The four poets who make up the poetry collective I Was Born With Two Tongues emphasize their dual perspective from the outset. They frequently open their shows by saying they represent China, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Korea. Then they quickly add Baton Rouge, Jersey City, Glendale Heights, and Glenview.
"One of our major preoccupations is definitely hybridity," says Dennis Kim. "The collision of cultures. There's a difficulty in being a child of immigration, in searching for a cultural space that you own, that is yours by birth."
A couple years ago Kim was an English student at the University of Chicago, regularly traveling to the north side to read his poetry in bars. He soon forged a performing partnership with Marlon Esguerra, who'd recently moved to Chicago with his wife, Anida Yoeu Esguerra. Kim's classmate Emily Chang recalls, "Anida and I had been the cheering section for Marlon and Dennis." The four became one in September of last year, united in their mission to increase the Asian-American presence on the city's poetry scene.
They say this quest still feels a little subversive. Kim points out that they all consider English their mother tongue, but it's "a language that sometimes can be used to make us feel like we don't have a right to it."
Kim, Chang, and Marlon are the children of immigrants, while Anida migrated with her family from Cambodia in 1979 when she was five. From the beginning the group's work has been marked by the experiences of having been raised in America yet having retained a strong sense of pride in the cultures and traditions of their elders. "Lock up your stereotypes," goes one offering, "Concerto in C for Two Shades of Yellow." "They're dead, long gone / We are half the world."
The poems on Broken Speak, their debut CD, reveal a unique amalgam of influences: pop-culture references intertwine with foreign phrases while guitars and turntable mixes play alongside traditional Asian instruments. The desire to be singular often faces off against the pressure to assimilate, and the poems make nods to jazz, hip-hop, and Eastern music, both in cadence and in rhythm.
"Our interest with Two Tongues is to explore and preserve our individual styles and issues," says Anida, "but it's also to revel in the empowerment we have as a group."
The Broken Speak CD-release party and performance is Friday from 6 to 9:30 at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo (312-362-9707). Admission is $3. There's also a postperformance party from 10 till closing at the Funky Buddha Lounge, 728 W. Grand (312-666-1695). Admission is free with mention of the Two Tongues party. --Mark Scheffler
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.