By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
A poetry series featuring Asian American poets will soon kick off at Town Hall Seattle, in collaboration with KUOW. Curated by local poet and visual artist, Shin Yu Pai, the series, titled “Lyric World: Conversations with Contemporary Poets,” will offer a unique, affordable avenue for enjoying and supporting notable AAPI artists of the written word.
Town Hall Seattle is diverse in its offerings, yet still could use a boost towards greater representation of non-white headliners.
“I’ve organized many different kinds of programs in Seattle over the years, but this is the first time that I’m dedicating an entire season…to highlighting underrepresented voices,” explained Pai. “People have said to me, ‘Yeah, that series is so white. We need to get some diversity in there…’ I wanted to design a program that celebrates writers of the Asian diaspora, that centers their experiences, and gives them a platform to talk about their practice.” The series will be recorded and broadcast by KUOW, and each session will include a poetry reading, facilitated on-stage conversation with a fellow creative, and a musical artist. The poets are some of those that Pai has known and admired over the years.
Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma, an Okinawan-American poet living on Vashon Island, will kick off the series with his poetry on the subject of magic and wonder. Pruiksma regularly performs what he calls his “poet’s magic” to audiences on Vashon and elsewhere.
“I think we can experience through poetry…a kind of wide-eyed open wonder, the freshness of a child exploring the world,” Pruiksma said. He cherishes the opportunity to witness, during his presentations, “that childlike wonder awaken in people who’ve had a rough day or they have worldly concerns on their minds. To see a middle-aged man [and] suddenly this 7- or 8-year-old shining out of his eyes—I love that!” Pruiksma will read from his new book of poems, “The Safety of Edges,” and will also likely include material from Tamil translations he has done.
“Both magic and wonder have been important to me as metaphors of the human experience…I’m interested in how poetry can lead to an appreciation not just of a poem, but of the world itself, of the poetry of the world, and the poetry of our own lived experience…Poetry allows us to say things we couldn’t otherwise say.”
Pruiksma’s approach emphasizes the thrill of that “a-ha” moment when we capture the meaning of a poem, or when we understand the shared experience described by a poem.
Poems can be fun, yet they can also be an effective vehicle for expressing our heavier emotions.
Prageeta Sharma will be reading from her new book of poems, “Grief Sequence,” which focuses on “the themes of losing my husband to esophageal cancer and the effects of the dying process and loss on my life.” Through her poems, Sharma “learned how to examine this acute experience of suffering, combined with my own brand of hostile feelings about the loss of my husband, to something deeply transformative…” Formerly a Seattle resident, Sharma now teaches at Pomona College in California. Her parents hail from India, and were supportive of poetry in their home.
“Poetry has always been the place where I’ve been given a voice and can speak as truthfully as I am able,” Sharma related. “I think it can speak to communities about collective joy, suffering, and connection. I also think it makes us feel our own energy about what we are passionate about.” While the poems Sharma will be sharing are not explicitly about race, she is “still writing from an intersectional space where the speaker has faced hostility, racism, and dismissal around the grieving process…I am writing to my communities about grieving and loss. I have been so supported by many Asian and Asian American poets and we all write to hold each other close.”
The third poet of the series, Koon Woon, will take a direct approach to race and ethnicity, with the theme of displacement. Woon, who has himself experienced homelessness, said that “the notion of displacement is not only existentially relevant for me personally, it is now a global phenomenon, and as global warming continues, it will increasingly be a global problem that may even be intractable. Whereas my displacement now is largely psychological, other people are abandoning their birthplace, risking life and limb, going to other places to eek out a living…It is becoming imperative that we become aware of this urgent problem and the reasons behind it.”
Woon, whose family goes back seven generations in this region, came to Washington state from China in 1960. He will be reading from his first book of poems, “The Truth in Rented Rooms,” and possibly from his memoir, “Paper-son Poet.”
“I will chronicle my life from birth and the first 9 years in a timeless village in China to the Cyber and Space Age of modern America.”
Like Pruiksma and Sharma, it is part of Woon’s objective to persuade the public of both the enjoyment and healing possibilities of poetry.
“Poetry came to me at a time when I really needed it,” he shared. “I was battling mental illness and in the depth of my fears and delusions, I turned to poetry…We all face the absurdity of the void. But to make a meaning for ourselves, poetry, the arts…are needed…It has been said, ‘an ulcer is an unwritten poem.’ Poetry, whether one is reading it or composing it, involves all the faculties of our being—the emotional, the intellectual, and even the physical, as the rhythm of the words make you want to dance.”
While poetry, in many ways, may seem to be, and indeed often is, a private art form, it is clear from the experience of these individuals that there are benefits to both artist and audience that can be reaped from sharing. Pai, who has had extensive experience collaborating with other artists and presenting her art to the public, is familiar with these advantages.
“It’s very important that all writers have this opportunity to test their ideas and think out loud,” she stressed. Woon said, “I hope that at the Town Hall reading, I can motivate some in the audience to want to go to a poetry reading in their neighborhood, or to more readings like this one, or check out a book of poems from the library, or try to write a line or two of a poem.”
Lyric World: Conversations with Contemporary Poets runs from Jan. 30–June 25. Tickets and information about the series can be found via townhallseattle.org/event/lyric-world.