Learning to Love Poetry: In Celebration of Queer Asian Poets


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Growing up, I hated poetry. In school, I was forced to read about diverging roads and hopeful feathers. There was a commonality between all the authors in my syllabus: they were nothing like my family. Walt Whitman called Black Americans “baboons,” Sylvia Plath is the epitome of problematic white feminism, and Emily Dickinson never wrote about maneuvering three languages as a child. These authors were lauded as writing about what the American education likes to call “the universal,” but what these poets were writing about was the rich, straight, white American experience.

I couldn’t connect because my life looked nothing like Edgar Allen Poe or Willy Shakespeare. My mom’s a Mexican immigrant and my dad’s parents joined the American military to escape an illegally occupied Philippines. In high school, I’d proofread my mom’s work emails and listen to my classmates complain about their brown maids. So how was I supposed to connect with Virginia Woolf, who grew up with servants?

Living in the Bay Area meant that I grew up in the shadow of the Beat Poets—a group of well-off white dudes in the 1940s and 50s who had the financial safety nets to be wandering free-radical thinkers who recreationally partake in meth. As a result, spoken word poetry felt cheesy, performative, and pseudo-intellectual. I wasn’t a part of the club and had no interest in it.

And then, I found literary magazines.

Usually, literary magazines are university-backed publications that writers submit to. Of course, there are the giants like The Sun, TriQuarterly, and Paris Review, but then there are smaller publications like Overachiever Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Margins, Foglifter, and Jellyfish Review. In the smaller publications, you can find magazines that specifically shine a light on specific communities. That’s when I began to connect with poetry.

Queer poets of color will always hold a special place in my heart. Finding literary spaces created for and by queer BIPOC salvaged my love for the literary arts. Programs, publications, nonprofits, and workshops made by and for people who look like me were beyond my wildest dreams.

During the Summer of 2020, I received a scholarship from Kweli Journal (founded by Laura Pegram) for their annual literary festival that features workshops and intensives for writers. One of the workshops I attended was with K-Ming Chang, a fellow Bay Area writer. To prepare for my workshop, I familiarized myself with Chang’s work. I requested an eGalley of her debut novel Bestiary and immediately fell in love with her writing. Chang has a prolific body of work that can be found on her website. Her poems are experimental and visually stimulating, but even her prose has a poetic quality to it. Thematically, Chang’s work centers around creating her own creation myths to explore queerness, culture, and history. To get a good taste of Chang’s work, I recommend starting with An Aquatic History of My Family. This piece perfectly encapsulates Chang’s whimsy, beautifully grotesque imagery, the brutal portrayal of the body, and human-animal connection.

Note: Chang’s work isn’t for the faint of heart. You’ve been warned.

Another writer whose work I’m obsessed with is Franny Choi. I stumbled upon her work in a literary magazine. I don’t remember if it was Pank Magazine or The Margins, but after the cover of her poetry collection Soft Science was announced, I was forever hooked. Choi masterfully subverts reader’s expectations with her work.

Sometimes what prevents a reader from fully immersing themselves in a poem is the fear of the page. As a result, poems will have scattered words, unintelligible linebreaks, and sometimes no discernable pattern at all. The solution? Attend a poetry reading. Now, there is still a pandemic happening, but readings have become virtual. You can find them by looking up your favorite author. If you don’t know where to look, I highly recommend looking at Button Poetry on YouTube. This channel introduced me to Danez Smith, Yesika Salgado, and more. Button Poetry even has a recording of Franny Choi reading “Introduction to Quantum Theory,” which I highly recommend watching.

It is my firm belief that poetry lives off the page. The best way to experience poetry is to watch it performed.

That’s where the magic happens (and occasionally where they serve wine). When I figured that out, listening to poetry changed my relationship with the form forever. 

Since then, I’ve participated in several writing workshops featuring various genres: poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. Some of the most generous people I’ve met have been poets. Their deep analysis of my body of work (mostly fiction) has me look at my pieces from a new perspective. One writer, danny ryu, who I met during a Kundiman x Asian American Feminist Collective workshop, has held my hand for multiple projects and will be included in the New Bay Area BIPOC anthology Essential Truths. I highly recommend checking out their work which queers our understanding of the world with ghosts, family legacies, and an upbringing that doesn’t look like the American nuclear family.

Early on in my relationship with poetry, while wandering Alley Cat Books in the Castro, I stumbled upon Vivek Shraya’s even this page is white. The cover caught my eye. My interest is always piqued when a nonwhite face adorns the cover. So I flipped to a random page, and the book is filled with critiques about race and culture. The most shocking part? A Canadian writes this piece for a Canadian audience. As an American, there is a stereotype of Canada being a more progressive, enlightened country but is it if Shraya writes about white supremacy? Shraya’s poems call out pop princesses’ white privilege, microaggressions, #oscarssowhite, and more. I finally found a poet who wrote about issues that I experienced. 

So began my collection of queer poets of color. When white supremacy is a global issue backed by hundreds of years of imperialism, isn’t writing about that the actual universal experience?

Associate Editor

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

We hope you’ll join us.

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