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.

Gwendolyn Brooks: “The Lovers of the Poor”

Oh my. Oh my — slap in the face — goodness.

I went looking for an Easter poem, hoping to find one that also discusses race. This poem, “The Lovers of the Poor,” which is presented in all it’s terrible glory on the Poetry Foundation website, is such a poem. You can read it there, and also hear it read — I hope by the poet, although I am not sure. Listening to the poem, recited at a fast clip, is magical — the poem is full of rhythm and sounds that surge with a forward momentum, with words I don’t recognize and some made up, I expect. I had to read the poem several times through before I could catch all the meanings, the details, the depths.

I can’t possible explain the poem as well as the poem itself explains itself. So, please read it, or listen to it being read. Then notice details, such as these:

The pink paint on the innocence of fear; 

(What an amazing way to describe the faces of white women visiting the black neighborhood)


Their guild is giving money to the poor.
The worthy poor. The very very worthy
And beautiful poor. Perhaps just not too swarthy?
perhaps just not too dirty nor too dim
Nor—passionate. In truth, what they could wish
Is—something less than derelict or dull.
Not staunch enough to stab, though, gaze for gaze!
God shield them sharply from the beggar-bold!
The noxious needy ones whose battle’s bald
Nonetheless for being voiceless, hits one down.

(God protect the white women from the passion of the poor! The sounds in this section pound and gouge like clubs or knives…)


They …
Buy the right books in the best bindings; saunter
On Michigan, Easter mornings, in sun or wind.
Oh Squalor! This sick four-story hulk, this fibre
With fissures everywhere! Why, what are bringings
Of loathe-love largesse? What shall peril hungers
So old old, what shall flatter the desolate?
Tin can, blocked fire escape and chitterling
And swaggering seeking youth and the puzzled wreckage
Of the middle passage, and urine and stale shames
And, again, the porridges of the underslung
And children children children. Heavens! That
Was a rat, surely, off there, in the shadows? Long
And long-tailed? Gray? The Ladies from the Ladies’
Betterment League agree it will be better
To achieve the outer air that rights and steadies,
To hie to a house that does not holler, to ring
Bells elsetime, better presently to cater
To no more Possibilities, to get
Away. Perhaps the money can be posted.

(What happens to you when you see the word saunter followed so closely by squalor — and then swagger and then shadows … ?)

I had to think a long time before I understood the term “loathe-love largesse” — I think Brooks is describing the hate behind the faux love that presents itself as generosity — how the women who come to the slums love to feel their generosity, but hate the people (dirt, rats, noise, passion) they must be generous towards. What a beautiful sonorous name for something so ugly.

The mastery of language is amazing and humbling to me. The content of the poem slaps me in the face. I am ashamed of the times I’ve been afraid, and even more ashamed to remember how I hoped that my fear might not have been noticed.

Langston Hughes, “Dream Variations”

I have stated my desire to celebrate National Poetry Month by seeking and sharing poems about race. I love Langston Hughes’ work, but I think my reasons for sharing the poem I did on April 1 were more about my affinity for his youthful yearnings than about my promoting his poetry of race. To correct that, I offer today, his lyric of black and white, “Dream Variations.” Thank you to The Academy of American Poets.

Dream Variations

Langston Hughes, 19021967
To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
    Dark like me—
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance!  Whirl!  Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
    Black like me.

I can’t help but notice the movement in this poem, the whirling and dancing, which of course, reminds me of my own work, Twirlyword.

The image above is a collage by Susan Anthony. I adore her work.

Starting Off Poetry Month By Talking About Race

There’s been a lot of chatter in my poetry networks lately about what obligations white poets have to talk and write about race.

Reginald Dwayne Betts started it off with this article “What It Is,” and his now infamous line, “Don’t write about being white,” which is a quote by Louis Simpson discussing Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems in 1963. You can imagine the kerfuffle. Sadly, a lot of people read the headlines, but not so many read the article.

  • This story “Should White Writers Write About Race” is a thoughtful response and expansion by Holly Karapetkova.
  • This article is Reginald’s response to the kerfluffle he started, and an explanation of the irony he sees and hears in many of the comments he’s read.

Both are worth your time, no matter what color your skin, no matter what race you identify with. Any amount of conversation on this topic is a good thing.

I’m a white woman. I live in a town where more people don’t look like me than do, which is not the case in most of the US. These are facts, but we may have opinions about them, too. I’m inviting my own version of a conversation about race with my 2015 International Poetry Cantos project, which is going to be as successful as it’s going to be, or not, but will be my best effort to reflect some of the cultures I see around me in my town.

This year for Poetry Month I’m going to search out poems about race, by white folks and poets of color, written about experiences in America. It will be an interesting — and I hope fun — project, even though I expect many of the poems won’t be pretty or nice, as they can’t possibly be if they are honest.

I’d like to start today with “Dillusion” by Langston Hughes, the first poem Knopf chose to send out for it’s annual “Poem A Day” project.  Read what Knopf’s Borzoi Reader has to say about the poem, and the accompanying letter that Hughes wrote in 1926, having dropped out of Columbia University which he found “generally unfriendly.”  I think there is something heartbreaking about the lines “Be kind to me, / Oh, great dark city.” I remember being alone in a big city in my twenties, wondering about poetry, sex, love, work, acceptance. We are often disillusioned in our early youth, as we notice our ideals not matching reality. In this poem, Hughes seems to know his city intimately and to know that it can hurt him. I wonder what won’t come again — youth, optimism, faith?


I would be simple again,
Simple and clean
Like the earth,
Like the rain,
Nor ever know,
Dark Harlem,
The wild laughter
Of your mirth
Nor the salt tears
Of your pain.
Be kind to me,
Oh, great dark city.
Let me forget.
I will not come
To you again.