April is National Poetry Month, and we’re celebrating by featuring examples of “civic” poetry from new and familiar voices. Throughout the month we’ll be discussing what it means to be civic through the art of words. Join us on Twitter at #civicpoetry.
A Footnote on a Hollywood Blockbuster
Tilda Swinton, your yellowface is not to blame
If Hollywood’s standards state that Natalie
Japanese enough to play an Asian girl
If Scarlett Johansson in a black wig and
Is enough to replace the thousands of
Americans interned away for your film
For the millions of Asian girls who never see
Except as exotic sex toys on television
The first Chinese-American woman elected to
And the Senate both in the same year
Why have we waited so long?
Is it because you couldn’t give up your chow
Your Kung Pao Chicken and Egg Foo Young
Long enough to give us a chance to rise from
The firecracker ashes to give us a voice?
Is it because you prefer your petite Asian girls
In porn than in government, that our names
Too hard to pronounce?
Is that why you called the first Asian
Miss America ugly, because she didn’t fit your
Sexual fantasies, wasn’t a China Doll
for your yellow fever?
Is that why Jeremy Lin made headlines
You couldn’t believe that an Asian man could
Have anything but a small penis and small
Is that why you call us a model minority, then
Slander our tiger parents when maybe
Your standards are just too damn low?
Is that why our girls are starved sick,
told that if they aren’t perfect then they are
Is that why I still get asked on the subway
Where I’m from, because being a first
American isn’t enough to show that I’m
More than fresh off the boat?
Is that why my almond eyes and yellow skin
Beg whether I speak English or Chinese?
Is that why we’re nothing but a monolithic sea
Yellow, that everything we touch becomes
American privilege, that our bamboo ceiling
Our place in society, that you can just ignore
Because we’re too complacent to speak up?
Is that why you confine us to dumpling
Exile us to the slums of the city, and still sell
Your movies for China’s sweet, sweet yuan?
Is that why we can never find our kind
In a black and white society where we are
Another color of people?
Is that why you ignore that whole
Century of systematic lynching
Of rat tails and laundry cells
Of the railroad system that we build
But were never acknowledged for?
Is that why you wipe our history and blame
It on our silence, why you shred our past
And claim that we work too hard, that we
Steal jobs when our immigrants are working
Twenty hours a day to make a living
In a society that wants us out?
Is that why when we stand in solidarity
Against racism, we are shunned because
Being Asian means shutting up and taking
It in the ass?
Is that why you can’t find enough Asians
At poetry slams for inspiration, why we
Can’t be CEOs or heroes, because we’re
The ones who have to be saved?
Is that why you fear us, because you’re afraid
Our chink eyes will see right through your lies
That you know that our voices will rise
Like a dragon’s flame, that our 200 dialects
Will expose you, so you shove us to the
And bury us under centuries, till we’re nothing
But a footnote on a Hollywood blockbuster?
Sharon Lin is the Youth Poet Laureate of New York City and an ambassador for the arts and democracy both among her peers and throughout the city.
The 18-year-old Lin began writing poetry in grade school. Spurred by an early interest in Walt Whitman and Sylvia Plath, she moved on to contemporary poets and soon was submitting her own work for publication. “I was always really interested in writing as a form of communication, as well as form of self-expression,” she says. “Poetry let me express myself in a very artistic manner.”
In high school, Lin entered Scholastic Art & Writing contests and from there found Urban Word NYC, the acclaimed youth literary arts organization which, in conjunction with the city’s Campaign Finance Board, selects the winner of the annual citywide Youth Poet Laureate competition.
As the 2017 Youth Poet Laureate, Lin now has a platform not just to advance poetry but to advocate for an issue she has long felt passionate about: getting young people registered to vote and involved in political and social activism.
She has already used her coding skills to further voter education with iVOTE, a smartphone application she developed last year to provide users with useful information on political candidates and issues and details on how and where to vote. The app, which she began working on after becoming dismayed by some of the less-than-accurate information swirling around the presidential election, won the teen a 2016 Congressional App Challenge award. “I wanted it to be simple to use and to help understand the election process a little bit better,” she says.
Lin will attend college in the fall, but her Youth Poet Laureate term runs through December, when she plans to publish her first chapbook. Over the summer, she’ll be leading a workshop at Poet’s House, headlining voter-registration events, coding — and writing.
Kristin Miller spoke with Lin about her dedication to both poetry and democracy and her YPL competition-winning poem, “A Footnote to a Hollywood Blockbuster.”
Kristin Miller: Is poetry making inroads with your generation?
Sharon Lin: I’m not sure whether it’s becoming “cooler,” but I see a lot of my peers submitting their works to journals or starting literary journals of their own and just talking about poetry on a regular basis. I think young poets emerging in the field, like Crystal Valentine and Ramya Ramana, are enormous influencers. I think the Youth Poet Laureate platform has been a great place to expose more voices.
KM: When you write, are you looking to make people more aware of an issue or are you expressing the moment — or something in between?
SL: It’s usually a mixture. I typically do write based on my own personal preferences — an emotion I want to convey or a story or a narrative that I feel it’s important to represent, or even a voice that hasn’t been represented in media. Sometimes I will notice that my writing has the potential to be politically active and, depending on the purpose of the writing and the specific audience, I may alter the language a little.
KM: Your work “A Footnote to a Hollywood Blockbuster” looks at the entertainment industry’s portrayal of Asian-Americans and chastises non-Asians for taking on Asian roles. Have you heard from Hollywood about the poem?
SL: I didn’t hear about it from anyone in Hollywood. I don’t think it has spread quite that far yet. Most people were in agreement that Asian-Americans weren’t being represented in media and that the typical portrayal of Asian-Americans has been fairly negative. Obviously, you have Ghost in the Shell, with Scarlett Johansson in “yellowface,” and Dr. Strange, which was also in yellowface, but you also have a new Disney series [Andi Mack] and Constance Wu in a regular role [on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat]. But then again, you see model Karlie Kloss in a photoshoot in yellowface that went viral. It’s a mixture. I don’t think we’re at the place where we can just be complacent and say yellowface is no longer an issue. Certainly, other races and minorities haven’t been represented well in Hollywood much either, but I think the Asian-American voice has been really silent about this for a long time. A lot of people are realizing that they have to speak up about this or it’s only going to continue to get worse. A lot of talented actors and actresses and artists and people in media aren’t going to have the opportunity to represent themselves and their demographic, by the simple fact that they’re being excluded from the media.
This project was co-curated by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and its Puffin Story Innovation Fund.