Interpellation for the Monstrosity in Identity: Melissa R. Sipin reviews NESTS AND STRANGERS


“The monster is that being who refused to adapt to her circumstances.”
— Bhanu Kapil, Incubation (86)

Nests and Strangers (ed. Timothy Yu)

Nests and Strangers:
On Asian American Women Poets

Edited with an intro by Timothy Yu
Afterward by Mg Roberts.
(Kelsey Street Press, 2015)

America, the monstrous. America, in its quest for identity, nationalism and imperialism, is at a loss when it comes to identity. It is always erupting, has been erupting, confused, combusting. It is difficult to maneuver through the combustion, especially as subjects denied of personhood, as subjects who carry invisibility, as subjects who were colonized, massacred, erased.

It is rare for Americans to mention the Philippine-American War. And as a Filipina American writer, my familia’s trauma of immigration is rooted in this erasure, in this (anti-) narrative. We are not taught our genocide. We are not taught why we escaped, left, were called dogeaters, were called feral, primitive, animals. Race, sometimes, becomes a topic of silence among Asian Americans. It could be perpetuated by hiya (shame). Or the Model Minority Myth. The will to assimilate, to forget the violent appropriation and erasure of black / brown bodies, is apparent and devouring, you can see it, hear it, watch it on the news, read it in art, see it performed like a mistral show (Goldsmith’s and Place’s racist spectacles come to mind).

It is why I found Nests and Strangers, an anthology of essays from Kelsey Street Press on experimental poetics and race, a compelling and illuminating deconstruction of identity, cultural self/personhood, and community. Edited by Timothy Yu and Mg Roberts, Nests and Strangers synchronizes four essays on four pivotal Asian American women poets, Myung Mi Kim, Nellie Wong, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, and Bhanu Kapil, highlighting the powerful and rippling poetic contributions they have given to Asian American poetry, social activism, and history. In an elegant break in boundaries, especially in genre (such is the heightened energy of experimental poetics), the anthology presents four contemporary poets and scholars, Sarah Dowling, Merle Woo, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, and Dorothy Wang, who deconstruct and discuss the elaborate innovations, both in lived experienced and published work, that Kim, Wong, Berssenbrugge, and Kapil translate on the page, in their political activism, and within their lived subjectivities. This is a book where the combustion of America’s problem with race and art-making meet at a divergence, on a point where the observers, the writers, the art-makers are bodies whose personhood is denied and invisible, on a horizon where identity, language, and cultural markers are but the containers that cannot contain, where, as Eileen Tabios said in her review, “[P]oets don’t just defy erasure or silencing of their individual or chosen-as-collective identities—they create and recreate selves unimaginable to those who would have subsumed their voices.” The terms in this book, especially “Asian American” or “Asian American poet,” are redefined, redrawn in the sand, taken and reshaped, eaten and spat out, embodied and birthed. This is a book that redefined what poetry, what language, what containers can and will do, what they cannot and choose not to do. It is a book that reminds me that I have many selves, selves uncontained, selves prisoned, selves released, selves molded, interpolated by the machine, the white colonizing eye, and selves that break out of these cages, selves that rebuild, remake, combust, adapt, and need to adapt to not just survive, but thrive. This book is a reminder that I am alive. It is a great book, one of critical essays that contain more questions than answers, but seeds to beginnings and endings and entrails nonetheless.

Roberts, in her ending afterword, “Notes Toward an Afterword: What Entrails,” begins with Dorothy Wang’s interrogation: “Is there an English and American poetics that account for this pathologized “I”—not the universal speaker but the unloved speaker? Is there a “you” that can meet this (anti-) narrative halfway?” (92).

Is this possible? The question is not answered; it is lived through. I don’t think it can be answered by language alone. Language is evasive. As Dowling says of Kim’s “Lamenta” poem: “language is one of the grounds upon which personhood is denied” (17). But language also creates, rebirths, combusts. Its power is palpable, as seen in the arrangement of the four critical essays of this book. Though seemingly, it appears as if the arc and position of the critical essays are randomized, but that is not the intentionality of experimental poetics: every blank space, breath, and word dipped in ink and blood is cemented, carved in essence.

The book begins with Dowling’s analytical and mesmerizing essay, “Interpolation, Coherence, History” on Myung Mi Kim’s explosive poetics, how she breaks binaries between “mother tongue” and “father country,” and how she interrogates the “experimental tradition” when her “genealogy of an experimental convention” does not exist, especially within the boundaries of a subject denied of personhood. She goes on to say: “How can I find a way to indicate the actual experience when that experience doesn’t exist? […] Because nothing exists for how you are coming to your own condition” (31). We, subjects of the marginalized, make our own conditions, name and force them into existence. It is an act of interpolation, of using known data (our given and collective containers—immigrant, daughter, wife, etc.) and combusting it within our own means, breaking it down, and melding new data out of the entrails.

It is a process that organically flows into Woo’s textured and poignant essay, “Feminism, Love, and Revolution,” which economically focuses on the life, work, and expansive subjectivities of Nellie Wong. Wong, who is the most lyric of the four poets, builds a poetic foundation steeped in activism and what Edwidge Danticat called, “the urgent present.” Wong’s life, daughter of immigrants, worker in a family-owned Chinese restaurant in Oakland, California, and secretary by day, poet/fighter/lover by night, embodies the radical notion of self-love within community, within identity: “The individual and the collective: the individual merges into the collective, becomes one with the collective” (41). Woo’s essay is also the most descriptive and lyric of all the critical works within the book, and it toggles between Wong’s textured political/public life with her radical/intimate poetry. We see the narrative link between Kim’s call of “making your own condition” within the lyric framework of Wong’s “I Also Sing of Myself” (a nod toward Whitman; a nod toward the human consciousness).

In a following vein, Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s illuminating essay, “The Seamless World,” pulsates with the questions of Berssenbrugge poetics: “[her] work explores human consciousness: how do we know what we know; how do we feel what we feel; and how does seeing impact being?” (53). The answer is found in poetry, in lived experiences, in being: “being is an activity: we are always active in the world; and the world is always active within and around us” (53). Lee’s expansive essay is a splice between the narrative work of Woo’s essay on Wong and the deconstructive work of Dowling’s essay on Kim; it toggles between Berssenbrugge’s work, which embodies the visual, the sentire (the Latin word for “to realize,” but a word with roots of “sentiment.” In other words: think-feel), and the life and landscapes of Berssenbrugge—New York, Basework Workshop, and New Mexico. In short, Berssenbrugge’s poetry could not be defined by the limiting marker of “avant garde” without recognizing her roots in activism, in lyric, or the magnetizing influence and pull from American abstract expressionism.

My favorite of the four essays is Dorothy Wang’s “Speculative Notes: On Bhanu Kapil’s Monstrous/Cyborgian/Schizophrenic Poetics.” Here, the breaking of boundary, form, and genre meets the threshold of Kapil’s work, which probes the poetic damnation: “How to write when the ‘I’ cannot contain the psychic fragments shattered by dislocation, emigration, immigration, and assimilation?” (78). Wang postulates and analyzes Kapil’s dizzying and electrifying work by moving in kind: she fragments and splices her analysis with found poetry, inserts work from other poets, other mouths, and obstructs white space, obstructs the visual, the experienced, what’s on the page. In one instance, she uses Kenneth Goldsmith’s interrogation of identity from “Flarf is Dionysus. Conceptual Writing is Apollo”:

Identity, for one, is up for grabs. Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s? And if your identity is not your own, then sincerity must be tossed out as well. (80)

It is here where we must ask ourselves: Is this why Goldsmith took the white liberty to violently tarnish Michael Brown’s black body, not even allowing the Brown family to mourn? Is “identity,” especially for the white colonizing eye, always “up for grabs”? Wong continues this list of interrogation in the splicing, the rapid text, the repetitions, the asking: “This was monstrous: the inability to assimilate, on the level of sense, an ordinary experience of weather. Here is the tongue, for example, constantly darting out to feel the air: what is it? Is it summer? Is it a different season?” (87).

The weight of Kapil’s line assumes the position of a subject fractured in being, in experience. It is why Wong’s essay creates ephemera, speeds up the collaging, the mosaic, the dislocation of ink and white space—all of this embodies a psyche that erupts and erupts.

It is difficult for me to think of avant-garde poetics and to not allude to Kenneth Goldsmith or Vanessa Place. I think of the violent appropriation of Michael Brown’s black body. I think of the Twitter rendition of the n-word, of Place’s poor defense of splicing up Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, of the trigger-happy tweets that claimed to provoke legality when really what was agitated was a white shield lambasting and drowning in appropriated trauma—trauma without experience; trauma intentionally erased, forgotten, compounded; trauma always repeated, always violent, always intrusive, especially in language.

In response, I must quote the Asian American Writers’ Workshop executive director Ken Chen and his searing essay, “Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show,” on these recent poetic race scandals:

After the angry pushback against Goldsmith and Place’s appropriations, the Language poet Ron Silliman asked if “the signers of the petition to the AWP [were] really that different from the police officer who fired at Michael Brown?” For Silliman, the most significant poetry blogger in the country for about a decade, the answer was an obvious “no.” He called those who objected to avant-garde racism an “online lynch mob” comprised of “thuggish… fascist jackboots.” The Language Poet Barrett Watten also said that Place’s critics resembled drones, hovering to attack. What is noticeable about these comments, what one finds curiously insidious about the appropriations of Goldsmith, Place, and Johnson—is how they appropriate the wounds caused by American empire itself. It is not enough for the colonizer to own the world—the only thing missing, the only thing escaping his grasp, is to own the trauma that he himself authored.

For me, Robert’s postulation—is there an English/American poetics that accounts for the pathologized “I”?—is a question that must be asked over and over again. Wang ends with Kapil’s haunting and happy-go-lucky fractured words: “Though the words were broken, yet she expressed herself in a wonderful way” (90). Such is the power of this book, the collection of these four essays, stringed together by collective containers, life experiences, divulged markers. When I think of avant-garde Asian American poetry, I think instead how it was not born only as response, not necessarily out of need for creation, but of naming that which is monstrous, both within/without, and creating the conditions in which we can speak/name the monstrosity, the interpellation. I think of such: America is the monstrous. America, the land of erasure. America, the erupting. America, the land that needs, wants, devours binaries, containers, markers, labels, excuses, scandals. America the monstrous erupting seeking identity. We have always been erupting. So, we write. We write and write and write.


msipinBatibot: small but terrible. Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, CA. She won Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open and the Washington Square Review’s Flash Fiction Prize. She co-edited Kuwento: Lost Things, an anthology on new Philippine myths by Carayan Press, and her work is inGlimmer Train, Guernica, ON SQU, PANK Magazine, Hyphen Magazine, Midnight Breakfast, and Eleven Eleven, among others. Melissa cofoundedTAYO Literary Magazine and teaches at Old Dominion University. Find her at msipin.com.

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