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.


Blogger A.R.B. said...

Dear Roger,

I’ve taken liberty to post here my response to your comment in my blog on the issue of group-poetics (Fear of the Peerless) because I think it falls right alongside your current post. Unfortunately I read your post here after I had already responded to your comment in my blog. My apologies.

It never is too late to liven things up! A lot of points in your comment. Belonging to a group is effective. The question posed by Michael and myself is: is effectiveness necessarily good? Is practical and pragmatic in the arts necessarily good? That is, if belonging to a group requires a particular set of ideas—which it often necessarily does to the exclusion of others—it may not be the best road towards poetry. (Though it may very well be the best road to the winning of a law suit.) You have often noted in your blog how the “establishment” can keep other groups down or out. That’s the negative side I’m referring to. Likewise, and I have already gone at length on that in another post (Voices from the Oracle), groups necessarily define closer circles—narrower circles—which may not necessarily lead to the “best” poetry. More on best in a second. What narrowing the pool does—positively—is give some individuals a greater opportunity, say, to be published, to be known, to have the voice heard. Thus, as an Asian American you have a chance to be included in an Asian American anthology, and you also have the chance to be included in a non-specific-group anthology, say BAP for our purposes (because apart from the great connections you have, you also happen to be a worthy poet.) The same is not true for others. African Americans must come up with their own anthology, and Latin Americans, and so on. I simply don’t like the idea of grouping because I fail to see the nexus between the group and poetry. Though you may disagree, I don’t think that an Asian American writes a particular type of poetry. Including issues of concern to Asian Americans in poetry may be noble, but it does not further poetry; it furthers a social cause. If it can do both great, but that is seldom the outcome, because what makes poetry great in my mind is the universality of what concerns humankind, not individual interests. But that’s just me and I am profoundly naïve. I also don’t think that such group behavior leads to the “best” poetry. Poetry is an individual art that must be based on individual ideas—not group politics; hence, the essence of originality and the concept of best.

Back to that. Many people scuff at the “best” idea, about how it cannot be defined. Sort of like pornography, yet everyone seems to know what we’re talking about, give or take subtle matters of taste. You may find Frost boring as some poets may find him to be yet you must recognize Frost’s weight—the shadow he cast, even if you don’t like him—over American poetry; the same may said of Li Bai in Chinese poetry. On this I always turn to Matthew Arnold—always—when he speaks of refusing to lend ourselves to “any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas, which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought often to be attached to them,” but which in fact have nothing at all to do with poetry. Of course Arnold was referring to criticism, in particular, though I prefer to expand that idea to poetry in general. Thus: “It must needs be that men should act in sects and parties, that each of these sects and parties should have its organ, and should make this organ subserve the interests of its action; but it would be well, too, that there should be a [poetry], not the minister of these interests, not their enemy, but absolutely and entirely independent of them. No other [poetry] will ever attain any real authority or make any real way towards its end—the creating [of] a current of true and fresh ideas.”

Thanks for your comment. Full of freshness, as always.


2:16 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Alberto, thanks a lot for the very thoughtful post! Don't worry -- I'll read your response and respond as if you had read this post before. :)

I wouldn't scoff at the "best" idea. I would prefer editors of anthologies to define "bestness," however they view it, for the sake of transparency and better understanding. Contrary to what Heijinian says about "bestness," I think she does make an effort there. Also, we can't possibly read every single poem in the universal, so there must be an implied "bestness" out there somewhere.

Arnold's remarks on poetry remind me of lawyers and judges who believe that we must look to the literal words of the Constitution to determine its meaning. This is a very powerful argument: that the text itself holds the answer.

But, making a Heijinian-like argument here, I don't think that the poetry itself exists independently of time and place. So I'm contending that some "group" always exists, even if one chooses not to acknowledge it. And as a minor point, it's interesting that Arnold would choose to use the word "men," because I think that's what he does mean: men in the gender sense. Not in the universal sense, because in his time and place, women's poetry was not much respected.

That said, I do wonder what a "pure" reading of poetry that focuses only on the poetry would like. I'd be very impressed if anyone could show me. It seems that we always bring our personal hangups to the table -- for example, even the name of the poet influences our reading, unless we read poems without knowing the name of the poet, though as I've discussed earlier, I don't know if that's possible or even desirable.

Anyhow, thanks again for the wonderful post.

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Blogger Roger Pao said...

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