Sunday, February 27, 2005

What is Asian-American Poetry? - Part Three Edited

(Note: I have edited Part Three here to reflect my present views on the question of What is Asian-American poetry?)

Plunging further into the question of what is "Asian-American poetry," I now have three potential 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 (radical definition #1), and (3) poetry written by Asian-Americans AND poetry about Asian-Americans (radical definition #2).

Here I will say that my proposal to unhinge the poetry from the poet (radical definition #1 - poetry about Asian Americans) is ahistorical, decontextual, and perhaps dangerous. As noted earlier, Asian-American poetry (or for that matter, African-American poetry, Latino-American poetry, Japanese-American poetry, etc.) has NEVER been completely disconnected from the race/ethnicity of the poet.

I contend that this lack of disconnect of poetry from poet is a major part of what has troubled many people about Asian-American poetry and dicussions over race in poetry. It mirrors the larger societal debate of valuing "color-blindness" versus valuing "racial diversity" as well as "meritocracy" versus "representativeness" and perhaps even "racially political" versus "language" poetry. (Of course, you may complicate the terms -- for example, the "representativeness" people might argue that representativeness itself is a merit, while advocates of "language" poetry may argue that the subverting of language is itself a critique of racism and bigotry.)

On poets v. poetry, I don't think that we have come close to dividing the two. I don't know if it is possible or desirable. Illustrations of the fact that we are still fascinated by the identity of the poet include the fact that we still refer to poets by name rather than by poem, still revere poets by name rather than by poem, still publish the names of poets alongside their poems, etc. The idea of the "author" has not been eliminated from our mindsets, remains within our frame of reference. I think that it applies to a certain extent to pretty much everyone -- I would be happy to be shown differently but, for example, I know of no one who always refers to poems by their name and doesn't identify the poet. Dividing the poetry from the poet may also be anti-intellectual in the sense that we would never be able to trace the evolution of an poet's work, assess and compare poets' works as a relative whole, and explore the biographies of poets and the social conditions under which they lived or are living.

At this point, I favor radical definition #2 because of its inclusivity, but the same critique levied against the conventional definition of it being exclusionary and privileging the identity of poets over poetry may be levied against this definition. While it is not as exclusionary as the conventional definition, it does allow Asian-American poets to write, say, poems completely about love and have them count as "Asian-American" poems, while it does not do the same for non-Asian-American poets. Furthermore, each definition has its own set of complexities, as discussed earlier.


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