National Poetry Month: On Immigration

Throughout April 2019, Abayomi Animashaun, BLP poet, and Angela Leroux-Lindsey, BLP senior editor, highlighted the work of immigrant poets. We wanted to both celebrate their poetry and push back against the angry and uninformed rhetoric that has for too long permeated our discourse.
Abayo puts it thusly: “Many people in America, including some public officials, hold the view that immigrants are gang members, murderers, rapists, thieves, and the like. This is especially true of immigrants of color, who they think are poor contributors to American society because they are from ‘sh*t hole countries’. To speak against these hurtful and hyperbolic narratives, we will feature a poem by an immigrant poet each day throughout April for National Poetry Month.”
Below is the complete collection of poems, each introduced by a BLP author. We hope you enjoy and share!

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Abayomi Animashaun on “Borders of Evanescence” by Ewa Chrusciel:
I chose this poem because it speaks to the subject of movement, transition, bilingualism, and bilocation that we see in many of Chrusciel’s poems—and that’s also true of the immigrant experience. The in-between space between the old and new is, at best, a messy one, but it’s one of rich exploration for assimilation theorists, immigration experts, and, of course, immigrant writers. What happens as we go from here to there? What is gained? Lost? What is both altered and preserved? Chrusciel explores this liminal space with deftness and humor in this lovely poem… 
Denise Bergman on “I Was In a Hurry” by Dunya Mikhail:
Every time I read “I Was In a Hurry” by Dunya Mikhail the loss of homeland and sense of displacement becomes more acute. The ache resounds louder. I appreciate that the poem’s request (its demand, really—is it not our duty?) hones my alertness to the privacy of an immigrant’s individual (and collective) memory. Such elegant craft: by asking us to recognize and acknowledge her loss, providing careful, evocative instructions of where to look and what to look for, she is filling a hole with that which is missing.
Eric Gamalinda on “I Want the Wide American Earth” by Carlos Bulosan:
Carlos Bulosan immigrated from what was then the US colonial territory of the Philippines during the Depression. A self-taught poet and novelist, he wrote with remarkable insight and compassion about what he witnessed in America: its rampant poverty and racism, and also the kindness and resiliency of many of its people. This poem was written to help raise legal funds for cannery union leaders threatened with deportation at the height of McCarthyism. His message of hope and community amidst xenophobia, white supremacy, unlawful incarceration, gun violence, and income and gender inequality, still rings so eerily true today.
Alan Chazaro on “Coca-Cola and Coco Frío” by Martín Espada:
If you’re a first-generation kid of immigrants and have had the privilege of visiting the place where your parents are from, you need to read this poem. It’s about the contradictions of navigating two worlds and learning what to embrace and what to reject. It’s about how you are told to “drink” certain beliefs about one country, only to find out that the opposite is true when you actually visit. Espada brilliantly uses the iconic beverages of both lands (U.S. and Puerto Rico) to show our disconnect between what we imagine home to be and what home actually means. Coca-Cola becomes a symbol for American imperialism, a false but glorified image of the perfect place—where a manufactured brand can quench your family’s thirst for a better life—and where your tías pester you to drink and drink. But you only want to try the coco frío, the flavors of a land that you have never really known you’ve been missing.
Anne Champion on “Blood” by Naomi Shihab Nye:
The line, “Where can the crying heart graze?” never fails to stop me in my tracks. I chose this poem because, in a roundabout way, Nye is at least partially responsible for changing my life and worldview. As someone that grew up in a very conservative household, my knowledge of Palestine was clouded by vitriolic bigotry alongside the usual American rhetoric that represents Israel as “civilized” and Palestinians as “terrorists.” Nye’s poetry is the first that introduced me to the subject of the military occupation of Palestine, and her poetry greased the rusty gears of my compassion. Years later, I traveled to Palestine on my own, and now her words resonate even deeper. One cannot witness apartheid, racism, and military occupation without being fundamentally changed by it: all of the intimate stories that people share with you about their daily humiliations and abuses in addition to the rampant loss of life make reading the news–and people’s silence about the abuses that our tax dollars fund–exceptionally painful. “Where can the crying heart graze?” There is no answer to that question. I haven’t found that place. The closest place I’ve found is in poetry. I encourage people to read about Palestine, visit Palestine, and speak out against abuse, even in the face of very rich and powerful forces that try to erase Palestine and mute their voices. I’m deeply encouraged and in admiration of the brave people who are speaking out now, going against the official position of both American political parties, in favor of people and human rights. “Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root /is too big for us.”
Marcela Sulak on “Since Last We Spoke” by Javier Zamora:
This poem reminds me of all the undocumented men that helped out on the rice farms and cotton farms and other farms around our small town where I grew up. I remember giving my father a Spanish-English dictionary as a gift once, so he could communicate with the first undocumented worker he hired. I remembered how proud we were of my father because he decided to pay minimum wage, and not below minimum wage. Our town was a conservative town—the county voted for Trump. But we all helped folks get fake papers; we hired them; because it seemed normal—seemed human. We went to school with undocumented kids; I went to university with undocumented kids from Mexico and El Salvador. I remember one of my best friends, a French major, not being able to do study abroad because he had no passport. I didn’t realize until then he came when he was 8 with his single mother. I remember the day he returned home, for the first time in 25 years, so see his grandmother and cousins, aunts and uncles. He cried to tell me about it when he returned. I remember another friend from El Salvador pulling off a tiny metal ring and giving it to me in friendship, and I remember being awed by her wealth of spirit—that she could give me something that was so “expensive”—meaning not that it cost money, but it was one of her few possessions from home and she could never replace it. Later, in DC, my baby’s nanny from Nicaragua was a woman who’d had to leave her daughter behind; who’d had to choose, and had chosen her son. I remember the day her daughter arrived, after being apart for about 7 years. The Salvadorian maintenance man in our building had left his wife and children behind unintentionally—his passport had been taken from him and he couldn’t return. He spoke of them every day, though it had been years. I love the way this poem speaks so softly about the unutterable pain of parting; how it moves so generously through landscapes, languages, and pain to give us, like my Salvadorian friend, something made so large because it is so rare a thing—something Javier Zamora brought with him from home. It is understated and profound.
Dean Rader on “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes” by Eduardo Corral:
This poem is a tour-de-force of poetic technique. It takes on difficult issues in a direct, almost clipped manner of address that is also, rather impossibly, utterly poetic. Corral repeats words and phrases lending the poem a song-like quality, not unlike a corrido—a gesture harmonizing with the campfire singing of the father. Corral’s use of racial slurs buttressed up against both his tenderness and hard work creates a tension that is difficult to forget and even more difficult to emulate. Best of all, the poem serves as a counter-narrative to the ridiculously and factually inaccurate rhetoric about immigrants coming from the president and his supporters.
Kirun Kapur on “Where Do You Come From?” by Meena Alexander:
Oh, this question! No immigrant (or child of immigrants) can escape it. No matter how innocently intended or kindly meant, this question hides a thorny subtext: why are you different? Why don’t you belong? It’s a question that seeks to put a person in her place. I love the way Alexander’s poem subverts the question. It resists a narrow geographic answer and instead proceeds by its own logic, insisting that geography is only part of the story. Alexander’s poetry often charts locations and dislocations. Here, her poem leaps and turns, answering and refusing to define where she comes from. The poem is as full of barbs and spikes as the question itself. Ultimately, Alexander gives us a beautiful, full, complex answer in opposition to the reductive conclusion the question asks for: I come from East and West, I come from everywhere and nowhere, I am mythic and frailly human, and I dissolve into language in the end.
Charlotte Pence on “Origin of Difference” by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo:
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s work embodies lyrical explorations of those images that haunt and thus create us. At the age of five, he crossed the border of Tijuana with his family. This poem beautifully negotiates the unfenced territory of the mind and how the past and present are forever merged. Also of importance is Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s contribution to the entry port for book publication; With Javier Zamora and Christopher Soto, he initiated Undocupoets, which successfully fought to end citizenship requirements with all major first poetry book prizes in the U.S.
William Palomo on “In Another Life” by Janel Pineda:
There are too many conversations about immigration without enough critical conversation about the forces that compel people to leave their homelands. There are too many conversations that reduce diasporic peoples and immigrants to mere pawns in the political landscape without wrestling with their full humanity and dreams. “In Another Life” is a love poem to fellow Salvadoran, a love poem to the country that could have existed were it not for the US-backed civil war that ravaged the Salvadoran people for over a decade. The poem has strongly resonated with the experiences of many Central Americans across the United States whose family lives were forever warped by the dislocation and trauma of the war. In this treacherous political landscape, Pineda’s poem is most valuable because it reminds us—Central American refugees and their children—of our capacity to imagine, to love, and to heal.
Katie Umans on “The Mercy” by Philip Levine:
I picked “The Mercy” by Phil Levine in part because, thanks to that amazingly visceral description of the orange, it’s a poem I practically taste when I think of it. I read it probably 20 years ago and never forgot it. The poet’s mother is the immigrant in the poem, sailing to America on a ship called The Mercy. She is at the mercy of circumstance and a new country’s reception of her, and, if she is fortunate, she will also be shown mercy by those who have the power to shape her experience. That second form of mercy is far from a guarantee in the poem, which contains a kindly Scot but no Americans at all, but still—in what now reads as a nearly nostalgic immigration narrative—the poet’s mother is defined by her own qualities of resilience, curiosity, and determination, not by anyone’s else’s characterization (or mischaracterization) of her. We register at the poem’s mid-point the son sitting comfortably in a library reading her story and know that, despite the protagonist’s harrowing vulnerability as a nine year old traveling across the ocean to a land whose language she does not speak, she eventually must find an America that rises to the occasion of her coming, as it should.
Sunni Wilkinson on “A Brief History of Border Crossings” by Gregory Djanikian:
In this poem, Djanikian captures the panic immigrants of any age and any stage of immigration must feel about borders, those arbitrary lines humans have made and unmade, lines that for centuries have caused upheaval, confusion, separation, loss. And sometimes hope, though that hope is often fragile. Here Djanikian confesses a sense of fraudulence: the U.S. citizenship documents like play money, as if legality were only a trick; imagined crimes he’ll be punished for, though he’s done nothing wrong. The verdict we often pass on immigrants – guilty, poor, uneducated, criminal – is surely internalized by immigrants themselves, making them question their own validity even in the deep knowledge of their own innocence.
Jessica Piazza on “Nostos, A Longing” by Paula Mendoza:
I chose Paula Mendoza’s excellent, fragmented poem, “Nostos, A Longing” for this project for a seemingly counterintuitive reason; it isn’t actually about her experience being an immigrant from the Philippines. Instead, this poem is about alienation, longing and otherness of all sorts, which I believe is a universal theme that she tackles with creativity and beauty. When she writes “Because any exile / believes herself a changeling, taken / in,” it seems impossible for a reader not to consider how the concept of exile relates to them personally–concretely, sure, but perhaps even metaphorically. On one hand, there are absolutely echoes of the poet’s life as an immigrant in this piece; for example, as the speaker describes living a double life, the ending line “where am I? Where am I now?” feels especially poignant. This moment in the poem is important, just as a project highlighting immigrant writers is hugely important, and I do enjoy recommending this poem to new audiences for that reason. At the same time, I hope to highlight that immigrant writers are writing about everything, absolutely everything, wonderfully…including their lives as immigrants, yes, but also about their daily lives as citizens or non-citizens of this country, as family members and lovers, as thinkers and feelers, as humans. Just as this project amplifies the amazing voices of immigrant writers, I hope to do so while remembering that they are our people, our compatriots, us–and that, like all of us, geography is just one part of their multifaceted and complex identities. I love this project, and I’m so glad to be a part of it. And I love this strange, visceral poem, too, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Ruth Williams on “Purple Rain” by Luisa Muradyan:
I chose this poem because it (and the author’s note that follows it) reminds me of the way in which an immigrant eye, the “I” of someone coming in from the outside, can provide me a new view of my own culture, the daily thing I move within and grow inured to. In this case, the movie “Purple Rain” becomes the first representation of America to a group of soon-to-be immigrants from Ukraine, with Prince cemented into the speaker’s mind, not as a mere pop star, but as a godlike figure in a blouse. In a sense, this poem takes what some might call absurd or melodramatic and embraces its excess to render it sublime. In her collection, American Radiance, Luisa captures the amazing weirdness of American culture as well as the challenges of her family’s assimilation in the Midwest through a series of poems invoking 80s pop culture figures such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Macho Man Randy Savage. The results are humorous, yes, but also illustrate the new meanings the immigrant “I” brings to this strange culture called “American,” as Luisa invokes in her poem “We Were Cosmonauts,” “Oh, God! / Oh, Pepsi! Oh, Cheerios! Oh, America!”
Cynthia Manick on “Phoning Home to Tell My Grandmother I Survived a Hate Crime” by Natalie Wee:
I chose this poem because it collapses via language a connection to family, physical and emotional trauma, and the idea of citizenship. The immigrant experience is generational as the speaker addresses the matriarch in her native language, connecting them both to safety, love, and home. There’s both beauty and horror in lines like the “body is a sound/ a wound makes” and being culturally perceived as “browning meat.” The poem excels at imagery and lyricism while confronting the realities of living in predominately white spaces. I like that the dash formatting sets the pace and propels the introspection forward. The reader realizes that the hate crime isn’t an isolated incident – these aggressions have also happened to the grandmother, with her past of “soldiers’ bayonets.” We expect love to last through generations, but unfortunately hatred can persist as well. The poem advocates that you don’t have to just live as an immigrant, you must survive as an immigrant. I’m left feeling sad, angry, yet awed by the speaker’s connection the natural world and breath.
Alex Regalado on “Ricochet” by Emma Trelles:
Emma Trelles’ “Ricochet” describes a memory that catches up to us at a crossroads, perhaps when we are feeling safest, in our daily routines with our familia and that realization that we’ve allowed ourselves to feel comfort is suddenly undercut with anxiety and unease—a feeling that leaves us like “an atomic star sharpened to brittle points.” Here, there is more than the classic Zen/mindfulness conundrum: how can we fully engage in the present moment when everything is in constant flux? Over coffee with her husband, the poet remembers a time when she encountered on the street four boys dressed as a murder of crows, and how they charged the twilight with menace, causing her to run. The terror of the poem is not fixed in a clear and present danger, but rather it zeros in on the boys’ ease to appear and disappear, and that volatility echoes the unpredictability of our real and imagined threats, the impermanence of our own existence. For me, there are so many ports of entry into this poem: as a Salvadoran immigrant, paralleling Emma as the daughter of Cuban immigrants; the two of us as women moving into new stages of life where every morning mortality greets us not only in the front page of the newspaper but in our bones; the two of us currently inhabiting places threatened by climate change. Emma and I grew up in Florida where we lived with hurricanes and rising sea waters, now she’s in California and I’m in El Salvador, places beset by wildfires, landslides, earthquakes. All of these natural disasters mirroring the constant flux and precarious lives of the boat-loads of exiles those “sinking unseen in the current”, all those who swam rivers and crossed deserts “sealed in the back of a truck” to escape the violence and poverty of their birth countries. Our own identities as Latina writers can never inhabit the stasis of certainty; as Emma explained in a recent AWP panel: “I hope we are never able to delineate [that identity] because that kind of rigidity would be akin to a creative death… Latinx letters is a shapeshifter—fluid and responsive and unframeable in its subject matter and the vast mosaic of experiences that fuel it.” Emma Trelles’ new poems from _Courage & the Clock_ consider mortality and impermanence through the lenses of the natural world, gender, geography. Trelles says, “the parsing of place and the news of the world are essential to my practice as a poet and to my many years of work as a journalist.”
Jaclyn Dwyer on “Bully” by Amit Majmudar:
This short lines and fragmented abuses here capture the confusion and violence of what it’s like to be a child in a hard, hateful world. The poem escalates until the line “Human impulse,” where the bully demonstrates a bit of grace and kindness before returning to racist name-calling, as if nothing had transpired between them. The poem then looks inside that bully’s home life to reveal a surprising explosion of violence which rips the poem open. It ends with violence toward a baby, toward even the dogs “on chokechains” who are “spared.” No one is really spared here, but that tiny turn toward humanity in the middle of the poem offers a glimmer of what could be, or at least what could have been for these children.
Todd Kaneko on “Between Chou and the Butterfly” by Janine Joseph:
At the heart of the American Dream is transformation from one state of being to another, from rags to riches, from immigrant to citizen, from life on the margins to life without limit. Like Chou, who in the Taoist story cannot tell if he is a butterfly dreaming he is a man or vice versa, the speaker in Joseph’s poem is caught in stasis between realities, their identity in flux and assaulted by the labels used by others to define them, the American Dream becoming less a pursuit of happiness and more a negotiation of their humanity with the many different kinds of dehumanization they must suffer. And as the poem’s speaker is caught between forms, so are these sentences, stripped of punctuation and forced to reconcile with one another what they mean separately and in relation to the sentences adjacent to them. To read this poem out loud is to hear the speaker declare over and over who they are, contradiction after paradox after impossibility. And by the time we reach the final section, it’s apparent that there is no form for the speaker any more, except perhaps for the ways that their form is disrupted by legalese and xenophobia. It’s a beautiful harrowing, this poem.
Hayden Saunier on “Country Fair” Charles Simic:
Charles Simic needs no introduction, I hope, nor how his work embodies the perspective and slant of immigrant poets who’ve known authoritarian regimes and know how powerful and untrustworthy speech can be. Especially political speech. It’s difficult to choose a Simic poem—so many like film shorts or dreamy street theatre glimpsed down an alley that allow the images to impress themselves on us before the mind can rationalize them — but I’ve always been drawn to this poem, which pretends to tell us nothing but shows us everything. Including, (perhaps) our own complicity.
Enzo Silon Surin on “Poem for the Poorest Country in the Western Hemisphere” by Danielle Legros Georges:
I chose this poem because it is resilient and unapologetic in its celebration of a country and its people. Every stanza is a timeless counterpunch that reverberates with precision in the fight against those fully committed to driving a wrought narrative about immigrants and the countries they come from. In it, Haiti and its people are in their rightful place among the constellation of nations in the Western Hemisphere.
Rachel Galvin on “A Field of Onions: Brown Study” by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal:
How do you grieve the dead? How do you grieve the dead when you can’t find their bodies? Who are “your” dead? How do you assemble body parts (“liver, lung, womb. A lens cut from a vulture eye”) or atone for “each ill deed done”? With this poem, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal mourns the hundreds of people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador and Nicaragua who have died crossing into the U.S. and are now buried in unmarked and mass graves near Falfurrias, Texas, about 70 miles north of the border. This poem enrages and activates. It shows us a way to rage, lament, bless, remember.