How NOT to Write Poetry

It’s another one of those days where I didn’t intend for today’s topic to be what it is. In a way, it comes at really bad timing, for this month is National Poetry Month. But at the same time, I can see how it’s kind of good it has happened this month, for what I’m about to discuss sets an example as to how not to write poetry. Poetry should be exciting, thrilling, touching, thought-provoking, engaging; but when it comes to choosing subject matter and how to go about it, a word of caution: Don’t do what Calvin Trillin did.

I first heard about it via Twitter before I finally around to reading the poem (and commentary) myself on Angry Asian Man. Earlier this week, The New Yorker published a poem by Trillin called “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” It’s basically an off the chain rant about the overwhelming realization on how despite being of the same country, the many provinces of China each have their specific variety of cuisine that goes beyond orange chicken and chow mein.

There are so many things wrong with this piece that to put the reasons in order from least to greatest isn’t necessary; not when they are all so equally important to consider. So forgive me if I start to sound a bit ranty, but I need to say what I need to say.

First of all, the writing sucks. This poem sounds like it was written for a school assignment, where the writer was either trying too hard to sound good or thought they were being so clever with their rhyming couplets that it actually just came out sounding completely juvenile. The fact that this was even accepted for publication by The New Yorker is a shock.

There is, of course, the subject matter, which is so insensitive that reading it, I think to myself: How did this guy not know any better? Is it really that big of a shock that China has such a large variety of food unique to each of its provinces? That’s like someone writing in shock on how America isn’t just about hot dogs and barbecue chicken. If you have a country divided into several regions/provinces/states with millions of people spread out all over the place, then of course they’re going to have food unique to specifically where they live. It doesn’t require that much thinking to figure that out.

The Guardian has since published a piece about how Trillin is defending his poem, feeling that it’s being misinterpreted and that it’s supposed to poke fun at the foodie culture. He’s even said that he has even done a similar poem in the past. But just because he’s used a similar mold before, doesn’t mean the boot is going to always properly fit; especially when it comes to poking fun at the culture of a country that, for the longest time, has been seen as “the exotic, inferior other.” Plus, he doesn’t help his case when in his poem, he refers to the provinces mentioned as “brand-new province[s],” and  lines like “brings new fears,” “we were never faced with the threat” and “so we sometimes do miss, I confess,
simple days of chow mein but no stress” are bluntly written into the poem’s last stanza.

China is centuries older than the United States. Those provinces aren’t brand-new. They only seem that way because you’ve never heard of them before. And all that was written in the last stanza is something that can’t be taken lightly, for it only sounds like the only Chinese food you knew of until recently was whatever is on the menu at Panda Express.

Trillin is at fault for writing this poem, and The New Yorker is at fault for deciding to publish this poem in the first place. Like I said before, the writing is horrible and the subject matter is insensitive. I don’t know if it’s because Trillin has had work featured in the publication since the 1960’s or what. All I know is that because of its prestige and its reputation, a poem like that generally should have been rejected. This is not a white man’s world, and by publishing that poem, it only reinforces the idea that it is a white man’s world.

Poetry shouldn’t be enforcing a blow. It should be about acknowledging it, softening it, analyzing it, and when possible, making it one’s own. Poetry is about taking expression to new heights. There’s a reason why it’s the written version of dancing. But this poem falls flat of that. It’s ill-written, it’s insensitive to the Chinese culture, and The New Yorker should have seen all that the minute it arrived in their inbox. If any good is to come out of this, I hope it’s that people realize how there’s not only a wrong way of writing poetry, but also how we still have a long way to go in terms of seeing certain people and cultures as anything but exotic.

As one may guess with this kind of news, there have been several think pieces and takes on this subject matter. For instance, here’s Timothy Yu’s response to the poem, via a poem of his own, “Have They Run Out of White Poems Yet?”


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