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.


Blogger Andrew said...

I think experimental poetry, language poetry, and meditation-without-narration poetry are all out of touch with the public's taste. And I don't mean just the masses, either. I think they're unappealing---rightfully so---to serious readers and lovers of poetry. This is quite regardless of questions of Asian-Americanness.

Just a thought. I don't know much about the specific poets you're thinking of. And, of course, see the rest BAP for a totally different taste in poetry than the one I just explicated.

7:06 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

Hey, Roger. Thanks for letting me know about your blog. I was just reading back several entries and this is all so interesting.

I think something to keep in mind is that there is a wide range of poetry that can fall into the "narrative" and "experimental" categories. I do see what you mean about Hongo's and Li-Young Lee's work [i.e. narrative poems about "Asian American experiences" tend to go over well with a larger audience]--I mean, that seems to be a widely recognized interpretation. However, I don't think it is accurate to equate "narrative" with poems about Asian American experiences, and "experimental" with poems that are *not* about Asian American experiences.

I'm sure you've read Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee. And what about Cathy Park Hong's Translating Mo'um? There's also Catalina Cariaga's Cultural Evidence. These are all books that are more on the experimental side, and they also deal in great depth with issues of Asian American identity and Asian American experiences.

I enjoy the fact that there are so many different ways we express ourselves. I'm not one to say that one way is better than the other. I think every way is interesting, and it helps me to read work by others that is based on different aesthetics, theories, etc. from my own.

I think there are things to be gained and lost from writing poetry that appeals to a large audience, and also from writing poetry that appeals to only a small group. When you ask, Are "Asian-American poets seriously out-of-touch with the public's tastes," I'd like to ask you, "Aren't Asian-American poets a part of the 'public'?" When you state, "Narrativity seems to be the common path to prosperity and acceptance by a wider audience," I'd like to state that not all Asian American poetry seeks prosperity through such acceptance. Poets have different desires and goals for themselves as artists and as people, which lead them down a multitude of paths.

I'm hungry. Thanks again for this wonderful blog, Roger!

:) heather

8:40 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Andrew, yes, presuming what you say is true, I wonder what is the source of the public's taste. My first guess would have to be the first poems that we encounter as readers in elementary school. For example, I remember that all the poems that I encountered then rhymed -- so for years I believed that "a poem" had to rhyme to be "a poem." And I do think that some people do grow up thinking, and still think, that poems must rhyme to be poems.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Heather, there are too many fascinating things to address here, so I'll try to pick out a few.

First, I think you're absolutely right in quoting the terms "experimental" and "narrative." One may surely argue that the terms collapse into each other and are indistinguishable, or at least, only distinguishable in relative comparison from poem to poem, or from book of poems to book of poems.

Second, I've read all of Cariaga's Cultural Evidence, parts of Cha's Dictee, and none of Hong's Translating Mo'um. This is a good example of how one can evolve as a reader. I have to confess that when I read Cariaga and Cha -- about the same time, about three years ago now -- I thought much of it was gobbledygook. I didn't know what they were doing or care for it, probably because I knew next to nothing about surrealist or language poetry. But now I do feel that I must return to those books and reread them; I think that I will appreciate them much better this time around.

Third, I encourage people to read the last two paragraphs in your comment, which are eloquently put. (No, not including the one about being hungry -- the ones before that. :) ) However, I will say that I think that it remains an open question whether Asian American poets should attempt to appeal to a larger audience. Yes, I know Asian-American poets write for different reasons, and yes, I know some poets (gasp!) don't even seek publication.

But I think that most Asian-American poets who have had published a book of poems, or many poems in literary magazines, do seek some notoriety and power over the canon. I know I'm certainly seeking power through this blog not only by imposing my own warped perspectives on Asian-American poetry but by having this very discussion when it's possible that any reader of this paragraph could have been reading e.e. cummings. While I do seek power, however, I'm also trying to justify it, explain my views, develop them, and change them as well...

Sorry, that felt really long. Thanks again for reading and posting!

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