Dragon Memories Like Stones: Documenting Self and Nation in “Power Made Us Swoon” by Brynn Saito

“Dragon memories / Memories like stones / Dragging memories like stones through southern deserts / Though I like the desert / Though the desert does me good / the silence cutting like comforting sword-winds /”

– “W.W. Writes a List”

“California sunlight like seaweed, streaming. I release thoughts in bubbles. / My body recognizes itself as the sea creature it once was. // Displore — to explore your own despair.”

– “Displorations Underwater”

Growing up in Berkeley, California, my family had no immediate relatives in our area, and my mother’s best friend stepped in as surrogate family, even including us in family holiday events. I grew up knowing that her family and many other people in the community that raised me are personally affected by the horrific experience and legacy of the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, as well as by a history of race-based lines drawn on the housing map of the city. Depictions of this history can be found in the memoir Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, and the novel Journey to Topaz, by Yoshiko Uchida, who came to my school and other schools in the area to speak with us about her experiences and the history of the internment of Japanese Americans. As George Takai’s Broadway show “Allegiance,” has revealed, many people in the United States are not aware of the continuing impact of these deplorable moments in U.S. history, and Brynn Saito’s hybrid collection Power Made Us Swoon serves as a welcome multi-genre addition to earlier non-fiction and novels on this topic.

Saito’s haunting second collection of poetry channels the documentary, lyric, and personal elements of work by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Muriel Rukeyser, and Maxine Hong Kingston, fleshing out the intersections of self and nation, trauma and survival. Using the figure of the Woman Warrior, Saito constructs a hybrid lyric of intergenerational legacies which give voice and resonance to the continued political, community, and personal impact of the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, and others, including the narrator’s Korean American mother, on the West Coast of America.

On a recent article concerning anthropological and archaeological studies being done on the internment camp sites, a commenter rightly pointed out that perhaps doing oral history work with the survivors would be a more fitting avenue of recording this history. This is exactly the kind of work offered by this collection, which presents the full complexity of the lives of survivors and the generations that follow, with carefully structured and textured multi-vocal harmonies and dissonances.

Stones from the Manzanar camp speak in poems including “Stone Chorus: Manzanar,” relating that, “In the desert between the mountains / the winds were luxuriant. // They were blue and carried rumors and little / yellow flowers from barrack / to barrack and disease. We were surrounded / I tell you.” Saito skillfully threads together a form of desert pastoral, oral history, witnessing, and sensory detail. Affect and the senses infuse the collection with the visceral wonder and horror of everyday life under internment and in its wake.

The narrators of these poems and hybrid works speak not only for and with survivors and the experience of survival, they also concern themselves with personal history and ars poetica, echoing Plath and Akhmatova in the poem “One Day Dawn,” with the lines, “take up the pen, press it to the veins — / draw bloodlines in cursive, like smoke.” The individual and the community intertwine with political and cultural memory.

Recurring throughout the collection, we find poems of the Woman Warrior, who functions both as archetypal, and simultaneously as a vehicle for first person experience written in third person form, in the manner of a writer’s bio. In the poem “Alone Time,” this figure, sometimes abbreviated in titles as W.W., “calls out from the cold water to the absent maker / makes herself take zero breaths / when going under / for a long time. / When she comes up for air / the vultures circle high above her like living stars.” This Woman Warrior has been both forced into and empowered by mythic spaces and stories of origin. She appears as a type of deity in lieu of the elusive “maker,” and as a living woman who breathes and appears as prey for vultures.

We get a similar sense from the poem “Stone Returns: 70 Years Later,” in which the speaker occupies a space somewhere between the stones of the camp, the survivors, and their descendants. Early in the poem, we follow the actions of a woman in the camp, “How to ask her to be so still // the desert flowers coalesce around her / like sky’s chorus at dawn? // She can’t. She paces the length / of the barrack blocks, // the dead weight of midnight like a sea / she can breathe in.” The woman in this poem serves as a prototypical ghost or former resident of the camp, and as a sketch of the mother of the narrator who speaks in the voice of the stones. Further on in the poem, the stones begin to sound like the children of survivors: “I’m worn. I’m tired / of their histories. When I dream // I dream of silence so vast and expansive / it packs tight the space // beneath the canopy of stars. / It bears down like hail. It threatens // to swallow. What I have of a heart skips beats,” — the stones speak of their heartbeats and embody sensory experience of residents of the camps and the ramifications for their children and grandchildren.

A second form of ars poetica, the poem “Revision” also navigates a space among ghosts, “How I believe what I can’t remember, how memory / is the engine of myth, how beer cans and laughter- / kings thread through the bloodlines of a common / American girlhood. I don’t know whose story / has taken up residence in my body, what ghost.” These lines bring up another strength of this collection — its strong ties to specific locations and landscapes in the face of an America which refused to recognize Japanese Americans as Americans. We see that even falling in love has a locational quality to it, as revealed in poems such as “Directions for Falling,” addressed to an interlocutor or self-image in the second person, “You, young. Waiting for thumbnail moonlight, married / to the sea. When sweet long love presents itself / wear the colors of your bio-region, make prayers / for west coast rain.” Ritual prayer, seasonal weather, and life events tie the speaker and the “you” to the bio-region and the West Coast.

Power Made Us Swoon draws much of its strength from Saito’s skill and attention to commemorating and honoring the individuals and communities affected most by the internment, while creating a space for a multiplicity of voices, ghosts, and mythical figures embodied. The narrators’ personal experiences and communal memory create a collection which both speaks to and for itself on its own terms and can offer lyrical insight for those of us who do not have this kind of first-hand knowledge and immediate understanding of everything that is at stake when a country views its own citizens as enemy aliens.

Originally posted August 22, 2016 on https://medium.com/drunken-boat by LynleyShimat Lys.

Notes on a Return to the Ever-Dying Land

August marked 90 years since the birth of Blanca Varela, poet of Peruvian surrealism

Picture from Poetas del Fin del Mundo

“The solitude is what unites us in the humidity of the pea-pod, in the swelling of the wave, in the sweat of the root.”

(( La soledad nos une en la humedad del guisante, en la hinchazón de la ola, en el sudor de la raíz ))

  • from a poem by Varela, quoted in José Miguel Oveido’s recent article in Spanish inVallejo & Co. Translation into English by Arturo Desimone

In August 2016, lovers of Peruvian poetry commemorated what would have been the 90th birthday of Blanca Leonor Varela, a poet associated with subversive movements of surrealism that were of great importance to a generation of Peruvian poets influenced by André Breton’s circle in Europe. Many of her generation (such as surrealist Peruvian poet César Moro, Xavier Abril, and Jorge Eduardo Eielson) spent extensive periods in Paris, often because of political exile and the threat of dictatorship in Peru. Varela’s poetic universe shows strong signs of the surrealism that influenced her, but it is also comprised of forces that could not be contained within intellectual or psychoanalytic experiments or absurdism associated with French surrealism. Passion, spirituality, humor, the rancor of frustrated love, the childish paradisiacal thinking of wanting to remain ever in love, abound in her poetry (yes, we are both ribonucleic acid/ but we are ribonucleic acid that remains forever in love from Monsieur Monod Does Not Know How To Sing, which can be read here, below in my English translation) Varela uses references to cooking, (Lima, the poet’s home-town, is spoken of as having all the colors of the clear liquid that spills from a cracked egg) and her time spent cooking— the poet names the elements of cuisine in a similar way to passing references to wild nature, sex, and scientific education. A futuristic Noah’s shipwrecked stampede of animals that dwell upon the sea coasts and river banks of Peru, are constantly rearing their crying heads in her poems. Her grasp of the intimate is that of a revolutionary romantic, (to the contrary of those whose aesthetics emphasize domesticity and the petty-bourgeois private — Blanca is hostile to placid terrains) hers is a poetry lived between many worlds, cities of migration, a poet at once worldly and cosmopolitan, drinking from the contaminated chalice of Dali-esque surrealisms in Europe, while spiritually, deeply engrained into her native and beloved Peru. Her verse is full of the humor of those poets who sing from radical wounds of love and solitude.


“I ascend and fall to the bottom of my soul

that regains its green, agonized by light, magnetized by light.

In this coming and going time beats its wings

detained for ever.”

Asciendo y caigo al fondo de mi alma

que reverdece, agónica de luz, imantada de luz.

En este ir y venir bate el tiempo las alas

detenido para siempre.

English translations of two poems by Blanca Varela.

(transl. Arturo Desimone

~with special thanks to Reynaldo Jiménez for illuminating conversations about Peruvian poetry and ‘’el surrealismo sudaka’’~

video of Blanca Varela reading Monsieur Monod no sabe Cantar

Monsieur Monod Does Not Know How To Sing

my dear one

I remember you like the best song

that apotheosis in the coming together of roosters and stars

that you no longer are that I no longer am

that we no longer will be

and nonetheless we both know very well

that I speak from the painted mouth of silence

with the fly’s agony

at summer’s end

and for all the badly closed doors

conjuring or calling that nefarious wind of memory

that record scratched before use

tinted according to the mood of the time

and its old sicknesses

of red

or of black

as a king standing in disgrace before the mirror

as the day of the viper

which is tomorrow and the past and always

night what do you precipitate

(that is how the song must speak)

charged with forethoughts

insatiable female dog ( un peu fort)

splendid mother (plus doux)

child-bearer, and always barefoot

to not be heard by the fool in you who believes

it is better to mash up the heart

of the unveiled

that dares to hear the dragged step

of life

of death

a mosquito’s pit* a torrent of feathers

a tempest in a glass of wine

a tango

the order alters the product

engineer’s error

what a rotten tactic it is,

to keep living one’s own story

like in a movie backwards-rolled

a thick and mysterious

dream with slimming effect

the end is the beginning*

a tiny light oscillates like hope

clear color of eggs

with the smell of fish and spoiled milk*

darkens the mouth of the wolf that will take you

from Cluny to Salazar Park

rolling carpet so speedy and so black

you can no longer tell

if you live or if you are playing at being alive

or playing dead

as a flower of steel

like a very last morsel, twisted and filthy and slow

the better to devour you with

My dear one

I adore all that is not mine

you, for example, I adore,

with your skin, like hide of a jackass covering the soul

and those waxen wings I gave you as a present

the ones you never dared to put on

you have no idea how ashamed I am of my virtues

I no longer know where to put this collection of keys

and lies

with my indecency of the child who must hear out the story’s ending

it is already too late now

for the memory, like the songs

is the worst one

the one you want

the only one

it does not resist ruining another blank page

my being here makes no sense


what does not even exist

my dear one

in spite of it all

all remains the same

the philosophical tickle after the shower

the cold coffee the bitter cigarette

the Green River-slime

of Monte Carlo

everlasting life continues to be good for everyone

intact is the stupidity of the clouds

intact the obscenity of geraniums

intact the shame of garlic

the little mockingbirds shit themselves divinely in mid-heaven

in april

Mandrake is breeding rabbits in some circle

of hell

always a little leg of a crab is trapped

in the trap of to be

or of not to be

of I don’t want this or the other thing

you know,

those things that befall us

and which have to be forgotten so that they may exist

only in verb-grace of the hand with wings

winged hand without a hand

the history of the kangaroo — meaning the one of the handbag, or the one from life, both —

or of the captain who is sealed inside a bottle

that is forever empty

and the womb, empty too, but winged

and wombless

you know

passion, obsession

poetry prose

sex success

or viceversa

the congenital void

the ovum with a mote in it

among millions and millions of little eggs with motes in them

you and me

toi et moi

tea for two in the immensity of silence

in the atemporal sea

on the historic horizon

for ribonucleic acid is all we are

but I mean only the ribonucleic acid that is always in love

Video of Blanca reciting “Canto Villano” at the Medellín international festival.


and all of a sudden life

on my pauper’s plate

a meager scrap of celestial pig

here on my plate

observe me

observe you

or kill a fly without ill-will

annihilate the light

or create it

create it

as would he who opens his eyes and chooses

a heaven that spills over

onto the empty plate

rubens onions tears

more rubens more onions

more tears

so many histories

black indigestible miracles

and the eastern star

brought to a blush

and the bone of love

so gnawed upon and so hard

shining upon another plate

this hunger in itself


is the urge of the soul

which is the body

is the rose made from grease

that ages

in its heaven of flesh

mea culpa the turbid eye

mea culpa the black morsel

mea culpa divine nausea

no other one is here

upon this empty plate

without I

devouring my eyes

and yours

To read these poems and others by Blanca Varela in the original Spanish, go to the website of Poetas del Fin del Mundo, a Latin-American online resource for poetry.

A future post will by the maker Notes on a Journey to the Ever-Dying Lands will speak to Peruvian-Argentinian independent publisher, poet and historian of Peruvian literature Reynaldo Jiménez, who was given his first whiskey at the tender age of 16 by Blanca in her library in Lima. The importance of reverberations by the past Peruvian surrealists among a new generation of poets today, will be emphasized (thanks in large part to the information provided by Jiménez and the harrowing drinks provided.)

Monsieur Monod no sabe Cantar

querido mío
te recuerdo como la mejor canción
esa apoteosis de gallos y estrellas que ya no eres
que ya no soy que ya no seremos
y sin embargo muy bien sabemos ambos
que hablo por la boca pintada del silencio
con agonía de mosca
al final del verano
y por todas las puertas mal cerradas
conjurando o llamando ese viento alevoso de la memoria
ese disco rayado antes de usarse
teñido según el humor del tiempo
y sus viejas enfermedades
o de rojo
o de negro
como un rey en desgracia frente al espejo
el día de la víspera
y mañana y pasado y siempre

noche que te precipitas
(así debe decir la canción)
cargada de presagios
perra insaciable ( un peu fort)
madre espléndida (plus doux)
paridora y descalza siempre
para no ser oída por el necio que en ti cree
para mejor aplastar el corazón
del desvelado
que se atreve a oír el arrastrado paso
de la vida
a la muerte
un cuesco de zancudo un torrente de plumas
una tempestad en un vaso de vino
un tango

el orden altera el producto
error del maquinista
podrida técnica seguir viviendo tu historia
al revés como en el cine
un sueño grueso
y misterioso que se adelgaza
the end is the beginning
una lucecita vacilante como la esperanza
color clara de huevo
con olor a pescado y mala leche
oscura boca de lobo que te lleva
de Cluny al Parque Salazar
tapiz rodante tan veloz y tan negro
que ya no sabes
si eres o te haces el vivo
o el muerto
y sí una flor de hierro
como un último bocado torcido y sucio y lento
para mejor devorarte

querido mío
adoro todo lo que no es mío
tú por ejemplo
con tu piel de asno sobre el alma
y esas alas de cera que te regalé
y que jamás te atreviste a usar
no sabes cómo me arrepiento de mis virtudes
ya no sé qué hacer con mi colección de ganzúas
y mentiras
con mi indecencia de niño que debe terminar este cuento
ahora ya es tarde
porque el recuerdo como las canciones
la peor la que quieras la única
no resiste otra página en blanco
y no tiene sentido que yo esté aquí
lo que no existe

querido mío
a pesar de eso
todo sigue igual
el cosquilleo filosófico después de la ducha
el café frío el cigarrillo amargo el Cieno Verde
en el Montecarlo
sigue apta para todos la vida perdurable
intacta la estupidez de las nubes
intacta la obscenidad de los geranios
intacta la vergüenza del ajo
los gorrioncitos cagándose divinamente en pleno cielo
de abril
Mandrake criando conejos en algún círculo
del infierno
y siempre la patita de cangrejo atrapada
en la trampa del ser
o del no ser
o de no quiero esto sino lo otro
tú sabes
esas cosas que nos suceden
y que deben olvidarse para que existan
verbigracia la mano con alas
y sin mano
la historia del canguro -aquella de la bolsa o la vida-
o la del capitán encerrado en la botella
para siempre vacía
y el vientre vacío pero con alas
y sin vientre
tú sabes
la pasión la obsesión
la poesía la prosa
el sexo el éxito
o viceversa
el vacío congénito
el huevecillo moteado
entre millones y millones de huevecillos moteados
tú y yo
you and me
toi et moi
tea for two en la inmensidad del silencio
en el mar intemporal
en el horizonte de la historia
porque ácido ribonucleico somos
pero ácido ribonucleico enamorado siempre

Canto villano

y de pronto la vida
en mi plato de pobre
un magro trozo de celeste cerdo
aquí en mi plato

o matar una mosca sin malicia
aniquilar la luz
o hacerla

como quien abre los ojos y elige
un cielo rebosante
en el plato vacío

rubens cebollas lágrimas
más rubens más cebollas
más lágrimas

tantas historias
negros indigeribles milagros
y la estrella de oriente

y el hueso del amor
tan roído y tan duro
brillando en otro plato

este hambre propio
es la gana del alma
que es el cuerpo

es la rosa de grasa
que envejece
en su cielo de carne

mea culpa ojo turbio
mea culpa negro bocado
mea culpa divina náusea

no hay otro aquí
en este plato vacío
sino yo
devorando mis ojos
y los tuyos

Originally posted August 23, 2016 on https://medium.com/drunken-boat by Arturo Desimone.

From the Folio: An interview with Glass House Shelter Project folio contributor Mark Norek

Mark Norek’s nonfiction appears in Drunken Boat 23’s Glass House Shelter Project folio. Drunken Boat’s Features Editor Peter Mishler spoke with Mark about his experience with the GHSP course.

Mark Norek, Drunken Boat’s Glass House Shelter Project folio contributor

Peter Mishler: Can you tell me how you came to be enrolled in the Glass House Shelter Project?

Mark Norek: Purely by accident I wandered into a creative writing class conducted by Professor Julie Batten at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, thus picking up where my piece “Blowback” [published in DB23’s folio] left off. In other words, “Blowback” ends when I met Julie. Not only did she inspire me to begin writing, she personally brought me to the registrar at UMass Boston and helped me to get enrolled to complete the seven courses I needed for my Bachelor Degree. I am proud to say I was awarded my degree Cum Laude, graduating 24th out of 4,144 graduates. The ceremony was held at T.D. Garden on UMass Boston’s 50th anniversary. Until I came into contact with bands like Pink Floyd, I had two pictures on my wall — one of Jesus and one of JFK. JFK’s birthday is May 29. Everything seemed to have dovetailed into place.

PM: When you look at the finished version of Blowback, what do you see?

MN: Until very recently my writing was limited to assigned papers I needed to submit to get my bachelor’s degree. At the same time I was working on transitioning from being homeless to obtaining permanent housing. I am happy to report that I did, in fact, receive my degree from UMass: Boston and I am now permanently housed in the greater Boston area. In 2013 my piece “Blowback” won a city wide writing contest sponsored by Consequencemagazine. Now that my personal life is stable I plan to pursue my writing with a vengeance, so to speak. Whether sending a simple text message or writing for a major publication, I try to say what I have to say in as clear a voice as possible. Nowadays we are all being read all the time in all kinds of formats so I take each word seriously. I see myself as an essayist, if I were to describe my most effective writing.

PM: What are you are working on now?

MK: I have put “Blowback” on the back burner for the time being. I see this piece as perhaps forming the skeleton of a full-blown autobiography in the future, but I still have a few chapters left to live before I can write them.

PM: I’d love to know more about the importance of your experience at Glass House Shelter Project. What do you see as the value of writing for those who may find their way to the project? And what is your advice for future participants?

MK: Quite simply put, I doubt I would have ever found a way to get my work out there if it were not for the Glass House Project. This program, in and of itself, is able to provide an individual with a new raison d’etre, as it were. Doors one never knew even existed present themselves to the would be writer. My advice to anybody interested in writing is to attend one of the sessions — and then, don’t be discouraged. Like anything else worthwhile in this life to achieve, one must practice. The more one writes, the better a writer he will become. The hardest part is getting started by making that initial commitment. The support will be there for a writer if he but seeks it out.

PM: Can you tell me more about your experience with Julie Batten — how did she inspire you? What was it about her that made an impact on you?

MK: I met Professor Julie Batten through Glass House and this relationship has literally changed my life — including how I define myself. When somebody asks me what I do, I say I am a “writer.” I must put Julie Batten on a pedestal. This woman is on a never-ending mission to help improve the lives of every person with whom she comes into contact. There is no Mark Norek the Writer without Julie Batten the Mentor.

Originally posted August 15, 2016 on https://medium.com/drunken-boat by Peter Mishler.

From the Folio: An interview with Glass House Shelter Project folio contributor William Keller

William Keller’s creative nonfiction/prose poetry appears in Drunken Boat 23’s Glass House Shelter Project folio. Features Editor Peter Mishler spoke with William about his writing career and the therapeutic value of writing.

William Keller, Glass House Shelter Project folio contributor

Peter Mishler: What prompted you to write the prose poetry/creative nonfiction that Drunken Boat published in the Glass House Shelter Project portolio? And what effect did making this piece have on you?

William Keller: i was traveling abroad when i saw the call for submissions via twitter. in a way i felt compelled; and soon thereafter, with a sense of self-imposed obligation — i felt there was something to be expressed with regard to my own then-recent experiences — and to make a contribution to the conversation at hand; i felt that had i not, my perspective would be lost…but i was uncertain as to what that something might be — or for that matter, how such sentiment may be expressed.

it was imperative for me to address, if i could… the lack of understanding and acceptance there is for those of us who live our lives differently, whether that difference be by choice or contingency. at the time i was not so far removed from the aforementioned period of associated instability, as portrayed in “at times.” i was in zurich, i believe– or on a train from salzburg to munich when i first attempted to put pen to paper…but without the necessary time and space to process the period with which i was currently coping– the thought of writing the piece became somewhat of a burden and as with the grey winter sun– it hung low in sky overhead.

i returned to providence on the evening my return flight made landing in new york; a snowstorm had been in the forecasts — but i did not want to linger on any longer to wait out the storm — to stay at my mother’s in the bedroom of my youth… and talk about all that had just happened during my travels in europe. i was not in the mindset to answer questions– i needed to keep moving. by nightfall, i would be sleeping fully clothed beneath a high pile of hand-knit woolen blankets — with my legs tucked beneath the rear bench seat in the back of the van, as if i had never left — as if the past two months hadn’t happened. more than anything, i wanted for the period of prolonged instability to come to an end. ,all along the deadline approached– but it was not until late in the evening of the day submissions were due — about four days following my return, that i decided to give things another try; to detach myself from the process of self-disparagement and lean in. beside the large plate-glass windows, in the bar beneath the dean hotel, i sat alone and i wrote; i wrote continuously until i began to sense relief. more than anything else i was glad– for i knew that i had done all i could– that although the piece i had written and submitted may not have been the piece i had initially intended to write– the piece would be finished regardless, and from that point on– i could move forward…and so i hoped; all of this in retrospect is still so complicated to me.

PM: Where in your writing career does this piece sit? Is it the culmination of work you’d already done, or a beginning? Somewhere in the middle? How does it in some way represent one part of your artistic development?

WK: i try not to think of things in terms of where or when — to me all periods bleed into one another as with one movement in ways which we may never understand. though, undoubtedly — if my breaths were to fade, and if my heart beats were to cease tomorrow — it would certainly be the end of things; but what if i were to live until i were 75 years old– would that then be indication that all of my life to date–everything i have ever experienced is just the beginning? i would like to continuewriting and expressing myself in this way for as long as it is exciting to me — but one may never be certain if this is, or has all just been another phase which may only serve as placeholder, to carry me on toward something else altogether.

this piece was a step outside of my comfort zone — typically i do not write prose –typically i hide unconsciously behind fragmented forms and abstractions — or obscured personal truths. but i wanted to be clear and relatable; i wanted to be understood, if at all possible not to be misinterpreted — as i feel there are many misconceptions about homelessness in our society, and specifically with regard to living in a van — which is often glorified and romanticized, being referred to as vanlife. not everyone who is homeless is a drunk or a heroin addict — not everyoneliving in their vans are pedophiles, surfers, hippies, or rock climbers. but we allhave our own paths forward determined by our own set of circumstances. we all have our own ways of living — and in writing this piece i hope to have conveyed the importance and potential of unbridled self-expression, individuality and equality.

PM: When you look back at this piece, what do you see?

WK: in retrospect, when i read “at times” — i am reminded of how it felt to truly live my life presently — and to live from day to day in terms of meeting my own needs;

furthermore i see the sad little boy within me — swallowing his tears in anunfocused glare — hoping just to be heard and to feel as if he is not alone — i see myself in an attempt to make light of my pain and discomfort; i am reminded of my tendencies to run– i am reminded of my patterns, as well as the cyclical nature of the depression and anxiety that has so-long been a part of me; how the days and nights of last winter just seemed to me, to be so perpetual. i am reminded of how i

so miss addison, my german shepherd who is still living with my mom — and how symbolic she has come to be for me in recent years. looking back, i feel a cold and penetrating wintry wind, blowing through me as i recollect my time in europe; feeling so alone and dissociated… every few days, a different city — all too often, i could not recall which country i was currently in, nor to which countries i had been the previous days or weeks; the instability — the uncertainty, the endless existentialistic searching for an unknown something more, was wearing me down completely — and from the moment the plane landed in oslo, to the moment i peed my pants in paris on a pedestrian crowded street — i was just there… and hopingthat just maybe — maybe my life would transform fortuitously — for once, as if i werethe protagonist of some well-received independent film from the early 2000’s. but i’m living in a house again — things seem to be falling into place — but still i am in awe of how in such a brief period our realities, our surroundings are ever evolving for better or for worse — but i would do it all again if i felt the need, if for reasons i may never understand. sometimes, we must just let go and hang on…and sometimes clichés are okay too.

PM: The GHSProject is meant to be therapeutic. Can you speak to your writing as a means of therapy or healing? Another way to put this: in what ways (if at all) do you see your writing as therapeutic or healing?

WK: throughout the process of writing, i am within a state of retrospection — in recollection, reliving my experiences, in hopes of reconstruction and clarity — in hopes that my work may provide relief. i hope the experiences i may share through my writing may offer to those who feel alone a sense of “we’re all in this together; i’m not alone — it’s okay to have feelings, maybe it’s okay.”

Originally posted August 15, 2016 on https://medium.com/drunken-boat by Peter Mishler.

I’m Obsessed With These Student Artists’ Films (Summer Watching)

Drunken Boat Poetry Editor Eunsong Angela Kim has spent the last month working with young media artists and filmmakers at an Urban Gateways Art Option Apprenticeship in Chicago. If you’re ready to have your mind blown by unbelievably talented young artists, check out what they made:

Originally posted August 8, 2016 on https://medium.com/drunken-boat by Erica Mena.

Dissonance [2]: Rin Johnson’s “Nobody Sleeps Better Than White People”

Language and the hierarchies it (re)produces have always conveyed power, and once you name something, it can become yours in true whitewashing fashion — for you to handle, for you to dispose of. And this is especially true when language is appropriated and used to silence the very people who got robbed of it in the first place. It’s also language that gets used so handily to cloak violence in the discourse of love, of assimilation for “one’s own good”, of colonizing one’s culture by using one of the sharpest, deepest-piercing mechanisms to the point where words lose their meaning altogether and can hardly disclose something anymore. When encompassed by all these additives, silence might come across as the only outbreak but it’s the kind of outbreak that cuts both ways because staying silent equals being an accomplice way too many times — keeping silent is actually a trap that only works in favor of top of the chain characters.

Rin Johnson’s Nobody sleeps better than white people bears precisely such an episode of silence, a breach to be captured and exposed through words and meanings that do not suffer from terminal “whiteness”. This one is a really condensed chapbook that seems built from small cuts, with verses and personal photos collated in an undertaking set to affirm the racialized, gendered, policed and targeted body — the black body, as still having a will and act of its own making, despite its criminalized movability. By queering this black body and generating narratives as a mean of escape from heteronormativity and the violence it entails, Johnson also withdraws from the performative breadth of “whiteness” that gets its own strengthening from keeping the black body captive and making it invisible, one way or another. It’s a kind of barbed withdrawal that also rules out the spectacular expected to be performed by otherness.

You know, I don’t like it there. I mean I’m a dog person but they
have all those wild black dogs and I walk around there and I can’t
stop thinking, where’s the master?
Mom Look,
Nobody sleeps better than white people.
They cuff us to hospital beds and then go home and sleep.
Anything can be a hospital bed, mom.
Fuck us is what they’re saying, mom.
I’ll cuss if I want to, mom.

Just like any other toxic construct, “whiteness” needs to institute otherness in order to dominate it, to have the perfect excuse to marginalize anything that does not conform to it in order to sustain its own power. And since desire has been grasped, more often than not, as something that can act on an already existing normativity, expressing black desire also means subverting the white, phallic one. Residing in a shrinking body and subjectivity, Johnson’s own queerness comes as a disruptive invisibility only to map out the violence of alienation experienced by black bodies that seem, once again, so easy to immobilize and incarcerate. It’s the kind of desire that also seeks to dodge any white expression of racist, sexist and ultimately neoimperial desires and create ground for new community well beyond the dominant gaze that tries to police the erotic manifested by black bodies and the viciousness of the stop-and-frisk practices. Nobody sleeps better than white people might be a private exercise in shaping the expression of queer black desire beyond the constraint of other people’s desires but it’s also something beautiful about something ugly. Because “whiteness” is anything but poetry.

Later, I am feeling nothing, because I cannot feel.
I touch my arms in the bathroom to make sure that they are there.
(They are but they are shrinking.)
I call my lover and she is ashamed for me.
She says over and over there is never a conclusion for black women.
I disagree with her but don’t have any legs to stand on because those shrank too.
(Bae, there is no conclusion for black men or I tried to disappear but it didn’t work.)

Rin(Don) Johnson is a photo conceptual artist and poet interested in the intersections of lived-space and memory. Johnson is the author of two chapbooks, Nobody sleeps better than white people from Inpatient Press and the forthcoming Meet in the corner from Publishing House.

Based in New York, Inpatient Press occasionally publishes books, chapbooks, and online-only works.

Images: Cover and photo extract from Nobody sleeps better than white people

Author bio courtesy of Inpatient Press

Originally posted August 19, 2016 on https://medium.com/drunken-boat by MH.

Unstable Platforms #3: Podcasts and Martian meanderings

USB microphones common for podcasting. Mine is the Yeti, in the middle (credit: The Wirecutter)

In one of my first creative writing courses at the University of Nevada, on the day my short story was to be reviewed, I had the unexpected luxury of a guest reviewer: the Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka. It was merely coincidental his being there on that day, as I was later told that he only agreed to be in the University’s creative writing program because he liked being in Las Vegas, and because he anticipated being jailed so often in Nigeria that actually coming to campus would be impossible anyways. Still, he was there that day.

Soyinka (Wikicommons)

To prepare for Soyinka’s feedback, I read everything of his in our library: novels, short stories, and the many, many plays. But for most of the workshop, Soyinka sat silent in our discussion circle, letting the other students critique my short story about a man who accidentally falls into a mall fountain, and then proceeds to buy as many eggs as he can from a nearby stall. I was seventeen, the youngest person in the room, and to the other students, my story had style, but was otherwise inane drivel. “What did the eggs represent?” They asked. “Eggs, I guess,” I replied. After the many responses, Soyinka finally turned to me and asked: “Just what kind of imagination is able to produce something of this magnitude?”

How could I respond? The “bad kind” of imagination? I gave a shady answer, listing off the many forms of art that have always inspired writers — paintings, symphonies, poetry. Wole gave a nod, but seemed unsatisfied, perhaps, knowing that I had given him the writer’s typical answer.

But there was another form of art just as meandering and frivolous as my story, a form that has influenced many fiction authors and poets who are recently coming of age, especially those who specialize in flash fiction or slipstream. This strange form of storytelling, of course, is the podcast.


I started listening to podcasts during University, when the lack of substance from lectures brought me to online courses and book guides. Even as I overloaded on undergraduate courses, I still felt that my real education was happening through podcasts. I listened to anything I could get my hands on, from hour-long interviews with authors to history stories that could take dozens of hours to complete. Hearing long and often unguided talks on a book somehow opened ideas in a way that University courses did not. I was able to form an intimacy with the hosts’ untamed voices, as they powered through my headphones in loud stammers and soft whispers. They had no big degrees, and most earned no money. They were fans speaking to fans, nerds speaking to nerds, and their passion for the subject was infectious.

Compare this to my 100+ student college classrooms, where professors slowed down at every keyword, and desperately sought shortcuts to “eat up time” (I know, I’m a teacher, I’ve been there).

One of the most popular podcasts known for expressing a meandering form, is WTF with Marc Maron, one of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of comedy-based interview shows that relies heavily on storytelling. As with most podcasts, WTF began in a very niche market, and listeners had to be familiar with the host Marc Maron (who was obscure at the time), as well as his comedian guests, all of whom had been burned or betrayed by Maron in some way. The small market allowed guests to go into grandiose detail, and without the need to provide background and context, interviews became deeply personal. Maron goaded his guests to open up by divulging his own flaws. The wrecking-ball of a host was so utterly full of self-pity, and constantly pined about his addictions and the people he hurt throughout his life. His long confessions caused his guests to try and outdo him by disclosing their most shameless moments.

Scholars have written about podcasting only as an educative tool, a way to relay information to students in the style of a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Few have sought to account for the artistic form of podcasts as a medium, one that appeals to nerds or fans, and that stresses individual intimacy with the viewer (through headphones and uncompressed audio, as I went over in my last installment on video blogs). I too once relied on podcasts for information, but now I enjoy the whimsical and arresting voices — voices that, left unobstructed by time or subject, wander into bizarre, spiritually-fulfilling nonsense.

Hardcore History

One of the most highly acclaimed storytelling podcasts has been Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, which has remained one of the top ten podcasts for years. At first glance, HH has very little appeal. Topics can range from a two-hour long episode comparing Alexander the Great to Hitler, to a 30-hour long series on the waning Roman Empire. Carlin’s amateur, non-certified approach to history allows him to think of “Martian ideas” about how history impacts the present, which Huffington Post called Carlin’s own “hard-to-pigeonhole approach that criticizes all corners of power.”

Part of the lure of Carlin’s podcasts is his untamed voice. “Untamed” here meaning uncompressed and unfiltered. Carlin’s conspiratorial tone has incredible range, an effect that was filtered out when he was a radio host. As Carlin has pointed out, he thinks of his voice as a painter’s palette:

“As a storyteller, loud is my “red” color…and speaking softly equivalent to “black” in my painting palette. To compress to[o] much is to shrink the color palette to more muted tones. It’s a trade off. Speaking is a weird art form…”storytelling” (as we do in the HH show) an even weirder sub-genre of speaking. To limit the colors I play with is to homogenize the vocal style somewhat. I can experiment with this and hear the difference. I prefer the extreme “colors” to the subtle “tones” of a more compressed version.

Carlin on CBS This Morning

With only a bachelor’s in History, Carlin’s “Martian perspective,” as he calls it, risks no intellectual standing for him. Instead it permits him to take on strange analogies as extended metaphors. He calls the development of atomic weaponry a form of “logical insanity” that he then traces (in story form) through the early twentieth century. In a show about empire, he brings up the “what if we found an untouched island with native people” analogy, and then runs with it, sometimes broaching into science-fiction inspired endings. He comes at topics with out-of-the-box questions, as when he attempts to understand racism in European colonial history by proposing the question: “Are white people special?” (which can mean special good, or special bad). His unexpected snaking narratives are made not for historians, but for, as Carlin says, “the group that sat around a pizza and some beers after history class and got into the weird, fun questions on history.” Carlin connects these analogies with a love for detail, and has as many as fifty books cited in some episodes.

My own Podcast and Fiction

In 2013 I turned from fan to participant, and began hosting my own podcast, New Books in Asian American Studies for the New Books Network. Anyone familiar with podcasts has likely seen these podcast sites, which pair scholarly hosts with authors to inspire detailed conversations. Rather than have one “know it all” host speak to every guest and ask basic questions, the New Books Network matches guests with scholars who really know their work, and who have already “paid their dues” in the field. This experiment has yielded over 2,000 interviews, with over 300,000 downloads per month.

Like the others in the Network, my podcast has garnered a world wide audience, who all (I expect) have some background knowledge of Asian American studies. With no restrictions on time, I have been able to focus on details without ever having to turn the conversation into an “Asian American Studies 101” segment. As barriers to online broadcasting barriers have dropped, I can now use free programs like Audacity and free recording software to share stories. The “host,” in the traditional sense, is no longer needed. We are both guests brought on the show for our expertise — or better yet, we are fans and nerds, geeking out to what drives us. Like Carlin’s show, I shoot for a style of cozy expertise to shape each interview as a narrative, structuring questions to speak to an arc that may or may not emerge within the details. In my last podcast with Eric Tang, for example, Tang dove into the story of a Cambodian refugee that spoke to the structures and politics set in place to manage (and exploit) refugees years following their arrival.

These days, podcasts are becoming more integrated into online literary journals, with popular podcasts emerging from The Kenyon ReviewTin House, Space Squid (Drabblecast), and Pseudopod, along with short story podcasts like The Moth. But in this range, podcasts are still seen as a supplement to “real” literary art, and merely express “real” literary prose in audio form. Yet still, my writing style was in many ways shaped just as much by podcasts as other literary arts. Podcasts have a way of expressing “Martian perspectives,” as speakers get lost in the power of their own drivel. Often I would listen to a storyteller on a podcast for a couple days, and then write mimicking their meandering style and obscure subject. My story Seattle Freeze considers a fashion-forward hamster inside a plastic bubble ball. My story Strange Gifts was inspired by multiple podcasts on Cold War propaganda, which often roamed into pure speculation. My story in Untoward is about two girls listening to a podcast while trapped in an iron pipe. Perhaps the stories come from an overactive imagination, or perhaps it’s the unusual sources, with their tendency to ramble and become frivolous wastes of time, that have been my wellsprings.

Originally posted August 12, 2016 on https://medium.com/drunken-boat by Kawika Guillermo.