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Paisley Rekdal Conducts Readers on the Rails of Poetry

How we remember the past is personal. Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal commemorates the completion of the transcontinental railroad with an online multimedia poetry project that allows readers to “choose their own adventure” as they navigate the experience.

On Friday, September 10th, the 2021 English Reading Series kicked off with a presentation by Utah Poet Laureate, Paisley Rekdal. Students, staff, and faculty flooded the Harold B. Lee Library’s auditorium to experience an interactive and refreshingly honest poetry reading in this 22nd year of the series.

Rekdal was commissioned to write a poem for the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad’s completion in Ogden, Utah. “At first,” Rekdal said, “I thought it would be maybe 2–3 pages,” but as she learned more about the history of not only the railroad but the Chinese immigrants who built it, she knew it “had to be big.”

Photo of Paisley Rekdal
Paisley Rekdal

Rekdal presented the product of this commission at the English Reading Series, and “big” doesn’t do it justice. Titled “West: A Translation,” the poem became an epic multimedia project that includes forty-five poems, many with videos that provide stirring visual depictions of the poem’s subject. The project can be viewed online.

The project centers around a Chinese poem that was found carved into the walls of Angel Island, an immigration station off the coast of California. On Angel Island, Chinese immigrants would be detained for days—if not months or years—before being allowed to enter the United States. The detainees covered the island’s buildings in poems expressing the trials they faced. Rekdal chose one such poem as the core focus of her work.

To start the experience, readers enter the website and watch a short video before continuing on to view the poem from Angel Island written in its original Chinese characters. Readers can then click on each of the different characters to view poems and videos created by Rekdal for the project. To illustrate the intertwined worlds of the railroad and the Chinese, each poem dives into a different aspect of the railroad’s history with a special focus on the immigrants who built it. The poems cover topics such as prostitution, death rituals, biracial reporters, generals, and the homeless.

When asked why Rekdal chose such an immersive presentation of the poems, she said, “I wanted playfulness in the translation of the poem. Each person can translate it, assemble meaning, and create correlations for themselves.” Rekdal demonstrated this format to the Reading Series by having audience members shout out which poem or theme they would like to hear.

“Hold Sorrow,” the first poem Rekdal read, illuminates the sex trade of the time. Chinese women and girls were often sold into prostitution or tricked into signing contracts without knowing what was being promised. The poem continuously invites readers and listeners to “imagine” the plight of these women.

Here is the room holding a bed, no mirror, your wash basin.
You have one window, wired, to face the street.
He will keep his pants on, his greasy shirt, his shoes.
Imagine the quarter pressed after into your palm.
–Excerpt from “Hold Sorrow” by Paisley Rekdal

Later, Rekdal read “Body,” which uses newspaper fragments to illustrate society’s perception of the Chinese workers at the time.

Their genius is imitation:
show them once to do a thing
and their education is complete.
Wherever you put them, you’ll find them good.
They can withstand freezing, hunger, thirst and heat,
their simple, narrow,
but not dull minds running in old grooves.
–Excerpt from “Body” by Paisley Rekdal

Each poem in the series expresses similar intense and honest expressions of western American history.

After viewing the video or listening to Rekdal read the poem live, listeners at the Reading Series were then treated to bonus notes that Rekdal plans to include in a new book on her extensive research for the project. As a Chinese American, Rekdal’s passion for the project was evident in the notes’ personal stories. If you missed the presentation, check out the project online, or watch out for Rekdal’s book with her personal notes sometime in 2022–23.

Come experience the next English Reading Series event on Friday, September 24th, at noon in the Harold B. Lee Library auditorium, or on zoom. Award-winning author Martine Leavitt will be presenting. Leavitt has published ten young adult novels, with the most recent, Calvin, winning the Governor General’s Award of Canada. Her novels have been published in China, Japan, Korea, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a short-residency MFA program.