It’s Not Just an Asian Thing: Why Calvin Trillin’s Poem Matters to All Writers

I am Japanese-American and Korean-American.  I am not Chinese-American and I felt funny when I first read Calvin Trillin’s poem, Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?  His use of “They” in the first two lines pulled me out of the poem and made me wonder, “Does he know that some people who read The New Yorker are Chinese-Americans?”

This is a fair question in the midst of coincidence.  Trillin isn’t the only white male writer who was called out this week.

And buried near the end of the poem’s first stanza, Trillin refers to “the eaters.”  Ohhhh, I get it, Trillin is making fun of foodies, by way of the homelands of Chinese people.  And this is funny how?  In 2016?  In the history of ever?

I have nothing to add to the responses by writers like Franny Choi, Karissa Chen, Celeste Ng, Beth Nguyen, and Timothy Yu.  Trust me, they’ve got this.  Seriously, read this.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I do believe that Calvin Trillin should be allowed to write whatever he would like and in the manner he wishes to represent himself.  We all come to the page at different levels of craft.  I will not stand over any writer’s shoulder because that’s censorship.  Write on, Calvin.

Writing is one thing.  Publishing is another.

In my post-AWP glow, I remember attending a panel that reminded us that we’ll eventually be grateful to the gatekeepers who rejected our initial work because this forced us to go back and write better.

Yay.

The editorial staff of The New Yorker published a poem with rhyming couplets that disrespect sound, where the payoff is overshadowed by elements irrelevant to the poet’s stated intention, the writer seems to be laughing to himself, and the work has no muscularity.

National Poetry Month is a time to invite new readers and writers to poetry.  This is our open house where we remind the public that there are still people who take poetry seriously.  The New Yorker is highly respected for generally excellent writing and they pay their writers well.  They have influence.  Featuring Trillin’s poem as a crown jewel during National Poetry Month is a poor choice.  It wouldn’t be a stretch for an astute reader who is new to poetry to ask, “If The New Yorker doesn’t take poetry seriously, why should anyone?

As of this morning’s Google search, no one has called out David Remnick or Paul Muldoon as gatekeepers.  The conversation about the gatekeepers has seemed more like a raised eyebrow and throat clearing followed by pointing at artifacts like the VIDA numbers, and referring to the magazine by title, not by masthead.  No demands for resignations or rally cries to cancel subscriptions to The New Yorker.  I get it.  Canceling my subscription would be an admission of defeat.  I am complicit.  I am in that long line of writers who would consider a personal rejection from The New Yorker a reason to celebrate.  So, what’s next?  For me, I choose to get back to work.  Read.  Write.  Submit.  Do better.  Repeat.  Never ever give up.

Despite requests from the media, neither editor has made any public comment regarding Calvin Trillin’s poem yet.  Maybe they are too busy curating higher quality poetry for future editions of The New Yorker.  Or maybe it’s because they don’t have to respond.  And I wonder what their silence means to all writers.

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