Reclaiming names: Asian American queer feminist poetry and politics
Poems from a Kundiman workshop
I want to start first with light. It’s through the flickering Zoom screen I first met a group of queer feminist Asian American writers creating space together. It is March 2021. An interface cannot hold back presence.
I want to remember light. We would read Audre Lorde. We would read Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. We would read Adrienne Rich. We would read Gloria Anzaldúa. We would discuss, write, share, create, smiles that permeate through the screen, worldbuilding.
Gloria once wrote, “The world knows us by our faces, the most naked, the most vulnerable, exposed, and significant topography of the body.”
In public space, we may be vulnerable as Asian American women, queers, and trans people. Vulnerable to hate, and to attack. But here in poetry we are vulnerable in a different kind of way.
A week before the workshop, multiple Asian American women were brutally killed in Atlanta by a young white man who had “sexual issues.” He killed eight people — six were Asian American women — in a brutal rampage that left so many in our communities struck with fear and the undeniable racism and sexism that contnues to enact violence on Asian Americans.
In our workshop, we heard poems. Brave poems. Intelligent poems. Beautiful poems. Healing poems. These poems suture wounds, and they seemed to help make a different sense of a world in which innocent women were killed in Atlanta because of their race and gender.
Because of their faces.
My face as a sign.
In another time and space, it may be a different day. It may be the start of International Women’s Month. The month of March is also spring break for some campuses. And yet. Here we were.
When I signed up to teach the workshop, I would have never known the timing, and the balm the poets who shared their world would do. A balm of poetry and community that held.
We read queer feminist poets and theorists in relation to Asian American queer feminism. With a collective exploration of each thinker and poet, the workshop had a special emphasis on the connection of their respective work to Asian American feminism and queer politics and other allied identities, communities, and movements in our contemporary moment.
The queer feminist poets working in the ’70s and ’80s were not only writing in poetry but in theory and conceptual writing, undoing the thorny knots of difference and oppression through piercing understanding and world making.
As Lorde wrote, “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” The beautiful poets in the workshop wrote poetry and short theoretical essays exploring the multiple facets of concept, idea, and political impulse. They translated experience, and spoke across genre and form.
Special guests including artists and writers Vanessa Lewis, Joe W. Cha, and Pam Wright joined our workshop to discuss these solidarities.
Our destination is fixed on the perpetual motion of search. Fixed in its perpetual exile.
— Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee
In reading Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s experimental artist book Dictee, we are moved by the motion of search takes the self that has been torn apart and tethers it tirelessly to the queerness of what is future and not yet here, constantly reinventing it.
Dictee cuts across boundaries, sheds light on a diasporic means of revision. More recently, an obituary of Theresa was published in the New York Times that featured her art and the brutal 1983 murder that took her life. This obituary was part of a new series of “remarkable people whose deaths ... went unreported in The Times,” and it speaks to not only the growing influence and recognition of Therea’s work but also the increasing focus and fascination on the brutal way she died.
For Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, it is perhaps too easy to focus on the brutality of her murder, or even to overtheorize her art. Instead as poets, how to honor and engage with her life? During our discussion, our youngest poet, Olivia, who was still in high school, asked how she should refer to her: “Ms. Cha?”
I answered perhaps “Cha” as it is common in English courses to refer to the artist’s last name.
Shortly after our discussion, her nephew, science fiction writer, and my friend, Joe Cha, would visit us with a lecture on writing, science fiction, and his aunt Theresa.
“Theresa,” he said.
His aunt Theresa.
It was beautiful. To engage with her name and her life as he shared.
I was wrong.
We learned to refer to her by name.
It made all the difference.
I hope you read these poems written by the incredible poets in the workshop and our honored guest below with as much pleasure and healing as I have.
May you remember poetry as light.
Sabrina Ko - Phoebe Bui - Monica Kim
Amy Shank - Alison Zheng - Tatiana Su
Yi Wei - Alex Wong - Sara Yang
Olivia Yang - Carolyn Lau - Azalia Muchransya
Beyond the Erotic
I feel so strongly.
While reading “Uses of the Erotic” by Audre Lorde for workshop, I was struck by how Lorde expanded the erotic beyond sexual pleasure. As a demi-ace/grey-ace, I really resonated with how she described the erotic throughout the essay and wanted to apply that to how I’ve experienced intimacy beyond sexual pleasure, especially in my queer friendships.
Monica Kim is a queer writer and organizer. Born in South Korea, she now lives in Brooklyn, New York. She won the inaugural Jane Kenyon Chapbook Prize Award for her series of multiverse poems and her writing has been published in the lickety~split, Pollux Journal, The Account, and others. You can find her on Twitter at @kimmonjoo.
The softest kiss I’ve ever felt
was on the lips of a woman
our silk against the exhaust
of nightlife teaching me
the way softness belongs
with itself finds itself
in the turbid damp of summertime
and the bottom of a cocktail glass
How female bodies know
find each other
spellbound and heaving
so fuck Adam:
I am Eve and she is Eden
heaven is the way I’m reclaiming
heaven as coming home
to myself in
the minutiae of a foreign country
and the hues
of smoke over starlight
so look me in the eye
and tell me I’m not holy
Until the latter half of college, I was very religious and had grown up with deeply internalized homophobia. When I finally allowed myself to be myself, without the stress of judgement or fear, I felt such a sense of homecoming. I wanted to write about that feeling of coming home to myself and to my community for the first time.
Tatiana Su (she/they) studied English and Creative Writing at UC Berkeley and currently lives in Oakland with a little dog who shares her disregard for authority. She is planning to pursue a PhD in English with a specific focus on reading ethnic literature through a queer and disabled lens.
I Swallow Creatures Whole
I swallowed my mother’s freedom as I broke through her womb,
crying out loud even though my head was the only part of my body the doctor managed to pull out of her belly at the time.
He told my mother — who had to stay in bed for three full months while carrying me — that I was the only baby he had ever witnessed in his whole entire career as an obstetrician-gynecologist who had ever cried so loud with my body still stuck inside my mother’s.
He said, maybe I wanted to get free.
And, thus, I swallowed my mother’s freedom.
I swallowed my father’s love as he realized he had a daughter the minute he put me in his arms.
He — who was a heavy smoker — decided to stop smoking when I could not stop coughing at the age of three.
He stopped going on his trips to nature and teaching me to read, instead. And to let me sleep on top of his belly, his breath making my small body go up and down and rock me to sleep at night.
He said, this kid needs some love.
And, thus, I swallowed my father’s love.
I swallowed creatures whole, as I grew older.
My teachers’ knowledge.
My friends’ laughter.
My brother’s attention and pride.
I occupied my space with all the creatures I swallowed whole with no remorse, always hungry for more.
Until one point, I swallowed my city, my country, my identity.
I swallowed everything with greed and nothing can ever stop me.
I swallowed all the men who had ever been in my life. Their masculinity, their nakedness, their misogyny.
I swallowed my own husband’s virility and grew a child out of it.
And I know when the time comes, my son will be the one swallowing me and my whole world.
And everything that I have ever swallowed.
And every creature that he could ever swallow.
This poem was inspired by my own experiences as a woman and a mother. As we read the works of women poets in Margaret’s workshop, I was inspired by the way they explored their womanhood and the topic of motherhood — may it be their stories as mothers or their relationships with their mothers. I think it is an important step for me as an artist to document the relationships I have with my own son and my parents to make sense about love in its infinite form.
Azalia Muchransyah is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and scholar from Indonesia. She received her PhD in media study from the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York (SUNY) in 2021. Her short films have been officially selected and screened in international film festivals and academic conferences.
Litany, or, What You Want Versus What We Had
We used to laugh here:
We watched the video just like you did.
Pok Gai Pok Gai Pok Gai Pok Gai
I used to think
out of curses
I’m not so sure anymore
This poem was inspired by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee along with recent hate crimes in my hometown. I wanted to take a look at the changing Bay Area landscape, anti-Asian sentiment, and the bad feeling in my gut that Cantonese itself is slowly dying (it may not be objectively true but year after year, I meet less and less folks that are familiar with my mother tongue).
Alison Zheng is from San Francisco, CA. Her writing is published in or forthcoming from Honey Literary, Hobart After Dark, Pidgeonholes, and more. She will be starting her MFA in Poetry at University of San Francisco in Fall 2021 as a Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellow.
연희동 MOSQUITO WARS
It is 1:00 AM and it seems appropriate at this occasion to reflect on the lives of the mosquito, or mogi (모기), as they are called in South Korea, and I would surmise North Korea as well.
I would like to take this occasion and find information about the lives of my tormentors. They buzz my ear in my cave-like dwelling. They prefer to do so late at night.
I wonder, Do they have friends / lovers / quarrels / hobbies? Are they all legal residents of the Republic of Korea? Do some of them come from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?
The buzzing in my ear activates my fight or flight response, a property passed down from my hairy hominid ancestors. I roll up an eMart brown paper bag and suddenly I am Voltron, and the mosquitoes are the hapless human citizens (or whomever the Voltron masters targeted). Mighty Voltron splatters the little member of family Culicidae. And I see what I assume to be my blood on the wall. For me, that was, if not a highlight of my trip to the Republic of Korea, then at the very least a truly memorable experience. I don’t remember my night time dreams, or even my waking hours aspiration-type dreams, but that experience, I recall.
I wonder — can you read your fortune from your blood-splatter, like tea leaves like coffee grounds like chicken bones?
I really have to share what I have since learned about the ear-buzzer, the blood-sucker:
Mosquitoes have the ability to modulate the immune response of the “host” on which they are feeding!
Mosquitoes go through the same stages as flies: egg, larva, pupa, and adult / imago.
Egg, larva, and pupa are largely aquatic.
They have scarcely changed in 46 million years, according to fossil evidence. Hey, if it ain’t broke, as they say …
Such an ancient species! Far more ancient than anything I’m going to see in Korea, or Silla.
Mogi can visit North Korea (land of some of my ancestors) whenever they like.
I envy them.
This piece was something of a product of trying to locate myself within a Korean peninsula of my dreams, cultural memes passed down and around from my family, a present-day liminal experience of the place, and insomnia while I spent a summer at a writers residency in the 연희동 neighborhood of Seoul (Seoul Arts Foundation).
Joe Wongoon Cha is a Korean American, California-raised writer currently based in Warsaw, Poland. His stories and poems have appeared in The Fabulist Magazine, Big Echo, and Flurb.
My bones hold all of my desire, and that is why they are dense
as stone, neatly packaged. Why they pang, light as air
to lengthen. My bones extend, long, and even wrap.
They say sisyphus is joyful in his work, so maybe it is the lifting
of my own bones that brings me to settle. Let me remember
that which is tender surrounding my stone —
the hands that cup and push, gray and sediment
from the liquid mountain, from the coated edges.
Every day I am stretched like clay from belly
to throat, and I harden. Sisyphus lives out his days
cupping a stone. Maybe it, too, has molded
to the shape of his palms. They find the mountain, again.
I think they must do this together, scavenging
for some resolution. The elbow is the closest bone to kiss
the air, its skin a fraying thread. How loving that thread must be,
hugging my stone arms like hands in prayer.
I lift and fall my body, up from my bed, the pillow, to the moon.
I lift and fall my body from some limbless space, to float.
I lift and fall my body in laughter, where I reside.
I lift and fall my body as gently as I might set a soft unpeeled clementine.
I lift and fall my body knowing this defying stone is a victory march.
I lift and fall my body with an edifice between the skin.
I lift and fall my body knowing I carry a living museum.
I lift and fall my body taking what softness I need.
I lift and fall my body, again, again, again.
For a period of time in quarantine, I was obsessed with the idea that Sisyphus found joy in pushing the same stone up the hill every day — maybe because being in isolation felt like I was doing the same. This poem is one of a series where I think about different cyclical processes and actions, and try to find joy inhabiting my body again.
Yi Wei is a first generation Chinese writer with a BA in Asian American Studies and English from Swarthmore College. She currently serves as the Assistant Flash Fiction Editor at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Yi has been awarded the Lois Morrell Poetry Prize and is the third place winner for the 2021 Sappho Prize for Women Poets. Her work can be found in Palette Poetry, Lantern Review, and Crosswinds. She's currently a Writer in the Public Schools fellow at NYU's MFA in poetry. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @yiiiiwei.
Afrofuturism, Hope, and Tectonic Possibility
Even in my delicacy
in the soft, tender squish between joint and bone
where my heart is tremor with all the reasons that it didn’t work before
I still choose you
I have always been a gummy bear
I am just as porous as I am succulent,
just as malleable as I am chromatic,
just as putrid as I am catharsis
You are not the first person to bite me and just as I bend and fold and blossom and caramelize into the shape of your gnaw and fondle
There are a million tooth prints lining the porous under-pulp of my history and I was everyone’s soulmate, all textures of destiny
… at some point
Attempting to love has contorted my bronchioles out of their elasticity
I have swallowed salt water and riverbed, handcuff and knuckle, cotton candy and rape apology, volcano and dope ash, wrist laceration and bible verse, belt buckle and fat-girl-joke
And even in cavity and stomach ache, mucus clot and lung clench, throat canker and chakra choke
I am still trying to breathe
Next to you
I am an asthmatic ass motherfucker and baby, you
You star-sparkle sun-gas and brimstone
Even when it glitters,
even in its mythology and revolution,
even when its Motown smooth and four-part harmony,
even when its Palo Santo and the sweet steam of our genitalia blood thick and conjugating
nigga, smoke is still smoke
So I have been planting mullein,
so that I can inhale you
I have been opening my windows,
so that I can embrace you
I have been giving up dairy,
so that I can indulge in you
I have been breathing in steam,
so that I nurture you
And I have been learning to sleep at night,
because dreaming next to you feels like
landscapes from the fantasy realms I used to escape to as a child
like vernix on the womb-fresh skin of the babies I’ve always wanted to have
like a tongue towing clitoris in a wild harvest of orgasm
like the revolution my people have always been striving to achieve
like the possibility of a real good always
that I had just started to give up
before I began dreaming with you
I say all of this to ask one question:
What kind of tectonics are you trying to move
so you can learn how to best love a galaxy feral as me?
Vanessa Rochelle Lewis
Born and raised in South Central, Los Angeles, Vanessa Rochelle Lewis (MFA) is a Queer, Fat, Black, Femme performer, facilitator, educator, writer, activist, healer, joyful weirdo, and Faerie Princess Mermaid Gangsta for The Revolution. She is also the Founding Executive Director of Reclaim UGLY — Uplift Glorify Love Yourself — And Create A World Where Others Can As Well! — an arts-based organization that invites you to Rewrite & Decolonize your understanding of beauty from white supremacy, the patriarchy, transmisogyny, fatphobia, ableism, capitalism, and other systems of oppression. Her vision is to cocreate a world where everyone knows that they are a safe, welcomed, and valued member of their communities; has the support to dream authentically and exists in their truths; and accepts that there is no face, no body, and no person who is ugly or unworthy of love and acceptance.
a zuihitsu to zuihitsu
I am searching for a form to carry me — not quite commonplace book, not quite morning pages, though perhaps somewhere in-between. Through hopscotch, I’ve come across zuihitsu: what is fragmented and interconnected, descriptive and evasive, understood and unknown, all at once.
Is there a word in Korean for the untold?
There have been three occasions when I’ve looked into a stranger’s eyes, for unbroken minutes. As we shared reflections into a circle, my partner offered an observation of me — “I noticed one eye was happy. And one eye was sad.”
How strangers know our truths, before we know them ourselves.
I am comforted by Audre Lorde’s explanatory notes to Adrienne Rich, on the progression behind “Poetry is Not a Luxury” and “Uses of the Erotic” — “They’re part of something that’s not finished yet. I don’t know what the rest of it is, but they’re clear progressions in feeling out something connected with the first piece of prose I ever wrote. One thread in my life is the battle to preserve my perceptions — pleasant or unpleasant, painful or whatever …”
The personal is political.
The whistle and the steam transport him back to his childhood, growing up in Ulsan. He has told me before that a station and a river connected through the town; and this is the route he took at age 12, returning home on boats and trains and cash borrowed from a friend, as the war closed and bombs dropped on Tokyo.
He loses himself in fragments of vision and time and space — shakes his head.
“So — my memories are still there.”
I hold my stillness, and see where his mind connects next.
“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love. To know how to love someone, we have to understand them. To understand, we need to listen.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
Starting in the mid-1990’s, psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush researched myth, ritual, and emotional resilience in American families. They developed a 20-question measure, called the “Do You Know?” scale.
Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know if illness or something really terrible has ever happened in your family?
Over dozens of conversations with families and kids, they found relationships between knowledge of family history and emotional health, happiness, and self-esteem.
To know where you’ve come from — is to belong to something bigger. They call it the strength of an intergenerational self.
For days after the Atlanta shootings, my body is silt and water in a storm.
And I know, without evidence, that this history is my own.
I learn that Martin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank share the same birth year. If they were alive today, they would be 92. This is the same age as Haba, though by the Korean calendar, he says he is 93.
I tear off the bottom square of a receipt, and shape it into an offering. I tuck its wing beside an amber stone, under strings of prayers dancing in the wind.
I still think of Sadako, each time I fold a paper crane.
We pause on the path, between red rocks and cacti — blowing wishes on my white hairs, in a tradition we made up, today.
Zuihitsu is Japanese, but Sino-Japanese — put together in elements borrowed from Chinese. 随筆. In its oldest essence, it means to “follow the brush,” wherever it may lead.
a zuihitsu to zuihitsu follow the brush
For many months, I had / have struggled with the process of tracing my family’s story — before it is lost to generations, translations, migrations. While reckoning with a fog, I encountered the form of zuihitsu: of fragments connected by associative logic, as you let the brush take you without the mind interfering. In context of my Korean heritage, its origins as a Japanese poetic genre called for its own subversion. Yet it seemed like the perfect — or only — form that could stitch together the inevitably fragmented process of knowing one’s own story.
Sara Yang is a mixed-media storyteller, researcher, and designer who mostly calls California home. Her work has been supported by the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) and MIT Feminist Futures, and she is currently building Seeing Our Stories: an intergenerational storytelling community dedicated to knowing where we’ve come from, and how we fit together.
How to Process Anger into Poison: A Surviving Guide
1. survey the damage
of their good
does a listening session
if pain is masked
you swap out
for a combination
that does not mean
what you say
their discomfort is dangerous
your calculus becomes faster
2. process your needs
as secondary as luxury never
there is no combination
for your anger so
instead of words
3. extract from your taut skin
a forced release
smile your most
simpering smile quickly
put them at ease
your mangled self
4. repeat until your body learns
your anger is the danger
repeat until you believe
your silence will keep you safe
repeat until the scar tissue
in your esophagus
This poem articulates for me my struggle with anger and my struggle against the “tyrannies of silence,” particularly in the workplace. I have been taught that to swallow my anger is to survive but Audre Lorde reminds us that our silence will not protect us. In this poem, I skew and subvert what I have been taught to see how this so-called “survival” can only kill us.
Phoebe Bui (she/they) is a Vietnamese Filipina American based in the DMV. They earned a MSc in Social Research Methods from the London School of Economics, and she is currently learning to reimagine how institutional social science research might empower rather than exploit.
*Special thanks to Kyle Lucia Wu and DJ Kim of Kundiman for their support on the workshop, and to our guest speakers.