This is no. 79 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Of my fury,
I come like a joint popping into place.
—Sarah Gambito, “Of My Fury”1
Another thing you didn’t mention in your letter: the fact that you must feel profoundly alone.
—Yanyi, “How Do I Write About My Identity Authentically?”2
1. One of my earliest crushes was Tuxedo Mask. I still think he’s a babe.
2. During my MFA, I wrote a love poem that referenced Tuxedo Mask plus another early crush, Spider-Man. I don’t remember if I brought it to workshop. I remember feeling anxious that someone might advise cutting those references in order to make it a more “timeless” poem. How angry I got, thinking that would likely happen.
3. One of my favorite movies is Sailor Moon R: The Movie, in which an alien dude named Fiore develops a big crush on Tuxedo Mask. Sailor Moon, who’s destined to be with Tuxedo Mask, has to fight Fiore for her man. Also, save the Earth.
4. During an MFA workshop, a white classmate declared he represented “millions of readers” who would stop reading a poem if they came across a stanza in Mandarin. He insisted I cut it to one line, if the poem needed even that.
5. Which is more universal: a species of bird that some readers will have to look up or an animated character that some readers will have to look up?
6. These days I embrace writing to an Asian American reader, or more specifically, a queer Asian American reader, a queer Chinese American reader. It’s taken me a long time to get to this place and some days I forget how much I can embrace it.
7. A white professor in my MFA advised us not to use the term white people in poetry because it was “alienating.”
8. I love that Tuxedo Mask fights with roses, that Sailor Moon fights with her tiara and eventually with even mightier, gorgeouser accessories. I love that when you visit sailormoon.fandom.com, your mouse arrow transforms into her Spiral Moon Heart Rod.
9. Which is more universal: Tuxedo Mask, Spider-Man, the Great Sphinx of Giza, or a queer Asian American poet referencing each in a love poem for another big nerd?
10. Another white classmate called the Mandarin “gobbledygook.” Of course, neither classmate complained about the French in a previous poem—or in others, my references to Russian literature.
11. Fiore, whose name means flower in Italian, is obsessed with finding the perfect one for Tuxedo Mask, who gave him a rose when they were both lonely children. Fiore was lonely because he seemed to be the only one left of his species. Tuxedo Mask, who back then was only Mamoru, was lonely because his parents had just been killed in a car accident. After years of wandering alone through space, an exhausted Fiore landed on Earth, outside the hospital where Mamoru was staying. Mamoru found him and the two immediately formed a deep bond. When, just a short time later, Fiore had to leave3 the Earth due to its incompatible atmosphere, he made it his mission to find a gift worthy of the one who had made him feel no longer alone.
12. The Mandarin was translated in the poem itself. Now I’m working on poems that keep my Mandarin untranslated. Full stanzas.4
Which is more universal: Italian, Mandarin, French, Russian, Japanese, English, or the English dub of Sailor Moon R: The Movie?
13. In recent years my work has been praised for transcending identity categories. I know this is a well-intentioned compliment, and I feel fortunate to be read with enthusiasm. But I wonder if a white dude has ever been praised for transcending his white dudery.
14. In an interview about her second book, Some Say the Lark (Alice James Book, 2017), Jennifer Chang discusses the expectation to write about and from identity in straightforward ways:
Early in my career…I would repeatedly encounter the critique that my work seemed unrelated to my biography. I understood that these editors and judges were reading my work as insufficiently Asian American…. I thought my writing was Asian American, despite the lack of whatever they think makes for authentic Asian American writing. Ethnography? Bilingualism? And yet, at the same time, I wondered if I was hiding behind metaphor and mythology because I didn’t know or want to write about race or identity. I was confused. Wasn’t writing about the self an interrogation of identity? Or, worse, had I internalized the misguided aesthetic imperative that literature be apolitical and universal (and therefore nonthreatening to white readers)?5
15. Fan interpretations of Fiore’s feelings for Tuxedo Mask range from they’re totally gay to aww friends. In the movie itself Sailor Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Venus briefly discuss whether something romantic had occurred between the two. The English dub downplays this possibility, as it did with the anime TV series, for an overtly gay relationship between two women, Sailor Uranus and (my fave!) Sailor Neptune.6
16. In recent years my work has been compared to Frank O’Hara’s. A lot. It’s flattering; I love O’Hara. His appetite for pop culture, everyday conversation, play. His gayness. His gaiety and his gravity. He’s a big influence. Still, there’s something odd about how this is considered such high praise: to be compared to a canonical white poet. “You’re the next Frank O’Hara!” “You’re like an Asian O’Hara!” I’ve been thinking of writing a poem titled “Frank O’Hara Is the White Me.”7
17. One afternoon I tried to talk to a white professor about the complicated feelings I had when visiting extended family in China after not being able to see them for over a decade. She then showed me pictures from her vacation travels in China, Vietnam, Cambodia.
18. Jennifer Chang:
In writing Some Say the Lark, I was intentional about writing about race and my Asian American identity on my own terms. I wanted to make the reader uncomfortable. I wanted the reader to know I was pissed off at the world and quite possibly at her.8
19. After searching the cosmos for the perfect flower for Tuxedo Mask, Fiore is deceived by a beautiful but parasitic space plant called the Xenian Flower, who possesses him, turns his sorrow into a lust for vengeance. Fiore believes that he must attack the Earth—to punish humanity for letting Tuxedo Mask be lonely and to claim the planet for his perfect gift to fully bloom, i.e. drain all life energy from the world. Fiore asserts that Tuxedo Mask can never be truly unlonely with anyone except him. He works to destroy the Sailor Scouts defending the Earth, in particular Sailor Moon, whose connection with Tuxedo Mask drives him into a jealous fury.
20. I wasn’t surprised by the confidence with which my white classmate claimed to know how millions of readers read. Nor was I surprised that he didn’t say white readers. What I was taken aback by was the implication that that many people would even come across a poem of mine—how he framed his critique as concern: that I’d be losing out on all these potential readers. As though he were looking out for me, as a friend.
21. Another white classmate said he found Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split (TriQuarterly Books, 2011) “alienating.” Another referred to Kiki Petrosino’s Hymn for the Black Terrific (Sarabande Books, 2013) as “another one of those books all about identity.” Which is more universal: a white student feeling excluded from a text or Black students and students of color being excluded from the field of literature? Which is universal: a white professor’s anger over getting called white or an Asian American student’s anger over racism as well as queerphobia in workshops, literature courses, program culture, the culture of the university?
22. What makes my poems queer and Asian American? In another version of this essay I type twelve single-spaced pages trying to answer that. I could keep going. Into this universe.9
23. If you cut my yellow wrists, I’ll teach my yellow toes to write.
If you cut my yellow fists, I’ll teach my yellow feet to fight.
—Marilyn Chin, “Blues on Yellow”10
These lines blaze from a postcard I keep tacked above my bed. They’re among the first things I see when I wake up. They bless me as I’m falling asleep. The lines are by groundbreaking Chinese American poet Marilyn Chin; the postcard is made by Kundiman, a groundbreaking organization that supports Asian American writers and readers. When I write groundbreaking, I mean world-reshaping, heart-replenishing.
24. Yes, most of my MFA classes took place in a building called “Hall of Languages,” but really all of them were in a department called English that made some students comfortably ignorant and some deeply alienated by insisting it was the universe. Yes, during that time I fell in love with the boy I’m still with today. But I was lonely, lonely, lonely in school.
25. As I write this essay, the pandemic. As I write, cops beating up protestors. I tell my friend Muriel Leung, a poet I met through Kundiman, that I haven’t been doing well lately. She sends a letter, a candle, and a sticker. The sticker is of Sailor Moon in her classic ready-to-fight pose with the magnificent caption: “Sailor Moon says: FUCK RACIST POLICE.”
26. Anger, loneliness, and hope for a better writing community led me to apply and apply for the Kundiman Retreat—led me to my first retreat, summer of 2014. I had just completed the second year of my MFA and had one more to go. I needed Kundiman; I so needed that first retreat where I got to work with, among other brilliances, those cited in this essay: cofounder Sarah Gambito, executive director Cathy Linh Che, home group leader Jennifer Chang, and poetry faculty Marilyn Chin. Chin, whose work I first read in college. Chin, who at one point during the retreat, looked around the room where more than thirty fellows new and returning were gathered, and said: “You are the future of Asian American literature.”
27. I continue to need Kundiman. It continues to evolve, sometimes with shortcomings. In my experience the organization is committed to engaging in the less comfortable discussions so crucial for real growth. I’m glad to see the expansion of funding and leadership opportunities as well as the addressing of serious gaps in who gets to attend the retreat—who needs an Asian American literary space and isn’t yet finding the access. I’m glad for those who’ve spoken up11 with urgent critique, with loving anger, to hold Kundiman and other organizations like it accountable.
That anger gives me hope and encourages me to add my own critical voice. In particular, I’d like to reiterate the demand for these organizations to do more to support Black Asians, Pacific Islanders, and West Asians. I want always to be part of Asian American writing communities where accountability isn’t avoided and difference isn’t flattened.
28. I hope to one day write something as beautiful as Sailor Moon’s catchphrase, “In the name of the moon, I’ll punish you!” Though my abolitionist politics would revise that to: “In the name of the moon, let’s fight for nonpunitive forms of justice!”
29. I’d like white writers to get angrier. Why did so few of my white grad school classmates speak out? Some of my Asian American peers could get angrier too. About racism. About who still gets left out of Asian American spaces. About anti-Blackness in Asian America.
30. In a final effort to stop Sailor Moon, Fiore tries to take from her the immensely powerful Silver Crystal. Sailor Moon says that she wants to save him, too; that he doesn’t have to be lonely anymore, but Fiore won’t hear it. Suddenly a vision, seemingly from the Silver Crystal, allows Fiore to see that it was Sailor Moon, back then only Usagi and also a child, who first gave Mamoru the rose that he would give Fiore. Usagi had come to the same hospital, carrying a bouquet of roses to celebrate the birth of her sister. Realizing this, Fiore is able to break the Xenian Flower’s grip on his heart. Meanwhile, Sailor Moon has died, having depleted her life energy to save Earth. To make amends, Fiore finally hands Tuxedo Mask the perfect flower: one containing his own life energy, which he tells his great love to use to revive Sailor Moon. This act is Fiore’s last.
31. Why does the alien have to sacrifice everything to save everyone else, in the end?
32. How often I was critiqued in workshop for being alienating, being alien. How often I am praised now for being so specific and yet (and yet!) so relatable.12 As though my only options are bad alien or good alien. Or Frank O’Hara with a perpetual crush on Tuxedo Mask.
33. If the particular is the doorway to the universal, who maintains the door? Who made it? Do I want to travel to that universe anyway? If the particulars must be understandable, palatable to a white audience, is that a universe or is that the white gaze?
34. I think of Paul Celan—a poet whose work is steeped in his Jewishness, his always-fraught relationship with the German language, his having survived the Holocaust. In a speech delivered in 1958 he said, “For the poem does not stand outside time. True, it claims the infinite and tries to reach across time—but across, not above.”13 Then again, am I quoting Celan here because he’s a poet I believe white poets will listen to? He doesn’t fit easily at all into whiteness, yet I remember my white classmates being completely unbothered by having to learn his particular history.
35. “Why are you so angry all the time?” I get asked, sometimes in response to the mere mention of race or sexuality. I’m not angry 24-7, but I believe in the power of a queer person of color’s anger. It is fear of such power that leads to the dismissive title of Angry Minority.14 And I recognize that as a cis man of Chinese descent, my anger tends to get treated in the white imagination as more “rational” or less threatening (this depends on the status of “China” in the white imagination). Still, I’ve been dismissed by white people as “just upset,” “too frustrated,” “divisive,” and (my fave!) “anguished”—as though my anger towards racism and other issues is the issue.15
I’ve come to love my powerful anger; it’s fueled and steered me in the best directions. I also don’t experience anger as separate from other emotions. For instance, my anger is a part of my joy—because without it, what kind of joy is possible? A deluded, diluted one. The country I live in is racist, misogynist, ableist, transphobic, queerphobic, classist, imperialist, genocidal. Part of the anger is that a basic recognition of (not even a reckoning with) this reality is not universal.
36. And to what extent have I internalized white literary sensibilities? To what degree am I still writing, living in their restrictive universe?
37. The ending of Jennifer Chang’s “Again a Solstice”16:
What it does even mean to write a poem?
It means today
I’m correcting my mistakes.
It means I don’t want to be lonely.
38. Another reading of the movie’s ending: Sailor Moon—through her connection with Tuxedo Mask but just as much through her friendship with the other Sailor Scouts—shows Fiore what love looks like, free of the draining anger of jealousy, the anger of a crushing loneliness. And Fiore responds with an enormous act of love. I wish it didn’t have to involve dying though; I dream for Fiore an untragic conclusion. A scene of him eventually revived, too, and finding his own fierce circle.
39. Since my book was published, I’ve traveled across the United States and have gotten to meet so many Asian American, queer Asian American, queer Chinese American readers. I’ve also met readers of Asian descent in the U.K. and in New Zealand, many of them queer. These experiences confirmed what my truest self always knew, what white MFA culture didn’t: that impassioned readers for my work—at its most idiosyncratically identity-filled—exist.17 These experiences also pushed me to think further on the term Asian diasporic—not only for those outside the United States or those who don’t identify as American, but also for when Asian American slides into a violent18 U.S. nationalism. I’m also interested in what the term Sino offers over Chinese,19 when Chinese gets weaponized for nationalist aims. Queer can also get appropriated, become reductive, lose its radical politics. How to keep these terms active, alive?
40. When asked what advice he would give to “emerging writers, particularly of marginalized identities,” poet Michael Wasson said:
For marginalized identities, discover the deep complexities in who you are & what spaces you & your body occupy. I hope you stay true to your path…because too often we are told to simplify & make the work accessible to the reader (i.e. white, hetero, male). This ends up watering down the nuance of the histories that you’ve been trusted to carry through each day.20
41. Toni Morrison was asked again and again about whether she found the label “Black woman writer” limiting. One of her responses:
Oh, so boring, oh God.… You know, “male French writer;” is that limiting? No, I don’t think it is. But I understood instantly that [“Black woman writer”] was meant to be.…
So instead of pretending that the label had no force in the minds of readers, I decided very early on that I would not just accept it, but wear it. Force people to say “Black woman writer” and then to see what the fallout would be. I don’t want to be an honorary white man.
But that doesn’t narrow the field. Not for me.
It’s an interesting, rich terrain in which to work. If I tried to compare it with something that is probably more powerful in terms of culture, it would be like saying “Black music.” And what does that mean? Does that sound narrow?21
42. In these months, this year of pandemic, I miss so many of my favorite people—so much of my universe. I text, call, Zoom. Attend online readings. Reread the poems that hold me, that reinvent holding. I search for the perfect sticker to send to Muriel.
43. Rewatching the movie, I develop a crush on Fiore. The way he tells the gay truth about his feelings. The way he lyrically meditates on loneliness. The way he gives me a different way. Not an Asian version of someone else, neither good nor bad alien, no: a badass truth-teller with great hair.
44. When the term universal comes up, ask: Whose universe?22 When the term timeless: Who can stand outside of time? When transcends categories: Why not transgress? I don’t want to transcend. I want to sing about living in a tangle of histories and dreams. Embrace that song, I’m reminding myself. Keep writing in and to a vastness of queer Asian trouble—a cosmos full of protest and tiaras, laughter and pissed-off poems, roses and ruptures and hot stubborn shit-starters who live.
1. Matadora (Alice James, 2004).
2. An installment from the poet’s Substack, The Reading, published in July 2020
3. Until Fiore’s return years later, Mamoru/Tuxedo Mask is unsure whether he was a real or imaginary friend.
4. In a 2018 interview for the Rumpus, Cathy Linh Che responds to a question about translating the Vietnamese in her poetry:
When I write, my primary audience is someone who occupies my exact same language and identity space…. Those who don’t understand Vietnamese can understand the language around it, or they can look it up. I’ve seen my parents labor over dictionaries their whole lives to decode letters from government officials—I think English-speaking audiences can do the same for my parents’ words.
5. From a 2018 interview with Tupelo Quarterly.
6. The English version made them cousins—as though that would make their romantic dynamic less odd.
7. After completing the first full draft of this essay, I discovered an orientalist poem by O’Hara that begins “At night Chinamen jump / on Asia with a thump” and ends “we couple in the grace / of that mysterious race” (from “Poem” in The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, University of California Press, 1995).
8. From the same interview as earlier.
9. I carry with me Ocean Vuong’s lines, “The most beautiful part of your body / is where it’s headed,” from “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” in Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon, 2016).
10. Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (Norton, 2003).
11. I’ve gone back and forth on whether to provide a more detailed account; due to the complexity of the issues and privacy concerns, I’ve decided, for this essay, to keep the details of these internal community discussions internal.
12. As with universality, I question the assumptions behind relatability and how it gets used, especially in workshop. Same with empathy—who gets to empathize? Who’s prioritized when relating to a piece? Should a writer of color aim for a text that invites empathy? Why not critique the white imagination instead—and push white writers to do more of that work? Read: “Empathy Is an End Point,” a 2017 conversation in Sublevel between Solmaz Sharif and Rickey Laurentiis.
13. “Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen.” Translated by Rosemarie Waldrop in Paul Celan: Collected Prose (Sheep Meadow Press, 1986). With gratitude to Dorothy J. Wang, whose Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2014) is where I first encountered this speech.
14. Grateful for this June 2020 conversation in Los Angeles Review of Books between Omar Sakr and George Abraham, in which Abraham says: “This circles back to your point about how we’re being read versus Read. It’s almost as easy for the publishing world to ignore our voices as it is for them to lazily read and casually misinterpret us, assigning implicitly racist labels on our work like ‘amply justified anger.’”
15. I’m indebted to Sara Ahmed’s work on how talking about the problem means becoming the problem, a phenomenon she identifies and explores in Living a Feminist Life (Duke University Press, 2017).
16. Some Say the Lark (Alice James Books, 2017).
17. Being a poet, I never expected a giant audience (though poetry readership in the United States has been growing). Still, it’s good to laugh at those who insisted I’d never have any real audience and so must write more “broadly.”
18. Is this word redundant? I’m suspicious of most nationalisms and U.S. nationalism I recognize as inherently violent—as inextricable from white supremacy.
19. Thanks also to sinθ magazine for opening up a myriad of distinct possibilities for Sino literary discourse and community.
20. A 2018 interview on VIDA.
21. A 2003 interview for Wisconsin Public Radio.
22. Whose verse gets to be read as a universe?
Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and won the Publishing Triangle Thom Gunn Award. His work has appeared in many publications, including Poetry and the 2015 and 2019 editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence.Thumbnail: NASA