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On a warm June day in 1989, the young man in the white shirt stands in front of the line of Chinese Army tanks. When they steer toward the crowds in Tiananmen Square, he again places himself in the path of the treads. He climbs onto the tank and talks into the cavity. He jumps down and blocks the tanks again. The Chinese Army had cracked down the day before and shot and killed an unnamed number of protestors. But the young man stands before the tank casually, still holding his shopping bag. Two men in blue pull him away and Tankman, as the anonymous youth was nicknamed, has never been heard from again.
Marilyn Chin, this year’s recipient of the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize given by the Poetry Foundation, wrote a love poem addressed to that anonymous young man, “Beijing Spring,” which we reproduce here this week’s Poetry Moment. Chin, who was given the big prize last month in a virtual ceremony [http://poetryfoundation.org/video], writes in her poem, “I believe in the passions of youth./ I believe in the eternal spring.”
Tankman’s gentle but insistent gesture reminds me of the Vietnam War protestor inserting a daisy in the barrel of a rifle during the March on the Pentagon in 1967. And of Greta Thunberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit in 2019. And of Emma Gonzalez’s speech after the Parkland shootings during the March for Our Lives. And of the photos of the young protestors in the Arab Spring.
Young people are putting themselves at the forefront of many of the world’s movements. Just this week, thousands of pro-democracy youth are taking over the streets in Bangkok, raising the three-finger salute popularized in The Hunger Games novels to signify youth solidarity against power. In America, young people are stepping up to work as poll judges on Nov. 3 so the usual workers, the seniors, can sequester from the virus. They’re demonstrating and organizing Black Lives Matter protests, including one in Columbia that drew praise from president Barack Obama. Young people are designing signs, giving money, signing up to vote, working to make communities safe, and crushing social media. That’s the spirit Chin was channeling in “Beijing Spring.”
This kind of activism isn’t a new thing. Youth protested child labor laws in the 1900s and school segregation in the 1960s. The movements for rights for Dreamers, for Civil Rights, for Native rights, all have been invigorated by youth participation.
Chin’s poem evokes the white blossoms of a Chinese spring, but also the spirit of youth–passionate, innocent, and determined. Her poem is a loving tribute to young people who work for a better world. Follow her lead, and theirs. Vote. Young people have died for that right, including, possibly, that lithe Chinese man standing in front of the line of tanks.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
I had never heard of Marilyn Chin. But there I sat in the hazy Smith Theatre, listening to the petite, flip-flop-clad lady unfold her Chinese heritage, her voice’s rich resonance baptizing life into her words. Peppered with rhetorical questions and salted with snark, Marilyn Chin’s poetry invited the audience into conversation. As she discussed her experience with assimilation, I thought back to my years of insecurity with my Nigerian identity.
During my childhood, I tugged at my belly, my hair, my skin. I hunched in over myself. But I remember watching a spoken word from YouTube during youth group, the same lines which had echoed through my house the entire week prior because my mom, the youth leader, had been so fascinated by the video. Ears straining to keep up with the whiplash tempo, the laughing cadence, I snapped my fingers, riveted by the rain of spitfire, desperately beckoning the words barked out of the poets’ lips to be mine.
Slam poetry was alive.
A tandem of voice and pulse, spoken word went beyond sonnets and “thou”s and lofty declarations of love; it playfully teased out slant-rhymes and sidestepped the conventions of language. Poetry, I discovered, could be as unorthodox as I wished, and listening to the crowd of adroit artists (cough-SarahKay-PatrickRoche-BlytheBaird-OmarHolmon-cough) has since stirred a hunger.
Maybe I am looking for truth, naked and unholy. Maybe I write because I’m looking to sing what could be my gospel, to scream it in the shower, to spit it into the mic, to whisper it in an ear, to let it breathe ink and paper and dust.
While I write, I’ve knocked on Petrarch’s door, revisiting the poetry I once scoffed, imbibing in myself a greater appreciation for the art. Analyzing syntax and diction is what I love to do—maybe because I regularly eye my friends’ texts. (There’s a world of difference between “ok” and “Okay.”) While I am yet to be convinced that every inch of a poem is birthed from divine inspiration, I nevertheless believe that the spectrum of poetry—from spoken word to the coffee-stained margins—contains a delicateness that ought to be explored with careful hands and open eyes. As a writer, I wish to infuse electric vulnerability in my writing, inviting readers and listeners to unwind, to laugh, to have conversation.
As a writer exploring vulnerable curiosity, Eunice Braimoh wishes to symphonize conversation regarding race, gender, and diversity. When not effusively fangirling over slam poetry and intricate word-play, Eunice can be found writing (and rewriting) her own poetry and fiction. Previously recognized with two Regional Keys from the D.C. Metro Region, Eunice recently received a Silver Key for her poem “in which icarus does not drown”. She will be attending University of Maryland, College Park as an English major starting this fall.
The Fierce Revolution of Marilyn Chin
HoCoPoLitSo and HCC’s Tenth Annual Blackbird Poetry Festival
Award-winning poet and author Marilyn Chin headlines the tenth annual Blackbird Poetry Festival for HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College (HCC). Born in Hong Kong and raised in Oregon, activist poet Chin unflinchingly explores the intersection of the Asian and American worlds.
The Blackbird Poetry Festival, held April 26, 2018, on the campus of Howard Community College, is a day devoted to verse, with student workshops, book sales, readings, and patrols by the Poetry Police. The Sunbird poetry reading, featuring Ms. Chin, as well as Washington, D.C., poet and educator Joseph Ross, local authors, and Howard Community College faculty and students, starts at 2:30 p.m. Ms. Chin will read from and discuss her poetry, including her most recent work, Hard Love Province, during the Nightbird Poetry Reading, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts. Hard Love Province won the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf National Prize for Literature that confronts racism and examines diversity. Former winners of this prize include Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, Gwendolyn Brooks and Oprah Winfrey. Nightbird admission tickets are $20 each (seniors $15 and students $10). Click here for tickets.
Marilyn Chin co-directs the MFA program at San Diego State University and has won numerous awards for her poetry, including from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Stegner Fellowship, the PEN/Josephine Miles Award, four Pushcart Prizes, the Paterson Prize, and many others.
Chin is the author of four poetry collections: Hard Love Province (2014), Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2002); The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty (1994); and Dwarf Bamboo (1987). She is also the author of a novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen (2009). Pulitzer Prize-winner and Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove noted about Hard Love Province, “In these sad and beautiful poems, a withering portrayal of our global ‘society’ emerges – from Buddha to Allah, Mongols to Bethesda boys, Humvee to war horse, Dachau to West Darfur, Irrawaddy River to San Diego.” In his review of The Phoenix Gone in The Progressive, Matthew Rothschild said Chin “has a voice all her own — witty, epigraphic, idiomatic, elegiac, earthy…She covers the canvas of cultural assimilation with an intensely personal brush.” Booklist contributor Donna Seaman described the tone of Rhapsody in Plain Yellow as “Chin paces the line demarcated by the words Chinese American like a caged tiger, fury just barely held in check.”
Joseph Ross’s newest collection of poems, Ache, was published in 2017. Sarah Browning, director of Split This Rock, noted “The poems in Ache do just that, they ache – from the wounds inflicted by racism, from history’s ravages. The wail, the poems insist, ‘is the language/inside every tongue.’ Joseph Ross’s moral vision is unsparing, truth-telling, fierce.”