“Sky Country” helps slacken the knots inside us

Christine Kitano’s Sky Country, published in 2017 by BOA Editions, Ltd., is one of my favorite gently moving collections; I read it in the fall and reread much of it in December. From poems about divorce and enduring to pieces that explore the pains and sufferings of Christine’s family who “fled Korea and Japan” and lived through internment camp incarceration “during WWII”, this collection tackles heavy content with grace, thoughtfulness, and hope. Take this gorgeous line in “Insomniac in Fall,” for example: “If I prayed, I’d pray: let me leave you, let you / leave me.”

And in “Insomniac in Winter”: “Your breaths slow and multiply, each one / thickening the air between us.”

The collection also explores immigration, opening the all-too-often impersonal issue to a moment between lovers or an exchange between parents and their children. In “Gaman,” she writes, “But what we don’t anticipate / is how the dust of the desert will clot our throats, // how much fear will conspire to keep us silent. / And how our children will read this silence / as shame.”

One of my favorite pieces in the collection is “A Story with No Moral” which is broken into “Los Angeles” and “South Korea” subsections. The LA poems examine the fractured relationship a young daughter has with her mother, namely by comparing herself to her friend Lauren, whose hair is “buttery blond, fluffy and soft” and who is “completely absorbed in her own image”, an image that the girl yearns to be herself. My heart goes out to her and to the young women in the South Korea poems, who have their own desires and struggles.

I interviewed Christine last week about these poems and her next plans.

Who is the speaker in “I Will Explain Hope” and why did you write it?

“I Will Explain Hope” is one of the last poems I finished for the collection. It began as an ekphrastic poem after the work of Chiura Obata, a painter who was incarcerated at Topaz Concentration Camp. The poems in this sequence of the collection take place at Topaz, so I wanted to use Obata’s work to help fill in the landscape, both physically and emotionally. When I first started drafting this poem, I envisioned the speaker as a bit of an outsider, that is, a contemporary person looking at a painting by Obata. But as I kept writing and revising, I found myself returning to the mind and voice of the speaker I had been working with, a persona who is loosely based on my grandmother. Working through this speaker, I found my way to the word “forgive.” It surprised me, but it also made sense.

Thanks for sharing that. I wasn’t aware of the depth of influence behind those poems. How deep — and how heartbreaking.

“Monologue of the Fat Girl” was one of my favorite pieces; not only did it explore the strains and desires of marriage, but it also celebrated and lamented the body and the hardships when one is confronted by the body’s imperfections. I find this poem immensely comforting because it feels like womanhood solidarity. How does this poem relate to the other mother narratives in Sky Country?

Many of these poems were drafted in my first two years in Lubbock, Texas, and I was interested in telling the stories of individual female personas. I experienced a bit of culture shock when I moved to Texas; I was surprised to be surrounded by women my age (mid-twenties) who already had two or three children. When I was invited to someone’s house for dinner, I learned it was customary to ask to “see the nursery.” At the time, I had not even considered whether I wanted children or not, as it simply was not on my mind. Coming face-to-face with assumptions about my gender influenced many of the persona poems in Sky Country.

I’m also finding that people my age — I just turned 25 — are starting families, even though I feel only marginally older than I did at 20. It’s a little strange feeling like a parental outsider, even though I nanny for seven families. 

Anyway, back to your book. I enjoyed the different places these poems centered on, and I thought a lot about life-in-motion while reading. Where do you write? Is the “on-the-road” feel of “Choose Your Own Adventure: Go South” a poem about your own travels?

I usually write in my office, which is un-Romantic, but I’m a practical person when it comes to my writing. I like routine, I like quiet, and I like having most of my books within arm’s reach. But it’s in this space that I have the time to remember moments when things weren’t as comfortable. “Choose Your Own Adventure: Go South” comes out of a road trip my partner and I took when moving from New York to Texas. It was the middle of July and we were in a Jeep with torn windows, so it was hot and dusty the whole trip. I remember driving through Roanoke, Virginia and passing through a stretch of shade on the highway, which gave me a fleeting moment of peace. The poem grew out of this memory.

I love the freedom in poetry to be able to tell the story however it needs to be told; “This is not the whole story, / and yet, it is true,” you write in “1942: In Response to Executive Order 9066, My Father, Sixteen, Takes”. I’ve heard some poets campaign for only telling ‘your own stories,’ but I think that kind of policing is detrimental to what poetry can do and is for. How do you approach the non-fiction/fiction elements of poetry, and what advice can you offer other poets who write about cultural and social issues?

It requires a great amount of responsibility to write about cultural and social issues. Doing so requires research. In the introduction to Beloved, Toni Morrison explains how she based the novel on the real-life Margaret Garner, but then had to move away from the historical record. She writes, “The historical Margaret Garner is fascinating, but, to a novelist, confining. Too little imaginative space there for my purposes. So I would invent her thoughts, plumb them for a subtext that was historically true in essence, but not strictly factual…” (xvii). For me, writing about the Japanese American incarceration required years of research. But at some point, I had to move from “fact” to “truth,” a move I wouldn’t have been able to make if I hadn’t done the necessary research.

Mmm. That’s powerful.

So Sky Country came out last year. What’s next for you?

I’ve been working toward my next collection, which I envision to be a prose/poetry hybrid. I’ve been thinking about inheritance, about land, about the responsibility humans have for the land we live and work on. I’m not sure where this is going yet, but I’m enjoying the process of embarking on a new project.  

I look forward to keeping tabs on your next works! Thanks so much for your time and thoughts.


Sky Country is available from BOA Editions, Ltd. for $16.

Nancy Huang’s masterful “Favorite Daughter”

Favorite Daughter is easily in my top three favorite books of poetry, thanks to its honest, relatable poems, sharp cultural and racial critiques, and achingly haunting language. Lines like “i wish for the moon to swallow me” and “19 and I know what love is: a house on fire…” contain movement, both in emotion and meaning. Nancy’s references place this collection in conversation with history, psychology, linguistics and sociology, and media, creating a personal bridge to aspects of society that are often (and detrimentally so) only discussed as curiosities. These poems remind us that it is people who should be considered and prioritized, that when colonialism and Western ideologies are dismantled, it is for the benefit of all of us.

One poem I want to mention is “Old White Guy”, a rewriting of a problematic (as is so much of his work) poem by Marc Kelly Smith. By stripping the poem down to a handful of words, Nancy starkly unveils just how ugly Marc’s work is.

Another poem, “Aperture”, compares the effects of washing out an image in photography to the erasure of Asian people from history textbooks and media. “Chinese New Year, 2017” is a collection of images from everyday life: the speaker’s mother braiding her hair; writing poems “until dawn edges around the sky”; bingeing on TV shows while eating popcorn. This poem ends with the beautiful revelation: “Maybe love / is just becoming more of someone.”

I interviewed Nancy [in 2017!!!] about this collection and her life, curious to find out more about the author behind the marvel that is Favorite Daughter.

How have you forged your identity? What are obstacles you’ve overcome and – in hindsight – were they worth it?

I used to think about identity as something that other people call you. It took me a long time to reframe this, and of course it was worth it, but I still slip back into that mindset of “you are what they say you are,” which is always so diminishing.  

I remember I was talking to the unconquerable poet Ariana Brown, and she told me that she made a conscious decision to stop explaining things to white people in her poems. It was taking up too much space. I credit her for my own reworking; I started saying to myself, you don’t have time to explain this to them. They’ve got to figure this out on their own. And, this is only partially about the way language is used in poetry, or the way I use language in poetry. This is more about what I think of myself, navigating through a reality that more often than not doesn’t center me. I shouldn’t have to translate my existence to people. 

“Tipping Scale” was a really important poem for me personally; as of last November, I learned that I have generalized anxiety, and I’ve been working to improve my mental health using traditional and non-traditional methods. It can be really difficult at times, but it pays off.

How does mental healthy play a role in your day-to-day life, and why should people talk about it (publicly and privately) more?  

Thank you for this question. I wish you luck with your own mental health journey, and I hope that you have community around you to help you.

“Tipping Scale” was a poem I wrote because I was trying to balance (forgive the pun) the fact that certain ways of healing work for me, but also have a terrible history of working against people like me. Western medicine has a horrible history, yet my entire life, people have disparaged traditional Chinese medicine in favor of it. 

It’s made its impact; I see therapists, I use birth control. But it’s so much more complicated than that. There’s a line in the poem that refers to that complication, the one about how my therapist at the time, as a white woman, was also my oppressor. I can’t separate those things. 

As for mental health, my depression and anxiety are low-grade and I’m high-functioning, which initially prevented me from reaching out. But talking about it openly counteracts the stigma. That’s the other weight on the scale, in the poem, how even though Western medicine is a corrupt industry and historically terrible, there is less mental health stigma in it than there is in Chinese American communities. And stigma grows from silence. 

Do you want to share advice for other queer women or take us through your coming-out story or just talk a little about your journey?

I don’t know about advice, haha; there are so many incredible queer women and femmes out there and I don’t think they need advice from me. But even though there are plenty of bi/pan women/nonbinary poets to read (June Jordan comes to mind), you’re right that either word really isn’t getting around, or (more likely) we’re unintentionally overlooking people. As an example, the Lambda Literary Awards don’t have a Bisexual Poetry Award category. I know that there have been steps made this year to change that (by amazing people), so it’s getting better. But if someone were to nominate my book for a Lammy right now, I’ve been informed that they wouldn’t be able to. There isn’t a category for it. And it’s not like Favorite Daughter defies categorization, or that its author does. There’s just this overlook of certain people. And judges/reviewers that give literature awards especially need to pay attention to that.

As for my journey, I started writing all these stories about being bi/pan when I was in high school, and it got to the point where reality was hindering that expression. I spent a lot of time confused—as a lot of queer kids do—and it was worse because I was keeping it a secret. I kept putting off thinking about it because I would look at a (cis) guy and feel the way everybody was telling me was “normal,” so like a lot of people who are attracted to multiple genders, I initially thought I was straight. Every time I was attracted to or emotionally connected to a woman I would blame it on fluky hormones. But I wised up eventually. And when I started to come out to people, they took it well. I’ve been lucky with that. 

What is your family’s relationship to China while living in the U.S.? What aspects of culture do you / your family still retain?

My parents are both very connected to their families in China; my mom visits her family periodically and my dad’s family is split between here in America and in Beijing. When we lived in China they were totally comfortable. I’m very jealous of that easy familiarity with both countries. And as far as assimilation goes—there’s only so much you can “adjust” when you immigrate. You can learn English, and be afforded privileges in that way. You can choose not to do that, and people have. Specifically, because I have a closer proximity to whiteness than other POC, that gives me a different level of privilege. 

How has assimilation affected you and your family? 

Whatever the opposite of assimilation is (exclusion? mistranslation?), that’s the aspect of existence I think a lot of AAPI poets talk about more. Of course, that doesn’t mean that assimilation isn’t happening, and that it doesn’t have consequences; my forgotten language (Mandarin), my forgotten histories, the fact that I don’t know any of my ancestors’ names. These are all real. But who wouldn’t have an easier time writing about the things they know are happening versus the things they’ve forgotten have happened? That’s why, for me, assimilation represents privilege, and in a certain sense, amnesia. There are poems in my collection (like “Aperture”) that are about both. 

On “Colonial Conquest” in particular, how has your appearance affected your dating life? 

Oh, “Colonial Conquest”. Oh, Tinder. Navigating the dating realm in an Asian body has been an experience in perspective. When I date/talk with men of color on Tinder, they obviously understand racial navigation more than white men. Messaging white men who don’t have the same awareness can lead to awkward times. Colonial Conquest was just a compilation of times when that awkwardness turned hostile.

Could you talk about the process of publishing and putting together Favorite Daughter? Are you touring to promote the book? What’s it like being in the Write Bloody family?

I am touring! Soon! It’s a lot of work and I had so many nerves initially that were soothed by a variety of different amazing people. But anyway. Being a part of Write Bloody is surreal. The other day I was looking at Clint Smith’s Twitter and I just thought, we have the same publisher. Cue my hyperventilation. It’s incredible. I keep thinking I’m just living in my own fantasy and I’m about to wake up any second. 

When I’m promoting the book, it’s easy to forget that behind me there’s been a team of people helping me bring it to life. My experience working with all of them has been really eye-opening; all the editors and the commissioned graphic designers and sales representatives and social media contacts. There are layers and layers when it comes to this kind of work that I previously had not been aware of. What a privileged education. 


Interview edited for clarity and grammar. Special thanks to Nancy for infinite patience while I sat on this interview for far too long! I’m so excited to finally publish this article and loan out my copy.

anxious? you aren’t alone

Kelsey May                                                                                                                 February 7, 2017

I’ve been working on myself this year, really paying attention to my body’s needs and voicing my concerns as soon as they arise. I got married last fall (hurrah!) but only a month after the wedding, I was crying almost every day for no reason. I felt unhappy, like a merry-go-round spinning in place, not going anywhere even though I was going through the actions of life. My partner held me and tried to understand why I was upset, but there really wasn’t a reason; I just was.

I started seeing a therapist at Spectrum Health – an awesome testament to how far mental health has come, that my doctor’s office is employing a full time social worker to address issues of mental wellness. She was amazing; she listened and offered practical advice; she talked about deep breathing and the normalcy of anxiety; in follow-up appointments, she remembered concerns I had previously brought up.

It was incredible to be acknowledged by a professional, to have my anxieties aired and empathized with. Many of us struggle with anxiety and depression. Personally, I feel anxious when I’m around a lot of people who I want to “fit in” with or whose admiration I desire. I have bad habits derived from my anxiety: I pick my nails and nail beds, I scratch my head, I chew things and fiddle with objects. These aren’t attractive character traits, but I’m admitting them so you, reader, might see your own tendencies in them and feel a sense of community. You aren’t alone in your struggle. You are one of millions of other teens and young adults who get nervous before public speeches or make impulsive choices to feel a sense of belonging. We want to feel part of something larger than ourselves, but we don’t always make the best decisions about how to do that. And others, those people we so desperately yearn to connect to, often hurt us out of their own selfishness and painfully low self-esteem.

So how do we meet our needs and work toward mental wellness?

One amazing thing I’ve learned is that there are two types of expectations we hold: our ideal expectation and the standard expectation. Here’s an excerpt from The Art of Happiness (interviews with the Dalai Lama):

For example, my ideal expectation in my relationship would be hugs every single day, fun, creative dates almost every day, and never having to clean up after each other. The standard (or more realistic) expectation would be: hugs every day we see each other, fun, creative dates when we can afford them, and minimal cleaning up after each other. See the subtle differences?

Here’s an example of a way I held myself to the wrong expectation. I gained about fifteen pounds last year after I came down with mono and wasn’t allowed to participate in any rigorous activity for fear of a spleen rupture (yikes!). I wanted to lose those fifteen pounds and felt awful about my appearance every day, even though I wasn’t making time to exercise so there was no way to lose the weight. But I ideally wanted to attain my lower weight, so I was mentally dissatisfied with myself, feeling disappointed in my figure, feeling sorry about my situation. It was absurd to expect that I could lose the pounds without time and effort, so I adopted a more realistic expectation, that I simply start exercising and that became my goal, rather than focusing on my physical appearance. It helped. I’ve lost three pounds, and even if I don’t lose anymore, I’m gaining muscle and definition, and my stamina is improving, and that makes me proud.

I also highly recommend that you see a counselor or therapist. If the first person doesn’t help, keep trying new therapists until you find one who understands you and who gives you the advice or assistance you need. My first counselor was kind and a great listener, but she didn’t give me practical advice. My current therapist specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, meaning she focuses on how I can change my own thinking and adopt healthier habits. That is the kind of assistance I needed, and it’s made a noticeable difference in my attitude and spirit. My partner has noticed a significant change in my day-to-day wellbeing; I haven’t cried for no reason in two weeks. I am motivated to write and hang out with my family and clean my desk. I am more honest and talk about my feelings before they turn into problems. I actually want to wake up in the morning and get started with my day.

So what changes do you need to make in your mental wellness habits? Do you want to implement yoga or start journaling? Do you need to take one night off a week to just spend some time alone and practice self-care? Do you need to be more honest with a significant other or a friend about how you’re feeling? Do you need to talk with your parents about your emotions and seek professional help?

Feel free to comment here, and I’ll do my best to connect you with resources or give advice, if I feel competent! Thanks for reading! Live well, reader. Peace.


Photo credit: Mr. Edventure

in front of the mirror

So im standing in front of the mirror
And im looking at my body
And i dont know how i got here
So im going to retrace my steps
And try to change the view
So im standing in front of the mirror
And im looking at how
My waist turns into my hips
And my hips turns into my thighs
And my thighs turn into my legs
And i dont like it
So im standing in front of the mirror
And i see how ive sculpted
My waist and my hips
And my thighs
 with starvation
And im looking at the hollow scars
That carve my ribs out
And make my hip bones sharper
Than their words
So im standing in front of the mirror
And im looking at how
My pale face is littered
With acne
and flaws
and dark circles
And i dont like it
So im standing in front of the mirror
And i see how ive hidden
My true skin
With a porcelain doll’s face
The only crack in the mask
Is the hollow look in my eyes
So im standing in front of the mirror
And im looking my clothes
Which are comfortable
And casual
And anything but sexy
And everything that says prude
And i don’t like it
So im standing in front of the mirror
And i see how
Ive changed my entire look
With a skimpy black
Mini skirt
Red lips
And a hickey barely hidden beneath my
Collar bone
And everything that says slut
So im standing in front of the mirror
And im looking at my feet
Which are flat
And unpainted
Unpolished
And bland
And i dont like it
So im standing in front of the mirror
And im see how
I have reformed my feet
The bones harshly restructured to
Fit heels that do not
Fit me
And im standing in front of the mirror
And im looking at her body
And i don’t know how she got here
So im going to retrace her steps
And try to change our views.