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Monica Youn examines US history of Asian erasure in Hammer Museum Poetry Series

Monica Youn (left) is pictured next to her latest work, “FROM FROM” (right). The poet recently read from her book at the Hammer Museum. (From left to right: (Courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan and Courtesy of Graywolf Press)

By Kaycie Rippe

Jan. 26, 2024 8:18 p.m.

Monica Youn is using analytical poetry to deconstruct Western thought.

On Jan. 25, the Hammer Museum’s Poetry Series featured award-winning poet and UC Irvine professor Monica Youn. The event consisted of a reading from Youn’s newest poetry collection, “FROM FROM” – the title derived from the all too familiar question “where are you from from?” – and a Q&A between Youn and the audience. “FROM FROM” is a 2023 National Book Award Finalist and Youn’s fourth poetry book, which uses well-known symbols and mythology to reestablish their original Asian roots, identify how they were changed for Western audiences and utilize them to explain the isolation, exploitation, sexualization and discrimination of Asian Americans in the United States today.

“The only way in which I understand power is mediated through language because that’s my background,” Youn said. “I don’t have an understanding of power out there.”

[Related: Q&A: Author and poet Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo discusses verse as a Chicana]

Under the full moon, Westwood’s community was invited into an intimate space filled with warm lighting, cookies and coffee. Following an introduction from UCLA Research Professor Stephen Yenser, Youn read six of her poems and answered questions about her work. When the artist finished speaking, she was greeted with the audience’s strong applause and excitement for the book signing.

During the reading, Youn provided the stories of four important figures: Pasiphaë, Sado, the magpie and Midas. In her first poem, Youn shows the ever presence of white normativity, revealing that the mere mention of a character’s non-whiteness forces the work to be about race. A commentary on the Korean film “The Throne” exposes how American audiences exploit Asian culture and suffering without making an effort to understand it. Continuing her artistry, Youn composed parables of her own about the magpie, an East Asian symbol of good luck that has been overhunted in the United States, mirroring the politically driven rise in Asian hate.

“Magpie, others will not come for you to eat you – others will come for you to attack you, and to drive you from their lands,” Youn said. “For know now, Magpie, that you are not bait because you are wanted, but you are bait because you are hated, and it is because you are hated that therefore you are valuable to me.”

Embracing legal diction and logic, Youn’s background as a lawyer shines through her writing style. Line after line, Youn’s words dissect her subject, slowly building her argument as she writes it. Youn doesn’t stray from detailed explanations and molds facts right into her verses. Footnotes mark the end of many of her passages, giving further context to the forgotten parts of popular stories. Yenser acknowledged Youn’s distinct contemporary syntax as he introduced her to the stage, frequently repeating that her work was complicated.

“This is indeed a poet who takes a risk and who is sure of what she wants to say and goes ahead and finds new ways to say it,” Yenser said. “The lines almost seem to lie athwart one another. They echo each other in unusual ways to make a sort of disorderly and very engaging weave. Again, things are very complicated.”

A thoughtful discussion about the poet’s writing process was prompted by UCLA Poem, whose members filled two rows of seats. Explaining the intended interpretation of specific lines, Youn said she often employs false statements to build her claims as long as they benefit her argument. Youn said she views her words as a physical medium, building each phrase on top of the last and molding her message. Fourth-year biophysics student and UCLA Poem member Zoe Benaissa said she was particularly inspired by Youn’s focus on tone, as the poet emphasized that she cannot write without understanding the tone of her piece.

[Related: Q&A: Author Justin Torres on pushing creative boundaries in new novel ‘Blackouts’]

“I think the way she talks about tone … and how she approaches her poems with tone first was really interesting,” Benaissa said. “I’m definitely going to think about that when I write.”

“FROM FROM” was able to create meaningful discourse among a diverse audience of poetry enthusiasts, ultimately wrapping America’s deep history of Asian erasure in accessible parables and modified mythology. Through drawing attention to these foundational markers of Asian hate in Westernized stories, Youn implores readers to dismantle their Western ideas and hopes to build a home for Asian Americans within the pages.

“You are a member of the English speaking audience,” Youn said. “I let you see into the box, into what is private, into what is foreign, into what is inscrutable, into what has been buried.”

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Kaycie Rippe
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