Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Chen Chen reads “Lone Star Kundiman (For the Guy Who Seized My Arm After I Accidentally Cut the Line for the Toilet in Austin)” by Patrick Rosal.
Hey Chen, before we get deep into this poem I’d like to start by saying that I’m a total sucker for long titles—I think it comes from my scientific background where for a while I’m pretty sure scientists were competing to give their articles the longest titles imaginable. This title takes the cake. So, first question, when it comes to a title are you a fan of the one worders—“Winter”—or obscenely long titles like the one you’ve read for us today?
Chen: Obscenely long. Yes. I mean, the title of my forthcoming book is When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. And recently I had a poem published called “I am reminded via email to resubmit my preferences for the schedule.” I love long titles. I love titles that are full, obnoxious sentences. But I also love the one worders. It’s so bold just to call a poem “Winter” or “Snafu” or “Poem.” Louise Glück has the plainest titles and she makes it kinda badass. So in my book I also have very short, humble titles. Titles all in lower case. Titles that require a magnifying glass. Molecular, nano titles. You know, for balance.
Chris: With the pop song references, the triumphant double slap redemption, and those final two lines I find myself terrified at what the narrator experiences, but also laughing and cheering on their vindication. Am I reading more humor into this piece than is actually present, or is that something you experience in this poem as well?
Chen: Definitely humor here. Which we can also think about in maybe a darker way—that the humor in the poem indicates or registers the (enormous) extent to which the speaker has experienced these racist microaggressions and so has come to see them as almost everyday. Well, because these incidents do happen all the time.
This discussion is making me think of a great moment from a great piece by Jacqui Germain: the phrase “c’est la vie” pops up in the middle of this piece, which is about being a black girl and hearing one’s white professor and white classmates casually throw around the n-word in the middle of a literature seminar. Because the texts feature that word. Because of whiteness. The phrase “c’est la vie” is so funny, the way it just shows up in the midst of all this awfulness. But the phrase is also completely serious. There’s a shrug the speaker of the piece seems to do, a shrug of “c’est la vie,” as in, “well this kind of thing happens and happens and here we are again here we go okay but not okay.”
As a queer Asian American, I do see and use humor as a coping mechanism, a survival tool, a form of awareness and knowledge that lets me be inventive in the face of a violation or erasure. Still, it’s not exactly healing, this kind of humor. It can be a band-aid on a gaping wound.
That’s what Rosal seems to be getting at: the fact that the speaker and the man he accidentally cuts in the line, both of them are dealing with a lack. The poem’s wrestling with these notions of strength versus power, compassion versus domination, healthy personhood/agency versus toxic masculinity. The speaker questions his own capacity for compassion. The man the speaker cuts clearly needs to question his lack of compassion, or patience, in that moment in the bathroom line. The speaker, as a Filipino American man, as one historically and presently oppressed, points out how exiting the bar in Austin doesn’t really solve anything. He still has to face a city, a state, a country that tends not to see people like him. The other guy, the white man, can go on to use the encounter as a chance to really learn something or to dismiss it as some random, irritating event. The other guy can literally go “c’est la vie” and be done with it. The last sentence of the poem, “No white boy left behind” is similarly complicated in its humor, I think.
Chris: It seems that Rosal’s use of humor is doing a lot of work in this poem as it raises the questions you’ve pointed out in regards to race, oppression, and the need to evaluate one’s compassion and empathy (or lack thereof). In addition to the humor, what is Rosal doing in this poem that you find to be essential to you as a writer?
Chen: I’m struck by his use of the pronoun “you,” which shifts from being the guy in the bathroom line (“how you eyed me to my place with your little smark”) to being, perhaps, the reader, or some generalized person (“In Texas, you can sit in a diner…”). But that second kind of “you” doesn’t seem generic to me, doesn’t seem to be a synonym for “one.” The “you” is at once another “I” and a kind of “you” that inhabits an othered, racialized body. I read the lines, “you practice what it’s like to be the last man on earth/or the first one to land in a city where no one sees you” as a particular experience, an experience of being an Asian American man. I’ve felt this kind of invisibility and erasure. I’m living in a Texas city myself at the moment. Few Asian Americans here, probably far fewer than there are in Austin, Rosal’s setting for this poem. I love Rosal’s use of the “you,” how the gaze of the poem shifts, how the poem asks a reader to inhabit an Asian American perspective as both “I” and “you,” how the poem asks the person who was “you” in the beginning to try seeing things as this “you,” this person who’s “in a city where no one sees you.” And when someone does see you, it’s to put you back in your (unthreatening, obedient, invisible) place. I think also of Claudia Rankine’s use of the “you” in her book, Citizen. The disorienting, destabilizing possibilities of the second person.
Chris: Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene in this poem that stands out above the others? Is there a piece of this poem that is most important to you, or does it change every time you read “Lone Star Kundiman”?
Chen: My favorite lines are: “Truth is, I couldn’t stop to consider how we both live/in a country mostly afraid of the difference between/strength and power.” I’ve been thinking and thinking about this difference, how these two words can mean radically different things. How power depends on hierarchies, binaries, absolutes, forms of domination. How strength is rooted in the difficult/lucky practice of love, community, open communication, vulnerability, an embrace of the unknown. Thinking this way is making me rethink a term like “empowerment.” Do we want to be powerful? Is power all about our own individual success? Does power always reproduce itself? Its assumptions and structures? Are we making real decisions or are we merely helping to perpetuate the world as we know it?
Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. His work has appeared in two chapbooks and in publications such as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Phantom, Drunken Boat, and Poem-a-Day. A Kundiman and Lambda Literary fellow, Chen is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. For more, visit chenchenwrites.com.
Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). You can find his poetry in Appalachian Heritage, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: the Journal, and elsewhere. Chris currently plays too much Civ V, nearly purchased the Sid Meier’s Civilization board game, and is searching couch cushions for enough change to buy a new desktop PC and a copy of Civilization VI.