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.


Blogger Andrew said...

Have you had people tell you this blog shouldn't exist?

3:05 PM  
Blogger Geof Huth said...


I've been a reader of your blog from almost the very beginning, and I know what I see lacking in this blog--which is not exactly a criticism since what you do now is interesting and useful.

Why not talk about specific poems? I want to get the sense of what Asian-American poetry is besides being poetry by Asian Americans. Certainly, subject matter will be part of it, maybe also sources of inspirations, allusions, scraps of history encapsulated in the poems. Let's see a few lines of poetry that help us grab hold of the topic.

For instance, I'm sure I have a good idea what azn poetry is like, but I'm still just guessing. To show us this stuff and sift the poetry through your wide knowledge of the field would be, I'm sure, illuminating and would help to get people interested in the field.

Again, don't stop what you have been doing. Just add to it! And thanks for writing this blog.


3:35 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Andrew, thanks for the message. No, no one has told me that this blog shouldn't exist in so many words, which is a good thing, because I wouldn't follow their advice. :) I was being tongue-in-cheek and referring to the claim that there shouldn't be a field deemed "Asian-American poetry" at all.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Geof, thanks for the comment. Yes, actually, if you scroll way back to the very first post of this blog, I was originally going to focus on individual poems/books of poetry. There still may well be discussion of specific poems -- and I think that an example of azn poetry is an excellent suggestion.

I'm still trying to feel out the blog format. The main reason that there haven't been individual poems so far probably relates to my post on criticism. I'm not sure whether I want to just link to/post the poems or discuss them, and if I discuss them, I'm not sure whether I should critique with them or not, or how I should critique them, etc...But, I have a feeling that eventually these reservations won't stop me from bringing up individual poems.

9:42 PM  
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