Week Three: Documentation

Curated by Janine Joseph


For years I have carried with me the following lines from Li-Young Lee’s poem, “For a New Citizen of These United States”: “After all, it was just our life,/ merely years in a book of years.” I have carried them as I have carried, from state to state and house to house, boxes of papers and photographs documenting my time in the United States since arriving from the Philippines at the age of eight. After living undocumented for fifteen years, I used these records as part of my application to become a legal permanent resident and, years later, a naturalized citizen. In many ways, of course, there was documentation of my presence in this country before I became “documented.” The tone and sentiment of Lee’s lines reached me differently through the years and I was grateful for their flex.

For this week’s theme, I gathered ten poems by seven Asian American poets that peer into and refract the term “Documentation.” These poems directly engage with immigration forms and tests, and they expound on the definitions and classifications used to categorize immigrants. These poems show what it is like to live with and without documents, and they remember what it was like to have been without. These poems document themselves within overlapping histories and question the languages used for documenting those histories and memories. One in particular makes me reconsider the phrase “elevator pitch.”

This curation was a deeply personal undertaking. It is also by no means comprehensive, as my parameters were set by what is currently available online. These poets, and certainly others, are making significant contributions to an ever-growing body of poems about documentation and the complex, rich, and varied lives of immigrants. I am as grateful for them and for those whose poems we have yet to read.

–Janine Joseph

Writing Prompts

  • Using Sarah Gambito’s “Getting Used to It” as a model, write a poem that grapples with a joke or something said in jest.
  • Choose a seemingly inconsequential moment in your past and write a poem about it as if it were your origin story.
  • Write a poem in response to a question posed by Define American: “How do you define American?” If you are comfortable doing so, share your reflection on their site.


  • Help Families Belong Together reunify families separated at the border. Donations help to “pay for airfare, hotel, and personal items for children and parents released from detention.”
  • Commit to supporting all writers, regardless of immigration status. If you see that a literary organization, press, journal, prize, or contest still prohibits “non-citizens” and/or “non-residents” from participating, applying, or submitting, and urge them to update their eligibility guidelines. Those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Temporary Protected Status (TPS), for instance, live and pay taxes in the United States with a social security number, and countless others have an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). If you are unsure of how to proceed, reach out to The Undocupoets at undocupoets@gmail.com.
  • Don’t reveal someone’s status without their permission, don’t ask people to reveal their status, and if someone shares with you that they are undocumented, ask how you can help.

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Janine Joseph

Janine Joseph was born in the Philippines. She is the author of Driving without a License, winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize and 2018 da Vinci Eye award, finalist for the 2017 Oklahoma Book Award, and named an Honorable Mention for the 2018 Sheila Margaret Motton Book Prize from the New England Poetry Club. Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, World Literature Today, The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice, The Kenyon Review, Best New Poets, Best American Experimental Writing, Zócalo Public Square, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, and elsewhere. A librettist, her commissioned work for the Houston Grand Opera/HGOco include What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline, “On This Muddy Water”: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel, and From My Mother's Mother. Additionally, her poems have been set to music by acclaimed composers Melissa Dunphy, for the PhilHarmonia and Resonance Ensemble’s “American DREAMers: Stories of Immigration” concerts, and Reinaldo Moya, for the Schubert Club’s “DREAM Song” concert. Janine is an organizer for Undocupoets and serves on the Advisory Board for the Center for Poets & Writers in Tulsa. She lives in Stillwater, where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. Learn more at www.janinejoseph.com