A Multi-Media Venture with Paisley Rekdal

by Sam Gillmore

On Thursday, February 16th, I was honored to join a number of Detroit Mercy students and community members for a poetry reading performed by Paisley Rekdal. As the Chinese-American poet introduced us to her multi-media project about the impact of the transcontinental railroad, I noticed she could not keep the smile off her face. This was my first encounter with poetry that used more than simple ink and paper, and her excitement was contagious as she navigated the website she built.

West: A Translation will be available for purchase in May of 2023, but the author noted that the information within the book should be widely accessible, so her website is open-access and free to the public.

There is a strong focus on the intersection of Chinese identity and the construction of the railroad in this project, as the majority of those who constructed the transcontinental railroad were Chinese immigrants. Rekdal connects this construction to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which occurred 13 years after the completion of the railroad. Through a mix of videos and poems—old and new—she gives voice to a number of marginalized workers in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the railroad’s construction, creating a triumphal elegy for the souls lost to the progress of American civilization.

As Rekdal introduced us to westtrain.org, the poetry reading turned into an interactive celebration of lost history: unpleasant, lyrical, and in her words, “fractal” in nature. The reading took place over an hour-long Zoom session, but she utilized the platform by asking the viewers to call out what topics we wanted to explore. The chat was flooded with votes to learn more about migrant labor, polygamy, and sex work in this time and place. We began the journey by watching a video honoring a poem written by an unnamed Chinese detainee after the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese immigrants from entering America. Her choice of using videos was a result of a “wealth of visual material” she found during her research, and it gave people the opportunity to visualize the past that otherwise might not have made it into history books.

On the website, each poem from West: A Translation is organized under a Chinese symbol. In these poems, Rekdal uses various strategies to give the reader a sense of what it was like to live during this period, such as jarring enjambment to reflect the harsh sensations of riding a train. Rekdal shared that this medium is “entirely appropriative,” as she included poems and images central to the time period. She also shared her experience of navigating this appropriation in an ethical fashion since it was important to preserve these individuals’ voices. She expressed that the only thing poems can do that history cannot is to highlight the fractal nature of how history unfolds.

There are multiple layers to the controversial and sometimes uncomfortable stories from the past, and Rekdal’s work navigates those layers efficiently. By taking advantage of the medium itself, she allows readers to delve into the trenches of history unscathed. Paisley Rekdal’s distinctive passion for her culture brings new life to an old story, and she transforms omitted history into a true memorial for what has previously been lost.

Paisley Rekdal shared her work as part of the Triptych Writers Series, sponsored by University of Detroit Mercy’s English department and hosted by Stacy Gnall, poet-in-residence at Detroit Mercy.


Author Note: Sam Gillmore (they/them) is a sophomore at the University of Detroit Mercy with a passion for creative prose and poetry. As a double major in both English and Developmental Psychology, they look for the humanity in all things and hope to connect with people through language. 

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