Articles - March 2012

Why apples can cause riots (PoemTalk #51)

Linh Dinh, 'Eating Fried Chicken'

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Linh Dinh playfully and bitterly engages food, war, and race in a poem called “Eating Fried Chicken.” The poem appeared in his book American Tatts, published by Chax in 2005. For PoemTalk’s 51st episode, Thomas Devaney, Susan Schultz (visiting from Hawai'i), and Leonard Schwartz (visiting from Olympia, Washington) joined Al Filreis to talk about this work of apparently straightforward address yet tonal complexity. <--break->

During the discussion Tom especially wrestles with the problem of tone. There’s plenty of humor in the poem, he notes, but one can also read the speaker as a person who has “taken all the trouble inside of him and he’s internalized it.”  Thus the “debts you owe me” — debts presumably the “brother” of line 1 owes the speaker — remind Tom of a tonal double strategy (particularly on questions of race) that Linh Dinh has learned from the early Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and from Etheridge Knight: “going on the offensive," as Tom puts it, "and yet implicating himself fully.”

Pressing his reading of the poem’s antagonist as a Vietnam War veteran, Al asks someone to describe how matters of family, honor, country (and “blood”) pertain to food, whereupon Susan, thinking about Hawai'i, notes Asian American funerary practice which entails bringing comestibles to the deceased.  Dinh doesn’t want to be marked, she says, as an Asian American writer per se but “he's willing to play with that identification between food and identity precisely to call it into question.” “‘I dare you,’” Al summarizes, “‘to make me mean something by what I eat.’” So what in the poem is the significance of the crispy chicken as alluringly “fast,” so alluring as to disallow expectation and erase memory? Leonard observes that here Dinh is a poet who “steps from the street into the curb” and “looks down at formless stuff, and picks it up and starts playing with it” in the (modernist) tradition of Walter Benjamin (the “ragpicker who collects urban detritus only to turn it into poetry” — a key phrase from The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire), except that here, in Dinh’s world, the supposed junk “has been manufactured to look like that,” as Leonard puts it, “manufactured to appear formless, junk in its very origins.” And so junk food is obviously part of the aesthetic of the poem.

Clearly this is an occasion when the speaker is ostentatiously yet blithely willing to lick and consume food that is “not generally available to mankind.” But “there are also times” when he (on principle? because of his sense of racial and international justice? because of a traumatic experience with people in war?) will “refuse” this easy, thoughtless gluttony. Such an ethical stance then puts his poem in mind of the scarcity of fresh food — the apples of line 12 — and of the riots non-ritualized (literal) privation causes. Yet, again, the showiness of the speaker’s consumption in the first lines of the poem carries the intrepid but blithe conversationalism of the language all the way through until the very end when the breathing of the poet brings him up short, for the air enabling these utterances conjures the memory of war, from which eating fried chicken is presumably a great distance: lungs of “gun powder and smoke.”  Listen very closely to this audio recording — turn the volume way up — and you should be able hear Linh Dinh’s special kind of breathing: a subtle although very basic form of urgency.

Dinh’s PennSound page includes several performances of “Eating Fried Chicken.” The recording we used was made during an extensive “Studio 111” reading in Philadelphia in December of 2007. We invite PoemTalk’s audience to compare the nuanced ethical tone of this poem with those of several other American Tatts works performed at the same time: “Sudden Death Overtime” and “Bearings,” for example. And for the context of Linh Dinh’s critique of commodification and political power — and for a sense of his recent movement somewhat away from poetry — we recommend the hour-long talk he gave at the opening event launching an exhibit of his photographs in January 2011 and also his ongoing photographic blog, State of the Union.

The editor of this episode of PoemTalk was, as always, Steve McLaughlin.