Asian American poetry keeps evolving

By Irfan Shariff
Northwest Asian Weekly

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From left: Kim An Lieberman, Arlene Kim, Brian Komei Dempster, Alan Chong Lau, and Sharon Hashimoto

By the late 1890s, Asian Americans were already leaving their mark on the American literary canon. The writer Sadakichi Hartmann, a Japanese-born American of German and Japanese descent, was a contemporary of Walt Whitman and a regular in New York City’s Bohemian scene. He produced poetry, plays, and criticism, and is sometimes credited with creating one of the first English-language haikus. In the 1940s, Carlos Bulosan wrote poetry and a memoir about activism and the plight of migrant workers. He was born in the Philippines, worked as a farmer, and eventually settled in Seattle. He died in 1956. There is a permanent exhibit dedicated to him at the Eastern Hotel in the International District.

Poets such as Seattle-born Brian Komei Dempster are literary descendants of these pioneers.

Alongside Alan Chong Lau, Sharon Hashimoto, and Arlene Kim, Dempster will present his poetry at the University Bookstore on June 3. The event, “Asian Pacific American Poetry Across the Generations,” will also pay tribute to Kim-An Lieberman, who died in December.

Dempster organized the reading to showcase two distinct generations of Asian American poetry. Lau and Hashimoto comprise an earlier generation, whose writing has influenced and informed Kim, Lieberman, and Dempster.

“They were a generation of Asian American poets breaking into the mainstream,” said Dempster. Lau taught him poetry at the University of Washington and has been the arts editor for the International Examiner for over 30 years.

Both Lau and Hashimoto’s works are featured in Garrett Hongo’s 1993 anthology, “The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America.”

“It was groundbreaking for the time,” said Dempster, who considers Hongo a mentor and pioneer.

A decade later, Dempster’s own work was featured in Victoria Chang’s “Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation.” In her introduction, Chang compares writers such as Dempster to those in Hongo’s compilation. She noticed new voices, with different backgrounds and different stories to share.

Between the two generations, Chang saw a decrease in Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian American poets and an increase in Korean and Vietnamese American poets, as well as those of mixed race. Thematically, the younger poets also broaden the scope and tend to write more about issues of power dynamics in addition to race.

Dempster teaches at the University of San Francisco, where he is a witness to an emerging, subsequent generation.

“I’m excited by the work I’ve seen them doing,” he said. The work they are producing has influences ranging from pop culture to hip hop. Like Chang, he notices writers of multiple ethnic backgrounds growing. “The new generation is broadening the definition of Asian,” said Dempster. “They are still evolving.”

Hashimoto, a third-generation Japanese American (Sansei), has taught writing for 24 years at Highline Community College, where she’s also seen an evolution.

“It’s wonderful to see the growth and diversity of younger writers and how they are treating old subjects with new insights,” she said.

Hashimoto’s work often touches on the notion of family and history. “Memories of my parents and grandparents grow stronger as I grow older,” she said. Executive Order 9066 and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is a recurring theme in Hashimoto’s work.

Dempster’s poetry and scholarship are also informed by family history. He is half Japanese American and half European American. Dempster also sees his generation of poets branching out more often.

“The prior generation is a little closer to those events by virtue of what generation they are,” he said. “We are inheriting the history.”

While Dempster’s work does draw on personal histories, he focuses on other things that intertwine with race. Issues of gender and power play a strong role in his writing. His debut poetry collection, “Topaz,” published by Four Way Books, was released last year. It draws on the histories of the internment camps and its effects on future generations of Japanese Americans.

Kim’s parents migrated from Korea in the 1960s. She considers herself as much American as she is Korean. Her 2011 debut poetry collection from Milkweed Editions, “What have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes?” picks from Korean folk tales as much as Western folk tales, she said.

“I think that being one of these hyphenated identities, an ‘Ethnic’-American, sometimes has me focusing on the non-American part,” she said. “But to ignore all of the Western influences in my life would create some kind of black hole in my writing.”

Lieberman’s writing drew from her mixed Vietnamese and Jewish heritage before her tragic death from cancer at age 39. “She was a really talented poet,” said Dempster. Her second book of poetry, “In Orbit,” was published posthumously by Blue Begonia Press.

Dempster considers two things to be important in his success as a writer and as advice to younger writers: persistence and mentorship. “Find people who will be long-term mentors,” he said. “Develop mentorship, community, and friends.” (end)

“Asian Pacific American Poetry Across the Generations” will feature readings by Brian Komei Dempster, Sharon Hashimoto, Arlene Kim, and Alan Lau, and a tribute to Kim-An Lieberman, at the University Bookstore (4326 University Way N.E.) on June 3, at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free.

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