Jeffrey Thomas Leong is a poet, writer, and translator who earned his MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. While earning his degree, Leong began a project to translate poems found etched into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station. These translations later became the book Wild Geese Sorrow: The Chinese Wall Inscriptions at Angel Island, published by Calypso Editions in 2018. He is also the author of Writ, a collection of poetry published in 2019. Today, Leong continues to write and translate poetry while also delving into an exciting new venture, divulged here.
Author Harold Jaffe has noted that artists who transfigure extreme emotional pain into art create the very art that is most important, where pain is “pointed outward”. The emotion seems to push these words to the surface despite attempts to physically hide or remove them. Do you consider your writing a form of activism? If so, what risks do you find yourself taking while conducting this work?
In practicing their art, writers of prose and poetry both use personal experience along with language to create invented worlds. In the world of prose—novels, short stories, or memoir—the writer makes a story out of characters and a narrative arc. The process of prose creation is often slow, using calm reflection and research to flesh out details. Emotional content invests through the presentation of those details, situations, and character thoughts and feelings. However, poetry is written primarily from a first-person, intimate POV [point of view], and emotions can literally erupt from the page in an explosion of compressed energy. They might arrive in a lyric moment or more slant in a juxtaposition of language and imagery.
Using this frame, I found that the Angel Island detainee wall poems were written with deep emotional content, mostly of sadness, worry, or anger, situational to the poets’ open-ended incarcerations as suspect undocumented immigrants. They used ancient Tang poetic forms that they’d grown up with in school as the chosen vessel for their words and feelings, so that these were both modulated by a formal poetic structure and validated in a tradition where personal grievance was honored.
The Angel Island detainee poets wrote primarily for each other and succeeding waves of new immigrants, posting words in a public space, literally the walls of the Men’s Barracks. In this, the poems functioned a lot like today’s social media. Targeted publication allowed greater freedom to express intimate thoughts, similar to Internet forums which create silos for tribal ranting and raving. Because of their private nature, these poems pulled no punches in expressing outrage over racial discrimination and oppressive living conditions, and held clear political content. To protect their pending immigration applications, the detainee wall poets left their work unsigned and anonymous.
As a translator of this work in the 21st century one hundred years later, my efforts were less personal and more literary and political. I first wanted to share the aesthetic beauty I found that had been created under the extreme circumstances of mass incarceration. This is a human story and inspiring. But as a founding participant in Asian American Studies at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s, I also felt it important to recover erased histories so that communities can better grasp their ancestral pasts in order to right social wrongs. We need to understand the origins of anti-Asian sentiment in America that begins in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, extends through the Angel Island Immigration Station up into the Japanese-American incarceration of WWII, and on to the present Stop Asian Hate moment.
Towards this objective of capturing suppressed histories, I felt it critical for me, as a translator, to remain true to the original author’s words, whether of rage or melancholy. While I avoided adding content—ideas, concepts, or images—that the original writer did not employ, I also made sure to accurately reflect the tone of the inherited text. For example, when a line [written in] Chinese employed a vivid image of “cutting off the barbarian’s head,” I was compelled to translate that violent sensibility verbatim. I felt it’d be a disservice to water down the text to be acceptable to a White audience, and that readers instead should experience the raw emotion of the speaker. Bearing witness as an ally is activist in nature.
Poetry is often thought of as a private act, but your work changes this dynamic by sharing it with others, across borders and languages. The translations bring the anonymous into the public sphere to be both identified and disidentified. I was wondering if you could tell us how this work has cultivated a sense of community, or the ways in which it has sparked connections between translator and readers, or amongst readers themselves. In other words, what are the restorative, emancipatory aspects of your work?
As an Asian Pacific American activist for over fifty years, I see my role as a writer not only to share my vision of the world, but to be a potential change agent for social, racial and economic justice. These translations come after earlier groundbreaking efforts by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung in the book, Island, and the many contributions of community volunteers who helped establish the Angel Island Immigration Station as a national historic site. It’s a cliché but I truly feel that I stand on the shoulders of giants. And in making my own small contribution, I hope to impact a new generation of Americans, both people of color and White.
After two intensive years of public readings and presentations of Wild Geese Sorrow, I’ve observed how the book has contributed to expressions of ethnic pride and outrage against injustice by descendants of Chinese immigrants, even my own family members. It’s a tribal history that must be recalled and discovered again by new generations.
I believe that without a documented history and collective memory, there can be no ethnic group future. So reading the translated words of Angel Island detainee poets is an excellent way to eavesdrop upon ancestral personal experience. And by gaining a truer vision of the past, we understand better our present and can effectively build a more just world.
I love the line “wild geese sorrow” that shows up in one of many poems in this book. It reminds me of jia qing wilson-yang’s Small Beauty, and how geese are symbols of the passage of time, bravery, and unity or fellowship. For you, how do these images and symbols related to geese intersect with the experiences you revive with translation?
The trope of “wild geese” has existed in Chinese and Asian aesthetics for millennia. It’s found in poetry, painting, music and other artistic expression[s]. A particular metaphorical resonance for these birds is marital and relationship fidelity, because geese mate and support each other throughout their lives. In family-oriented societies, this image is extremely deep and powerful.
I recall an incident at the Napa Valley Writers Conference many years ago. While on the quad outdoors listening to a guest poet read a line about wild geese, I observed, directly overhead, a gaggle of birds in traditional V formation, crying out loudly. It was a happenstance marriage of poetry and place, art and reality, one that Robert Hass muses upon so eloquently in his poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas.” This image was locked somewhere in my memory, augmented by the knowledge that geese annually travel great distances over the California landscape, from beyond our southern borders up through and into the Canadian wilderness. Their world is a transnational one, their flyway global, and their life’s journey one that encompasses large spaces.
When I thought of the Angel Island detainee poets, I knew many were “migrant workers” who traveled overseas to earn money to support families back home. They did not necessarily intend to immigrate permanently to America. But for those who did want to settle, they encountered racist immigration laws which barred them from bringing over wives and children, any actions that might expand Chinese settlement. Like today, the concept of “birthright citizenship” and ethnic settlement brought fear to the White majority.
Thus the idea of “wild geese sorrow” seemed to naturally stand for all the difficulties and grief of both the migrant worker and immigrant. It’s true that this new metaphorical use is somewhat at variance from the traditional notion of marriage fidelity. Yet since the book’s publication by Calypso Editions, I read in the New York Times that contemporary Korean migrant workers in Canada, whose wives and children were left behind in South Korea, are known as “wild geese.” The aptness of that image seems to have garnered a broader appeal.
Before writing, you were a public health administrator and attorney for the city of San Francisco. Could you speak about your background, and how those experiences inform your writing (and/or vice versa)? Are there other artistic media(s) that inform your writing, or that you return to when you need inspiration?
In my work as a public health administrator and attorney for the City of San Francisco, I had the opportunity to serve indigent and disadvantaged communities, especially new Asian and Latino immigrants to the United States. My parents were also immigrants, and I chose to use my professional career to make life better for that group among others. These choices were colored by my early involvement with radical politics in the 1960s, especially in the area of Ethnic Studies.
Long before deciding upon careers, I carried a creative interest in poetry and music. When I had more time after retirement, I studied for and received a MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an emphasis on poetry. It is there that my first translations of the Angel Island wall poems appeared, and with the encouragement of VCFA faculty and fellow students, I continued on in my efforts after graduation.
We often think that writers must publish early in life and often to become good writers. But I feel that gaining life experiences of any sort only serves to deepen one’s work. For example, as a young student, I could have easily identified with the hopes of the young detainee poets of Angel Island. But I might not have fully grasped the legal system that gave rise to their conditions and poems. My knowledge of detention interviews and anti-Chinese immigration laws helped me to understand how the American immigration officials used long and exhaustive interviews to trip up prospective immigrants then deport them back to China.
I find my greatest inspiration from other writers, but other forms of artistic expression are inspiring too: film, music, painting, photography, etc. As a young person I was drawn to comic books, and now graphic novels. And I find musical inspiration in playing guitar and ukulele, and have been a deejay in the past.
For our Calypso Question, I’d like to ask if you could recommend a writer who either writes in or translates Chinese and/or AAPI poetry?
It’s difficult to name a single AAPI writer or translator that I most admire, for there are many. I would say that Arthur Sze is one that comes to mind, for his translations of Tang poetry, but also his own original work, widely praised [as] a winner of the National Book Award. I appreciate his humanity and use of juxtaposition, a kind of Asian aesthetic based upon Taoist ideas of presence and absence. Other translators of Asian poetry I admire include Gary Snyder and Kenneth Rexroth.
I’ve drawn much inspiration from a plethora of fine AAPI poets like Monica Sok, Li-Young Lee, Cathy Linh Che, Brian Komei Dempster, and others. With the recent explosion in new AAPI voices, the term Asian American Pacific Islander now encompasses writers from South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Arab American communities. Prose AAPI writers I admire include: Min Jin Lee, Nicole Chung, and Cathy Park Hong who’ve all created outstanding AAPI worlds for readers to enjoy and learn from.
At Calypso, we’d love to know of any upcoming projects you are working on or are a part of. What’s next for Jeffrey Thomas Leong?
Since the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, I’ve been working on a project that is not poetry at all, but a memoir of a ten-year period from middle school to the end of my undergrad days at UC Berkeley. The memoir touches upon the establishment of Ethnic Studies, my arrest as a strike leader, my work with members of the Black Panther Party, all during the two and a half months of the TWLF student strike that closed the entire campus. As a 19-year-old, I also first fell in love and found my place volunteering in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
My writing education at VCFA was in poetry, and I’ve discovered that the transition to prose has been challenging. I’ve had to learn about longform writing, use of character, dialogue and scene, and the narrative arc. In poetry I felt an easy access to emotional truths, but in prose, emotions are earned in telling detail, and the intricacies of plot and action. The few fiction classes I’ve taken have been invaluable, and I’m lucky that my wife is herself a writer of fiction and non-fiction.
One essential aspect of memoir that I’ve learned is the simultaneous hold of dual perspectives—that of the protagonist, but also of the omniscient narrator—with one eye established firmly in the present moment and the other on the long view. This duality has been essential to my memoir project and quite opposite of the close first person POV of the poet. My goal is to achieve some level of honesty and truth, document a period of personal and Asian American history, and touch upon issues relevant to the racial reckonings of the current moment.
Calypso Editions is proud to have published work by Jeffrey Thomas Leong. If you’d like to stay up to date on his upcoming publications and projects, you can visit his website. You can also follow him on Twitter (@JeffreyTLeong).
Danielle Nouriazad is an Editorial Assistant for Calypso Editions. They recently earned their Bachelor’s degree, and are now continuing as a graduate student of English and Comparative Literature.