Eileen R. Tabios introduces the Poetry Section of Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images edited by M. Evelina Galang in collaboration with Poetry Editor Eileen Tabios, Non-Fiction Editor Sunaina Maira, Art Editor Jordan Isip and Found Images Editor Anida Yoeu Esguerra
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2003)
Carrion, kar-e an, Carry On
In August 1999, white supremacist Buford O. Furrow Jr. opened fire with an Uzi at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California. Spraying the center’s lobby with 70 rounds, he wounded five people. Shortly thereafter during his escape, he used a Glock 9 mm pistol to kill a letter carrier, 39-year-old Joseph Ileto. Ileto was my age. We also shared the same “crime” for which Furrow murdered him: we are both Filipino. That is, we are both brown-bodied, black-haired—we clearly are not white. For our shared image, Ileto died.
Ileto’s tale represents the extreme effect of being judged by the image we present publicly. Buford did not care about the particulars of Ileto’s life—that he was considered with affection by his friends and co-workers, or that he was a beloved brother and son to a family utterly devastated by his death. Indeed, Buford may not have realized that Ileto was Filipino; Buford cared only that Ileto didn’t look white.
Unfortunately, this reduction of identity to our mere physicality occurs too often. Johnson Cheu depicts another such incident in his poem “Caught Prey” which relates the tale of the murder of Thien Minh Ly; he was killed because his captors thought him a “jap” although Ly was Vietnamese.
From the material submitted to Screaming Monkeys, we learn of other portrayals of Asia/Asian America. In the words of poets from all over the world who submitted to this project, these cultural portrayals include the asexual, wily or nerdy Asian man; the sexually- and mentally-submissive “Oriental” woman; expertise in martial arts, math, science, the violin or the piano; humorless; “exotic, exotic, exotic”; crass materialists who rely on “cash as their compass for life”; inscrutable; sneaky; gamblers; eaters of strange animal parts; exploiters of the Black community; and that any light-skinned Asians “MUST be hapa.” Or, “they all look alike.” And/or, “they don’t exist.”
How does one write poems when one is screaming against these images? Poetry offers a quest that unfolds through language. But in language, the flux of context destabilizes dictionary definitions of words. Thus, some poets write to share stories while some write to evoke emotions without relying on narrative – others do both or neither. Some write for reasons known only after they pen the poem’s last word. Perhaps all write to explore, though there is no guarantee of answers or conclusions. All methods are valid. All methods can sing, even when the song is a scream.
Screaming Monkey’s poets illustrate how to write poetry under the initial impetus of a scream. Through crafted rants -- read Marilyn Chin’s rhapsody by “a plain yellow girl.” Through stories delineated in clear English (thereby breaking another stereotype: Asians can only speak “broken English”) – read: Vince Gotera on honor. Certainly through revenge: read Li-Young Lee’s attempt to “eat the head” of Ralph Waldo Emerson for once saying about the Chinese, "They're not even as good as the Africans, who are at least willing to carry our fine wood. They have no culture to speak of, no music, no literature..." Through take-offs on pop culture: read Nick Carbo on “The Secret Asian Man” a la James Bond; Lori Tsang on Jackie Chan; and Denise Duhamel on Miss Kitty. Through pathos: read Bino A. Realuyo on how a Greek dictionary has come to define the Filipina as “maid”; Luisa A. Igloria on an American soldier questioning his “convictions”; and Xue Di who left China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre for a United States where he becomes an Other with “no one else (to) rumple my neatly made bed.”
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge is well-renowned for poems which abstract language to generate psychological spaces for readers to experience enchantment. Yet even this “abstract” poet can participate in Screaming Monkeys by submitting a poem written when she was 18 years old – when the form of narrative (she no longer practices in most of her mature poems) could allow referencing the notion of worthless daughters vis a vis sons in Chinese culture. That’s right: to explore the notions of cultural portrayals of Asians/Asian Americans is to concede that such notions are not propounded only by non-Asian Americans. Asians/Asian Americans also facilitate these objectivist/reductive—indeed, racist—portrayals within their own community.
We also learn that other poets choose to write the poem as an alternate reality to a world which begins a new century without yet having learned to avoid words like gook, nigger, jap, and monkey. Thus, Luba Halicki-Hoffman, Oliver Francisco de la Paz, and Michelle Rivera Gravage soar through the splendid charm that is also available in language. John Yau concocts “Genghis Chan” poems which seem deceptively minimalistic with their distillations of a whole world of resonance into a single word -- before the words are combined to create multi-layered inflections; his approach evokes what he once said in an essay about the artist Bruce Naumann: “…the word as something to both see and see through…the adjective generating the noun…words as objects…(until) the nonsensical phrase accurately describes its own unique and specific existence, which is a kind of perfection." Linguistic methods of transcendence – why not? See the poet, too, scream out transcendence in an age that some critics insist is supposed to be “cold and postmodern.” As Lori Tsang writes in post-modern mortem, “the sun never sets on the children of the dispossessed.”
Indeed, why allow victimization to mar the Poem? After all, to paraphrase Arthur Sze, perhaps the world would be just as cruel were it within our will. Consequently, Maya Rain Khosha may be right to suggest, “Time for a pause” after encountering what is ugly, cruel and painful. After such pause, we might still go “damn da-damn damn damn!” as Marlon Unas Esguerra shouts. Or we may speak softer as Oscar Penaranda does: “Yet I am not bitter; I’m still warm, I still blush/ I am yet another who’s had/ a lover’s quarrel/ with the world and planted a rose/ where only/ the cactus grows.”
The poets are screaming to sing – and singing through the scream. If their words never become poems, perhaps they remain only as howling animals, limbs gashed between a metal trap’s savage teeth. One could weep for such hapless creatures without calling them poets/poems. They can be, as Pat Rosal notes, “carrion” or ones “who will carry on.” Or perhaps the sheerness of the howl might also be a poem?
Carry on. Carrion. In poetry, language may not require clarity to sing. Perhaps the dictionary fails against unspeakable anguish. Words must simply be unbound so that the notes will kar-e an.
Eileen Tabios is editor of The Halo-Halo Review. More information about her is available at http://eileenrtabios.com