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.


Blogger True Flight said...

I do feel that you may be drawing finer and finer distinctions of no real relevance. Two poetry readers of the same

socioeconomic status,
education level, and
sexual orientation,
and coming from the same geographic region of the US,

may nevertheless have differing opinions of the same poem, and each of their opinions may well be shared by different Asian-Americans.

Or non-Asian Americans, for that matter.

12:40 AM  
Blogger A.R.B. said...

Dear Roger,

I’m afraid I must agree with GK. The finer you comb the issue of “Asianness” the weaker it becomes and the less persuasive. In the end it seems that some people are invited to a cocktail party from which others are excluded solely based on race or ethnicity. And even worse, some are excluded despite their race and / or ethnicity. Precisely, one presumes, the opposite effect of what is intended. I think the mixed-race issue you raised made this evidently clear: The differences, not the likenesses, are what makes poetry great. The following blog “conversation” I recently maintained with C. Dale in his “Avoiding the Muse” exemplifies my point. It speaks for itself. The common thread must—must be—good poetry and nothing else.


Pao also brings up mixed race poets like Ai and the fact she doesn't identify as Asian American even though she is part Asian American. I actually understand this. I think, when you are mixed race, you tend to identify with the one that seems most accepting of you. I am 50% Caucasian (thanks Mom!). I assure you I do not feel Caucasian, and I don't identify as Caucasian, even though legally, I am. My drivers license says Caucasian, for instance. I am 12.5% East Indian and 12.5% Chinese. So, some say I am 25% Asian. But I don't typically feel Asian, except in Vegas where I cannot stop gambling (I am just kidding!). I am 25% Puerto Rican. Interestingly, it is this quarter of me that I feel most accustomed. Why is that? Well, I think it is because it is this group that seems most accepting of me. No Latino has ever dismissed me or dissed me. They have their machismo issues regarding being gay, but even that seems overlooked most of the time. Maybe it is the brown skin. I don't know.


Also interesting is the notion that you should be included in the Asian American Anthology. I can see both sides to that. However, and as Roger Pao knows from our many conversations, I cannot agree with the need for such ethnic, race-based anthologies, though you will certainly fair better than most: Indian Anthology, Puerto Rican, Caucasian, Indian [sic]. I hope you can see my point. I think they're a no, no.


Alberto, To be honest, I am not a huge fan of race-based or ethnic anthologies, but I felt Victoria's vision for the anthology and the ridiculous amount of work she did for it begged my cooperation. And, to be honest, I am glad to be in that anthology, not so much because of its Asian-ness (is that a word?) or its lack of such, but because I think much of the work in it is very well-written. Glad to be included among good writers.

2:08 AM  
Blogger barbara jane said...

in response to GK: yes, that's been my point, even with all these socio-economic, gender, etc factors in common, 2 asian am poets may still have nothing in common in their writing or their reading. which is why i feel the overarching 'asian american' label and the question of 'is-it/is-it-not asian american' is also not so helpful because 2 asian am poets can have totally different takes on the exact same thing. is one less or more asian american than the other? who's to say? and who provides the standard by which all other asian american poets are judged?

9:33 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey GK, thanks for posting! Arrgh, I'm so busy and yet I can't resist the temptation to respond. :) I'll try to be quick.

I think that you raise a great point. This is a very useful question. But at the same time, like myself at times, you are also making an empirical claim that has no proof. Now it's possible that we could design a sociological study on the relative salience of race, gender, religion, etc. in affecting readers' views of poems. I don't think that there are any out there, but of course, even such studies will get critiqued. More thoughts on this later, because it's worthy of further contemplation...

12:30 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Alberto, thanks for the comments! Just quickly to respond to some points, I do suggest the possibility of expanding Asian-American poetry, and by extension other possibilities, beyond the race/ethnicity of the poet.

But as I will point out in a later post, anthologies often exclude whole groups, and most often, in terms of race, it is racial minorities -- for example, Bloom's BAP 10 year anthology was composed almost entirely of Caucasian poets. But he's not the only one -- older anthologies often don't include any racial minorities. Now if you think that there is a definable "good/bad" poetry and you define it, you could make the strong argument that the racial minorities' poetry just wasn't good enough for inclusion. As earlier posts indicate, I'm not so sure.

More thoughts later. Thanks again.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Barbara, thanks for your comments! I think that if you want to make the argument that the "Asian-American" label is not helpful, you would have to at least consider the possibility that other labels are not helpful either. In other words, perhaps "African-American" poetry is not helpful. Perhaps "feminist" poetry is not helpful. Perhaps "gay" poetry is not helpful. Now I believe that these labels can be helpful, but that's a difference of opinion.

And I'll have to say that I respecfully disagree with the idea that the question of "is it/is it not" Asian-American is not helpful? That's a question that needs to be asked. It's comparable to the question of "is it/is it not" good poetry? Now one may be uninterested in the question -- but from our correspondences, Barbara, I'm of course not referring to you -- but I think that to have a better understanding of the global, philosophical underpinnings of the art of poetry, one should contemplate such questions.

Short note: I'll have a response to this fruitful discussion in my next post as well. Thanks!

12:44 PM  
Blogger EILEEN said...

Roger, you refer to my name in this post and the phrase I authored on Barbara's blog "content vs paradigm". For the record, I didn't mean the phrase the way you mean it and the way your post implies I meant it. I had been talking about the assigning and publishing of poetry reviews -- a FAR DIFFERENT matter than the notion of reading said poetry reviews or poems.

8:50 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Eileen, thanks for the comment! I think we have a blogging miscommuncation here. I'm assuming you haven't read Barbara's blog dated 1/27/04 "Content, Not Paradigm," where I state that my own references to "content" and "paradigm" are independent from yours or Barbara's and imply that I wouldn't link over to the discussion to avoid confusion. And, in the post, I state that these definitions are mine -- I was just crediting you and Barbara for getting me to think about this fascinating topic. But it's great that you've posted over here for further clarification.

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