Monday, January 31, 2005

Individualism and Society in Poetry

There is the myth that poets, including Asian-American poets, are generally liberal and not conservative, broadly using the terms "liberal" as in left-wing, blue-state people and "conservative" as in right-wing, red-state people. But I'm not so sure.

GK's fascinating point about "Asian-Americanness" not being salient in the reading of poetry, and Alberto's and Barbara's most welcome comments supporting this view, are conservative in the classical conservative, libertarian, Goldwater sense. It is a traditionalist, individualist, Republican position, which is a powerfully compelling one that has a great hold on the American imagination and on poets/poetry as well.

I'm wrestling with this position without either accepting or rejecting it. I have to agree with Barbara and Alberto that there is something appealing about the idea that the reader of poetry exists independently from his/her race, ethnicity, gender, etc. and that the poet him or herself does as well. But I have been presenting the counter-argument that race and ethnicity do affect the reading and writing of poems, books of poetry, and poetry reviews. With "Asian-American," "Filipino-Amreican," "Chinese-American" poetry anthologies and the like, I think that my counter-argument is often an unstated assumption.

I think that the issue here is that part of us still clings to the idea of the individual poet, and her or his poetry, as independent from groups in society. Grouping a poet into a category or school has always been a problematic proposition, because presenting the interconnectedness of individual poets and their poetry to one another poses a challenge to the idea of originality stemming from individual artistic talent and ambition.

I think that, at its core, the individualist skepticism towards racial categorization of poetry into Asian-American anthologies, for example, is an Antonin Scalia-Clarence Thomas-like skepticism that has immense, though often unacknowledged, pull among poets and in poetry circles for this very reason. The dual ideas of the individual as the originator of a poem and the individual-as-a-member-of-society as the originator of a poem are in constant tension.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Content vs. Paradigm

Well, I've promised humor, strangeness, and provocative thinking, and I have to keep on reminding myself to try to entertain. So here goes: Most poets are not fools. Most Asian-American poets are not fools. Because most Asian-American poets are not fools, I posit that they know that they are Asian-American. If you know of anyone who is Asian-American but does not realize that she or he is Asian-American, do your friend a favor and buy him or her a mirror. I hear mirrors can work wonders.

Poets Barbara Jane Reyes and Eileen Tabios have made me think much more about content vs. paradigm in poetry reviews as well as readings of poems. Here I am defining "content" as the poetry review or poetry itself and "paradigm" as a frame of reference, such as an "Asian-American" reading of a poem or poetry review.

My claim is that it is impossible to separate content and paradigm in the reading of poetry reviews and poetry, so I'm saying that it is impossible for anyone to read a poem completely independent of their race. Those who disagree should use a mirror -- see above. But if you think all this race-talk is a major "no-no," don't feel bad: it's not all about race. I would also argue that it is impossible to read poems or poetry reviews independent of gender, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, age, education level, sexuality, geographic region of the US, etc. Paradigms are ubiquitous.

The reviewer of poetry or the reader of a poem brings the composite of her or his experiences to the table when reading a poem. This composite is most often subconscious. Now, for example, a particular poem on an internment camp may arouse feelings of conscious contemplation for a Japanese-American reader of poetry over what it is like to be a Japanese-American. But "Japanese-Americanness" is always a quality of the reader that enables or hinders the reading of a particular poem, book of poetry, or poetry review. The same holds for writing -- all sorts of paradigms shape the content of poems, if only subconsciously though sometimes consciously as well.

In case you haven't noticed, I'm marking my territory here like a grizzly bear in a toilet paper commercial. I'm saying that questions of Asian-American poetry are inescapable in both the reading and writing of individual poems, books of poetry, and poetry reviews. This idea will strike many of us, myself include, as scary, because part of us would like to believe that the quality of poetry has a permanence and universality that exists independently of racial, gender, etc. differences among readers and critics. But, as I have noted before, we all belong to multiple groups and schools of thought, and society forms the individual poet whose poetry is not independent of time and space. We bring our whole selves to the poetry, and race is a part of the self.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Requiring a Coast

In the poem, "Miss Chang is Missing," poet Adrienne Su writes, "We know it's to San Francisco/ or New York -- she couldn't have stopped/ anywhere in between, and she requires/ a coast." The in-joke here is the fact that Asian Americans (and Asian American poets) typically live on the coasts, and more specifically, in or around major urban areas.

I think that is precisely why there is no Wordsworthian equivalent in Asian-American poetry. I don't know of any Asian-American "nature" poets. Most Asian-American poets don't live in places with any wildflowers or "real" trees and forests. Most Asian-American poets live in highly urbanized settings with buildings and sidewalks and pollution and rap music and latte, in (dare I say) the bluest settings in the blue states.

This demographic tends to homogenize the poetry geographically, so one might ask when we say Asian-American poetry, are we really talking about Asian-New Yorker or Asian-San Franciscan poetry? We must remember that poets live in all 50 states, but relatively few Asian-American poets live outside CA and NY. If one believes that "geography is destiny" in poetry, then one should consider the possibility that Asian-American poets may dominate the urban terrain while not exploring the non-coastal wilderness.

(Edit: And of course, we must not overlook Asian-Hawaiian poets, such as Garrett Hongo, Cathy Song, Alan Chong Lau, Debra Kang Dean, and the Hawaii Slam poets.)

Friday, January 28, 2005

Asian American Poets of Mixed Race - Part II

I'm making a second entry here on Asian American poets of mixed race, because I think that it's an important subject. Demographically, there have been ever-increasing rates of interracial marriage between Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans, which means more hapas and more hapa poets. So it's probably no surprise that over a quarter of the poets in the Next Generation anthology are of mixed race.

Poet Neil Aitken correctly observes in comments that any editor or reader may not be able to identify him as of Asian descent simply by virtue of his non-Asian sounding name. I'll also note here poet Lee Herrick who is of Korean descent but was adopted by a non-Asian American family. That might lead a fan of Asian-American poetry to dismiss or overlook their poetry, though conversely, itmay also lead a reader who is not into Asian or Asian-American poetry to view their poetry more open-mindedly without forming any racial "othering" preconceptions. Again, there are perils and privileges that come both with having an Asian- sounding name and with not having an Asian-sounding name.

(Of course, there is also an implicit critique of the obsession of the poet -- or her or his name, in this case -- over the poetry itself at play here. And here I'm echoing Alberto's remarks. But I should also reiterate that all of us do it almost all the time. We say we like or dislike Shakespeare, Coleridge, Frost, Eliot, Ashbery, etc., though, in reality, we're most likely not talking about the person of the poet here, the quality of their poetry varies from poem to poem, and few who make such a generalization have actually read the entire oeuvre of the poet. Furthermore, the very fact that I have listed these five poets -- simply by last name, I might add -- and that readers of this blog will most likely they are poets is itself a commentary on how the poet so often trumps the poem. So the listing of the poets should be taken ironically, as a critique of the canon of poetry that is not a canon of poetry but a canon of poets' names.)

Anyhow, one more issue, which is another taboo: I wonder if there is a difference between poetry written by Asian-American poets with an Asian-American father and a non-Asian-American mother as opposed to an Asian-American mother and a non-Asian-American father? One of the major debates in Asian-American studies -- cultural feminism versus pan-Asian ethnocentrism -- always circles around this taboo with the latter often implying that Asian-American women marrying non-Asian-American men, which statistically happens more often than vice versa, is a form of racial imperalism, and the former suggesting that this argument denigrates women's power to choose their own partners. (I should also note here that radical Asian-American feminists tend to side with the latter, while some Asian-American men adopt the cultural feminist position.) Another potential topic for any undergrads or masters degree students out there.

I think it's all worthy of further contemplation, especially since, as The Next Generation anthology demonstrates, hapa poets are going to be a major force in shaping "Asian-American poetry" if they haven't already.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Asian American Poets of Mixed Race - Hapas

In the introduction to Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation, editor Victoria Chang points out that many poets in the anthology are of mixed race: Brenda Shaughnessy, Pimone Triplett, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Brian Komei Dempster, Paisley Rekdal, Monica Rekdal, Monica Ferrell, and C. Dale Young. From the older generation, one might add Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, John Yau, and others that escape my mind at the moment.

Chang poses the question: "What percentage of Asian ethnicity qualifies a poet as Asian-American?" (This is a challenging and interesting question.) And she answers it by asserting, "Self-identification has become the rule, rather than any arbitrary designation of a minimum percentage."

I think it is an excellent question, even if I'm skeptical of the answer. First, we must give props to Chang for raising the question in the first place: I've never come across any piece on Asian-American poetry that deals with the issue of mixed race Asian-American poets. For some reason, it has always been sort of a taboo for anyone to point out that Asian-American poets of mixed race are of mixed race.

Second, Chang's answer is problematic, because, I believe, self-identification has always been the rule in counting a poet as Asian-American. The answer implies that there has been some "arbitrary designation of a minimum percentage" by people in general (and perhaps by editors of Asian-American poetry anthologies) in the past, which is not the case, to the best of my knowledge. I've never read any scholarly works showing that the leaders of the Asian-American civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s argued that Asian-Americans of mixed race aren't Asian-American and blatantly tried to exclude Asian-Americans of mixed race who wanted to self-identify as Asian-American. So if a claim that there has been an evolution towards self-designation is to be made, there needs to be some showing that self-designation was not acceptable in the past.

Of course, the larger issue is whether we want self-identification to be the rule. It is not that "self-identification has become the rule," but whether we want it to be the rule. Here I definitely agree with Chang that self-designation should be the rule. But why? Why do we believe so? We could theoretically have come up with a rule that excludes Asian-American poets of mixed race. We could call them white, if they are part-white. Plus, there are some poets of Asian-American mixed race, like Ai, who do not choose to self-identify as Asian-American. But I think that exclusion is the wrong way to go for many reasons, which may overlap:

(1) I believe in maximizing inclusivity in the classification of "Asian-American poetry," (2) I view exclusion on the basis of race with some skepticism even if it may be necessary in some contexts, (3) excluding Asian-American poets of mixed race would foreclose some wonderful possibilities for "Asian-American poetry," (4) it would be unduly harsh, arbitrary, and unfriendly to exclude Asian-American poets of mixed race, (5) inclusion of Asian-American poets of mixed race would help enrich the defining and negotiating of "Asian-American poetry."

Still, whether self-identification should be the rule is open to debate -- if self-identification is the rule, would there be any reason to stop the Yasusada hoax, for example? In other words, would there be any reason to exclude a non-Asian-American poet from "falsely" adopting an Asian-American pseudonym and/or persona and submitting to, say, the Asian Pacific American Journal for publication under that name? As readers of this blog know, methinks that is a difficult question.

I wonder if Asian American poets of mixed race encounter separate perils and privileges and how that translates into the poetry. There has been more work done on light-skinned blacks vs. dark-skinned blacks and the perils and privileges of biracalism in the African-American context, though probably not enough work there as well. But I expect the narratives to be different for Asian-Americans, if only because Asian-Americans have had a different history from African-Americans and other racial and ethnic groups. The subject of Asian American poets of mixed race seems like it would make for an interesting masters thesis.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

On This Blog

From time to time, I've tried to explore the very idea of this blog, but it's been a little while since I've done it. In case you haven't noticed, I've tried to make this blog unlike many of the blogs out there in the sense that it is all about one particular issue -- Asian-American poetry. The title of the blog says "Asian-American Poetry," and I'm pretty satisfied that what you're reading here is as advertised (at least most of the time). :)

It's a bit strange that this blog is single-issue, considering that I do have a preference for more personal blogs. I like blogs that talk about people's lives and work more as online diaries than intellectual discussions on particular issue(s) as is often the case with blogs about politics. I'm glad they're out there, but I can't really picture myself blogging about the details of my own life at this point in time. People would probably get bored real fast, or rather, my audience would most likely be different in the sense that this blog would be frequented by people who know me personally. Strangers often don't like hearing about strangers' pet goldfish.

Instead, this blog satisfies a different desire/need of mine, which is to focus on Asian-American poetry and everything about it. I don't really know anyone who is really interested in "Asian-American poetry," or at least I didn't till I started this blog. So I am content that this blog is out there for anyone interested in reading about this field.

(Edit: Well, way back when, Grace warned me at the beginning to not let people comment anonymously, and my response was that I would if comments devolved into name-calling, etc. It turned out to be sexually explicit material, so man, was I way off. :) Any blog with the name "Asian" in it, however, probably has to face it sooner or later. Anyhow, I had to remove comments from this post, and I'm switching to "registered" users in comments. Thanks.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Class and Asian-American Poetry

I once had a stimulating discussion with someone who claimed only rich, or at least upper-middle class, people write and read poetry, so poetry is only for the rich or upper-middle class. Now I don't think that's true, but admittedly, neither of us had the statistics to back up our claims but could only rely on anecdotes.

Related to Asian-American poetry, I do wonder about the socioeconomic-educational background of Asian-American poets. The recent Next Generation anthology provides some information on this matter with its relatively extensive biographies on the poets -- all the poets are at least college graduates, and it's very possible that all the poets have at least some graduate degree with the majority having MFAs. That doesn't exactly lead to anything conclusive about their socioeconomic status, though socioeconomic status is highly correlated with education.

Demographically, Asian-Americans are the "wealthiest" race in terms of family income. But the category of "Asian-American" conceals variations between ethnicities as well as among a particular ethnicity ("among" as in the case of recent Chinese immigrants who labor in factories versus Chinese immigrants who have come to the US to get their PhDs.) There are Asian-Americans living in poverty out there.

I think that it could become problematic for all Asian-American poets to be college graduates and have MFAs, if one wants poetry to truly be representative. You know, we talk all the time about having the proper race, gender, sexuality balance, but I find it fascinating that "socioeconomic class" tends to be a taboo. No "Asian-American" poems about living in poverty or growing up poor come to mind.

I feel that, as readers, we should remain critically aware of our biases, and I'm aware that I may be biased against poems whose experiences that are more difficult for me to comprehend -- growing up in poverty one of a whole laundry list of experiences that fall under this category. But I'm not satisfied to merely read poems that seem to more directly relate to my own socioeconomic class or ethnicity, for example. I'm also hoping for a more diverse poetry canon that expresses a broader range of human experiences.

[Note the strong assumption that I've made here: I've assumed that a poet's socioeconomic class directly influences his or her poetry. This discussion of class is yet another critique against the idea of having a single "poetry" as capturing "the" universal.]

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Arab-American Question

When "we" say Asian-American poets, "we" are clearly NOT referring to Arab-American poets. By "we," I am referring to myself, anyone who has ever edited an Asian-American poetry anthology, and anyone who has ever talked about Asian-American poetry (to the best of my knowledge). No one ever says flat-out that Arab-Americans are NOT Asian-Americans, but the exclusion of the former from the discussion implictly makes this claim.

But, of course, "we" may very well be wrong. Why are Arab-American poets NOT Asian-American poets? Why are Jewish-American poets NOT Asian-American poets?

Maybe it has something to do with race. But South Asian American poets and Asian Pacific American poets clearly differ in skin color, and yet "we" typically view both as Asian American poets.

Maybe it has something to do with world geography. The Middle East is much closer to Europe than say, India or China. If it is geography, one might ask where to draw the line between Asia and not-Asia to determine the line between Asian America and not-Asian America as well as Asian American poetry and not-Asian American poetry.

Should poets of Middle East descent be considered as Asian-American poets, say, when an editor puts together an anthology on Asian American poetry, or when a magazine decides to do a special issue on "Asian-American poetry"? Maybe there aren't a lot of Arab-American poets being published, but there certainly are a lot of Asian-American poets? But do Asian-American poetry anthologies amount to a sort of affirmative action for Asian-American poets, or is there something else at stake? Difficult questions.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Best American Poetry 2004 and Asian American Poets

On Dec. 12, 2004, the following letter to the editor was printed in the NY Times:

"To the Editor: As a Colombian-born, English-language poet, I got understandably excited when I noticed that the Nov. 21 Book Review was highlighting poetry.

Unfortunately, however, when I saw who was under discussion, it was the same narrow ''guild'' that David Orr correctly describes in his review of ''The Best American Poetry 2004.'' The usual poetic suspects are overwhelmingly European-American, European or African-American. This lack of diversity undermines what I think is one of the finest virtues of contemporary poetry in the United States: its great variety of different voices. Where were the Asian-American poets, the Arab-Americans, the American Indians, the Latinos?

In the words of that lexical magician John Ashbery, ''Democracy is after all what our land is all about, or was until fairly recently.'' - Maurice Kilwein Guevara Milwaukee

There are many points that one may address here, but I would like to focus on Guevara's suggestion that there were no Asian-American poets in Best American Poetry 2004. Actually, if one goes by the conventional definition of defining "Asian-American poet" by the race of the poet, I think that there were three: Linh Dinh, Brian Kim Stefans, and Arthur Sze. Also, I do believe that Hejinian made a conscious, or at least subconscious, effort to be ethnic and racially inclusive. (Admittedly, there don't appear to be any Arab-American or American Indian poets, but this observation applies to almost every single BAP anthology.)

But if one considers whether there is "Asian-American poetry" in Best American Poetry 2004, defining Asian-American poetry as "poetry about Asian-Americans," then Guevara's critique may have some merit. Of course, as I discussed earlier, the very definition of "poetry about Asian Americans" has many dimensions, but I'll just say here that if you cover the name of the poet, you would have no idea that an Asian-American poet authored these three respective poems. And that may not be a problem -- I think that it is a mistake to force Asian-American poets into "Asian" or "Asian-American" themes, and the inclusion of such works of Asian-American poetry in the anthology may be an implict critique of the expectation that Asian-American poets limit their work to such themes.

Guevara seems to be identifying "best" not merely by the "racial/ethnic representativeness of the poet" but by the "racial/ethnic representativeness of the poetry" itself. I actually think that it is an open question whether either representativeness should factor into the composition of such anthologies. At least subconsciously, I think that both types of racial/ethnic representativeness always plays a role in the editor's thought processes nowadays, as does gender. It is part of the work of feminists, multiculturalists, etc. who have slowly risen to positions of power in academic institutions and have influenced not merely the entire canon but the entire philosophical development of the poetry field. Even someone, like a Harold Bloom, who does not buy racial/ethnic representativeness as a criterion for putting together an anthology must confront and reject this position to maintain his own position as an intellectual. In short, relatively speaking, I don't perceive lack of diversity -- in terms of race/ethnicity of the poet -- as a fair critique of this volume.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

On William Hung

As we all know, every sophisticated poet and poetry lover is a fan of American Idol. One recent scandal in the Asian-American community (even bigger than the departure of Lisa Ling from The View) was the rise of contestant William Hung.

Any attempt at fully describing Hung feels like a failure, but basically, trying to be objective, Hung was a poor singer who sang Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" so enthusiastically that he endeared himself to much of the viewing audience but infuriated some Asian-Americans for fulfilling almost every negative stereotype of Asian Pacific American men in the book --think "an Asian-American Steve Erkel," and you've got the picture. You can google William Hung if you'd like more information.

I think much of how people perceive William Hung depends on their views on why he so quickly developed a fan base. Was it because he was charming and energetic? Or was it because he fufilled a negative, "me so solly" stereotype that made it easy and acceptable for people to mock and/or give mock affection to him? What role did his humility and innocence play in his popularity, and was it linked to race?

I'd be interested in reading poems on William Hung -- pro, con, or neutral -- or more essentially, poems about any real-life Asian-Americans. I think that the "biographical" poem about real-life Asian-Americans is a rarity in Asian-American poetry. There really haven't been a lot of famous, or infamous, Asian-American people that have entered the poetic or historic imagination.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Kubla Khan and Orientalism

Usually, I like to say things that at least seem original to me, so it was kind of a bummer to find out that my comments on Kubla Khan being orientalist had already been "pre-empted," so to speak, by other, zestier "original" thinkers who have expounded upon romantic orientalism. Oh well.

I don't view Pound, Coleridge, et al.'s poetic orientalism, a poetic imagining of the East, as necessarily bad in and of itself. Ai is the first poet that comes to my mind in terms of imagining an "other," but I think that the imagining of "the other" is common if not ubiquitous in writing a poem with characters other than the author, though one can argue that "the author," even if a poem is written in the third-person and/or is totally fragmented, is an "other" in the sense of the poet as a writer-of-the-particular-poem being distinct from the poet as a person. And after all, anyone can point out that Asian-American poets often imagine "whites" and "the West" in their poetry.

Incidentally, you'll notice that I used the term "the East" to describe Asia. My usage reflects my "western" bias. It is not merely that the globe is circular, meaning that "East" may be "West" and "West" may be "East" depending on one's vantage point. But it is that if one looks at this issue from a majoritarian Asian-American perspective, the vast majority of Asian-Americans should think of Asia as "the West," because much of Asia is much closer geographically to America from the West than from the East. Definitely California and Hawaii, where demographically have some of the highest concentrations of Asian-Americans. Think about it. I know that if I'm flying from California to Malaysia or Hong Kong, for example, I wouldn't try to circumnavigate the globe to get there.

But I drifted with that long aside...I perceive the problem with orientalism, echoing one of the themes of this blog, as one of power. If the "orientialist" poems of Coleridge, Pound, etc., to the exclusion of , Asian-American poets' contemporary portrayals of Asia, then the student of poetry's perspective on Asia is skewed by views of Asia, and Asians and perhaps Asian-Americans, as simply mysterious, exotic, and unworthy of respect and humanity. I often feel that the power of stereotype doesn't necessarily lie in the stereotype itself but in the lack of other sources of imagination/knowledge to complexify a dehumanizing simplicity.

But I should also note that, in certain contexts, "exoticism" in poetry may be fun, interesting, and perhaps inevitable -- isn't part of what can make a poem "fun" the fact that it allows one to enter a different world? -- but when used to justify exclusion of other types of poetry, e.g. poems that deal with racism and sexism, it becomes far more problematic.

(Historical note: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 represented the first-ever act of Congress to exclude a particular immigrant group. The exclusion of Chinese, and then subsequent Asian groups in American history, culminating with the Immigration Act of 1924, is one reason that, historically, there has been less Asian-American poetry, however one chooses to define "Asian-American," and why "Asian" immigration to America is often perceived as a recent phenomenon, when in reality, the mid-19th century actually witnessed huge waves of Asian immigration to America.)

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Examples of Azn Poetry

In the comments section, Geof has usefully suggested that I provide a couple examples of "azn" poetry to help everyone, including muself, get a more concrete grasp of what I mean. In an earlier entry, I had the following to say about "azn" poets and poetry.

Assuming "azn" poetry is poetry written by "azn" poets, I would say that "azn" describes an Asian-American who (1) has grown up in America, (2) typically lives in or near a major US city, (3) wears spiked and/or bleached hair, (4) listens to hip hop/rap/R&B and is probably a fan of Eminem, (5) is fascinated by certain Japanese cars like Hondas, (6) has no problem using any racial epithets about any race, (6) is typically 25 years old and under, (7) likes clubbing and raving, (8) is consumeristic, (9) has a bawdy sense of humor, (10) sometimes dislikes the "foreignness" of newer Asian immgrants, (11) often cannot speak an Asian language, (12) uses the term "azn pride" to denote power in their identity. Of course, you don't have to have all these characteristics to be "azn," but usually, you have several in combination. (I'd also added that professions of love and heartbreak, pride in one's racial/ethnic identity, and confrontations against racism are common themes in "azn" poetry.)

So here are links to a couple examples: Ishle Yi Park's "Sa-I-Gu":
and Bao Phi's "FOBulous!" (Note: Many other poems on Bao Phi's page may also be considered "azn" poetry.)

But I also had this to say: The vast majority of "azn poets" are totally unconcerned with workshopping and publication, and poetry, to them, is purely about self-expression and communication of intimacy...I think, that at its core, azn poetry is a grassroots poetry "movement" that is not really a movement at all. Its near-total disengagement from what is an "appropriate" aesthetic is itself an aesthetic -- an aesthetic of rebellion.

So I think that there are many "azn" poets out there who have not achieved the fame and notoriety of Park and Phi, for example, and that these poets, often teenagers, are just as much integral builders and disciples of this particular, ever-changing, modern aesthetic.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"Asian-American Poetry" or Not - A Big Debate

You don't have to take the position that this blog should exist. Sooner or later, there will come a point when a poet must decide whether she or he is an "Asian-American poet" and whether there should be such a thing as "Asian-American poetry."

I am not unsympathetic to the position that this blog should not exist. The position is that the designation "Asian-American poetry" ghettoizes Asian-American poets and poetry and balkanizes the entire terrain of poetry. The race of the poet should not play a role in the reading of the poem, and the poem should preferably not be explicitly about race, ethnicity, culture.

I imagine that many Asian-Americans who have been in writing workshops could acknowledge the power of this position. There are some people who always seem to hold the expectation that an Asian-American poet limit him or herself to a certain set of ethnic/cultural issues and themes, usually involving family, food, immigration, assimiliation, tradition, etc. Many times, those are the types of poems that receive the most praise in workshops; other types of poems are viewed more skepticism. I wonder if some Asian-American "language" poets are, to some extent, subconsciously rebelling against this expectation through their poetry. But I was actually thinking of Li-Young Lee, who has, in fact, articulated the position that he doesn't necessarily want to be perceived as an "Asian-American" poet.

Rather than critiquing the position here, I am trying to understand its philosophical and metaphysical underpinnings. It has something to do with the inclination to view racial categorizations of poets/poetry as suspect -- an inclination that may be helpful in some contexts. I imagine that, deep down, it has something to do with a belief in the impermanence and malleability of racial/ethnic/cultural designations. And related to this point, and perhaps more poignantly, it has something to do with many poets' fears that their work is not universal, that it is transient and will be easily forgotten with the passage of time.

But I don't think these anxieties over "Asian-American poets and poetry" negate the empirical existence of such a designation. Sociologically, politically, and historically, the category "Asian-American" is a fact of life. It is one way that we view each other in this world. Just personally, I don't think that's necessarily bad. I'm glad that not everyone is the same race as me, and I'm not the same race as everyone else. From being an American, I would say that I would probably be terribly bored if I lived in a place where everyone was of the same racially/ethnically/culturally. Plus, you can have a lot of fun with the category "Asian-American" if you tried. While I understand the anxieties, I think that there are opportunities as well. Although the term "Asian-American" may be justified as generative of political power for otherwise disparate ethnic groups who would even more overwhelmingly be racial/ethnic minorities, I think that being an "Asian-American," with all the complexity that that entails, can also be a philosophical and metaphysical experience. It doesn't have to be all serious, though. It can just be a joyous celebration.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

No Strong Criticism

I'm in a critically sharp mood, so look out blogosphere! :) Seriously, one of my original goals for this blog was to provide sharp, thought-provoking, critical reviews of individual books of Asian-American poetry. At least some of them weren't necessarily going to be positive. But I've reconsidered -- this entry attempts to trace my reconsideration.

I find it interesting that I have NEVER read a negative review of ANY book of poems by an Asian-American author. I've read many positive reviews, interesting analyses, and a couple mixed reviews. But never any negative ones. Why is there a lack of strong criticism of such books? True, good critique may be positive, but it is the complete lack of negative critique that I've found a bit overwhelming at times. So I'd like to compare film criticism, where there is often passionate debate and critical thinking, with poetry criticism.

Well, one reason may be that it can take years of hard work to publish a book and people just want to be nice. (But it can also take years of hard work to make a movie, and film reviewers aren't nice.) Another, related reason may be that poets and reviewers of poetry fraternize with each other too closely to be straight with one another. (But movie reviewers, e.g., Roger Ebert, often fraternize with actors, actresses, directors, etc. as well, and that doesn't stop them from giving thumbs down to flicks.) Another reason may be that poets are just too sensitive to take criticism. (I don't buy this one, because almost all poets who have a book published must have, at some time or another, been in poetry workshops and/or other settings where their poems have been subjected to detailed, meticilous, perhaps merciless criticism, though one may argue that the stakes are higher with a book. But poets are not infants -- like film producers and directors, they know that their product will be subjected to the tastes of a wider audience.) Another reason, for non-Asian-American reviewers and perhaps for Asian-American reviewers, may be that they don't want to appear to racist.

At this point, my answer is thus that the poetry business is NOT show business. In other words, because the possibility of fame and fortune is far less likely in poetry, people feel less of a subconscious urgency for critical engagement with the books of poetry themselves. In fact, no poet makes a living through book sales alone. Why give a negative review when you're probably only going to be hurting the feelings of the poet and not affecting the reading/viewing habits of a wider audience? There aren't that many fans of particular Asian-American poets to begin with. (Ebert touched upon this phenomenon when he deemed "Troy" and "Alexander" the worst films of the year but acknowledged that there were probably even worse films, e.g. "The Thunderbirds," that didn't make his list, because no one had gone to see them anyway and it wouldn't be nice to slam smaller independent films.)

But IMHO, most Asian-American poetry anthologies, and poetry anthologies in general, are fair game, because the editors have decided to include and exclude poets and, in doing so, have defined entire fields of poetry. Much more is at stake here. Not only have poets and poems been excluded, but the whole future of particular fields is called into question.

I won't tackle individual Asian-American books of poetry at this point, because I'm not sure what good it would do, or rather, I'm not sure if the costs would outweigh the benefits. There is a reason why there is no strong, powerful critic of Asian-American books in Asian-American poetry: it is possible that the field is not strong enough yet to take it. Of course, one solution for this blog would be just to say that I "love" Poet X, but I "love, love, love" Poet Y and "love, love" Poet Z. But I don't want to turn this blog into a sheer infomercial for Asian-American poets/poetry, especially when it wouldn't necessarily be honest. My dad has often told me that if you don't be honest and straightforward with people, pretty soon they won't trust you anymore. And I do want to be trusted.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Poets for the Tsunami Victims

I received an e-mail from Umang Kumar ( pointing me to this fascinating new website:, which of course, is very interesting to me in light of my previous meditations on poetry on the Asian tsunami and the ethics of it all.

The site asks for poems on the Asian tsunami to be published on the website, and apparently, at least 15 people have already submitted poems. As I predicted earlier, the Asian tsunami is an event, like 9/11, that many will feel compelled to write about. Apparently, some already have.

Is There an Avant-Garde Movement in Asian-American Poetry?

Is there an avant-garde movement in Asian-Ameican poetry? Poet Nick Carbo proposes this fascinating question for this blog.

To answer this definition, I should try to define "avant-garde." Wikipedia offers the following definition: "The avant garde was originally identified with the promotion of social progress: seeing the group or individual so described as the pioneer of a social reform movement. Over time the term has also come to be associated with movements concerned with "art for art's sake", concerned primarily with expanding the frontiers of aesthetic experience, rather than with wider social reform. The concept of an elite band of pioneers has also been seen by many as elitist." See

So basically, I think that there are two definitions of "avant-garde" as it relates to Asian-American poetry: (1) Asian-American poetry that is primarily concerned with reforming society and perhaps politics, and (2) Asian-American poetry that is primarily concerned with language and being on the cutting edge in shaping and reforming the (English) language itself. Which is not to say that a poet, book of poetry, or particular poem may not share both of these concerns at the same time or neither concern at all.

Back to the original question: I think that, in both these senses, there have been avant-garde movements in Asian-American poetry. I would also add that I feel like it has always been a pivotal division among Asian American poets and poetry lovers. It can prevent, for example, a lover of Nellie Wong's or Shirley Geok-lin Lim's poetry from becoming a lover of Li-Young Lee's poetry.

I have to say that I am seriously concerned that Wong or Lim-like poetry (precedents of spoken word poetry like that of Bao Phi, Ishle Yi Park, or Beau Sia) is being marginalized in Asian-American poetry. This concern is not new -- such poetry has historically often been marginalized in "academic" discussions of more "academic" poetry. Related to this entry, I also want to focus attention again to "azn poetry," which I feel cannot be excluded from a discussion of "Asian-American poetry." Whether the two meanings of "avant-garde" have been -- or may be -- intersected to fashion a more vibrant Asian-American poetics would be an interesting question.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

What is Asian-American Poetry? - Part Three

Plunging further into the question of what is "Asian-American poetry," I now have three potential definitions: (1) poetry written by Asian-Americans (the conventional definition), and (2) poetry about Asian Americans -- i.e., poems dealing with Asian-American characters and issues (radical definition #1), and (3) poetry written by Asian-Americans AND poetry about Asian-Americans (radical definition #2).

Here I will say that my proposal to unhinge the poetry from the poet (radical definition #1) is ahistorical, decontextual, and dangerous. As noted earlier, Asian-American poetry (or for that matter, African-American poetry, Latino-American poetry, Japanese-American poetry, etc.) has NEVER been completely disconnected from the race/ethnicity of the poet.

I contend that this lack of disconnect of poetry from poet is a major part of what has troubled many people about Asian-American poetry et al. It mirrors the larger societal debate of valuing "color-blindness" versus valuing "racial diversity" as well as "meritocracy" versus "representativeness" and perhaps "racially political" versus "language" poetry. (Of course, as usual, you may complicate the terms -- for example, the "representativeness" people might argue that representativeness itself is a merit, while advocates of "language" poetry may argue that the subverting of language is itself a critique of racism and bigotry.)

On poets v. poetry, I don't think that we have come close to dividing the two, and I don't know if it is possible or desirable. Illustrations of the fact that we are still hung up over identity include the fact that we still refer to poets by name rather than by poem, still respect poets by name rather than by poem, still publish the names of poets alongside their poems, etc. The idea of the "author" has not been eliminated from our mindsets. I think that it applies to a certain extent to pretty much everyone -- I'd be happy to be corrected but, for example, I know of no one who always refers to poems by their name and doesn't identity the poet. Dividing the poetry from the poet may also be anti-intellectual in the sense that we would never be able to trace the evolution of an poet's work, assess and compare poets' works as a relative whole, and explore the biographies of poets and the social conditions under which they lived or are living.

I favor radical definition #2 because of its inclusivity, but the same critique levied against the conventional definition of it being exclusionary and privileging the identity of poets over poetry may be levied against this definition. While it is not as exclusionary as the conventional definition, it does allow Asian-American poets to write, say, poems completely about love and have them count as "Asian-American" poems, while it does not do the same for non-Asian-American poets...Anyhow, just some more thoughts.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

What If You Don't Care About Asian-American Poetry

I'm assuming that, if you've come here, then you at least have a little interest in Asian-American poetry. If not, I pity you. The Internet can lead us down freaky roads.

But let us say that you are "normal." Let us say that you don't care about Asian-American poetry. How can someone get you to care? I think that it's a difficult question. You can't force someone to care. Or you can, but I don't want to resort to making people eat all the broccoli.

The only thing that comes to my mind is to ask someone to be open-minded. But being "open-minded" is itself an aesthetic bias. I consider myself "open-minded," because I'm interested in every "type" of poetry. (Even though English-language poetry would be most accessible to me, I am curious about translation.) "Open-mindedness" requires a lot of mental energy, and one could argue that open-mindedness would eventually lead to the triumph of breadth over depth.

But I know some people don't (and won't) care about Asian-American poetry. I will like, and perhaps love, many of these people. And yet my passion for such poetry will be inaccessible to them. They will probably have interests and dreams that are inaccessible to me. I find that oddly poignant at this late hour.

I see the same phenomenon going on in the Joan Houlihan-BAP debate: some types of poems will never be accessible to some people. Actually, I can sympathize with elements of both sides. It is an upper-middle-class, "academic" struggle for the control over "academic" poetry -- and "academic" poetry is quite powerful and influential, since it is usually what is taught in schools. Of course, this last sentence both is and is NOT a critique of "academic" poetry, since this blog has almost been completely been about "academic" poetry, so I must wonder if I am a blogger on "academic" poetry even if I don't desire to so limit myself. (Note: By "academic poetry," I am thinking of a definition like "poetry deemed worthy of reading by usually upper-middle or middle class, white, college/university scholars and poets of the amorphous politically left or apolitical persuasion.") I guess "nerds and dorks" would be the quicker definition, but I'll save a little self-respect for myself here and won't go that far. :)

Anyhow, I am very interested in trying to get people who don't care at all about Asian-American poetry interested in such poetry. I've said that I will keep on trying to justify the existence of this blog, and I think that this is yet another justifcation.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Where Does Asia Begin and End?

I haven't dealt much with ethnicities within the large, constructed category of Asian American poetry thus far. But I do feel that it is an important issue. You can break up "Asian American poets" in many different ways: by ethnicity (Filipino-American, Korean-American, etc.), by country of origin (India, Indonesia, etc.), by geographical region of origin (Asian Pacific, South Asian, Middle East), by race (no distinction - just Asian Americans), by quasi-race (two categories: Asian Pacific Americans and South Asian Americans).

One issue that intrigues me is where Asia begins and ends. I've been told that there are Russians that look Asian, and are Russians, Asian-Americans? Is Australia part of Asia? Is Afghanistan part of Asia? Do people from the Middle East count as Asian Americans? Who is/isn't an Asian or Asian-American?

I think that one can make a legitimate argument that all Asian American poetry anthologies do not sufficiently represent all of Asian America to the extent of including all "Asian" ethnicities. Indonesian Americans, Sri Lankan Americans, Pakistani Americans, Indian Americans (to a certain extent), Cambodian Americans, Thai Americans, Laotian Americans, Mongolian Americans, Nepalese Americans, etc. are often underrpresented or left out. You could even point to the relative lack of ethnic anthologies for these ethnicities. But you could counter that, just demographically, there are fewer of such inidividuals in the United States, as a result of American immigration policy, and hence fewer poets of such ethnicities. Still, that does not negate the fact that their experiences are not being represented in poetry.

For example, I've dealt with the issue of the ethics behind poets going to Sri Lanka or Indonesia to write about the ethics behind the devastation. But how many of us really thought about the lack of Sri Lankan American and Indonesian American poets writing poetry and/or being published before the tsunami, and how many of us have really considered that there may be such poets out there still who could write not only about the tsunami but about other matters related to the region? I'm guilty of the former, but I don't want to be guilty of the latter.

It is odd and eerie how such a disaster can make you appreciate how little you really understand about a region or a people. Ignorance of the poetry, of course, parallels a larger ignorance of the society there. I'm sure that I know more about France than Indonesia, for example, which begs the question whether I myself am guity of "othering," or at least, whether my education, with its emphasis on Europe and European history, has made me more prone to "othering." I'd like to read poetry about Indonesia or Sri Lanka, about Indonesian or Sri Lankan culture, or about Indonesian-Americans and Sri Lankan Americans. I don't know what's out there of such poetry, but I won't stop searching.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Asian Americans Don't Write Poetry

Or so the stereotype goes. Daryl Ngee Chinn said something to this effect in one of his poems in Soft Parts on the Back. "Writing poetry" isn't an anti-Asian or anti-Asian American stereotype that I've ever witnessed being thrown around, like being an engineer, a math geek, or a computer nerd. It's not being a dragon lady, a kung fu master, a laundry person, a submissive prostitute, or a sushi chef either.

I wonder if some Asian Americans, in some way, are rebelling against stereotype through the writing of poetry. In other words, is the act of portraying oneself as a "poet" and/or writing poetry an act of rebellion for some Asian Americans?

By the way, poets are losers. I've heard it from both Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans. Whenever I call myself a "poet" now or tell anyone that I write "poetry," from experience, I'm always wary of the audience. You know, unless I'm in the mood to be basically told that poets are no better than homeless bums -- perhaps worse because you've actually chosen to be a poet, and some bums don't choose their lifestyle. Poets are losers primarily because poets make no money. That makes poets even worse than novelists, short story writers, essayists, and others in the literary field.

From experience, in general, I have also found Asians and Asian Americans to be less accepting of my poetry habit than non-Asian Americans. It begs the question whether there is some truth in the "model minority" stereotype of the striving for capitalist success among Asian Americans. I think that it's just impossible for some of my family members to fathom how anyone could spend time writing poetry or, even more atrociously, maintaining a blog on poetry.

Of course, academics and teachers, both Asian American and non-Asian American, commit the same error of believing that Asian Americans don't write poetry when they don't teach Asian American poetry in the classroom or evince any interest in reading it. But I must also consider whether I am committing the same error when I don't tell people that I read and write poetry, because I'm self-conscious of criticism. If I really cared about overcoming stereotypes against Asian Americans, poetry, and Asian American poetry, I should probably be more public with it.

So, SAY IT LOUD, "I Love Asian American Poetry and I'm Proud of It." I won't promise that people will still think you're sane.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Asian-American Poets vs Fiction Writers

Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan, Chang-Rae Lee, Ha Jin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Frank Chin, Gish Jen...Many Asian-American fiction authors have hit the big-time in the world of fiction. Not so in the world of poetry, where no Asian-American poet has ever been even a finalist for the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. Let's face it: Asian-American novelists have hit the big time in their field, while Asian-American poets are still scrounging around for a piece of the action.

So maybe we shouldn't talk about what's wrong with non-Asian-American readers, but instead, we should focus on what's messed up about Asian-American poetry? Or maybe not.

I have a theory here. Look at the names of the fiction writers. All of them write about being an Asian or being an Asian-American in their fiction. Their works wrestle with this question through Asian or Asian-American characters. The themes of their works often co-mingle questions of Asian and Asian-American identity. So my theory is that they have hit the big time by simultaneously universalizing and particularizing the experience of being "Asian" or "Asian-American," exotifying it while also making it familiar enough to be accessible to an audience beyond Asians or Asian-Americans. Their work is narrative and mainstream.

On the other hand, many Asian-American poets have shunted attempts at "Asian-American" narrative poems in favor of more meditative or experimental work. These more "experimental" poems make no effort at attempting to capture an "Asian" or "Asian-American" experience. It may be worthwhile to remember that Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, and Marilyn Chin have all skyrocketed to relative fame through their narrative poetry on Asian/Asian-American ethnic experiences. Narrativity seems to be the common path to prosperity and acceptance by a wider audience.

At this point, I don't know which is better. Are Asian-American fiction writers selling out, and are Asian-American poets more provocative, interesting artists? Or are Asian-American fiction writers intelligently capturing the fiction market through captivating literature, and Asian-American poets seriously out-of-touch with the public's tastes? Is Asian-American fiction no longer pushing the limits? Should Asian-American poets emulate Asian-American fiction writers and make a break for "Asian" or "Asian-American" narrativity? Are there either-or situations here? It's something to ponder further.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

A Miseducation in Poetry

Like I inferred in one of my comments, I've been getting a bit too soft and mealy-mouthed in a few posts on this blog. I've promised "strange and outlandish" takes, and I want to deliver fun, excitement, and humor with a dash of intellectualism.

You know what I hate? I hate Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess." I think that this poem stands for everything wrong about my poetic upbringing, K-12. Harold Bloom can whine all he wants about "dead, white, male poets" getting sucked pale and thrown to the curb by vampirish feminists, post-Marxists, post-structuralists, multiculturalists, etc. but all I got out of my education in English were Browning, Poe, Eliot, Frost, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and (we must all kowtow here) Shakespeare. Our high school was over 30% Asian-American. I never read a single poem, short story, or novel by an Asian-American author in 4 years at my high school. I doubt if anyone at my school did.

But I'm digressing. The first poem that I would replace from the canon is "My Last Duchess." In "My Last Duchess," Browning writes about nothing that I can imagine anyone possible caring about in an obscure way that I had no interest in deciphering. I actually got the meaning of it back in high school, and I just reread and am getting it again, but sorry, I still don't care about Fra Pandolf painting some wannabe princess who rode around a terrace on a white mule and the duke who is now creepily ogling at her. A totally artsy-fartsy poem with no payoff. If I ever want to become an Italian duke with an interest in "Neptune...taming a sea horse," I'll let you know.

If I am right that control over the literary canon is about power, we must throw out unfashionable poems like "My Last Duchess" from the high school English curriculum. Theoretically, we can keep on expanding coverage of poetry in the K-12 curriculum, but eventually, we'll encounter difficult choices over which poets/poems to include and which to exclude. But I want to get real here. I won't sing "la la la, we'll just keep on adding poets/poems." In fact, with all the standardized testing in schools that is going on nowadays, my guess is that there is even less coverage of poetry than when I was a K-12 student.

Don't feel sorry for Browning or his fans, though. My guess is that there are more Browning admirers than admirers of all the Asian-American poets put together. Looks like Bloom is the one "playing" the victim of those whose views he dislikes.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Questions of Audience

For all the poets out there, what is your imagined audience? Does it have anything to do with race/ethnicity? You might answer briskly, as I used to do, that your imagined audience is everyone and that it has nothing to do with race or ethnicity.

I never thought about this question much until I started taking part in poetry workshops -- sometimes I would use a Chinese word that no one would understand. But other times, it would have nothing to do with language, and the reverse would happen. In my most recent workshop, in one of my poems, I included the phrase "metropolitan Taipei" and was told by two non-Asian-Americans that I was surely underestimatng their knowledge. The advice was to take out the word "metropolitan," and I think it was good advice. Indeed, I may have underestimated their knowledge, though in the same workshop, I wrote about Japanese cucumbers in another poem -- and at least one workshop member didn't understand my description, because he had never encountered such an elongated creature before. Even though I still try to write for "everyone," I am beginning to realize that this "everyone" may not exist out there.

As an "audience" myself, I encounter similar issues with regards to race. I think that there are some poems that I surely don't understand as well, because I'm not white, black, Latino, etc. I try to empathize, but sometimes the exact experience described in the poem eludes me in a way that I think would not elude me if I was another race. Surely, the same phenomenon can occur with regards to poems that wrestle with gender, geography, sexuality, etc.

Is a poem "bad," because only a limited audience can empathize with the experiences described? Is a poem "good," because more people can empathize? I think that all poems must negotiate this difficult balance between the particular and the universal. The more "universal" poems tend to be the ones that persist over the centuries as part of the "respectable" canon, but I don't believe that the merit of any poem should hinge on its longevity or its universality.

Moreover, am I even correct to separate "the particular" and "the universal"? In a community of Asians and Asian Americans at 99 Ranch Market, for example, it is quite possible that a poem about "the particularities" of a Japanese cucumber is more universal, while a poem about the "universal" experience of watching The Empire Strikes Back is more particular.

Although one may collapse the distinction in this way, I think that the terms may still be useful and at least historically and sociologically valid in the larger sense of considering the canon of poetry as a whole. Juliana Chang has traced Asian-American poetry back to the 1890s, while Marlon Hom has dated it as early as the 1880s. The very fact that poetry both about and written by Asian Americans has barely survived over the decades and has only recently become even a footnote in poetry scholarship might suggest a suppression of the particular with regards to race/ethnicity. Anyhow, returning to my original focus, I find questions of audience to be quite interesting.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

On the Ethics of Tsunami Poetry

In the comments section, Eileen poses the fascinating question of whether it would be immoral for poets to travel to the site of the tsunami in order to write poems, and whether the answer would depend on the theoretical underpinning of the project. Whew! A big question.

Well, I'd say that the very fact of travelling to the site in order to write poems is not immoral. It is what journalists and photographers do all the time. If poetry matters, then poets should be encouraged to chronicle events in their poetry. I don't think that print or tv journalism or photography is necessarily more factual than poetry, because, like poetry, journalism and photography requires establishment of a point of view, choices of exclusion and inclusion, and subjective focus on specific elements of a much larger events. (On the other hand, it's not an easy question, because poetry is also an art form that accepts much more of a role for the imagination.) And I'd say that it is fine for poets of all races/ethnicities to go there.

I think that the harder question involves the ethics behind the theoretical underpinning of the project. Of the Yasuasda hoax, I stated, I think that the moral violation here most fundamentally lies in the author's portrayal of extreme, collective suffering on his own person without actually having suffered it himself or felt the suffering of those close to him. So, for example, if a poet goes there and pretends to be a survivor of Sri Lanka, I consider that to be a moral violation. This rule would apply to both Asian-American poets and non-Asian-American poets. But I also think that it is an interesting and valid point that, under certain circumstances, for example, satire or parody, we must give more careful consideration to whether we need to carve out an exception to the rule. At this point, I'd say that it depends on the particular circumstance.

Asian-American Poetry Anthologies

I'm attempting to answer a couple questions in the comments section today. Andrew asks for advice on where to start for someone who knows little or nothing about Asian-American poetry. And, you know, I've been whooshing away on its blog so quickly that I overlooked that this question could be helpful to a lot of people. I can still remember when I was clueless about poets, poetry, Asian-American poetry, etc. I mean, I bought the International Library of Poetry anthology for goodness sake! It would've helped if people took the time to clarify and explain.

So, I think that the best place to start would be "Asian-American" poetry anthologies, because you can get an idea of poets, from a relatively wide range of ethnicities, to figure out whose styles that you like/dislike. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that there have only been 5 anthologies, dedicated exclusively to "Asian-American" poetry, ever published. Here they are, in roughly the chronological order of the poetry:

1. Quiet Fire: A Historical Anthology of Asian-American Poetry, 1892-1970 (1996), edited by Juliana Chang
2. Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian-American Poets (1983), edited by Joseph Bruchac
3. The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America (1993), edited by Garrett Hongo
4. Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry (1995), edited by Walter Lew
5. Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation (2004), edited by Victoria Chang

I would read 1 and 2 for background on the history of Asian-American poetry, and 3, 4, and 5 for what is going on today. Of course, there are also anthologies of Chinese-American, Filipino-American, Japanese-American, etc. poetry, which you may want to look into after getting an idea of the Asian-American poetry scene.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Robert T. Matsui

On Jan. 1, 2005, U.S. Rep. Robert T. Matsui ( passed away. I'm sure that it's from not looking hard enough, but I haven't read any blog entries about him. Because I am not foolish enough to believe that Asian-American poetry is ahistorical, I know that he -- and people like him -- have made my humble, little remarks (and the humble, little remarks of all people who care about trying to understand what it is to be an "Asian-American") possible and worthwhile. For that, he deserves our fond remembrance.

My Response to the Yasusada Hoax

In this post, I'll be addressing Kent Johnson's response, which I've just cut and pasted below, one post before this one. First, quickly I'd just like to emphasize again that I should not have ascribed authorship to "Kent Johnson," because that is still a matter of debate. I'm also really glad that Kent has decided to take part in this discussion with me.

Basically, I think that Kent Johnson and his critics are talking past each other on the question of yellowface, though their critiques are parallel in a sense. The Asian-American position critiques, among other things, the invisibility of the complexity of Asian-American poets and poetry in anthologies and other publications of power. Kent, on the other hand and among other things, critiques the conflation of poet and poetry as well as stereotypes of Japanese experiences by exposing the ease with which anthologies and other publications of power accept and publish stereotyped fictionalities.

I feel that the issue is much larger than Kent Johnson and the Yasusada hoax. The Asian-American critique basically asks the question of why so many non-Asian-American professors and scholars of poetry are interested in the exotic simplicities of "Asianness" but show almost no interest in Asian-American poets and poetry. (I want to emphasize again that there has NEVER been a book of third-person criticism done on Asian-American poets or poetry, which I find appalling. But I also want to emphasize again that I feel that Asian-American poets should reach out to these non-Asian-Americans and not demonize such scholars for racism in the hopes that it will facilitate communication and produce more complete scholarship.)

Kent actually poses the same question through his consideration of the Yasusada hoax, except that he condones the paralleling of this exotification to prove his point, which raised the ire of many critics. (It's the same, old question of whether the ends justify the means, and I've identified specifically what I believe to be a "moral violation" in an earlier post.) But putting that question aside, I would like to invite Kent, all non-Asian-American poets/readers, and all Asian-American poets/readers to more seriously consider questions of Asian-American poetry.

As Kent realizes, it is not just the issue of "Kent Johnson's" authorship. There are many fascinating issues swirling around here, issues that I probably haven't touched with this post. I am suggesting that the absence of scholarship on Asian-Americans is a much more of a racism than the Yasusada hoax.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Azn Poets and Poetry

I've been rambling about Asian-American poets and poetry on this blog. Here I want to add "azn" poets to the mix. It is difficult to define "azn." Assuming "azn" poetry is poetry written by "azn" poets, I would say that "azn" describes an Asian-American who (1) has grown up in America, (2) typically lives in or near a major US city, (3) wears spiked and/or bleached hair, (4) listens to hip hop/rap/R&B and is probably a fan of Eminem, (5) is fascinated by certain Japanese cars like Hondas, (6) has no problem using any racial epithets about any race, (6) is typically 25 years old and under, (7) likes clubbing and raving, (8) is consumeristic, (9) has a bawdy sense of humor, (10) sometimes dislikes the "foreignness" of newer Asian immgrants, (11) often cannot speak an Asian language, (12) uses the term "azn pride" to denote power in their identity. Of course, you don't have to have all these characteristics to be "azn," but usually, you have several in combination.

In the LA area, where I grew up, there were many "azns" and thus "azn" poets. Even though I never considered myself to be one, I had many friends in middle and high school who chose this persona. But having lived elsewhere in the US, I realize that the vast majority of Americans probably don't have a clue of what I'm talking about, so I'm trying to clarify here.

Linguistically, "azn" writing may be distinguished from "Asian-American" writing by the use of the words "linguistically" and "distinguished." :) Seriously. Azns take pride in not writing so high-fallutin' and often writing in some alternation of caps and lower case letters in blogs and e-mails. Here's a quick sample: "wOO Hoo!! yO, mAh pEepS dowN iN cAlI goT prYde." Sorry, I don't do it well.

On "azn poetry," I would have to say that it is profoundly influenced by the R&B and hip hop scene. Because most "azn poets" are under 25, the most common subject is love -- professions of love and heartbreak -- especially among azn teenagers. Azn poets blog about it all the time. Racism and pride in one's race are also fairly common themes, though immigration, assimilation, and food are almost non-existent from this canon. The vast majority of "azn poets" are totally unconcerned with workshopping and publication, and poetry, to them, is purely about self-expression and communication of intimacy. I still read the poems online, from time to time, for their powerfully urgent sincerity.

I think that azn poets and poetry are most common in the spoken word scene. Poets that may arguably be identified as "azn" poets include Ishle Yi Park, Bao Phi, and Beau Sia, though their poems are more sophisticated. I think, that at its core, azn poetry is a grassroots poetry "movement" that is not really a movement at all. Its near-total disengagement from what is an "appropriate" aesthetic is itself an aesthetic -- an aesthetic of rebellion. I haven't come across anything that has been written about "azn poetry" as a collective entity, though, and I'm hoping that this entry will help in the discussion.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

On Authenticity - Kent Johnson's Response

Kent Johnson has provided his response to my Jan. 2nd post, "On Authenticity," on the Yasusada hoax. If you'd like, please scroll down to read it. Thanks!

EDIT: For the sake of readability, I am placing the comment here:

Barbara Jane (and Roger),I've recently read your posts on Doubled Flowering with interest. Both commentaries, I think, are excellent additions to the ongoingdiscussion--which by the way, Roger, has actually deepened and actively continued since the initial, more "journalistic" responses. There is abook of essays in preparation, in fact, which will gather old materials and new ones, and perhaps you'd like to submit something to the editors. I'll put you in touch if you are interested.

I do think, though (your unproblematic attribution of the work to "Kent Johnson" aside, which has become a "fact" only because of its insistent repetition) that both of you are missing something crucial to any consideration of the work and its larger "effects," and I thought it would be worthwhile to mention what that is: Doubled Flowering, as opposed to standard, "straight" hoaxes, never attempted to hide its fictionality, and the naked clues about its fictional status are everywhere in the work (a number of these have been mentioned by various critics; numerous other fairly obvious ones are still waiting to be found). In other words, Yasusada openly exposes his nature from thebeginning... what makes Motokiyu's "dissimulation" more novel andchallenging is that his fiction moves out to encompass the paratextual codes readers have grown accustomed to taking for granted--codes thatare ideologically and institutionally loaded with all sorts of interesting stuff. It's this fact, what Brian McHale has called the "mock hoaxness" of Yasusada, that forces the issues involved into territory that moves beyond the early simplistic charges leveled against the writing. And growing numbers of critical considerations are doingjust that. (One you may wish to check out will be in this months PMLA, should you care to see that. As well, a follow up volume to Yasusada, published this spring by Combo Press, will carry an afterword by aprominent Asian-American critic whose relatives are hibakusha. He recently published two essays on Yasusada in Japan's leading journal of literature and gave a keynote address last August to the National Institute of Literature in Tokyo. I think you will certainly find his remarks of interest.)

In any case, I found your comments thought-provoking and fruitful to the unfolding debate, and I wanted to let you know that.


My Aesthetic Preferences

Whoa, a third post today! Doesn't this guy have anything better to do with his life?! The answer is yes. And I want to do it. But I'm procrastinating. I don't like to procrastinate, but I just feel an urgency to post in light of a few e-mails that I've received...Basically, I feel that it is time to articulate my aesthetic prefrences before proceeding with this blog. I suspect that they will change as this blog progresses:

1. I'm a reader of ALL types of poetry. This one is the most important. I probably don't know as much about the imagists, the visual poets, Latino poetry, the New York school, etc. as I do about Asian-American poetry, but I am receptive to all types of poetry. I try to read historically, though I must confess a slight bias against Ye Olde English. I'm interested in poetry in other languages, though I also must confess here that poems in languages other than English are harder for me to understand. But I am open-minded and willing to learn.

2. I don't belong to any "school of thought" in poetry. On a related note, I don't believe that, say, surrealist poetry is necessarily better than narrative poetry. I'm not sure if I will eventually join a school of thought, but I haven't at this point. Also, at this point, I don't find that one "type" of poetry necessarily touches me more profoundly than another "type."

3. I believe that "schools of thought" form artificial distinctions that need justification. Self-explanatory.

4. I try to focus on the poetry rather than the poet. This one is difficult for me. For example, I conflate Asian-American poets and Asian-American poetry easily sometimes. I try not to do it, but I guess I can take some comfort in the fact that I'm not alone in this faux-pas.

5. I try to focus on the individual poem over the poetry. This one is equally difficult, especially in contexts outside a workshop format. I realize that even the "best" books of poetry contain a few "not-so-good" poems and vice versa, and to make that distinction in a book review is difficult. But I'll still try.

6. I believe that the literary merit of any poem needs justification, the more articulate, the better. Also self-explanatory from reading this blog.

7. I would argue that external forces of power dictate the poems we read. This argument is more global. I'm interested in the question of why we know and care about, say, the poetry of Coleridge, Eliot, and Frost, but we know and care far less about, say, the poetry of Asian-American poets. In the past, in academic scholarship, powerful, well-educated critics at prestigious universities and institutions have told us that such poems are better, but their intelligence and prestige doesn't necessarily make them correct. We must revisit justifications over the merit of poetry. If there are these external forces of power, they should be justified in today's society. It is what generations upon generations of "intellectuals" have tried to do, and this wannabe "intellectual" wants to help carry the torch.

8. My comments are a reflection of my own biases. For example, the very desire not to belong to a school of thought is itself a bias. I try to justify myself here. And I should note that the point of this blog, and at least I feel, the point in life, is not to be obstinate and try to "conquer" each other's opinions. The very process of justification is in itself one of the primary purposes of critical reflection of poetry. I find it fun sometimes, but what do I know? I've just spent another 30 minutes typing this entry when I've got tons of other stuff to do. :)

Details Magazine: The Gay or Asian Debate Applied to Poetry and "Invisible" Racisms

"The April issue of [Details] magazine - which features fur-clad singer Nick Lachey on its cover - instructs readers how to discern whether a model is a homosexual or an Asian male.
The full-page feature, titled "Gay or Asian?" is loaded with double entendres that poke fun at stereotypes of Asians and gays."

For those not in the know, the Details "Gay or Asian" ad produced widespread outrage in the Asian-American community, the LGBT community, and the Asian-American LGBT community. It was featured in a Saturday Night Live skit and became popular knowledge among Asian-American students. The primary justification for the outrage was that it furthered ridiculous, outrageous, racist stereotypes of Asians, gays, and Asian gays. The primary defense was that it was satire.

Personally, I didn't find the ad funny. But go read the ad. I'd say that it does wallow in stereotypes, but it is not outrageous in light of other, more "invisible" racisms. I'm making this post, because I don't think that the protests against the ad was necessarily directed against the ad itself but against a larger phenomenon in American society, which relates to American poetry.

(Before we go into poetry, though, I'd like to note that I find Fox's O.C. more outrageous and racist than the Details ad. As someone who went to high school in the O.C., I know for a fact that Orange County is full of Hispanics and Asian-Americans, who constitute the majority of the population. It is a racially and ethnically diverse metropolis. It's not just rich, white kids. I'm objective enough to say that I can understand the O.C.'s popularity because I have watched it and will concede that it is well-produced in a soap-operaesque way. But at least the Details ad is honest with its racism; the O.C. is not. But my anger is not directed at the O.C. either but against the even larger phenomenon of near-total invisibility of Asian-Americans in media, entertainment, and poetry.)

Part of the many reasons for this blog is to affirmatively counter the invisibility of Asian-American poetry in the academic poetry landscape, in sense (2) "poetry about Asian-Americans." In a claim that I want to later elaborate upon, I would say that the emergence and prominence of Asian-Americans in the Spoken Word scene is, in part, a reaction against the almost complete foreclosure of poetry that vividly makes prominent questions of racial/ethnic identity by institutions and publications, which I have referred to as "the large enchilladas of power."

Remember, though, that the exclusion of this type of poetry is NOT necessarily racist. It is not the exclusion itself; power, in itself, is not bad. It is the unjustified exclusion that is racist. I would love to read a book of poetry criticism that identifies exactly how such "political poetry" is of inferior literary quality and hence not worthy of publication. But I understand the reluctance to engage in such critique: critics would fear they would be called racists. It is an anti-intellectual reluctance, one that I'm guilty of as well at this point, but I'm hoping that eventually that both Asian-Americans and non-Asian-Americans will be willing to engage in an honest discussion of the merits of particular poems that more bluntly wrestle with "Asian-Americanness."

Airport Bookstore

I was in the airport bookstore the other day. I don't want to shock you lovers of poetry, but there weren't any books of poetry, let alone Asian-American books of poetry. But I think there were 22 copies of 101 Ways to Fart Out of Your Mouth. Hmmm....

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Asian vs. Asian-American Poetry - Key Point

I'm not sure if I should pick out a key point here, because, hey, isn't everything I say a "key point"?! :) But I realize that my last post was long, and I can only strongly encourage you to read the last post if you're interested in this topic. Thanks.

So my main point is below. But please note that, before, I was calling into question even the distinction between "Asian" and "Asian-American" poetry. It's a tough issue.

But, you know, carrying out this example further, we should ask ourselves what makes, say, an Arthur Sze, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Timothy Liu, or Adrienne Su different from a Bei Dao, Ha Jin, or any of the Misty School or classical Chinese poets? I think that the main difference is that the poets in the former category have lived in the United States much longer, tend to deal more with American culture in their poetry, and tend to wrestle with questions of racial/ethnic identity in at least some of their poems, while the poets in the latter category tend to either deal with material exclusively related to love, nature, etc. or the political state of China in their poetry.

Strong argument: I think that the political and geographical distance of the latter category of poets exotifies them to a certain extent that such Asian poetry attracts the interest of certain white professors and scholars of poetry, while it leads them to take less of an interest in the work of Asian-American poets who grew up in the United States and wrestle with different, more Americanized questions of identity in their poetry.

Asian vs. Asian-American Poetry

Sorry, folks, I'd drifted away a bit from the focus of this blog over the past couple days. More "strange and outlandish takes on Asian-American poetry" now.

Hey Asian-Americans, don't you just hate it when non-Asian-Americans persist on asking you "Where are you from?" when you have told them Philadelphia or Vermont or Baton Rouge, but they apparently don't believe you!?! It's like you have to say an Asian country just to make them happy, and you're left feeling like a foreigner in your country. You don't want to seem so petty as to get upset over such a minor issue, but at the same time, you ARE upset.

Well, I'm here to say that things are not that simple. Asian-Americans themselves have blurred the lines between Asian-Americans and Asians. I've wondered for the longest time why many in the Asian-American community have embraced Asians like Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Joan Chen, etc. as their own. Are they Asian-Americans now? Are they Asians now? Does it matter? You could argue that these Asian celebrities help give Asian-Americans greater publicity, but at the same time, they also reinforce stereotypes, but at the same time, they are sincere and they are who they are, but at the same time, they didn't grow up in the US and aren't part of America in quite the same way, but at the same time, it's also more than a tad arrogant for Asian-Americans to be defining Asian-American in an exclusionary way, but at the same time, the arrogance may be justified in the sense of helping eliminate stereotypes, etc., etc.

These issues carry over into Asian-American and Asian poetry. For the moment, let us assume that Asian-American poetry is "poetry written by Asian-Americans" and Asian poetry is "poetry written by Asians." Who is an Asian-American poet? Who is an Asian poet? I think that language won't work as a means to distinguish the two -- for example, Filipino-American poets write in Tagalog, while Chinese poets write in English.

I think it's interesting that Asian-American poets generally have Asian-American fans and readers, while Asian poets generally have non-Asian-American fans and readers. There are consequences. It carries over into scholarship. For example, there has been far more critical scholarship done on Chinese poets throughout history and into modern times than on Chinese-American poets. Much of the scholarship has been done by non-Asian-American professors in collaboration with Chinese scholars. Non-Asian-American (let's just say white, since I think it's still sociologically accurate in this context), or white, professors also have devoted much attention to translation of Chinese poetry into English but virtually zero attention to Chinese-American poetry.

But, you know, carrying out this example further, we should ask ourselves what makes, say, an Arthur Sze, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Timothy Liu, or Adrienne Su different from a Bei Dao, Ha Jin, or any of the Misty School or classical Chinese poets? I think that the main difference is that the poets in the former category have lived in the United States much longer, tend to deal more with American culture in their poetry, and tend to wrestle with questions of racial/ethnic identity in at least some of their poems, while the poets in the latter category tend to either deal with material related to love, nature, etc. or the political state of China in their poetry. (Note: The poetry of Wang Ping poses an interesting challenge to this dichotomy, because Wang Ping did grow up in China but actively wrestles with the process of becoming an American, in both Chinese and English.)

Strong argument: I think that the political and geographical distance of the latter category of poets exotifies them to a certain extent that such Asian poetry attracts the interest of certain white professors and scholars of poetry, while it leads them to take less of an interest in the work of Asian-American poets who grew up in the United States, and wrestle with different, more Americanized questions of identity in their poetry.

But the problem is rendered more complex by the tenuous distinction between Asian and Asian-American poets/poetry. The categories blur, overlap, and intersect to an extent that I feel that the more ethical response to these white professors and scholars of poetry might not be to demonize them for racism or ethnocentrism but to empathize with them and ask them to engage in scholarship on the connections between Asian and Asian-American poetry. (Whew, that was one heck of a complex sentence and claim!) And I don't know if such white scholars and professors of poetry interested in "Asian poetry" would be willing to look at "Asian-American poetry," as I have defined it above.

Anyhow, I have more to say on this issue. There's a lot that I haven't explored yet. I just want to note that I think that the distinction between Asian and Asian-American poetry is an important topic for further contemplation.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

I Want To Be an Intellectual When I Grow Up!

"One of the things so sad about [Susan Sontag's] death is she represents something that I'm afraid that's passing," said fellow author Francine Prose. "I don't think that many people these days say, 'Oh, I want to be an intellectual when I grow up.' "

I don't blame people for not wanting to be intellectuals. Intellectuals are the funny-looking kids on the playground who don't even get beat up because they're too freaky to approach. Intellectuals are weirdos. "Intellectuals" put words in quotes, and question the meaning(s) behind everything. Rarely satisfied, these annoying, pesky creatures raise a ruckus and are avoided at family reunions. I've already received a few e-mails, not from people who disagree with me and want to intellectually engage with me, but from people who have no idea what the f**k I'm doing with this blog on Asian-American poetry. So I'm trying to justify my many purposes here in the hopes that people will understand, but if Prose is right that the intellectual is an endangered species, I think that I'll be crossed off more than a few Christmas lists.

Still, I want to be an intellectual. I won't say "like Sontag," because I think that, like a grand intellectual, she herself would not want slavish imitation of her thoughts, even her style of critique. She won't get imitation from me, and she probably wouldn't have it any other way. I've always felt that professors should be intellectuals (as well as always kind and generous to students, but that's another story), but unfortunately, I know that some aren't. Too bad. The alternative to living in the la-la land of intellectualism is to live in the dullsville of ignorance.

Uh oh, Asian-American poetry! :) That's why you're here, isn't it? Well, if you want to watch Asian-American poet and New England Review editor C. Dale Young and I figuratively give each other WWF smackdowns over what is "bad/good/great poetry" and over the editing process itself, go here: (I'm just kidding, of course. Really, I think that it was very generous of C. Dale to devote his time and energy to intellectually engaging with me. EDIT: It has come to my attention that C. Dale Young has deleted our discussion. Our exchanges were really quite cordial, but I imagine that he felt that he revealed too much of the New England Review's editing process. I'm hoping he wasn't personally offended in any way, because I always try my best not to personally offend. It is his blog, so I respect his decision.)

But being the unappeased, wannabe intellectual that I am, I will leave you with a conundrum related to my previous post. Let us say that XYZ Prestigious Literary Magazine receives 50,000 poetry submissions/year. It has a staff of five editors who pore through submissions, leading up to one editor who chooses 50 poems from the 1000 poems sent up to her or him. XYZ has 2000 subscribers. The editors at XYZ work really hard for no money. (Don't worry folks, this ain't a math question.)

Provocative question: If XYZ Prestigious Literary Magazine fails to read poems closely and/or clearly attempt to justify their criteria for selection, what makes XYZ different from the vanity publications put out by the International Library of Poetry?

One smart-a** answer is that the International Library of Poetry makes money. Another answer may be that XYZ has a smart, well-read, prestigious editor -- so in other words, you are trying to please this person and this person as alone. You might want to answer, but XYZ is a "real" publication with "real" people who care...and that is where you would have to stop yourself. My main point is that close, critical readership matters, even in, if not especially in, the editorial process. Otherwise, if it doesn't matter, you might as well just go for the ILP model and at least try to make some money off the deal.

I am fully aware of the practical problems of the poetry publishing industry. Look at my hypo. But if XYZ is run by intellectuals, then XYZ should at least be more honest with itself and run its publication by devoting more attention to the poetry and not sacrificing the intellectual for the practical and unimaginative. Possible reforms include: (1) restricting the numbers of submissions, (2) expanding the number of editors, so more attention may be given to each poem, (3) devoting a couple pages in each issue to an articulation of what the editor(s) think are "good/bad/great" poems, (4) making the editorial process more transparent, (5) this one for universities and arts-related nonprofits: more funding to poetry publications!....None of these proposed reforms are easy. There are more. Please list others if you think of any! All have pluses and minuses and should not be taken lightly. Some may turn out to not work out. They may need to be taken alone or in combination. I think it merits further contemplation. At any rate, if "publish or perish" predominates, then an "un-intellectual" selection process risks producing professors/scholars of poetry who are "un-intellectual" themselves. I don't want that to happen.

Tsunami Relief Benefit

small offerings, a Tsunami Relief Benefit
at Asian American Writers' Workshop.
16 West 32nd Street, 10th floor
Wednesday, January 12th, 2005,
7-9pm.doors open 6:30$10-20 cover, sliding scale

In the aftermath of the tsunami, over 118,000 people have died and 5 million more are homeless in Asia. This event is but a small community offering to sustain ourselves and to try to help others far away.

Please join a diverse group of artists for a night of music, refreshments, and poetry. A silent auction and raffle will be held, and informational brochures will be available. Bring your friends, your heart, and your wallet, and make your own small offering.

**ALL proceeds will go directly to non-profit organizations helping with tsunami relief.****

curated and hosted by: Ishle Yi Park * Poet Laureate of Queens, New York
Sabrina Margarita Alcantara-Tan * Founder of the amazing'zine Bamboo Girl
Steve Cannon * Founder of the Gathering of the Tribes
Tina Chang * Author of Half Lit Houses
Eric Gamalinda * Professor at NYU and Columbia, author of Zero Gravity
Edward Garcia * ASPIRA teacher and Winner of a 2003 NYFA Poetry Grant
Kimiko Hahn * Winner of the American Book Award
Suheir Hammad * Author of Born Palestinian, Born Black, member of Def Poetry Jam
Bassey Ikpi * Three-time featured Nigerian American poet on HBO's Def Poetry Jam
Kontrast * Filipino-American, Brooklyn-transplanted and unrepentantly radical hip-hop group
Joseph Legaspi * Founder of Kundiman, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to Asian American literature
Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz * Tour-de-force woman and founder of Urbana, the three-time National Poetry Slam Championship Venue
Patrick Rosal * Winner of the AAWW's 2004 Member's Choice AwardShappy * An amazing comedic poet, in high school Shappy was voted "Most Swinging Guy".
Hal Sirowitz * Former Poet Laureate of Queens '01-'04
Kevin So + Incredibly talented singer, songwriter, guitarist, latest CD "leaving the lights on"...and more!!!!

Proceeds go to non-profit organizations actively helping with tsunami relief, including:

The Sri Lanka Relief FundDonations will go to orphanages and clinics that have been devastated and to provide anti-biotics, painkillers, and water purification tablets.

Doctors Without Borders date, Doctors Without Borders/Mecins Sans Fronties (MSF) has sent over 40 aid workers and 110 tons of relief materials to the region. Additional aid workers and relief cargos are en route.

OxFam America is sending food and water to help thousands of people affected by the devastating tsunamis that struck coastal areas of several Asian countries.

For more information, please email To send a check or donate something to the raffle/silent auction, please contact

Monday, January 03, 2005

The International Library of Poetry: A Mixed Critique

I'm supposing that many of you have read the most recent issue of Poets and Writers's mixed review of the International Library of Poetry -- the highly profitable vanity publisher of poetry. Anyhow, that's basically what it was: a mixed review. Various poets praised the organization, condemned it, gave it mixed reviews, etc. -- but most surprising to me was the number of respected poets who are essentially now working for it in the sense of running the organization or giving talks at their various conferences.

Personal story: Back when the organization was known as the National Library of Poetry, yours truly submitted a poem that got published, and yours truly purchased the $40 or $50 anthology, and yours truly became a "Semi-finalist" in one of their "contests." In my defense, I was only 16 or 17 at the time. I was genuinely ignorant -- not just that it was a vanity publication but that there was even such a thing as a "publishing industry." When I found out that it was a vanity publication, I was, to put it delicately, quite pissed. I wanted the consumers' protection agencies to bring the organization down! How dare they! It pissed me off even more when I heard that they took advantage of poor people who poured hundreds if not thousands of dollars of their meager wages and savings into the organization. (In a desparate move to tie this entry back to Asian-American poets/poetry, I'll just note that poet Nick Carbo was quoted as having a similar reaction in the P&W article. Also, I've seen Asian names in the directory of published poets. Man, I really am desparate. :) )

Anyhow, I've cooled off since then. I was going to say that I can now bring a "critical perspective" to the International Library of Poetry, and perhaps I can, but I can't divorce my critical frame of reference from my inexplicable and ever-changing personal sense of morality, if morality and critique can ever be separate. I'll just say upfront that I could NEVER work for the organization. Sorry. Knowing that it takes advantage of poor people and young people who may not know better, I just can't. And assuming that the organization has indeed undertaken all the steps that the article notes of evolving into a more "legitimate" organization, let's get real here. The organization is out to make money -- it won't refuse to take the money of the poor, elderly, and young who are ignorant of ...Hmmm...

But to what am I objecting here? It is possible that I'm just being paternalistic here. The poor, elderly, young, etc. may be ignorant OR they may really want to see their work in print though still be ignorant OR they may not be ignorant at all but really want to see their work in print. They might just want the hardcover anthology to show to family and friends. Despite what I've said, I think that we should seriously consider that people who submit poems to the publication aren't stupid.

Also, I don't necessarily agree with critics of The International Library of Poetry who simply condemn the organization for publishing amateurish poetry for a profit. First, what is "amateurish" poetry? Sometimes, you hear "respected" critics or watchdogs essentially presume that such poetry is just amateurish because the "literary establishment" says it is. But I would press these critics to define what exactly they mean by "amateurish," or "bad," poetry. Second, yes, the organization is out to sell books and make a profit. But, come on, it is not the only one. The organization just happens to be particularly good at it. :) Are critics angry that it is a vanity publisher? Or are they angry that it is a vanity publisher that is making a profit?

Make no mistake about it: this is a power struggle. One of my themes for this blog is to not conceal power struggles where they exist already. The International Library of Poetry is redefining what constitutes publishable, or "good," poetry. "Good poetry" is essentially defined by the ILP as any poetry that the poet wants to be published. It is a very democratic definition. It shifts power away from the editor and towards the poet. It takes away potential customers and fans of "respectable" poetry magazines and publishing houses. Sure, its elaborate system of contests may "deceive" people by making them think that their poems have been read carefully and are "good" poems, as, ironically, defined the literary establishment itself, but aren't large "respectable" poetry magazines and publishing houses also performing a similar "deception" when they charge a $25+ entry fee for their contests, don't read submitted poems carefully, don't offer comments, judge poems by the name of the poet, and/or desire to make a profit as well?

Nevertheless, the International Library of Poetry's definition of "good poetry" is a dangerous definition on at least three counts: (1) first, by completely shifting the question of whether a poem is "good" or "bad" away from the merit of the poem, it risks squelching all dialogue over the poem itself, (2) on a related point, it risks destroying or at least eroding communities of good, critical readers who care about poems, and (3) third, most poignantly, it's simply splendid to have other people give your poem a honest, careful reading. (The third reason is why I try always to be honest about people's poems, while I still try not to hurt people's feeling -- more on my success (or lack thereof) in a later post.)

As I noted in my previous post, poetry is already commercialized. Critical editors, writers, readers must fight back. It is very possible that capitalizing on, for example, Li-Young Lee's good looks to sell books, is equally anti-intellectual and not the way to go. But, as I suggest above, we must seriously consider ways to justify poetry as "good" rather than simply paternalistically proclaiming poetry to be "bad" simply because it is published by a publisher that makes a profit or because it is "obvious" to us "smart, superior" people. I think that the "literary establishment"'s publishing model, while flawed, is the way to go, because it at least purportedly supposes an interested, intellectual engagement with the poems and books of poetry that it chooses to accept for publication. But if it loses this guiding purpose, we might as well all turn to the International Library of Poetry and at least not get our feelings hurt by the rejection of our submissions.

(Note: Sorry, this post has gotten long. But I just want to quickly note that I don't think that a poet has to be "published" anywhere to be a poet. In my thinking, I am aiming for an expansive definition of "poet." At this point, I am willing to go as far as anyone who has written a poem that she/he shares with anyone else. I'm still considering whether a "poet" who keeps all of her or his poems to him or herself is a "poet.")