While examining Pat Parker and June Jordan’s archive during the summer of 2022, I found the presence of poet and activist Janice Mirikitani everywhere1. From flyers on behalf of “Free Angela” events to collaborative forums on women and poverty in the San Francisco Bay Area with Parker, to a friendship and partnership with Jordan and Glide Memorial Church for the “Poetry for the People” program, Mirikitani’s political and poetic presence was full. Throughout the eighties and nineties, she actively organized with and on behalf of poor, working-class women, immigrants, and refugees. Mirikitani’s activism was propelled by an articulation of poetry and aesthetics—not as a docile, inactive presence, but as an active political force in the world.
Mirikitani and Jordan specifically worked to organize with and teach Black, Asian, and Asian American communities and poor communities of color. Responding to Jordan about their shared Glide “Poetry for the People” workshop in San Francisco, and agreeing about how the “low attendance numbers” were a shared source of “distress,” Mirikitani describes why announcements about the program were not made or circulated. She discusses the outreach she’s done, specifically to Asian American writing and community groups:
June, your concern about lack of attendance by Asians and Asian Americans is distressing to me also. I sometimes take it personally, being Asian American. I don’t really have a good answer to this one, except that Southeast Asian refugees tend to remain in their own cultural groupings. It is a very difficult community to nurture relationships with, and only recently—I’d say in the past two years, have we seen our educational roles increase in numbers from the new immigrant population in our children/youth program on a consistent basis… (March 16, 1996)
Portending the anxieties centralized in contemporary Asian American activism, particularly concerning the typified, depoliticized Asian American subject, Mirikitani acknowledges the difficulties of reaching out to communities to which they do not belong, while wanting to hold space for their presences. Responding to Jordan’s suggestion of contacting white people on the waiting list to fill the program, Mirikitani advocates to keep their workshops focused on the needs of nonwhite, poor communities, stating,
I have nothing against large numbers of whites in the class, June, but again, I feel what makes Glide different, what makes you so powerful, is that we are very conscious of including people—specifically people of color and poor people—who may be more intimidated by the written word, who have been ‘put off’ by traditional classes in poetry and literature. And so we do expend our energies to make sure that our numbers reflect our sensitivity…
but adds that an eight-week poetry program for this demographic might be too long as,
Because many of our folks are coming straight in from jobs, exhaustion may be a factor in their attendance…
Two years before the writing of this letter, Mirikitani dedicated a poem titled “Haiku and Tanka for June Jordan” with the epigraph, “With love that cannot be contained / in paragraphs or pentameter.” In the fourth section of the poem, Mirikitani lays out the rules utilized by Jordan’s “Poetry for the People,” in which the first question is: “Does it tell the truth?” Considering these rules must be followed (does it, and by “it” we could deduce, “language” tells the truth), in the following stanza she writes:
If politicians were required
before they are allowed to take office
to write a good poem,
we would be bothered with fewer
This desire, this drive—if politicians were required […] to write a good poem—as witnessed in Jordan and Mirikitani’s disappointment with the attendance at Glide, was, at times, unmet. The people they worked so vigorously on behalf of, toward, had material conditions that shaped their lives (long hours, job exhaustion). Mirikitani recognized this and wanted to hold space for their presence.
To underscore how often language, and the language of power tells untruths, lies, “evades,” and to emphasize how poetry can offer more, Mirikitani writes,
We will meet in the circles of poetry for the people…
I put the things I want
inside a heart shaped box—
a new dress, a bathtub full of hot water,
fresh strawberries, white gardenias,
a warm coat, child sized,
warm hands, lover sized.
I bring Mirikitani’s letter to and poem for Jordan into examination as a way to grapple with a deep and meaningful exchange between Black and Asian American writers and artists; the politics of race and how it informs what is considered “poetic form” to ask about unrequited politics; the political desires some Black and Asian American artists had for and of their communities; and the ways in which they approached this desire, as well as the response to that desire (perhaps the response is pending).
What Asian Americans want, politically, has remained an open question (the pending Supreme Court case against affirmative action tells one story). There’s also the long-standing academic habit of building programs in a top-down manner, based on the preferences of the instructor. Philosopher Jacques Rancière theorizes that such a hierarchy preserves state ideology and/or sublimates the politics of the educator into the process of learning. To get around this, he examines case studies where the positions of ‘student’ and ‘teacher’ were not stratified by expertise—by who knew more than the other—but by the desire to learn. Eve Tuck takes this notion further, by asking for desire-based methods to “foundationalize” all academic processes, be it in research, reading, or teaching. Such approaches push against modernist practices that prioritize the finished object and the competition inherent to the individuated poem. These approaches often do not consider how the complexities between lived experiences and aesthetics need not be so distinctive.
Mirikitani and Jordan worked passionately to create spaces that facilitated poetry workshops with the communities they cared about. Audre Lorde reminds us that poetry is not a luxury, and yet poetry requires time that too many have been denied.
There was no other correspondence between Jordan and Mirikitani regarding attendance, so it is unclear what happened next. In my curiosity, I reached out to writers who knew and worked with Mirikitani at Glide, including Shawn Wong, and former teaching assistants of the “Poetry for the People” program, such as scholar Dorothy Wang and poet Samiya Bashir, to see if they might know. They told me that the program had many tentacles; they all worked on different parts during varying moments, but not on the experiment described by Jordan and Mirikitani above. A small pamphlet was published highlighting their program, with a preface by Mirikitani and her husband and Glide cofounder, Reverend Cecil Williams, and poems by Jordan and the poets in the program. It could be surmised that the death of Jordan in 2002 and Mirikitani’s passing in 2021 marked a metamorphosis of the experiment, as the program remains at the University of California, Berkeley, in African American and African diaspora studies, and at Arizona State University through Solmaz Sharif.
Today and always, through this exchange, I want to know: What is the relationship between form and power2? It is incredibly tender to make something and wait for others to come. I am forever interested in this waiting.
1Many of Janice Mirikitani’s works are now out of print, but her Awake in the River & Shedding Silence was republished in 2022 by Shawn Wong as part of the University of Washington’s classics from Asian American writers series.
2Dorothy Wang’s Thinking Its Presence grapples most deeply with these questions. I thank Dorothy for allowing us to ask about the stakes of experimentation most openly and boldly. Jennifer Mock and Leo Genjiro Amino invited me to be part of a panel at the Wallach Art Gallery, and my engagement with their research and curation allowed me to draft an early version of this essay. Conversations with Bhanu Kapil, Shawn Wong, and Samiya Bashir shaped the writing, and Mary Sutton’s precise vision and editing allowed for its final form. I’m grateful for their guidance and support.
Reprinted from the Spring-Summer 2023 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2023 by Eunsong Kim.