Poetry: it inevitably relates to -- among others -- identity, history, culture, class, race, community, economics, politics, power, loss, health, desire, regret, language, form and genre disruption, love ... as well as the absences thereofs. The same may be said about Adoption.

Friday, March 25, 2011



When I was growing up my friends would ask me, “Do you ever want to find your real mother?” This question was deeply distressing to me. I had always believed that my mother, my adopted mother, was in fact, quite real. This question seemed to suggest that there was something less substantial about our relationship than the ones they had with their mothers, and the matter-of-fact way in which they asked seemed to indicate that from the outside, this was obvious.

I didn’t want these kinds of questions to intrude on my golden childhood. I was raised on Long Island, the youngest of four siblings, in an originally Irish/German/Catholic household. After my adoption at three months of age, my family became part Korean. For a while it was just my older sister and brother (my parents’ natural children) and me, but when I was three, we adopted my older brother Stephen, who was seven at the time, and my family became even more Korean. My childhood was typical of the suburbs. I remember sleepovers, newspaper routes, Girl Scouts, and in the summertime being told not to come back inside the house until dinner. But I also remember Stephen climbing a tree once and crying, deep, heavy sobs for hours. I remember being confused when another child bowed to me speaking an imaginary, Eastern language. I also remember the loneliness and estrangement of high school. No one wanted to date the nerdy, Asian girl, and it didn’t help that the other adopted Korean girls in my grade were considered popular and beautiful.

Dana (left) and her siblings (left to right) Stephen, Regan and Thomas.

As I entered my late teens, that question from so long ago, “Do you ever want to find your real mother?” with all its thorny implications, became more pervasive and intrusive in my life. This was partly because my relationship to my mother became love/hate (always returning to love, thankfully). I wanted to go to punk rock shows all night, and like most teens, I felt that my mother was oppressive and didn’t understand me. But I think there was more to it than the normal teenage rebelliousness. I wanted to know why I had to take orders and accept rules from someone slightly unreal, and when I saw the natural closeness of my mother and my sister, who everyone always exclaimed looked exactly like her when she was young, something in me felt uncomfortably sad and lost. It made me think that it wasn’t my mother who was less real, but me.

For a time, adoption felt like some great freedom. I told myself that I came from nowhere, that I was one of a kind, and that I could do and be anything. I thought I was invincible when in reality I felt very small and alienated from other people, even if I was dancing in the middle of a party. College at The New School became about reading James Baldwin, writing poetry, and experimenting with drugs. So while I was living recklessly and giving myself fully to the first man to show an interest in my affection-hungry body, I was simultaneously reading books that made me yearn for a history. I was moved by the scholar Albert Jordy Raboteau’s writing when he said, “To ignore the history of another people whose fate has been intimately bound up with your own is to forgo self-understanding.”

It wasn’t until last year, working on my MFA at CUNY Queens College, that I felt brave enough to write a letter to my adoption agency initiating a birth family search. I believe that the courage came from reading the stories of other adoptees that I first encountered in a wonderful book called, Outsiders Within, and then with the poetry of Jennifer Kwon Dobbs and Lee Herrick. I wrote the letter with very low expectations. By that time, I had settled down from my early college days. I no longer needed empty desires to fill me up. I had a comfortable routine of work and study, as well as a loving boyfriend. I told him, “These people could be dead for all I know.” Needless to say, I was astonished when exactly one month later I received a phone call that my birth family had been found. They were very much alive. My birth parents were separated and lived in neighboring cities, and my three older sisters were thriving in Seoul. Three older sisters!

A few months later, at the age of 25, I traveled back to Korea for the first time since I was an infant. When I met my birth mother, she cried and gripped me tightly while pounding my back, as I looked on with an absurdly comic detachment. Here was my real mother, but the whole situation felt fake, as if we were on a television set. At this first meeting she told me that she had never wanted to give me up and that my birth father had pressured her into it. They had been very poor at the time. My older sisters were there with tears in their eyes as she told her story. Only the oldest had known about me before I’d written, and only five years ago had she been let in on the secret.

As we chatted, I tried to process the idea that my life had been a mistake on so many levels, while at the same time marveling at the beauty of all these women. My sisters were taller and thinner than me. They looked like gorgeous, stylish models when I had been expecting something along the lines of Charlyne Yi, whose awkward comedy I identified with. Here were three examples of the graceful, confident person I could have been, rather than the self-conscious, hyper-aware individual I am. I knew that these young women did not know what it meant to be the Other, and that until now, they had never had to carry the burden of some mysterious, inherited sense of shame. The ironic thing was that despite my family’s poor beginnings that led to my relinquishment, my sisters were now quite well off, due to my birth mother’s hard work through the years, studying hard, and marrying well. When they took me shopping, they knew their way comfortably around the racks of the latest designers. The price tags on the clothes they wanted to buy me made my eyes pop. What to make of this when all along I had been told how lucky and privileged I was to be an American?

Now, a year later, I am still trying to navigate my new ties to Korea. I want to know my birth family with all the intimacy that the word family suggests, but as it stands, we seem more like polite acquaintances. And although my sisters each have a level of comfort with themselves and others that I have always sought, I do not regret being adopted or my struggle to gain control over a concrete reality. I believe that adoption and growing up with a sense of otherness has instilled in me a great sensitivity to the plights of the underrepresented and voiceless that I wouldn’t trade for anything. These adoption-born powers of empathy are the reason I became a vegan, which I consider to be the best decision of my life. I’ve also realized that there is something strange and beautiful that comes out of the turmoil of adoption. I sense it when my adopted family recounts mine and my brother’s adoption stories as if they are legends or when I see Facebook pictures of my sisters’ beautiful children. There is something absolutely amazing about all of this, something to do with pure, poetic wonder.



I think this question could easily be reversed: How has poetry affected your adoption experience? If we put it this way, poetry taught me the value of the imagination, and the imagination led me to the reunion with my birth family. The greatest human power is not rational thought, but that we can envision and understand what we have not personally experienced. I was able to imagine myself as an individual existing apart from the human race, sprung from nowhere or landed from outer space like Superman, and obversely, I was able to imagine a lineage that existed before my birth and a family on the other side of the world who just might belong to me. If it weren’t for poetry and the poet’s desire to experience the world, then I would have been content to never know.

As for the original question, my writing is filled with adoption. When I said that I am still navigating my relationship to Korea and my new Korean family, I meant that I am doing so through poetry. I write about how different cultures and languages hinder the process of reconnection to the birth family. I write about how instead of open and honest communication, adoption offers only silence and secrets again and again. I also try to write my way into my sister’s lives, imagining their worlds and experiences. One of my sisters is an artist, and before I left Korea, she gave me a book of her gorgeous paintings. I have been writing ekphrastic poems based on these paintings. With this book, it seemed to me that I was given a clue to her identity, one that poetry might be the key to unraveling. When the only words I can understand of my sisters’ is often “I miss you” and “I love you,” but not the common information of the day-to-day that I crave, like what they ate for breakfast or what their kids are learning in school, poetry is a welcome respite of inferred knowledge and connection that I can only hope will one day lead to truth.



The Artist

In the photograph
Sung Hwan wears a short skirt with a high waist
to offset her long, shapely, high heeled legs.

Her back is to the camera. Her head
slightly turned to reveal the edge of a smile.

She heads up a flight of stairs
to where, I can only imagine

though probably an art studio—
a dense den, vibrantly dark
plastic stars hanging
charcoal sketches of breasts
on frail paper melting off
the edges of surfaces

huge, wood-framed canvasses
propped against the walls, teeming
with the colors of an entire
ecosystem—paint spatters seeded
in the wrinkles of her brain.

What occupies this lavish ecosystem
I can only imagine

but surely it includes marsh birds
dipping hungry beaks orgiastically
rebelliously, into the mud
utterly unaware of the condominium blueprints
on the architects’ sterile, lamp lit desks
that are the proofs for all our
pending extinctions:

I, her, the birds, the architects

the people who will occupy
those condominiums, the people
I will never meet
who will keep kimchi pots
on their rooftops alongside
potted ferns that will be tended
worried over, eventually forgotten.

Surely this ecosystem includes
a family’s short bout with poverty
she was too young to remember
and then a flourishing economy
the ease of tailored jackets
blinking lights and airplanes
a grandmother that died of diabetes—
the only hint of tragedy
in a world saturated cotton candy
pink and blue.

She doesn’t allow herself
to paint sadness, only a touch of the macabre—
metamorphosed demons to titillate
when life seems too cute, too cartoon.
But these are demons that ultimately remain caged
within a perfect rectangle
hanging on a high gloss, white, gallery wall.
These are pint-sized demons expressing gladness
leaping with maniacal smiles through chrysanthemums
eating white frosted cupcakes with red cherries
holding court in a sandstone palace on a cloud
allowing immigrants and the lost begotten
to unquestionably, inevitably return
to what

I can only imagine
but it has to do with blood.



This May, Dana Collins is graduating from the CUNY Queens College MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation, where she has been studying poetry and teaching undergraduates. She currently lives in Deer Park, NY. Besides being a poet, she is also the parent of two cats and a fish, and a private piano teacher.


Thursday, March 24, 2011



I do not like to write about my adoption experience. It is essentially unexplainable, a paradox that can never be resolved.

I am an adoptee, born 1953 in a hospital for unwed mothers, turned over to the NY Foundling Hospital at the age of five days. I do not know if I spent any time with my birth mother outside the womb. I was given to my adoptive parents when I turned 6 weeks. I have a photo of them and me on the day they picked me up. My mother holds me, my father leans over delicately. They are beaming. I am so little and so wrapped; you can hardly see me.

“May 10, 1953” Michela Sullivan becomes Rosemary Starace

My new parents lived in Queens, NY, were of Italian descent, Catholic. They had been married 12 years when I came into their lives. They had no other children then, but adopted a boy, who became my brother, about three years after they adopted me. I adored my adoptive family.

My father was the man Humpty-Dumpty needed. Here’s a story he liked to tell: He married my mother in 1941. They bought good furniture, perfect for their apartment. The war came, he went overseas for a couple of years, they put the furniture in storage, gave up the apartment. My mother moved back with her family. He wrote to her in code from the island of Morotai. Bombs fell every night. When he got back, they rented the same apartment, but one floor up. When the movers came, he just pointed: sofa there, end tables there, two lamps, dresser against the wall—everything back in just the right place. The movers were astounded; a magician had restored the world. Everybody needed this in 1946. I needed this story every year. It held me together. I didn’t know why. I had gotten the right father.

Later, though, my brother became a drunk and died young, and I became an artist. There was nothing my father could do about any of it.

I was a sad child, though I had almost everything, including love. I had a good smile, too. I always knew I was adopted. They told me, “Your mother gave you away because she loved you.” I liked to sit and look at how the walls met at corners. I played in the gardens of Oriental rugs. Being adopted did not bother me at all. I never thought about it.

When I was 11, I started my autobiography: “Not so many years ago, on Saturn, there was a horrid tragedy. I, Kana, lost my family, friends, everything I had…” The cause was a rocket attack from Jupiter, with which Saturn was at war. I found my family dead when I got home from school. The night after the bombing, “I checked into a small hotel, and in all my sadness, figured out what to do.” I would “go to another planet.” But first I had to navigate through “the most dangerous part of the journey,” the terrible encircling beauty of Saturn’s rings. And I had never really even been to a hotel.

My parents did not hold back. They were the kind of people everybody loved, not just me. But there were pressures like dogs that circled our perimeter. My grandparents thought adoptees might be “bad seed.” They worried we wouldn’t turn out well. At Sunday dinners, my aunts would argue about whether the other cousins looked more like one side of the family or the other. I stared at the silver coffee urn and watched my face distort and reassemble in its mirror. When Aunt Tessie died she left her bit of money only to the “natural” heirs.

At sixteen, being adopted bothered me a little. I marched up the steps of the Foundling Hospital to demand my “records.” They didn't give them to me. I looked for the black iron gate I had remembered from the past. How could such a tiny child remember? I can still hear the clang of it shutting. It hit twice before it latched.

I wanted to be real, like bread made at home. I wanted to have that smell, the one that made them all remember what they always wanted most.

When I was thirty, I “searched.” It took nine months from the first meeting with the Adoptee Liberty group to the day I had the letter in my hand: my mother’s last known address. In the third month, I found out my name, Michela Sullivan. I learned I was half Irish. In month six, I learned the time of my birth and I got my astrology chart done. I’m Pisces with the moon in Taurus. I discovered that my mother, Maureen, had been a nurse anesthetist, and my father, Pascale F., an anesthesiologist. I have never been interested in medicine.

When I opened the letter I learned that my mother had once lived just a mile away from where I was then living in Brooklyn. I walked over there and saw the name “Sullivan” still on the doorbell. I paced up and down the street. Then I went home. Weeks passed. One night my friend Ann came over, and she held my hand. I got drunk on scotch and smoked a pack of Salems and then I called the Sullivans’ number. I talked to one of my aunts, then another. I learned that Maureen had recently died, of cancer, and that she had never forgotten me. I thought it was good that she was dead, less complicated. I learned that she'd had three other children, and that I still had aunts, uncles, and cousins living all around me on Clinton and Henry and Atlantic. They gave me a necklace of polished hematite. They took me out to dinner, invited me to their homes. They offered photos. They showed me my Irishness. My eyebrows belonged to the Sullivans. I wore my hair up. I looked just like Maureen. I never tried to contact my father.

My parents understood. They fretted about whether to invite the Sullivan family to our house. I said I didn’t want to. I split into two. I never got married because I didn’t know whom to not invite to the wedding.

There is so much to say about love. I’ve been rattled to my core, put asunder, rearranged. Every day that could happen. I would not want to live without that capacity. I have always been afraid I would love someone more than they loved me.

In 1988, I traveled to California to meet my half-siblings and their father. Maureen had never told them about me, but they didn’t seem upset. They drove me from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe. I learned the wharf is full of chocolate, the lake is actually turquoise. We posed for pictures everywhere together. Then we fell out of contact for over twenty years, though their father kept in touch with me through notes and birthday cards and Christmas presents. He loved his wife, he kept her faith. I don't know why we needed twenty more years apart. We did not know what to do with each other. We were blood strangers. Now we are all back in touch and we are gentle about it, and that makes me happy. I adore my biological family.

Rosemary Starace (l.) with her sister Eileen, 20 years ago

When I returned from California, I told my mother my siblings had a swimming pool. She looked so sad. I didn’t care about the pool. I told her she was my mommy. I held her hand. A few months later she died.

After California, I didn’t bother with adoption anymore. Then it called on me again in 2003, when my father died. I learned that the Adoptee Liberty Movement Association—known as ALMA (soul!)—had been replaced by Bastard Nation. I held citizenship there. I saw that I could be a real bastard, deep in my soul. I read a lot of books and learned I had indeed been wounded, and that babies do remember. A figure came in a dream and removed a sword from my side, and I became unseparated.

I never had children. I didn’t really want them and there wasn’t room in my life. I’ve lived with my man for 24 years. We got married in 2010 and didn’t invite anyone. With this ring of Saturn, I thee wed. We have five cats. Last month he bought us clown noses, in the nick of time. There is more than one kind of rearrangement.

I recently dreamed, for the first time ever, about Maureen. She was right there and we gazed at each other. It was very simple. She gave me back my face. A few days later I felt my first real emotion toward her: anger. I thought, “So let there be anger.” I felt like God, I felt like my father.

One day I awakened and I said to myself, “I want to be with my real mother.” It seemed to be the want I couldn’t know I always had. I say it in the present tense, so I can stand with the girl I was, and because it’s still true.

Everyone in my adoptive family is dead now. During my father's long final illness he said two important things. Over and over he told me, “I love you with my whole heart and my whole soul, and everything I have is yours.” On the day before he died, I heard him testify to the youngest son of his lifelong friend, “I have always envied your father his family.”



In the space odyssey origins story I wrote as a kid, I decided to leave Saturn and “go to Earth.” It took me a while to actually get here, but I’m so glad I did. My poetry is, first of all, rooted in the earth. The earth tells everyone’s story, one of transience, abidingness, suffering, sorrow, connectedness, kinship, revelation. Adoption is just the fact of my particular fate and the point through which I enter and participate in the human condition.

I cannot imagine not having the life I’ve actually had, the loss it would have been to not know my parents and everything and everyone that being with them brought to me. And yet something was always wrong. And, compounding it, the wrongness was unverified, unspoken.

It’s only recently that I have written directly about adoption, yet I look back and see work suffused with creaturely longing and spiritual yearning for the “thing missing.” The yearning is part of what pushes me into art, but it’s ultimately mysterious. Language pushes me, too, and things that need to be said with great care. I write because I am a writer.

I was influenced early by classical Oriental poetry. In high school I discovered Ezra Pound’s translation of Li Po’s, “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.” I recognized that Li Po’s subject in that poem was mine: pervasive longing in the midst of absence—and the almost unbearable beauty of the physical world in its abiding and transient nature. I felt the solace that exists in a miraculous world that does not actively console. I also discovered in that poem how words could be asked to convey what can’t be directly said. “The paired butterflies are already yellow with August / Over the grass in the West garden; / They hurt me.”1

This led me inevitably, but not immediately, to Zen philosophy. There is a famous koan: What is your face before your parents were born? This riddle, obviously, is not posed only for adoptees! I saw that the question is a human question, one that presupposes such a face exists, and implies there is an identity beyond identity.

I didn’t always, but now I cultivate a kind of neutrality in my work. I don’t want to occupy it with my opinions too much, though I rarely succeed. I want to become transparent so that the world itself can show forth—splendid or raw, passionate or smooth—not judged. I have to remain present, to abide in the fact of interconnectedness, the feeling of intimacy with all things. “All things” means all things: inconsolable grief, paralyzing fear, and furry rabbits. I learned that in the act of writing, “anything can step forward in you and you will not be hurt.”2

The irrefutability of interconnection is great news for an adoptee: kinship as large and unboundaried as Being itself! But at points I’ve wondered whether I breached the encircling rings of my boundaries too eagerly and early. More paradox. My poetics and my life want a big iron gate that swings open and shut easily.

Several who know my work have commented that my poetry seems to spring from my Irishness: its lyricism, sound qualities, playfulness, and language-pleasure are the evidence they cite. This tickles me, as I grew up Italian and knew nothing of what “Irishness” was. There’s also, perhaps, a melancholy in the Irish spirit, and that ethnic legacy underscores the personal sadness that can appear in my work. Loss was the breathslap I got when I left the womb. The first suck of air was the suck of impermanence. I don’t thoroughly trust Freud, but he said something about grief that feels true: “It is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.”3

I have wanted to go beyond grief. As a spiritual being, I wonder if that is possible. As a creature, I’m not sure it is either possible or desirable. Grief can simply coexist with everything else that is.

Being adopted has given me the understanding that love coexists with complexity. I aspire to welcome complexity, to include everything in my work.

1. Lines quoted from “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” Li-Po, translated by Ezra Pound, as it appears in A Book of Poetry (revised edition), The Pageant of Literature series, Sister M. Teresa Clare, S.C. (ed.), p. 41, The Macmillan Company, NY, 1965.
2. Jane Hirshfield, retreat notes, Tassajara 2005
3. Sigmund Freud,
Letters of Sigmund Freud, Ernst L. Freud, (ed.) p. 386, New York: Basic Books, 1975.



Famous Adoptees

The woman who invented velcro.
Five days old they peeled her
from her mother, gave her a crib
among cribs in rows. O babies
like corn or cabbage! Succulent
bodies about to be picked!
Having just been plucked
she knew that music. Call it a dirge
with a catchy hook.

The crazy old lady who swallowed
the fly.
While she was sweet,
she lived the lie. But the mirrors
and the stomach knew; the
neighbors, and the envelopes
too. Something buzzed
at all her windows, was it

The aviatrix of the solo flight.
Too restless in the living room,
too pale among the blood. O the tiny cabin
smoothing over endless waves,
and the moon’s so-kindly face
ahead, ahead. She didn’t want
to disembark on the sudden tarmac.

The moon herself,
that half-hidden sister.

And she that launched the Voyager
to its eternal wander. The same
who thought to etch the glyphs
that might one day deliver it
to the next mother’s spiral arms.

Note: The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft were launched in 1977, with a mission to traverse the solar system and eventually enter and explore interstellar space. Each carries a gold disk etched with information about its origins, including sounds and images of life on Earth. Both spacecraft have passed through the termination shock, and are now in the heliosheath, a region at the extreme edge of the solar system.


My parents are dead. My children
are cats. My husband
is mortal.

My aches, my sex have turned
to devotion. The old well,
is it dry?

The future’s gone missing. My past
just runs back. I’ve never
been home.

I am lonely. God cries out.
One of my children
crawls into my lap.

Creation falls to me. Its vast taxonomies,
the drifts of my ancestors. Home
is the Nebula, grandfather crab.

Everything—is something else.
I am weary of the soul’s romance.
I want an ordinary road.

I am a gamer. I play
for an elegant win
on a checkered board. I long for

a well marked map. I wander
all the teeming pastures, but I dwell
in the vastness of grief.

I mourn my children, whom I didn’t bear.
I mourn my mothers, who died before they knew me.
I mourn my fathers, who loved me but are dead.
I mourn my brother, whose death brought me relief.
I mourn my youth, stitched to loss,
and my womanhood—eaten by my own false giving.

I keep a consolation—hope.
This, more secret than regret.
I spit at hope, that balloon, but I keep it.

Everyday in my pages, I mark down
the tiny amazements. Hope pats me
on the back,

keeps me supplied
with stories. Hope's heroine
wins in increments. She

drops her cloak. Light
blades from her shoulders;
she travels galaxies.

But Hope, your darling's heart
is thick with sorrow. It sponges
all the sorrows, even those of cats.

Your darling's heart is
dark, dark, and leaking.

This is what I must tell. After the work of a lifetime,
the help, the goodness of others, the sweet world
calling, calling,
my heart is still broken, broken again.

“Famous Adoptees” and “Confession” appear in the chapbook, Requitements (Elephant Tree House, 2010)



Rosemary Starace is a writer and visual artist who lives in Pittsfield, MA, USA. She is the author of the poetry collection, Requitements (Elephant Tree House, 2010) and co-editor, with Moira Richards and Lesley Wheeler, of Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-po Listserv (Red Hen Press, 2008), an international anthology. More of her written and visual work can be seen online at her website.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011



These are things that I know about myself: My birth mother left me in a cardboard box on a doorstep in San Diego. I was adopted when I was ten weeks old. I have two older brothers who were also adopted. I am Filipina-American, but my family is not.

As a teenager, I developed an interest in learning about my Filipino culture so I joined student organizations throughout high school and college. While I enjoyed learning about my culture and history, I also found that these organizations would become spaces for me to explore the complex nature of my identity and my experiences with racism and discrimination. I feel extremely blessed to have parents who understood and supported my need to learn about my culture.

Allison with her Mom and Dad



A lot of my work explores notions of race and identity through this lens of my experience as a transracial adoptee. I often think about the ways in which we name or label and what it means to belong to certain categories or communities. How do we reconcile the ways in which these labels can be both empowering and limiting? My work is almost always in conversation with my experience as an adoptee since I tend to write about issues of containment, abandonment, and belonging. I believe that being adopted is a huge part of why I write.



This Box Called My Skin

This story is secretively about boxes and more obviously about food. Because food analogies are effective. Crack an egg on the griddle and yellow will ooze into white. Says Marilyn Chin. Oreo. Coconut. Twinkie. Is there no neutral snack? And how will you eat your snack? Use a spork. If I were a snack, I might be Siopao. A steamed bun that looks like just a bun but has a meaty inside. Hot Pockets got a hold of the concept and called them Sideshots. Then I could more accurately be called Sidepao. Or maybe I just want to be delicious like a red velvet cupcake. I would like to own a bar or a club. This bar or club would not really exist, but the kids would be tweeting and making Facebook events about it just to get in. Posted on the front doors would be an extensive list of requirements for entry: experience with or an affinity for hip-hop, Nikes, karaoke, rice, nursing school, imported cars, anime, Cherice Pempengco. Of course there would be separate lists for men and women. Maybe some fill-in-the-blanks. And everything stops for a moment because Manny Pacquiao is on 60 Minutes. Someone’s great anecdote is about how every announcer can now pronounce his name. The 60 Minutes guy says something about the crime rates going down in the Phils cause the police and criminals alike take breaks to watch the “Pacman”. I changed the channel. I ate some chicken and didn’t pray to the bones.



Allison Moreno is a Filipino-American poet from San Diego. Currently, she is an MFA Candidate in Writing at University of California San Diego. Her work has been featured in “Pieces of Me: Who do I Want to Be?”, EMK Press (an anthology of work by and for adopted youth) as well as In the Grove: California Poets and Writers and San Diego Poetry Annual (both forthcoming 2011).


Tuesday, March 22, 2011



The train’s slower, more ragged pace woke me. Outside my murky window, an illuminated monument pointed toward the night sky. “Washington,” I thought, “a twenty-minute layover.” I stashed my bags under the seat and ran from the underground platform up to the station to telephone my brother, to tell him that an early spring snowstorm in Boston had delayed my train to Savannah, that I would be arriving late to see him and the rest of my family for the very first time.

Lateness frightened me; I was already too late to see my mother, who had been dead for a year, who had given me up thirty-three years before, when I was an infant and she was fifteen.

I ran back down to the platform, but my train had vanished as if this meeting with my birth family had been a pipe dream. Back up in the station, I discovered this stop was Baltimore (home of another illuminated monument), and my train had paused only to discharge old passengers and take on new ones before chugging off. “I’ll bet you see people thinking this is D.C all the time,” I said to the Baltimore stationmaster, a compact, wiry man who was welded into his uniform. He didn’t stop looking through schedules for a way to reunite me with my train and my belongings, and he didn’t look at me, but said “Lady, I have never seen this happen before.”

Thanks to the deadpan stationmaster, I caught up with my train in D.C., breathless at my near miss. “You’ll never believe what just happened,” I said, spilling my story to my seatmate, a businessman with a briefcase on his knees. He yawned. Another person bored by my drama.

The train pushed south through the night into a late March dawn, and the vegetation alongside the tracks grew increasingly green, increasingly intertwined. I scanned each town for southern place names all the way to Charleston, South Carolina, and my breath sputtered as we crossed the Savannah River into the place I am from. A Southern girl, raised in the North, with a lifelong hankering for soft evening air.

The train station where my family waited for me was shabby by Northern standards, an open platform built from concrete, a single story building for tickets and for waiting. A group of small people stood huddled close together on the platform where the trains’ first car stopped. My sister—I knew it was her from the photos they had sent—stood with a cigarette spiking up from one petite hand, her shoulders seemingly weighed down by the fringe on her suede jacket.

I had been writing letters and talking on the telephone with my five brothers and my sister, my two aunts, my uncle, for about a month before I arrived in Savannah. I was ready to love them, but I was not ready for the sensation of my sister’s small hand in my small hand, for seeing my own eyes staring out from my brother’s face. I was not ready for their exclamations—just like Momma’s—over my hair, my eyes, my hands, my feet.

When I found them, I found the difference between being loved by people who bring you into their lives and being loved by people into whose lives you have been born. In some ways, it’s as simple as the difference between thinking about what you have in common with others and experiencing, through your five senses, what you have in common. For my family, even when time and distance separates us, even when we betray or disappoint one another, we come back to the flesh and blood we have in common.

Michele and her siblings, 1997



I had felt like an outsider all of my life until I got off of that train in Savannah. Today, I am a woman stretched: one foot in the North, one in the South, one hand holding onto my birth family, one hand holding on to the life I had before I met them, one eye on the outside and one eye on the inside. The stretching makes me ready for the poetry.



The Hardening
“The glass transition is a complex phenomenon burdened with many substantial misunderstandings.”
-Professor Ernst-Joachim Donth

The chapel’s antique windows ripple like
translucent skin in flux to too much time
and gravity. Illusion. Those panes
gave up the flowing ways of molten sand
as soon as they survived the glass transition.
I hold my hand above the votive candle.
The glow shines through the webbing of my palm,
my fingertips, the same warm light I saw
before my birth, the skin of mother’s belly
stretched beyond all reason, fleshy lens
to shelter me from too much clarity.
She gave me up, and so that light was all
I’d ever see of her, a girl re-shaped
into a vessel for the crucible,
ready to receive the artist’s breath
exhaled into her own still-molten dust.
My infant grief rushed wet, unthinking from
her fiery womb, and after fifty years,
my flesh still craves her touch. Her sisters tell
me how she yearned for love and shrank from rage,
and how her curves were praised by men, and how
she drank and spilled her secrets, how she raised
her other children up like offerings
both precious and expendable, and how
she gave them up or lost them as she passed
through fire, and still she held what breath she had
to share with them, when they could find her, until
she shattered in her hardening.

"The Hardening" first appeared Michele's chapbook, The Glass Transition (Finishing Line Press, 2010).



Michele Leavitt is a high school dropout, former trial attorney and hepatitis C survivor. She is the winner of the Ohio State University’s 2010 William Allen Award for creative nonfiction. In 2010, her poems and prose appeared in The Humanist, Dogwood, The Journal, Mezzo Cammin, Passager and The Platte Valley Review. A chapbook, The Glass Transition, was also published in 2010. Michele earned a law degree from Suffolk Law School in 1981, a Master of Arts in English Literature from Salem State College in 1989, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Vermont College in 1995. She lives in Moscow, Idaho, where she teaches in the University of Idaho’s English Department.


Monday, March 21, 2011



The quick answer: I am an adopted Korean. I was born in Daejeon, South Korea in December 1970 and adopted at ten months of age. I arrived in San Francisco, California, where my parents lived. I was plump and shocked. I am also a brother to an adopted sister. She is a year and a half older than me, and she was born in California’s East Bay Area. She is beautiful. We are very close to this day. Lastly, I am an adoptive parent. My daughter—my most remarkable joy—was born in China and adopted at ten months of age. I am private with the details of her experience, so my comments here will elaborate on my experience.

Lee in First Grade, 1976

The longer answer—adoption is a part of every aspect of my life, although I do not think of it every day by any means. Growing up in a Caucasian family in a predominantly Caucasian culture, I had to make sense of the unavoidable societal and institutional problem of racism. This was difficult, and while it does not inform the majority of my experiences in youth (or as an adult working in higher education), it would be significant if adoptive parents understood this—not the exact effects of racism, per se—but that it is part of the Korean adoptee’s reality. I also understand now that when I write about adoption, I write about trauma. Yes, I write too of beauty. But this is about trauma. One has to dig for a while through some tunnels before that light appears. But it does.

I was a happy little kid with a bit of a temper. My early years were filled with Star Wars, baseball cards, and hours and hours playing soccer. I had very little understanding of Korea as a child. In college—that world where so much good can occur—I read my first Korean novella, Kang Sok-Kyong’s A Room with a View. This opened a new world of possibility for me—the Korean part of me—and I began to piece it (back) together, book my book, poem by poem. I returned to Korea for the first time when I was 31. I went back again, seven years later in 2008. Being in Korea felt like coming full circle. Some poems cannot contain emotions so expansive. What can? Perhaps close friends and family? So perhaps my experience is just another circle – how I notice here in the United States when there are Koreans around me or when my beautiful Korean adoptee friends and I gather for a Hite or noraebang or barbecue, how my laugh echoes my father’s, how my daughter giggles when I make a certain face, or how she pretended to grab the moon one day when she was three years old and then pretended to hand it to me, saying “Here Daddy, the moon is for you.”



At times, the subconscious surfaces so immediately that even the most concerted effort to dismiss it will not do. In these instances, my adoption experience is the entire impetus and subject of the poem. For example, in This Many Miles from Desire, there are about six poems with “Korean adoptee” in the title. A few others, such as “Salvation,” are about my adoption, birth family or birth mother concerns. For the majority of the poems I have written and continue to write (even in my second book manuscript, Gardening Secrets of the Dead), however, my adoption experience is a secondary concern at best, since other concerns drive the poem’s impetus, drafting, vision, and re-visioning. These concerns include the accuracy of sound and rhythm, clarity of image, precision and pace and imagination with the line and language, and of course, some element of surprise.

On a certain level, my adoption from Korea involves aspects of war and dissent, separation and reunification, love for family, economics and erasure. Voice and silence. Desire. Questions and acceptance of answers and the absence of them. So it follows that in my poetry there are very few chronologically driven, linear narratives. I do not have the life experience to sustain poems like that for very long. I have, I should say, had a very good life, for lack of a better term, but my poems reflect the aspects I mentioned earlier. Thematically, then, the poems illustrate these experiences, but even within a poem that has little to do with adoption overtly, there are tensions of silence or pause, images of women and the known and unknown, and the use and usefulness of questions. I have only recently begun to realize this.




The blues is what mothers do not tell their sons,
in church or otherwise, how their bodies forgave
them when their spirits gave in, how you salvage love
by praying for something acoustic, something clean

and simple like the ideal room, one with a shelf
with your three favorite books and a photo
from your childhood, the one of you with the
big grin before you knew about the blues.

I wonder what songs my birth mother sang in
the five months she fed me before she left me
on the steps of a church in South Korea.
I wonder if they sounded like Sarah Chang’s

quivering bow, that deep chant of a mother
saying goodbye to her son. Who can really say?
Sometimes all we have is the blues. The blues means
finding a song in the abandonment, one

you can sing in the middle of the night when
you remember that your Korean name, Kwang Soo
Lee, means bright light, something that can illuminate
or shine, like tears, little drops of liquefied God,

glistening down your brown face. I wonder
what songs my birth mother sings and if she sings
them for me, what stories her body might tell.
I have come to believe that the blues is the body’s

salvation, a chorus of scars to remind you
that you are here, not where you feared you would be,
but here, flawed, angelic, and full of light.
I believe that the blues is the spirit’s wreckage,

examined and damaged but whole again, more full
and prepared than it’s ever been, quiet and still,
just as it was always meant to be.


When the light pivots, hum—not so loud
the basil will know, but enough
to water it with your breath.
Gardening has nothing to do with names
like lily or daisy. It is about verbs like uproot,
traverse, hush
. We can say it has aspects of memory
and prayer, but mostly it is about refraction and absence,
the dead long gone when the plant goes in. A part of the body.
Water and movement, attention and dirt.

            Once, I swam off the coast of Belize and pulled
seven local kids along in the shallow Caribbean,
their brown bodies in the blue water behind me,
the first one holding my left hand like a root,
the last one dangling his arm under the water
like a lavender twig or a flag in light wind.
A dead woman told me: Gardening,
simply, is laughing and swimming
a chorus of little brown miracles
in water so clear you can see yourself
and your own brown hands becoming clean.

"Salvation" was first published in Lee's first book, This Many Miles form Desire. "Gardening Secrets of the Dead" was first published in The Packinghouse Review and is the title poem of Lee's second manuscript.



Lee Herrick (birth name Lee Kwang Soo) was born in Daejeon, Korea in 1970 and adopted at ten months old. He is the author of This Many Miles from Desire (WordTech Editions, 2007) and has recently completed his second book manuscript, Gardening Secrets of the Dead. His poems have been published in ZYZZYVA, Many Mountains Moving, Berkeley Poetry Review, and The Bloomsbury Review, among others, and in anthologies such Highway 99: A Literary Journey through California’s Great Central Valley, 2nd Edition, Hurricane Blues: Poems About Katrina and Rita, Seeds from a Silent Tree: Writings by Korean Adoptees, and The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems from the San Francisco Bay Watershed. He is the editor of New Truths: Writing in the 21st Century by Korean Adoptees, published by Asian American Poetry and Writing. He teaches at Fresno City College in Fresno, Calfiornia.


Sunday, March 20, 2011



My wife and I adopted a year old baby girl in Cuenca, Ecuador in 2000. We were very fortunate to receive a referral right after we qualified and went to Ecuador less than 6 months after starting the process. Both of us have worked in other nations, so traveling to South America was not a source of anxiety. Nevertheless, we arrived in Ecuador three days after a military coup had taken place (we knew this, but chose to travel anyway), and that event made the in-country process much longer and more complex than we had been led to expect.

Our daughter, Sofia, had spent her entire life in a lovely, small nursery on a hill outside Cuenca. She was very well adjusted and had no problems with our arrival and we took "possession" of her right away. Much of the rest of the story is anecdotal and humorous now (it certainly wasn't then), including driving across the Andes in a battered old van on single lane dirt roads, etc. But after 21 days, and more than a few "donations" to various bureaucrats, we arrived in the U.S. at 1:20 PM on February 14. We completed the U.S. adoption exactly a year later, and we celebrate this day as "happy adoption day" every year.




Because I tend to write long, serial works and not many discrete poems, I can only think about this question in a macro or gestalt form. Sofia is a remarkable person and has taught me much. All of this experience, from the struggle in Ecuador to this morning's phone call with her teacher affects my poetry and I'm hard-pressed to draw any better delineating lines.



This is a poem about Ecuador which I wrote subsequent to the adoption. It's part of a series of "geographies" that appeared in my book True News (Instance Press, 2002), but it's the closest I can come to an individual poem that is in dialogue with the adoption experience.


       Cloud broke, wave froze
       tooth and blade
       whetted on the bone of
       the back of the world.

       Stars between islands
       corners and steps—
       this is the
       closed country.

       Then we crossed a cold equator and fell through a vertical horizon, that sentence behind the sentence, breathless.

       Nowhere else


       Awake all night in
       wet cement and choked barks
       arrested between sighs
       for promises to harden.

       Then sour milk and
       cash exchange –
       knives, cloaks,
       anonymous witnesses.

       We had heard how, when surrounded and outnumbered, conquistadors invited their enemies to dinner then beheaded them with salutes.

       Wait in the sky and
       see what fate can do.


       Is family learned
       or instinct—
       to sleep on any pillow as
       the sum of endless distances.

       Knowing how rain can split a mountain and
       how a mountain can fill a sky and
       how a sky is neither pavilion nor abyss and
       how an abyss fills mouth and throat, all gravity.

       Between the mud factory and a path paved with last intentions we changed languages, then whispered into the deafening drone, foreigners again.

       That which we inhabit
       inhabits us.


       To keep a secret
       one story must be true and
       another false or at least
       as invisible as the obvious.

       These children float
       drop-by-drop, ghost-to-glass
       not rain but always
       the color of rain.

       After the king was allowed to fill a temple with his own ransom he was offered a choice of implements, sashes and cords, for his garrote.

       To live here means one
       way to go or the other.


       Tongue slipped in toe hold
       to climb among
       words through
       crevice and plunge.

       Learn to say “please”
        “thank you” and
        “the way your mountains
       prove the earth is flat.”

       These are the illiterate pictures of beauty without desire, longing without a mask, allegory without every new name alight.

       If body could only be
       made of more earth.


       A squared arch to
       a trapezoidal door to
       a circular tomb where
       even breath cannot slip between stones.

       The memory of a giant condor
       rorschached the sun
       but we went on burning
       the rope bridge at both ends.

       In the fortress of no resistance, gravity denied the distinctions and we learned to inhabit a wedge; admission will be free but there is no refuge.

       This wind is
       a moving hole.


       A boy with a gun
       hummed an imported
       tune intended to
       keep the deadly peace.

       There was no end
       to the thirst or
       the sweet salt
       that drank it.

       So we galloped hard through a desert thatched by root and vine, gold-fields and landing zones, cemeteries and monkey markets, toward a city at war with itself.

       Always the same gesture to
       take the world and give it back.


       Every day the cloud factory
       draws a new map
       and asks “is this
       all there is?”

       Then what to leave
       behind: our furniture,
       our food, our voyage
       without wake.

       It is simply the world that always wants more of itself so that we may someday resume the point of no return and count our blessings where we left them.

       Those who can not go home
       already are home.



Craig Watson is the author of Sleepwalking With Orpheus (Shearsman, 2011), Secret Histories (Burning Deck, 2007), True News (Instance Press, 2002) and nine other books. He has worked in the performing arts, corporate arts, literary arts and emergency services, among other oddly grouped activities. He lives on an island with his wife and daughter. spending an ever-decreasing amount of time on the “main” land.


Saturday, March 19, 2011



I have not died early like Amedeo Modigliani at 35, or expect to survive as long enough as Paul Celan did until 1970. It is 2011, three years after I had thought I would crash and burn over the Millau Bridge in Southern France. 2008 was my annus horribilis where I tried to kill myself several times. Both my adoptive parents had recently died, I got divorced from a 15 year marriage, my younger sister had shot herself in the arm with a .44 mag pistol and survived. I was cast adrift in loss. My purpose for living all gone. Having no more parents is like falling in a vacuum. I really felt alone in this world. But time heals and I am gradually filling my life again with love.

Nick and his Mama

I speak from the adopted child’s perspective. In 1964 I was adopted by Sophie and Alfonso Carbó in Legazpi City, Albay, Bicol, in the Philippines. A year and a half later, they also adopted my younger birth sister, Brigid. We lived a fairy tale life growing up in a big house in Cogon with the Mayon volcano majestically puffing steam from the top of the mountain. We would have Mormon missionaries, Catholic priests, and Peace Corps volunteers come to the house and have all-night parties. We were well cared for by our parents and the maids.

In 1971 we moved to Makati, Metro Manila. At first we were enrolled in the San Lorenzo School which was owned and operated by Raphael Zulueta de Costa, an old buddy of [my father's] from their days at De La Salle College. Then we transferred to The International School in Bel Air Village. We began our international education from Elementary School to High School. My parents always said we were adopted and that did not bother us much. But one day my parents picked us up from School and our U.S.-American friends could not believe I had white parents. The was my first inkling about racism and it did not come from the Filipino or Spanish community I lived in.

My poetry is touched by the adoption but I’ve never had the hankering to go back to the Philippines to look for my birth family.

More information and poems about the effect for Nick Carbo as a Filipino adopted by white parents is available at NPR, HERE, as well as Letteratura della migrazione, HERE.




The parents that gave me up for adoption
probably didn’t even have a transistor radio—
amplitude modulation waves could have carried

Orbison’s voice around Mayon volcano,
over thatch roofed nipa houses, under
karabao’s legs, through kissing bicolano lovers,

and passed through my newborn body.
I still remember the day Roy died on
December 6, 1988, waking up

to a loss of melody, the mellifluous
manner that all sounds used to come to me.
My college friend John Kintz and I raised

our beer mugs to honor the legend. John,
a proto-punk musician and a former drug
dealer who once showed me the scar

on his penis. We shared this loss
while the bartender tolled a brass bell
as he wailed “Orbison is dead, our music is dead!”

I could understand his hyperbole
to the bone. Loss is something you can’t rent
and it has no time limits—my natural

parents are most likely dead by now,
their effect on the 100 trillion cells on my body
as invisible as a lost radio signal.

My response to John’s penis was silence,
there was no connection there
to hold onto, or mouth a slippery reply.

So we went outside to smoke a joint
and talk about the pretty women
in our lucky, lucky lives.


The screaming woman on the other side
of our tall black gate
would have thrown a rock at me.
My maid, Rosita, sheltered me from the insults—
            something about my being
            retarded and full of worms.

The woman nudged her son forward.
Blue shorts, clean T
-shirt, rubber slippers.
She said her little boy was the one
who should have been adopted, he was healthy.
He was about my age,
four or five. We were both silent.
I want to see the Mr. and the Mrs.,
they are making a big mistake.

Rosita bolted the gate, took me by the hand—
they are bad people, don't listen to them.
I felt the crisp whiteness of her skirt all the way across
the garden, back to our house.


A group of children saw me
standing on the other side.
They stopped their game
of patintero.
A boy and a girl walked
across the coconut bridge,
urged me to cross over
and play with them.
The barefoot boy,
and then the girl
negotiated the narrow trunk.

I took two steps
and almost slipped.
The children across the creek
screamed I should remove
my shoes
because the bridge
was slippery.
I jumped back to the bank,
noticed they were all barefoot,
they were still urging me on.

I was afraid of falling
and would not leave
my new leather shoes
Without waving good bye,
I ran home,
past our barbed-wire fence
the one with the bright-red



Nick Carbo is the author of four books of poetry: Chinese, Japanese, What are These? (Pecan Grove Press, 2009), Andalusian Dawn (Cherry Grove, 2006), Secret Asian Man (Tia Chucha Press, 2000), and El Grupo McDonald's (Tia Chucha Press, 1995). He has edited important anthologies of Filipino and Filipino American writing: Pinoy Poetics (Meritage Press, 2006), Babaylan (co-edited with Eileen Tabios, Aunt Lute Books, 2000), Returning a Borrowed Tongue (Coffee House Press, 1995).


Friday, March 18, 2011



For anyone on the adoption triad—birth parents, adoptive parents, or adoptee—the experience is a defining one. In my own case, the story gets a little complicated.

Here are the bare bones. My birth mother Elaine, already a mother and not yet divorced from her first husband, conceived a child with my birth father Don: my sister Kim. Unwilling to relinquish their daughter or the hope they’d one day raise her, the couple placed her with Don’s mother Elfie and her husband; the fiction presented to the world was that Kim (now “Evelyn” or “Schatzi”) was Don’s much-younger sister, though the story didn’t ring true to all who heard it.

With New York’s divorce laws very rigid (it was the late 1950s), Elaine and her not-yet-ex continued to live apart while Elaine raised his son, my half-brother Lance. Since she was technically still married, proof of adultery might have put his custody at risk, so when Elaine became pregnant again less than a year after Kim’s birth, I was placed with Betty, Elaine’s much-older half-sister, and her husband Carmine. They were the couple I knew as my parents till, at thirteen, at Don and Elaine’s urging, I was told of my adoption.

In 1959, Betty had taken a trip to Poland to meet relatives behind what was called the “Iron Curtain”; that’s how I became the Polish infant Betty brought back to America to complete the childless home she shared with Carmine.

In the early ’60s, when Elaine was finally divorced, my sister and I retained the same identities we’d known. Who were we after we learned the truth? It’s the question of a lifetime.

Later, Don and Elaine married and raised two sons together: my brothers Shawn and Dean, both unaware of their secret siblings. Oddly, neither of my birth parents believe I was adopted: because they placed me with relatives and never finalized the legal work, they continued to believe they’d never really relinquished me, even though I was raised as Betty and Carmine’s son.

Under any conditions, relinquishment is hard, and I have a great deal of compassion for Elaine and Don’s position. But it’s difficult as well to live without clear legal status, which increased the tensions between all three households.



                                                                                                            Ned with his new cat Wyatt

My adoption experience has made me keenly aware of how alternate lives may shadow our own—how hope, desire, and chance shape who we are. Kim and I lived in the same town and attended the same schools—in fact, we were in the same third and fifth grade classes—but by the time we learned we were siblings, we’d missed our childhood together. Today, my siblings and I live too far apart to connect closely as adults, and that, too, I regret. The sisters, Betty and Elaine, had it particularly hard, faced with a culture that treated infertility, unwed pregnancy, and divorce as scandals of near-equal magnitude.

Yet adoption also provided Betty and Carmine with a son, and Elaine and Don remain together to this day. The complexity of the narrative makes its telling a real challenge, but telling is, I think, essential: it’s a way to preserve memory of the living and dead, to lend some meaning to their lives, and to give thanks for the good fortune of having been raised by loving parents.

Adoption creates families, however unorthodox the road, and we are all part of the greater human family.

Internet links where Ned Balbo's Adoption Experience is Addressed:
Iambic Admonit Interview

Estella Lauter's review of The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems



A New Start

                                 For Betty; Brentwood, New York, 1967

“Wait here.” You strode across the lawn, black salt-
And-pepper hair, black skirt, your high-heeled shoes
Stabbing the grass while I sat at the fence,
Split-rail beneath the maple. “Anyone home?”
You called out once again, as if by circling
Round the yard, weaving through shrub and rose-
Beds, tapping windows, you’d make them appear.
The sun beat down. This house would soon be ours
And so much would be solved when we moved in—
Old neighbors you’d pulled close too suddenly,
The long feuds afterward—all these erased
When we moved “one last time”: a new start, maybe,
One more second chance...You passed the sign
Staked on the lawn, snapping aside a branch,
White birch left to grow wild, then disappeared
Around the house, dirt-brown split-level ranch
Two blocks from your new friend. And who was she,
“Aunt” Elfie, who’d scouted out this house for sale—
Mother of Schatzi, freshly dyed flame-hair—
Pouring herself the drinks that you refused?
All night, shaking ourselves to rock ’n’ roll,
Her daughter and I danced to old 45s
Down in that paneled basement while the men
Laughed over shots of whiskey, needle scraping
When we thumped too hard... Where were you now?
A bird, black silhouette, veered toward the power
Lines, grabbed hold of the clumped knot stretching toward
A stripped pole near the woods. A motor gunned,
And in the distance children’s—strangers’—cries.
I didn’t want to move, and yet I did—
If you were right, this time...I liked the daughter—
What would I have noticed? How she laughed
In shrieks, almost; how long you’d watched us both,
Till on the drive home you’d leaned close to say,
Quietly, to my father, it was good
Good that we’d know each other growing up.
What could you mean? I pushed the thought away—
But on that day, mid-June, trapped in a yard
Flooded with light, breaking apart the seeds
That fluttered down, I heard your voice again
Greeting the car. You clasped the owner’s hands
As she emerged, caught off-guard while the door
Thumped shut, her husband from the driver’s side
Crossing to greet you as she stepped away
Stiffly. The closing loomed; more paperwork,
But why had we come really? To see friends
Strangers we hardly knew—who’d disappear,
The deal complete, into their separate lives
As anyone but you would understand,
Smiling too widely, talking through their nods
And curt replies, praising your new best friend,
Her daughter, all the luck that brought you here,
Certain at last you’d find yourself betrayed
No longer, that you’d fled the past for good
Here in a world remade. You called my name—
But what if you were right?—and I obeyed.

Whose Son, Whose Daughter
                                    For Kim (“Schatzi”), ca. 1975

Sister, when you blew smoke against the glass,
I looked up at the school bus, stood below
In snow. For months you knew whose son I was,

Whose daughter you were. A block away, your house,
Grandparents who'd raised you, waited. Crunching snow,
The bus moved on. You blew smoke on the glass.

Red stoplights flashed, brakes groaned again. Your voice
Carried as you stepped off. Don’t look back now—
For months before I knew whose son I was,

We'd pass in the halls then look away. I guess
When told, you thought, It's better not to know.
I watched. Laughing, you'd blown smoke on the glass

While I imagined other lives for us,
Those missing years. If I'd been raised with you—
All gone. I thought I'd known whose son I was,

But now...Too late. You’d passed from view. The bus
Scattered exhaust on snow heaped by the plow.
How much was lost, like breath against cold glass...
You tried hard to forget whose son I was.

Note: “A New Start” and “Whose Son, Whose Daughter” originally appeared in Galileo’s Banquet (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 1998).



Ned Balbo’s two adoption-related books are The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems (Story Line Press/WCU Poetry Center), awarded the 2010 Donald Justice Prize by judge A.E. Stallings, and Galileo’s Banquet (WWPH, 1998), awarded the Towson University Prize for Literature. His second book, Lives of the Sleepers (U. of Notre Dame Press, 2005), received the Ernest Sandeen Poetry Prize and a ForeWord Book of the Year Award. An essay, “Walt Whitman’s Finches: on discretion and disclosure in autobiography and adoption,” received Crab Orchard Review’s John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize. “My Father’s Music,” an essay on adoptive identity and ethnicity, was a finalist for the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society award and appeared in Our Roots Are Deep with Passion: Creative Nonfiction collects new essays by Italian-American writers (Other Press, 2006). A chapbook, Something Must Happen, appeared from Finishing Line Press in 2009. He teaches at Loyola University Maryland.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011



My adoption experience: When I was in 6th grade, my suburban Connecticut family adopted my sister from Seoul. Named after an Irish nun in the family, my sister was meant to be a docile violinist (forgiven: the Oriental stereotypes of Reagan/Bush-era CT suburbs). Instead, my sister bloomed into the jock my father always wanted-- the first Asian-American 5ft-2 captain of her high school's varsity basketball team. And on and on, a ferocious and graceful and passionate field hockey and lacrosse star. If the house were burning down, and I could save just one person, it would be and always would be my sister. I will always love her the most.

Furthermore, as a gay man who dreams of being a parent but who at the moment is not, I console myself often in thinking--given the eleven-year age difference--that I have in some sense been a parent. I raised my sister as much as my parents did. I changed her diapers, cozened her into sleep, was the one who weaned her of pacifiers. Mine was the lap to which she ran, in footage of her earliest birthdays.

Michael, his twin brother and their sister

More recently, I've grown very close to someone with an 11-yr old boy adopted from Vietnam. Sharing in this boy's life has been a great gift, even if I wasn't from outset a part of the adoption process, per se. Through loving this awesome kid, I've learned new, more subtle thresholds of adoption--that as a gay man without children of my own, I nonetheless could sit on the carpet with Legos, fight Nerf Wars, etcetera. Such experiences further persuade me that adoption, even in its threshold states, might exist beyond the juridical. I've never adopted a child, but the adopted children in my life are no less buoying and inspiring.

Beyond which, as changeling queer black sheep in aforementioned CT suburb, I grew up with the ambient sense from others that surely I must have been adopted, how else to explain my own differences from everyone else. I was not adopted. I love my parents very much. But all the same, the idea of having been adopted, as ersatz mythology, informed, if not my own sense of childhood, other persons' sense of my childhood.



Adoption--as both thematic and methodology--has affected my poetry for some time. Recently, children of all sorts (including a post-kidnapped Lindbergh baby) have appeared in my poems, and I imagine the poems themselves as adoptively nurturing these lyric persons. In the spirit of Henry James's NY Editions--James's loving relation to his own earlier self--many of my own poems feel like they bear an adoptive relation to earlier versions of myself. In terms of method, I've long been enchanted by Joseph Cornell's shadowboxes, which adopt and nurture and protect objects not his own, per se. My own poetry's trawling often follows this errant, bricoleur spirit; which is to say that adoption itself becomes a metaphor for loving what becomes one's own, troubling what might otherwise count as what originally, naturally, had been one's own.




First seen
the wickerwork, ajour-veiled,
and then the boy,

then only then

the woman
of oracles, redblue,

insisting here
would be a pagody,

some temple
built from what already

we had loved.

We dove,
mouths open,

into Perfume River—

in a stream
of orchard.

We found the boy,
which meant

we loved him,
this temple

fathomed here

in fog
of milkflower,

mock strawberries
flowering yellow,

misting past sunrise.
Weather of kumquat,

and there we found
our twinkling boy,

wickered, already

Little mercury
of impish jade cup mountains,

who laughs before

as gray-shanked doucs,

our dear life. Impish

and resilient beyond
all knowing;

dear life, dear darling boy,
I write,

let me
be on Perfume river.

Raise a shrine
as wished

our good-luck lady


Years later and before,
we’ll find

our boy

unjaded waters,
the drift,
and the pagoda,

seven stories

cradle for
the cradle rocking.



Michael D Snediker teaches American Literature and Poetics at Queen's University, Kingston ON. He is the author of Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood & Other Felicitous Persuasions. His first chapbook, Nervous Pastoral, was published by dove|tail books. His second chapbook, Bourdon, is forthcoming from White Rabbit Press. He was the 2006 James Merrill Writer-in-Residence. His poems have appeared in venues including BLIP, Crazyhorse, Jubilat, the Paris Review, and Pleiades. He hopes his sister won't be embarrassed if she comes across this website. He hopes his brother and sister will forgive him for posting a photo of them online~~


Tuesday, March 15, 2011



Where to begin? I have adopted cousins, a husband who was adopted by his stepfather at a very young age, his cousin's wife, who was adopted and not told until she was 16 or so, and I have two adopted children, Sangha (11, born in Cambodia, adopted at 12 months in 2000) and Radhika (9, born in Nepal, adopted at 3 years in 2004). We adopted Sangha through Hawai`i International Child, a large agency, and Radhika through a woman in Ohio who only does a few adoptions each year through the state-run orphanage in Kathmandhu. We traveled to Cambodia and to Nepal to adopt our kids; Sangha and my husband's mother came with us to Nepal to adopt Radhika. We know something of Sangha's history and we see Radhika's birth-sister, adopted by a woman who now lives in Walla Walla, Washington, approximately once a year.

I can hardly frame my answer around “my adoption experience” as so much of my experience since 1999 is described by that phrase, even as it utterly fails to encompass larger issues and feelings and thoughts about family. So many aspects of our experience, such as deep ethical issues involved in our adoption of Sangha from Cambodia, were all-consuming 10 years ago, but are now back-chatter to household talk of baseball scrimmages, dyslexia, astonishing growth spurts, the onset of puberty. Those questions (large and small) have not yielded answers, necessarily, but they have been the rigorous, ambiguous, and—yes!—often joyous curriculum to my education over the past decade.

Radhika, Susan (with Tortilla), Sangha & Bryant Webster Schultz



Poetry is about naming.
We gave Sangha (referred to us as Rath—or orphan—Seyla) his name, after looking at a list of Cambodian names on-line. We are sometime Buddhists, loved the resonances of the name, which means “spiritual community.” When we got to Cambodia, people laughed when we called him “Sangha.” In Khmer, you see, it means “handsome.” Radhika came to us with her name; she was three years old and we didn't want to confuse her. We have since found out from her birth-sister, who is a year older, that they had both had names before they were given new ones at the orphanage. My husband changed his last name(s); his cousin's wife made up her name; adoptees seem to have more fluid relationships with naming than, for example, do I, who made a vow at an early age never to relinquish my last (birth) name. The sense of a name as a way station rather than a monument strikes me as poetic in the way of so much flux.

Poetry is about coming into language. An extension of the last! We adopted Radhika at 3, when she was talking up a storm in a language we do not know (Nepalese). We placed her with a Nepali baby-sitter in Honolulu, but she quickly gave up that language in favor of English. I would drive her home from day-care at rush hour and she would yell, “TRAFFICS!” from the back seat. (I knew then she was not a patient being!) I wrote about her language acquisition (and about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's DICTEE) here: http://tinfisheditor.blogspot.com/2010/02/language-acquisition-dictee-and-radhika.html
Her coming into English, as someone who knew what words are for, was an amazing experience, and one that made me think even harder about words as matter, matter as a kind of mothering. Just as we cannot possess matter, we cannot possess our children; this is a lesson many parents could learn, and adoption, I have found, facilitates that perception.

Poetry is about relation. Early on I realized that people regard my relationships with my children as being different from theirs with their (bio) kids. They want to know if my children are siblings. (Of course they are!) Our culture's adoption imaginary, as one might call it, is extremely narrow. We are fascinated with likeness, with resemblance, with sameness within families. We are discomfited by differences, by discontinuities. I can see this in myself in the way I discover my mother in my daughter and my father in my son. Not that this is a bad thing, but it fits the typical narrative of family, one that I have tried to re-cast in a lot of my adoption-related poetry (the prose poems in And Then Something Happened, in particular). In more recent work about my mother's Alzheimer's, I came to realize that I am now the adopted mother to my mother. When first I tried to get her care, which she was refusing, I went to court to become her legal guardian. As the papers were signed and handed over, I realized I'd been there before, that this was—in essence—my third adoption.

Poetry is about quotation. I incorporate (the verb is “appropriate,” but that's not appropriate in this context!) a lot of overheard and over-read language in my poems. A poet from whom I learned a lot about quotation is Denise Riley, who was adopted. So the link formed in my mind between quotation and adoption. Just as no poem is utterly original, so no poem is not without its adopted language. The ways in which such adoptions occur has fascinated me for a long time. I wrote an essay on Riley having to do with this question: http://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/vol_3_no_1/cambridge/schultz.html

Teaching poetry is involved in adoption. We “adopt” books for our courses. This is a term I don't like any more. After all, at the end of the course, most students will sell their books back. So a word like “fostering” might make more sense. We foster books, as we foster the creativities of their readers, during the brief months we spend with any class. But in another sense, we do adopt our readings. Our relationship to them is familial, though most of them do not “resemble” us. We do not share the family nose with our favorite poets, though we might adopt/adapt a rhetorical feature now and again. My poem, “The New York School,” which is in large part about realizing that the Babar book I was reading to my Cambodian-American son was racist imperialist crap, goes like this:
“We've been taken off the track, but it did come up, this vexed issue of kinship, which poet gets assigned which umber and waits her turn in line, my mother myself. But to return to Babar (aka Mary Rowlandson), beset as he was by savages, yet saved by the French army, their funny hats. Please adopt this book for your course.” (ATSH, 106)

“Adoption” needs to be parsed out. We adopt children, which is a different act from “adopting” books or lines of thinking or roles.

Poetry is about work. When my daughter told me a couple of times that I was not her mother (under the influence, I suspect, of friends who ask innumerable questions about adoption), my half-adopted husband told her that “mother” is a function. Mother is a worker: it is she who feeds you, puts you to bed, makes sure you get to school on time. Just so is a poet a worker: it is she who writes this down, notes her surroundings, tries to care for them, creates the possibility for empathy, if not its fact. The poet/mother/worker tries to make the world larger, even as forces conspire always toward its constriction.

Poetry is about lack of chronological necessity. My prose poems are stories, but they are not narratives. They come out of episodic memories, with emphasis on episodes, which are often divorced from causal relationships. We have friends whose middle child came last; our daughter, who is two years younger than our son, came to all of us four years after he did. Adoptive families have histories, but the histories are not grounded in the same time-zones as are the biological ones.

Poetry is about extension. Since adopting my two children in 2000 and 2004, my sense of family has stretched out. This is true for other adoptive families I know. We think more about other cultures—those from which our children came—and about people we may or may not know who are related to our children in other ways than our own. Or at least we think of them in a different way. Ironically, it's blood that links us to these other places, but that blood-link makes possible other connections, those less dependent on a literal notion of relation. Many of my poems, collected in And Then Something Happened, tried to configure poetry and family in this other way. That most of them were more critique than celebration is a problem, but perhaps an inevitable one, as our culture is so bound to certain notions of itself. In Dementia Blog there's a brief section that records my daughter asking why she doesn't live with her sister; because she has another mother, goes the response. “What names do we have for this family: two sisters, three mothers, one brother to one sister, (and then another), and a father to sister and brother? (I forget a father, a mother.) Nuclear will not do” (65). What word is there to describe the relation between me and the adoptive mother of my adopted daughter's birth sister? I think a lot about these questions now.

Poetry is about imagination. If there are “imagined communities” based on the printed word, then surely there are also imagined families. We are based on paperwork, after all, the many forms, most of them notarized(!), the airplane tickets, the messages we print out, the passports and visas, on and on. This is our ground. It is blood to us. But from there, and I notice this more and more, we become something else, something less grounded. Something more ordinary and day-to-day, like baseball and soccer practice schedules, the dropping off and the picking up. Our poems, too, are involved in this ordinariness. And so the poetic lineage, adoptive as it is, continues through us as we write our poems that originate but do not end in adoption.

Poetry is about history. Denise Riley told me that she found her birth-family because she wanted to know her history, not because she put stock in the myth of origins. (I invent my quotation liberally, as it's been many years.) Families are historical. As another person wrote for this feature, families arise from habit. So do poems. Poems come to me because that is my habit of thinking and feeling. In family, as in poem, I repeat myself in my doing (whether it is care or creation). My family and my poem do not appear alone on any page. They are not formalist projects; rather, they reach out to the world, they are of it, and it is always larger than we are.

Poetry is about love. I don't usually say so, but it is.



Creative Memory Consultant

I love to help people organize their memories. Imagine the following film: Being Dr. Kissinger. There's no light at the end of that tunnel. Lala lost her ball: aw down, aw down, Sangha says, waves hands, palms cupped up to signify the nothing that is there. And then Po her 'cooter. Clouds like vast pockets of lint over the Ko`olau. Write to the rhythm of the pile driver. If lyric is material, how to reconcile its obsession with what is forgotten? Does that explain the moose with a head cold, bedded down amid animated rubble? Bomb crater where a wedding party was? What memories my son carries are physical: the touch of foreheads, particular curve of the hand when he dances. What he has forgotten is an entire language. I'm eager to show you how to organize your adoption scrap book, the consultant writes. Your snapshots are testimony, remainder, the excess that spills over in long division. Revision by reduction, memory plants—a glove still grows in the garden. And they all live together in the big red barn.


Magic bones haunt Takeo province, await validating experts to analyze. The villagers who took bone parts to their homes reported becoming dizzy and feverish, according to Radio Australia. The dead of Takeo are archived on-line. The photographer was only following orders. Tripped his lens. They were bludgeoned, as bullets were too dear. The archive perpetuates before, not after, blurry as Schrodinger's cat, though we see its eyes. Ai! he says, seeing the picture on a box. Vision contained, domesticated. Cooking as self- or other improvement; value innovation, the president tells cadets. I imagined an erotics of starvation in the Khmer Rouge cookbook; she returned home dressed in black, a broken mirror. Lend me your ears and eyes, oh my editorial conscience. Her words were excess, invention, surcharge on memory's credit line. The wedding hall collapse was due not to terrorism but incompetence, articles of impermanence inscribed in cement. They're accustomed to terrorism, not accident. Do you know where your other is?

(both poems first appeared in { Material Lyrics } (Tinfish Limited, 2001) and then And Then Something Happened (Salt, 2004))

Links to other adoption-related poetry:
Material Lyrics: http://tinfishpress.com/free_stuff.html

And Then Something Happened: http://www.saltpublishing.com/books/smp/1844710165.htm



Susan M. Schultz grew up on the east coast, but has lived in Hawai`i for over twenty years now, where she teaches American poetry and creative writing at the University of Hawai`i-Manoa and edits Tinfish Press. Her books of poetry and poetic prose include Memory Cards & Adoption Papers (Potes & Poets, 2001), And Then Something Happened (Salt, 2004), and Dementia Blog (Singing Horse, 2008). She is also a literary critic, baseball fan (St. Louis Cardinals), and fervent blogger (http://tinfisheditor.blogspot.com).