Thursday, December 30, 2004

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.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow. How in the WORLD do you know that all of the poets in thIs anthology are upper-middle class??! And as for funny, perhaps you did not read any of Aimee Nez...'s poems? What is your point exactly? Do you wish it wasn't printed? To me, as long as there is a forum for more exposure of Asian American poets, that's a good thing, isn't it? And if teachers are making their students write essays about it--then BLAMMO!--things have gotten better to even have an assignment like that in school in the first place! I was never exposed to an Asian AM writer till I was in college. More power to any teacher who introduces this book to his/her class.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks for the feedback. There are some great questions here, and I'm glad that you're defending the book. I'd expected people to have different views and to correct mine. I'll take the questions in order:

1. You're right -- the upper-middle class thing wasn't a very fair critique. None of the poetry itself was about class issues, and I made inferences from the authors' bios, but you know, I didn't go around asking the poets' income levels. And let's just say that all the poets are upper-middle class; that wouldn't necessarily say anything about their poetry.

2. I didn't talk about individual poets, as you may have noticed. If this blog goes as I'd like it to go, I'll eventually talk about almost every single one. Actually, I had different reactions to each poet's work, and actually, each particular poem. Right now, I'll just say that it's only "a bias" against humor -- there are poems I found funny.

3. NO, definitely not. I definitely think that it should have been printed -- and that it was long overdue. In fact, I think that there should be more of these anthologies. It's wonderful that there is a foum for Asian-American poetry.

I may talk more about my point later, but basically, I think that the anthology could be stronger. Yes, I made a dig at the poems being high schools teachers' poems (my point there was just all of thm were too similar), but like a good high school teacher, I want the anthology to be better. Of course, by "stronger" and "better," I at least partly mean conforming to my own views of poetry, which hopefully, will become clearer (and will change!) as the blog progresses.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Grace Wing-Yuan Toy said...


I'd like to suggest that maybe people who comment ought to be strongly recommended to sign in with their real names, and not just "Anonymous"? Sometimes, it's warranted, but come on people, let's be brave...


7:41 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Grace, thanks a lot! I've read a ton of blogs, but I'm new at blogging, so I'm still trying to learn the tricks of the trade. I may prevent people from commenting as "Anonymous" if comments start to devolve into name-calling, etc. I know that unfortunately happens pretty often. But, ever the optimist, I think I'll wait and see at this point.

- Roger

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