Mark Making and Public Poetry:

From the recent Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington
February 9, 2018

            In 2015, I became the poet laureate of Redmond, WA, even though I was from North Seattle. An outsider from the outset, I was to learn that Redmond's early industries were logging and fishing, but today, Redmond is known as a high-tech hub and home to aerospace companies, Microsoft and Nintendo. Workers come largely from Southeast and East Asia and nearly half of the city’s residents speak another language besides English at home. The city adopted its poet laureate ordinance in 2008. I was the city’s fourth laureate and the first person of color to receive the appointment.  

            I didn’t anticipate how shared the act of creation would be, as I’d be intermingling with the work of municipal employees and local citizens. Everyone I talked to had a different idea of the poet laureate’s role — local residents expressed that I should work with Native Americans, homeless youth and engage immigrant populations. The library wanted me to work with teens, though my experience aligned better with adults and children. The poet who served in the role before me scrutinized my progress, asking the city for ongoing updates on my work plan. And a community blogger expressed skepticism about using taxpayer dollars to fund the appointment, questioning my ability to contribute to the community as an outsider.

            Often by the visual arts, I agreed to write about an artist in the art exhibition "Ekphrastic Assimilations." The show brought together poets like Yang Xiaobin, Yan Li and Lo Ch’ing from China who work across genres in photography, painting and sculpture. Curators paired the Chinese artists with local writers and artists who created new work responding to pieces in the show. Though I saw my participation as part of the civic role of being a laureate, I felt uneasy as the only person of color included in the group of respondents and the only artist of Asian heritage.

            These same Chinese poets would not remember me even though years earlier I’d spent several days with them at a poetry gathering sponsored by a small women’s college in Boston. The conference organizers brought together poets from China and Taiwan, translators and poets who’d immigrated to the United States, along with a handful of Chinese American poets — Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai and myself. Though the proceedings were supposed to be translated, the writers quickly defaulted to speaking Mandarin — a language that I neither speak nor understand. The interpreters abandoned their posts and the headsets that had been distributed to those needing translation became useless. In the awkwardness of the setting, I stayed silent — reminded of endless family gatherings and the many business meetings that I accompanied my father to as a young person.

            When the poet Li-Young Lee took the stage to read, he first asked the question, “What is a Chinese poet?” Lee wanted to know what merited his belonging in a gathering of Chinese poets at all. Several audience members gasped at his breaking of the social code. Others looked bored. Lee articulated concerns that I have shared about my own Asianness and where I have and haven’t fit in terms of a literary diaspora or community. At the post-conference dinner for the authors, Lee would be the only person at our table to notice that I didn’t understand the conversations taking place. His chopsticks danced in the air as he offered me the head of a steamed fish. While he saw some things clearly enough, he also offered to introduce me to his college-aged sons, mistaking me for a young graduate student who might make an affable companion. The Chinese American poets didn’t easily fit into the mix. When Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai performed a 13-minute spoken word piece on cultural identity, a poet next to me muttered, “So many words.”

            My father had once convinced me of our ancestral connection to T’ang Dynasty poet Pai Chü-i, author of “A Song of Never-ending Sorrow.” Pai was not only revered for his verse as a poet but also respected as an official of the imperial government. In sharing this tale, my father successfully planted the seed of poetic lineage in my imagination. It also set me up to feel like an impostor — particularly, when it was revealed to me that we are not in fact distant relations of Pai Chü-i. “Just a story,” he confessed.

            A year into my poetic residency with the City of Redmond, I felt like a failure. For an annual civic event produced by the city, I invited residents to contribute lines and ideas that I collaged together into a poem, in an effort to reflect their interests. Reading a poem onstage to a crowd of hundreds, I could sense the piece falling flat. Sitting in arts commission meetings, I took down line edits from community members who flagged individual words in my texts that they perceived as overly poetic. I used the word “pennyfarthing”— an old-fashioned bicycle that also happens to be the symbol of the city — in a public art project. Despite Redmond’s avid cycling history and status as the “Bicycle Capital of the Northwest,” the word was considered too lofty.

             I organized a multi-disciplinary evening of poetry and song featuring Persian ghazals and Mirabai songs – four brown people diversified a mostly white audience. I wanted to write off the event as another miss until I observed the audience. The young Southeast Asian audience members in sneakers and gym clothes mouthed the words to Mirabai’s poems. Chatting afterwards with audience members, I realized the performance marked a couple’s first visit to the art gallery where we produced the event — they had come out specifically to hear the sung poetry of their homelands. The work had mattered.

            I decided to reclaim my poetic residency. Instead of overly focusing on the public benefit of my activities, I decided to take greater risks in a way that could stay true to my commitments as an artist. When a hate crime that targeted a black business owner dominated the local news, I reached deep into my experience to respond. While “Same Cloth” expressed my position towards a historical symbol of hate, when I wrote the poem, I drew upon the unresolved feelings around an ongoing argument I had with a neighbor in San Marcos, TX. He hung a Confederate flag on his balcony days after I moved in next door. The city held my poem back from the public — it included details of the crime that was still actively under investigation. But a year later, after the investigation concluded, I had the poem hand-stitched in red thread as an embroidered broadside to evoke the memory of the fabric robe that had been abandoned — to make the mark of language in a material other than paper and ink.

            I made work that was wordless, arguing for the poetic gesture versus literal poetry. I harvested leaves from sites around the city and made chlorophyll prints with the plant matter using images I curated out of the local historical archives. When asked to write poems to go with my sun prints, I resisted. The stories of the images were embedded in the connection to land and place. I wrote a poem that became a projection — a piece that held the complexity of the city’s history of clear-cutting its forest presented alongside its present-day efforts to extend its tree canopy to become better environmental stewards, leaving out nothing in its telling.

            The role of public poet required me to rethink my relationship to writing. Composing poetry had often been a solitary task with the polished product to be shared versus the messiness of a language preparing to emerge and reveal itself to the world. While I am deeply intentional about process, I have focused less on audience and the relevance of my work to readers. I did not think like the city, in terms of numerical outcomes and the count of community members impacted. Though I’d spent many years collaborating with artists from disciplines different than my own, I had neither worked on the scale of collaboration with a community, nor within a context of having my work supervised. I thought of the poets of ancient China. Though I wasn’t descended from one, as I was once led to believe, they provided their own inspiration. Employed by the imperial court, poets dashed off work to celebrate cultural festivals, civic holidays and special occasions, serving in creative and sometimes critical roles. These court-appointed poets didn’t simply compose propaganda; they also spoke their truth.