Saturday, January 01, 2005

What is Asian-American Poetry? - Part Deux

When we last left off our little adventure into the question of what is Asian-American poetry, I had essentially proposed two possible definitions: (1) poetry written by Asian-Americans (the conventional definition), and (2) poetry about Asian Americans -- i.e., poems dealing with Asian-American characters and issues (a radical definition).

For now, I'll wear my sombrero, mustache, and Phantom of the Opera mask and pretend that we're using (2) poetry about Asian Americans. Perceptive readers noted that the second definition's primary problem is determining what constitutes "Asian-American characters and issues." As far as "characters" go, must the characters of a poem have Asian names/last names for it to count as an Asian-American poems? Must we know for a fact that the characters and/or narrator are Asian-American? How many Asian-Americans need to be in a poem for it to count as an Asian-American poem? Is having one or the other -- characters or issues -- sufficient, or are both necessary?

As far as "issues" go, must a poem be about immigration, assimilation, racism, etc. for it to count as a poem about Asian-Americans? The more interesting and difficult question involves Asian-American issues, IMHO, because any issue may theoretically count as an "Asian-American" issue. Face it, baby, Asian-Americans do it all -- laugh, love, work, eat, drink, play, sleep, shout, horse around, etc. If we circumscribe Asian-American issues to a certain set of issues, we have clarity, but at the same time, we risk having a definition of Asian-American poetry that is too restrictive, and ultimately, not representative of Asian-American lives. However, if we count everything as an "Asian-American issue," then we risk having a definition that loses clarity and meaning.

But taking off my sombrero, mustache, and Phantom of the Opera mask, and putting on my New Year's Eve top hat, beard, and Barney the Dinosaur disguise, let us pretend that we're using (1) poetry written by Asian-Americans. From an earlier post, I'll repeat here that this definition has difficulties of its own:

For who are we including here in the category of "Asian-American" -- Asian-Americans born in the US? American citizens of Asian descent? Asian people who live in America? HAPAs? Asian-American "quadroons and octoroons"? Asian-American citizen-dissidents in Asia? Asian-American citizen-dissidents across the world? Asian-Americans adopted by non-Asian-American couples? the adoptive parents of an Asian-American child? people with Asian-American names? self-hating Asian-Americans?

To it, I'd like to add (a) a poet like Tony Goldstone -- a non-Asian-American scholar who translates Asian poetry, (b) white children adopted by Asian-American parents, and most controversially (c) non-Asian-American poets who write under Asian or Asian-American pseudonyms (e.g. the Yasusada hoax). Who do we add, who do we keep out, and why?

What I want is for people to start thinking more deeply about the category of "Asian-American poetry." But, taking off all my masks, I would be insincere if I didn't observe that I have a political agenda as well: At this point, mine is to adopt the most expansive (and thus inclusive) defintion of Asian-American poetry possible. This agenda may change as the discussion progresses, but I want some combination of the conventional definition and a radical definition.

I have purposefully said "a" radical definition, because I think that I may want to group (a), (b), and (c) as a third "radical" definition and talk about it in a future post (perhaps I'll refer to it as an "extreme" definition). Right now, it looks like (a) and (b) are much more plausible than (c) . Laying my cards on the table, I'll just say that I intuitively and personally dislike (c), but putting on my orange beret, I want to be able to come up with a set of justification for why I think that non-Asian-American poets who pretend to be Asian or Asian-American poets are not "Asian-American poets" and do not write "Asian-American poetry." It's another difficult issue with its own set of perils and possibilities.


Blogger Andrew said...

May I present another case study? Myself. An American citizen (no Asian descent) that has grown up in an Asian country and thus understands (and even owns) parts of Asian culture. Am I, in some senses, Asian-American? Is my poetry Asian-American?

9:59 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks, Andrew! Yes, nice addition. On this blog, I'm going to be wrestling with the distinction between Asian-American poets and Asian-American poetry. It's easy to conflate the two, as I've done here in this post despite my trying not to do it, but I think that the questions of whether you are Asian-American and whether your poems are Asian-American poetry are separate. And both can be answered yes or no, but any answer should attempt at some sort of explanation/justification, IMHO.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

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2:58 PM  
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