Friday, November 12, 2010


for the Asian American Writers Workshop Poetry Prizes! Here's what we judges had to say:

Winner for the Asian American Literary Award in Poetry
Poems of the Black Object
, Ronaldo V. Wilson (Futurepoem Books)

Judge: Sesshu Foster
If our origins emerge from the mix (mestizaje) of the history and politics of desire that arrive before we do, then impel us into being, in Poems of the Black Object Ronaldo V. Wilson takes hold of that root in language, compelling it to yield this prismatic expression in its most vivid contemporary living idiom. The lines gleam along a sharp edge and snap. Poems of the Black Object feels hard and fresh as if physically cracked open—like raw seafood at the ocean’s edge.

A Zen koan asks: What was your original face before you were born? (Or in another version: What was your original face before your parents were born?) In Ronaldo Wilson’s deft, muscular poems, one’s own original face emerges from the risk-fraught present moment in all its specificity (urban circumstances, the multiplicity of encounters) as if from underwater. Lifted through a radical grace of articulate prowess, desire arises even when brutalized or amputated, or cauterized by openness (“Who will taste the salt in my mouth? Feel the endless rip of the sun, its yellow light forced against the petrified pine.”) Refracted back through his own earlier intense (and intensely imagined) memory and sensation, the book ends with meditations on the suffering of others—a compassionate outward blossoming of the figure of “the black body.” This is a tremendous achievement.

Finalists for the Asian American Literary Award in Poetry
The Gingko Light, Arthur Sze (Copper Canyon Press)

Judge: John Yau
In The Gingko Light, Arthur Sze’s ninth collection of poetry, he continues to bring together a wild and unlikely array of facts, observations, and memories, suggesting how tenuous is the interconnectedness of everything to everything else. He makes the reader aware of the intricacies of the radiant world, where the survival of a gingko tree—which was “Once thought extinct” and now grows in New York City—populates “the chasm between what I envision and what I do.” It is that gap that Sze is always conscious of—the abyss between knowledge and desire, recognition and dream. Arthur Sze inhabits that place where feelings, thoughts and facts are in constant collision. He examines its unfolding slowly and patiently, always with a dispassionate eye, an awareness that mortality embraces us all. The result is a poetry full of love and generosity.

Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities, Kazim Ali (Wesleyan University Press)
Judge: Eileen Tabios
It's difficult to write autobiography as poetry and rely on sentences. One risks not having done enough to evaporate language from prose to poetry. Some poets rely on lyricism for this path, and certainly, Kazim Ali's Bright Felon is lyrical. But the challenge (and occasional beauty) of poetry is how it can be more than words, such that its architecture alone can facilitate poetry's blossoming. Herein lies the genius of Bright Felon: how Ali creates a coming-of-age story using traveled cities as infrastructure. The result is a luminously larger sum than all the genre-parts utilized: autobiography and travelogue, as well as meditations on literature, politics, art, cultures and religion. Bright Felon makes a stranger-reader care about the life of this poet, even as the memory of what was read becomes not just the narratives upon which the work relies but also the haunting tones that surface as the reader is moved to linger between words. In those spaces that words can only evoke, poetic resonance remains pure with music and light. Bright Felon presents a brilliantly unforgettable "accretion of sentences and waking up."

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