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Counter Poems

In an op-ed about Harvard grad Jeremy Lin’s success with the New York Knicks, Timothy Yu observed that stereotypes of Asians have been a prominent staple of American popular culture since the 19th Century, from newspaper cartoons ridiculing Chinese immigrants, to portraying film characters like the evil Dr. Fu Manchu. “American culture tells us, in short, that Lin shouldn’t exist,” Yu wrote for [CNN.com]. “Every time he drives to the basket, he upends stereotypes of Asians as short, weak and nerdy. Every time he talks to the media, he dispels the idea that all Asian-Americans are like foreigners speaking broken English.”

In Yu’s newest collection of poetry, he addresses similar questions of race and language, in an experimental move toward social and artistic formation. In his first poem, “Chinese Silence No. 1,” Yu writes,

What do you think of this poem

I asked the tomb of my unknown grandfather

With its livid quiet marble.

A Chinese silence fell.

It dropped from a glowering tree

To perch on my shoulder.

We looked at each other.

It would have been hard for a stranger

To tell one of us from the other…

The poems selected for 15 Chinese Silences are part of an ongoing project called 100 Chinese Silences, which began as a response to Billy Collins’s poem, “Grave.” Yu’s sharp counter-poems offer us a glimpse into what is unheard and unseen in contemporary Chinese culture, in a particularly witty observation riffing off of perceived ethnic stillness:

The man’s credit card has been declined.

He pats his pockets for change.

He find nothing but an unread copy

Of A Coney Island of the Mind.

I pass over in silence

The way the bacon smells like bacon

And heart disease here at Ed’s

And how cold are the stares of the patrons…

In 2011, and so far in 2012, Tinfish Press published one full-length book and 12 chapbooks, known as the Tinfish Retro Series. As editor of Tinfish Press, which publishes experimental poetry from the Pacific, Susan Schultz says she tries to put different Pacific poets and poetries in conversation with each other.

“After 15 years of editing, I no longer think of myself as someone who simply publishes books,” she says. “Instead, I offer up fields of books, islands of them.””

If you’re curious about the Retro Series, visit [tinfish.com]. They are visually stunning, poetically rooted, and just three bucks.

15 Chinese Silences: Tinfish Retro Series No. 12

Timothy Yu

Tinfish Press, 2012

30 pages $3