Friday, December 31, 2004


Thanks to all for the welcome into the blogging world. I look forward to attempting to make original, exciting, and intellectually provoactive blog entries in 2005. Have a Happy New Year!

PS: Please feel free to comment on all previous entries. There aren't that many entries yet, so I'll have a chance to read all comments. Thanks.

Good, Critical Readers of Asian American Poetry

I've been thinking more about Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, and I think that perhaps what the anthology most needed was more good, critical readership before its publication. I would venture to say that, in general, we have many good, critical readers of Asian American poetry but not enough of them.

By "good, critical readership," I do not mean merely providing a one-sentence blurb of one's opinion but honestly and clearly articulating the precise ways in which one believes that the anthology could have been improved. For example, I think that the editor would have benefited from my comments, even if she disagreed with all of them and thought I was a moron. (Don't worry folks, it happens all the time. :) ) The editor would have had the power to accept or reject my suggestions -- but she would also have had to process them in her thinking, which would have most likely been useful to her. And a "good, critical reader" might also mean a reader with a different mindset, a different voice, a different worldview. That's why I think open dialogue is so important.

I'm making this entry, partly because, in a way, I feel sorry for the editor of this anthology and all editors of Asian-American anthologies. They are heading out into strange terrain with relatively few voices to guide them, though one can argue that it is slightly easier for today's editors than predecessors who came out with the first anthologies.

I'm going a little off-topic here: Please, please, someone out there correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that there has NEVER been a published BOOK of criticism on Asian-American poetry. (I'm not sure, but I think that Juliana Chang is currently writing one?) When I was writing my senior undergrad thesis, I looked and looked and looked and came up empty. I just found it appalling that so little attention has been devoted to analysis of Asian-American poetry. Good criticism can be foolish, stubborn, and annoying, but at least it suggests an attentive reading of the poetry. At least it suggests that people care.

So in response to a comment made earlier, I think that it is wonderful for Asian-American poets to gain greater exposure. But it is not sufficient. Asian-American poets (and editors of anthologies of Asian-American poetry) also deserve to be taken seriously and read passionately. I guess that would be my main point, if I had to give one.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

No Pacifiers, Please

I just came across a Xanga blogring for poets 21 and under. (For those not in the know, Xanga is typically the blog of choice for Asian American teenagers.) The description for the blogring reads: "I find that we younger poets are not recognized as much in society. This blog is just for us. Anyone ages twenty-one and under who loves to write poetry, I encourage you to join."

And ladies and gentlemen, if you look below, I committed the same error of not recognizing young Asian-American poets by assuming that Asian American poets in K-12 would not submit to the Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation anthology. It was a move on my part that essentially stuck a pacifier in their mouths and whispered, no, goochie goochie goo, you aren't real poets yet, my darlings. You are merely children who should be in awe of "adult," i.e., real, poetry. It was thus a bad move on my part, IMHO.

I remember what it was like to write poetry as a teenager and not have it taken seriously. I remember the expectation that I write safe poems about trees and flowers -- because, you know, any poems that deviate too much from the norm necessitate a trip to the guidance counselor. It can be tough for artists under 21, especially artists under 18, to freely exercise their right to artisitic speech. And this dilemma is especially pertinent to Asian American poets given that, demographically, such poets are much younger on average. Perhaps a solution is to put together an anthology composed of Asian-American poetry for poets under 21, though that would have its own set of issues, such as determining a cutoff age (18 or 21, for example), whether it segregates such poets even more, and whether to exclude, for example, sexually explicit poems out of fear that parents might be offended and possibly sue the publisher.

Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation - A Critique

(EDIT: I strongly recommend reading the previous post before this one for this post to make more sense. Thanks!)

Whew, that last post was difficult to write, but it made me feel a little better. :) Ok, on with my comments on Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation.

Note: For the sake of readability, I am condensing my arguments into 7 main points.

1. I find the anthology exclusionist in at least several unacknowledged ways. First, it seems to exclude everyone under 25 and all current undergrads and MFA students. Second, it is biased in favor of well-educated, upper or upper-middle class poets. Third, it leaves out poems that are overtly surrealist. Fourth, aside from a few exceptions, there is a bias against funny or lighter poems. Fifth, there is an obvious bias against "political" poems -- no poems about racism or sexism.

2. Concerning the exclusion of "political" poems, I realize that the definition is malleable, and I'm interested in discussing what is a "political" poem in another post. What I mean here by the lack of "political" poems is that the anthology almost entirely excludes poems that actively wrestle with racism or centralize race/ethnicity in a charged, angry, and/or witty way. I don't necessarily have a great affinity for these "political" poems, but I think that there are good ones and bad ones, and I have a difficult time believing that all the "political" poems from which the editor had to choose were not worthy of inclusion.

3. On a related note, these "political" poems from the generation of Asian-American poets before "the next generation" helped anchor down at least part of what constitutes Asian-American identity. The anthology's introduction recites the history of Asian-American poetry, but it is ahistorical in the sense that it fails to draw, or at least attempt to draw, any connection between such "political" poetry of the past and the poetry of poets from a newer generation. (Marilyn Chin implies this point in her Foreword, but she does not explicitly make it.)

4. One of my core critiques relates to the purpose of this blog. This anthology does NOT explain its reason for being. Why have a volume of Asian-American poetry from the next generation at all? The anthology is critically and intellectually unengaged with the question of its very existence.

5. Related to the previous point, I think that the failure to address this issue in the introduction made the selection of poems too homogeneous. What do I mean by "homogeneous"? In general, the poems all sound too much alike, which diminishes the entire volume. Too many of the poems contain "water," "light," and "death"-related words. Almost all the stanzas in all the poems are in subject-object, sentence form. There is often strict use of stanza form. As noted before, almost none of the poems try to be funny or witty, even in an ironic way. Irony is not valued in this volume. Almost all the poems are very straight-laced -- like the sort of poetry that a high school teacher would assign to a student for her/him to find the "meaning" of it in a 5 to 7 page essay. I enjoyed individual poems, but I would've preferred more variety.

6. Minor point: The editor states that the "editorial aim" is to gather together the "best" work of new Asian-American poets. It is a move to conceal the power of the editor, but I'm not buying it. If the editor wants to make the claim that there is a "best" in Asian-American poetry, then she should at least define what "best" means to her. "Best" means different things to different people. This task might also necessitate what would make a poem "not the best," i.e., not worthy of inclusion in this anthology. The editor does not do this.

7. I got a bit snarky in my e-mails about this anthology. Here is a taste of my uncensored, Mr. Hyde critic at work: "Whew, I'm glad that Asian-Amerians don't face racism or sexism anymore. Or at least, yay, they don't have to bother "us" by writing about it! Perhaps the editor's failure to include any of these poems is a reflection of class bias and the editor's not having to deal with these issues, or less likely, perhaps she couldn't find any Asian-American poets writing about racism or sexism."

Well, I hope I haven't offended (too much). But, dear reader, I imagine that you haven't come here to be bored. My aim is not to bore. So I hope I'm entertaining you in some way...(Also, for the record, I did not submit to this volume. It would've been an interesting question whether there would have been a conflict of interest, but fortunately, the question does not arise here.)

My Inspiration: Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation

I don't like to argue. It's somewhat strange that I am in law school, because I really am not a fan of contention. Or am I? I like to think of myself as a nice person, but I also like to think of myself as intellectually honest. Sometimes, the two conflict with each other. I don't read poems to diss them, but at the same time, I don't like to smile and wave at emperors with no clothes. As I've said before, I may be wrong, very wrong, in what I say, but I also think that it's better to get things wrong than to not try at all. I am making these qualifications to ease my way into my critique of the book that is one of the inspirations behind this blog.

The book is Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation (2004), edited by Victoria Chang, foreword by Marilyn Chin. I purchased it on Amazon, and everyday, I eagerly waited for its arrival. I like Victoria Chang's poetry, and I consider Marilyn Chin's poetry to be some of the most innovative work in American poetry today. Moreover, the description of the book on Amazon made it sound marvelous. Respected poets praised the book, and no one to the best of my knowledge (not even now) has said anything bad about it. Plus, it's not everyday that an anthology of Asian-American poetry comes out.

But after my first reading, I absolutely loathed it. More specifically, I hated the editing, which I felt diminished the poetry. I hated the introduction. I disliked the foreword. In general, I hated the anthology. I wrote a couple very long e-mails (about 15 paragraphs total) to friends totally slamming the volume in almost every respect. I hadn't felt such hatred for any book since reading Lord of the Flies in 10th grade. My hatred reached comic heights -- you know, there are more important things in life than getting all worked up over a volume of poetry. (I'll talk about exactly why I hated the anthology in the following post.)

Now I think I know why this volume stirred such deep-seated, genuine emotions. Like most anthologies, this one was an exercise in power through the poems included and excluded, but unlike most anthologies, I felt it as an exercise in power over me. The poets included in, and excluded from, this volume are all under 40, and all of them have Asian-American blood. Like me!, my subconscious exclaimed. Through the poetry, I felt an oddly intimate connection with the poets. I knew this material. Unlike many other poems, often these are ones that I could picture myself writing. I could also often picture myself as the characters in the poems.

In a sense, my comments should be taken as respect for the anthology, because I think that it is an essential work -- one that generations will read and discuss in the future. I also enjoyed quite a few poems on their own. But I hope that they won't read this volume in isolation, without a critical lens, because it does NOT completely represent what I want Asian-American poetry to become. Though the editor does not acknowledge it, the volume does represent what she wants Asian-American poetry to be. I think it's ok and probably inevitable that anthologies represent the wills of their editors, but let's not pretend that it is anything else. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Basically, what I am saying is that there is a profound power struggle over the future of Asian-American poetry here. Power struggles don't have to be divisive, though -- they can be fun and informative, or at least I'm hoping they can be. On to the next post...

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Tsunami

Well, I've promised irreverence and outlandishness, and this post may or may not deliver. I've noticed that relatively few bloggers have blogged in-depth about the tsunami that, at last count, has taken more than 76,000 lives, and the ones who have blogged about it have been reverent to the point of cliche. And I may be no exception here, since in my e-mails, I have been reverent way past the point of cliche, past geunine emotion, past intimacy, about the event.

But more related to the blog, we all know that sooner or later, poets will write about the tsunami. Temporarily putting aside questions of whether poets have a responsibility to write about it and whether the subject is too touchy to deal with at all, I want to point out that it will most likely NOT be any poet from the most profoundly affected regions -- Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, etc. -- or with relatives from these regions who will eventually give voice to the tragedy. Folks, I don't know about you, and maybe it's my ignorance talking here, but no names of Indonesian-American, Sri Lanka-American, Thai-American, etc. poets come to mind at the moment. The American voices of this tsunami, even the Asian-American vocies, will probably come from outside these regions, not within. And I wonder whether that will make the poetry less powerful.

But I'm making this entry glummer and more cliched again, so I'll stop...I was watching the CBS news this morning, and they had three lead stories: The SE Asia tsunami, the war in Iraq, and rain in southern California. I'm in southern CA for winter break, and I want to calm everyone down and tell you that we are fine, even if our beautiful palm trees have a couple muddied fronds. My weapon of choice has been the umbrella...Actually, the CBS segment on the tsunami annoyed me in another respect: half of it featured the corpses of faceless Sri Lankas/Indonesians, while the other half featured happy (white) Europeans/Americans who explained how lucky they were to survive the tsunami. From another angle, I suppose you can't blame CBS, since their viewership is mainly composed of non-Asian-Americans, and they have to cater to their demographics at least to a certain extent. I guess you can also argue that watching people of one's race/ethnicity in distress will make one care more, so CBS is actually doing the victims of the tsunami a favor by focusing on white Europeans/Americans by increasing donations for them.

At any rate, it is no accident that there are so few American poets from these regions, and that news coverage manages to "other" those in these regions, making it even harder to feel for the lives lost. Immigration policies have kept out Asians from poorer nations, literally making entire ethnicties poetless and voiceless in American poetry. (I'm sure that there are American poets of these ethnicities out there, but I guess my point is that, statistically, there are much fewer.) So I guess the outlandishness doesn't come from the tone of this post but elsewhere.

A Little More About Me and Asian-American Poetry

Some people like to collect open-toed sandals. Others like to throw boomerangs at wasps' nests. I happen to like to read Asian-American poetry (using the most expansive definition possible here.) I've read A LOT of it, more than anyone I know personally. In fact, I doubt that there are that many people in the world out there who have read more than I have, but if you think that you have, by all means, let's talk! I'm starved for conversation about Asian-American poetry. I started a whole blog about it, for goodness sake! (And as we all know, starting a blog is clearly a cry for help.) Like I keep trying to convince my bedroom mirror, I have a life, you know.

One reason that I've read so much Asian-American poetry is that I wrote my senior undergrad thesis on the politics of contemporary Chinese-American poetry. (More about this on another day.) Also, I co-taught a pass/fail class on Asian-American poetry, probably the first ever at my undergrad institution (Duke University). I read every single book of Asian-American poetry at my undergrad, and then, needing more succor, traitorously snuck down Tobacco Road to our dreaded rival (UNC) to read all of their books of such poetry as well.

In short, Asian-American poetry is an obsession of mine. I don't smoke or drink, so I guess I'm compensating here. I'm in law school now, which I may or may not talk about since it seems unrelated to the focus of the blog at the moment, but pursuing an MFA or PhD in creative writing is not out of my radar as far as future goals go. But I'm pretty clueless about my future these days. Just enjoying life as it is.

What Is Asian-American Poetry?

What is Asian-American poetry? Is it an acorn, a unicorn, a kumquat, an ostrich, an orangutan, a pizza roll, etc.? Perhaps...I titled this blog "Asian-American Poetry," but I really have no idea what that means, or rather, I have many different ideas that toss around in my head whenever I take a shower, do my laundry, or buy croissants at the local dougnut shop.

I think that the conventional definition of Asian-American poetry is "poetry written by Asian-American poets." IMHO, this definition, if we are to accept it, solves very little. For who are we including here in the category of "Asian-American" -- Asian-Americans born in the US? American citizens of Asian descent? Asian people who live in America? HAPAs? Asian-American quadroons and octoroons? Asian-American citizen-dissidents in Asia? Asian-American citizen-dissidents across the world? Asian-Americans adopted by non-Asian-American couples? the adoptive parents of an Asian-American child? people with Asian-American names? self-hating Asian-Americans?

The list could go on, at least for a little while longer. But basically, the term "Asian-American," as usually applied, is a racial/ethnic category that excludes people who lack Asian blood. Or is it? It could also be a political category with some basis in real life. I've read my fair share of Vincent Chin poems and narratives to know that he was not murdered for being Latino.

I propose a competing definition, though I'm not sure whether it is better or worse: Asian-American poetry is "poetry about Asian-Americans." This definition, if we are to accept it, has its own issues. For one thing, it excludes a lot of poetry. Asian-American poets would not necessarily be writing Asian-American poetry. The poems would have to be "about Asian-Americans."

A related issue is that the term "about Asian-Americans" has its own ambiguities. Here we would be forced to distinguish poems being about Asian-Americans from poems NOT being about Asian-Americans. Are immigration, assimilation, racism, food, generation gaps, etc. the only Asian-American issues? Are we even talking about Asian-American issues at all, or are we talking about Asian-Americans narrators and characters in the poetry? What is an Asian-American "issue"? The question of who is an Asian-American would re-emerge in the form of questioning the identities of the narrators and characters of the poetry.

Plus, we haven't even reached the question of ethnicities within the category of "Asian-American." Is there even a category of "Asian-American" poetry as opposed to there merely being discrete categories of Asian ethnic poetry -- Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Japanese, etc.? Actually, I know of very few poems about more than one Asian ethnicity at once, which makes me wonder whether the acceptance of the category of "Asian-American" poetry might just be a political move for inclusiveness and power and for greater legitimacy in the Census-ish categories formed by non-Asian-Americans.

I do not think that there are easy answers, and I'm sure that there are more defintions out there. But I think these questions are important ones that are not often asked enough, especially in editors' introductions of Asian-American poetry anthologies, where one would imagine that they would receive more attention.

First Post

Hello! Welcome to my humble blog. My none-too-lofty mission is to provide my personal take on the complex world of Asian-American poetry. As part of this mission, I will be providing my opinions, both positive and negative, of various poems and books of poetry as well as my views of "Asian-American poetry" itself.

A primary purpose of this blog is to make people more excited about Asian-American poetry, and hopefully, to generate a vibrant discussion of such poetry. I am not afraid to change my views if I feel the change will be worth it. I am also not afraid to stand up for my "poetic" beliefs.

As a disclaimer, I should note that my views are quite possibly wrong, very wrong. They reflect my own warped biases and should be taken in the same vein as you would take a stranger who offers you unwrapped candy. My comments shall attempt to be funny, irreverent, and untamed, meant to entertain and inform at the same time. Life is too short to make boring blog entries and force others to be bored with you. Maybe my blog will be boring. But hopefully not. I will do my best to edify and amuse.