Happy Halloween! It's All Hallow's Eve when the spirits of women poets past are closer to our world than ever, and so today we're publishing Natalie Linh Bolderston's resurrection of Janice Mirikitani, a Japanese-American poet who forged the way for many Asian American poets writing today. Natalie first communed with Mirikitani on 22 October, to a packed-out cellar at Nelson's Bar, Hebden Bridge, during the Sylvia Plath Literary Festival. Keep an eye out for a podcast of the event, coming soOooOooOooooon...
While deciding who to ‘resurrect’ for this commission, I was thinking a lot about twentieth-century English-language poetry and who gets to be remembered, widely celebrated and canonised. I’ve always struggled with the fact that so much of this canon is white and male, and so I don’t often see myself or my experiences reflected. As a poet of colour, being able to read such work without feeling excluded — or at worst othered and exoticised — is a privilege I do not have.
This made me consider who my literary ancestors might be — who were the original trailblazers that broadened the literary landscape? Who made it possible for me to be a writer? To answer these questions, I started searching for Asian diaspora poets who began writing in the early to mid-twentieth century. While referring to an index of Asian American voices published by the Poetry Foundation, I came across Janice Mirikitani — a poet who did a lot of work in nurturing Asian diaspora writing — and knew straight away that I wanted to honour her.
Born in 1941 in Stockton, California, Janice Mirikitani was a Japanese-American poet, social activist and editor. When she was less than a year old, she and her family were forcibly moved a US internment camp — Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. Many such camps were set up to imprison Japanese Americans during World War Two; this was due to a racist government policy based on the idea that anyone with Japanese ancestry was a potential spy or saboteur working for the Japanese government.
As an adult, Mirikitani became a very determined social activist and served as a leader of the Glide Foundation, which is a San Francisco-based charitable organisation. Some of the projects she oversaw included meal distribution to people living in poverty, addiction recovery support, and sourcing emergency shelter.
She also often addressed social injustices in her writing and her interviews, and was very critical of movements and groups that reinforced problematic hierarchies. In an interview she did with Grace Kyungwon Hong, she spoke candidly about white feminism:
The bottom line question is, Who makes the decisions? Who has the power? If the power is not being shared equally by women of colour, it’s bullshit. To me you cannot ignore a population that is growing faster than any population in the state of California. Not having these women helping make the decisions about that movement, or that organization, or that structure, or whatever – it’s absolute hypocrisy.
Mirikitani’s crusade against such exclusionism carried over to the literary world; in the 1970s she edited Aion magazine, which is often credited as the first Asian American literary journal. (This is Open Access on JSTOR, and so can be downloaded and read for free.)
As well as this, Mirikitani wrote three collections, had three books of new and selected poems published, edited an anthology of Japanese American writing and served as San Francisco’s poet laureate in the year 2000. She died in 2021 at the age of 80.
Mirikitani’s approach to writing is perhaps best summarised in this quote, again taken from her interview with Grace Kyungwon Hong:
I don’t want to be approved or disapproved of according to somebody’s rules of what is good Asian American literature. We’ve gone through enough of that with white standards. To hell with that stuff. To me, a good poem is a good poem if it works. […] I’ve written shit: stuff that’s not me, not good, not real, not honest, not the truth. I’ve tried so hard to be Dylan Thomas or William Carlos Williams or tried so hard to sound like Keats or Wordsworth; it didn’t work. It was not me; it was irrelevant.
Reading her words, I was reminded of my own journey towards achieving a poetic voice that felt authentic to me, and how we as writers of colour might feel obliged to contort ourselves to feel welcome in certain spaces. As Mirikitani suggests, too often there is a sense of being measured against a white canon that feels irrelevant to us.
The soaring, ungovernable quality of her poems feels like the perfect antidote to this insularity. One of my favourites, ‘Poem to the Alien / Native’ (available to read for free in issue 1 of Aion), explores the female condition across multiple generations using folkloric imagery, creating its own internal logic: ‘The child wore trees in her limbs / and wove leaves to drape her breasts.’ For me, the poem’s erratic progression captures the nature of oral storytelling and memory: it’s clear then hazy; it jumps about and then coalesces; it is consistently difficult to pin down a linear narrative. All the way through, tenderness sits beside violence to create a strange, aching beauty: ‘Dream sucked the womb of a child / who slept in the lap of a small rain / The rain crushed flowers into earth.’
These themes of memory, storytelling, and matrilineal inheritance come up in many of Mirikitani’s other poems. Perhaps one of the most powerful examples is ‘Generations of Women’ (from We, the Dangerous: New and Selected Poems, Virago, 1995) — a multivocal, epic-like piece that refers to the stories of her grandmother and mother. Throughout the poem, these women’s histories are mostly relayed by a descendant — seemingly Mirikitani herself — but their own first-hand testimonies are also woven in. To me, that’s what writing poetry feels like: adding your voice to a chorus of other women, living and dead. One of the lines I resonate most with is ‘there are few places / that are mine’, because everything I create is written in collaboration with those women who haunt me.
The echoes across the different sections of ‘Generations of Women’ — the ‘white walls’ of racial slurs; the ‘losses that can’t be counted’; the many departures and separations — capture the pervasiveness of intergenerational trauma. However, other images — the preserved purple silk; the ‘sinews of their survival’ — also celebrate the strength and pride that we inherit from female ancestors. Fittingly, the poem ends on a deeply satisfying note of empowerment and reclamation:
Generations of women spilling each syllable with a loud, yellow noise.
Interestingly, in her interview with Hong, Mirikitani spoke about how some of her work arises from the ‘chasm of silence’ between her and her mother, whose absences were partly due to her need to hold down three jobs. Mirikitani went so far as to say, ‘I almost had to create a mother in her that I could imagine as opposed to what she really was to me.’ While, in contrast, a lot of my poetry is nurtured by the communication between me and my mum, my work also grows out of the silences surrounding our history — things that get lost or erased, or are altered by memory. Sometimes, all we have left is a patchwork of repeating images.
The poem that I wrote in response to Mirikitani’s work — ‘Three Generations of Snow’ — epitomises this fragmentary inheritance. I have taken to heart her reverence for matrilineal power, as well as her use of echoes and recurring images across generations. I wanted to explore my, my mother’s and my grandmother’s associations with snow and coldness, particularly since I was born in a different part of the world to the previous two generations. I’ve always found it interesting that my grandmother’s name means snow, although it doesn’t snow in Vietnam, where both she and my mother were born. In this poem, I began to think about what our names might mean to each of us.
Three Generations of Snow
by Natalie Linh Bolderston
A woman named for a whiteness
that has never touched her country.
A name that conjures the sugar on her lip,
the milk in her mother’s eyes, the loose threads
of her aunt’s dress.
An aunt who lost everything,
took to wearing white and striking the ground
with a branch.
The knotted shadow of a branch
that taught her to shiver,
to stiffen her mouth.
Her mouth open to the sky;
her wail a hard shaft of light.
A girl named as the sky bursts
A name that will bloom
on the smallest stretch of water,
no matter what collapses around it.
Water as a country
governed by those who scatter.
A woman who runs her country
through her fingers, lifts her face
to the carcass of the moon.
The moon pared down
by her father’s knife; her hands filled
with its cold splinters.
A cold that tugs at her navel,
scrapes the skin
from around her mouth.
Her mouth open to the sky;
her voice sheathed in crystal.
A child named as crystals vanish on her brow.
A name carved from an ancient journey,
a story of refuge.
Other stories, retold until they enter her body:
a moon empress who crossed frozen lakes barefoot;
a mountain spirit who held storms
on her tongue. Storms as a child’s breath,
unclenching across cracked glass; winter as a violence
she cannot help but love.
Love as a scar across her mother’s stomach,
like the zip of her raincoat. A mother who bares her back
for her child’s cold hands.
A child who carves her own face
into every story of winter.
Winter as a sparkling net
forming across her mouth.
Her mouth open to the sky;
her tongue burning on its blankness.
Note: each stanza is named after a type of snowflake according to the Magono and Lee naming system.
Natalie Linh Bolderston is a Vietnamese-Chinese-British poet. In 2020, she received an Eric Gregory Award and co-won the Rebecca Swift Women Poets’ Prize. Her poem ‘Middle Name with Diacritics’ came third in the 2019 National Poetry Competition and was shortlisted for the 2021 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. She is an alumna of the Roundhouse Poetry Collective, the London Library Emerging Writers Programme and the VanThanh Productions Development Programme. Her pamphlet, The Protection of Ghosts, was published by V. Press in 2019. She is now working on her first full-length collection.
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