Merle Woo: Poet, Educator, Revolutionary, Activist

Post by Cecilia Bergman and Steven Duong

Merle Woo was born in San Francisco to a Korean mother and a Chinese father on October 24, 1941. Her involvement in radical politics began when she attended San Francisco State University in 1968 and started to write poetry, amid ongoing Third World Student strikes. Woo is a socialist, feminist, lesbian, Asian American woman, and she effectively integrates her experiences and the intersection of her identities into her poetry, lectures, and activism, giving voice to a host of marginalized, underrepresented groups in America. She channels the discontent and anger of these groups in her politically radical poetry.

When she became an educator at the University of California, Berkeley and SFSU, Woo helped cultivate a focus on lesbian and community issues at the department of Women’s Studies and worked to protect student democracy and free speech. Her political work with the Free Socialist Party, a Marxist, feminist organization, and her support of student protest movements, got her fired from her faculty position at Berkeley twice. However, Woo’s persistence for justice is evident in both of the cases she filed against the University on the grounds of free speech violations and discrimination based on race, sex, sexuality, and political affiliation.

As a poet, Woo wrote from a radical socialist perspective, crafting the poems of an inclusive revolution, one that would bring to the forefront queer people, women, and people of color. Her radical poetry is an alternative medium of activism and protest, through which she critiques the fetishization of both lesbian women and Asian American women. For example, in her poem, “Under A Full Moon,” Woo writes:

“My legs around that great horse’s neck not riding

but my body singing down under

in front of the beautiful dark head

feeling her moist tongue in my center –

I am risking my life for these moments” [6]

Her erotic poetry humanizes the sexual experience, rejecting the common stereotypes associated with lesbian and Asian American women, and instead sheds light on an intersection of identities often marginalized among both Asian Americans and society at large. Woo, in “Yellow Woman Speaks,” also names and shames common tropes of Asian Americans, directing her rage and frustration at those whose sexism and racism continue to oppress Asian-American women:

“the impotence of those who have called us

chink

yellow-livered

slanted cunts

exotic

in order to abuse and exploit us.

And I will destroy them.” [3]

Women of color and queer people have often used creative outlets to advocate for change without physically protesting and marching. Poetry is a medium without limits, a form that allows one to break the norms and structures of writing, as well as language itself, which can be liberating for artists like Woo who experience rigid societal constraints. Woo fully exposes every facet of her identity within her poetry, allowing her to voice her advocacy in a uniquely powerful way.

Woo’s activism goes beyond just her radical poetry. She was of course an educator, and played an integral role in growing a Women’s studies department at Berkeley. She was also in a performing arts group, “The Unbound Feet,” that combined drama, spoken word, and other mediums of art to critique the oppression of Asian Americans. As a self-proclaimed “yellow feminist,” she used her skills as a writer and educator to advocate for revolutionary action in the dismantling of systems of oppression as complex and intersectional as her own identities [4]. Woo’s legacy lies in her poetry and her work as an educator and a lecturer, all commitments to the liberation of oppressed people.

Our creative component is a mixed media piece (watercolor/collage/digital) that physically represents Merle Woo’s poem, “Yellow Woman Speaks.” This poem represents, to us, the essential characteristics of Woo’s activism, its militancy, its urgency, and its call for unification of Asian American women. We played with a red and yellow color palette to evoke revolutionary sentiment, while using the delicate image of a butterfly to display contrast with Woo’s fiery, striking, radical rhetoric.

yellow-woman-speaks

Works Cited

[1] Feminist Ezine, “Nellie Wong and Merle Woo,” in Asian Feminists. Accessed September 12, 2016. http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/activist/Biographies-of-Asian-Feminists.html.

[2] Oh, Seiwoong. Encyclopedia of Asian-American Literature. New York: Facts On File, 2007.

[3] Woo, Merle, Yellow Woman Speaks: Selected Poems. Seattle, WA: Radical Women Publications, 2003.

[4] “A Conversation with Nellie Wong & Merle Woo, Poet-radicals.” Interview by Karen Brodine. Freedom Socialist: Voice of Revolutionary Feminism. April 1981. http://www.socialism.com/drupal-6.8/articles/conversation-nellie-wong-merle-woo-poet-radicals.

[5] Krouskoff, Margaret. “unbound feet three,” in Off Our Backs; a Women’s News Journal. 11th ed. Vol. 11. Washington: Off Our Backs, 1972.

[6] Frankovich, Nicholas, and Edith Granger. The Columbia Granger’s Index to Poetry in Anthologies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

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