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Blog Educators Poetry Reading & Writing Teachers Woman. Warrior. Writer.

Woman. Warrior. Writer. Lisa Kwong

Meet July’s Woman. Warrior. Writer. Lisa Kwong!

A native of Radford, Virginia, Lisa Kwong is AppalAsian, a member of the Affrilachian Poets, and the author of Becoming AppalAsian(Glass Lyre Press). Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets, A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and other publications. She teaches at Indiana University and Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana.

To preview Kwong’s poems, check out these links:

http://www.stilljournal.net/lisa-kwong-poetry.php

http://www.stilljournal.net/lisa-kwong-poetry2021.php

How did you come to author your life?

I belong to many different communities; I also don’t belong anywhere sometimes. I’ve been the daughter of laborers in a room of professors’ and doctors’ kids or the “fat” one in a group of petite Asian women. I know the pain of being unseen, unheard, and misunderstood.

Through writing, I want to honor my family, to make sense of being an Asian from Appalachia, to celebrate, to mourn, to heal. I hope that my work can inspire others to be proud of who they are and where they come from. Writing gave me a voice when I didn’t have one. I hope it can help others to speak up for themselves, too.

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Educators Hawai'i Poetry Reading & Writing Teachers Woman. Warrior. Writer.

Woman. Warrior. Writer. Debra Kang Dean

 

Meet March’s Woman Warrior Writer Debra Kang Dean! Debra Kang Dean is the author of two prize-winning chapbooks and three full-length books of poetry. Totem: America, her most recent book, was shortlisted for the 2020 Indiana Authors Award in Poetry. Long engaged with taijiquan, she is on the poetry faculty of the Sena Naslund-Karen Mann School of Writing.

 How did you come to author your life?

Although the words “woman,” “warrior,” and “writer” separately apply to different facets of my being, it might be truer to say that life keeps authoring me—not as subject but in terms of the kind of writer I am. Widowed at fifty, I find those words rearranging themselves, each taking its turn as a verb. I have never forgotten reading how some post-menopausal women became ambiguous figures in one tribal society and so were able to move in the spaces between conventional boundaries—not an especially good fit for our very gendered, youth-oriented culture, but one that has helped me to keep the self that creates intact and persist through changing inner and outer weather. The struggle is real, but remember: This work is no small thing.

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Belief and Philosophy Divorce Passing in the Middle Kingdom Poetry Reading & Writing Self-help

Passing in the Middle Kingdom: When I Sleep

This poem When I Sleep was first published in an anthology released by the Asian American Women’s Artists Association Cheers to Muses. I believe there are still hard copies of this book available through the organization. Work exhibited or featured ranged from sculpture to prints to writing. We do not create in a vacuum; at any time there are others who are creating, making, and expressing, and it’s important to note that we are not alone in this way. Women who have chosen a path predicated on expression and creativity often find themselves on the fringes of a society, and so it is important to know that you are not alone in this endeavor, that is often looked upon by outsiders as rather peculiar. It’s important to note that there are avenues of art that are always accepted by society should they fall into the matrix of womanly arts–these are not to be dismissed. But when you begin to question existing narrative frameworks art becomes dangerous.

Always remember that writing is a radical act. And as anyone who writes will tell you: writing is not a choice; it’s a compulsion.

I was remembering what a Korean American friend of my sister’s once told her: “Why can’t you just conform?” LOL. This is such a terrifying statement on so many levels. What was it about how this young woman was raised that she would level this type of criticism? Rather terrifying. The world finds so many ways to keep women compliant.

The poem below was a real dream I had many years before I divorced. I was extremely unsettled, filled with anxiety, but it was difficult for me to discern why or how as seemingly, everything on on the surface seemed to be as it should. Child. Spouse. House. Work. Check. Check. Check. It’s the potential hell of surface oriented idea of a heteronormative nuclear family that is a disguise for unrest and discontent. I found out years later, unsurprisingly that many people I knew were more or less drug-filled, bodies numbed from what modern capital declares is contentment. Purpose and happiness are complicated when it comes to obligations and definitions of women and place. Our bodies know what our minds fail to grasp. There is no peace without sleep, lack of sleep is a form of madness, and this absurd modern condition is the killing of what it means to be who are meant to be. What does one do if the dreams offer no release from the day? If the day is a continuation of what is reflected in a dream?

This poem underwent quite a few drafts. It is much shorter than the original, but I tried to keep the idea of the upset of the ordinary: How we squelch the true ideas we must confront in the daily habits of washing our face, walking across the floor, going to sleep. At this point too, I began to see how the power of beauty, youth stands with age.

There is too a refusal to awaken, because to truly rise means to live seamlessly between what is honest and to acknowledge what most deny. We live this way to shore up some idea of what should be– that is rooted in concepts of scarcity and fear.

The ideal state is to live without denial of who and what you are, to peel off the layers of sleep that seep into our waking hours, to boldly move your body, all of who you are, into a state of consciousness rooted in an awareness of mortality. Calm. Acceptance. Peace. Joy.

And now I head to the water. Have a great day. Aloha.

 

 

When I Sleep

 

Memory drowns in dreams—

monsters of the deep bare incisors,

scrape with scales.

Incandescent. Ravenous.

Earth’s belly spits a picture:

you run on a meadow to muses,

blossoms of poetry.

I lift my hands in a corner of disbelief.

 

Trapped by morning.

Eyes raise to the sun.

Escape vanquished by daylight’s rip.

Night’s pictures, a pornographic loop.

 

I am sorry, but I too

have impossible songs that swell.

We bend, but the nightly reprieve will not halt.

 

I splash water onto my face,

note lines on my neck,

imagine words murmured in your sleep

did not leak into my own.

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Belief and Philosophy Gods and Pineapples Hawai'i Health Poetry Self-help

Hawai’i: Stars and Pines

Diamond Head Cemetery. A Cook pine from New Caledonia. Yellow stars that poured from a tree? Anyone know the name? The ground as sky. The dead slumber. Decades pass. Beloved Mother. In Loving Memory. She loved the sea. Flowerless. Forgotten. This heaven was the toil of stiff hands. The invention of paradise. Lost. Airplane-filled. A single taste. A myth cascades. Rock and soil call the return to dust. Go back to where you came from.

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Belief and Philosophy Divorce Health Passing in the Middle Kingdom Poetry Reading & Writing Self-help

Passing in the Middle Kingdom: Genus Mui Wo

This is Mui Wo at night. The path up to my former home. It’s wonderfully quiet and there’s a calm truth to being outside with the frogs and the darkness in utter safety. Forgotten. Lost. Present.

I always felt very out of place in Hong Kong, but I have concluded that this is the nature of the city, both historically and currently, as it is a population that has been shaped by the confluence of trade, politics, and capital. It’s about movement and rather abrupt in that if you are not from the city, it’s where you come to make a deal. I always found it rather humorous that expatriates would jabber on about how HK people were unmerciful and solely concerned with finance. But uh…everyone who was there, the expatriate community–they were there to make money. Very very few expatriates are there to immerse themselves in Cantonese culture or are interested in the native population other than the ways that they provide an avenue for the accumulation of their own personal wealth or well-being. Arguably, there are many cities like this, but the racial and social hierarchies are complex in this city. Not always, but it can be very “us and them.”

There’s the indigenous population,  those that migrated from other parts of China, and those who were part and of the former British Empire–government officials, bankers, carpetbaggers, military, and explorers. Finally, there were those like me, a Korean American who ended up in Hong Kong purely by random chance, a default of a marriage to a Brit.

I was an expatriate, but not of Chinese descent, and not from the UK, nor the Commonwealth, so this made the dynamic quite different for me culturally.

A Commonwealth friend once excitedly exclaimed that there was an English speaking woman on the ferry, and in celebration of a new woman in town, there would be a get together welcoming her! There was even a gathering to greet the arrival of a Western white woman. This is when I realized the depth of the difference in the way I negotiated my existence as an expatriate of Asian descent. When you look like the majority of the population, even if you speak English, there are no Welcome Wagons for you. I thought that this must have been what life was like on the prairie in the 19th century. Like, oh the wagon is bringing out a woman from back Home etc… I know there are Korean Welcome Wagons, but personally, I have never experienced this type of thing because my identity has been so fluid. I hadn’t expected any Welcome Wagon, but I realized that life as an expatriate was different if you were not Asian and spoke English.

I remember my mom got a Welcome Wagon basket from a neighbor when we moved to Memphis. This was decades ago so my parents were integrating the white neighborhood and there was a lot of curiosity about them. I would be mortified because right when the conservative white Southern Baptist woman swung by, my mom would be there with the cleaver whacking on the cutting board with garlic rising and I could see the expression of the person’s face: “Oh my, what interesting new people…” Yes, they were different creatures in that space.

There’s a very old comedy Eddie Murphy Saturday Nite Live skit where he gets on the bus as a black/white person and the differing reactions. So often I’d hear the rantings of people’s derisive anti-Chinese comments and simply act like I didn’t understand English. I passed–hence what came to be the title of my poetry manuscript. In Asia, you have access to spaces if you are English speaking. The caste and color line become very nuanced and complicated. I had some tremendous opportunities that would not have been given to me had I been in the US. As an Asian face with lousy Asian language skills, my value was measured. If you don’t have Mandarin, given the politics of the place, it’s tough now for many, but some of the ways you move through society are personality-based.

I thought about being a different kind of species–Genus Mui Wo…I believe I was evolving into something else too, something I could not recognize. There are many ways that being out of your cultural milieu can challenge your value system, what you know about yourself, how you see the world. I was better and worse, potentially more extreme versions of who I am. This is a physical visceral sensation. My parasympathetic system was entirely out of whack. I was not feeling who I was within my former partnership, and also within my own relationship to myself. Who is the self? What is my species? How pedestrian am I? I move from being a creature of the sea to one of the sky. In a sense, this is also the story of earthly evolution. We are all from the sea and before that, the stars, and to this end we will return. Stardust.

And let’s face it, while I didn’t intend it deliberately as I wrote this piece, it touches on this idea: did you ever notice how the future is depicted in media? There are outer space creatures that have vaguely Asiatic features often featured in spandex LOL. The idea is HEY those people are MIGHTY WEIRD. Let’s uh, make them sci fi characters LOL. Because we can’t imagine them. They are perpetually Other and Foreign. As Takaki wrote, we are Strangers From a Different Shore.  I think this has long been part of my awareness of difference–being treated like a different species…so there’s that.

The reference to Korea: I almost drowned in the mountains of Korea, outside of Seoul, when I was six. We were crossing a stream, my uncle who carried me slipped. A cousin grabbed me as I went under. I pulled my uncle’s hair. It took years of swimming lessons for me to learn how to swim, although once I did, I swam quite well. After the near drowning, I would sit on the shallow end of the pool on the stairs. I hated washing my face. I terrified of the water. My mother was from Hawai’i, and while she wasn’t a particularly good swimmer, (the Mom Swim: sunglasses on, face always above water lol) I was expected to swim.

After I could finally swim, she insisted I dive. I refused. I would jump over the swimming instructor’s arm, do anything to avoid being upside down. Undaunted, my mother hired the university diving coach. He took me by my feet, hung me upside down like a fish, and said on the count of three I would be dropped in. Splash! He did this several times, and again the next day, and after that–I could dive! I was 10 or 11. Thanks, Mom! Someday I’ll write about the rip tide which still leaves me with some anxiety, but that’s for later…

Reading this poem again, I recognize that I was fatigued, bored, frustrated, and exhausted by the marriage, but yes, I had the minnow, my small child, and so I stayed, as many do. I felt more dead than alive, but my child kept me going. I poured everything onto the page as there was nowhere else to leave it. You start to collapse into yourself. As a child I escaped by reading and writing. During the course of my marriage I read and write to escape amassing pages and degrees and doing whatever I could to avoid my physical reality.

All the while in Hong Kong, I could easily deconstruct how race and nation played out, but patriarchy was more difficult. I should say this was in specific to my own situation. When you are isolated emotionally you become inured to carelessness and cruelty and in the end, this is how and why you can become subject and vulnerable to abuse. In another cultural context too, one can become uncertain of the parameters and structures. Is this the story I know? Is this story playing out because I am in a different space? Where is the beginning and where is the ending? Existentialist type of questions.

I have a different kind of empathy now watching mothers with their small children if they are raising their children outside of their home culture. I can see all the anxiety, the concerns about doing what people are saying is best, but what, within your own culture doesn’t make sense.When you are not in your own milieu, your cultural values become uncertain and questioned. You must adapt–the question becomes what do you change, shift, and why?

I rewrote the ending of this piece many many times. But yes, I did grab that small hand and we ended up in Hawai’i–the ancestral home. Me and The Kid. Right across the street from where my family is buried.

 

 

 

Genus Mui Wo

 

Kick. Glide. An ageless alien floats.

Close eyes. Close eyes.

No tentacles, only gills, tales of tails.

To elude conscription

I snap skin from honey to olive,

declare citizenship,

nurse milk from stone,

scuttle over shallow water,

dodge mops. Hide. Seek.

Miscalculations of the moon stranded me.

Risks are for the hunt.

On and off the endangered species list,

experts argue: A bony beak.

Jelly lips. Feet trained to point.

I’m pedestrian,

a nylon-clad refugee,

swimming lap after lap.

Please, do not filet.

A diligent learner, I open jars, play puzzles.

Hostile conditions rendered me mute.

Survival, a testament to tenacity,

obedience, fear.

Plastic goggles squeeze eye sockets,

reveal loops ad infinitum.

***

I Almost Drown

DAY— KOREA — A MOUNTAIN CREEK.

We drive from the City. Two urban pale uncles hoist children on their shoulders, water skims chins. The sun flicks its light. Footholds missed! Kicks. Sputter. A strong arm. Saved by Cousin Ki-dong op-ah’s red and white inner tube. I am six. Shattered on the sandy river bank, twisted in bladderwrack, fish cheeks like pebbles, glassy eyes rimmed pink.

Years of failure, but Mother persists. This is not tennis! I butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, dive, hobble ashore with webbed feet. Beached, I weep for the sea.

fin

 FADE TO BLACK

***

My nocturnal mate provides shelter,

hunts with a weapon to his ear.

A stomach x-ray reveals a corroded past.

A beast-baring teeth, he attacks seaweed strands,

black painted lines.

I watch the show in silence.

Dolphin hooped: I applaud on demand.

I long to disappear,

but a tiny one swims by my side.

I stay.

Open a book. Tumble into words.

When the minnow pedals the prehistoric cycle,

I’ll shrink to a cloud bite in the blackest tea.

Before my organs drown and stop,

I dream the sea parts my heart,

walk the collapse of blueberry night,

and lick death’s sweet.

I note my eye’s lemon light,

marvel at my downy skin,

flex my talons.

Ready for flight!

I leap to private myths—

cloud wrap a phoenix belief

from shredded wings,

grab a small hand,

clutch my heart,

instinct pressing me home.

Categories
Belief and Philosophy Divorce Hawai'i Health Passing in the Middle Kingdom Poetry Self-help Woman. Warrior. Writer.

Passing in the Middle Kingdom: I Never Liked Redheads

This poem appeared in the hard copy journal Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine Intercourse and Intertextuality (2019).

Myself, ex, and child were in London. We stayed in Canary Wharf. Shout out to Mark Higham @theartshop360 for the image. I sat in the bathtub writing. Yes, at 3AM. I had spent the day alone pushing my child along in a stroller and went to the Tate. I can’t remember the exhibit. I remember wheeling the push chair as they say in UK English, or stroller as they say in American English, over concrete.

Lots of concrete. Are people still pouring concrete everywhere in an attempt to make floor fashionable? After living in a place where concrete dust was always flying due to buildings going up, I really loathe concrete. It’s a necessity, but why get worked up about it aesthetically?

By now, life was full-swing dysfunctional–although in retrospect, it was never functional and full of anxiety and abuse. There were only a few brief windows over the course of many years when there was any calm to the relationship. It was either volatility or boredom.

I see now from a distance that even in the early days (the reference below to steamy night was the night of Handover and meeting up in a bar in Lan Kwai Fong) there was an unease that later became a resignation. There was the stress of money, addiction, depression, passports, and whatever headaches that modern expatriate multi-national relationships potentially have. The difference at this point, which I clearly sensed, was infidelity, though I am now aware that lying is not something someone suddenly does. People lie. Or they don’t. Some lie more than others. At the root of lying is the fear of authenticity. My former mother-in-law was a redhead, which gives everything an Oedipal spin.

I wanted to create a poem that was very short and ambiguous, but not. There are always games of evasion and language. I like the poem now. Moreover, I inhabit such a different emotional space.

I. Am. Free.

I think that might be a new three-word poem. I think that’s about all I need to ever write. Because maybe, that’s all there really is. Once you start moving differently in your truth there is nothing more. This includes fear of Death. I may have some fear of certain physical gestures or movements (i.e. I don’t wear a hat anymore surfing because I tried to come up for air and the hat was in front of my face and I couldn’t get it off and it freaked me out), but fear of Death, no. I am truly not anxious…because yes, this is what it means to live in your own personal truth. You hit the end, and you’re okay with it.

 

I Never Liked Redheads

 

I see—

red hair and pale flesh straddling you.

I awaken,

sweat, kick in the dark.

 

I remember:

a silk dress damp against my skin

the steam of Hong Kong’s night

when you walked

in from the rain.

 

Desert sun on my back,

light spilled on your shoulders.

A soothing whisper, a baby born.

The wounds and crush.

 

Dream:

a journey down a silken road tropic solitude

walks in cold forests

slow, slow.

Poetry.

 

Truth:

long commutes, silent returns

a chase that devours.

Back to back

fast, fast.

Money.

 

I pen this in a hotel bathtub at 3AM,

rest on a brown cushion on cool porcelain.

You come in to pee.

I tell you the dream, you say,

I never liked redheads,

and return to sleep.