Memoirs of a Superfan, Vol. 6.7: Poetry, Philosophy, Psychology and People

I'm just about to publish my first book of poetry, a fox peeks out: poems

The Four Pillars of Mental Health and Transformation
September 28, 2011

I’m just about to publish my first book of poetry, a fox peeks out: poems – check my website next week for details ( I put this volume together as I was writing poetry for a performance collaboration featuring musicians, actors, and animation in conjunction with my writing. Fox and Jewel premieres in San Francisco November 18-20, 2011, and is in support of Japantown in the face of redevelopment fears. In line with what’s going on in the country, the community is concerned that the profit motive will win out over the spirit and history of Japantown. Please come to our program if you’re in the area! Read a description and buy tickets here.

After compiling my volume, I had the good fortune to read works by three young Asian American poets, and was duly impressed. Bao Phi’s Song I Sing ( (Song means “river” in Vietnamese, and is also the name of Phi’s young daughter) delivers a stirring indictment of racism and is essential reading for those concerned with the Asian American – no, the American voice in general. It is filled with a love for Asian America, but also a deep awareness of how oppressive forces work to destroy lives. It is meant to speak a truth, written from somewhere deep beneath the skin of the American dream, revealing a bare essence of hurt, broken promises, and history. My favorite poems were “Reverse Racism”, and his detailed, biographical portraits of young Vietnamese Americans, called “The Nguyens”.

The antidote to the insidious venom of racism is a scorpion-tongued poet named Bao Phi. You will be stunned by his clarity, and perhaps shocked. It is the shock of understanding the world in a new way.

Ed Bok Lee’s 2nd book of verse, Whorled ( explored some of the same themes, but in a markedly different way. Some poems were more experimental, quieter, and subtler in tone than many of Bao Phi’s “slam” poetry style work. A particularly powerful poem explores the case of an Asian American hunter, a refugee from Laos, who shot hunters in Wisconsin: the poet posits what went into that moment of alarming action. (This case was also explored in last year’s award winning documentary, Open Season. Here’s a video of Lee’s poem Lee won the PEN Open Book award with his first volume Real Karaoke People, and this work is a welcome sequel. Whorled and Song I Sing have just been published this September by Coffeehouse Press. They are well worth a read!

Finally, Ken Chen’s Juvenilia, winner of the prestigious 2009 Yale Younger Poets Award, was mesmerizing and thoughtful, subtle and erudite. “The earth is a millstone that sharpens us into saint.” Of his grandfather: “His grandchildren, the way they look at him – as if merely by existing, we erect a history of regret ready to be lived ahead of us.” This is a work that must be savored and reread.

One of my mentors in psychiatry says that reading Poetry and Philosophy have been the greatest catalysts for his self-growth. Psychology has been a distant third for him. To these, I would also add the fourth “P”, People. Deep interaction with another person can be profoundly transformative, or I wouldn’t be in the work I’m in. The Four P’s – Poetry, Philosophy, Psychology and People are certainly pillars of mental health and transformation. (Poetry can be broadened to include literature and the arts – and film of course – and Philosophy can include science, religion and spirituality, certainly.)

As a culture, we don’t read enough poetry! Do your soul a service – pick up a volume of verse this year and be entertained – and possibly transformed!

Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco.
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