national poetry month

For each day of National Poetry Month one of our fellows will explore the breadth of poetry in three ways: through a question from another fellow, through a poem and through a writing prompt, #writetoday.

Editor’s Note: For today’s post, Kundiman Fellow Paul Tran discusses details of his experience with child abuse and sexual assault. A video of his performance above also includes a a poetic address of those issues.


Janine Joseph asks, I’ve been thinking recently about some of the first poems that shook and prompted me to respond. In the spirit of Nazim Hikmet, I want to ask you: What are things you didn’t know you loved?

Paul Tran answers, My father started molesting me when I was four.

I remember it all: a hand opening the shower door; my stomach pressed into a car seat; Terminator 2 playing over my screams in an apartment by Montezuma Road. It’s a nightmare that returns to me even now.

When he disappeared in 1999, my mother cut his face from our family photographs. She gave them to me in a grocery bag and said bo thung racThrow it away. Nho lam gi? Why remember? Nho chi co lam con them kho thoi. Remembering will only make you suffer. 

I still know what his body looks like—how his mouth curled right before coming. How even his cum smelled like Heineken. But I didn’t know I could forgive him. I didn’t know that years later, after I’d grown up and been raped by other men, after the memory and nightmare became indistinguishable, saying the violence’s name aloud—Rape. Incest. Almost murder.—was, in fact, my gesture of forgiveness.

And what do we forgive but a thing we didn’t know we could love?


The video above is of Paul performing “Ice Cream Man” during the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.


Paul Tran is an Asian American historian, activist & spoken word poet from Providence, Rhode Island. 

Jane Wong, Pt. 1: To raise children with good legs and arms. / Isn’t this all we want?

For each day of National Poetry Month one of our fellows will explore the breadth of poetry in three ways: through a question from another fellow, through a poem and through a writing prompt, #writetoday.


Sally Wen Mao asks, Poetic windfalls are the best. Has there been a moment in your researching, drafting, writing, or revising stage where you found something (an experience, a new obsession, a curiosity, a discovery) that swept you toward renewing or invigorating your work or poetic practice? Describe for me what your poetic windfall is, and the adventure you had with it — if you can’t think of anything, then describe what your ideal poetic windfall would be!

Jane Wong responds, 

My understanding of a windfall is something that knocks you off your feet, in such a way that you’re unable to see the world the way you did before. I have been windfalling for a while! I remember reading persona poems like Thomas James’s “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh XXI Dynasty” and thinking: what if you could write from the position of someone close to you? Does the line between yourself and the person become blurry? I’ve always been curious about the lives of others, particularly my parents. Sometimes, I feel like I know nothing about them - especially my father, who’s absent from my life. I started writing poems as if I were my father (as in “The Good Work”) and my mother (I just started a series of poems that embodies a year in her life). This windfall feels energizing and a bit risky. The gap between the familiar and the unfamiliar is much harder to bridge.



I left the light on in the kitchen again.

A spider burned in the bulb. It was a morning

owl who joined me in the song of its burning.

To raise children with good legs and arms.

Isn’t this all we want? I worry about my daughter.

To be a good man. To be good?

Across the street, a family clears logs from their front yard.

Cedar smoke fills the air. My breath splinters, I hold

a rest note too long. Arrested, always. The sky

is an ice pattern I could break open. I could

have been a mathematician. I could have loved my daughter.

Saddle up to me, I’d say. Let this horse do the work.

 (Previously published in The Journal)

The recipient of fellowships and scholarships from the U.S. Fulbright Program, Kundiman, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center, Jane Wong’s poems can be found in places such as Hayden’s Ferry Review, Salt Hill, Linebreak, The Volta, Best New Poets 2012, and others.

Sally Wen Mao, Pt. 1: Your smelt muscles sing. / The slag on your bones cannot die on this earth.

For each day of National Poetry Month one of our fellows will explore the breadth of poetry in three ways: through a question from another fellow, through a poem and through a writing prompt, #writetoday.

(h/t The Gypsy Astronaut)


Timothy Yu asks, Tell me about you and animals. You’ve got poems about Leviathan, poems about aquariums, poems where you’re a wild bird or living in a wolf den. And of course we all know your spirit animal is the honey badger. Why are these non-human creatures so important—so inspirational—to you and your poetry?

Sally Wen Mao responds,

The first “manuscript” I wrote for my undergraduate thesis was titled A Field Guide to Trapped Animals. Animals were my first ongoing poetic trope because there’s something very delicate and very fierce about animals—they have long existed in various tomes and discourses as the natural antithesis to humans, the primitivism to our civilization. To me, animal themes are not necessarily an antithesis of human ones—they’re so connected to our survival and our progress that often these animal themes reflect our own follies and desires more vividly than human themes. Animals are the subjects of most extreme cruelty and reverence; this contrast interests me. I think poetry’s natural habitat rests not in the ordered world, but the wild one. I’d like to return poetry to the wild. I want to investigate if language could survive in the wild—if language could even begin to explain the beauty and sublime endurance of the animal.

Sonnets for Kudryavka

                                                            (originally published in Post Road)

Kudryavka, before Sputnik

Toast to you, dog, for your solar-powered

organs. Your smelt muscles sing. The slag

on your bones cannot die on this earth.

From dumpster to rocketship, the true

rags-to-riches tale—and it’s not even

happening to a human. Not even happening

in America. World-famous gutter-sucker,

tonight you give birth to a new name: Laika.

Before any dog impregnates you, you will shoot

off into the galaxy. Mammal as asteroid,

ultimate runaway. Who are you, whose kismet

matches the greats—a martyr for thought,

like Socrates? Will you drink the hemlock

of space? You, Laika, original cosmonaut?

Kudryavka’s Sobriquets

Zhuchka, little bug: stray mutt covered

in snow—how many tulips have you eaten

since spring? How many cabbages drenched

in ruined milk? Limonchik, little lemon:

as a stray, you knew hunger so well you wrecked

your own mouth. In Moscow, they squeezed

lemons over your coat. The seeds stuck

to your damp fur, but the juice disinfected

you. As you licked your own neck, the taste sang

through your tongue. You howled and howled

and it opened your flesh and you were made

invincible. Laika, barker: you are that dog

whose face shined in red paint. You are that dog

they renamed so they can silence you again.

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (which will come out next month from Alice James Books! – Preorder here or here).

For each day of National Poetry Month one of our fellows will explore the breadth of poetry in three ways: through a question from another fellow, through a poem and through a writing prompt, #writetoday.


Tamiko Beyer asks, I love your “Chinese Silence” poems for their fierce, funny, and beautiful assertions of our API presence. In these poems you are—and we are—raising our voices in a culture that would have us be silent and docile. In thinking about the visceral casting off of this “Chinese Silence,” I wondered: if these poems were to manifest in music, what would that sound like? What voices, instruments, and sounds would compose it? What kind of playlist would reflect your voice and your work? If you were to expand it out to a community playlist of an “Asian American Roar,” would you have any rules or guidelines for it? If it were to live on the internet, where would it live?

Timothy Yu responds, Sometimes I think that the antithesis of “silence” is not “loudness” but something more subtle and menacing, like a creepy undertone in a familiar song—or like the “Jaws” theme, something you initially barely notice is there but that gradually intrudes on your consciousness, making you uneasy for some reason you can’t quite put your finger on.  While I’d love for these poems to enable an Asian American roar, I think that what they’re trying to do is more like undermining the music of American poetry, from the inside out.  Like hitting a bunch of dissonant notes in “America the Beautiful.”  Or the way John Cage uses silences as a kind of music.  Asking what it is that our silence says might be a way of clearing the way for us to make our own playlists.


Chinese Silence No. 41
after Geoffrey Nutter, “Sister Double Happiness”

Eating at American restaurants
in suburbs at midday—
Denny’s, Chick-fil-A,
Jimmy John’s, P.F. Chang’s—
where the snickering employees
are toiling, their registers
printing our receipts that say
“ching chong” and “lady chinky eyes,”
and the moo shu comes wrapped
in cold tortillas.
We will be turned away
from half-empty dining rooms,
or left unserved at tables
during lunch hour, drinking
nothing from our unfilled glasses,
and it is here
that our parched lips
and unseen eyes
will compose our silent poems.



Timothy Yu is the author of 15 Chinese Silences (Tinfish) and Race and the Avant-Garde (Stanford) and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Tamiko Beyer, Pt. 1: "trash collecting like snow drift / at the curb / we ash out the window we croon

For each day of National Poetry Month one of our fellows will explore the breadth of poetry in three ways: through a question from another fellow, through a poem and through a writing prompt, #writetoday.


Cynthia Arrieu-King asks, “What tends to stir your poetic impulses on the internet?”

Tamiko Beyer responds:

 10 things that stir my poetic impulse on the internet

  1. How it is, at its essence, a digital manifestation of the poetic leap
  2. What it builds through language
  3. How it is a tool by which we are changing the world for better


  1. Images that move me


  1. How I stumble into music
  2. Videos that delight and astound me (and I love that it was my mom who sent me the latter via email)
  3. How it connects us
  4. How it helps me remember
  5. Getting a poem every day in my inbox
  6. How it connects us



Push down to lock

- after Nan Goldin’s “Smokey Car,” 1979

when there was glow

and we cranked

a handle to roll

ourselves down

beer tab and sunlight

pulse and pulse :: once

fingertips ghosted windows

so I filled my lungs with smoke

let the seatbelt dangle full

of longing my denim hip

pressed firmly against yours

my face a thin thing

at your neck inhale sweat and want

my fourth rib and my fifth

knocking at the city skyline

trash collecting like snow drift

at the curb :: we ash

out the window we croon

lay me across vinyl seat split to foam

I am all leg

dearest, earlobe wet

to shudder



Photo by Kian Goh.

Tamiko Beyer is the author of We Come Elemental (Alice James Books) and a corporate-crime fighter.

Margaret Rhee, Pt. 1: Meditate and everything

For each day of National Poetry Month one of our fellows will explore the breadth of poetry in three ways: through a question from another fellow, through a poem and through a writing prompt, #writetoday.



April Naoko Heck asks:

Respond to one: social media is good for my poetic creativity or social media is not good for my poetic creativity.

Margaret Rhee responds, 

I’m inclined not to answer yes or no to the question, as I’m still exploring whether social media is good for my poetic creativity. But I’ve been fascinated and inspired by the ways contemporary poets work with the limitations and possibilities of social media formally.
How enjambments shift according to the 140 characters as a tweet, for example. And how space in a poem or within the constraints of interface has meaning. Poets doing real interesting work on social media that I’ve been following include Ron Villanueva and the rapper Lyrics Born. I love Ron’s sonnet, Fossils, at Twitter very much.
I teach Asian American reading and writing at UC Berkeley, and actually taught Lyrics Born’s #YesBayArea as a core text. The students really loved the collection and writing on twitter as a pedagogical practice. It was a great introduction to experimental poetry as well. 
Experimenting with twitter and other social media as poetic and pedagogical experiments has been fruitful. I think it’s important for poets not to dismiss the intersections of technology and poetry and instead look at the possibilities, while remaining critical. It’s a juxtaposition we have to hold.  
While we need to be cautious of the limitations of technology, of course, (I’m thinking of the not very thoughtful MOCCS in creative writing for example) there are always fascinating ways technology can converge with poetry. As Ron Villanueva’s work and others illuminate, some really beautiful lines emerge from social networking site. Lines not intended by the designers, but historically, artists have always reimagined the possibilities of technology. 
Right now, I’m working on completing my manuscript of robot love poems, and interestingly enough, I’ve found I can only write them online. When writing poems, I tend to write longhand and on paper, but for these robot love poemas, for some reason, the Internet as interface inspires my writing. Perhaps I’m communicating love with my OS. Perhaps she is writing them. 


Love, Robot

For Dmitry

I liked to watch you shower because you closed

your eyes in the water and slightly parted your

mouth. How I envied you while I brushed my

teeth and saw how alive you were even just

cleaning yourself. So mundane everything

about me. And how present you were, the

mirror steaming up, covering my face. I told a

robotics poet this story and he said I know how

you can have that too. Meditate and everything,

even the crumbled leaves on the sidewalk will

be alive. Now, the gusts of wind carefully cradle

my face. I feel my breath through my mouth

down my throat into my fleshy pink insides. I

am ready to try. We made a robot together, one

that walked with a slight limp. It only took a

slight press with the soft parts of my fingers to

make her blink red. A sharp twist of copper

wires to make her hum. An algorithm to make

her stay still as I slowly turned on the faucet.

She wanted to turn away but I coaxed my robot

not to be afraid of the water. To open her

mouth. To let everything rinse away by the

spark of electric light.

Previously published in Mission At Tenth: Inter-arts Journal



Margaret Rhee is a poet, scholar, and digital educator. 

April Naoko Heck, Pt. 1: I ran and ran, the sun dropped and turned/ the water to milk

For each day of National Poetry Month one of our fellows will explore the breadth of poetry in three ways: through a question from another fellow, through a poem and through a writing prompt, #writetoday.


R.A. Villanueva asks, When you look over the poems you write, can you notice patterns? Fascinations and obsessions? What’s the most surprising way those fixations make themselves known in your work?

April Naoko Heck responds with a collage of the instances “milk” appears in her first book, A Nuclear Family (Upset Press).



Three days I have been inside the belly of a whale

here inside a pink hot air balloon, a bellows, a bellowing, a belch,

here swimming salt-stung seawater, krill, ribbons and tongues of oil-slick kelp,

here among tin star glitter of minnows, fanned-fins, fanfare of tails,

here inside the ocean’s mammalian breath, mammoth babe, gentle

killer, the weight of storms surrounding, close as a giant’s fist,

here inside a blue drifting isle,

my escape and hatching from a sinking ship, my sin, my god, can I climb the ladder of ribs

as Osiris climbs his mother’s spine to heaven, can I tumble up

the waterspout, slither and squeeze out a second canal,

rebirthed, spit out of the mothering mouth,

oh mercy, oh me, three days alone with my thirst, a hot throat within a throat



April Naoko Heck’s first collection of poems, A Nuclear Family, was published by UpSet Press in March 2014. 

Write Today: Wordle + Google Translate

For this exercise, resolve some writing demons by using the text of a poem you’ve been struggling with lately. To help explain directions, I’ll be using the lyrics from (Queen) Be(yonce)’s Superpower.

1) Make a Wordle from the text. It will look something like this:


2) Use Google Translate. Translate a line that includes one of your most prominent words, translate that to another language, translate that to another language, do that as many times as you want and then translate it back to English.

I translated a line from English to Traditional Chinese to Latin to Haitian Creole to English. 

The lyrics, “The laws of the world tells us what goes sky” became ”And we shall reign on the earth, what clouds of heaven.”

3) Write a four stanza poem with the translation as your first line. Feel free to use Google Translate to generate the first line of each stanza.

Did you make a great poem? Are you sharing it on your blog or part of it on Twitter or Facebook? Tag it so with #writetoday and let us know!

Poets Playing: Exquisite Corpse










Join us later for #writetoday for a  fun writing prompt. Psssttt…Wordle and Google Translate might be involved.

From top to bottom the images/texts are by:

Rachelle Cruz lives in Southern Cali. Her text/image was completed with the help of her CRWT 150 students, Melanie and Jonathan.

Desiree Bailey lives in Providence, RI and is an MFA Fiction candidate at Brown University. She has received fellowships from Princeton in Africa, The Norman Mailer Center and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. She is the current Fiction editor for Kin Folks.

Eduardo Corral first book Slow Lightning was published by Yale University Press in 2012 as the winner of the Yale Younger Series Poets Prize. Corral was born in Casa Grande, Arizona to Higinio and Socorro Corral. He currently lives in Rego Park, Queens, New York. 

Lisa Lee is a writer living in Los Angeles.

Rona Luo is a writer and healer living in Oakland, California.

Rajiv Mohabir studies writing in Honolulu and loves poems by Kundies, Kabir, and humpback whales. Check out some of his work here:

Rachel Ronquillo Gray was born and raised in Nevada; she now lives in the Midwest and is trying to live without mountains. 

Poet and visual artist Maya Pindyck is the author of the collection Friend Among Stones (New Rivers Press) and the chapbook Locket, Master (Poetry Society of America).

Matthew Olzmann is the author of Mezzanines (Alice James Books), selected for the 2011 Kundiman Prize. His poems have appeared in New England ReviewKenyon ReviewGulf Coast,The Southern Review and elsewhere. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from the Kresge Arts FoundationThe Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Currently, he teaches at Warren Wilson College and is the poetry editor of The Collagist.