Marliyn Chin, “How I Got That Name”

To continue with poetry engaged with questions of race, I present to you Marilyn Chin, a wonderful poet, novelist, and voice for justice. She is the winner of the prestigious Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Poetry, a national prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity, which includes Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Junot Díaz and Toni Morrison among its winners.

Chin was born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon. Her books have become Asian American classics and are taught in classrooms internationally. Marilyn Chin has read her poetry at the Library of Congress. She was interviewed by Bill Moyers’ and featured in his PBS series The Language of Life and in PBS Poetry Everywhere. (I copied this stuff directly from her website. She has a gorgeous website. Her book covers are gorgeous.)

Hard Love Province 9_10.indd

I went looking for her work because I remember this poem, “How I Got That Name” from a class, or a listserve, or something in my past. Once you read this poem, you never forget it. You can read it at with her biography. You can also find her at the Poetry Foundation, with another of her amazing poems, the astounding (visually and auditory) “Brown Girl Manifesto (Too)” — that one you have to read out loud. Here’s one blogger’s analysis of it, and whether it’s racist against white people!

The poem I’m sharing today, “How I Got That Name” contains some playful, caustic, brutal, hysterical and terrifying imagery. For example:

History has turned its stomach
on a black polluted beach—
where life doesn’t hinge
on that red, red wheelbarrow,
but whether or not our new lover
in the final episode of “Santa Barbara”
will lean over a scented candle
and call us a “bitch.”
Oh God, where have we gone wrong?
We have no inner resources!

(Please note the reference to William Carlos William’s famous poem — a poem that describes a reality Chin doesn’t feel welcome to, welcome in…. I’m going along horrified, until I get to that last bit, “We have no inner resources!” — then I have to laugh out loud.)

And then this bit, where an Asian-American woman, writes with perfect seriousness:

She was neither black nor white,
neither cherished nor vanquished,
just another squatter in her own bamboo grove
minding her poetry—

You really have to read this poem several times to catch all the references.

In case these little snippets don’t tempt you to read further, here’s a line from “Brown Girl Manifesto (Too)” —

Succumb to the low-lying succubus     do!

Chin’s voice is wide-ranging, rhythmic, musical, self-deprecating, funny, exploratory and absolutely poke-you-with-a-stick unforgiving. I hope you like it as much as I do.

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