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
Marilyn Chin reads "Blues on Yellow" for Dear Poet 2019.
Dear Chancellor Marilyn Chin,
My name is Kara. I am the National Youth Poet Laureate, a title that really depends on the legacy and the pedagogy of poets like you
Thank you so much for such an electric performance of “Blues on Yellow.” I am a deep admirer of your work. I chose to write you about this poem, because it is one I hold very close to me. History really sits in the mouth of this poem. You manage to speak to your ancestors in this poem, while also using the poem almost as a way to introduce yourself. I am a writer that deals with lineage. I believe facing where I come from is the only way to acknowledge where I am now. The way you deal with you lineage is so beautiful. You handle your ancestors with such care, and I really admire that.
I love the way the poem’s rhythm evokes a childlike song. The music of the poem starts off as a kind of medicine, a sugar the reader is eager to scarf down. Your use of the blues form provides a familiarity, nods to a lull we can all recall. Yet, your commitment to language, to narrative, is so present in your use of this form.
The blues form is such an interesting one, because it is so uniquely American. Blues has always been a humanizing music, a music that proves the sorrow of the margins. I appreciate the way you honor this form and continue its legacy of demonstrating the complexities of those who often are not allowed access to complexity. I am so impressed by the way you manage to stay married to this structure, while still weaving an intricate narrative through it.
I particularly love the line “If you cut my yellow fists, I’ll teach my yellow toes to write.” This line speaks to a kind of resilience, how language is a tool that sometimes calls for blood. Another line that stuck with me is the very last line. “There’s no life on earth without pain” is such a heavy truth, and one that has been shuffling through my brain since I heard it for the first time.
This poem has really encouraged me to play more with form, especially form that requires a strong devotion. I often get caught in the ritual of free verse. Your poem has made me think about how I can dress a narrative differently, how sometimes a narrative requires a switch in wardrobe. I wanted to ask, how do you approach form, while still feeling like you’re presenting your truest narrative? What are your favorite forms to work with when you are dealing with the personal, with the anecdotal? How do approach talking about your lineage and the people you come from in such a humanizing way? Are there forms you would recommend to poets who find themselves constantly writing about one topic?
I would like to thank you for inspiring me to write, and for being such an important figure in writing. So many poems will take their first steps because of you!
Urban Word's Youth Poet Laureate Program
Dear Kara: First of all, congratulations on being named the National Youth Poet Laureate!
You represent the future of American poetry! Brava! We are very proud of you.
Thank you for your kind words about “Blues on Yellow.” When I finished the poem, I knew that it was a keeper.
I love how you said, “A narrative requires a switch in wardrobe.” I agree with that metaphor whole-heartedly. When I was a young poet, I was determined to try on different “wardrobes,” dress up in a variety of gorgeous outfits and play with different forms. I didn’t want to settle on a particular style too early. This is why I am able to write in different voices and remix different styles and forms; I trained myself to do so. I was an autodidact: I taught myself to write a good blues poem and well as write a perfect Shakespearean sonnet. I was not afraid of the challenges; I was totally enthusiastic!
My advice for you is to read deeply and widely, learn about all kinds of poetry and different forms. Engage with poems from different eras. Read poems written by our ancestors as well as by living poets. Read poems in translation. Read poems from a second language. Just read, read, read!
As for “the wardrobe”— Sometimes, you might put on a tiara and white gloves and be “formal” as in trying a perfect Shakespearean sonnet. Sometimes, you might dress as a punk rocker and throw graffiti on the wall and do some free writing. One day, you might try a long biblical line that influenced Whitman, Ginsburg and Margaret Walker… The next day, you might try a full-rhymed hip-hop inspired song. Couplets, quatrains, cinquains… You might read up on Chinese Tang dynasty poets or read classical Japanese haiku and compare them with Sonia Sanchez’s blues haiku and Etheridge Knight’s prison haiku. Just look at form as an opportunity to play dress up. You don’t have to keep the wonky failed experiments. The process of playing will teach you how to engage with different styles and ideas and give you confidence. Knowledge is power.
There are many online sources that illustrate different poetic forms. Pick up a few strange ones and try them: sestinas, ballads, rondeaus, pantoums, paradelles, elegies, odes, chansos, etc. Don’t be afraid; embrace the possibilities!
We have many stories to tell. They may be personal, familial, historical, political, national, global, galactical. For many of us, the self represents ideas much larger than the self. Yes, you say that there are poets who get stuck writing “about just one topic.” But I don’t think that you and I have that luxury or that problem.
Best wishes to you, brilliant young poet! We look forward to reading your wonderful books!
Sincerely, Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Ms. Chin,
Are we not all looking for something? I find myself in the color pink. Light as my cheeks in winter or dark like pink blood pooling in my mouth when i bite my tongue. I reject the color pink. Sometimes, i feel too “girl” for my own good and i vomit in pink. Pink is always too soft an experience for my brittle bones, weary with carrying this black girl existence. I find myself in blue. The rims under my eyes when i watch the moon. I wait to become the moon. My undereyes follow suit. Sometimes, i feel too “moon” to be a girl. There are nights when i feel celestial. Like the Northern Lights in mid July, I feel too beautiful to sleep.
There are times when i write in metaphors. Most of the time i wonder if i have ever written a single true thing in my life. I find myself in black. I exist in underbellies and bones and cave crawls. I find myself in midnight brawls with my hair texture. I get called mixed before people meet my parents, who also find themselves in black. I never found myself in white. But as you said, you crack open the egg and the only bit that looks like you is the runny yolk. So, i guess that makes me the charred skin on a chicken leg. I guess that makes me black.
I find myself in your words. You have described a searching sense of longing and of inheritance. I find myself waiting, bloodlessly, for more words to further along my existence. I get asked so many times a day. I really am running out of words. I am running out of ways to say “black.” i want to say it without judgement. But we can’t, can we? We judge ourselves. Because we are all looking for something, right? But i guess we don’t all have the vocabulary to describe it. The privilege to exist and not have to explain yourself is one we will never inhabit. I know what you are cooking in the kitchen. While i have never tasted it, i can smell it from the sitting room.
In my kitchen, i cook edges. I cook up more colors. I cook up more words. I cook up Eco styling gel and terracotta lip liner. I cook up Yonce, Keisha, Alicia. I cook up black girl soul food. Food for the soul. I find myself in kitchens. In the reflection of the stovetop. I find myself here, with you, in yellow and in black. In color. In color. I dream in color.
Haviland Nona Gaie
Nashville Youth Poet Laureate
Dear Marilyn Chin,
My name is Taylor and I am a high school junior from Utah. I loved your poem “Blues on Yellow,” and I am surprised to find new meanings each time I read it. I find it interesting that you address Asian-American history in a new form; I’ve become used to memorizing facts in history class, but your poem allowed me to better understand what being an early immigrant labeled “yellow” was actually like. The emotional force of your poem helped me not only relate to the speaker in the poem, but also to better understand my own background and the racial slurs I hear today.
One of my favorite aspects of “Blues on Yellow” is its rhythmic and musical quality. I find this highlighted through both the repetition of lines and rhyming, as well as the movement and tones in the reading. What inspired you to write in this musical style? The musical quality is hard to put my finger on. At times, it sounds like a Western or country song, at other times, it reminds me of the blues style of Langston Hughes. The lines that start with “O” even remind me of Greek odes! What previous writers or traditions did you consider while writing this poem, if any?
The emphasis on color in your poem is also intriguing to me. Not only does the title employ colors, the color “yellow” is employed in several instances and seems to be emphasized. For example, the second stanza uses enjambment in a surprising way: “ten thousand yellow- / bellied sapsuckers baked in a pie.” It seems to me that bringing attention to yellow is a way of reclaiming what has historically been an insult. At the same time, I have often felt that I do not want to be defined by a monolithic shade that is seen as the color of my skin. Either way, I would love to know your interpretation of highlighting the color yellow.
In the third stanza, you write: “O crack an egg on the griddle, yellow will ooze into white.” I see this as a way of describing the experience of immigration and subsequent assimilation. The association of “crack” seems to imply violence, or some sort of rupture (from home?), although I’m not sure if this is what you were intending. Additionally, the juxtaposition of yellow and white in this line reminds me of the contemporary term “banana,” which is used for someone who is “yellow” on the outside but “white” on the inside. Do you think the meaning of your poem has changed in response to ideas like this about race today? How did you envision the poem affecting students like myself, who are second- or third-generation immigrants?
Finally, my favorite stanza of the poem is the fourth one. By repeating “write” twice, and then morphing it to “fight,” I feel as if the poem is equating writing with fighting. Although the use of “blues” in the title implies mourning, this stanza feels to me to be the most triumphant. Your poem reminded me to stand up for what I believe in, and to listen to the stories of those who came before me. Thank you for sharing your poetry with us students, and for giving us the chance to respond.
Dear Ms. Marilyn Chin,
I hope you are having a good week so far. My name is Sarah, and I am a junior. Thank you for taking the time to read our letters, and for giving us the opportunity to respond.
When I first watched the video of your reading of “Blues on Yellows,” I actually, to be completely truthful, felt unsettled, because I had never heard anyone reading poetry so energetically. I had always thought poetry to be a calm and meditative art. But soon your poem magnetically pulled me in and rang in my head for hours in the most lovely, haunting way, because it added another layer to my understanding of what it is to be young and Chinese-American.
First, I saw the poem as describing the history of the Chinese in America. How we were exploited in the 1800s, and then turned away at immigration checkpoints because of a perceived yellow peril, and in this poem, I read the sweet, smoky threat of a collective, crooning voice: “Run, run, sweet little Puritan, yellow will ooze into white. / If you cut my yellow wrists, I’ll teach my yellow toes to write.”
I first imagined this poem to be spoken, or sung, or murmured as a litany by a sea of people, undulating like a field, full of shifting faces, with its line repetition and its use of “O”s. Then with the last six lines, I felt like I had joined that sea:
“Do not be afraid to perish, my mother, Buddha’s compassion is nigh.” At this point, the strength became warmth and a love so fierce I felt it stealing my breath as I read. The poem continues with “Do not be afraid to perish, my mother, our boat will sail tonight.”
The poem had shocked me with its directness at first, but with its strength it had pulled me into a warm sense of safety, reaffirming the tenacity of the Chinese-American spirit. It immediately called to mind the poignancy of the sacrifices my own mother has made for me. She left everything behind across the Atlantic Ocean and raised me in a new society, all the while never bemoaning her losses, cutting fruits for me at night, and relearning textbook material to teach me on the spot. I know she is not the only Chinese-American mother to do so. In many Chinese households, at least in the Bay Area, we rarely say I love you, and your poem, with its powerful transition from fending off outside threats to directing a tender, golden caress to the self and family, came close to saying it for my mother.
It is this type of love, I think, which is so powerful that it scared me when I came face-to-face with it. It is powerful enough to forge warriors on its own: “If you cut my yellow fists, I’ll teach my yellow toes to fight.”
Our parents came to a country with a history of crushing the dreams of Chinese-American immigrants––“the spikes hath shorn his wings,” “her dreams got lost in the sieve” so that we could live how we are today. And “Blues on Yellow,” to me, asserted the quiet but dominating force of this love, making sure I didn’t forget who made it possible for me to be Chinese-American, and not just one of the two hyphenated words.
I’m not sure if this is what you intended, and I know there is so much more to your poem that I have not yet understood. For example, I took away from this poem was an uplifting ode to the Chinese-American spirit, but there seems to be also a vein of melancholy which becomes most apparent at the end, where the narrator asks to be “unreborn” and that life is never “without pain.” Was this poem meant to be uplifting or sad, and does the narrator decide to depart from the world?
I would also love to know, what was in your mind when you wrote this work, Ms. Chin? I am curious to know if you also drew inspiration from your own mother. In addition, how did you go about creating the unique voice, and what inspired you to use repetition, as well as include yourself in the phrase, “Something’s cookin’ in Chin’s kitchen?”
Finally, I also like to dabble in poetry, and I would love any advice you could give me. I am a generally nonconfrontational person, which often bleeds through to my writing. How can one find the courage to write a poem boldly?
Thank you for writing this poem, because I definitely needed to read it and remember who made me who I am today.
Los Altos Hills, CA
Dear Ms. Chin,
Hello! My name is Timothy and I am currently a sophomore. I am writing this letter in order to express to you my deepest admiration for your work in poetry. Growing up in an Asian household myself, I am constantly pressured to become a doctor or a lawyer. However, when I discovered your work, I was enthralled by your seamless grace and your picturesque vocabulary. I, too, am searching for the deeper meanings behind the lines and curves of ink, supposedly called the English language, and your works have inspired me to continue my pursuit of this dazzling lingual art.
One of your poems which especially stood out to me was, “Blues on Yellow,” partly for its peculiarity and also because, strangely, I was able to make connections between its cultural references and my life. Starting with your first line, “The canary died in the gold mine, her dreams got lost in the sieve.” When I read that line, I honestly had to reread it, as I am not necessarily a maestro of poetry myself. However, I came to realize that it may possibly represent the sham of life. Perhaps the canary represents me, myself, and I, digging for fool’s gold in life’s mine, searching for answers, searching for meaning beyond my physical being. It appeared as a warning, that my pursuits of pleasure and prestige were not truly reflective of myself. Your fourth stanza reads, “If you cut my yellow wrists, I’ll teach my yellow toes to write.” Personally, the struggles of life are often overbearing, and I turn to writing as a temple from life’s unforgiving nature. I believe that writing is essential within my daily life, and I journal consistently in order to truly reflect on myself. Writing is a surreal, almost spiritual routine to me. As the greatest artists of the twentieth century, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and Rousseau painted spectacular works of art reflecting their passions and emotions, just about anyone can be called an artist if they know how to hold a pen. When I watched your recitation of “Blues on Yellow,” I was fascinated by your dramatic repetition; your unique tone and the way you emphasized certain lines undoubtedly cannot be imitated by any other. After reading many works of poetry in the past by the greats, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Homer, I can conclusively declare that this poem has had an effect on me like no other, as I was able to personally and emotionally connect with your words.
You say that life cannot evade suffering, but you insist that, in the end, we all will have reached the promised land, which raises the question, what do you believe defines the said promised land? In today’s world, wealth, money, and sex are venerated and seen as the upfront path to the land of zealous, yet short-lived joy. I struggle with mental health, specifically depression/anxiety, and I too, am guilty of partaking in a scavenger hunt for the true origin of happiness, or peace with myself and the world. This leads me to another question that comes to mind, what do you believe defines, “immigrant?” Both of my parents were immigrants from South Korea, seeking a better life in the U.S. like countless others. In my life, I’ve learned to define “immigrant” as beautiful and resilient, therefore, as everyone has their unique traits which make America the melting pot that it is. Who do you believe an “immigrant” is? One final question that may come across as a little personal is, what would you want to be remembered by, or how would you sculpt your legacy? You express in your poem that life on earth is just one big expedition full of obstacles, headed towards “the land of peace.” How would you want your remembrances to inspire another youthful and naive aspiring writer like myself to overcome the pains of life?
I thank you sincerely for your time, as well as for your mind-boggling poem, “Blues on Yellow,” which you have written to stir our young minds. In the meantime, I will patiently and eagerly look forward to a response to this letter if you may allow the time. Once again, I thank you from the depths of my heart for reading everything I had to say.
Dear Marilyn Chin,
I was really fascinated by the analogies in your poem. I noticed similarities between this and the song Blackbird by The Beatles. Was that an inspiration for your writing or were you just influenced by a similar situation of oppression that Blackbird describes? Did you use repetition to emphasize the struggle and hard work to push through hardship or for any other reason? Is the line “your babies will reach the promised land” meant to say that, though she won’t survive, she will fight for her children to be safe? Does the line “Buddha sings in my veins” mean that your religion gives you strength and faith in the future?
Huntingtdon Valley, PA
Dear Riley: Thanks for your kind response and for liking “Blues on Yellow.” Yes, yes and yes! Good questions and analysis, my friend!
Yes, you guessed it! I love the Beatles! Paul McCartney said that he wrote the blackbird song to speak against racism and social injustice. I was also influenced by Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Do you know that poem?
And do you remember this childhood ditty?
Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye;
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
It’s wonderful that one image could radiate multiple meanings. We nerdy poets enjoy crafting such images! Happy reading and writing! Cheers!
With fondness and best wishes,
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Ms. Chin,
I’m not sure if I should start off by introducing myself or not — I know that it is the polite thing to do, but sometimes I feel like the effort is pointless if it isn’t appreciated. Maybe I’m just young and lazy. Anyways, since there is a chance that you are one of those people who appreciates polite acts, and I’d prefer for you to not dislike me even though we don’t know each other, I will introduce myself with what little I have to claim. My name is Italia and I am a 16-year-old student who lives in the Lehigh Valley— yeah, that just about sums me up. I am taking a creative writing class at school and we were assigned to pick a poet to write to from “Dear Poet Project 2019,” and I choose you. I watched the video of you reading “Blues on Yellow” and while it interested me, I’m not going to lie, I was confused after hearing it and went on to the next video. I initially ignored my curiosity because it was before 8 am and I was tired, but then I watched the other videos, read them, and realized that I’d rather be confused but interested than confused and bored.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before but I’ll hop on the flattery wagon because you deserve it. Your writing style grabs me and I don’t know why. I could just be easily wowed due to my inexperience with poetry, but the repetition and italics, although used heavily, were used well. When you were writing this, were you afraid to do something like that? Sometimes when I write I am afraid to make large gestures like you did with “Blues on Yellow.” I’ll admit that I haven’t read much of your work, so I wouldn’t know if that was your trademark or something. Maybe the poem grabbed me so much because of what I believed the poem meant? It seemed to me that the poem was speaking to being a part of an Asian family in the United States. I interpreted the canary as a mother, her husband as the father, and you the narrator as their child. I thought the gold mine was referencing the Chinese immigration during the gold rush and the canary dying in the mine was speaking more so about her hopes for herself because parents often forget about themselves and do whatever they can for their children. What struck me the most was the griddle. I saw it as a representation of America. I saw the yellow oozing into white as a metaphor for suppressing your culture and confining yourself to conform to white standards. I am stuck on what Chin’s kitchen is and same with the pie.
There is so much more I could say about your poem but I’d rather not bore you. I do have a few questions for you, but I’m sure tons of other students wrote to you, so you don’t have to reply. How did you become confident enough in your writing to write such powerful and dramatic poetry? Was it innate? If I wasn’t born with an abundance of confidence and charisma, am I just condemned to never reach my potential as writer or worse—does it reduce my potential? When did you begin writing? Was your family encouraging of that life path for you? What works do you feel inspired/influenced you to begin writing? I’m pretty new to the idea that I want to pursue writing. I’d been focused on pursuing something in medicine for a while but my English class sophomore year made me realize what I actually want to do. I’m not sure about being a poet, but I am certain I want to write. Since I am new to this, I’m not sure if there’s like, some sort of ‘forbidden’ question like asking a magician the secret to their trick, so please, if you do respond, let me know if this is okay to ask: what does this poem mean to you? After you wrote this, what were you thinking?
An exponentially confused kid,
Dear Italia, a.k.a. “An Exponentially Confused kid:” Thanks for hopping on that “flattery wagon” and praising “Blues on Yellow.” We poets need love! I admire your honesty and understand your negativity and self-doubt. I disagree with your self-assessment that you are lacking in “charisma.” You’ve got “attitude” and sass. And your enthusiasm, creativity and grit are displayed in every sentence of your letter. There are a lot of artists and writers with attitude and ample edginess. Look at Edgar Allan Poe, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson; and Joy Harjo plays in a rock band!
They are all very sassy and rebellious and have interesting personalities.
Finally, don’t be confused by the riches of possibilities. You want to become a writer, go for it! And if you want to become a doctor, go for it! The two are not mutually exclusive. No worries, you have a whole life to figure things out! Enjoy!
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Marilyn Chin,
In a clumsy click of my mouse, I accidentally opened your bio, not “Blues on Yellow,” first. When I read that you were Asian American, I felt my first tingle of — I don’t know. Anticipation? Foreboding? I’ve spent what feels like forever being embarrassed about being Chinese because I grew up – and still am growing up— somewhere I stuck out. To be honest, I debated even selecting “Blues on Yellow” for this assignment. I’d never heard of an Asian American poet before. Certainly, I’ve never studied any in class. So a lot of what was coming was unexpected.
Your poem moved me—a lot. I don’t quite know why, but I have a hunch that it has something to do with representation, or relatability, or maybe some other buzzword that describes the discomfort of feeling seen. Especially when you dedicate a stanza to “my mother.” My own mom left a lot to come to America, and I know she did it partially for me—really embodying that sense of “Do not be afraid to perish,” I think. Your poem made me want to hug her.
Earlier I mentioned how infrequently I came across Asian American, or even just Asian poets—the latter partially because of the language barrier, I bet. (This is a shame, because as you probably know, my country’s love affair with poetry extends back for thousands of years. I bet my classmates would love to read such poems.) Anyway—I wonder if you had any Asian role models growing up in Portland, because I understand that this increased representation isn’t something that’s been happening forever. Seeing you on American Poets Board of Chancellors really inspired me. If not role models, what prompted you to write about your race?
Also, I may have missed the point here, as I’m apt to do, because poetry is hard! —but when you say, “If you cut my yellow wrists, I’ll teach my yellow toes to write,” I feel like you’re personally charging me to express my Asian American experience against all odds and despite all obstacles. I feel like you had me in mind when you wrote this. You are in the room, shaking me gently by the shoulders. I’ve tried to minimize my Chinese identity for what feels like forever. Maybe you’re saying it’s time to stop. Maybe you’re saying that if my community makes me feel ashamed or invalid about my background, I should still—or, especially,—amplify my experience.
Thank you for writing this poem. Its rhythm not only had the uncanny effect of making me want to dance, but your poem made me reflect. I think it’s even more impactful than you probably ever expected it to be. Now, whenever I fry eggs, I’ll stare in their yellow yolks and think of your poem. Thank you for taking the time to read my letter.
Dear Marilyn Chin,
I write to you in regards to your poem, “Blues on Yellow.” I found it especially provoking since I am American, born Chinese. My mother and father are both white Americans, but my sister and I were born in China. Neither of us know where or who we belong to, yet we both have a sense of familiar duty and relations to the people of China. While she was born further north, I was born further south in the rural areas, possibly left in favor of a male heir who could work the fields and carry on the name. That’s where the part about teaching your “yellow fists to fight” left its mark on me.
The structure flows chronologically through American history, which I definitely like a lot. From the canaries in the mines to check for oxygen levels to the railroads, it gives some nice allusion to the struggle of immigrants when first coming to the U.S. I wasn’t quite sure about the second stanza, though. It shifted to reflect on the self, since you used your name. When I first read it, I thought it was maybe about turning on your fellow kinspeople but now that I think more, perhaps not? Either way the sort of rhythm and flow you have works so well; it’s like a strange nursery rhyme. Almost like how stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel and Gretel” started in a most dire and grimm environment, your poem does the same with taking something so serious and personal to make it musical. I noticed that all of the piece was italicized as well, though I’m not sure whether this was the website or your intention since other pieces on there aren’t italicized. Was this your message? To give it an almost-fairytale feel? In the video where you read it aloud, I also got the sense that it was intended to be melodic.
In the part where you reference “mother,” do you mean the motherland or an actual mother from whom you flee? Maybe you flee for political refuge? Also, do the stars you mention refer to the stars in the sky or those in the U.S flag? Some in my English class saw the title as almost the blues in the flag against the yellow skin of East Asians. Others, of course, saw it more as sadness felt for the hardships of our people, so I was wondering what your intent was for this tail end of the stanza.
By fate, I wasn’t born into a Chinese family. Sometimes I feel as though I don’t “have the right” to relate to other Chinese people who were born and raised in China. It almost feels like I’m appropriating a culture that isn’t mine. Despite this sentiment, being called “banana” as if I were “white on the inside,” and having white parents, I still related somewhat to your poem. I have a strong sense of national pride and, somewhere within me, a deep-rooted connection to my ancestry and heritage. DNA results have revealed that I am 15% Vietnamese and 85% Chinese, but my personality and self say otherwise — white. Between the two allegiances I feel conflicted, as if I have to choose to align myself with one or the other. Your poem helped reconcile with my own internalized black-and-white thinking.
Thank you for writing “Blues on Yellow” and taking the time to read this letter. Not only did I enjoy relating to it, but I love the language itself. It definitely will make an impact on how I write poetry on the future—with more intent and subtly.
All the best,
Kansas City, MO
Dear Jia: I was very moved by your letter! There could be a variety of difficult explanations regarding why your birth mother gave you up for adoption. But in your case, it is obvious to this onlooker that your adoptive parents love and cherish both you and your sister and have provided you with a good life in Kansas City. Be proud that you have Chinese and Vietnamese blood coursing through your veins! Read up on the rich history and literature of China. Read some Tang dynasty poems! They are inspiring! Perhaps in the future, take a tour around China and Vietnam and all around Asia. Also, be proud that you are an American. Nobody can take your citizenship away from you! Don’t worry about “ appropriating” Chinese culture. It is such a loaded academic term. Instead, think about “cultural sharing” and being a part of a rich, pluralistic world. You have an interesting story to tell. And only you can talk about your personal journey! There are thousands of Asian adoptees growing up in America as we speak and you must “talk-story” together!
By the way, when I was twelve someone called me a banana and I responded by saying, “At least I’m delicious!”
Have fun reading and writing many delicious and amazing poems!
Yours very truly,
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Poet Marilyn Chin,
This is Allie, and I want to let you know that your poems reciprocate with me, especially on the topic of feminism and Asian identity. I’m from Guangzhou China, and this is my third year studying in an American high school. I did a poetry project on the poem, “The Barbarians Are Coming,” in which I tried to talk about women’s identity and the suffering they go through to maintain their position in the patriarchal society. Then my English teacher decided to do this “Dear Poet” project and I realize you are one of the poets I can write to! I’m so excited about it.
When I heard you reading the poem “Blues on Yellow,” I was deeply shocked by the strong emotion in your performance. The poem just raises the reciprocation deep in my heart, and I felt like I can see the struggle of Chinese gold miners in California. 170 years ago they crossed the whole Pacific Ocean and stumble into this foreign land, with dreams and hopes for better lives, but realized that they were not welcomed. They have to pay that absurdly high tax in order to mine, and how the sieves have filtered away their dreams. I could feel the struggle of the 19th century Chinese railroad workers, the racial discrimination they heave to sustain in order to survive, and how the spokes have cut their wings.
I love the delivery in the second stanza, and the tone has triggered my memory: as a child watching the cooking TV show made in Canton or Hong Kong and mimicked their cooking using plastics or flowers. I feel the pain for being baked in the pie with my other ten thousands people. I feel the pain of being in this enormous “culture melting pot,” the pain of eventual assimilation. But then I saw this huge shift, “If you cut my yellow wrists, I’ll teach my yellow toes to write.” This is my favorite line in the whole poem, and I see ten thousands of my people who rise as phoenixes from the ashes of the baked pie, how they arise and thrive in those harsh environments and discriminations. With the endurance, dreams, and hopes, maybe one day, we will reach the Promised Land.
My question arises, how do we preserve our identity in this ever-changing world? How can we chase our dreams in a foreign country without forgetting our own culture? There are some international students and Chinese-American students that I know, and they seem to completely “adopt” another culture and forget what they inherited because of the discrimination of their own culture. Many of us can still recite poems from thousands of years ago, many of us still listen to Chinese music, and many of us can still understand and write Although, when they have a chance to introduce foreigners to the beauty of Chinese culture, they feel uncomfortable, as our own culture is somehow perceived inferior to the other.
I feel sorrowful, for I am also an egg on the griddle that is oozing to white. How, my dear poet, how can we run away from that sizzling griddle?
Kansas City, MO
Dearest Allie: Thank you for dissecting “Blues on Yellow” to the fullest. You are a sharp and sensitive reader. Thanks for researching the gold miners who came to America 170 years ago and helped build this nation. Yes, we need to remember them! They must not be erased from history.
To answer your question: “How do we preserve our identity in this ever-changing world? How can we chase our dreams in a foreign country without forgetting our own culture?”
Allie, I am afraid that the vector of assimilation only goes one direction. I can tell you that every day, I lose more of my mother’s dialect; I am forgetting her recipes, forgetting the Chinese folksongs that she used to sing. It is easy for dominant cultures to swallow up minority cultures, because we are willing participants in our own disappearance… we want to be liked and be a part of the majority and fit in. Some of us are even embarrassed that our parents look and behave like “foreigners.” You’ve answered your own questions in your letter—Please continue to be proud and appreciate your “Chineseness.” Listen to Chinese music, recite Chinese poems, take up Chinese calligraphy, enjoy Chinese food, travel back to your ancestral village and meet your cousins, interview your aunties and uncles, record your parents’ and grandparents’ stories…pass on the rich culture to the next generation!
May the journey be peaceful May all your wishes come true
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Marilyn Chin,
One week ago, on the third of April, I sat in class dreading to listen through one hour of poetry videos because, in all honesty, it is not the easiest type of literature to comprehend. Then, you came on the screen with your poem “Blues on Yellow” and I felt represented but also understood because I am an Asian-American woman.
When listening to your poem, I couldn’t help but think of my mother and her struggles leaving Japan, as well as my father who throughout his life never saw my mother’s struggle with language or unfamiliarity of American culture as a burden. I have been told stories and have seen first-hand encounters with my mother being discriminated against: employees at a grocery store talking extra slow as if she was inhuman, my father’s friends who questioned his love for “a woman who was not like him.” From a young age I was taught to never judge a person by anything other than their actions because I knew I too was “different.”
I was born in Kobe, Japan along with my three other siblings. My father was a Caucasian man from Miami while my mother is full Japanese. We grew up in a bilingual household which I am thankful for every day. However, it was ironic that my siblings experienced racial discrimination from their Japanese classmates just for being white. This is, unfortunately, a universal issue. My parents later decided life in Japan was not for our family. At a year old we made the move to Honolulu, Hawai’i. I grew up with people who looked like me. Bigotry has never resurfaced here and for that I am grateful.
You inspired me to write my own poem about discrimination towards Asians. I like to think of it as a remix. It talks about persevering through hatred and stereotypical standards. Whether people believe in co-existing or not. There is never room for failure. I learned this from you, and for that I thank you.
Dear Marilyn Chin,
Hi, my name is Jill. I am writing for my American Literature class. We were in charge of picking a poet and I decided to choose you because, I think that you are a really cool person. I also wanted to write to you because, I find your poem “Blues On Yellow” very interesting and it stuck out from the others to me.
Your poem “Blues On Yellow” is a poem that really stuck out to me compared to the rest. One thing that really caught my eye about your poem is the way that you use repetition of phrases. One example of this is when you use the phrase “O crack an egg on the griddle, yellow will ooze into white.” I find this sentence very powerful because, I think that it is saying that everything or everyone will become one person or a whole someday which, I find very strong and interesting to say.
After reading “Blues On Yellow” I wanted to look into more of your poetry and I wanted to learn more about you. One of the other poems that you have written is “October Song.” When I read “October Song,” I was also very interested in it and the way that you are able to tell stories in just lines with a couple of words in them. It shocks me that you are able to also say very important and powerful things in your poems as well.
When I read “Blues On Yellow” it reminded me of one of the things that we talked about in my history class. In my history class, we had a discussion on how separated our country was. We talked about how one day, people wanted everybody to join hands and become one and not be separated and mad at each other. With your poem “Blues On Yellow” it made me think of that discussion and how it made me think of how separated our country was and how we are trying to make it a better place.
Dear Ms. Chin:
My name is Mirabel, and I am a ninth grader in Arizona. This month, my English class has been studying poems and writing our own. Our current assignment is to choose a poem from a packet that our teacher gave us and send a letter to a poet of our choosing about their poem. I loved your poem “Blues on Yellow” and really connected to it and the message it was conveying. I have worked with poetry through my Speech and Debate club in the past, and did some pieces on growing up Asian American and my own struggle with fitting in to different cultures last year. I read your poem as being based on Asian American migration to America, and it really struck home for me as my own mother moved to America from China. Your poem is based on a topic that is very important to me, and I truly appreciate this chance to ask you a few questions about it.
The way you used symbolism in your poem really stood out to me while I was reading it. The line, “Her husband the crow killed under the railroad, the spokes hath/shorn his wings,” caught my attention as soon as I read it. I interpreted this as the crow unable to fly away due to his wings, just as the people working at the railroads are unable to leave their jobs because they need the money to survive. They are both tied to the railroad, just in different ways. Another line that stuck with me was “If you cut my yellow fists, I’ll teach my yellow toes to fight.” For me, this was referencing the perseverance of immigrants and them fighting back when they were faced with oppression and racism in America. The messages in your poem were really important to me, and it was amazing to be able to read it, especially with the current stigma around immigrants in America.
Some parts of your poem made me wonder about symbolism that I didn’t understand and the writing process that got you to the unusual formatting of your poem. One question I had about symbolism was your continued reference of birds throughout the poem. The three kinds of birds that you mentioned were canaries, crows, and sapsuckers. Is there another meaning that relates all three of these birds or do they stand alone in their symbolism? The second question I had regarding symbolism had to do with the words “run, run, sweet little puritan.” The placement of Puritan confused me, since they occurred a long time before Asian-American migration to the United States took place. Why did you reference Puritans in your poem based on events that happened a century or two later? And finally, I have a question about your writing process with this poem. The way you repeated so many lines of your poem was really unique to me, and it made me wonder how you got to that type of writing style. What inspired you to write your poem the way you did, and do you think you would be inspired to write it different if you were writing it today? Thank you so much for this opportunity to ask you these questions!
Paradise Valley, AZ