Monday, May 30, 2005

More on Poetry and Songwriting

The Academy of American Poets' weekly Spotlight essay, unbeknownst to me, is on poetry and songwriting as it relates to Bob Dylan. See

I have to admit that I chuckled when I read the question, "Should Bob Dylan be considered a songwriter or a poet?" Now come on?! :) You're asking that question on a poetry website. If you definitely thought that Dylan was a songwriter, then the article shouldn't even exist on this site.

But all in all, I enjoyed the apparently anonymously written article. It's well-written, informative, and succinct. My favorite passage is this one: "The problem many critics have with calling song lyrics poetry is that songs are only fully realized in performance. It takes the lyrics, music, and voice working in tandem to unpack the power of a song, whereas a poem ideally stands up by itself, on the page, controlling its own timing and internal music." It clearly outlines a difference between poetry and songwriting, though concededly it ignores spoken word, poetry readings, and the power of poetry as an oral art form.

Still, I don't like the phrasing of the main question. I think that Dylan should be considered as both a poet and songwriter. Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that many critics have given so much serious thought to this passingly interesting though ultimately inane question.

It's part of my larger critique of poetry critics and professors' not giving enough attention to Asian American poetry. Poetry professors have a tendency to reproduce a narrow group of poets as "great" and worthy of critical attention. But their self-reinforced hierarchy is circular: Professor A says that Poet B is great, and Poet B is great because Professor A says so. Even though I concede that's how elitism works, it might not be too much trouble for poetry professors to take a broader view of poetry and read more widely in their field before proclaiming, or implying, a hierarchy of those poets worthy of being read.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Hmong and Laotian American Poets

As readers of this blog know, I've lamented in the past about a lack of southeast Asian poets and poetry in the Asian American poetry scene. Here is a useful resource for anyone interested in Hmong and Laotian American poets and poetry, courtesy of poet Bryan Thao Worra: Hmong American Institute for Learning,

Friday, May 27, 2005

Poetry and Songwriting

I was talking to someone the other day about poems and songs. I wonder why poetry-writing and songwriting are not too closely linked, and if they were ever closely linked at some point in the past. Now you might scream, but of course, they are closely linked! Would it comfort you to know that part of me is screaming as well? But I'm talking about reality, not theory, here.

I'm talking about the separation between a popular, commercialized, relatively centralized, highly profitable music industry whose artistry is perhaps too often compromised for the sake of $$ and a more elitist, less commercialized, more decentralized, unprofitable poetry industry whose artistry is at least not compromised for the sake of $$.

And I'm also talking about the fact that relatively few poets crossover into songwriting or vice versa, which is kind of surprising to me. My initial guess is that writing a poem is different from writing a song nowadays in one key way: poems don't rhyme, songs do. Of course, I'm using overstatement here, but it's not too far from the truth. A more obvious difference is that songs have music, poems don't, not using music in the broad sense here.

Here's my key point: I think that poets and songwriters have a lot to learn from each other. My major problem with many songs nowadays is the lyrics. I think that, for some reason, songs lack originality just on the basic level of word choice. There is a lack of originality in songs. At the same time, songs are much more accessible than poems. People like to listen to music. Ride on any subway, and you'll see people listening to their favorite songs. Unless you're watching me read Tina Chang's Half-Lit Houses, you probably won't catch anyone reading poetry. So the lesson for poetry from songwriting is accessibility.

The exception to everything I've said above is rap. And here's where things relate more specifically to Asian-Americans. I think of rap music as the musical form that is more closely linked with poetry, both commercially and artistically, than any musical form today. Spoken word is arguably a music form in and of itself. And there are many azn poets who have taken advantage of this link and risen to relative popularity beyond traditional, academic poetry circles.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

If Billy Collins Wore a Speedo...

What I cannot understand about many perfectly intelligent poets is the way that they are utterly content with their own irrelevancy in the world. What pleases me about a Billy Collins, Li-Young Lee, Robert Pinsky, etc. is the way that they promote and self-promote, the way they believe that ordinary folk should read poetry.

One of my ongoing concerns is figuring out why contemporary poetry is the unwanted jelly bean of the American populace. Why are poets seldom mentioned in the media, almost never outside the university context? Why aren't there any NY Times Best Sellers' Lists for poetry? Why is poetry almost never published in popular magazines, or relegated to the doldrums of filler, placed in small, rectangular cubicles like personal ads? Why don't more regular folk read and buy books of poetry?

One answer, which is the most common answer that I've heard from non-poets, is that poetry is an art form of the elite. Poetry is high art: a stuffed peacock: the glass antique that your grandmother warns you not to touch. Indeed, it takes a brilliant, imaginative mind to compose, read, and comprehend poetry...But I'm saying that this answer is actually just polite-speak for "most people are just too dumb to get poetry." Perhaps some poets do genuinely believe that many people are just too dumb to "get" their poetry," but I think that most don't. Most poets who seek to publish want a broad readership.

So I think that more Asian American poets need to wear speedos. That is, they need to do more to market themselves and make the public want to read them. I'm not sure how. I think I've suggested a bunch of stuff related to the education of poetry as well as related to substance and content. But see, that may be where I went astray -- being a sullen, little egghead who trusts in the triumph of Jodie Foster over Angelina Jolie.

My new proposal here is a "Calendar of Asian American Poets." Someone definitely needs to make one of those. And it should be a fun, sexy calendar. I'm not talking about a photo of John Yau reading Proust's Les Plaisirs et Les Jours while sitting on a rocking chair next to a floor lamp. I'm talking about a photo of John Yau dangling Pinot Noir grapes over his mouth while in a bubbling jacuzzi. And I've been politically correct here, but I think that female Asian American poets should work their appeal more as well. I'm using "sexy" here in the more generic sense of attracting the reader's attention. Once we have the calendar, we can then move on to other publicity moves.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Save the Date: Kundiman & Verlaine reading, 5/23

Kundiman & Verlaine present a night of poetry & libation with
John Yau, Vikas Menon & Barbara Jane Reyes

Monday, May 23
Open Bar (sponsored by LEVEL Vodka): 6-7pm
Reading begins at 7 pm
$5 suggested donation

110 Rivington Street
b/w LudlowÊ& Essex Sts.
[ directions: F to Delancey or V to 2nd Ave. ]

Readers' Bios:
John Yau is a leading art critic, poet, essayist, and prose writer. He received a BA from Bard College and an MFA from Brooklyn College. His works include Edificio Sayonara (1992), In the Realm of Appearances: The Art of Andy Warhol (1993), and Berlin Diptychon (1995), Forbidden Entries (1996), The United States of Jasper Johns (1996), and Borrowed Love Poems (2002). He has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Academy of American Poets. He lives in Manhattan.

Vikas Menon has published poems in journals such as TriQuarterly, Bitter Oleander, Catamaran, Brooklyn Review, Toronto Review, and Monolid, amongothers. He is a finalist in the Writers at Work competition, and his workis forthcoming in the anthology Writing the Lines of Our Hands. Hereceived his M.F.A (Poetry) from Brooklyn College in 1997, and his M.A. in Literature from St. Louis University in 1993.

Barbara Jane Reyes completes her MFA in May 2005 at San Francisco StateUniversity. She is the author of Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books,2003), and her second book, poeta en san francisco, is forthcoming in late2005, to be published by tinfish press.

Kundiman is a non-profit organization committed to the discovery andcultivation of emerging Asian-American poets. Through instruction andcollaboration programs with established Asian-American poets, Kundiman hopes to advance the quality of the work of Asian-American writers. Through literature, we aim to celebrate and promote evidence of strong andpositive Asian-American culture and identity.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Writing Poetry for Whom?

I may have covered this terrain before but never in great detail or as articulately as I've desired. So here's another attempt:

What is the audience of poets? The recent online discussion over avant-garde poetry (summarized nicely here has made me think more about questions of audience. I have to confess that I don't really get it when poets who have made their poems public say that they don't care about audience and only care about the poetry itself. It's an extreme position that implies that poets don't care whether other people like their poems, and that simply isn't true.

Perhaps the act of putting the poem on the paper was purely an act of inspiration that was solely about the poem. Perhaps. But the act of making the poem public -- putting it on a blog, trying to publish it in a lit 'zine, etc. -- signals to me some kind of desire for approval or critique, some kind of acknowledgment from another being other than oneself.

One critique that may be levied against avant-garde poetry is that it is intellectually and emotionally inaccessible to the general public in a field (contemporary poetry) that is already quite marginalized vis-a-vis the general public. And by "general public," I'm not even talking about six-pack, average joes here, though I wonder why I shouldn't and wonder if the poetry world has already given up on them. Anyhow, by "general public," I'm talking about people who, just hypothetically speaking, have the potential to be very interested in poetry just from their background -- college-educated, likes to read books, enjoyed poetry in K-12, etc. I'm talking about the same audience that's into fiction and non-fiction. With Asian American poetry, I'm talking about the 12 million+ Asian Americans in the United States, many of whom could really be into poetry but are not.

Even though I enjoy "avant-garde" poetry, as someone who is a wannabe intellectual, I must seriously consider the critique of its inaccessibility, which is a legitimate one. No "avant-garde" book of poetry has ever been a best seller. But no matter. Very few books of poetry sell well. Perhaps more importantly, though, the general public seems much more in tune with poems that are simply not about the text or language itself: look at the number of websites dedicated to Shakespeare, Whitman, cummings, Dickinson, Plath, etc. Now here immediately you could perform the deconstructivist act of claiming that Shakespeare et al. are, indeed, language poets. If you want to "re-"construct, however, you could counter that most of their poems are about some matter of substance beyond the text -- love, life/death, beauty, politics, etc.

Anyhow, I have too much to say and I'm drifting. My point is that "avant-garde" poets, like all other poets, must seriously consider who they want their audience to be. This concern is a microcosm of a concern that affects many academics: their audience is limited and they don't know whether that's good or not.

For example, to be blunt, I doubt that anyone other than myself and a few hundred people in America would actually care about the whole avant-garde discussion that Tim Yu has worked hard to eloquently outline on his blog. Tim has also pointed out the lack of Asian American scholars of poetry on his blog before. And maybe that's not a bad thing. You could say that it doesn't matter if relatively few people care. I would disagree.

I would disagree, because my own personal larger project is to ponder over ways to expand the audience for Asian American poetry and poetry itself. Look at this blog. The style of this blog is intentional. That is, I am intentionally trying not to use "hoity-toity" literary speak here. I want people who may not be that interested in Asian American poetry and poetry to take an interest in it. You're going to drive these people into fiction once you start using phrases like "reflexive dichotimization" or "institutional aesthetic." Now you might sound precocious (or better yet, gain tenure!) if you say it loud enough, but you are limiting the number of people who could possibly care.

I think academics should at least seriously consider this issue, especially in poetry, which could, just hypothetically, be a literary/art form with a wide audience. With regards to "avant-garde," I am not sure whether that means the poetry has to change, avant-garde poets have to do a better job of publicizing poetry, both, or some other means. (Especially do a better job publicizing beyond NYC or San Francisco. As much as one might not like to believe it, there are other places in America, you know.) At any rate, I feel that poets and poetry aficiandos should not remains content with discussing poetry theory or poems among themselves but should also do more intellectual work to at least think about ways to broaden the base.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

On Li-Young Lee

Sigh, only two more weeks (hopefully) until more prolific blogging resumes. Either other bloggers are great at finding time to blog regularly, or I'm awful at it. Probably both.

In the meantime, I almost missed the small Li-Young Lee brouhaha (, which I found via Tim Yu's blog (

Ok, a lot of people have been down on Li-Young Lee, because he is the Tiger Woods of the Asian-American poetry world. He's a celebrity with an "it" factor and thus the number one target for lovers and haters of all stripes. If you're reading this blog, you probably know that his first book, Rose, looks completely different from his most recent book, Book of My Nights -- different as in "good" or different as in "bad," depending on how you want to look at it. Whether Book of My Nights is an Asian-American book of poetry is open to question, and Asian-American poets have certainly not been rushing to embrace his most recent work. (Note: If you are an Asian-American poet who has been rushing to embrace Li-Young Lee's most recent poems, feel free to tell me I'm wrong.)

But I do have something nice to say about Li-Young Lee, which is that I know that he is personally good to students. He is thoughtful and attentive to the concerns of individual students. That may seem like next to nothing to you, especially if you are not a student. But I find it to be one of the most important traits of a great poetry professor and authentic poet. It's a measure of character, and quite often, that character is reflected through the poetry. Sadly, I know of poets, who are in the minority of poets and who shall go nameless here, who are not good to students, and, as a reflection of my response to the Hitler question posed earlier, I do find it difficult to pretend to be completely oblivious to their inhumanity while reading their poetry. And so, I'm hoping that the Li-Young Lee reading in question was an anomaly and that he will soon return to better sorts.