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'Groundbreaking' Asian-American Poets to Read With Immigrant, Refugee Roots

Here are Asian-American poets writing about migration, war trauma, and healing.

by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang /
Image: college libraryJustin Sullivan / Getty Images, file

For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, NBC Asian America — with the help of poet Bryan Thao Worra, a 2009 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) fellow in literature and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association — looked at some of the Asian-American poetry books and chapbooks that came out in 2016 and noticed that many were from the Southeast Asian-American poetry community.

“2016 was a groundbreaking year for many of our members in the Southeast Asian-American poetry community,” Worra told NBC News. “We're seeing a generation of poets from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and elsewhere fully coming into their voices, drawing on their experiences as refugees in a time when we need those voices most as we confront the current conflicts around us. I'm delighted to see so many not only using their voices to discuss the past, but how it weighs in on the present and the future we might all build together.”

With the help of 388 Asian-American poets, scholars, publishers, and community builders, Worra researched and identified more than 30 books and chapbooks by Asian-American poets published in 2016, including debut collections and collections by more established writers, he said. Here is a sampling:

RELATED: Celebrating Asian-American Poets: Emerging Writers to Read

Ghosts Still Walking by Do Nguyen Mai, Platypus Press

Do Nguyen Mai is a Vietnamese-American poet and musician currently living in the Los Angeles area. Her debut collection, “Ghosts Still Walking,” draws from Vietnamese history as well as the Vietnam War to highlight struggles of love and survival, even as they involve fighting for tradition in the face of change.

“Her poetry is chilling, and forced me to set the collection down on multiple occasions because I was taken aback by all of the weighty material the poems tackled in such a poignant way,” wrote Noor Hindi in a review for Nervous Poodle Poetry. “Highly influenced by the long and sorrowful history of Vietnam, this collection will send shivers down your spine.”

Year Zero by Monica Sok, Poetry Society of America

Monica Sok is a Cambodian-American poet from Pennsylvania currently living in New York. A Kundiman fellow, NEA creative writing fellow, and the 2016-2018 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University, she is also a winner of a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship.

“Year Zero” is her debut poetry chapbook. It focuses on Cambodia and themes of inherited family trauma following the Cambodian genocide.

“The poet is able to offer quiet wisdom without sentimentality,” wrote Marilyn Chin, judge of the Poetry Society of America chapbook contest, in the introduction to “Year Zero.” “Ultimately this poet refuses to surrender to victimhood. The chapbook ends optimistically in the borough of Brooklyn, where the young speaker lives happily, sometimes seen in the neighborhood eating bagels with friends and writing new poems. She has found her way to ‘the healing fields.’”

A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora by Jenna Lê, Anchor Plume

Jenna Lê is a Vietnamese-American poet and physician who currently lives in New York City.

Her poems draw connections between how the ancient ancestors of modern whales left the land for the sea, just as immigrants leave one homeland for another, and how their descendants are forever shaped by those past choices.

“Le's furious and steeled voice leaves nothing unturned, propelling these poems through explorations on displacement, womanhood, the body and its endured violences, by confronting a history as tenuous and elusive as the ghosts it conjures,” wrote Ocean Vuong, author of “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” in a review. “She has created her own version of the Ark, one where the whale, forgotten in the original, is now carried as ‘a child of immigrants, like me.’ In these tender, earnest yet fierce poems, Le does not reinvent myth, but expands it to include our most damned outsiders.”

A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry by Kyle "Guante" Tran Myhre, Button Poetry

Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre is a two-time National Poetry Slam champion, activist, and educator currently living in Minneapolis who continues to perform spoken word and speak nationally on identity and activism issues.

This collection brings together a variety of genres — spoken word poems, song lyrics, and essays — which touch on themes of power, privilege, allyship, identity, and social justice activism.

“’A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry’ is more than just a book; it is an experience,” wrote Hieu Minh Nguyen, author of “This Way to the Sugar.” “To say every poem was welcoming would be a lie. To say it gave me hope would be another lie. It gave me fight. It gave me a set of nails, a hammer painted pink, and a dare to build something I always thought was impossible. Go! Get your hands dirty.”

MICROCHIPS FOR MILLIONS by Janice Lobo Sapigao, Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA), Inc.

Janice Lobo Sapigao is the associate editor of TAYO Literary Magazine and a co-founder of Sunday Jump, an open mic in Los Angeles’ Filipinotown.

Her debut book of poetry is described as both documentary and protest of the exploitation of immigrant women in California’s Silicon Valley — including her mother — who make the microchips through which the entire computer industry flows. It examines the shining image of Silicon Valley as a place of innovation and technology while also revealing the struggles faced by the valley’s most vulnerable workers.

“Janice Sapigao, in this powerful and innovative debut, captures her mother’s traumatic experience as an assembly line worker in Silicon Valley, as well as the larger social, economic, and environmental impacts of the high tech industry,” wrote poet and University of Hawaii poetry professor Craig Santos Perez in a review. “The poems switch between English, Ilokano, and binary code, and between documentary, visual, ethnographic, and lyric modes. In our time of toxic exposure, labor exploitation, and gentrification, Sapigao shows us how poetry can be a site to protest injustice, affirm dignity, and maintain hope.”

In addition to new books and chapbooks, Worra also noted the many other achievements by Southeast Asian-American poets this past year, including awards and fellowships.

“Krysada Panusith Phounsiri won the Rhysling Award for his poem ‘It Begins With a Haunting,’ addressing the lingering specter of UXO [unexploded ordinance] in Laos after 40 years since the end of the war," Worra said. "His work has helped to put the Lue experience in Laos and in the US on the literary map of global arts and letters.”

RELATED: Emerging Writers to Read and Watch in the Pacific Islander Poetry Community

“Hmong American poet Khaty Xiong's ‘Poor Anima’ has also made a strong showing,” Worra continued. “Fresno-based Mai Der Vang received the prestigious Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. Considering the Hmong didn't have a written language until the 1950s and creative writing in their community began only towards the late 80s and early 90s, it makes the achievement particularly remarkable.”

Other poets he noted included Sokunthary Svay, Peuo Tuy, and Bao Phi, as well as new literary journal “Rambutan.”

“There's a lot to keep an eye on,” said Worra.

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