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.]

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