Asian American poetry webpage

Following up on Sunday’s post — I discovered that the Poetry Foundation has a great short essay on “Asian American Voices in Poetry,” with links to lots of poems by dozens of poets.

Thre are links to some stalwarts of the older generation of poets, including well-known figures like Maxine Hong Kingston. Among the older poets, I was pleased to see a link to some of Lawson Fusao Inada’s poetry. I used to have a book of his poetry which I quite liked but it must have disappeared in the last cross-country move. Reading his poetry again makes me want to get another of his books.

I enjoyed seeing a link to Indran Amirthanagayam’s poems. He’s almost exactly my age (an old guy), and I first saw him maybe forty years ago when he was the lyricist and lead singer of a punk rock band. Now he’s older, respectable, a U.S. diplomat — but his poems still have some of that punk rock energy.

I was also pleased to see links to younger poets like Chen Chen and Ocean Vuong. To my shame, I haven’t kept up with younger poets. It looks like this will be a good way to get introduced to some of the newer poets.

Asian American poetry books

It’s Asian American Pacific Islander Native Hawaiian heritage month, and to celebrate I’ve been reading poetry — mostly by Americans of East Asian and South Asian descent (I had to narrow things down a bit, so left off West Asia and all the Pacific Islands). I’ve also been dipping into some Asian poetry. Here are some comments on two books I’ve been looking into:

They Rise Like a Wave: An Anthology of Asian American Poets

ed. Christine Kitano and Alycia Pirmohamed (Blue Oak Press, 2022) — I’m really enjoying this collection. No, I haven’t liked all the poems. But I have felt that even the ones I didn’t care for were worth reading. And there are some real gems in this book, like Mai Nguyen Do’s poem “Ca Dao,” which begins:

The rice field is the oldest concert hall.
I’ve sung for four thousand years
here: in my mother, my grandmother,
the mother goddess, God. I’m already dead
when I’m singing….

Do gives the feel of folk poetry, as you’d expect from the title (“ca dao” is a term for Vietnamese folk poetry). Yet the poem itself is very contemporary. The combination makes for a haunting and memorable poem.

I also liked Mary-Kim Arnold’s poem “Forgotten War” very much. At first, it might sound a little didactic in places, but the total effect is not at all didactic. Arnold takes us from scenes of the Korean War to a scene in a U.S. bar, and a few other places along the way. In the powerful last stanza, she says:

You can stay up all night counting corpses and still not know who you are.
You can open your mouth to speak but still not know your own name.

Overall, it’s a high quality collection with a wide range of contemporary poets, from a wide range of Asian backgrounds — West Asia, South Asia, East Asia, Pacific Islands. Highly recommended.

Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency

Chen Chen (BOA Editions, 2022) — I liked Chen Chen’s first book of poems, and had high hopes for this new book. There some good poetry here, but the collection doesn’t have the energy and humor which marked the first book. And lines like this one made me lose interest: “I mean, is ‘shit,’ is ‘scat’ more or less literary than ‘poop’?” — that kind of line in the midst of a love poem just sounds academic and self-indulgent. Yet as I say, there’s some good poetry here. For example, I like the first stanza of “The School of Australia”:

Your emergency contact has called
to quit. Your back-up plan has backed
away. Your boyfriend has joined a boy band
named All Your Former Boyfriends….

The rest of the poem doesn’t live up to the promise of that first stanza. But it’s worth reading through this book to find little gems like that. And there’s no doubt that Chen Chen is a poetic talent worth watching. Worth reading.


When Max Planck turned sixty, he was honored by the Physical Society of Berlin. Several scientists gave short talks in his honor, including Emil Gabriel Warburg, Max Von Laue, Arnold Sommerfeld, and Albert Einstein.

Einstein spoke about the motives for engaging in scientific research, “Motive de Forschung.” He said that some people take to science out of a sense of superior intellect, some as a kind of sport, some out of ambition, some for utilitarian purposes. But, said Einstein, some people — including Planck himself — engage in scientific research out of a very different motive:

I believe with Schopenhauer that one of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; this desire may be compared with the townsman’s irresistible longing to escape from his noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.

And there are many people like this in our liberal congregations: finely tempered natures who need to range through pure air and look into eternity.

In the next paragraph of the talk, Einstein went on to explain that this motive for doing scientific research is not simply a negative one of escapism:

With this negative emotion there goes a positive one. Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that best suits him a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience. [Bibliographic information below.]

And again, there are many people in our liberal congregations who engage in religion for the same motive: like the poet and the painter, these are people who do religion the way an artist does art, to help make sense out the world. Among religious liberals, this motive does not impel people to replace science with religion, any more than religious liberals would try to replace painting with poetry. Religion, especially I think for those who are mystics, can be another way to make sense of the world, to look into eternity, to place oneself in the context of the cosmos.

Of course there are other motives for doing religion, just as there are other motives for doing science. Many religious liberals conceive of religion in utilitarian terms: religion is a way to promote justice, religion is way to build social capital, and so on. But there are also the poets and painters and scientists among us, who want to look into eternity and seek to understand our places in the cosmos.


Bibliographic information: Albert Einstein, “Principles of Research,” 1918, address delivered at a celebration of Max Planck’s sixtieth birthday to the Physical Society, Berlin. Published in German in a collection of essays: Emil Gabriel Warburg. Max Von Laue, Arnold Sommerfeld, Albert Einstein, and Max Planck, “Zu Max Plancks Sechzegstem Geburtstag; Ansprachen, Gehalten Am 26. April 1918 in Der Deutschen Physikalischen Gesellschaft” (Karlsruhe; Müller, 1918). Reprinted in: ed. Carl Seelig, Mein Weltbild (1934, 1953). Published in English: ed. Carl Seelig, trans. Sonia Bargman, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Crown Publishers, 1954). The complete text of the English translation of this talk is available online, among other places, here.

Noted with comment

In an essay in the New York Times Book Review, David Orr provides snide commentary on a special poetry issue of O: The Oprah Magazine. Along the way, he offers the following snarky assessment of Mary Oliver’s poetry:

Roughly a fifth of the coverage [in O magazine] is devoted to Mary Oliver, about whose poetry one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.

Now I know why my fellow religious liberals seem to like her poetry so much: it’s the equivalent of cage-free or free-range eggs.


   For a moment
   I was not
   from the world
   by a windshield
   or a screen
   or a person
   or a book
   or anything.

   And the moon
   lit up the
   sidewalk so
   it cracked me
   and slipped in
   to where it
   lives for good.