As part of the 2019 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Marilyn Chin in response to a video of her reading her poem “Blues on Yellow” aloud. Marilyn Chin wrote letters back to five of these students; their letters and her replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students. 

Marilyn Chin also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project, which is included below. 

Dear Young Readers:  Thank you for your enthusiastic and smart comments on my poem “Blues on Yellow.” Please also thank your teachers on my behalf for guiding you through my difficult work.

As a Chinese American poet, I pay homage to multiple heritages.  I draw inspiration from many sources, from Chinese literary history as well as from American and British literary history.  

My poem “Blues on Yellow” honors the blues poem, which comes from an African-American musical tradition, the 12-bar blues. Among the early famous practitioners are Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thorton, and others.  Be sure to listen to some classic blues recordings on Youtube, so you could hear what the songs sound like.

The blues lyrics include many different themes: about pain and suffering, social injustice, love and religious faith. The tone can be dark and “bluesy” but also lively, humorous, and defiant.

Numerous books have been written about the blues tradition.  One of my favorites is Angela Davis’s “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.” There I discovered the works of Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thorton, and Ma Rainey. Davis’s work helped me to develop a woman’s voice in my blues poems.

For your interest: I talked a little about Bessie Smith’s BACKWATER BLUES in a podcast on the Library of Congress website.

For those of you who are interested in writing blues poems, Kevin Young’s anthology provides a short introduction with good examples. 

The blues poem is a medium rich for the voice, the ear, and the page.  

In “Blues on Yellow,” I wanted to write an anthem about Chinese immigration.

The first stanza commemorates the Chinese laborers who mostly came from Guangdong, my home province, who worked on the railroads and gold mines between 1850-1900. They helped build America.  They were paid low wages and suffered discrimination. Many were killed in mine blasts and never returned home.

Some of you asked about the color yellow.  I wanted to reclaim this brilliant color. For many years, yellow is a derogatory term for Asian Americans in such epithets as “banana” and “the yellow peril.” I wanted to ply my poem with the vivid color of yellow.  Spread the egg yolk! Throw yellow paint all over the white canvas of poetry! 

Many of you enjoyed the food imagery.

Several generations of my extended family worked in chopsuey joints in small-town Oregon. My grandfather was a cook for forty years in Portland. My father tried to open various restaurants that failed! I myself worked in restaurants all my life. No, we were not crazy rich Asians! Chinese food is a necessary motif in my poems. And certainly, for immigrants, family recipes and foodstuff are important heirlooms bequeathed to us by our mother countries.

And, in any case, food works all senses: smell, taste, visual effects, texture, hearing. “Cracking an egg on the griddle” sizzles in the ear.  “Yellow will ooze into white”; yes, you guessed it, tactile and slimy, the image is about assimilation. America is an omelet made up of diverse cultures. Write what you know, they say.  I can write about dumplings and frittatas better than I can write about daffodils because I grew up in the restaurant world. Though I think daffodils are also cool!

Some of you were moved by the fifth stanza.  My mother was very ill during the writing of this poem. Many of my poems are filled with guilt and sadness for my mother and are tributes to her sacrifice. “The boat” represents early immigrants who arrive at the ports of America often fleeing war-torn nations and dire circumstances.  America is ‘the promised land” for many of these immigrants, a chance to rebuild their lives and improve the lives of their children. Although, I arrived via plane from Hong Kong when I was seven, the boat still signifies immigration in my imagination. Recently, we saw refugees making dangerous journeys, floating toward Europe on rubber rafts.  The boat image still resonates in our minds.

In the same stanza, the poem cries out to Buddha.  The blues poem comes out of the Black church, where spirituals were sung.  My mother was a practicing Buddhist; therefore, I felt it important to evoke Buddha instead of Christ.  I wanted to infuse Asian spirituality into a blues poem to show that In a democracy, there are many ways to worship.  

Some of you were concerned about my roller coaster feelings in “Blues on Yellow.” Yes, during the writing of this poem, my emotions waxed and waned. In one line, I was sad and “blue” and depressed, in another line, I sang rebelliously, angry and defiant. Some of the lines are exultant, some are mournful and contemplative.  And in such lines as “mellow yellow, I tried to be funny. It’s ok to have contradictory feelings in a poem, especially in one that confronts so many issues that are personal and political.

Thanks, though, for worrying about me. Generally, I am a happy person.  But, according to my friends, I do need to work on my negativity! It’s a good thing that I became a poet, so that I could express my feelings in many different ways.  My grandmother said that my love for poetry prevented me from becoming “a meandering tree-like street urchin.” Ha, ha, perhaps she was right.          

Sincerely Yours, Chancellor Marilyn Chin

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Marilyn Chin reads "Blues on Yellow"

Marilyn Chin reads "Blues on Yellow" for Dear Poet 2019.