Yena Purmasir ’14 Grapples With Ethnic Identity Issues in Poem for Tumblr Contest

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

With millions of aspiring writers constantly uploading their content to the Internet at no cost, it is hard for any one writer to stand out and receive recognition. But Yena Purmasir ’14 is close to accomplishing such a feat, as one of eight finalists in the Where Are You Press contest held on Tumblr.

This poetry contest is the first ever held by Where Are You Press. Founded in April 2013 by young and trending poets based in Portland, Oregon, the poetry press is devoted to making poets and their work readily accessible on the Internet. “Poetry is not an elite thing,” says the press’s mission statement. “It should be raw. It should be engaging. It should be essential and available to everyone.”

In the first round of the contest, contestants submit a 20-30 page “chapbook,” or compilation, of their work. After extensive review, eight finalists are selected and one poem from each is posted on the Where Are You Press Tumblr site. The final winner is selected according to the accumulated number of “likes” and “reblogs” their poem receives. The winner will receive prize money and have their “chapbook” published. As of now, Purmasir’s poem, entitled “The Beauty Radius,” is in the lead with 1,070 total of combined Tumblr likes and reblogs.

For Purmasir, the contest was an opportunity to distribute her poetry and make her voice heard by a broader audience, without having to pass through the threshold of more conventional poetry contests that tend to favor older writers. This contest is unique, in that it is powered purely by online social media, allowing younger writers to publicly circulate their work for free and to be viewed for free.

Purmasir has been using Tumblr since her senior year of high school to distribute her poetry. Unlike most Tumblr users who seek anonymity and a private Internet space, Purmasir has always had a public presence on the site and uses her full name. For her, her Tumblr is a showcase of her skills for everyone to see. “I’ve had teachers follow me on Tumblr,’ said Purmasir, “I’ve had friends’ parents follow me on Tumblr, and I’ve had employers look at my Tumblr. So I use it as a place to say, ‘I’m good at this, look at me here.’”

Purmasir’s writing has come a long way since she first started writing at age eight. Her work has ranged from pieces experimenting with different voices to very personal verses that discuss intimate topics such as love, familial relationships, and self-image. Her most recent poetry has tackled the issues of identity and beauty faced by South Asian-Americans, and these topics make up most of the focus of her “chapbook,” entitled Until I Learnt What It Meant.

“The themes that I worked with were family and being South Asian in America, and feeling like an outsider but also very much belonging,” she said. “The poem that’s circulating the Internet right now, [“The Beauty Radius”], touches on a lot of themes that were super important to me. So not just talking about racism, or shadism, or this super abstract of saying ‘We are all oppressed,’ but how we deal with our bodies according to that, and also that beauty is so much more specific than being a certain type. So much goes into being beautiful, and it’s something that’s super personal and universal at the same time.”

The challenge Purmasir faces now is balancing her public image and private image. “It’s also really hard to find a way to be super honest,” she said. “What I struggle with as a writer, or even just as a blogger now is, where is my privacy? Can I write about certain things? Is everyone going to know what this piece is about?,’” she said.

For Purmasir, intensely personal poems are a way of initiating conversations on difficult topics. “I used to write because I couldn’t talk about things. And now I feel like because people are reading [my writing], they can be like, ‘I read that poem where you talked about suicide, it was a nice poem, it was very pretty,’ and I can be like, ‘Thank you, let’s talk about some of the stuff in there.’ And it opens up a wave of conversation to things that are sometimes way too heavy to just talk about in Sharples […]. It’s just a middle ground [that provides] a safe way to talk about things.”

Purmasir especially attributes her success in this contest to the strength of online social communities, especially this final round. “[The final round] is more about seeing who is more accessible on the Internet and who works better there,” said Purmasir. “Part of why I’m doing so well […] is because I promoted it to what you would call ‘the right people’[…] different Women of Color blogs, People of Color blogs, Solidarity blogs. I said to them ‘Hey, I’m a South Asian poet from New York City, if you could reblog this, that would be great.’”

After reaching out to different blogs, Purmasir received an enormous response. “I had messages from people who identify as South Asian, and people on campus general telling me, ‘Thank you for writing that poem, it was important for me to read that.’ I mean, those people would have never seen that poem if it weren’t for the Internet community.”

To Purmasir, the most rewarding part of participating in the contest is speaking about important issues of Asian identity and having her words resonate with kindred spirits. “As wonderful as it would be to win, I’m so happy there are people who have read the poem and whom it made a difference to. There are definitely times when I was younger where it would have been nice to hear that somebody else feels awkward and unsure in a body that looks like mine, when we don’t really see a lot of representation of non-white women in the media. […] So we are here, and we are real,” she said.

Finally, when asked what advice she had for aspiring writers, Purmasir had this to say: “Please write. If you want to be writer, all you have to do is write. Write all the time. And if you’re writing, you should share it with people. […] You can never do too much self-publicity. You can never write too much. You can never read too much. And don’t give up […] We are so young, and so much is still going to happen to us. Even if you never become famous, even if you never win any kind of literary award, I think the biggest award is someone quoting you. If you can get even a friend to quote something you wrote, you’ve made it.”

Photo by Elena Ruyter/The Daily Gazette

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