Sunday, April 26, 2009

Kundiman Poets at Revolution Books, Honolulu

Fresh from the AAAS conference held in Honolulu this past week, three Kundiman poets--Tamiko Beyer, Ching-In Chen, and Soham Patel--read this afternoon at Revolution Books, which advertised them as "investigating themes ranging from race, sexuality, and gender to love, family, and the immigrant experience, from war to environmental destruction." And that they did, on one of the most beautiful of recent days on O`ahu, sunny and bright. The poems were also playful, as each poet engaged forms as diverse as haiku, epistle, novel, slam poetry, and a lok-bot (spelling?), which features alternating lines of six and eight syllables, as well as a scheme of internal rhyme.

Each poet is or has been a community organizer, and each (it seemed) had almost quit poetry before the Kundiman program had given them time and encouragement to write. Each is now in or approaching an MFA program. Ching-In Chen has a new book, The Heart's Traffic, from Arktoi Books in Los Angeles; Beyer and Patel both wielded manuscripts that sounded publishable. So much encouraging news for the futures of American poetry.

began with a ten-year old poem about Hawai`i; her mother grew up here, the daughter of a picture bride. The poem sounded like it belonged in Bamboo Ridge, or a volume by Cathy Song, and included a section in which the repeated refrain was "In the house of pidgin." Beyer's more recent work includes a sequence (sequences were important to all three poets) about a girl abandoned by her mother and raised in San Diego; her brother joins the military and ends up in Mogadishu in the early 1990s. Beyer ended with parts of a sequence about the prospect of adopting a child with her partner. The phrase "ethical reponsibility of motherhood" rang a bell for this listener. She ended with a poem that included a reference to the bon dance, and the marvelous line, "the dead on their cucumber horses," which refers to the Obon gathering, but seemed marvelously imagined, as well.

Ching-In Chen read from her new book, which is an extended immigration story. I enjoyed the poem "Fob" in which she defined the word as "deceit or trickery" and as "a small pocket," but never as the letters that stand for "Fresh off the boat," which was the phrase being thrown at her young immigrant character at school. This character proceeds to mis-teach Chinese words to an American classmate, apt linguistic revenge. Chen work was passionate, though I wish she'd realized that the microphone carried her voice so well that the slam poetic performance nearly deafened some of us. I can imagine that in a larger venue her performance would be quite powerful.

Soham Patel lives and works in Colorado Springs, home to the Air Force academy and one of the largest churches in the USA. Her work was the most lyrical, the most engaged with the tradition of surrealism. In "You Do Not Disappear," a poem on the death of Mahmoud Darwish, she wrote, "We will keep your words, and we will speak out loud." Her prose poem, "Three Variables," included a marvelous dream record. Her book of Emily Dickinson poems was due and she could not find it. Finally, she found it inside a John Steinbeck cover; it few away; she chased the wings; she pinched the wings; the wings ignited; orchid petals.

Her wittiest poem was based on several perfumes, including Eternity, Obsession, Escape, and One. The poem, titled "For the glossy black and white ad trying to sell you perfume," ended with the marvelous line, "with purchase, the free gift makes you smell like a man." She ended her reading with "An apology for our mothers," apology in the sense of apologia. And this seemed to bring the reading full circle, back to concerns with family, from its flight outward and inward.

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