December 7–13, 2020
francxs gufan nan is thirty and an emerging poet. After growing up in California, they most recently lived in Philadelphia, PA, organizing with Asian American collective and grassroots orgs. In April, Ada Limón selected their “balding haibun” as the winner of the inaugural Pigeon Pages NYC 2020 Poetry Contest. This past fall, they were named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Shira Erlichman’s Recess for Poets workshop.
Author photo by Stacey Lu
This broken ghazal is for all the monied east asians who still don’t know
our history; how this country has ignored us—
How being in the U.S. was never meant for us.
Some days, I forget myself; my features finally featured:
Crazy Rich #YangForPresident: what could be more us?
爸爸 asks, why haven’t “blacks” made it like we have?
As if to say: We should be made into lore, us.
Chinese in face but not in name:
Have our riches inured us?
All but one of my cousins: white spouses. I lose
my words, agree—wide-eyed—their mixed race babies will be gorgeous.
舅媽 insists “illegals” should wait their turn; she did … but,
actually, she didn’t、didn’t get that right; borders should be porous.
Listen: I’ve learned, dear hearts: once we were the illegal ones. Paper
sons、families reconfigured. We were forced to forge us.
America post-’65, the only immigrants’ story we know:
our assurance lined with gold、the whole world before us.
What American Dream? That myth’s like a salesman tryna sell us
rhinoceros toes & elephant bones: Do not fucking bore us.
I dream of a future where all Nan-kind asks
Whose allies are we, really? and in whose chorus.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
So many revisions! In February, the wonderful George Abraham had our workshop write ghazals, and I was especially enamored of Zeina Hashem Beck’s work on broken ghazals. But my original draft was pretty constrained by a strict hexameter, and I had to learn to break that in intentional places. I’m also really pleased that the speaker’s tone has gone from accusatory to more … I don’t know, really owning their place among the “us” of the title.
In terms of audience, I intended many of the images and allusions to be for a contemporary Asian American audience. Another intentional move was to make allusions across a spectrum of knowledge and legibility; i.e., references that are more visible to the public eye, and some less. Like, I mention Crazy Rich Asians, and Andrew Yang, and a fairly media-literate anybody in 2020 might have heard of these in passing—but I also gesture towards more hidden (to some) histories like the Chinese Exclusion Act, as well as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
Also, the enumeration comma (、) that I use in a few spots throughout my writing: I am a big fan! For those who don’t know, the enumeration comma is a type of comma used in Mandarin and some other Asian languages specifically in lists. The comma as used in English does so much—I’ve really enjoyed using an enumeration comma to parse out one function. And, of course, there’s some reclamation happening: by using the enumeration comma, most commonly used when I’m reading/writing Mandarin, when I’m instead reading/writing English, I am culture-jamming, in a way.
With this revision, I’m still torn, as the poem requires maybe too much explanation. I’ve toyed with the idea of adding footnotes, which may happen someday.
I’m hyperaware that, because my intended audience is hyperspecific, this poem isn’t very legible to many readers, or even most lit mag publishers. My only hope is that more people will read Cathy Park Hong’s latest, amazing book of essays, Minor Feelings, or maybe watch the recent five-hour PBS special on Asian Americans, and that we can all shift the window of legibility.
What are you working on right now?
Figuring out a writing routine. I only started calling myself a poet and took my first creative writing class a year ago, and I didn’t come from a family or background of artists … so I’m learning my own process for creativity. It’s like learning, from scratch, how to tap a tree for sap. Right now, I’m in a workshop on revision, where we carefully examine multiple drafts of a poem, and I’ve honed my sense of when to riff and expand, when to reorganize, when to delete, etc.
What’s a good day for you?
One that follows the sunlight! I love waking up in the wee hours and tackling poetry when nobody else is awake: it feels like I’m getting away with something. If possible, I’ll stretch or work out first thing, too … A bicycle ride, maybe. After that, my ten-to-six, hopefully a surprise phone call or silly meme from a friend, hopefully a good night’s sleep.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
California. I’m in the Bay Area right now, but I haven’t lived here since I was sixteen. Mostly I’ve lived in huge, sprawling cities—Beijing, Houston, Los Angeles—which means I’m not averse to long drives … but most recently I spent four years in Philadelphia, where I could bicycle everywhere, which was lovely.
Here is a favorite quote of mine, from Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds:
… he was filled with a restless tottering unquiet and with a disgust for the places that he knew and with a desire to be where he never was, so that he was palsied of hand and foot and eye-mad and heart-quick and went from the curse of Ronan bird-quick in craze and madness from the battle.
What I loved about Philadelphia was the longevity with which people lived there. You don’t earn your stripes until you’ve been in the city at least a decade. Before Philadelphia, I was too nomadic. As one longtime organizer taught me, “Sometimes, you just gotta set your bags down and fight.”
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Only ever with a destination. My cousin’s apartment, brunch and Greenlight Bookstore with a friend, an afternoon at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I have a terrible sense of direction, so mostly I remember shaded sidewalks interrupted by stoops and tree pits. But that could be overlay from too many movies.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
There’s a concept in couples therapy called “accepting influence”: that strong relationships are built on the reciprocal giving and receiving of opinions. You can only be influential if you accept influence. I dunno, seems relevant.
My writing group is my heart of hearts: we meet every other week and either workshop someone’s writing or share good poems we’ve read, generative writing exercises. I’ve been pushed and prodded in my reading and writing because of their love and influence. I just moved back to California in April, in the middle of the pandemic, so I’ve mostly relied on long-distance, Internet community.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I’d have to Google who’s from where, so maybe I shouldn’t pretend? Oh! Shira Erlichman, who taught my fall Brooklyn Poets course, did the near-impossible: every week, cultivating a spirit of play and creative laissez-faire, a brief shelter amidst the pandemic. That energy is difficult to protect, and watching Shira insist upon it every week was so influential.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
One of my favorite letters from someone reads, “Thank you for taking the time to stop, look beside you, look behind you, and encourage and support everyone around you.” To me, that’s what a mentor does. George Abraham and Cynthia Arrieu-King have both so generously answered my most anxiety-ridden questions about publication, rejection, revision and more.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I can’t stop thinking about the line breaks in Raena Shirali’s poem “Fishing with Broken Lure,” which someone posted on Twitter.
Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of blows my mind every time, especially her read-alouds of the visual poems.
Without the scaffolding of a poetic form, I struggle with deciding where to line-break, so I learned a lot from both poets’ expert use of space and the page.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
More science fiction and fantasy, like The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin.
Poetry-wise, almost all my books are from 2015 onwards. I’m still very new to reading poetry—toddler age—so eventually I want to start reaching backwards in time.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I read by appetite: if weeks have passed and I’m not feeling it anymore, I’ll return a book. It’s not goodbye, it’s “See you later!” Otherwise, the guilt of not reading will eat me up.
Physical books! As often as possible, from the library. I love the idea of not owning books: because, if I’m not reading them, maybe someone else is, or can. I donate monthly to my local library as recompense.
I love wandering through bookshelves and letting myself lead myself to what I want to read at present.
Many of my closest friends read voraciously, so I love hearing about what they like and hoping someday I will read the same book.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
A long poem.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
The mythical, perfect coffeeshop: natural light and plants, comfy seating, a good gender-neutral bathroom, a menu that could carry me through three meals a day. Wherever I’ve lived, I keep my favorites in a mental map. Not sure what will still be open after this pandemic, though.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Anywhere I can stop to catch a breath from the go-go-go-go, without feeling pressured to buy something just to be worthy of some public space.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate each lovesick morning my unbirthday,
And what I unravel, you arrange again as a plate of cut fruit,
For every penitent pendant I swallow remakes me as good: good enough, & sweet enough, for you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
T R A V A I L E N
in widening sidereal, I jam my jack
beneath the rubber tyre, tired, & rob
bed of air、of stretch、of purr while Brooklyn
bound. Tonight, I rest here, stranded by sin
gle lane highway, below pitch black pen
dentive no man fathomed could but love,
resign’d to Fate, that Artful Dodger,
none of mother, nor of father—
nothing smoke ring, nothing Biggie.