asian arts initiative: family style open mic


Nested in back-corridor evenings on Chinatown’s Vine Street, the Asian Arts Initiative (AAI) features a venue cozy as it is spacious. Tall ceilings reminiscent of balcony-style theaters, colorful yet understated lighting, a diverse array of Asian faces, ages, and languages.

What I discovered at AAI’s “Family Style Open Mic” series were far more exhilarating Friday nights than the welcoming-of-weekend festivities back on Penn’s campus (notably collegiate-style). Both December’s and January’s open mics offered pre-performance socializing in the venue’s front-room art gallery, complete with catered Asian dishes from local restaurants. Gradually, the crowds would gather through a curtained entrance into the back-room – an electrifying transition from muted voices and bright lighting to muted lighting and bright voices.

The series, hosted by spoken word duo Yellow Rage (Michelle Myers and Catzie Villayphonh), fused dynamic open mic performances with main features and mini-features. December’s main feature starred musician Jason Min, whose poignant melodies underscored equally poignant lyrics, while January’s starred comic book artist Larry Hama, whose commentary fostered Q&A dynamic with a highly interactive audience. 

However, the open mic portions, dispersed between the larger features, resonated the most with me. Initially, I expected the open mic-ers mostly to be Asians or Asian-Americans whose performances related (at differing levels) to a collective or idiosyncratic Asian experience – instead, I found that the vast majority of performers, though Asian-American, didn’t reference anything explicitly “Asian,” at all. From hip-hop to vocal renditions of Disney hits, choreographed belly-dancing routines to freestyle pop-and-lock, and poems criticizing educational institutions to supernova-time metaphors, the open mic fostered a remarkably diverse stream of craft, talent and creativity.

Upon second thought, perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that most of the AAI open mic-ers departed from Asian-conscientious performances – rather, this should be expected. After all, as a second generation Asian-American myself, I regard my artistic work and the energy fueling such work in simply human terms – not necessarily “Asian” terms. That being said, understanding of identity is certainly more racialized for some than for others, and perhaps that’s why each person’s artistic energy manifests in such unique ways. Regardless, though the performative content didn’t actively address an ethnic discourse, the mere demographics of the attendees attested to a vivacious Asian diaspora and dialogue: first-generation Asian immigrant-parents and full-time professionals, second-generation Asian-American college students, and third-generation toddlers, often biracial or solely English-speaking.

Without a doubt, AAI’s “Family Style Open Mic” series resounds as a celebratory and unifying force among Philadelphia’s Asian-American sub-population, evidenced by the prevalence of regular attendees as well as courageous newcomers who often venture to the venue alone. The forum functions not only as an artistic gathering, but also as a cultural gathering, engaging communities over poetry, song, dance, food and drink – what better way to encourage cross-generational and cross-cultural conversation.

here’s what’s sizzlin’

Here is a roadmap of the events I will be frequenting and covering in the upcoming weeks:

Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement: Youth Poetry Open Mic & Slam 

  • Saturday, January 21st @ 6:30pm
  • The Rotunda, 4014 Walnut Street | Philadelphia, PA 19104

Fourth Fridays

  • Friday, January 27th @ 8pm
  • A Poet’s Art Gallery, 4510 Walnut Street | Philadelphia, PA 19104

The Pigeon Presents: The Philadelphia Poetry Slam

  • Friday, February 3rd @ 8:30pm (7:30pm writing workshop)
  • 338 Brown Street | Philadelphia, PA 19123

Asian Arts Initiative: Family Style Open Mic Series*

  • Friday, February 17th @ 7:30pm
  • 1219 Vine Street | Philadelphia, PA 19107

* In addition to attending as an audience member, I will also be mini-featuring at this event.

Stay tuned!

Picked up Tao Lin’s chapbook of poems, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, a little before finals began and just got around to reading it over the last couple of days. Wow — this little collection spews one of the most interesting mixes of existentialism, absurdism, nihilism, hyper-realism, and poetic funky dankness I have ever stumbled across (which is not to say I’ve stumbled across much, at all). Nonetheless, if I had to condense the reading experience into one word, it would be: jarring. Lin’s poetry swerves haphazardly in and out of poetic consciousness; what I mean is that he takes turns stabbing and healing the reader, in smaller terms (spatially/lineally speaking) than a lot of other stuff I’ve read. Back to back to back, he rubs harshness in dangerously close proximity to weakness — I think it is this exact juxtaposition (in his language and linear choices) that touches me with sentiments I have certainly felt before, but did not know I could experience with such novelty, grace and brutality — and all at once.
I strongly encourage you to check out his stuff — I’ve been told his short story writing is equally brilliant. Meanwhile, you can support him (as he is one of the 0.1% of Asian-American writers published in the American literary industry) and quench a curiosity that I guarantee will not be met with disappointment by ordering a copy here for the approximate cost of a sandwich and coffee. And though a sandwich and coffee would certainly not be objectionable to my enjoyment of the book (as I’d gladly sit in a Starbucks with all three, all afternoon), I’d much rather read this before eating a sandwich and drinking a coffee that would just as soon leave me hungry/thirsty again as poor and poetry-less.
"the only reason i exist / is because my heart wanted to stab things / but didn’t have arms" - from poem "i’m going to touch you very hard" in this emotion was a little e-book

Picked up Tao Lin’s chapbook of poems, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, a little before finals began and just got around to reading it over the last couple of days. Wow — this little collection spews one of the most interesting mixes of existentialism, absurdism, nihilism, hyper-realism, and poetic funky dankness I have ever stumbled across (which is not to say I’ve stumbled across much, at all). Nonetheless, if I had to condense the reading experience into one word, it would be: jarring. Lin’s poetry swerves haphazardly in and out of poetic consciousness; what I mean is that he takes turns stabbing and healing the reader, in smaller terms (spatially/lineally speaking) than a lot of other stuff I’ve read. Back to back to back, he rubs harshness in dangerously close proximity to weakness — I think it is this exact juxtaposition (in his language and linear choices) that touches me with sentiments I have certainly felt before, but did not know I could experience with such novelty, grace and brutality — and all at once.

I strongly encourage you to check out his stuff — I’ve been told his short story writing is equally brilliant. Meanwhile, you can support him (as he is one of the 0.1% of Asian-American writers published in the American literary industry) and quench a curiosity that I guarantee will not be met with disappointment by ordering a copy here for the approximate cost of a sandwich and coffee. And though a sandwich and coffee would certainly not be objectionable to my enjoyment of the book (as I’d gladly sit in a Starbucks with all three, all afternoon), I’d much rather read this before eating a sandwich and drinking a coffee that would just as soon leave me hungry/thirsty again as poor and poetry-less.

"the only reason i exist / is because my heart wanted to stab things / but didn’t have arms" - from poem "i’m going to touch you very hard" in this emotion was a little e-book

hi, my name is

Tiffany Kang – a second-generation Asian-American college student hailing from suburban America. In more problematic terms, I’m just another kid who learned to drive a car before learning to navigate the public transportation system, and who experienced cultural identity crisis early on when she realized her lunch wasn’t packed in a brown paper bag, but rather, in a bento box reeking of last night’s bok choy. She likes to think she has come a long way, having since learned the basics of SEPTA, METRO and Subway, and, twice, made use of a rice cooker in her college dorm room.

Introductions aside, since moving to Philadelphia last autumn to pursue a double major in English and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, I have had the chance to encounter myself and my environment in ways that pre-college, suburban existence never quite facilitated. By far, the most convicting of these encounters has been in the form of literary exploration, namely through spoken word poetry and creative writing. As a member of UPenn’s spoken word collective, The Excelano Project, I have had the opportunity to perform at various college venues, having slammed at the 2011 College Union Poetry Slam Invitational and collaborated with collectives at other Philadelphia universities. However, the “college bubble” applies equally to lifestyles as it does to poetry communities. Therefore, beginning in January, I will tumble into a headfirst exploration of the city-wide poetry scene by traversing every/any open mic and slam for which I can humbly afford admission – an arena I have not yet taken the time or effort to encounter.

I often struggle to negotiate my identity as a poet, let alone a Philadelphian poet; thus, the upcoming months will serve as quite the learning experience. I hope to gain insight into different strains of poetry discourse at the community level, seeking to understand not only the content, styles, and slams unique to Philadelphia, but more importantly, the poets and the livelihood at the heart of their poetry. A couple questions I want to consider: To what extent does the Philadelphia poetry scene regard itself a literary versus social community? How integrated and aware are Philadelphia poets of the regional or national poetry scene? What recurring themes emerge in Philadelphian poetry and are these themes expressions of personal, city-wide, or universal discourse? How – as a sheltered, barely 20 year old Asian female – will exposure to the Philadelphia poetry scene influence my perception and practice of poetry as art, social utility, or medium of identity formation?

Perhaps, come May, I will emerge with multiple answers to all these questions, or perhaps I will have found these questions altogether irrelevant. Regardless, I anticipate a mind-boggling journey through both the familiar and unfamiliar, with the fair share of finger-snapping, howling, growling, laughing, and bawling that accompanies any spoken word experience. Join me in my pilgrimage throughout the city: after all, whether it be (as in my case) from college kid to poetry nomad, or (perhaps in yours) from investment banker to undercover stripper, we all dig the thrill of an alter-ego indulgence. Let’s not force our ridiculous dreams to wait around any longer for the courage we already have.