Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Asian-American Poetry and Politics

Way back when, probably two months ago now, Nick provided me with a question explicitly for this blog: Why do white poetry professors steer Asian-American poets away from political subject matter?

I think that I never answered it, because I had issues with the framing of the question. I don't think that all white poetry professors do steer Asian-American poets away from political subject matter. I think that there are white poetry professors who steer Asian-American poets towards political subject matter, just as there are Asian-American poetry professors who approach things from the opposite perspective.

But I'm glad that I didn't answer Nick two months ago, because I would've been wrong, wrong, wrong. Or maybe now is the time that I'm wrong, only now I'm operating under the grand delusion that I'm right.

At any rate, I think that now I better appreciate the import of Nick's question. I'll frame it slightly differently here. In my framing, I am wondering why do non-Asian-American poetry professors know so little about Asian-American poets, in general, and the political subject matter of Asian-American poetry?

Personally, I've had many a great poetry teacher/professor who really have no clue about Asian-American poets and poetry. Should this ignorance detract from their "greatness"? I mean, I'm ignorant about a lot of stuff, and I don't really like having it shoved in my face. I am usually willing to learn, though, and lots of people are willing to learn. So I don't think ignorance is the main problem, and a professor's ignorance of Asian-American poetry doesn't necessarily detract from her or his "greatness."

The bigger problem is the related one where a poetry professor is ignorant and does not care about Asian-American poetry. I do not mean not caring about the term "Asian-American poetry." I'm talking about not being able to name a single Asian-American poet or being able to name only one or two and not wanting to learn! It is much more common than you think, especially if you live outside of CA or NY. There are poetry professors, teachers, and afficianados whom I admire, and some of whom I might even call great teachers, who genuinely do not care about Asian-American poets or poets who are Asian-American or however you want to frame it. For example, and to avoid impugning anyone, this is purely hypothetical: they might only care about pre-19th century American poetry, which of course eliminates all Asian-American poetry.

More usually, though, they do care about modern American poetry, but they just don't care about Asian-American poets or poetry. There are only so many poets that one can read. There are only so many interests that one can have. I understand. That makes it difficult, though. In one of his movie reviews, Roger Ebert once wrote something to the effect that sometimes you have to, deeply and emotionally and perhaps irrationally, want to care about another person and his or her interests. You can't force someone to care about, say, sea turtles or figure skating, if they just do not want to go there. I'll be tactfully vague here, and say that I've come across many people who just do not want to go there. It's always a bit disappointing, but I suppose that is part of love and life.

In general, I always find it sad when I come across a professor or teacher who is just intellectually uncurious about something that I care deeply about. I'm not sure why. I think it is because I have always presumed that to be a professor or teacher is to care deeply about learning and remain open-minded. That may be naive of me, but I still want to want to put my professors/teachers up on such pedestals.


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