Monday, January 10, 2005

Questions of Audience

For all the poets out there, what is your imagined audience? Does it have anything to do with race/ethnicity? You might answer briskly, as I used to do, that your imagined audience is everyone and that it has nothing to do with race or ethnicity.

I never thought about this question much until I started taking part in poetry workshops -- sometimes I would use a Chinese word that no one would understand. But other times, it would have nothing to do with language, and the reverse would happen. In my most recent workshop, in one of my poems, I included the phrase "metropolitan Taipei" and was told by two non-Asian-Americans that I was surely underestimatng their knowledge. The advice was to take out the word "metropolitan," and I think it was good advice. Indeed, I may have underestimated their knowledge, though in the same workshop, I wrote about Japanese cucumbers in another poem -- and at least one workshop member didn't understand my description, because he had never encountered such an elongated creature before. Even though I still try to write for "everyone," I am beginning to realize that this "everyone" may not exist out there.

As an "audience" myself, I encounter similar issues with regards to race. I think that there are some poems that I surely don't understand as well, because I'm not white, black, Latino, etc. I try to empathize, but sometimes the exact experience described in the poem eludes me in a way that I think would not elude me if I was another race. Surely, the same phenomenon can occur with regards to poems that wrestle with gender, geography, sexuality, etc.

Is a poem "bad," because only a limited audience can empathize with the experiences described? Is a poem "good," because more people can empathize? I think that all poems must negotiate this difficult balance between the particular and the universal. The more "universal" poems tend to be the ones that persist over the centuries as part of the "respectable" canon, but I don't believe that the merit of any poem should hinge on its longevity or its universality.

Moreover, am I even correct to separate "the particular" and "the universal"? In a community of Asians and Asian Americans at 99 Ranch Market, for example, it is quite possible that a poem about "the particularities" of a Japanese cucumber is more universal, while a poem about the "universal" experience of watching The Empire Strikes Back is more particular.

Although one may collapse the distinction in this way, I think that the terms may still be useful and at least historically and sociologically valid in the larger sense of considering the canon of poetry as a whole. Juliana Chang has traced Asian-American poetry back to the 1890s, while Marlon Hom has dated it as early as the 1880s. The very fact that poetry both about and written by Asian Americans has barely survived over the decades and has only recently become even a footnote in poetry scholarship might suggest a suppression of the particular with regards to race/ethnicity. Anyhow, returning to my original focus, I find questions of audience to be quite interesting.


Blogger Andrew said...

I've been reading Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, where he talks about what makes a work canonical. In a few words (because I don't have much time) he says that when a work of literature takes the strange (like metropolitan Taipei) and changes into the universal, it establishes itself as canonical. His primary example of this is Dante, whose Inferno is surely as strange as anyone can get.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Andrew, glad you're here! And I'm also glad you've mentioned Harold Bloom. I haven't read much of his work, here and there, but your post is in line with what I've read. From what I've read, Bloom believes that there "is" a "universal" with aesthetic autonomy and which touches the sublime.

I admire Bloom's writing for its confidence and assertiveness. Also, as a wannabe intellectual/critic, my main weakness is being too nice. As you can tell, Bloom is not too nice. :) He rips apart stuff, but he is upfront about it. Even if I disagree with him, at least I can tell that I do. He knows that control over the literary canon is about power, and he isn't afraid to treat it as such

7:00 PM  
Blogger barbara jane said...

hi roger - the above's a link to lawrence levine's THE OPENING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, which is an examination of the creation of canon. the reason i bring this up is because, really quickly, i do not believe in "the universal" as an organically existing and superior entity, but rather, as a construction. whoever determines for the rest of us what is "universal" also have culturally specific standards by which they judge what is "universal."

i believe both as a writer and a reader i must understand i do both write and read from my own subjectivity and that all writers and readers do this too.

so i agree with you where you say context is important in determining what is "particular" or what we can assume a majority of the people in that context holds as a knowledge base.

just my 2 cents. peace, barbara

8:04 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

I don't think that Asian-American poetry is underrepresented in the canon because it lacks any of this universalness, but that the literature fails to be promoted as well as works from other Americans because of latent racism and prejudice. But maybe that's another story.

Yeah, Bloom isn't afraid to speak his mind. And I love that about him. Reading this, connecting about him, makes me want to go pull out my book and see what Asian-American authors he includes in his "Chaotic Age" list.

10:17 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Barbara, thanks a lot for the book rec! Yeah, I agree that people read and write from their own subjectivities. Part of a prof/scholar's power comes from making it appear objective in the sense of it being utterly external. I think that's why some become nervous about claims of subjectivity -- it challenges one of the sources of their power.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Andrew,

My guess is that 0 Asian-American authors are in Bloom's chaotic age. :)

1:58 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

I didn't find any, but that doesn't mean there aren't any there. Still, Bloom is pretty stingy, despite his ranting about how some authors that he includes may not last. Amy Tan doesn't even make the list, which upsets me.

9:21 PM  
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