Archive for April, 2016

Bad Poem


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A poem by Calvin Trillin, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet” in The New Yorker triggered a huge reaction among poets, writers and especially Asians.

It is not a good poem.  I can imagine the scenario:  The New Yorker is doing a foodie issue and someone says, hey, we need a poem.  Call Cal, he’s good for it, and Cal complies, thinking – I believe he thinks – I can write something funny, about how easy it used to be to pick up Chinese and how it’s complicated now with all the different regional choices.

I will not summarize the Asian reaction other than to point to an article in the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, whose title is, “We Are in the Room, Calvin Trillin.”

Instead,  I started to think about what if someone wants to write a poem about food and thinks, gee, there are so many varieties of Chinese food.  I could write a funny poem, exaggerate the problem of too many choices.  Like when my husband goes to the store for Cheerios© or boxes of Triskets© and I say, just get Original – because there are too many choices.

I have a list of eight signs you’ve written a good poem.

The first sign is, “You’ve Tackled a Big Idea.”  I think that’s where Calvin went wrong.  His big idea was that “they” haven’t stopped generating provinces, each with a new kind of Chinese cuisine.  The word “they” immediately puts him in opposition to “we”:  non-Asian Americans.  And asking whether “they” have run out of provinces suggests the number of provinces are growing – and running “us” over.

I want to glorify the diversity of Chinese food, food we all enjoy, no matter how many or few provinces it comes from.  Chinese food is interesting, it sings with flavor and its textures are wonderful.

Could such a poem be written?  I don’t know.  Maybe no one can write about someone else’s culture anymore, including cuisine, without raising the question:  how do you know?  How do you know what it’s like to be me in your world?

But, if anyone ever asks Cal to write another poem about food, I hope he at least considers the joy of it.


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