Call me Hmong before you call me American/ because Hmong is the closest word I know to home…
I’ve been doing weekly write-ups of certain poems on Button Poetry’s channel, but I also wanted to highlight some older poems that are personal favorites of mine, which I’ll be doing once per month here. It’s a way to shout out some good work, and also to highlight some tools and tactics that poets use that might be useful to aspiring writers.
The first line of this poem is “Eight responses to the phrase ‘go back to where you came from,’” and Yang uses that setup to craft a narrative that is both deeply political and deeply personal. Specifically, there’s a moment in the poem where the phrase/question is turned back to its speaker: “Do you ever wonder where you come from?” That structure—starting with a kind of defensive humor and naturally transitioning into proud defiance, using the language itself as a fulcrum—gives this poem a powerful arc.
A lot of aspiring/emerging poets struggle with structure. This may be because of the stereotype of poetry as this kind of magical, pure, stream-of-consciousness expression. And sure, that can be powerful. But if you watch enough *good* spoken word, you’ll see how much intentionality goes into structure– not “structure” in the same way that sonnets or haikus have specific rules/formats, but more like an organizing impulse. That may be as simple as giving a poem an introduction, middle, climax, and resolution (with intentional transitions between ideas), or something more complex and challenging that plays with formula and subverts audience expectations.
When talking about this broader idea of structure with students, we often ask questions like: Is there a reason the poem starts where it starts? Could it start somewhere else? Is there a reason the poem ends where it ends? Does it “earn” that ending based on what came before? How does the poem “move” from one stanza/idea/section to the next? What would the effect of rearranging some of those ideas be? When you say the poem out loud, does it “feel” right in terms of its flow and timing?
If you know Kevin Yang’s work, you may also know how good he is at structuring poems. He’s also, for me, one of the best at taking on explicitly political issues and putting a human face on them. This is a poem about big issues like xenophobia, the refugee experience, and finding home, but it’s also a poem about small, specific moments– the conversation with the elder, the wisdom of the mother, the hummingbird. As poets, we earn the “big stuff” via the care we put into writing the “little stuff,” and Yang does that so well.