Writers respond to "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?"

"Asian Americans are in the room, and although his poem wasn't meant for us, we're speaking back to it."

You may have come across writer and humorist Calvin Trillin's New Yorker poem "Have The Run Out of Provinces Yet?" in which a foodie bemoans the increasing, overwhelming presence of regional Chinese cuisine. The exasperated diner in Trillin's poem longs for the"Simple days of chow mein but no stress, / When we never were faced with the threat / Of more provinces we hadn't met."

Yes, it's satire. But as many critics of the poem have pointed out, it also reads like nostalgia for a pre-1965 era, before racist immigration quotas based on national origin were phased out. You see, America loves Chinese things. They want to consume Chinese things. They just don't want anything to do with actual Chinese people.

Trillin's poem "continues an American tradition of talking about Asia as if we Asians were not in the room," poet Timothy Yu writes in the New Republic. "It's an in-joke among white consumers of Chinese things, but actual Chinese people are at best absent from its lines, and at worst a looming peril within them. The eruption of response to the poem shows how wrong Trillin was: Asian Americans are in the room, and although his poem wasn't meant for us, we're speaking back to it."

The Asian American Writers' Workshop asked writers to submit their own takes on Trillin's poem -- to take up space in this room and speak back. They've posted fourteen different responses, like this hot bit of verse from poet Franny Choi:

3. Franny Choi

Have they run out of white poets yet?

Have they run out of white poets yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Billy Shakes –
other white people’s stories he’d take.
But then Ezra looked toward the East
to spice up his post-War can of meat,
said he wanted to bridge East and West
(but it’s shoddy translation, at best).
And then Kenny Rexroth got prize winnings
for translations of Japanese women.
But surprise! It was all a big game
for ol’ Ken to get unearned acclaim.
Then Araki-so-called-Yasasuda
turned out to be Johnson, and you’da
thought that that’d be the end of the story,
but more white poets wanted more glory.
M.D.H. couldn’t get his poems placed,
so he took on Ms. Yi-Fen Chou’s face.
(Not to mention Vanessa and Kenneth –
among recent fuck-ups, they’re the zenith.)
Now along bumbles – what’s his name? Trillin?
Figured it’d been a while, so he’d fill in
for the other old crusty white croutons
who ran out of nice flowers to muse on.
To be fair, Calvin didn’t pretend
to be aught but himself: a sad send-
up of Dr. Seuss decked in his finest
anti-Asian regalia, minus
any interest in speaking to those
who don’t share his tax bracket or clothes.
We thought after Yi-Fen we’d be set
with this shit but I’m willing to bet
soon we’ll find one we still haven’t met.
Have they run out of white poets yet?

(first published at frannychoi.com)

Read the rest of the responses AAWW has compiled here: We're in the Room, Calvin Trillin


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