A San Francisco native, Genny Lim is an American poet, playwright, and performer. A graduate of San Francisco State University, and Columbia University, Lim has taught at several universities including New College and the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Lim began writing poetry in middles school, and remembers her first step towards poetry: “I have a vague and amusing memory of writing poems that were very intellectual and high falutin sounding. I must’ve thought them to be very deep at the time. I was pretending to be a poet. I liked the sound of language and the play of words as they rolled off my tongue like music. I had no mentors, only books, poetry books my older sister read and kept around the house. She had e.e. cummings, Pound, Wallace Stevens, Ginsburg, Creeley, Philip Whalen, Di Prima, lots of the Beats. I read them out loud, purely enjoying the vocabularies, the sound of the words, as if words had the power of magic spells. I had discovered something that I have never lost.”
And in deed Genny Lim has been reproducing the magic. The author of two plays, Paper Angels & Bitter Cane, and two poetry collections, Winter Place & Child of War, and co-editor of the seminal anthology, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, Lim states that the biggest influence have been her older sisters. They were the ones who exposed me to Jazz, flamenco, blues, yoga, zen, guitar, poetry and dance. Our house was always filled with music. Chinese opera, country music, top forty pop, big band music, Latin music a hodgepodge of everything. That happens when you’re from a big family. You get exposed to everybody’s tastes.”
The youngest of seven children, Lim likens her childhood experience to being like a human sponge, and all that she stored as a child, eventually found its way into her poetry. Of course, books is one of the common denominator that connects this Bay area writer with others. Lim enthuse, “I loved books. I read every Lois Lenski and Oz book I could get my hands on at the library. I was a closet country girl trapped in the city. I imagined strawberry bogs and running barefoot with goats and chickens. My older sister asked my why I liked the Oz books so much. I said because everyone is equal in Oz and everyone shares what they have and are happy. She told me I was a socialist. I thought she was calling me a name because I had no idea what a socialist was. I just wanted utopia.”
The recipient of many awards ,including the American Book Award, 1981, and several others including Bay Guardian Goldie, Creative Work Fund and Rockefeller for “Songline: The Spiritual Tributary of Paul Robeson Jr. and Mei Lanfang,” This was a collaborative project that Genny Lim did with Jon Jang and James Newton. Lim has been a stable in the Bay Area poetry and performance scene for more than three decades, yet her work remains fresh and vibrant. Reflecting on her steadfastness, Genny Lim remarks,
“Staying power is about keeping on. Writing is a practice. It’s my ritual. My form of meditation. Regardless of the ups and downs, regardless of who’s listening or not, it’s the way I make sense of an incomprehensible world. All my anxieties, fears, sorrows and questions are examined when I dive deep into my consciousness. I derive a sense of inner peace after having completed a poem.”
And in truth many of Lim’s poems read as meditation, like this one entitled, “Chukchi Woman”
for Lin Sun Lim, Oct. 6, 1907-July 26, 2007
Lost in drifts of dawn
you walk and walk
With eyes of raven
and slits of obsidian
Don’t slip or blink or
you’ll fall into the
mouth of the man-eater
Don’t sleep or you’ll awake
inside the skin of the seal or
mouth of the tiger
Let your soul slip into oblivion
with migrating geese and
you will see with a thousand eyes
into the past and future
Let your voice echo the song of
whales calling to their ancestors
across the screech of owls
Scoop the darkness up with
both hands and tie your soul
to the antlers of reindeer to
watch the thunder roll
Shake the leaves of the forest
with the beat of your rattle
to elude the darkness and
men with sunken eyes
who trap souls in nets and
You drift through fire and water
mix cloud water with placenta
and earth to coax the first breath
in a world without memories
lost in yesterday’s dreams
you shed your skin
on raven’s wings
Speaking about audience and her concerns about her writing life, Genny Lim has this to say:
“Depending on the poem I write, my general audience can be other women, other people of color, other Asians or Whites. I don’t worry too much about who can relate or appreciate my poems, because I don’t write with a commercial intent. I’m not aiming for the mass market and never have. If I did, I would have to shift my values, attitudes, and beliefs so much that I wouldn’t be me. I don’t even send my poems out or attend writing retreats and professional conferences, like AWP, where you network with other writers, agents, etc. I’ve been a single working mom and now I’m a busy grandmother of two small and very active boys so I don’t’ have time for all that. It’s not my priority at this point in my career. Many of these opportunities were not even available when I was cutting my teeth as a young poet-playwright.
“Everything I write is seen and interpreted through my lens as an Asian American woman. My gender, race and ethnicity shapes the way I perceive the world and the social reality I experience is my truth. Readers may not agree with my political stance nor appreciate my point of view, but if I couldn’t exercise my freedom of expression, I wouldn’t care to write one word, not one word. I don’t have the burden of trying to sugarcoat or tone down my beliefs that a commercial author published by a big house might have. There’s way too much conformity around as it is and the lack of diversity in representation, due to corporate media, the entertainment industry and publishing houses, produces a dangerously docile public.
And like many artists who are also mothers, Genny Lim talks about how this aspect of her life interfaced with her creativity.
“Motherhood informs everything I do. The struggles I’ve had raising two girls as a single mother and the loss of one of them due to a tragic accident, is one of those things you never get over. You learn to access those areas of your psyche where the memories are still fresh, when you try to comprehend acts of gross human cruelty, such as war, torture or genocide, and what the loss of a child means to a mother. I don’t believe I could make that leap from my human condition to that of a Palestinian mother who has lost her children to the occupation, had it not been for my own loss.
“I am having a great time collaborating with longtime musician friends, like Anthony Brown and the Asian American Orchestra in our piece, 1945: A Day of Infamy which we’ve performed in Japan town, the Asian Art Museum and Herbst Theater for San Francisco Music Day. We hope to bring the piece to Japan. In the works is a collaboration with up and coming drummer and music strategist, Marshall Trammell at San Francisco Performing Arts Festival in Fort Mason in May 2016. At this stage, I’m just taking it day by day. I think I still have one more play left in me. I’ll have to wait and see.”
If you have not read Genny Lim’s work then make sure to purchase her books, and if you have not seen her engaging performances then be sure to check the listings and catch her next time.