LINE LEVEL #3
Welcome to LINE LEVEL: Craft Lessons from Poets of Color, a monthly column in which writer, editor, and educator Joanna Acevedo zooms in on an element of craft from the work of BIPOC poets. LINE LEVEL unfolds in three parts: an excerpt of a poem, followed by a contributor’s note, followed by Acevedo’s own exploration into the poet’s world of language. Guided by a curiosity that yields learning, we are invited to consider historical context, stylistic influences, and more, all the way down to the level of the line. This month, Acevedo discusses “Vincent Chin, You Were Living the American Dream” by Jiwon Choi.
Excerpt from “Vincent Chin, You Were Living the American Dream” from A Temporary Dwelling by Jiwon Choi (Forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil in 2024):
“Vincent, what kind of music do white autoworkers
who bludgeon you to death
Don’t tell me they listen to Bruce Springsteen
listen to Darkness on the Edge of Town on a loop
in the tape deck of their America First pick-up truck
on the way to the factory
it’s the work just the work the working life ”
Contributor’s Note // Jiwon Choi
Upon reflection, I see that there are two main ideas driving this poem. The first one is how the past is really the present when things do not get resolved, as is the case of the 1984 killing of Vincent Chin by two white auto workers in Detroit. Both killers were allowed to plea bargain a lesser charge, not go to jail, but given just three years’ probation and pay just over three thousand dollars in fines. The 1987 retrial of one of the killers, Ronald Ebens, ended with an acquittal, and though he was ordered to pay the Chin estate $1.5 million in a civil suit, he didn’t have the money to make payments. It is this absence of justice for Vincent Chin and his family that is the open wound, bleeding into our consciousness four decades after the murder.
The second idea I am exploring is how historical information will be woven or transformed into the piece. The figure of Vincent Chin has become a dualistic symbol: 1) the malfunctioning of a justice system that is seemingly weighted towards white people and 2) a rallying cry for Asian Americans to organize and demand equal justice in the courts, but then I task him to become a poetic specter in my work. I intentionally put him alongside a penultimate symbol of the American Dream, perhaps even America itself, Bruce Springsteen so that I can imbue the myth of Springsteen’s working man and the Factory onto Vincent Chin, who himself was a factory worker. I further want to offer this as a critique on how the fantasy of the American Dream can be pernicious as not everyone gets to equally decide what version of the American Dream they will get.
Craft Lessons from Poets of Color // Joanna Acevedo
Symbols are everywhere. We see them without seeing them, like the arrow built into the Fed-Ex logo which unconsciously signals to us that there will be forward movement, a kind of subterranean delivery. Symbols are built into writing, too—we all know this, as we spent years as children slowly deciphering motifs and symbols in ancient books, wishing Melville and Conrad had just said what they mean, instead of writing about a huge white whale, or something equally as convoluted. But symbols are more than devices made to bore schoolchildren in English class—they can be powerful tools in poetry, and as we see in Jiwon Choi’s poem, “Vincent Chin, You Were Living the American Dream,” she uses symbols in a way that complicates and enhances the power of the poem. The subject of the poem, the murdered Vincent Chin, becomes a symbol, rather than just a simple part of history, and this expands what Choi is able to do within her poetic structure.
The traditional definition of a symbol in poetry would be an object which represents a larger idea, such as a rose symbolizing love, or scales representing justice. There are countless examples of this in poetry. We can do this through either direct or indirect comparison, using metaphors or similes, comparing objects and concepts and putting elements in juxtaposition which may not necessarily be like each other, creating tension which ultimately, becomes art. This tension is crucial to what makes a successful poem.
In Choi’s poem, by directly addressing Vincent Chin in her poem, she is personifying him—forcing him to become a symbol for violence against Asian and Asian-Americans in the United States. He becomes a motif for the movement against anti-Asian violence, and more importantly, for justice, because his case is not handled fairly by the US government and his family is not compensated for his senseless murder. In her poem, Vincent Chin becomes a figurehead, and as she interrogates him: “Vincent, what kind of music do white autoworkers / who bludgeon you to death / listen to?”
We can see the absurdity and ridiculousness of this question, as well as the anger and pain that come behind it; the emotionally charged content of this moment becomes the crux of this poem. The symbolic Vincent Chin is more than his physical being; he becomes a representative for everyone whose story is even remotely like his own. The heft and weight of this poem is in that manipulation, that ability to position Chin in this way, and Choi is able to create a powerful and dynamic moment in the poem using symbols.
The voice of the speaker in this poem is blurred, somewhat absent, and this, too, is a kind of symbol; the speaker is also representing all Asians and Asian-Americans, but in a radically different way. By speaking up, calling to action and putting together these ideas and concepts, this is a radical voice which is both personal and universal. Vincent Chin, in this poem, is functioning as both everyman—he could be any one of us—and as a figurehead for justice. The voice of the speaker, too, is strangely muted, in the background, and they don’t reveal themselves, preferring instead to compile this story, tell it to us, and allow us to draw our own conclusions. The deft hand which has put together these symbols and connections, however, hovers in the background, and Choi’s success and skill is in the subtlety in which she arranges this information, then indicts the perpetrators, refusing to stand down. In creating these symbols, she is accusing, but also storytelling, and we learn as much as we feel.
Symbols in poetry can be delicate work. There is so much that goes into a working symbol, including a careful touch which requires care to make sure a writer isn’t being too obvious or heavy-handed. Choi’s writing is an excellent example of how to invite the reader into a complex space, both emotionally and politically, while still maintaining tight control of the poem itself. Success with symbols requires a clear vision of what you want your reader to take away from your poem, and an intentionality that many emerging poets struggle with.
As you draft, think about what you want your reader to take away from your poem. What emotion do you want to elicit? Are you trying to teach them something? Are you telling a story? Perhaps there is a single image that holds your attention, an observation you’ve made that continuously recurs in your writing. This might be the beginning of a symbol that will appear in your finished work.
Like we’ve previously established, symbols are everywhere. Your next task is to start looking for them. Poetry is the language of observation, and if you look around enough, you will start to see some symbols of your own. Creating your own visual language is the first step towards sustainable poetic practice.
is the author of two poetry collections, One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons and I Used To Be Korean, which both deal with her identity as a Korean in the diaspora. She is an early childhood educator at the Educational Alliance where she works with children and teachers on developing emergent curriculum. She is a longtime gardener and coordinator at the Pacific Street Brooklyn Bear’s Garden near Downtown Brooklyn, where she collaborates with local organizations to bring workshops and cultural arts/music events into the garden. She started her garden’s first poetry reading series, Hanging Loose Outpost: Poets Read in the Garden, to support local emerging writers and poets with live reading events in a safe, outdoor space. Her work can be found in publications such as Painted Bride Quarterly, Bombay Gin Literary Journal, Rigorous, and Hanging Loose Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
is a writer, editor, and educator from New York City. She is the author of two books and two chapbooks, and her writing has been seen across the web and in print, including in Jelly Bucket, Hobart, The Rumpus, and The Adroit Journal, among others. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021, and also holds degrees from Bard College and The New School. Read more about her and her work at https://www.joannaacevedo.net.