Asian American & Pacific Islander Poets
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, the perfect time to reflect on AAPI poets’ significant contributions to the world of literature. AAPI poets from an array of backgrounds have brought forth unique perspectives and narratives rooted in their rich cultural heritage. From the works of trailblazers like Li-Young Lee and Mitsuye Yamada to contemporary poets like Ocean Vuong and Cathy Park Hong, AAPI poets have explored themes of identity, diaspora, history, and social justice with profound insight and lyricism. Through their poetry, they challenge stereotypes, break boundaries, and forge connections, offering a glimpse into the vast tapestry of AAPI experiences.
Born in Djakarta, Indonesia in 1957, Li-Young Lee was born to Chinese political exiles. Both of Lee’s parents came from powerful Chinese families, and when anti-Chinese sentiment spiked in Indonesia, Lee and his parents were forced to flee to the US. Later, as a student at the University of Pittsburgh, Lee found himself influenced by classical Chinese poets like Li Bo and Tu Fu. Today, his work is known for its use of silence and memory.
Women’s rights activist and iconic poet Mitsuye Yamada immigrated to the US with her family in 1926. Her father, an interpreter for the US Immigration and Naturalization Services, was wrongfully accused of spying in 1942, which forced the Yamada family into an internment camp. Yamada’s work bravely recounts her experience of internment, as well as racial violence and discrimination.
A poet and scholar from the suburbs of Chicago, Timothy Yu’s work explores race and the avant-garde. In addition to winning the 2009 Book Award in Literary Studies from the Association for Asian American Studies, Yu is the author of four poetry chapbooks. His newest book, 100 Chinese Silences, was published in 2016 by Les Figues Press.
Former Kundiman fellow and winner of the 2013 Kundiman Poetry Price, Matthew Olzmann has been praised for his exuberant poetic style. In addition to three poetry collections, his work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and elsewhere. Olzmann currently teaches at Dartmouth College and the MFA program at Warren Wilson College.
Samoan poet and novelist Sia Figiel is known for her use of traditional Samoan storytelling. In addition to her 1998 prose poetry collection, To a Young Artist in Contemplation, Figiel has received praise for her work as a performance poet, with a recording included in Best New Zealand Poems 2003. She’s held numerous residencies in Europe and the South Pacific and was named the winner of the Polynesian Literary Competition for poetry in 1994. Figiel currently lives in Samoa.
Asian American and Pacific Islander poets have played a vital role in shaping the literary canon, offering a multiplicity of voices and perspectives that enrich our understanding of the human experience. Their poetry not only celebrates the complexities of cultural heritage but also addresses universal themes of love, loss, and resilience. Through their powerful and evocative words, AAPI poets have created a space for dialogue, reflection, and empathy, inviting readers from all backgrounds to engage with their narratives. As we continue to champion diverse voices in literature, it is essential to recognize and amplify the profound contributions of AAPI poets, whose artistry and storytelling continue to inspire and illuminate.