#LGBTMonth: When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities

For LGBT Month, we are focussing on the works of lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex, transgender, and queer poets:


When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities

- Chen Chen


To be a good
ex/current friend for R. To be one last

inspired way to get back at R. To be relationship
advice for L. To be advice

for my mother. To be a more comfortable
hospital bed for my mother. To be

no more hospital beds. To be, in my spare time,
America for my uncle, who wants to be China

for me. To be a country of trafficless roads
& a sports car for my aunt, who likes to go

fast. To be a cyclone
of laughter when my parents say

their new coworker is like that, they can tell
because he wears pink socks, see, you don’t, so you can’t,

can’t be one of them. To be the one
my parents raised me to be—

a season from the planet
of planet-sized storms.

To be a backpack of PB&J & every
thing I know, for my brothers, who are becoming

their own storms. To be, for me, nobody,
homebody, body in bed watching TV. To go 2D

& be a painting, an amateur’s hilltop & stars,
simple decoration for the new apartment

with you. To be close, J.,
to everything that is close to you—

blue blanket, red cup, green shoes
with pink laces.

To be the blue & the red.
The green, the hot pink.

Illustration by Peter Urkowitz!

Illustration by Peter Urkowitz!


About Chen Chen

Born in Xiamen, China, Chen Chen grew up in Massachusetts. A PhD student at Texas University, Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016), and Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015).

When I Grow Up won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and was long-listed for the National Book Award. He is a Kundiman Fellow. He is the winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize (2014), New Delta Review's Matt Clark Award in Poetry (2014), the Joyce Carol Oates Award (2011), and a finalist of Narrative's 30 Below Contest (2014).


Further Reading


Academy of American Poets

Recognized for her passion, knowledge, and support of her clients’ individual journeys toward their best selves, Frances Mulinix brings over 20 years of experience in coaching, voice, movement, writing, and performance to support her clients in breaking down blocks and reaching achievements they had previously not thought possible. Transform your relationship to your mind, body, and voice, bringing new confidence and creativity to your life.

#WritingWednesday - Read to Become a Better Writer



Reading great fiction makes us richer and better able to navigate our own experience and our way in the world.

As Hannah Frankman explains, fiction offers us something we cannot experience in self-help, history, psychology books. Fiction enriches our lives. It allows us to encounter other people, comprehends patterns of evolution, causes us to see a larger picture, encounter the world in a different light, brings us to a deeper understanding - of ourselves, others, and the world around us.





The Walrus, a Canadian magazine dedicated to rich thinking and rich dialogue has a collection of wonderful stories that they have opened up online to readers in order to stimulate creativity and encourage readers to become writers. Here are some of their favourites: 



Sources and Further Reading

The Importance of Reading Fiction

The Walrus





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Writing Wednesday: Amy Lowell


Amy Lowell was born on February 9,  1874, at her family's a ten-acre family estate of Sevenels in Brookline, Massachusetts. The youngest of five children, Her family was considered in the upper echelons of Boston society. Initially tutored at home, Amy went on to attend Boston private schools and traveled to Europe with her family. At the age of seventeen, she couped herself in Sevenels' immense library and studied literature. 

With her mother and sister, she wrote Dream Drops or Stories From Fairy Land by a Dreamer in 1887 printed privately. Her poem “Fixed Idea” was published in 1910 by the Atlantic Monthly and several other poems were published in journals. In October of 1912 Houghton Mifflin published her first collection, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass.

Lowell was outspoken and controversial, building a career as a poet, publicity agent, collector, critic, and lecturer, joining the imagist movement and working to promote its principles. 



A reaction in part to romantisicm and Victorian poetry, Imagism was a movement in America and England that utilised specificity of language to evoke clear images for the reader.  Haiku and tanka poetry were often influential for imagist poets as they too sought to freeze a moment in time. Adjectives are employed conservatively, selected to enhance the emotions and images evoked in the poem.

Ezra Pound is credited with being the founder of the movement however, its ideals were first developed by T.E. Hulme by 1908. Hulme spoke of the words of a poem being more than merely decorative but comprising the poem's essence.   

Writing in the March 1913 issue of Poetry, F. S. Flint, quoting Pound, defined imagist poetry as:

  • Direct treatment of the “thing," whether subjective or objective.
  • To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  • As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome. -  published “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste.”

By Spring of 1914 disputes arose within the movement and Pound distanced himself. Amy Lowell became the leader of the movement between 1915 and 1917 publishing three anthologies of poetry all under the name of Some Imagist Poets. Eventually, Amy Lowell also distanced herself from the Imagists and the poetry movement became part of the larger modernist movement. Lowell died on May 12, 1925, at Sevenels.



A Fixed Idea

- Amy Lowell

What torture lurks within a single thought
When grown too constant; and however kind,
However welcome still, the weary mind
Aches with its presence. Dull remembrance taught
Remembers on unceasingly; unsought
The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined,
Become a habit, and we struggle, caught.
You lie upon my heart as on a nest,
Folded in peace, for you can never know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.
In mercy lift your drooping wings and go.






A sonnet is a 14 line poem with a variable rhyme scheme and traditionally in iambic pentameter. Here, Lowell uses the Petrarchan rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CDCDCD. With such confinements, a sonnet is likened to a box and the aim is to transcend such confinements. The Petrarchan sonnet has a feeling of balance to it, being almost equally weighted into halves through its rhyme scheme.  You will notice that Lowell isn't bound to the iambic pentameter rhythm. More contemporary poets have experimented with ways to push and bend the sonnet form to varying degrees. How might this form of meter convey the meaning of the poem?


Your Turn...

What occurs when a classic form is used to explore less typical subject matter?

Choose aspects of the sonnet form that you will use. Pick a specific emotion or moment in time and write your own sonnet using precision in your language. How can you make the rhythm of your poem like a musical phrase?

for other examples and more contemporary takes on the sonnet, see “Voiced Stops” by Forrest Gander and “Incandescent War Poem Sonnet” by Bernadette Mayers.



References and Further Reading

Poets.org: Amy Lowell

Poets.org: A Brief Guide to Imagism

Poetry Foundation: Learning the Sonnet



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#WritingWednesday What Can We Learn from Standup?

The other day I began watching Pete Holmes' comedy special Faces and Sounds on HBO. Sometimes I will play something in the background as sound to mask other, the more distracting central air, refrigerator, and old house noises. Pete Holmes quickly had my full attention. His incredible facial reactions and self-deprecating humour won me over. Something that is unique about his special in this era of Chappelle, Silverman, Minaj, Maron, Hart, Schumer ... and that is how clean his comedy was. I love shock controversy, I love comedy, but sometimes it's refreshing to find laughter in something that doesn't require me to throw my relatives out of the room beforehand. 

Something He Said Stayed With Me:

"I'm a silly, silly fun boy, right?"

Well, that was so adorable I perked up and stopped working in order to listen.

"And one of the reasons is I've recalibrated my brain to reward me for the things I am doing, not the things I could be doing. And that's what I think you should do, that's one of the keys to happiness, love yourself for the things you are doing, not the things you could be doing [....] I don't mess with my joy quota [....] you gotta keep an eye on your joy quota"

This got me thinking about my own "joy quota." When do I intentionally gift myself moments of pleasure with intention and fully experiencing them in order to make a deposit into my joy account and truly allowing myself to laugh or feel joyful.



I sat down and tried to come up with a few:

  • Getting silly with my husband and giggling until my face hurts
  • My father-in-law's deceptively outrageous sense of humour
  • Shuffling my bare feet through carpet
  • Listening to this guy's ridiculous laugh (at 1:08:48)
  • Sitting in a hot tub, or better yet, attending a traditional Korean bath/spa
  • Creating art with my hands
  • Stretching in bed following a rare, long, deep sleep
  • Reading for pleasure
  • Listening to the 2 Dope Queens podcast
  • Standup comedy by Aparna Nancherla and Issa Rae
  • Thomas Haden Church in Divorce
  • Stephen Merchant in Hello Ladies
  • Pete Holmes in Crashing
  • Eugene Levy, his son Dan Levy, and Catherine O'Hara in Schitt's Creek

I love looking at these photos because I don't often get to see myself in the midst of experiencing joy. Not a posed selfie representation, but being captured in the midst of a spontaneous reaction. It reminds me that the right people bring out the best in me.


Standup comedy has a lot to teach writers of all persuasions. Most comedians are writers first and foremost, sweating over the wording of each joke in preparation for bringing those jokes to the stage and utilising body language, pace, pauses, pitch, inflection, emphasis, and a range of public speaking skills to connect with the audience and create a performance.

Comedians train themselves to be observers and writers - both requiring attention to detail. They typically look to their own experiences and interactions as raw material. They listen closely to how people speak in real life and record dialogue to use later. They understand that simply changing the order that information is given or the order of words will change something from an anecdote to an act.

Comedians must also understand human behaviour. In observing the world around them, in crafting their jokes, and in connecting with their audiences their comedy is only as good as their ability to "get it". Is anything as immediate as the feedback one gets from a set in front of an audience? While I have never done a standup as a comedian, in the course of MCing I have written and performed sets designed to elicit laughter. It can really be hit or miss at times, a joke that I have been gloating over is met with silence in the room. Something I throw out there off the top of my head requires me to pause and wait for the laughter to die down. Even in the course of conversation, notice what seems to just "work."

Comedy is about understanding the mechanics of what makes something funny in that language, which also incorporates an understanding of cultural and contextual nuance. Moroccan-French Comedian Gad Elmaleh is a celebrity in Europe who played to sold-out arena shows. Growing up in Morroco, Elmaleh speaks Arabic, French, and Hebrew. He decided to create a career in America, in English, which meant starting over.

Elmaleh made a film "10 Minutes in America," documenting his experience. The film explores how comedy doesn't translate, it is much more than simply transferring each word into the new language, jokes must be crafted from the ground up.

Comedians Must Have Deep Knowledge of: 

  • Language - including puns, turns of phrase, and the mechanics of what makes something funny
  • Body language and facial expressions
  • Verbal gesticulations - a well-placed sound can put an audience in stitches
  • Cultural sensibilities - including cliches and stereotypes
  • Specific audience - the community, the venue, the night

Writing Practice


A. Exercise 1:

This week, listen and/or watch some comedians and play close attention to their set-ups and wording. Better yet, compare a comedian telling the same joke during a different performance. Notice how the order of words are changed in order to become more effective jokes or how segues evolve to better introduce the new subject matter.

B. Exercise 2:

  1. Pick a short personal story that you like or have told to friends and family.
  2. Write it out, aiming for around 250 words.
  3. Now use 100 words to tell the story.
  4. Then tell it in 50 words.
  5. Now 25 words. 
  6. Write it using 140 characters.

Achieving a full stand-up routine is so difficult because a successful set is so condensed. Amateur comedians (and writers) often have extraneous detail that derails the joke, lowers the energy, or occludes the narrative. Learning to generate material and then filter and compress it is a powerful skill. Learning to be concise and to choose each word for its ability to convey meaning will transform your writing. 

C. Exercise 3:

Pick a story out of the newspaper and cast yourself in the story. For example, a government turns into a metaphor for a dysfunctional family, a silly local incident becomes something your cousin did, an episode involving a celebrity mirrors something you have done. Do not try to be funny, just go for 10.


Further Resources

Gold Comedy


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#WritingWednesday Cowboy Poetry and the National Gathering

Photograph: K. Usayed

Photograph: K. Usayed

Cowboy poetry emerged from the tradition whereby workers on ranches and cattle drives would gather together at the end of a day, sit around a fire and decompress by extemporaneously composing and sharing songs, stories, and poems.

It is important to recognise that this is a contemporary, evolving poetic form as cowboy culture is still alive and well. It is not a historical form such as Victorian, Renaissance, or Romantic poetry.

Romantic in style, cowboy poetry retains its realism. Thematically, cowboy poetry may describe funny events, the work of cowboys, tales of people and events from the past, expressions of cowboy values, criticisms of new technologies and culture and Western landscapes, livestock, and lifestyles,.

Photographer: Maria Itina

Photographer: Maria Itina

Structure: Traditionally a cowboy poem is: 

  • Written by cowboys, ranchers or those familiar with the lifestyle  
  • Rhymed, metered verse often in couplets  (free verse is uncommon)
  • Written to be recited aloud

Keep in mind, these aren't hard rules, poetry isn't formulaic and cowboy poetry is evolving. Once you understand the form, you will appreciate exceptions to it. 


Photographer: Lena Ivashinka

Photographer: Lena Ivashinka

No Rest for the Horse - Anonymous

There's a union for teamster and waiter,

     There's a union for cabman and cook,

There's a union for hobo and preacher,

     And one for detective and crook.

There's a union for blacksmith and painter,

     There is one for the printer, of course;

But where would you go in this realm of woe,

     To discover a guild for the horse?


He can't make a murmur in protest,

     Though they strain him both up and down hill,

Or force him to work twenty hours

     At the whim of some drunken brute's will.


Photographer: Brett L. Erickson

Photographer: Brett L. Erickson

Look back at our struggle for freedom—

     Trace our present day's strength to its source,

And you'll find that man's pathway to glory,

     Is strewn with the bones of the horse.


The mule is a fool under fire;

     The horse, although frightened, stands true,

And he'd charge into hell without flinching

     'Twixt the knees of the trooper he knew.


Photographer: Alessandro Passerini

Photographer: Alessandro Passerini

When the troopers grow old they are pensioned,

     Or a berth or a home for them found;

When a horse is worn out they condemn him,

     And sell him for nothing a pound.


Just think, the old pet of some trooper

     Once curried and rubbed twice a day,

Now drags some damned ragpicker's wagon, 

     With curses and blows for his pay.


I once knew a grand king of racers,

     The best of a cup-wining strain;

They ruined his knees on a hurdle,

     For his rider's hat covered no brain.


Photographer: Andrej Sevkovskij

Photographer: Andrej Sevkovskij

I met him again, four years later,

     On his side at the foot of a hill,

With two savages kicking his ribs,

     And doing their work with a will.


I stroked the once velvety muzzle,

     I murmured the old name again,

He once filled my purse with gold dollars;

     And this day I bought him for ten.


Photographer: Anneke Paterson

Photographer: Anneke Paterson

His present address is "Sweet Pastures,"

     He has nothing to do but eat,

Or loaf in the shade on the green, velvet grass,

     And dream of the horses he beat.


Now, a dog—well, a dog has a limit; 

     After standing for all that's his due,

He'll pack up his duds some dark evening, 

     And shine out for scenes which are new.


But a horse, once he's used to his leather,

Photographer: Samantha Whitelaw

Photographer: Samantha Whitelaw

     Is much like the old-fashioned wife;

He may not be proud of his bargain,

     But still he'll be faithful through life.


And I envy the merciful teamster

     Who can stand at the bar and say:

"Kind Lord, with the justice I dealt my horse,

     Judge Thou my soul today."

 from Songs of Horses, 1920


The Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering (Elko, Nevada) started 33 years ago as a place for cowboys and ranchers to gather and a love of poetry. It was later renamed by Congress as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. This annual event has become a destination for thousands of folks to gather and share in a love of the West and cowboy culture over six days of poetry, music, dancing, workshops, exhibits, discussions, food and friendship. The event blends tradition and history with contemporary rural culture.  

Photographer: Marklin Ang

Photographer: Marklin Ang

This year's event will take place January 29-February 3, 2018, with the theme "Basques & Buckaroos: Herding Cultures of Basin, Range and Beyond.”

Also, mark you calendars as the 17th annual Cowboy Poetry Week falls on April 15-21, 2018 (April is poetry month)!


Sources and Further Reading


National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Cowboy Poetry

Images from: National Geographic: Horse


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#WritingWednesday with Bruce Weigl

I love to discover a new writer who leaves me feeling as if I have just unwrapped a precious new gift. This is one of the reasons I enjoy reading anthologies of short stories or poetry. It's like speed dating or a tasting menu, you don't have to worry about the consequences of a long-term commitment, trying to find a convenient excuse to go home or staring longingly at your friend's meal.

Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what
— Bruce Weigl

Discovering a writer that I had not read before is unwrapping an unexpected and valuable gift. Bruce Weigl is a recent discovery of mine. I read one of his poems, and then another, and I knew I wanted to read all of his work. I see in his poetry an economy of words that belie the richness of images he creates. I like to form an idea of the writer through reading their work, then learn about them. It is essential to engage with the person, their background and aims in order to fully engage with their work.

I formed an image of a poet who contemplates, sees things clearly, and acts with deliberation. The word "Buddhist" sprang to mind. Imagine my sense of satisfaction when, in conducting a cursory research into Weigl, I discovered that he does have a Buddhist practice. According to him, his experience fighting for the American army in Vietnam as an 18-year-old both, "ruined my life and in return gave me my voice” The Circle of Hanh, 2000), and I certainly hear the "wounded warrior" throughout his work, a perspective with which I am familiar as some who has lived and worked with veterans. 

In admiration, here are a few of Bruce Weigl's exquisite poems. Look at how Weigl uses language, builds imagery, employs repetition, and evolves his theme over the poem. Pick an element of his writing that you will incorperate into your own this week.


Home - Bruce Weigl



I didn’t know I was grateful
            for such late-autumn
                        bent-up cornfields

yellow in the after-harvest
             sun before the
                        cold plow turns it all over

into never.
            I didn’t know
                        I would enter this music

that translates the world
             back into dirt fields
                         that have always called to me



as if I were a thing
              come from the dirt,
                          like a tuber,

or like a needful boy. End
             lonely days, I believe. End the exiled
                           and unraveling strangeness.







Dead Man, Thinking - Bruce Weigl


Snow geese in the light of morning sky, 
exactly at the start of spring. I was
looking through the cracks of the blinds at my future which seemed
absent of parades, for which I was grateful, 
and only yesterday

I watched what an April wind could do
to a body wrapped in silk, 
though I turned my eyes away, 
the way the teacher says, 
once the beauty was revealed.



How long it takes to die, in the fifty-fifth year
is what I thought about today. 
I told some truths so large, no one could bear to hear them. 
I bow down to those who could not hear the truth. 
They could not hear the truth because they were afraid
that it would open a veil into nothing. 
I bow down to that nothing. I bow down to a single red planet
I saw in the other world’s sky, 
as if towards some
fleshy inevitability.

I bow down to the red planet. I bow down
to the noisy birds, indigenous to this region. 
Only sorrow can bend you in half
like you’ve seen on those whose loves have gone away. 
I bow down to those loves.



Your Turn

A valuable way to develop as a writer is to be a voracious reader and devourer of creative work. Take the week to "supplement" your creative diet by intentionally seeking out and soaking up art over the next few days. Read aloud a poem or selection by a writer you admire before sitting for 5 minutes and commencing your writing practice.


Further Reading

Poetry Foundation: Bruce Weigl

Academy of American Poets: Bruce Weigl


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#WritingWednesday - Writing Discipline with Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is going to help me with this one because he is going to effectively be my guest blogger last Saturday.

We are going to talk about the core element of writing - WRITING! Before we can worry about style, plot, subject, narrative, character, your unique voice, editing, or sharing, you must begin putting pen to paper. Or fingers to keyboard. Or crayon to napkin. Consciously and with discipline.

I like the metaphor of textile manufacturing. Whether you aspire to create a breath-taking ballgown, sharply tailored suit, stylish jeans, winsome blazer, provocative lingerie, or practical anorak, you cannot begin without fabric. For example, once cotton is harvested, it goes through the ginning process where dirt, leaves, and stems are removed. Compressed and transported, the bales are opened ("fluffed"), scutched (seeds removed), carded, combed, drawn, spun, and plied before being dyed or printed then cut and sewn into clothing. At several stages, impurities are removed from the fibres and a higher quality fabric results from further processing.  However, before we can envision a resulting garment, we need to practice harvesting raw fibre and working it into fabric. 


In service of this, we are going to practice 3 strategies this week. Before we worry too much about building muscles, we are going to get into the routine of exercise. 

1. Write. Each Day. Every Day.

The mental gymnastics we can put ourselves through in order to avoid writing can be incredible. As Neil Gaiman says, we like to imagine that little elves will do the work for us, finishing or beginning.

We need to take the drama out of the act of writing. Set a timer for five minutes each day this week and write without pause. If you don't know what to write about, pick something from your day (or the one before) and start there. Or write about what it's like to write in that moment. If your mind wanders into another association, follow it there. If your mind gets stuck on an image or word, stay with it, repeat it, add another element to it. There is no way to "mess this up" as long as your pen (or finger, or crayon) is moving.


2. Write. Then Do Everything Else.

We are going to practice discipline. Start the day with your new five-minute habit, or start the major portion of your day (if coffee must come first). After this week, you may choose to put longer writing sessions at a different time of day, but finding a few minutes to start your day this week should not be a major disruption. 

It helps to have a ritual around writing - a favourite pen, a fancy notebook, a lit candle, a cup of tea. Pick ONE thing this week that you will use as your ritual element on which to anchor this habit. Otherwise, an involved ritual will become yet another escape and delay tactic. Then, know what you are going to do when you are done writing. Have something that you desire to get done slated for after your writing practice (a delicious breakfast perhaps, or a big X on your calendar to celebrate that you wrote today)!


3. Write Something After Doing Nothing

Commencing day three and for the remainder of the week, add a three-minute conscious daydream beforehand. Set the timer for three minutes to simply. This is not meditation but active daydreaming. It takes practice: 

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Feel your body in the chair.
  • Think about your day. Think about the weather. Think about that annoying neighbour.
  • Let your mind wander undirected for three minutes.
  • Then set the timer for five minutes and write.

We will check in next week! 

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#WritingWednesday - Fall Celebrations, Writing About Complex Topics with Specificity

This time of year is an interesting one for me. As this is the first November that I have spent in Georgia, I am seeing how similar things are - but different. Canada is where I am from and Thanksgiving already happened on October 8, and now Americans are gearing up for Thanksgiving on November 23.


Canada's history of Thanksgiving dates back to 1578 when an expedition led by Martin Frobisher in search of the Northwest Passage was beset by storms and disasters, scattering the ships. When the surviving ones collected again at Frobisher Bay in what is now Nunavut, they held a thanksgiving ceremony. In 1604 Samuel de Champlain arrived with his men and they also gave a feast of thanks. When New France was handed over to the English in 1763, the people of Halifax held a Thanksgiving. After the American Revolution, those in the 13 Colonies who were loyal to England moved to Canada and brought with them their Thanksgiving traditions of turkey, pumpkin, and squash. At the time, Canada was comprised of Upper and Lower Canada and both celebrated Thanksgiving on different days. After Confederation, a day of Thanksgiving was held in April 1872 to commemorate the recovery of the Prince of Wales. After the end of World War I, it was decreed that Armistice Day and Thanksgiving would both fall on the Monday in the week in which November 11 occurred. In 1957, Parliament set the date for Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, giving us the holidays that we use today.  


Whilst the above is accepted as historically accurate, it is not a complete depiction. Context matters and Thanksgiving bears a complex and problematic legacy. These explorers, settlers, trappers, invaders came into a land that was already inhabited by many nations, each with their own languages and traditions. While Thanksgiving seems affirming to some, it serves as a reminder of invasion and colonisation to others. The images of the Europeans and Indigenous Peoples sitting together to share a meal is a comforting fiction that ignores a reality of genocide, of outlawing the traditional practices of the land's inhabitants, and the systematic violation of familial and clan ties.

When we turn our thoughts to November 11, again, it's important to recognise that the version of history that we are often taught is limited in its scope, to the point of being almost dishonest. There is a proud history of Indigenous people of North America serving in the Armed Forces in America and Canada. In fact, American Indians are the "ethnic group" to have served in greater numbers since the revolution

In Canada and Australia, we celebrate November 11th, except we now call it Remembrance Day whilst Americans call it Veterans Day. At 11 am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month 1918, WWI was officially declared over.

In countries such as Canada and Australia (where I lived for almost six years), the poppy is used as a symbol of remembrance. This tradition began in 1921 due to the efforts of the American Moina Michael when she was inspired by the poem In Flander's Fields, written by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.  


For this #WritingWednesday, we're going to focus on the American poet Yusef Komunyakaa, a poet who takes on the complex realities, who isn't afraid to complicate socio-cultural mythologies widely accepted as factual. Komunyakaa was born in Louisiana and grew up during the Civil Rights era, serving during the Vietnam War. Komunyakaa has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement from the Academy of American Poets, and he is a Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program. 

Komunyakaa takes on complicated, difficult truths in American culture as his subject matter, sometimes indirectly in order to extract meaning from seemingly disparate events. His style will often use the syncopated rhythms of jazz and blues, music that created contexts in which to address bigotry and racism, to give voice to pain and heal wounds.

The poem below, "Facing It," was published in his collection Dien Cai Dau (Vietnamese for "crazy in the head"), published in 1988.

I write on scraps of paper, sometimes in a notebook [....] I write everything in longhand first, and then I will go to the computer because I think of the computer as a tool in the same way a typewriter is. I always have written everything in longhand, then go to the instrument to create the illusion of something finished. It isn’t really finished until I draft many versions.
— Yusef Komunyakaa

Facing It - Yusef Komunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way—the stone lets me go.
I turn that way—I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

The first poems I ever wrote were all in rhyme. But what I have begun to understand is that sometimes the rhyme becomes anything but natural. It becomes forced and it has something to do with that, I suppose, the possibilities within the context of a language that isn’t a Romance language: In Romance languages the rhymes are just more natural, even when translators translate free verse.
— Yusef Komunyakaa
Vietnam Veterans Memorial .jpg
I’ve realized that as a young boy I was so enthused with the landscape around me because I was discovering something new every day. And maybe that’s why this whole journey with poetry still exists, this discovering of something new every day. Sometimes what we discover out there has to do with reflection that is internal, getting into that interior.
— Yusef Komunyakaa
Language itself is political. But we don’t necessarily have to have politics on the surface of each poem. I think there’s a whole wide range of subject matter in just being a human being. And some of it is staring us in the eyes, and at other moments we have to search. Sometimes that search is out there, but sometimes it’s in here. Each of us as an individual is so different. Each individual is writing as a person. That’s important. We’re talking about free will, right? Because we are formed by so many different things. Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night,” for example. I realized a year or so ago that I was never afraid of the night, growing up in Louisiana. And that realization was so important to me. And I know so many young people—they are definitely afraid of the night. At this point in my life I realize that I can’t just walk out in the middle of the night. And that realization can be a kind of tyranny.
— Yusef Komunyakaa

Your Turn:

Sometimes writing about big things (war, the loss of a loved one, holidays, traditions) leaves us blocked. Pick an object. Observe it. Start by describing your experience with it. How do other people interact with it?

Set the clock for 20 minutes. The only rule is to write nonstop until the timer goes off. We edit later after it has had a chance to sit for a bit.


Yusef Komunyakaa and Ishion Hutchinson: What Is It to Be an American?

Further Reading:

The Code Switch Podcast: A Code Switch Thanksgiving Feast

Canadian Aboriginal Veterans and Serving Members Association

The Code Switch Podcast, Episode 7: You're A Grand Old Flag

Acquainted With The Night, Robert Frost

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