By Alan Lau
IE Arts Editor
April is National Poetry Month and here at the International Examiner, we’ll celebrate by listening to our own poets. Poetry has often been characterized by the general reader as something abstract or difficult to understand. It’s as if the genre had a lock on it and you had to have a special key to open the secret. So I was curious enough to put the following question to our own poets and see what they had to say: “What makes poetry special and why should anyone read it?”
In this issue, we print their responses which range from the terse to the epic. We feature reviews of recent books by Asian American poets and an interview with a local poet. Meanwhile, I still remember what writer James Baldwin had to say about the poet and society so many years ago and how it remains relevant to this day. “The poets, by which I mean all artists, are finally the only people, who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t, statesmen don’t, priests don’t, union leaders don’t, only the poets. That’s my first proposition…and it sounds mystical, I think in a country like ours and at a time like this, but something awful is happening to a civilization when it ceases to produce poets, and what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only poets can make.”
So find a poem that you can make your own and celebrate National Poetry Month in your own special way.
I encourage people to read poetry to expand their consciousness and humanity, their sense of the imaginative emancipatory possibility. ~Shin Yu Pai
Poetry reflects the humanity in everyone
Growing up, I had little exposure to poetry books. I didn’t read a collection of poetry until well into my 20s. With that said, I gradually realized that poetry is all around us. It is the basis for pop music lyrics and greeting cards and plenty of television commercials. Reading poetry allow anyone a glimpse into not only how one individual feels, but also how a whole culture feels. People should read poetry more because life can be dull and cruel. Poetry breathes life into a language we all share.
What makes poetry special to me is that it can be desirous, complicated, unnerving, consequential and bizarre, all at the same time. Poetry reflects the humanity in everyone, and humanity can be a prism for anyone who wants to look through it to be inspired to think beyond one’s self. ~ Kevin Minh Allen
It makes us feel
Poems are there when we are angry, in love, frustrated, lonely, wondrous, fearful, uncertain, hopeful. Poems are my attempt at grappling with the world – because I can’t say how I feel in plain speech. Poems can slow us down in an otherwise unbearably busy world. I love how poems make me see the world in a new way – as if I’m turned upside down. As if I’m on the ocean floor, looking up. For me, poetry is also an altar, a way to honor my ancestors. Each image, each line break is carefully placed there to sing forth their histories. We should read poetry because it makes us feel. ~ Jane Wong
Take nothing from this world but awe and a longing to return to the magnificent beginnings of first things
I constantly find myself having to counteract what pop and postmodern culture provides me as scenic and narrative identities, backdrops for the play of consciousness, yet these manufactured things have the appeal of mass (mis)recognition, visual referents others can attach to a story I’m telling, in prose or poetry, about the past and its places. And I am likewise constantly inspired by the great works of literature not to give in, to find inspiration in the humble regions of my own memory, in a homebound ethicality, in the sere commonplaces of mild existence. I have Walden as our American version of the great Japanese eremitic zuihitsu (poetic essay) tradition practiced by Kamo-no-Chomei, Yoshida Kenko, and Matsuo Basho. And I know that, like them, I write from lost places, neighborhoods I have been taken away from I feel a need to return to.
I write from Kahuku, the plantation village on O`ahu in Hawai`i where I grew up as a child, remembering its Buddhist temple, tofu makers, rows of shotguns, and sandy village square, remembering the fields of sugar cane, the tractors and trailers hauling burned and cut cane down the Kamehameha Highway to the smoking mill at the center of everything. I write from the rocky beaches and sandy promontories where the separate graveyards were for Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese workers. I write from the blossoming plumeria trees, from the ironwoods by the beaches, and my memory of street vendor calls and my grandfather singing in Hawaiian and Japanese as he washed dishes for his roadside café. I write from this world I left at the age of six, returned to when I was ten, that was lost to everyone as a re-capitalized Hawai`i turned itself away from sugar to embrace tourism.
I write from the small tract home my parents bought for us in Gardena, near Los Angeles, its symmetrical grid of suburban streets, its corner gas stations and liquor stores, the barbed wire around my high school, the razor wire around wrecking yards and auto shops, the tiny Japanese okazuyas and gaudy poker parlors, the rat-nests of palm trees, and the long, cooling, fog-banked and wind-tunneled seaward-bound road at the center of town. I write from my memories of all of us in high school – black kids bused in from Compton, Chicanos from “The Tracks” near Gardena Boulevard, and us Buddhaheads from all over town, worried dress and the latest dances, worried about cool and avoiding addiction to glue and Robitussin even as we hoped we were college-bound. I write about the summer evening Festival for the Dead at Gardena Hongwanji and the intimate spaces for dinnertime cooking my mother and grandmother made, my father watching football and boxing on the TV, exhausted after work and stymied by his social isolation. I write from people who work and want better for themselves and their children.
And I write from what was an intellectual native ground – my years away at Pomona College, where I studied literature, languages, and philosophy and was allowed to develop my deep love for learning and reflection. I found “the better nature” of literary practice there, sponsored in my soul a feel for the finish of language, the finer tone of contemplative emotions. What was better than reading Keats and Kawabata in the mornings, hearing a lecture on jazz operas and Moby-Dick by the fiery and signifying Stanley Crouch, browsing through the home library of the poet Bert Meyers and listening to him hold forth on the Spanish civil war and the last poems of Miguel Hernandez? What was better than reading A Primer of Tu Fu late at night, having a cup of burgundy, and practicing ideograms until I fell asleep over the smearing ink on the soft, absorbent pages of my copybook? A rhyme from Yeats runs through my head as I walk across the yellowing grass of the college soccer field. In the distance, I see the moon ascend over a snow-streaked Mt. Baldy, and I feel a studious complacency rousing into passion in the late spring twilight.
Volcano, the little village where I was born on the island of Hawai`i, is, finally, the first lost neighborhood of my soul. I did not grow up there in that preternatural rainforest and sublime volcanic landscape, but I moved back many times these last years, writing from the ache of my love for that place. It exceeds all the praise and lyric description I can muster.
Poet, take nothing from this world but awe and a longing to return to the magnificent beginnings of first things. ~ Garrett Hongo
Poetry is special because it has the ability to shift culture and change hearts and minds. I believe it plays a critical role in achieving social change. People should read poetry to reimagine how the world can be a safe and just place to live in for everyone. ~ Troy Osaki
Poetry gets at the blood and bone
It is the mind trap full of icicles and splendor, drawing you in for beat after beat. Poetry not only shows you you are human, it shows you others are human, too.
As a craft and an art form, it is one of the hardest. Where others have hundreds of pages, or a full accompanying drum set and guitars, or a two-hour movie, you as poet only have a couple of breaths and a pause and memory of the kind of melodies you want to create. Language has to be all of it. ~ Betsy Aoki
Poetry teaches me how to care. It gives me the tools to pay close attention to the ethics of caring. It is one thing to be agreeable, to be correct, unhurtful, but it’s another thing to care. ~ E. J. Koh
Poetry is a rhythm
It is a rhythm that excites, that soothes, that angers. It connects us to other rhythms, perhaps those that are unfamiliar to us. It connects us to other times, other places, other people. Poetry connects us to our time, our place, our people. It feels limitless in that it can contain form, yet freely expresses what we carry in our hearts.
Poetry can reach inside the reader in a more concise and concrete manner by taking them right to the crux, right to the secret place where Pandora’s box awaits – and our experience reading poetry is as individual as the contents of our secret places. Poetry is special because everyone can find a place within it. ~ Kale Kim