‘Spoken Word’ turns life into art

The color yellow

Brings forth creativity.

Thank God I’m Asian.

This senryu, performed by Catzie Vilayphonh at “Spoken Word,” summarizes the attitude that pervaded Goodrich Hall when she and three other professional poets arrived to commemorate and advance Asian awareness. The poetry reading, sponsored by AASiA, ACE, MinCo, the Asian Studies Department and the English department, was organized by Eric Hsu ’05. Introducing the event, Hsu explained that he hoped it would inspire a more active poetry community at Williams. Thursday night’s reading proved to be a step in the right direction; the visiting poets, who made no effort to conceal their agendas or hide their anger, breathed new life into Williams’s poetry scene.

Hsu, along with Williams students Jane Stimpson ’05, Caroline Fan ’03, Jenny Lott ’05 and Faith Lim ’05 opened the event by reading their own selections. Stimpson’s poem, a prolonged and dizzying sequence of rhyming statements, brimmed with examples of dozens of English words ending with the letters “-tion.” Stimpson set a precedent for the evening, not in her choice of subject matter, which was vague, but in the way in which she read her verse; each poet that followed her attempted to perform with similar attention to rhythm.

Hsu’s poem, titled “Sufferness,” meanwhile, reminded the audience of the primacy of emotions in poetry, while Lim’s poem reflected on the sacrifices that her mother, an immigrant, had to make in order to pursue a better life. Gradually the student poems became more and more attuned to the purpose of “Spoken Word,” which above all was meant to address issues that Asian Americans presently face.

The emphasis on the present became apparent as the professionals took the stage. Bao Phi, Giles Li and the duo of Michelle Myers and Catzie Vilayphonh – known collectively as Yellow Rage – all seemed too young to carry the title “professional.” Still, each demonstrated a commitment to the themes and a fulfillment of the artistic techniques and choices that the Williams students had only attempted in their performances. All of them had their poems memorized and well-rehearsed. In the end, each gave a performance, not a reading, of his or her poetry.

Despite the skill with which they created their poems and executed their performances, their poetry represented the genre of a new generation; the title of “professional” pertained to their expertise in this emerging genre. Their focus on the present – on the world around them, their heritage, and what the combination of these two forces meant for their identity – was the essence of this genre. Their words, then, predicted the trajectory that Asian American thought will follow in the coming years.

Phi, a poet from Minneapolis, Minn., and Li, a poet from Boston, Mass., performed first, alternating turns in the spotlight. Phi presented “Two Tongues,” offering his feelings about the struggle to unite his Vietnamese and American selves.

Later in the program, he also performed “Bread and Glass,” a poem he wrote for his mother. “Bread and Glass” described his frustrations at having to entertain his mother’s boss at a dinner party in her honor: “But I bite down on my tongue more than on my mother’s food.” His resentment toward his mother’s boss stemmed from her lack of appreciation for his mother, who received little recognition for her work. Present in all of Phi’s poems were his reactions to the trials of being an Asian American: being underappreciated and misunderstood, not merely by others, but by himself.

Li opened his segment of “Spoken Word” by reading a letter expressing his love for Asian America and his determination that the subculture be held together when faced with conflict. In “Displaced Memories” Li relayed instances of violence against not only Asian Americans, but minorities in general, complaining that he and others were “treated like a dog” when they weren’t being “accused of eating them.”

In “Memoirs of a Redneck” he reacted to reading “Memoirs of a Geisha” and likened a white man writing about the plight of an Asian woman to his attempting to portray the life of a Louisiana teenager. The poem presented Li at his most humorous, but cutting lines like “her life is his own personal sweatshop” evidenced underlying anger. He cited other, more subtle examples of this abuse from white society in “Stutter,” a poem in which he mentioned his efforts as a child to blend in to those around him so that, paradoxically, someone would finally “see” him. Overcoming the desire to blend in involved finding his true self in poetry; he concluded with his revelation that now he makes “history every day.”

Yellow Rage, based in Philadelphia, elaborated on the themes of Phi and Li, but gave them a feminist edge. Myers and Vilayphonh began with “Listen, Asshole!” – a rant that commanded audience participation and ultimately conveyed the duo’s overwhelming anger at having Asian American culture perpetually misrepresented and misunderstood. “Strong Asian Female” exemplified this complaint; Myers and Vilayphonh performed it to convince the audience that they were not “cute” Asian females. As if to reinforce this point, Vilayphonh wore a t-shirt with the words “F – – – You” printed squarely across the front.

With Yellow Rage, even more so than with Phi and Li, the determination and agility of the poets transformed their poetry into musical chants. At times it was difficult to catch their words, but in these cases, their rhythms and the tone of their voices proved more important in conveying what they meant. Like the attention Stimpson gave to the rhythm of her verse at the beginning of the night, at moments the poetry of “Yellow Rage” was also reduced to a dizzying and captivating array of syllables.

Though strongest when they performed together, the duo split so that each woman had her chance to read individually. In “Notes from the Underground,” Myers expressed the need to “end action without conscience,” citing the 1982 murder of an Asian-American man by two whites. Catzie touched on similar issues, but took the opportunity to laugh with her audience in her reading of the silly “Deep Love Poem,” and to ponder the nature of her art form in “What Poetry Is.” She remembers feeling that poetry was like Ivy League schools, “just something I can’t get into,” before recognizing that poetry was far more direct: “I’m just thinking out loud.” As if not to confuse the audience, however, Yellow Rage ended together with “I’m a Woman, Not a Flava,” reminding everyone of their primary agenda: to be angry, and to advance Asian-American awareness through this anger.

Thursday night was about anger of the poets just as much as it was about everything that made them angry. But it was also about the hope that this anger might transform into greater awareness of its source. The genre of poetry that emerged on Thursday night managed to advance the poetry scene at Williams as well. It is an interesting coincidence that poetry with an agenda of its own had an agenda at Williams, too. No longer restricted to the traditional, the College’s poetry community can now look forward to greater activity by tackling issues that should concern us all.

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