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John Yau

1950–

On June 5, 1950, John Yau, was born in Lynn, Massachusetts. His father, a Chinese-American bookkeeper, met his mother, who was descended from a prestigious Shanghai family, while living in China. Yau's parents settled in Boston after emigrating from China in 1949. Yau studied at Boston University and received his BA from Bard College. He received his MFA from Brooklyn College.

In 1976, he published his first collection of poetry, Crossing Canal Street (Bellevue Press, 1976). Since then, he has published many books of poetry, including Bijoux in the Dark (Letter Machine Editions, 2018); Exhibits (Letter Machine Editions, 2010); Borrowed Love Poems (Penguin, 2002); Forbidden Entries (Black Sparrow Press, 1996); Berlin Diptychon (Timken, 1995); Edificio Sayonara (Black Sparrow Press, 1992); and Corpse and Mirror (Holt Rinehart, 1983); which was a National Poetry Series book selected by John Ashbery.

Yau is also an art critic whose books of criticism include In the Realm of Appearances: The Art of Andy Warhol (Ecco, 1993), A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns (D.A.P., 1997), and The Passionate Spectator: Essays on Art and Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2006). He has also published a novel and edited Fetish (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998), a fiction anthology.

Yau has received numerous awards including the Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, the 2018 Jackson Poetry Prize, the American Poetry Review Jerome Shestack Award, and a 1988 New York Foundation for the Arts Award. He is also the recipient of a 1977 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, two Ingram-Merrill Foundation Fellowships, and grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

He was a distinguished visiting critic at the Pratt Institute Graduate School of Art, Maryland Institute College of Art and School of Visual Arts in the late 1980s. In 1992, he was a visiting poet at Brown University and in 1994 and 1995, was a visiting professor at University of California, Berkeley. He was also the Ahmanson Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Yau was the arts editor of The Brooklyn Rail from 2006-2011. He is a professor of critical studies in the visual arts department at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He resides in New York City.

By This Poet

3

Russian Letter

It is said, the past
sticks to the present

like glue,
that we are flies

struggling to pull free
It is said, someone

cannot change
the clothes

in which
their soul

was born.
I, however,

would not
go so far

Nor am I Rembrandt,
master of the black

and green darkness,
the hawk's plumes

as it shrieks
down from the sky

Music from Childhood

You grow up hearing two languages. Neither fits your fits
Your mother informs you “moon” means “window to another world.”

You begin to hear words mourn the sounds buried inside their mouths
A row of yellow windows and a painting of them

Your mother informs you “moon” means “window to another world.”
You decide it is better to step back and sit in the shadows

A row of yellow windows and a painting of them
Someone said you can see a blue pagoda or a red rocket ship

You decide it is better to step back and sit in the shadows
Is it because you saw a black asteroid fly past your window

Someone said you can see a blue pagoda or a red rocket ship
I tried to follow in your footsteps, but they turned to water

Is it because I saw a black asteroid fly past my window
The air hums—a circus performer riding a bicycle towards the ceiling

I tried to follow in your footsteps, but they turned to water
The town has started sinking back into its commercial

The air hums—a circus performer riding a bicycle towards the ceiling
You grow up hearing two languages. Neither fits your fits

The town has started sinking back into its commercial
You begin to hear words mourn the sounds buried inside their mouths
 

Overnight

            In Memory of Paul Violi (1944–2011)

I did not realize that you were fading from sight
I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition

You most likely would have made a joke of it
Did you hear about the two donkeys stuck in an airshaft

I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition
The doorway leading to the valleys of dust is always open

Did you hear about the two donkeys stuck in an airshaft
You might call this the first of many red herrings

The doorway leading to the valleys of dust is always open
The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream

You might call this the first of many red herrings
The shield you were given as a child did not protect you

The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream
One by one the words leave you, even this one

The shield you were given as a child did not protect you
The sword is made of air before you knew it

One by one the words leave you, even this one
I did not realize that you were fading from sight

The sword is made of air before you knew it
You most likely would have made a joke of it