Comedy and Asian American Poets
Playlist by Chen Chen
Growing up, the only Asian American comedian I knew was Margaret Cho. Now there’s Ali Wong, Hari Kondabolu, Mindy Kaling. Of course, these folks have been working in comedy for a while, so I don’t want to create some false or reductive generational distinction. I’m writing here mostly from my own experiences and impressions. Though perhaps it would be fair to say that many Asian Americans in comedy have only recently reached a more mainstream level of success. Anyway, the only Asian American comedy model I had for many years was Margaret Cho. So, it seemed to me like a very odd path for an Asian American to take, as much as I loved Cho’s work (still do). I didn’t think I was funny; I didn’t have many examples of Asian Americans being funny. I never considered comedy as a path for me.

Jump to the present and now I’ve got poetry readers telling me that they find my work funny, that they see humor as one of the primary tools I use. I might still be far too introverted to be a comedian—performing as a stand-up comic seems particularly terrifying—but I wonder, what if I’d had more examples and models when I was younger? What if associating Asian Americans with being funny wasn’t such a rare occurrence, back then? Not that the comedy field today is where it needs to be in terms of Asian American representation. And there’s still plenty of time for me to explore comedy—perhaps more as a writer of jokes and sketches than a performer of them.

My aim with this playlist is to introduce more folks to some seriously funny Asian Americans. I want to further amplify the work of Asian American poets who blend comedy with lyrical bolts of insight; who construct comedy through a line break, the shape of a stanza; who understand the comedic as part of a wide, wide range of emotional engagement. These are voices in poetry that use comedy as the best comedians do: to point out the absurd, to question power and norms, to delight us, to disarm us and render us vulnerable to ourselves.
1. Self-Portrait as Mango
Tarfia Faizullah
2. I’m Over the Moon
Brenda Shaughnessy
3. The Homosexual Book of Genesis
Joseph O. Legaspi
4. The Mascot of Beavercreek High Breaks Her Silence
Aimee Nezhukumatathil
5. Barbie Chang Loves Evites
Victoria Chang
6. The Last New Year’s Resolution
Kazumi Chin
7. Getting Used to It
Sarah Gambito
She says, Your English is great! How long have you been in our country?
I say, Suck on a mango, bitch, since that’s all you think I eat anyway. Mangoes
 
are what margins like me know everything about, right? Doesn’t
a mango just win spelling bees and kiss white boys? Isn’t a mango
 
a placeholder in a poem folded with burkas? But this one,
the one I’m going to slice and serve down her throat, is a mango
 
that remembers jungles jagged with insects, the river’s darker thirst.
This mango was cut down by a scythe that beheads soldiers, mango
 
that taunts and suns itself into a hard-palmed fist only a few months
per year, fattens while blood stains green ponds. Why use a mango
 
to beat her perplexed? Why not a coconut? Because this “exotic” fruit
won’t be cracked open to reveal whiteness to you. This mango
 
isn’t alien just because of its gold-green bloodline. I know
I’m worth waiting for. I want to be kneaded for ripeness. Mango:
 
my own sunset-skinned heart waiting to be held and peeled, mango
I suck open with teeth. Tappai! This is the only way to eat a mango.
I don’t like what the moon is supposed to do.
Confuse me, ovulate me,

spoon-feed me longing. A kind of ancient
date-rape drug. So I’ll howl at you, moon,

I’m angry. I’ll take back the night. Using me to
swoon at your questionable light,

you had me chasing you,
the world’s worst lover, over and over

hoping for a mirror, a whisper, insight.
But you disappear for nights on end

with all my erotic mysteries
and my entire unconscious mind.

How long do I try to get water from a stone?
It’s like having a bad boyfriend in a good band.

Better off alone. I’m going to write hard
and fast into you, moon, face-fucking.

Something you wouldn’t understand.
You with no swampy sexual

promise but what we glue onto you.
That’s not real. You have no begging

cunt. No panties ripped off and the crotch
sucked. No lacerating spasms

sending electrical sparks through the toes.
Stars have those.

What do you have? You’re a tool, moon.
Now, noon. There’s a hero.

The obvious sun, no bullshit, the enemy
of poets and lovers, sleepers and creatures.

But my lovers have never been able to read
my mind. I’ve had to learn to be direct.

It’s hard to learn that, hard to do.
The sun is worth ten of you.

You don’t hold a candle
to that complexity, that solid craze.

Like an animal carcass on the road at night,
picked at by crows,

taunting walkers and drivers. Your face
regularly sliced up by the moving

frames of car windows. Your light is drawn,
quartered, your dreams are stolen.

You change shape and turn away,
letting night solve all night’s problems alone.
It is a short book.

God in His righteous glory conjures up
everything: the separation of Light

and Dark, firmaments, land and sea,
vegetation and beasts. On the sixth day

God, in His image, creates Adam
and Adam, sons of His patriarchal regime.

Then God rests. Then, no begetting.
No litanies of descendants. Hence,

fatal rivalry between brothers, golden calf
worship and heavy rain are avoided. No exodus,

locusts, thorns, crucifixion and resurrection.
God rests absolutely, the seventh day eternal.

The serpent remains, coiled up a fruitless
tree. But as God’s will, there calcified

in the larynxes of Adam and Adam: desire.
There are some suits more difficult to remove:
spades, armor, tweed in the summer, lights, cups.
Those nights you thought I was home, dateless, studying
for chemistry, memorizing the dates of epic battles —

I worked myself into a lather of sweat for a field
of angry young men. Sometimes they were so close
I could feel their hot breath in the space between my head
and furry neck. Even the captain of the cheerleaders

never went that far. Every hand that once reached
for me still haunts me at the most unexpected times:
as I place vegetables on the grocery belt, or walking
the glow-wall walkway at the Detroit Airport.

Something still pulls me to the ground and it’s not
the crowd, the scent of cola and popcorn, the tinge
of engine grease, or a truck revving at Homecoming.
If you slice a jacaranda bloom between two glass slides

and place it on a microscope, the corolla will always fight
for the light. If you once posed for any pictures
with me, still have them scattered somewhere in an attic,
look carefully at the dark netting of my mouth.

If you squint hard, you can see my actual teeth,
clenched into a small scream. I was like that every night.
It was high school, after all. I was always cheering
for something. Still am. Something is always worth

cheering for. There is always some cheer
worth something. Cheer for some worth, always.
The very last mammoth was just like the others,
except more lonely. The very last tortilla chip
makes me feel guilty. The very last line
of the poem changes everything about
what came before. On the very last day
of any semester, if I liked my class, I buy them
cookies. Every year, someone hears the very last
words of any given language, and then
it sinks into the mud of colonialism. White
soldiers gave every last Indian at Fort Pitt
a blanket, to keep them warm. The very last
samurai was white. The very last thing
I wanted this poem to be about was white
people. But that didn’t last too long. Last
year, I wavered between whispering
and screaming. The very latest from
the western front: a lasting quiet. The radio
was never much of a conversationalist.
The very last tape I ever listened to
scrambled like an egg at brunch
in Pittsburgh on a Sunday, with
the very last people I’d ever expected
to be at brunch with. Who knew I’d love
so many white people. The very last story
my grandmother told me was about a boy
named Tsutomo. He was born from a peach
called America. The very last place his father
thought he’d ever be. The very last ornament
we hang from our tree each year is a face.
The very last year I spent Christmas with
my whole family was in 6th grade. I hated
my whole family that year. To the very last
drop of blood in my body, I wanted them
out. Now I want to bring all these Pittsburgh
people home with me. Take them to meet
my family. With every pixel of every word
I bleed. I never wanted to hate my family.
Or anything at all. I want last year to be
the very last time that I ever hate anything.
Even when white people are killing black
people and sealing off the street. I will hold
so many hands. To the very last finger
resting on every last trigger of every
last gun. Listen to me, I am loving, I am loving,
I am giving so much fucking love to you. 
She brightens at the evidence. Like a strong appliance.
 
You can make it hot.
 
Grown ass people having tantrums.
 
I’m unbought, unheated. Like a perfectly square morsel of lasagna.
 
A wrathful rubics cube.
 
To realize, I wish to ridicule people interested in martial arts.
 
That I’m not getting better.
 
 
 
My uncle would prank call my father, “Immigration!”
 
He’d crow. And my father would fall to silence.
 
No matter the heavy accent.
 
No matter the voice he’d known unto boredom.
 
One wing swigging out to its brother on the other bird.
 
I measured this silence when I was a girl.
 
The quality of the joke and how it rested
 
on the bad stomach of a tensile citizenry.
 
The joke was that, in an instant,
 
We Lost Everything.
 
 
 
It is important to remember who would laugh first—
 
the perpetrator/uncle/jokester or the assailed/father/feather.
 
Or maybe, it isn’t.
 
Maybe what you should know is that
 
they told this joke over and over and ever.
 
My uncle crowed. My father disbelieved. We lost everything.
 
And then, the svelte, sweet brier laughter.
 
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