Monday, January 17, 2005

Is There an Avant-Garde Movement in Asian-American Poetry?

Is there an avant-garde movement in Asian-Ameican poetry? Poet Nick Carbo proposes this fascinating question for this blog.

To answer this definition, I should try to define "avant-garde." Wikipedia offers the following definition: "The avant garde was originally identified with the promotion of social progress: seeing the group or individual so described as the pioneer of a social reform movement. Over time the term has also come to be associated with movements concerned with "art for art's sake", concerned primarily with expanding the frontiers of aesthetic experience, rather than with wider social reform. The concept of an elite band of pioneers has also been seen by many as elitist." See

So basically, I think that there are two definitions of "avant-garde" as it relates to Asian-American poetry: (1) Asian-American poetry that is primarily concerned with reforming society and perhaps politics, and (2) Asian-American poetry that is primarily concerned with language and being on the cutting edge in shaping and reforming the (English) language itself. Which is not to say that a poet, book of poetry, or particular poem may not share both of these concerns at the same time or neither concern at all.

Back to the original question: I think that, in both these senses, there have been avant-garde movements in Asian-American poetry. I would also add that I feel like it has always been a pivotal division among Asian American poets and poetry lovers. It can prevent, for example, a lover of Nellie Wong's or Shirley Geok-lin Lim's poetry from becoming a lover of Li-Young Lee's poetry.

I have to say that I am seriously concerned that Wong or Lim-like poetry (precedents of spoken word poetry like that of Bao Phi, Ishle Yi Park, or Beau Sia) is being marginalized in Asian-American poetry. This concern is not new -- such poetry has historically often been marginalized in "academic" discussions of more "academic" poetry. Related to this entry, I also want to focus attention again to "azn poetry," which I feel cannot be excluded from a discussion of "Asian-American poetry." Whether the two meanings of "avant-garde" have been -- or may be -- intersected to fashion a more vibrant Asian-American poetics would be an interesting question.


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