In the New York spoken word scene, it's rare to hear a name buzzed with purely unadulterated praise from poets' lips. But back in December all I kept hearing about was tongues, tongues, tongues -- a supposed tribe of Asian American word warriors that were cutting across the East Coast like brushfire. Those who bore witness converted. By following their entourage of more than twenty friends, fans and other assorted devotees, I finally met the performers over dinner one night at a West Village Thai restaurant.
Over sake and spring rolls, I learned that the official name of this pan-Asian spoken word ensemble is I Was Born With Two Tongues. Founded by four Chicago-based poets, Dennis Kim, Emily Chang, Anida Esguerra, and Marlon Esguerra, the Tongues birthed themselves after seeing the sore need for more Asian spoken word artists in a poetry scene dominated by Black and Latino wordsmiths. Their strong collective energy catapulted the group into the limelight after one pivotal show. The bookings poured in. "When you present something honest, I think people will respond," explained Anida, who is Cambodian Malaysian.
True to their name, many of the Tongues' pieces wrestle with conflicts inherent in straddling two cultures, two languages and two lives. They speak about ommas, appas, homelands and Asian American women as a fetish. One fierce poem demands that men "stop masturbating in my culture!" But their work is not limited only to ethnic concerns. Anida and Emily are currently collaborating on a poem about "sexual terrorism," a term Emily uses to mean "how a man can just give you a dirty look and tear away years of self-empowerment."
I Was Born With Two Tongues provides a loose musical backdrop to their stanzas by incorporating song, guitar, bass and the Korean changgu drums. Versatile and gifted, the four members easily handle different types of audiences, from campus venues to impromptu open mike readings. They say their influences range from Chilean great Pablo Neruda to Korean political poet Ko Un to hip-hop artist Black Star.
Dennis, who is Korean American, incorporates Korean words and traditional songs into his lyrics. In one powerful piece entitled "Han," he rhymes in full freestyle abandon, "I get a face full of tchim, boy/ if you don't step off my mike/ with that assimilate and distort/ Gim becomes Kim and Cheh becomes Choi." He consciously uses Korean in his rhymes because "there is something about those words in my mouth, even in my broken speak, that communicates something important to me, and I am hungry to participate in an art where every shade of me is visible."
Besides touring the East Coast and recording a CD, the group juggles time to pursue separate interests. Dennis, Emily and Marlon are attending college classes full-time and working part-time jobs, while Anida is occupied by her role as a partner in a start-up graphic design company. Marlon and Dennis, on the other hand, teach creative writing to high-school students with a non-profit organization called Young Chicago Authors. "Busy is a word I'm trying not to use anymore," Marlon said, laughing.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of watching a performance by I Was Born With Two Tongues is witnessing the dynamic impact on audience members, some of whom credit the group with changing the way they see the world by urging them to question identity, history and roots.
"We have been so blessed to get love from so many communities," Dennis said. The fans might say it's the other way around; Tongues is the real blessing.
#Ishle Yi Park is a poetry editor for the Asian Pacific American Journal and a writing workshop facilitator for CreateNow, a workshop for young writers of color. Her work has been published in New American Writing, DisOrient, Icarus, Asian Voices, The Sarah Lawrence and The NuyorAsian Anthology: Asian American Writings about New York City. She likes kimchee, shy men, old school dancehall, salsa and tabasco sauce.