That's the question she and her colleagues asked themselves in the early 1970's as they came to form the Basement Workshop, an Asian American arts and cultural organization. This was in the Lower East Side, not far away from the legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and what would become the equally legendary Bowery Poetry Club. On our coast, the founding of Kearny Street Workshop, and the first Xicano/Latino Flor Y Canto were a part of that same momentum. I always romanticize this period of history, marveling at the momentum of young artists and activists of color who had a great idea, and then just made it happen.
Chiang's poems and journal entries which recall the founding of the Basement Workshop do well to dispel that romantic air. In one journal entry, Chiang is in her early 20's, fraught with anxiety as she signs the lease to the old space which becomes the Basement Workshop. With Nuyorican artist Bimbo Rivas and his crew, they fix up this space to make it their own. Something out of nothing.
Chiang's work is a manifesto. She writes that it is necessary to carve out spaces for community arts, even when it is unprofitable. Our artists must feel empowered, in their art, and in taking control of these spaces. Our artists should utilize these spaces to bring art to the larger community. Our artists must empower emerging artists to do the same. This is a great reminder for our generation of community artists and activists.
It's appropriate that Bowery Books has published Chiang's latest book, blending the new and old. Here is an excerpt from their press release:
7 Continents 9 Lives, the powerful new collection by Fay Chiang from Bowery Books, her first in over twenty years, includes selections from her two previous books of poetry, In The City of Contradictions (Sunbury Press 1979) and Miwa‚Äôs Song (Sunbury 1982), with new work.
They follow Chiang‚Äòs journey, as an artist, writer, and activist, from her family‚Äôs sparely-furnished room behind the laundry in Queens, to the turbulence of college in the 70‚Äôs, to art and activism on the Lower East Side, to world travels. In the section of new work, Midnight Blue Sky, she expands on these themes, while also exploring her experiences as an activist working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) youth and people living and/or affected by HIV/AIDS in New York City, and as a parent.
Chiang has the instincts and attention to nuance of a traveler -- whether discussing the Lower East Side, the daily routines of an elderly widow in Italy or family in Peru, or the final days of an AIDS patient whom she accompanied to hospice, the streets of her memories, or those of her forebears, Chiang is alive to the particulars. She is unflinching in her assessments, but with a compassion which admits of the possibility of change.
February 27 is her book release party at the Bowery Poetry Club. You can watch it live on the web.