Esther Lin’s poetry is full of places — Alexandria, Va.; Mozambique; Madagascar; Hong Kong; Cape Town — all locations from her family’s complex legacy of migration. “It’s like I have to stick a license plate on every poem,” she says, laughing.
The Fine Arts Work Center poetry fellow says that, though her poems deal in movement and transition, she’s not so interested in the mapping of physical terrain. “The only real place in my poetry is an internal place within the speakers or characters in the poems,” she says, speaking via FaceTime from her work center apartment in Provincetown, where one whitewashed wall is papered with poems from a recently completed manuscript.
Lin explores the juxtaposition between inner emotional states and external passages in poems like “The Real Thing,” in which an undocumented young woman travels hundreds of miles to an out-of-state DMV to obtain a learner’s permit. Riding in a car with her brother, a stranger, and two “dealers,” the speaker is aware of the limitations imposed on her mobility, as when “we happened to pass —/ our sister’s complex and because we were/ with a dealer, a dealer, and a stranger,/ we could not go in.” She also reflects on silence and language, which are enforced as survival strategies: “Don’t speak/ English. We’re your translators, the dealers warned./ If you speak English, you will fuck this up.”
While Lin’s poems often relate events of heightened drama, they steer clear of direct interpretation or overt emotion, allowing actions and images to lead the way. Like the speaker of “The Real Thing,” who is practiced in silence, Lin skillfully chooses what information she will share with the reader. Moments of linear narrative sometimes give way to a sudden juxtaposition, or a gap or line break stands in for an experience perhaps too private or too powerful to convey in words.
Lin will give a reading of her work at FAWC next Thursday, Feb. 6, along with fiction fellow Callie Collins. She plans to read poems from a series about her father, Kwork Lun Lin, who recently died. As a young man, he took a cargo ship from Taiwan to Brazil, and later came with his family to the U.S.
“He passed through Africa,” Lin explains. “In my research, I discovered that his ship took the same route as slave ships traveling to the Americas, though for my father, there was a very different fate.”
In her poetry, Lin rekindles the stories she learned from her father, and investigates her relationship with the man she describes as “a bon vivant” and “the great friend and parent of my life.” She says that when her father, a lover of storytelling and soap opera, began a tale, “you couldn’t tell if what he was saying had really happened to him or was something he’d seen on TV. I call him the Last Great Chatterbox of my life.”
In “Listening,” Lin begins with a poignant tale from her father’s childhood. When a traveling opera troupe arrives, the young boy rushes out each morning to take in the spectacle of “handsprings, backflips,” clashing warriors, and maidens singing. In the excitement, he breaks the egg he’s been given for lunch. “His mother strapped him on the legs/ and hands, but the next day he did/ the same thing.” The domestic scene of the crushed egg gives way to a terrible reckoning with the forces of history: “When all this went away, his father/ never apologized./ Not for choosing the wrong side./ Who could — who could.”
Lin was born in Rio de Janeiro and lived in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant for 21 years, mostly in New York City. Before arriving in Provincetown, she studied poetry on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. While there, she became involved with the organization Undocupoets, which provides support for poets with undocumented or DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals) immigration status.
Undocupoets’ first action item was to petition book contests to permit entries from writers regardless of immigration status. Previously, most application forms contained boilerplate indicating that U.S. citizenship or legal residency was required. Given that poets rely on contests as the primary avenue to publication and readership, this requirement effectively restricted or even barred migrant voices from the mainstream of U.S. poetry.
Thanks to the advocacy of Undocupoets, today most of the major contests such as Yale Younger Poets Prize and the Walt Whitman Award have removed this requirement. The group also provides two $500 fellowships to assist undocumented writers with submission and contest fees, which can cost thousands of dollars each year.
“We’re hoping to increase the amount of financial aid we can offer,” says Lin, who serves on the organization’s board. (Undocupoets is currently accepting donations at siblingrivalrypress.com/undocupoets-fellowship/.)
Since arriving in Provincetown, Lin has been enjoying reading, hiking out to Hatches Harbor, clamming, and exchanging friendship and ideas with her cohort of visual and writing fellows. After completing the final draft of a full-length manuscript in her first two weeks in residence, she’s enjoying the freedom to work on new poems about her father and to think about poetry in new ways. The FAWC fellowship, she says, offers a very different way of being an artist in a community than the Stegner Fellowship, which focused heavily on aesthetic critique, and which coincided for Lin with a legal waiting period as her green card was processed.
“It’s totally different now,” Lin says. “It’s pure pleasure. Poetry is the most challenging and most accommodating form in writing. It can say and do anything you need it to do. If I want to talk about not having a green card, I can. If I want to talk about grief and consolation and mourning, I can. If I want to speak about language and experimentation, I can. Poetry seems to have no boundaries, and perhaps for an undocumented person, that’s irresistible.”
Lines of Passage
The event: Reading by poetry fellow Esther Lin (and fiction fellow Callie Collins)
The time: Thursday, Feb. 6, at 6 p.m.
The place: Fine Arts Work Center, 24 Pearl St., Provincetown
The cost: Free