December 16, 2008 by ktanemura

Kaya Press is the only Asian American literary press in the world, and their list includes Kimiko Hahn, Ishle Yi Park, Sesshu Foster, R. Zamora Linmark, Jose Garcia Villa, and other staples of Asian American writing. Thanks to the vision of Kaya’s longtime editor, Sunyoung Lee, Asian America’s alternative writing has not only had an outlet, but has, in many ways, trumped Asian American “big names” in both quality and originality. Kaya’s latest poetry release is Lisa Chen’s debut collection, “mouth,” a lyrical, playful book that swings from Angel Island barracks to reality shows. Chen is a graduate of the Iowa Workshop but, unllike so much MFA poetry, her work seems to be both in dialogue with other Asian American texts, and fiercely independent from any standardized way of writing.

While “mouth” is just explorative enough to be called “experimental,” Chen mixes short lyrics with longer, fragmented pieces and surrealist prose poems. Here is one of her lyrics, A Body Standard:

A man’s innnocence is in his nipples,
tender and hapless as the nose of a cat,
color of fancy hand soap, peaches, pickled ginger,
they are the plump buttons sewn
on a child’s overalls, a sweet
the chest is surprised to have them.
Aureoles: the eye scanning the body’s relief,
landing, finally, on two dots: you are here, and here.

This poem employs some of the silly-sweetness of the New York School without the out-of-control hyper-masculanized comedic trainwrecks of Koch and O’Hara.

Other poems in “mouth” are more challenging. Sequela, for example, begins with 2 epigraphs–one from Arthur H. Smith, writing in the 19th century about “Chinese Characteristics.” According to Smith, “eating is the normal condition” of the Chinese. The other epigraph is from a Jan. 6 1993 issue of the New York Times, which chronicles the story of Chinese students who cooked and ate the bodies of their principals who were perceived to be “counterrevolutionaires.” Chen’s poem is not a direct a commentary on either of these epigraphs. But a bewildered Asian American speaker tries to put the pieces of this puzzle together: “Say it was something in the water, my city / of Dahmers, say a hungrer struck / among those seized by a fever and marooned.” It’s as if the speaker is situated in an accidentally transnational arena via the act of cannibalism as reported on the news. An American city, an American psycho killer, 19th century “sociological” perspectives of Chinese, and white liberal NY Times skewed documentation all converge in this medley where italics are used to say, “China has brought forth a Mao Zedong. /And power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

“mouth,” in Sesshu Foster’s words, “startles with soulful complexity,” and Linh Dinh calls it “hip.” Having followed Kaya Press’s list for over a decade, I think Lisa Chen’s “mouth” is easily one of the best poetry books on their list. It’s also an interesting contribution to contemporary American literature. Give it a listen.

Lisa Chen
Kaya Press, 2007
75 pages, Paper $13.95