poetry Society of America’s Robert H. Winner Memorial Prize winner and the poetry coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
a blog post by Susan Thornton Hobby
Have lunch with the poets,
the library, and HoCoPoLitSo
during National Poetry Month
“I don’t write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me: they are about questions.” — Lucille Clifton
Lots of people think they need to know what a poem means. Sometimes professors and experts dissect a poem so much that a poem dies before we allow it to live. But what if a poem was written not to answer questions, but to ask them?
Lucille Clifton, a National Book Award-winning poet, wrote from her home office in a townhouse in Columbia for decades until her death in 2010. And she never stopped asking questions with her poetry.
Soon after the Howard County Central Library opened in 1981, Clifton read her poetry with three other amazing poets, William Stafford, Roland Flint, and current Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri. HoCoPoLitSo brought those poets and library patrons together forty years ago, and we’re still collaborating today.
Join HoCoPoLitSo and the library for their newest program, a lunch break of poetry every Tuesday in April.
The “Po” in HoCoPoLitSo stands for Poetry (the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society). But sometimes, when we talk about poetry, people’s eyes glaze over. Occasionally (or more often …) poetry just seems impenetrable.
But it doesn’t have to be. Clifton’s poetry is accessible, understood at a first reading, with meaning that grows deeper at second or third reading, prompting those questions that bring readers to her poetry over and over again.
Once we’ve hooked you with Clifton’s work, we have plenty of other ideas of where to start with poetry. Perhaps with Amanda Gorman’s performance at President Joe Biden’s inauguration and at the Super Bowl, more people are intrigued about poetry, but don’t really know where to go for good poetry beyond inspirational quotes on Instagram. We’ve got your poetry questions covered.
The library and HoCoPoLitSo have partnered for forty years to bring poetry and literature to Howard County audiences. Over those decades, we have together sponsored movies about Gwendolyn Brooks and Seamus Heaney, organized readings by poets such as Josephine Jacobsen and Stanley Kunitz, judged student poetry contests, and even staged a play about poet Emily Dickinson, “The Belle of Amherst.”
And since National Library Week (April 4-10) coincides with National Poetry Month in April, HoCoPoLitSo and the library system thought it would be the perfect time to launch a new program. Every Tuesday in April, HoCoPoLitSo and the library will collaborate to bring you a little lunchtime buffet of poetry, virtually. I’m Susan Thornton Hobby, a proud library volunteer and HoCoPoLitSo board member and consultant, and with the library’s support, I’ve coordinated this April poetry feast.
When the pandemic closed everyone’s doors, HoCoPoLitSo created a new video series, both to reach out to people at home who were hungry for the arts, and to amplify the voices of Black poets who have visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences since 1974. With the help of Howard Community College’s Arts Collective, and director Sue Kramer, we produced the Poetry Moment series. Local actors Chania Hudson, Shawn Sebastian Naar, and Sarah Luckadoo offer introductions, then famous poets like Clifton and Kunitz and Heaney and Brooks read their work, with selections extracted from archival video. Ellen Conroy Kennedy, the late founding director and heart and soul of HoCoPoLitSo, started this archive in 1986 when she began documenting the poetry and literature programs she was producing. The Writing Life resulted, with more than 100 full interviews with authors carried on HoCoPoLitSo’s YouTube page.
In April, every Tuesday at noon, we’ll gather virtually to talk poetry. We’ve grouped the poems by theme for each week, and will talk a little about poetry, then watch the videos together and discuss.
Here’s our poetry hit parade:
- Tuesday, April 6: We’ll talk about grief, something many people are dealing with this year. Poems we’ll be discussing include “Elegy” by Linda Pastan, “My Deepest Condiments” by Taylor Mali, and “The Long Boat” by Stanley Kunitz.
- Tuesday, April 13: History is this week’s theme, and we’ll talk about Sterling Allen Brown’s “Southern Road,” read by poet Toi Derricotte, “In the Tradition” by Amiri Baraka, and “Requiem” by Anna Akhmatova, read by poet Carolyn Forché.
- Tuesday, April 20: Many contemporary poets turn to their families as sources for poetry. The poems we’ll read this week are “good times” by Lucille Clifton, “The Pomegranate” by Eavan Boland, and “A Final Thing” by Li-Young Lee.
- Tuesday, April 27: Our last week is centered on pep talks in poetry, verse to lift us up and give us strength. We’ll discuss “The Solstice” by W. S. Merwin, “For Every One” by Jason Reynolds, and “I Give You Back” by Joy Harjo.
HoCoPoLitSo and the Howard County Library System are happy to collaborate in bringing poetry to all who ask questions, to any who believe, like we do, that words can change the world.
If we hook you on poetry, consider tuning in to the April 29 Blackbird Poetry Festival, featuring Ilya Kaminsky and sponsored by Howard Community College and HoCoPoLitSo.
Register for the library lunch poetry programs here.
a blog post by Suhani Khosla
As a reader, loving characters that are born from good writing is easy for me. I rooted for Frances Janvier in Radio Silence, mourned Lydia Lee from Everything I Never Told You, and laughed with Pip from Enid Blyton’s classics. I am awed that every tiny reaction of the hundreds of characters I’ve come across had the potential to alter their respective stories.
As a writer, though, it is always challenging to build admirable characters: either their initial personality is too shallow, or my descriptions veer helplessly into unnecessary ramblings.
At Friday Black Bauder Student Workshop on March 4th held by Howard Community College, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Tope Folarin taught me the ins-and-outs of characterization. By the end of the workshop, I saw how these strategies meshed and intertwined with Friday Black’s narratives: through the framework of Adjei-Brenyah’s characters, I was able to fully understand prejudice, such anger, and such resilience.
Adjei-Brenyah and Folarin first began with the different types of characterization, engaging the participants from the get-go with creative examples of each. As we went through the modes of characterization (expository, description, and action), the chat blew up with participant’s replies and examples. I saw the benefits of all methods, and some of the drawbacks: expository was a simple explanation, quick and to the point, but only an explanation; description almost forced a perception of the character, yet description called for artful word choice that would lift the passage; and through recording action readers could form a “nuanced view” without influence by the narrator’s voice, yet it could pose the threat of being too vague.
All avenues were used in the final activity, just as Adjei-Brenyah employs them in his writing. We were instructed to create a hero (or an anti-hero) with the following set of questions:
- What is their power/ability that makes them special? Why?
- How did they get the ability?
- What does your character want (initially)?
- Who might try to stop them?
And based on our answers, we used the modes of characterization to create our heroes/anti-heroes. I found it easier and fun to craft a character succinctly, a character that, maybe one day, could stand with the famous and the infamous ones that shaped my life thus far.
Through workshops with engaging repartee among the hosts and participants, students like myself can gather the tools to add layers of depth to their writing. Crafting our individual narratives relies deeply on how we present ourselves and those around us, a process Adjei-Brenyah and Folarin taught us effortlessly. Happy writing!
To watch Adjei-Brenya’s Bauder lecture, make sure to visit https://vimeo.com/showcase/8082121?video=507368937
Suhani Khosla is a senior at Atholton High School. She likes to read, draw, and write during her free time. She is currently reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography on Jerusalem and Friday Black. Suhani loves working with HoCoPoLitSo as a Bauder Student On Board member, and she hopes to continue her interest in the arts in college.
a blog post by Laura Yoo
The Women I Don’t Know
Last year when I was writing the syllabus for my women’s literature course, I wondered about the “women” part of that course name. What is “woman” and who should be included in this reading list?
As I flipped through the textbook, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: Traditions in English, I tried to compose a reading list that was diverse. Immediately I saw the gaps in the anthology. Among those missing or underrepresented were African women writers and transgender women writers. I recognized, too, that it’s not just Norton – there are gaps in my own encounter with women’s stories from diverse walks of life and backgrounds. I know so little about these women.
And when I don’t know something, I go and read. But what do I read? Who do I read?
Transgender Women Writers
In the opening of their article “Toward Creating Trans Literary Canon” RL Goldberg is in a situation similar to mine – teaching a course called “Masculinity in Literature” and wondering what we mean by masculine. Goldberg’s students are incarcerated twenty something men who are working toward a college degree. Interestingly, the debate among the students is not over words like “transgender, transsexual, agender, two-spirit, trans woman, bigender, trans man, FTM, MTF, boi, femme, soft butch, cisgender” – these, the students understood. However, “What was contentious: man and woman,” Goldberg shares. This makes complete sense. Of course, it’s words that we think we know, words that seem so clearly opposite, that we must grapple with because they evolve.
In keeping with defying or moving across the spectrum of categories, whether that’s genre or gender, Goldberg includes in their list of works for recommendation Freshwater (about being an obenje) by Akwaeke Emezi and Mucus in My Pineal Gland (“displacing or disregarding genre or gender”) by Juliana Huxtable.
In “12 of the Best Books by Trans Authors That You Need to Read” Torrey Peters (her own novel is called Detransition, Baby) includes these works that show a range in genre and themes: The Unkindness of Ghosts by River Solomon (a science fiction novel that explores structural racism) and Fairest by Meredith Talusan (memoir of Filipino boy with albinism coming to America who is mistaken for white and becomes a woman).
African Women Writers
When it comes to African women writers, we come across incredible diversity among them as Africa is a big place with long, complex histories – with many different languages and cultures. This article from The Guardian, “My year of reading African women, by Gary Youngue” is an excellent introduction for novice readers of African women writers. Youngue’s reading list includes the following:
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
- Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
- The Secret Lives of Baga Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin
- Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
- The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
- The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
- We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
- Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
- Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste
- The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami
And I recommend that you read Youngue’s article for his take on what these works offer us.
This article from Electric Literature, “10 Books by African Women Rewriting History” by Carey Baraka, includes these contemporary recommendations: Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo (set in 2008 Kenyan presidential election), The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah (set in Northern Ghana during pre-colonial times), and The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (focusing on a Zambian space program).
Expanding Our Sphere of Reading
I know these are incomplete lists, and lists like these reflect the personal as well as the cultural tastes of the one creating the list. And all these recommendations are limited to those authors writing in English. Also, I know that when I look for “transgender women writers” I may be excluding – or drawing lines that exclude – nonbinary and gender nonconforming writers.
As an Asian American woman, I have been diving into Asian American literature lately, particularly those by women. I recommend The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim (short story collection) and Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha (set against the 1992 LA Riots). It has been so exciting, after so many years of being a student and teacher of literature, to finally discover writers and read books by and about Asian Americans. To open a book and witness stories that I recognize is a certain kind of gift that representation brings.
However, we also turn to books to see the world through others’ eyes. So, if there’s a blind spot in your literary journey (and your blind spot will be different from mine), take a ride with some of the women writers you don’t yet know on this International Women’s Day.
Regie Cabico and Chad Frame are the feature writers at the March Wilde Readings, a monthly community open mic supported by HoCoPoLitSo. Join Regie and Chad as well as other open mic readers for a free, virtual reading on Tuesday, March 9th at 7:00 pm. Register here. Get to know Regie and Chad with our Six Questions.
Regie: My muse, a lover, a secret crush, a celebrity crush and most recently, Filipino mythological deities and monsters.–Chad: Quite a few people from my past show up, as most of my writing is autobiographical. I have a collection coming out (Little Black Book) that’s entirely made up of poems about people from my past who were formative to my identity and sexuality, usually (but not always) failed romances. The poems are just titled with a first name, and I pointedly didn’t change any of the names, so that should make some waves when it comes out! I also wrote a collection (Two-Step Charlie) about the death of my father, who was an alcoholic Vietnam veteran. I wanted to chronicle the entire experience, from his terminal cancer diagnosis to his treatment, to taking care of him in hospice, to his inevitable passing, and beyond.
Regie: H Street NE, DC outside of Wydown, at Maketto in their back yard, on my patio, on an airplane, train, hotel room.–Chad: I’d like to say at some sort of antique desk with a feather quill or vintage typewriter, but quite honestly, I write at a cluttered table that was once a dining room table, but which is so covered in books and papers it’s utterly unrecognizable. My laptop is at one edge with a tiny area cleaned off for it, and otherwise my back is to a windowsill overloaded with potted plants.
Regie: I read a lot of poems online, watch poetry performances, write with my students and write in a notebook I carry with me everywhere. Then I might have a can of Mango Truly Seltzer or iced green tea and transfer my journal writing on my Google Chromebook.–Chad: I’m rarely consistent, but I always do an extensive amount of research before and while I write. It’s not unusual for me to have dozens of browser tabs open on my computer and phone to be reading all manner of information I might need to write. I also write a lot of found poetry (I’m particularly fond of the cento), and whenever I do that I always have a lot of research open for quotes, but I like to scrawl things out in a physical journal, since it feels more like I’m piecing together a puzzle that way. Odd, I suppose, but it works for me.
Regie: I will send to Soo-Jin Lee, a playwright, Drew Pisarra, a writer in Manhattan, and an ex Guillermo Filice Castro.–Chad: I tend to read things out loud to myself, but since my Maine Coon, Jabbers (short for Jabberwocky) is always by my side, I suppose he gets first read. I do also have a wonderful writing group (shout out to Montco WordShop!) who meet once a month who are always supportive and helpful with my work, and (hopefully) they can say the same about me.
Regie: I always turn to the poetry in The Language of Saxophones by Kamou Daaood & Crossing With The Light by Dwight Okita–Chad: Recent obsessions include: Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War, and absolutely anything by N.K. Jemisin, but particularly her speculative short fiction in How Long Till Black Future Month.
Regie: The Poetry Slam Finals in 1994, San Francisco. I was on the New York Team with Maggie Estepp, Tracie Morris, Hal Sirowitz versus the Boston Team with Patricia Smith, Lisa King, Craig Hickman.–Chad: Performances with No River Twice, my poetry and improv performance group, are always memorable, since no two readings are ever the same. I’ve read at big venues with hundreds of people and very tiny ones where only the performers showed up, yet still had a lot of fun reading to one another. I’ve enjoyed them all, but my most notable reading was probably at the Library of Congress.
In this guest blog, Sylvia Lee reflects on the film Minari and on the experiences and representations of Asian American women in literature and films.
It’s been a surreal year for everyone, but for Korean Americans, even more so.
Maybe it’s a stretch to speak for all Korean Americans, so I’ll speak for myself. Seeing Koreans at the Oscars winning for Parasite, accepting awards in Korean, has been surreal.
The popularity of Korean food, and seeing Korean restaurants full of non-Koreans (many times ordering in Korean) has been surreal.
The rise of K-pop, which I’d listen to back when the only way to hear it was by waiting for my dad to bring home VHS tapes of Korean music shows that were already weeks past air date, has been surreal.
But all of these were distinctly Korean, not Korean American. The only way to see Korean Americans thus far was to watch celebrity cooking shows starring David Chang and Roy Choi, or read Korean American authors, and the latter has been nowhere close to the same scale as Parasite.
To be unseen for so long, and then to have a light cast on you suddenly is unsettling. Early on, I became aware of the dangers of being too visible; the weight of stereotypes, the pressure to be exceptional when you’re the only Asian in the room, and what happens when too many Asians are together and folks are reminded of our perpetual foreignness. Invisibility, which can come in the form of labels like “white adjacent,” is bad enough, but hypervisibility, which can come in the form of “yellow peril” is equally traumatizing. There has been no in between, and to now see representations of myself so frequently, in so many cultural realms, has been like seeing myself in a distorted funhouse mirror.
So when the preview for Isaac Lee Chung’s film Minari, starring Steven Yeun, was released and then buzzed about, I felt anxiety where I should have felt sheer pride. I realized that now I was being seen–seen as in exposed.
The movie, which I have since watched in its entirety, does indeed do this, but in unexpected ways: it sees me, and it invites me to see myself by seeing my parents in their youth. I see my father in Steven Yeun’s portrayal of Jacob Yi, even though the two men are quite different. I see my mother in Yeri Han’s portrayal of Monica, even my grandmother in Youn Yuh-Jung’s Soon Ja. It is as much a movie about an Asian American audience as it is about the Asian American immigrant experience.
Minari centers on the story of a Korean immigrant family, staking their claim in rural Arkansas, pursuing the father’s vision of providing Korean produce to Korean businesses to sell to Korean immigrants. Like any immigrant story, this dream is easier dreamed than achieved. The father, Jacob Yi, has a name perfect for such a premise—like the Jewish forefather whose name he shares, Jacob is patriarchal and is posed to create a legacy that will carry on in his genealogy, setting down roots in a new land. But this story as much belongs to Jacob’s wife, Monica, whose name has a more modern ring to it, and it is Monica who wishes to be back in California, a more progressive place for Koreans to thrive.
It is Monica that I want to see most clearly, and yet, in the press junkets for Minari, Monica and Yeri Han’s portrayal of her seems to be overlooked. While Jacob Yi is played by Yeun, a Korean American whose father was also an immigrant, Monica’s character is played by Yeri Han, a well-known Korean actress. This casting is in some ways more accurate to the character Han is playing—a Korean woman transported to a foreign, unfamiliar setting. But whereas the character of Jacob Yi can be read from a Korean American perspective, the same does not apply as cleanly to Monica. Chung’s writing of Jacob is from the perspective of a Korean American male who has studied and knows the Korean father, the patriarch, well. As I see Monica, I see her through a son’s gaze, transfixed. It is not the white male gaze, but the gaze is unmistakably male, with the emphasis on Yeun, likely because he is the lead actor, than on Han. She still plays an important supporting role of course, in the same way that a Korean mother is often seen setting the table and making the meal, but not enjoying it with her family.
In his recent, excellent New York Times Magazine feature essay on Steven Yeun, writer Jay Caspian Kang quotes Yeun as saying, “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”
If this is true about Asian American experience, it is especially true of Asian American women. In Minari, this rings true of Monica. She is thinking about Jacob’s dream, concerned about family survival, and about caring for her children, while decidedly not thinking about herself. When her mother Soon Ja arrives from Korea with an immin bag full of Korean grocery staples unavailable in the US, Monica breaks down in tears. The acknowledgment of need is the acknowledgment that she has been remembered. It is one moment in the film where Monica is seen.
And so goes the trope of Korean—and most immigrant—mothers: their primary means to enact decisions is in service for the greater good of the family in pursuit of their husbands’ and then their children’s needs, and this is done silently. In the film, Monica has been aware all along of the struggles Jacob has kept hidden from her, but she says nothing. When Monica’s mother comes from Korea to help care for the children, this trope is played out further. Even in her old age, the Korean mother travels abroad to help her daughter to the point of a health crisis, sacrificing her physical body for the good of the family as a stroke renders her unable to speak. It is this silence, above all, that comes to characterize Korean women.
In Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong discusses one way this silence manifests. It is keeping quiet about trauma, specifically sexual violence. Asian American women, as Hong cites, report some of the lowest rates of sexual assault. Hong is right to distrust these reports, when silence is so endemic to the Asian American female experience. Hong describes how she’d hear about Asian women who disappeared, or “went mad” with no further discussion or explanation provided to her. There are many examples in Asian literature. Maxine Hong Kingston writes about the “No Name Woman” in her book Woman Warrior. Cho Nam-ju’s Kim Ji Young, Born 1982, attempts to articulate so many of the sexist experiences that silently make up the Korean female’s position in society. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian centers around the story of a woman who ends up literally silenced in a vegetative state, a result of the trauma absorbed over a lifetime.
Over a lunch of bibimbap and cabbage soup, my mom tells me of her oldest sister, whose name I don’t know, but have always referred to as the Daechon eemo, which is the city she lives in along with title “aunt.” It would be akin to my nephew calling me “Baltimore aunt.” But Daechon eemo is not the aunt my mother is referring to. She had another sister, she says, the oldest one of all the girls in the family. I’m floored. How did I not know about the existence of another family member? And yet, I don’t know why I should be surprised, given how little I know about my aunts in Korea. She tells me that this aunt died in her mid-thirties, quite young, and in fact, the same age I am when I hear this. Like many women during the 1950s, my aunt was married off before having met her husband, and when the marriage proves so unbearable (in ways I am not told about) she runs away back to her family, she is told by her father that leaving her husband would ruin the prospects of all of her remaining siblings. And so, she returns, sacrificing herself until her very body succumbs to her hardship. It reads like a bad Lisa See novel minus the enduring female friendship.
I know that suffering is not unique to Korean women. All women carry this DNA in their bodies, and it is not the only narrative Korean women have. In Minari, I at once appreciate that I am spared insight into Monica’s suffering, but I am also perplexed by the lack of it. She is distraught over her son’s health condition, but aside from the moment she cracks open in a pivotal argument with Jacob, she is cast as the silent, albeit beleaguered, wife. In her silence, I see my mother, my aunt. But while the film invites me to witness Jacob’s struggles, I am not invited to witness Monica’s in similar detail.
What I see instead, is Chung leaning into the trope of the Korean grandmother, the halmoni, to portray this experience. That’s because it is the halmoni who raised so many of us while our mothers were at work, and that recognition is even given in the end credits. We see the physicality of suffering through their broken bodies, and personality too. Soon Ja, played by Youn Yuh Jung, is given the means not just to portray her own sacrifice, but to be her memorable, quirky and quixotic self, her dedication and identity carved throughout the movie in poignant episodes like planting the minari the movie is titled after, a scene that suggests it is the halmoni, not the mother, who ensured that our roots were planted in an inhospitable environment.
The mother’s labor, like so much of her story, is largely invisible, as is Yeri Han in comparison to Yeun, whose star status is immediately more recognizable to American audiences. But as Yeun reflects, repeatedly, on his role in the movie, the conceptualization in character development and voice, Han is missing, and in the moments she can speak, she is speaking from a different perspective than Yeun, who has walked the life of the audience and the writer of the movie. The voice of the Korean woman is once again silent and she is rendered invisible, even if what we get from Han is an admirable performance of displacement and silent strength.
But this phenomenon of silence is not because we aren’t speaking. In an essay published in The Racial Imaginary, poet Jennifer Chang writes, in reference to being mistaken for the writer Victoria Chang: “Why am I so hard to distinguish, so hard to remember?” She calls this feeling of interchangeability a specific strain, set apart from invisibility, in that one is seen, but seen as “a synonym.”
As I watch Minari, I wonder how much of Monica and even Soon Ja, are synonym, interchangeable, in the same way I wonder how much of myself will be absorbed, forgotten into what Fatimah Asghar described as “a dance of strangers in my blood.” Once my life is over, will I be relegated to a generic supporting role, destined to be a stranger to my own children? This interchangeability is a result of the lack of attention given to the varied stories, written by and for Asian American women who have walked the lives of their audience as the leads in their own stories.
There are glimmers though, that as representations and visibility increase, and Asian American women are able to experiment with their work, the vague blurred images of us will form a more accurate mosaic, not solely bound by tropes. In the literary world, Korean American women writers are doing the work. Glancing at the literary landscape, one can see, in plain sight, writers like Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko and Free Food for Millionaires, EJ Koh, author of The Magical Language of Others, Steph Cha, author of Your House Will Pay, Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings, carving out space for varied narratives to come to light.
In film and television, directors like Lulu Wang are making inroads. Pachinko has been ordered to series by Apple TV. Sandra Oh is set to play the lead in The Chair, a Netflix series about a Korean American who is the chair of the English department at her college. The last one brings an odd hypervisibility again, as I too am a Korean American chair of my English department. I am shocked to see such a close representation of my situation, but I know I should grow accustomed and deserve to see myself too, something Minari revealed. I am my own audience, that there’s enough of me to be a central audience, and I owe no explanations to others who are interested enough to watch as well. This is not exclusionary; it is being comfortable not having to explain or interpret myself to others, something I’ve grown accustomed to.
Yet the anxiety at being too visible persists. Maybe it’s vestigial, this feeling; from having to be exceptional, having a unique identity that when represented, triggers the synonym syndrome. Or maybe it’s because I know, as the voices grow louder, the stories brought into the spotlight, there will still be distortion. But, as in any case when the eyes have been in darkness for so long, or the ears flooded with sound after such silence, the period of discomfort will be necessary, making what is seen and heard that much brighter and clearer.
Sylvia Lee is a current Chair and an Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College where she teaches composition, creative writing, and literature courses. She was previously an Assistant Professor at Montgomery College and has had teaching posts in New York and South Korea. She has been published in places such as The Korea Herald, Poets and Writers Magazine, and Lostwriters, among others. She has served on the editorial boards for several literary magazines, including HCC’s community publication The Muse. She received her M.F.A. in Writing at Sarah Lawrence College and a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland at College Park.
Author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah to Deliver Keynote at Howard Community College’s Inaugural Bauder Lecture
Acclaimed author of “Friday Black” will be joined in conversation with local author Tope Folarin
COLUMBIA, MD – Howard Community College announced that Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, the New York Times-bestselling author of “Friday Black,” will deliver the keynote at the inaugural Bauder Lecture. Adjei-Brenyah will participate in the virtual event on March 4, 2021, at 12 p.m., which also will include a conversation with Washington, DC-based writer Tope Folarin.
Adjei-Brenyah’s debut work, “Friday Black,” is a collection of twelve short stories that explore the injustices experienced by Black men and women in the U.S. Adjei-Brenyah, a professor at Syracuse University, uses fiction, humor, and shock to tackle urgent instances of racism and cultural unrest in America.
His work has appeared or is forthcoming from numerous publications, including the New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Literary Hub, the Paris Review, Guernica, and Longreads. He was selected by Colson Whitehead as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honorees, is the winner of the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and the William Saroyan International Prize, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for Best First Book, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Aspen Words Literary Prize.
Following his keynote, Adjei-Brenyah will be joined by Tope Folarin, a Nigerian-American writer based in Washington, D.C., and the author of “A Particular Kind of Black Man,” for an in-depth conversation. Folarin won the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing, was recently named a “writer to watch” by the New York Times, and was recognized among the most promising African writers under 40 by the Hay Festival’s Africa39 initiative.
The Bauder Lecture by Howard Community College is made possible by a generous grant from Dr. Lillian Bauder, a community leader and Columbia resident. Howard Community College will present an annual endowed author lecture known as The Bauder Lecture, and the chosen book will be celebrated with two student awards. Known as the Don Bauder Awards, any Howard Community College student who has read the featured book is eligible to respond and reflect on the book in an essay or other creative format. The awards honor the memory of Mr. Don Bauder, late husband of Dr. Lillian Bauder and a champion of civil rights and social justice causes.
“Friday Black” was selected by the Howard County Book Connection committee as its choice for the 2020–2021 academic year. The Howard County Book Connection is a partnership of Howard Community College and the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society.
To learn more about the Bauder Lecture and RSVP for the event, visit howardcc.edu/bauderlecture.
For more information on Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, “Friday Black,” and the Howard County Book Connection, visit https://howardcc.libguides.com/bookconnection2020.
We’ve all been swirling around in the frenetic cloud of crazy that has been the last twelve months. For HoCoPoLitSo, one thing has settled out of the hubbub. Poetry is something that helps. Hearing poetry, reading verse, listening to another soul speak truth is a balm.
National Poet Laureate Joy Harjo explains it well.
“When I began to listen to poetry, it’s when I began to listen to the stones, and I began to listen to what the clouds had to say, and I began to listen to other. And I think, most importantly for all of us, then you begin to learn to listen to the soul, the soul of yourself in here, which is also the soul of everyone else.”
If there’s any time we need to listen to our souls, and to the souls of other folk, it’s now.
The Poetry Moment series was created as a response both to the pandemic and to the Black Lives Matter movement. Since 1974, HoCoPoLitSo has been deliberate in its inclusion of authors to represent the fullest range of human experience. We have long believed that opening a book, reading a poem, or attending a literary event can be a powerful humanistic journey of exploration, education, and enlightenment.
The project evolved from a broad-based poetry video series to focus for the first eleven weeks on amplifying the voices of Black poets who have visited our audiences. Later, we added the voices of poets of different backgrounds.
And in November, we started videotaping young actors from Howard Community College’s Arts Collective reading introductions to the archival video of poets and their work. Directed by Arts Collective’s Sue Kramer, these actors–Chania Hudson, Sarah Luckadoo, and Shawn Sebastian Naar–spent many Monday evenings learning about poetry, tripping over tricky names, and recording video introductions that help explain the poems to viewers. They handled their own styling, and even set up their own lighting and sets.
I asked the actors a few questions about the project and its evolution, and loved their responses. Naar, who portrayed Langston Hughes for HoCoPoLitSo’s 2019 Harlem Renaissance Speakeasy, has taken on roles for Spotlighter’s, Wooly Mammoth, Howard University, and the Kennedy Center. Hudson, who was the Harlem Renaissance Gwendolyn Bennett, is receiving her bachelor in fine arts from UMBC this spring in theater, and has played in many Arts Collective shows, as well as performances at UMBC and Rep Stage. Sarah Luckadoo is an actor, choreographer, movement coach, and teaching artist who has worked with the equity company Ozark Actors Theatre in Missouri, Red Branch Theatre Co., Laurel Mill Playhouse, HCC’s theater department, and of course Arts Collective.
The enthusiasm these actors brought to their work gave me such hope, and reminded me of when the 22-year-old inaugural poet Amanda Gorman read her uplifting lines on January 20:
We will not march back/
to what was/
but move to what shall be/
A country that is bruised but whole …
Perhaps watching a Poetry Moment featuring these young actors and the master poets will let a poem will take up residence in your bruised heart, and help you through the chaotic, difficult times ahead.
HoCoPoLitSo: Had you ever read poetry before?
Shawn Sebastian Naar: I have read poetry for performances (Langston Hughes, Shakespeare, Amiri Baraka, etc.) and I have read poetry recreationally for enjoyment (Maya Angelou, Shakespeare, Rupi Kaur, etc.)
Sarah Luckadoo: Yes! I was introduced to poetry at an early age and have always found myself drawn to it. My theater teacher in high school, who was also a published poet, was the driving force behind that love. Most, if not all, of the theater projects we did had some sort of poetry involved, including participating in the poetry recitation competition, Poetry Out Loud.
Chania Hudson: Yes! I’ve read poetry for HoCoPoLitSo and Arts Collective’s Harlem Renaissance event as Gwendolyn Bennett, and recently I read a few poems as Audre Lorde for Howard Community College’s Women’s Studies Salon: The Power Within virtual event.
HCPLS: If you did read poetry before, did you enjoy it?
SL: 100%! I love that poetry has this unique ability to tell full, intricate stories through its varying structures or even just a few words. It really shows how truly powerful words can be.
CH: Yes, I love reading poetry! I’ve found some of my favorite poems through working with HoCoPoLitSo.
SSN: Yes, I enjoy reading poetry. Reading great poetry is like listening to great music. When a poem or a song hits me in the right way and expresses a universal truth, it resonates deeply, and I am moved to tears or fits of laughter in the moment.
HCPLS: Did your perceptions of poetry change as we went through the project?
CH: I’ve always had a respect and love for poetry but this project turned my attention to the poet, and understanding the WHY of their poetry. It has felt like a behind the scenes look at how and why poems come to be.
SSN: Before this project, my personal selection of poetry was limited to more well-known poets or poets from school. Through this process, I’ve found some new favorite hidden gem poems, I’ve been introduced to Poet Laureates, and I even have some international poets that I’ve fallen in love with (Seamus Heaney, I’m looking at you).
SL: I’ve always enjoyed poetry, but this process has reignited the love I had for it. I hate to admit it, but I forgot what it felt like to just sit and read or listen to poetry. With the busyness from day to day and this “go go go” mentality, I’ve had a separation from it and this project made me realize how much I miss it.
HCPLS: Was there a favorite poem that you worked on (and why)?
SL: Such a hard question! I’ve honestly loved all of the poems I’ve worked on, but if I had to pick favorites it would probably be “blake” by Lucille Clifton and “Beijing Spring” by Marilyn Chin. “blake” was one of those poems that just reached out and grabbed me from the get-go … the words, the story, all of it. And I appreciated it even more when I discovered why Lucille Clifton wrote it and what she was trying to say. For “Beijing Spring” I particularly connected with it because of Marilyn Chin’s message of youth empowerment. She focuses on the innocence and determination of youth throughout history and demonstrates how they can quite literally move mountains to create change and defend their democratic rights.
CH: “Mrs. Wei Wants to Believe the First Amendment” by Hilary Tham, because it introduced me to a new perspective that I wasn’t fully aware of before reading it.
SSN: It’s tough to single out a favorite, but a couple poems of note would have to be Amiri Baraka’s “In the Tradition” and Josephine Jacobsen’s “Gentle Reader.” Baraka is one of my favorite playwrights and poets. The intensity of the passion and fire of “In the Tradition” is special. Conversely, I had never heard of Josephine Jacobsen before this project, but I love how she plays with opposites in “Gentle Reader.” The language is sensual, and the poem is sexy. Not what I expected at all from the refined Jacobsen and that is exactly what makes the poem brilliant.
HCPLS: Was there something you came across in the project that will stay with you?
CH: The majority of the poems featured will stay with me because of the way these poets have impacted their communities and the world around them. Each poem was like seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and I know that will stick with me for a while.
SSN: It feels to me that poetry gets overlooked sometimes in the arts. I’ve come across an incredible array of poets in this project and what will stay with me is the appetite for great poetry of the past, present, and future.
SL: In such an unprecedented time, it can be difficult to feel inspired or remember what good is left in the world. This project did both of those things. These poets shared stories about places, people, their lives–the good and the bad all wrapped together. What will stay with me is not only their stories, but their willingness to be vulnerable and share them. At the end of the day, we all have something to share, something to contribute and that’s pretty special.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Poetry Moment series producer
Up next for the Arts Collective is their What Improv Group! and “A Valentine Affair (from afar).”