6 Poems to Celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Glimpses of Pacific Islander and Asian American life–okay, not okay, and in between.

By Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

By Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Curator of Asian Pacific American Studies

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, when the U.S. celebrates the experiences and histories of Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans. First recognized in 1979, APAHM was set in the month of May to commemorate the initial arrival of Japanese immigrants in May of 1843 and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the majority of workers for which were Chinese immigrants, in May of 1869.

Today, in 2022, commemoration takes on a different cast amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and an ongoing surge of anti-Asian hate. We invite you to recognize this Heritage Month not only through historical appreciation but also by checking in with, and caring for, Pacific Islander and Asian American communities right now.

Below you’ll find 6 poems modeled on this very premise of listening and caring. Are you okay? each poet was asked, and here, in video poem form, are their answers. These “Queer Check-ins” offer glimpses of queer Pacific Islander and Asian American life–okay, not okay, and in between–and remind us that heritage is always alive and growing, and that sometimes celebrating a community means asking and listening to how it’s doing.

Franny Choi

Franny Choi writes poems, essays, and other things. She is the author of two poetry collections, Soft Science (Alice James Books) and Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing), as well as a chapbook, Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press).

She is a Kundiman Fellow, a 2019 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, a recipient of Princeton’s Holmes National Poetry Prize, and a graduate of the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writers Program. She is the founder of Brew & Forge and co-hosts the podcast VS alongside Danez Smith. She currently teaches at Williams College as a Levitt Artist-in-Residence and is at work on two projects forthcoming on Ecco Books.

Wo Chan

Wo Chan who performs as The Illustrious Pearl is a poet and drag artist. They are a winner of the 2020 Nightboat Poetry Prize and the author of TOGETHERNESS (2022). Wo has received fellowships from MacDowell, New York Foundation of the Arts, Kundiman, The Asian American Writers Workshop, Poets House, and Lambda Literary. Their poems appear in POETRY, WUSSY, Mass Review, No Tokens, and The Margins.

As a member of the Brooklyn-based drag/burlesque collective Switch N’ Play, Wo has performed at The Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA PS1, National Sawdust, New York Live Arts and elsewhere. They are a regular at Sasha Velour’s Nightgowns and have starred in short films and music videos, featured in documentaries, and performed at cabarets and clubs across the US. They are currently the Communications Manager of Lambda Literary and the Editor of the Lambda Literary Review, and live in Brooklyn, New York. Find them at @theillustriouspearl.

Terisa Siagatonu

Terisa Siagatonu is an award-winning poet, arts educator, community organizer, and mental health advocate born and rooted in the Bay Area. Her presence in the poetry world as a queer Samoan woman and activist has granted her opportunities to perform in places ranging from the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris to the White House (during the Obama Administration).

A recipient of President Obama's Champions of Change Award for her activism as a poet/organizer in her Pacific Islander community, Terisa has published work in Poetry Magazine and has been featured on Button Poetry, CNN, NBCNews, NPR, Huffington Post, Everyday Feminism, The Guardian, BuzzFeed and Upworthy.

Paul Tran

Paul Tran is the author of the debut poetry collection, All the Flowers Kneeling, from Penguin in the US and the UK. They are a Visiting Faculty in Poetry at Pacific University MFA in Writing and a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. A recipient of the Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and a Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize, their work appears in The New Yorker, The Nation, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere.

Kazim Ali

Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom and has lived transnationally in the United States, Canada, India, France, and the Middle East. His books encompass multiple genres, including the volumes of poetry Inquisition, Sky Ward, winner of the Ohioana Book Award in Poetry; The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award; The Fortieth Day; All One’s Blue; and the cross-genre texts Bright Felon and Wind Instrument.

His novels include The Secret Room: A String Quartet and among his books of essays are the hybrid memoir Silver Road: Essays, Maps & Calligraphies and Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice. He is also an accomplished translator (of Marguerite Duras, Sohrab Sepehri, Ananda Devi, Mahmoud Chokrollahi and others) and an editor of several anthologies and books of criticism. After a career in public policy and organizing, Ali taught at various colleges and universities, including Oberlin College, Davidson College, St. Mary's College of California, and Naropa University. He is currently a Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. His newest books are a volume of three long poems entitled The Voice of Sheila Chandra and a memoir of his Canadian childhood, Northern Light.

Lehua M. Taitano

Lehua M. Taitano is a queer CHamoru writer and interdisciplinary artist from Yigu, Guåhan (Guam) and co-founder of Art 25: Art in the Twenty-fifth Century. She is the author of two volumes of poetry—Inside Me an Island and A Bell Made of Stones. Her chapbook, appalachiapacific, won the Merriam-Frontier Award for short fiction. She has two recent chapbooks of poetry and visual art: Sonoma and Capacity. Her poetry, essays, and Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction have been published internationally.

She is the recipient of a 2019 Eliza So Fellowship and the 2019 Summer Poet-in-Residence at The Poetry Center at The University of Arizona. She has served as an APAture Featured Literary Artist via Kearny Street Workshop, a Kuwentuhan poet via The Poetry Center at SFSU, and as a Culture Lab visual artist and curatorial advisor for the Smithsonian Institute’s Asian Pacific American Center. Taitano’s work investigates modern indigeneity, decolonization, and cultural identity in the context of diaspora.

Credits: Story

Video editing and production by Noel Mones

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