All cultures have struggles that are specific to their backgrounds and curcumstances. Some examples include the Jews who survived the Holocaust, victims and refugees from Vietnam in the 1970’s, and Asian-Americans. Although poetry is often regarded as a personal and introspective form of writing, many Asian-American poets have combined it with their personal experiences to express political views and historio-cultural struggles. These poets include Lawson Fusao Inada, Ishle Yi Park, and Mitsuye Yamada. Some of the experiences, political views, and struggles they describe are discussed below.
Lawson Fusao Inada depicts an important struggle in his poem entitled “Somebody’s Been Messing with My Money!” As one might expect, he writes about poverty and what he calls a “filthy economy” (Inada). In lines four and five of the poem, he writes:
“Somebody’s been taking my hard-earned salary
and sticking it all over their sticky bodies” (Inada).
This refers to the extremely low salary laborers received and the fact that they deserved much more.
In addition, line seven reads: “Somebody’s been mutilating my labor” (Inada). This further demonstrates workers’ excessive labor and meager pay. Also, in lines 17 through 19 of the poem, Inada writes:
“Come payday, I’m heading down to the mint!
I want all my money clean and fresh and new!
I refuse to be part of your filthy economy” (Inada).
More than wanting money that is literally clean, as money is known to be dirty, these lines refer to the way laborers were treated. Inada no longer wants to be treated like an animal or a slave. He wants respect and wants to be valued for the work he does, in addition to being paid what he and his work are worth. One can see this in line 15, where “Asian-American Poetry” “Page # 02”
“it” refers to money: “(Somebody’s been…) crying on it, bleeding on it” (Inada). This image is certainly only one of many that depicts suffering laborers.
In another poem, entitled “Eatin’ with Sticks,” Inada discusses Asians’ use of
chopsticks, which is one of the main stereotypes about them. However, this poem is more humorous than the last one. In lines 22 through 24, he declares that eating with sticks
“…makes good sense
and shouldn’t bamboozle any bambino” (Inada).
He leads up to this declaration in lines 10 through 14, where he writes:
“that way, the hot
is truly cool,
bit by bit making its way
south to your mouth
as you choose” (Inada).
Inada describes how to use chopsticks and why it makes sense to use them. His poem is very detailed about this, and it does show the reader that using chopsticks does make logical sense. For instance, lines six through nine read:
“it makes logical sense
to handle your food
with these smooth extensions
of your fleshy fingers” (Inada).
Using chopsticks is something most other cultures do not do. They eat with forks, knives, and spoons instead. But this poem shows others how to eat with “sticks” and the advantages of using them. Interestingly, it seems as if Inada did not intend this to be a political or stereotypical poem. In lines two through six, Inada writes:
“eatin’ with ‘sticks
is the natural thing to do;
that is, without getting all
sociological about it,
it makes logical sense” (Inada).
As a result, he seems to be writing for informal educational purposes, rather than to protest something, as he did in the previous piece. It takes a great writer or poet to bridge the gap between cultural practices in such a way that a reader from another culture grows to understand and appreciate their differences, and even to find that the other culture’s practices do make sense. Lawson Fusao Inada is such a poet.
Ishle Yi Park is the Poet Laureate of Queens, New York. She is also Asian-American, but writes about different struggles than Inada. In her poem entitled “Railroad,” for example, she writes about her father, who was a railroad worker. Lines one through three suggest that these men were either ashamed or looked down upon for their work:
“One day I will write a poem
about my father as a mountain,
and there will be no shame for the dynamite” (Park)
In addition, the work was hard and dangerous, and the men worked long hours, dedicating their lives to the railroad. Lines 10 through 12 illustrate the danger of railroad work:
“…But he is still
a man and a mountain: drilled, hammered, alive,
unaware of all who love him from the far track” (Park).
Also, line six shows the laborers’ dedication to it: “for the railroad ploughed through his core” (Park). Ishle Park seems proud of her father, his strength, and his work, even
though it is dangerous, difficult, and disrespected.
In the poem “Gold Hoop Sonnet,” Park writes about a young girl whose true identity is lost, because she tries to fit in with other girls her age. The girl wears gold hoop
earrings, listens to hip hop, hides the scars on her face with eyeliner, and laughs at others, just because her friends do. However, in lines one and two, leading up to these things, Park says:
“One day she will be brave enough
To venture away from stereotypical gold hoops” (Park).
She then goes on to mention the other things the girl does, including hating her face, and ultimately, herself. This is from lines seven through nine of the Sonnet:
“She will look at her rough, scarred face
In the compact mirror without Mac eyeliner and stop
Hating those young, haunted eyes” (Park).
These are all things the girl will stop doing when she realizes that she is beautiful as she is. Also, lines 10 through 12 of the poem read:
“I hope a slant of gold light will hit her cheek,
Just right, and it will come as a surprise
To her how fine she really is. Fabulous. Sleek” (Park).
These lines describe Park’s wish for the girl and anyone who has lost his or her identity. Finally, line 13 tells the girl in the poem and everyone in the world they are beautiful on their own; they don’t need makeup or people to validate their beauty. The line reads: “Soulful, of her own juju and mystique” (Park).
Unlike Inada’s two poems, Park’s have a common theme of loss of identity. In the first
poem, Park’s father threw away his identity to work for the railroad. In the second one, the girl, who is perhaps Park herself, longs to fit in with other girls, but stops being true to herself in the process. It is not only people from different cultures who suffer with
identity crises. At some point all people wonder who they really are, as in Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine. In that story, an Indian girl named Jyoti comes to America to escape the repressive life of a Hindu woman. In the course of her various relationships, she is transformed from Jyoti to Jasmine to Jase to Jane. Writing about identity crises from these cultures’ historio-cultural perspectives makes these poems easy for modern readers to relate to.
Mitsuye Yamada was born in 1923 and spent most of her childhood in Washington. Even though she was Japanese-American and supposedly free, she was sent to a relocation camp after her father was arrested for potentially spying on the United States after the attack at Pearl Harbor. Yamada was released from the camp after renouncing her loyalty to the Japanese emperor, but the experience still left her scarred. This is prevalent in the poem “Cincinnati,” which she later published in the book Camp Notes.
In lines two through four, there is a subtle lack of belonging as Yamada writes:
“in this town aimless
I walked against the rush
hour traffic” (VG)
She starts the poem with non-conformity, showing that she doesn’t fit in, even though she “Asian-is now free. Then, in lines eight through 11, Yamada says:
“no one knew me.
No one except one
hissing voice that said
dirty jap” (BG)
After this there is no doubt of the persecution the Japanese suffered in American cities. Yamada’s poem tells of someone spitting on her cheek; then, she sees her face reflected in a shop window, as if she were pictured on a book cover (VG). The last line of the poem simply reads “Words on display” (VG). However, this is a powerful image. It
seems to foreshadow the history books and other texts, as well as people, who would speak badly of the Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the future. This line is written as if Yamada herself would be in such a book, still hated and persecuted for her origin. This is a sad poem, but it reflects Yamada’s personal experience, as well as the Americans’ mindset during the time when Yamada was released from the camp. Mitsuye Yamada went on to get a college education and become an educator, living a prosperous and full life. However, the historio-cultural issues she faced shaped not only her life and experiences, but also those of all Japanese-Americans who were held in relocation camps during World War II.
Poetry is versatile, not only in its form, but also in its uses. In the cases of the three poets Lawson Fusao Inada, Ishle Yi Park, and Mitsuye Yamada, poetry is used for sharing personal experiences, describing historio-cultural struggles, and perhaps also healing. Poetry is most often seen as an art form, but it is much more than that. Poetry expresses emotions–as in Inada’s anger about the lack of wages and respect for his work; political views–as in Yamada’s “Cincinnati;” unjust conditions, dedication, and shame–as in Park’s “Railroad;” and stereotypes–as in Inada’s “Eatin’ with Sticks.” These poets are great because of their writing and also because they allow modern readers to
understand their personal experiences, as well as their culture, political environment, and history.
Inada, Lawson. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/inada/online.htm (Dec 7 2006)
Park, Ishle Yi. http://www.niederngasse.com/Supplement/park_073s.html (Dec 7 2006)
VG: Artist Biography. Yamada, Mitsuye. Regents of the University of Minnesota. http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/yamada_mitsuye.html (Dec 7 2006)
Cite this “Asian-American Poetry”
“Asian-American Poetry”. (2016, Jul 30). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/asian-american-poetry/