Saturday, March 19, 2005

Asian American Poetry - A Critique

Why do people hate Asian-American poetry? One interesting critique often levied against Asian American poetry is its engagement in identity politics/ethnic studies -- that is an evil per se. These critics are often dismissed as racists, but I do not think that is necessarily an accurate categorization or fair dismissal. That is to say, I do not think that, if an Asian-American poet covered the same subject matter and used the same style as a Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot that contemporary critics would not nod approvingly.

I think that most haters of Asian-American poetry should at worst be accused of the same fog of hypocrisy that supporters of Asian-American poetry sometimes drift through. And we should note that the most perceptive of these critics recognize, even if often failing to openly acknowledge, that the most fundamental debate is about control over the canon and content of poetry itself. The inclusion of a Patrick Rosal, Diana Chang, or Kimiko Hahn into the canon of "legitimate" poetry also has the effect of changing it. We are saying something important about poetry if we choose to read Kimiko Hahn instead of Ezra Pound. In this sense, demand for Asian-American poetry would not only be a threat to the status quo but a threat to one's "poetry self" that has developed over the years.

At this point, I'd like to define the "poetry self" as the subconscious, inchoate, intrinsic self that gravitates to certain poets/poems/styles of poetry over others. Because there are so many poets and so much poetry, we only have time to read a certain number of poets/poems. The poems that are the subject of our gravitation are often labeled as "the best poems," with "best" being conflated here with "personal favorite."

And I have noticed that readers of poetry tend to gravitate to poets like themselves. Male readers tend to prefer poems written by male poets, or African-American readers tend to prefer poems written by African-American poets, for example. You can often tell by what they talk about and praise as excellent. I'd be willing to wager that most of William Wordsworth's fans are white, male, older, and nature-lovers. This phenomenon is analgous to the "pets who look like their owners" phenomenon. I don't think that I'm making a remarkable observation here. Corporations and business-school folk have recognized this demographic phenomenon for years. One issue is that much of Asian-American poetry, for many prominent non-Asian-American poets and editors (who, of course, are readers themselves), is so unlike these readers that problems of audience can become centralized and perhaps function as a de facto prohibition of such poetry in publication. Part of what I'm getting at has a lot to do with identity -- there is the tendency to gravitate towards poetry with which we can identify.

At the same time, however, the dream of unity is still a powerful dream. Deconstruction and fragmentation may be helpful intellectual exercises, and they may be useful to the achievement of greater recognition for previously less recognized poetries, but we must appreciate the power of the desire for a single "poetry," a single ideal of "bestness." There is a reason why U.S. News and World Report college and graduate school rankings sell like hotcakes. Or why we have 4 brackets of 16 NCAA basketball teams in a field of 64 (now 65) and want only one champion, however arbitrary the road to the final four. In poetry, the paradox here is that dreamers of unity sometimes attempt to achieve this unity by quashing alternative poetries to maintain their own ideal of the dream, but, in doing so, have implictly acknowledged that the unity of their dream is a falsehood.

My own desire at this point in time is greater inclusivity and diversity, not only of race and ethnicity, which is the focus of this blog, but of gender, class, religion, etc. as well as of form and style of poetry. Moreover, I do not think that Asian-American poetry itself can be a closed category. Of course, I must admit that my own desire at least partly mimic my own ever-changing preferences and practices as a reader of poetry, which have biases of their own that represent the accumulation of a lifetime of rational and irrational events and thoughts. Also, I do not think that any of these issues have easy answers.


Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

I read the Garret Hongo edited Open Boat. I enjoyed it. I find context interesting. I had previously read most of the poets in Open Boat elsewhere but reseeing them as "Asian-American" poets rather than "just poets" gave them a new context. I don't claim any great revelations but I see no reason not to present a collection like this, especially since many of the poets included seem to feel being in the company of other Asian American poets gives them something that otherwise dissipates among the mass of American poetry/ies.

I think this has been true of women included in anthologies of poetry by women. Or Native American poets.

And I know I feel ... empowered isn't quite the word ... encouraged? ... something anyway ... something I like when I read a book of poems by gay poets; being gay it's nice to be able to put myself in the context of other gay poets (whether I ever appear in such an anthology myself). I don't seem to love the work more frequently than in other sorts of anthologies but I do recognize familiar stances, ways of being or thinking or looking, strategies of disguise and allusion or revelation. And there are in such an anthology things to which the ol' white male het seems oblivious. I like the opportunity to have context available.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Glenn, thanks a lot for the post! I've wondered whether there is the same phenomenon in the publication of "gay poetry" as there is in "Asian-American poetry" of not sounding "too gay" or "too Asian-American."

Of course, homosexuality is not uncommon in the poetry world, but I have noticed that the Pulizers, National Book Awards, etc. still tend to frown upon styles/themes too far outside the mainstream. And by "mainstream," I am thinking of a sort of mainstream, blue-state tolerance of homosexuality, identity politics, etc. but not so much welcoming it.

1:14 AM  
Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

Historically one must say that the only way to publish until quite recently was to de-gay one's writing. I'm sure it's still true that gay writers tone down the details, despite the many publishing out & prouds.

I don't seem to write erotic poetry, I don't even write very many autobiographical poems, and you won't find many of my poems addressing gay-specific issues, but I would be happy to be included in an anthology of gay poets ... you've asked, is it an asian-american poem if it's subject matter is not noticeably "asian-american" ... is it a gay poem? a male poem or female poem? While it's a mistake to declare the context more important than the art, the context provides the art's frame and many's the time the frame tells us much about ourselves and audience.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

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