Happy National Poetry Month!
Chaun Webster, a local writer, activist and proud father, puts action behind his words. Born in Saint Paul, and raised Northside, Chaun has been mentored for many years by the powerfully talented poet and activist Ewuare X. Osayande. The recipient of a Verve Grant, he has released his own book of poems, performs frequently, and has taught writing workshops. He started his own press, Free Poets Press, and recently published the ambitious HaiCOUP: a fieldguide in guerrilla (po)ethic, featuring work by Marisa Carr, IBé Kaba, Jake Virden, and himself. I spoke to Chaun recently about this dazzling new book, the challenges of running your own press, and whether Minnesota’s specific demographic diversities have an impact on the work.
Tell us about your press, and how it came to be.
Free Poet's Press came out of a need that I saw in Minnesota's Black community particularly, and communities of color more generally, to control our own images. Whether that media be print, visual, digital etc. There are wide body of voices that were not and are not being heard due to a dominance of white publishing outfits through which people of color are marginally employed and furthermore marginally published. There are also mechanisms of legitimization for what is and is not art that I saw as alienating to a number of narratives and styles. It was like if you were not the one or two non-MFA holding persons of color to receive this or that grant then you had and have little chance at publication. Free Poet's Press then was me owning my power to produce and distribute art outside of the dominant model and to see that act as a legitimate process. Much inspired by the poets, librarians, publishers of the Black Arts Movement whose work was not determined by white patronage but empowered by a knowledge of their own value. This changed the discourse of that time in Black communities as well as the national discourse. I was and am determined to do my part locally through Free Poet's Press to open up the discourse in a way broader than we are often afforded.
How has your experience been so far with Free Poet’s Press? What are the challenges, and what are the rewards?
It’s constant learning. Anywhere from finding quality and yet affordable printing to learning how to do graphic and page layout work myself in order to have more control over the creative process as well as being able to develop more work in less time. This has been a profoundly enriching experience, not to mention that the politics that birthed this press have put me in the company of incredible artists who share similar aspirations of self-determining communities that have control over their own images. Challenges are very real as well in that we live in a time where 5 conglomerates control 80 percent of the publishing and where many independent and non-profit publishers as well as bookstores are operating out of the same playbook as those conglomerates only with far less monetary reward. This leaves very little room for presses like my own in that I can't afford distributors, or the cut that some independent bookstores (who shall remain unnamed, today) take which is no different than Barnes and Noble or Amazon. That just means that it takes more creativity, more drive to re-imagine the production of knowledge in ways that recognize that we are all a valid part of it.
What was the vision behind this project, HaiCoup? For this particular project, why haiku?
The HaiCOUP project was my effort to collapse the distance between the artist and the audience, the public and the private. I operate from the understanding that we are all creators of culture. If this is true then why all the esoteric posturing that doesn't connect with the lived experience of everyday people?
Those tactics seemed more like mechanisms of control to me and so I was working at writing more simply though not less meaningfully. The technical frame of the haiku lent itself to this in ways I am still growing in appreciation for. In the haiku every word matters, but so does that negative space of those things unsaid. In this way haiku have a subversive quality I've fallen in love with. I also wanted the message to come through in the type arrangement. Language is a visual experience, and I've always been frustrated with its static representation in most literature - but especially when it is represented this way in poetry. This project was a starting point for me to break from that.
Have you worked with haiku before or is this project your most extensive engagement with the form?
This is actually my first time engaging with the form. That's why this project took time. I needed to study, honor the art form and its point of departure as well as taking it to my own hands and rhythm and experience. I've a great deal left to learn, and that for me is exciting.
How did you choose the artists involved in the project?
As for the artists in the project, Marisa Carr, IBé Kaba, and Jake Virden; we had all known each other prior and they are young artists excelling at their craft. Their involvement also broadened the subject matter and brings a higher level of credibility to the kind of politics to which I subscribe. Interestingly enough even though we met together to talk about the idea of the project, we all wrote separately - yet there is this feel of dialogue happening among the HaiCOUP represented in the work. I feel honored to have worked in their company.
This specific group of writers is very diverse in terms of their cultural background as well as their poetic voices. How intentional was that?
It was very intentional.
And how do you think they reflect a particular strength of Minnesota arts communities?
Addressing the politics of space was at the heart of the project. The contracting of public space as the expense paid for private profit. The delegitimizing of artistic voices in communities of color by propping up convenient tokenisms that don't recognize our complexity. This required more than I could bring and even with the voices involved it is well understood that this is not an exhaustive approach. Rather, it’s a step in contributing to that dialogue in ways that hopefully bring more everyday people into it. Each artist represents an important piece of the conversation and as you said certainly represents the strength of Minnesota arts communities, as quiet as it's kept.
How can people purchase a copy?
HaiCOUP: a fieldguide in guerrilla (po)ethics, right now can only be purchased at featured performances or by emailing the name order amount, and sending address. The cost for the work is $6, $10 with shipping.
My family and I were among the first wave of Vietnamese refugees to come to this country, and the State of
Of course she was talking about me, though if she had asked me, she would learn that my family had a dog and cat that we loved as pets. All of us kids cried for days when they died of old age many years later. Of course she was talking about me, though I don’t have a doubt that if we were less fortunate in escaping Vietnam, and had to endure the starvation of the late 70’s, I am sure my family would have been lucky to eat a cat or dog if we could find one. And that would have absolutely nothing to do with race or culture.
Years later, as a young adult, I see that the local restaurant Chino Latino plastered billboards all over town with signs that read “As Exotic as You Can Get Without Eating Dogs,” an “edgy” campaign that won national awards. One man’s edgy is another man’s racism, I guess. Professor Cathy Choy writes about seeing one of their billboards in her excellent essay, Salvaging the Savage: On Representing Filipinos and Remembering American Empire (Screaming Monkeys, Coffee House Press, 2003), and delves into the colonial roots of these racist beliefs. At the 1904
It’s been theorized that the name “hot dog”, for the popular wiener-in-a-bun that has become a staple at ballgames and picnics, actually came about because of the sensationalist depiction of Filipinos at the World’s Fair – and opportunistic food vendors there. Digging deeper, I find out that Europeans such as the Germans and the French have also eaten dogs as a part of their history and culture – and yet no one goes around accusing the French and Germans of eating Fido.
I was disappointed, but honestly not surprised, when WCCO ran an investigative report by James Schugel about a
Now, as others have pointed out, a responsible journalist would have, at that point, asked the person to spell things out. Instead, the journalist asked if they sold dog meat for people to eat. The person, who thought he said “duck”, said yes.
Relying on a simple exchange with one worker who’s grasp of English was shaky at best, WCCO ran the story. It has since been pulled, but questions remain about how a story like this would make it on air without fact-checking, among other things. The market in
Community groups such as Community Action Against Racism and Asian American Journalists Association have asked for an apology and an explanation. While WCCO did meet with AAJA, that meeting is confidential - WCCO has not responded to community inquiries. This is especially curious, as the story they decided to ran was loaded with racial stereotypes, ended up being completely false, and was damaging to people's livelihoods. Sure, everyone makes mistakes – but usually the decent thing is, you apologize and explain yourself, especially if your recklessness has caused undue harm to another person – and I hope I’m not alone in thinking this, but especially if you let racist sensationalism over-ride process and professionalism, not to mention common sense, and hurt a business and an entire group of people with your actions.
What few people are talking about, is the effect of this article on the Asians who work and own the market in
“This is just one example of how stereotypes of whole communities of color are perpetuated by the media,” remarks Margie Andreason, community activist and member of CAAR. “It’s a privilege for white folks to not have to think about the impact stories like these influence perceptions of neighbors, colleagues, teachers, and policymakers. All mainstream media cares about is a sensational story, even if it is based on a bias from the start and then leads to being untrue.”
Community members still seek an apology and explanation from WCCO. Read more about it here:
Thanks to Juliana Hu Pegues, Margie Andreason, and Boa Lee for contributing to this essay
A few hours after they accuse you of playing the race card for merely mentioning the word race, the powers that be execute a Black man, Troy Davis, though there seems to be ample room for doubt that he was the one who committed the crime. Nevermind, for the time being, your opinions on the death penalty and the criminal justice system as a whole.
Instead, if they want to talk about facts, let’s examine some facts:
In 1982, two white men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, murdered Vincent Chin with a baseball bat in a racially motivated hate crime. They blamed “japs” like Vincent Chin for the declining American auto industry, though Chin was Chinese American and had nothing to do with the auto industry. This act was witnessed by two off-duty police officers. Ebens and Nitz, to this day, have not spent a single night in jail for Vincent Chin’s murder.
In 2006, Officer Jason Andersen, an officer with a troubled record, shot and killed Hmong teenager Fong Lee. Officer Andersen claims Lee had a gun. There has been inconsistencies regarding the case, including lack of forensic evidence linking Lee to a gun reported on the scene, video footage analyzed by a video expert stating Lee did not have a gun. Officer Andersen was acquitted of use of excessive force.
In 2009, Oscar Grant was executed point blank by Officer Johannes Mehserle, while he was prostrate. He was unarmed. The murder of Oscar Grant was witnessed by dozens and caught on cell phone cameras. Officer Mehserle was sentenced to two years minus time served.
A few hours ago, Troy Davis was executed for allegedly murdering an off-duty police officer. 7 of 9 key witnesses against him disputed or recanted all or parts of their testimony. Some asserted that they had been coerced by police. The murder weapon was never recovered.
My people, we know that they accuse us of playing the race card because they always stack the deck in their favor.
If you look at this logic, it’s clear who is really playing the race card. Our unfortunate history, and our struggle, tell us this.
But this is not about them. They get to voice their opinion all the time. Their comfortable hate already takes up too much room. They are the only ones responsible for their hearts, their souls. Let this space not be about them, but something else. Dare I say – let this small space, and any small space that you may have, dear friend, be a space for us. Take a breath.
Like you, I don’t quite know what to do, or feel. It’s a sad night, in a history thick with sad nights. Forgive me, all I have is this, my thoughts and my writing. And this little space. But it’s yours.
I was 17 when I got hit by a car. I don’t recall seeing my life flash in front of my eyes. I did see the world spin.
I had borrowed my older brother’s mountain bike to go riding with a friend of mine by the Mississippi, and then dropped by Cedarfest to hang out with friends and see some of them play in bands. I was riding the bike home when the car came out of nowhere on
I seem to remember grunting in surprise, and the world tumbling, lopsided and fast, in every which way. Then a thump as I landed in the street. Then the squeal of tires, and a crunch, which I would later realize was the sound of the car running over my brother’s mountain bike as the driver took off.
On the asphalt, I remember being dazed and feeling strangely fine – wondering what just happened. There was some bewildered curse words in there too, which I won’t print in this family friendly paper. A Native American woman was the first to find me, reassuring me that someone had called an ambulance, that I was young and handsome and that I’d be fine. What a strange thing to say, I thought to myself.
On the ambulance ride, I was sad that my brother’s bike was ruined by the driver. Then the adrenaline wore off and the pain set in. And there was my father cursing me on the hospital bed for being careless and my uncle urging him to take it easy, my militant sister wondering if I was hit on purpose and if it was racially motivated.
All in all, not a fun experience.
Let’s not make a big deal out of it, but the difference in a couple of seconds, a couple of feet one way or another, and that could have been the end of it all for me.
For being struck by a car in a hit and run I was relatively lucky. Small fracture in my collarbone, muscles bruised to the bone, some scars that are still faint on me to this day. But no serious permanent injury, and I had health coverage through my dad’s work – and I was introduced to the dubious modern miracle called doctor prescribed pain medication. To top it off, my brother was pretty cool about his mountain bike getting run over.
The driver was never caught, though I doubt anyone looked too hard for him or her.
I remember being pretty angry at whoever hit me, then took off. I remember feeling guilty that I made my mom cry and my parents take off from work to see me.
Now that I’m older, I drive carefully, because over the years I’ve also thought to myself how terrible it would be to hit someone with a car. What a terrible thing to live with – that you are responsible for tons of metal and rubber, this symbol of modern times and years upon years of science and engineering and progress, propelling it towards something as fragile as another living being. That something many of us take for granted everyday could mean grievous harm, and even death, to another.
A friend of mine sent me the article about the tragic death of Anousone "Ped" Phanthavong, in a hit and run. Days later, it was revealed that the True Thai cook was killed by someone driving a vehicle owned by former Minnesota Viking, restaurant mogul, and sports broadcaster Joe Senser.
Recently Anna Prasomphol Fieser, co-owner of True Thai, recently wrote an impassioned and frustrated blog posting about the case, which you’ll find here:
(thanks to Leslie Ball for originally posting this a while back)
I’m glad that the Star Tribune did the right thing and eventually published Anna’s blog. I don’t have much to add – I think Mrs. Fieser’s blog entry is an important alternative perspective and has a lot of insight.
As a community member, I’ll be watching this case with great interest. Here, in this specific blog entry, I am not going to write about any theories or inconsistencies. Nor debate the legal aspects, of which I am not knowledgeable enough to contribute to a reasonable discussion. What I am very interested in, is how this case plays out.
Race and class may have nothing to do with the unfortunate tragedy of a man, successfully turning his life around, only to be killed in a tragic accident close to the place where he worked, the killer for whatever reason speeding off into the night dragging his body to paint an exclamation point in red on the asphalt. Race and class probably have nothing to do with the tragedy itself.
We have yet to see if race and class have anything to do with public perception, media coverage, and how this case plays out in the judicial system. Unfortunately, not every case gets the same treatment. All these things are impacted by race, class, gender, in ways obvious to some and not-so-obvious to others. Those who know, know. You don’t need me to explain a thing. We can hope for better, but not expect it.
Above all else, I hope the family members of the late “Ped” Phanthavong can find some peace, and some justice, if that is possible, in however and whatever shape it takes for them.
I was going to write something for Asian Heritage month, then I got this link to the new video from the dynamic team up of Magnetic North, Taiyo Na, and Jin - and all I have to do is post this.
Derek aka Direct from Magnetic North worked on this for 2 and 1/2 years, a labor of love low on budget but big on community and love. Pretty amazing. It's like an Asian American family reunion of artists, activists, writers, bloggers, dancers, martial artsts, cooks, comedians, ice cream makers, designers... I aim to watch this once and a while, and every time I watch it, I'll make it Asian Heritage month whether it's May or not.
There are so many inspiring (and fun) people in here that it'd be a disservice to try and name them all. But I have to give a special nudge to Yuri Kochiyama, who has worked for so long for social justice and inspired so many of us.
Thank you Direct, T-Vu, Taiyo and Jin.