Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Azn Poets and Poetry - A Commentary and Critique

Even though I believe that "azn" poetry is a legitimate subculture of poetry itself, I do not mean to suggest that there aren't any problems with the poetry of my spikey-haired amigos with the funny choices in hair color.

I think that the biggest problem of "azn" poetry, or "political" poetry in general, is its lack of linguistic originality. Not to say that it can't be original -- it can, as in the case of the best work of Bao Phi or Ishle Yi Park, for example. For the masses of "azn" poets, however, I think it has always been difficult to come up with new ways to talk about your yellow/brown skin, your being perceived as a foreigner, your being discriminated against, etc.

In addition, "azn" poetry, while laying claim to the true essence of "Asian-ness," has ironically never been about an "original," traditional Asian culture itself but has borrowed heavily from hip-hop/rap and black culture. We all know that the suburbs of San Marino ain't exactly the 'hood. Confucius most likely never went around doing poetry slams in Detroit or NYC.

At any rate, it's always amazed me the extent to which "azns" like to co-opt the lyrics of economic oppression and racial subjugation as an "azn" identity that has never been theirs to possess singularly but applies to a much wider range of races, ethnicities, classes, etc. And I think political oppression is legitimate subject matter, and much of poetry is about co-opting and transforming.

But I'm saying "azn" poetry doesn't have a monopoly on "Asian-ness" or "Asian" authenticity that it would sometimes like to believe it has. Neither does the liberal, political left that dominates "azn", or for that matter, "Asian-American" poetry. I view "Asian-ness" as an open terrain in a legitimate sense -- not in the radical, leftist, deconstructionist sense that opens up the terrain only to quickly shut it again to include only views conducive to the left-of-center philosophy. I've always felt like there should be more conservative poetry, if only because I've been curious what such poetry would look like -- what kind of aesthetics that a politically right-of-center, young Asian-American poet would possess, for example.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Kundiman Fundraiser - A Reminder

Thursday, April 14, 2005

On Teaching the Meaning of Poetry

In terms of teaching poetry, I think that one of the biggest mistakes of teachers is to ask students to find "the" meaning of a poem. In essays, students are often graded on their ability to find "the" meaning. It is a very common error in the education of poetry to reduce contemplation over a poem to a perverse game of Where’s Waldo? There are many reasons why:

First, and most importantly, finding "the" meaning of a poem most likely in no way replicates the writing of poem. I happen to be one of those people who think that most poets have no specific meaning in mind when they initially write their poems. Usually, only after revision does the poet cull the poem into a certain, pleasing shape. But even then, if the poem is halfway decent, then it does not have "a" meaning.

Second and related, I don’t think that poems have any objective meaning. All poems, even the most simplest of poems, mean different things to different people upon different readings. Everyone has a different perspective on a poem. Now, I like the fact that many things in life have right and wrong answers – buildings designed to be earthquake proof, for example. But I’m talking about poems here. Poems are inherently receptive to many different interpretations.

Third, I have no idea why students are asked to find "the" meaning of a poem. Actually, I do have an idea, but I’m afraid of it. I’m afraid that students are asked to engage in this silly exercise simply to develop their intellectual capacity. Now that’s not a bad goal. But it has nothing to do with poetry – understanding, appreciating, or loving it. My suggestion would be not to use poetry in such dirty, deductive, logic-inducing activities.

Fourth, I think that the craving for meaning sometimes steers teachers away from poems, and types of poems, that they feel that they are less knowledgeable about. Typically, Asian-American poetry falls under this category. Most American teachers are not Asian-Americans, and they may feel that the experiences in such poetry are not accessible to them. But I'm saying that that's ok. No one has a mastery of all poems, and that's part of the beauty of poetry. The drive to reduce poems to narrow boxes of meaning may inhibt teachers from fully appreciating this beauty and helping their students appreciate it.

Fifth, and also quite importantly, I think that one of the top reasons that we lack readers of poetry is because many students, who later become adults, have been shot down at one time or another by overzealous teachers who unjustifiably blast their free-flowing interpretations out of the sky. People feel paralyzed by their "inability" to read poetry afterwards. But I’ve never come across anyone "unable" to read poetry – only those unwilling. My hypothesis is that their unwillingness lies in some academic trauma induced by some teacher(s) who have erroneously superimposed their interpretation as the correct one.

So what are my recommendations? I think that poetry should be read for enjoyment/pleasure first and that students should not be graded on the basis of their interpretations. I just love it when teachers claim that students are not being graded on their ability to find "the" meaning, but on "how" they find "the" meaning, as if the two phenomena may ever be separated. Grading on the ability to identify multiple meanings does not solve the problem here, because even the belief that there are multiple meanings (assuming that we don’t have the issue of students finding multiple meanings different from those that the teacher has in mind) is a bias in and of itself. Actually, I do not think that poetry essays should be graded at all. It’s counterproductive. In reading a particular poem, as far as the experience of the reader goes, the student typically knows as much as the teacher.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

On the Longevity of a Poem

I don't really understand it when poets say they want to write for someone 500 years in the future. Maybe that's just their way of saying that they're hoping for higher book sales of poetry by then. But if I'm not that generous with my interpretation, I'd have to assume that, when poets make such a claim, they are using longevity as a proxy for greatness.

Indeed, perhaps longevity is enough to make out a prima facie case for greatness, but I would require more evidence. I mean, lots of things have lasted for a long time: racism, poverty, famine, war, bigotry. That doesn't mean that they're good. Look at slavery: people can be stupid for a very long time. By the same token, poems that last for a very long time are not necessarily good either.

I think that Asian-American poetry, and contemporary poetry in general, would have a much greater audience, if more people stopped fetishizing the "great" work of "great" pre-20th century poets. I'm not saying that people should stop reading the work of these poets, but they should expand their readership.

I think that I'm preaching to the converted here, but if you're reading this blog, you probably know that a large percentage of so-called poetry aficionados won't touch poetry written after the 1950s. (A lot of these readers of poetry also have the preconception that poems that don't rhyme aren't poems.) Look around the Internet and just talk to people about poetry: I'd say that they form the majority of poetry readers.

But just because a poem is old doesn't mean that it's "great" by any measure, unless "old" means "great," and it certainly doesn't mean that it is a more worthwhile read than a poem written today. Actually, I sometimes find poems written centuries ago to be overly abstract, less emotionally accessible, and about worlds that don't really interest me. Now, I think that these poems have historical value and may be read sociologically or anthropologically, but they sometimes tend not to be entertaining, fun, intellectually stimulating, or emotionally enriching. And I think that poets today should push harder for an audience to read more contemporary poetry.

Friday, April 08, 2005

April is the Cruellest Month for Student-Bloggers

Those of you in the work force are not the lucky ones vis-a-vis students...for most of the year. But as someone who has a recent memory of the experience of working a 40-hour workweek and of the vey different experience of being a student, and is a student now, I'd have to say that being a regular old employee beats being a student at certain times of the year -- namely, right before and around finals time. In other words, for about one month twice a year -- when the workload and time pressures become particularly weighty on students.

I've got all these witty, sharp, wild remarks about Asian American poetry (or at least remarks that I think are witty, sharp, and wild) floating around in my head and barely any time to blog nowadays. Like now, it's Friday night, and there's more work to be done. I can take a breather now and then, but even then, the workload still looms in front of me like a haunting yew tree.

So April and early May blogging will probably be slower, though I should accentuate the "probably" part of it because there's still a solid chance that I won't be able to resist and blog voraciously despite the lack of free time. Anyhow, as I noted earlier, I intend to pick things up some time in mid-to-late May when I'll be reviewing individual books of Asian-American poetry, hopefully at a rate of several per week. Now relatively speaking, there aren't that many published Asian-American books of poetry out there in general (probably several hundred), and as an early guess, I'm anticipating that I'll be lucky to find fifty or seventy-five of them in various libraries. Still, that should make for an interesting summer's worth of reading. (Edit: Or not. :) Sorry, folks, the summer job has been more time-consuming than imagined.)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Poetry and Ambition - Part 3

"15. Sigh. If it seems hopeless, one has only to look up in perfect silence at the stars . . . and it does help to remember that poems are the stars, not poets. Of most help is to remember that it is possible for people to take hold of themselves and become better by thinking. It is also necessary, alas, to continue to take hold of ourselves—if we are to pursue the true ambition of poetry. Our disinterest must discover that last week's nobility was really covert rottenness, etcetera. One is never free and clear; one must work continually to sustain, to recover. . . ."
See "Poetry and Ambition,"

To me, this quote exemplifies Donald Hall at his best. It is not the Donald Hall who possesses only the very limited knowledge of white, male poets from antiquity. Nor is it the Donald Hall who implicitly attempts to make poetry the exclusive domain of the well-educated and wealthy through a narrow definition of greatness in poetry.

Rather, it is the contemplative, introspective Donald Hall who ponders over the importance of critical thought over poetry. It is the Donald Hall who laments a world that abdicates itself from the responsibility of the art form through increasing corportatization of poetry into, as Hall puts it, "McPoems." Is the Donald Hall who realizes that nothing is quite as it seems, and that it is the responsibility of poetry lovers today to take up the cause of previous generations and sustain, recover, build upon, unmask, and reconceptualize the past. It is what I'm hoping that this blog on Asian-American poetry is about.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Asian American Poetics Listserv - Revisited

Over on his blog, Tim Yu ( defends the Listserv format over the group blog and discussion board format. He asks the question: "I've been on several Yahoo groups, and I see Google groups as well; can anyone tell me if these seem like better ways to manage a list, or if there are other options that I should consider?"

Well, Tim, my friend, you've asked the right person. About three and a half years ago, in August 2001, I started a Yahoo! group on Asian American poetry called "Famous Asian American Poets - Homage to Today's Asian American Poets." It never really took off. I think that there were 14 members at one point. But no one talked to each other about anything. The timing was probably not quite right. Also, that was slightly before the proliferation of blogs and relatively easy access to e-mails, and I had no way to make anyone who might be interested aware of it.

I don't think that it was necessarily the format that led to the Yahoo! group's not taking off. However, I will say that a Yahoo! group has the disadvantage of only showing 5 messages at time and nowadays proliferates with advertisements that make you click on an extra link before allowing you to proceed with viewing the message. Also, Tim is concerned about anonymity and sniping with the discussion board format, and the Yahoo! group format will not address these concerns. In fact, the Yahoo! group format is essentially a discussion board format but with the owner/moderator having less control over style and the proliferation of advertisements.

Tim raises an important concern in suggesting that there may be a lack of individuals interested in Asian-American poetry. Like Tim, I would like to believe that there is a community out there to justify the maintenance of a listserv, discussion board, group blog, etc., but it's questionable. If the objective is to have a greater number of people on the listserv, my suggestion would be to reach out to two groups that may or may not interested in Asian-American poetry: (1) non-Asian-American poets and writers and (2) Asian-Americans not necessarily interested in poetry.

I'm not as wild about the idea of having several formats on Asian-American poetry going at once, at least at the beginning. I think that would merely fragment an already small community of potential participants and readers.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Fred Korematsu

Ugh, there have been too many famous people passing away over the past week or so. Well, in trying to keep with the content of this blog, this entry focuses on the recent passing of Fred Korematsu, arguably the most famous Asian-American civil rights leader in American history. Here is a story on his passing: Here is more information on his life:

Friday, April 01, 2005

Kundiman Fundraiser

Get ready for the coolest, baddest, swankiest fundraising event of the season: Kundiman's 80's Prom Gala at St. Mark's Poetry Project!

Dress up in your Breakfast Club duds & get that Spandau Ballet haircut. It'll be an extravaganza of high school nostalgia, kitsch, memorableperformances, wild dancing and wine cooler punch! Now's the time to askout that special someone--or not! Going stag is awesome, too. Perchanceyou'll meet someone on the dancefloor, or (cue music) across the crowdedroom.

The Kundiman Prom will be the prom you've always wanted. Buy your bidssoon & spread the word.

*****Kundiman presents TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE HEART, an 80's Prom Gala

Travel back to the past to your senior prom—it’s 1985 again!

Put on that Molly Ringwald pink, don that rhinestone glove and Get intothe Groove.Bring your main squeeze or your best friends. Or, better yet, comestag—awesome!This multimedia Prom Gala will feature:•Open Wine Bar, 80’s Cake Reception•Dancing to your Favorite 80’s and Hip-hop Beats.•Performances by Award-winning Asian American Poets•Favors: a Class Ring or a Satin Orchid Wrist Corsage•Karaoke Election of Prom King & Queen•Prom Pictures!


WHEN:Friday, April 29, 200510 pm – 2 amOpen Wine Bar from 10 pm – Midnight, Cash Bar Afterwards

WHERE:The Poetry ProjectSt. Mark’s Church131 East 10th Street (2nd Avenue)New York, NY 10003

HOW:General AdmissionAdvance Tickets are $35 and may be purchased on http://www.kundiman.orgAt the Door, Tickets will be $50Poetry Project Members may pay $30 at the DoorEmail to reserve your space. Must show proof of ProjectMembership at the Door


Why go to The Total Eclipse of the Heart Prom?•All proceeds from the Prom will benefit Kundiman’s 2nd Annual AsianAmerican Poets’ Mentorship Retreat at The University of Virginia.•You want another chance to meet “Ducky”•You were in the closet and went to prom with someone of the opposite sex(who had a crush on you).•You can’t wait to “get physical” to Purple Rain and Take on Me.•It’s Totally Rad!This is activism for the fabulous and mischievous. For one night only,Kundiman, The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church and today’s brightestAsian American talents offer you the chance to experience prom as itshould be.Def Poetry Jam poet, Regie Cabico will host.


Performer Bios:

Named one of A. Magazine’s hottest up-and-coming Asian American stand-upcomics, Regie Cabico is also a spoken word artist and poet. He won MTV’sFree Your Mind competition and appears on HBO’s Russell Simmons PresentsDef Poetry.

Ishle Yi Park is a Korean American woman who has been published in TheBest American Poetry of 2003. She has been twice featured on HBO’s DefPoetry Jam, and performed her poetry on the NAACP Image Awards. She has aCD entitled “Work is Love,” and a book of poetry called “The Temperatureof this Water.”

Patrick Rosal is the author of Uprock Headspin Scramble And Dive (PerseaBooks). His work has been published in many journals and anthologiesincluding North American Review, Columbia, The Literary Review, and TheBeacon Best 2001. He has been a featured reader at many venues in and outof NYC, from Boston to Daytona Beach, as well as in London and on the BBCradio’s “World Today.” He is currently Assistant Professor of English atBloomfield College.

Tina Chang is the author of Half-Lit Houses, published by Four Way Books.Her poems have appeared in Indiana Review,The Missouri Review,Ploughshares, Quarterly West, and Sonora Review, among others. She hasreceived awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Barbara DemingMemorial Fund, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the New York Foundationfor the Arts, Poets & Writers, and the Van Lier Foundation.

Mr. Miyagi's Theatre Company is an Obie-award winning theater companywhose work has been hailed by critics as "Whip-smart comedy - a bull's eye(Wall Street Journal)," "High speed, chokingly funny (Washington Post),""Smart, current and unapologetic--if you enjoy laughing out loud, go seeit (," Their current production entitled: SIDES: The FearIs Real... is one not to be missed.

Lisa Ascalon, a Poet-in-Residence for Poets & Writers and a KundimanRetreat Fellow, has performed spoken word at Nuyorican Poets Café andBronx Academy for Arts and Dance.

Mission Statement

Kundiman is a non-profit organization committed to the discovery andcultivation of emerging Asian-American poets. Through instruction andcollaborative programs as well as through publications and readings opento the public, Kundiman hopes to advance the work of Asian-Americanwriting. Through poetry, we aim to celebrate and promote a strong andpositive Asian-American culture and identity. Kundiman is a sponsoredproject of The New York Foundation for the