‘Nests and Strangers’ showcases Asian American female poets

Kelsey Street Press/Courtesy

“Do they have trees in Korea? Do the children eat out of garbage/ cans?/

We had a dalmation/ We rode the train on weekends from Seoul to So-Sah where we/ grew grapes”

In provocative poems such as “Into Such Assembly,” Myung Mi Kim makes us at once aware of a heartbreaking divide between the Korea of her memory and of others’ impressions. The new critical anthology of essays by Kelsey Street Press, “Nests and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets,” records such unspoken narratives of an invisible Asian America in a range of women’s voices. The groundbreaking collection engages episodes of modern poetry by Nellie Wong, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Myung Mi Kim and Bhanu Kapil, delving into their moving lyricism with keen attention to detail.

“Nests and Strangers” is a complex exploration of the dynamics between poetry and a larger fabric of sociopolitical issues. The collection opens with an intelligent foreword by Timothy Yu that sparks a dialogue about poetry’s role during the 1970s Asian American political movement. Indeed, the poets’ interpretations of personal and collective identity are sensuous and introspective, yet undeniably beyond the scope of the individual as expressions of community longing. Their harrowing examinations of cultural identity — achieved through experiments with language — expose a shared struggle against prevailing ideologies and stereotypes.

Sarah Dowling reads into the works of Kim, a Korean American lyric poet acclaimed for weaving foreign elements into her texts. Dowling’s absorbing essay points out to us a “ghostly” quality to Kim’s fragments of memory, which are narrated without a stable speaker. Dowling’s analysis is oriented around Kim’s experience of being foreign: She illuminates for us how intrusive “other” voices — taken from official documents and conversations — interrupt Kim’s nostalgic recollections to pass judgment on her ethnic identity. In this sense, Kim’s language, though profoundly private, sings about the losses of an entire community: “What looked black in Korean newspaper was/ my son’s blood,” she writes, translating documentary testimony about the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Merle Woo praises Chinese American activist Wong’s radical vision of the Oakland working class. Woo’s meticulous investigation of Wong’s identity as a feminist and socialist grounds her anecdotal writings in the reality of political struggles. Woo reveals to us how Wong’s protest literature speaks to the hardships of ordinary women. Wong celebrates their daily lives in refined compositions that toe the line between individualism and collectivism, writing to unite women of color beneath a banner of collective oppression.

Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s thorough study of the poetry of Dutch Chinese writer Berssenbrugge invites a holistic understanding of her works. Lee is concerned with studying Berssenbrugge’s poetry within the context of the multi-ethnic arts communities that influenced her collaborative craft. Like her contemporaries, Berssenbrugge resists restrictive conventions for innovative compositions that overturn tradition in their nuanced readings of the human body. Lee’s analysis takes on a biographical bent, inevitably raising questions of how a poet’s environment shapes her lyrical sentiments.

Dorothy Wang’s experimental essay traces the role of the elusive speaker in Kapil’s prose poems. Wang’s investigation is attuned to the landscapes traveled by Kapil’s dislocated immigrant speaker. She scrutinizes Kapil’s poems with a critical gaze that emphasizes the lost voices of the suppressed — the “unloved speaker,” the Asian female. Wang’s use of imaginative structural tweaks in her essay is nearly poetic in its own right. She creates an open dialogue that pulls in quotations, questions and observations to engage Kapil’s verse, as well as the experiences of a people.

The inspiring poems explored in “Nests and Strangers” push up against established ideas of identity and belonging, all with a refreshing orientation toward experimentation. Though the collection may appeal mostly to a niche audience, its openness to themes and linguistic forms paves the way for a growing body of contemporary literature. Ultimately, the anthology challenges readers by offering insightful understandings of cultural identity and a spirited inquiry into Asian American female poetics.

Contact Danielle Shi at [email protected].