Writing Around Color


Once, I was part of a class where we read “To World War II” by Kenneth Koch. It’s a sprawling ode poem addressed to a historical event. This is one of the cool things about poetry. You can address objects, history, dead people, animals, etc. You can speak to anyone or anything. This poems goes through several leaps, colliding the speaker’s life as a soldier with his life as a poet to talk about war as a person. The end is particularly brutal in its matter-of-fact language: “All you cared about was existing and being won. / You died of a bomb blast in Nagasaki, and there were parades.” As an Asian American, I felt the weight of that last line when I first read it, of the war dying along with thousands of Japanese people. I thought about the Holocaust films, novels, TV documentaries, Schindler’s List, Anne Frank in contrast with the silent, faceless horror of the Japanese people dying. We have many stories about the white victims of World War II, but what of the Japanese people who died because of the first use of a nuclear weapon?

 Too often, Asians are voiceless. In the US, we rarely appear in history, media, film, or song. I wanted to write about being Asian American in response to American fear and prejudice (see yellow peril, yellow fever, see whitewashing). As a fourth-generation Chinese American, I always feel the urge to talk about my familial history because there are so few multi-generational Asian Americans who have survived due to anti-immigration legislation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I wrote a poem to explore my complicated relationship with America through the color yellow, to talk about living and surviving in a society where people like me are often not seen.

“To Yellow” by Shelley Wong

Ready to try this yourself?


First, choose a color. Then, make notes about this color:

  • Your memories containing this color, your feelings during those moments
  • This color appearing in your city, in different seasons
  • This color appearing in your childhood
  • This color appearing in your dreams
  • Dark shades of this color
  • Pale shades of this color
  • Image of this color darkening
  • Image of this color lightening
  • Another vivid color that comes to mind (for contrast) as an image
  • Weird images or associations this color has that pop up into your mind
  • Make two similes using this color (as red as a blaring siren)
  • Reflect:

  • How do you feel about this color? Why? How do you see this color in your future?

Come up with sensory details around this color (taste, sound, touch, sight, smell)
Use these notes to write a poem of 20 lines or less. Let the color appear at least 5 times, in different forms (eg, green, money, cactus, etc.). Use one sentence of 5 words or less. Use at least 3 senses. Approach the poem as a layered experience rather than a straightforward story.