Tuesday, June 28, 2005

On George Uba's "Unrequited Love: An Essay on Identity, or What Went Wrong, Suzy Wong?"

Only lazy people are, or try to be, "intelligent" all the time. I don't want to be lazy. I don't want to fall into predictable patterns with these reviews -- where you know what I'm going to say and how I'm going to say it. I don't envy people who've made a career out of being op-ed columnists, movie critics, or poets/poetry critics, because they've probably long forgotten the virginity of their viewpoints. Their views must have been malleable once. I think that it's hard not only to remain open to change but to actually remain conscious and wary of one's own potential stagnation. So I've decided not to do a line-by-line commentary here, since I feel like it can get old fast.

Also, in this spirit, I will turn George Uba's "Unrequited Love: An Essay on Identity, or What Went Wrong, Suzy Wong" on myself and say that I, too, have written a poem about the fold around the "East Asian" eye. I called mine "Asian Eyelid Surgery." I am tempted to post it and have people compare, but that may be rather arrogant of me (as in, "hey, you know, I can do it for every poem to make this blog all about ME"). I may still post, though, if only out of curiosity, but I haven't decided yet.

Having attempted to write a poem on this relatively specific subject before, I think that I admire Uba's poem more than if I had come to it as someone who had never done so. I appreciate the difficulty of writing such a poem, or at least I appreciate what I perceive to be difficult. On a similar note, I don't necessarily view a "great" poem as one that universalizes the particular, assuming for the moment that the "universal" and "particular" may be distinguished. I think it is easier for poetry critics and readers to treat a "particular" subject matter, like "a medical procedure of creating an extra epicanthic fold around the eye," as "universal" if they feel a certain intimacy with the experience before approaching the poem. Viola! -- not a great leap from the particular to the universal. For example, having never lived on a farm, I generally find poems about farms particular and exotic, and thus, it may take a special amount of energy and attention from me to keep from unjustly slighting the beauty of cows and sheep (and whatever an ignorant suburban/urban bumpkin like myself doesn't know about farms). And though I'd try my best if I was a poetry editor, I'd also be fearful that I could miss the world's best sonnet ever written on bales of hay.

When I read Uba's poem, it was hard to conceal my knowledge that Uba has long been an underappreciated poet in Asian-American poetry -- a poet who has written intelligent, groundbreaking, moving, sometimes "political" poems. You will seldom witness his name bandied about anywhere outside academic circles. I'm not sure why George Uba isn't more of a household name in poetry. Actually, I'm not sure if this knowledge of mine works for or against him. I don't think this poem is my favorite Uba poem (that honor probably goes to "The Sanity of Tomatoes"), and yet, perhaps the knowledge that he has written poems that I've enjoyed more makes me think that I may be wrong in thinking that this poem is not quite on the same plane.

If this blog was a poetry workshop, and the professor/teacher asked us to make suggestions for improvement, I would have three primary ones: 1) greater experimentation with line breaks, as in, not ending so many lines with commas and periods and trying more enjambment (I never like it when people make this suggestion to me, but eh, I guess they have their point), 2) defining the word "epicanthic" in a footnote (purely speculative here, but I'm imagining that even the "above-average" reader probably will not understand the word in the context of the poem), 3) coming up with a more powerful final couplet (the next-to-last couplet works extremely well for me, but I felt that the final couplet fizzed out for me with "subtle churnings of the heart" and "the turnings of the tide").

The poem's success lies in its taking a difficult subject and rendering it emotionally and intellectually accessible. There are at least several particularly strong lines, such as "for the scent of rosemary touch, scent, persimmon mouth/ agile hips, the play of mysterious words in the dark," "provocative hours/ of thought, feelings disguised as maxims/ from the Orient," and "My whole life I have loved without possessing you." Uba is also daring in the way he assumes a female voice and provides a complex, abstract narrative. In doing so, he provides a fascinating perspective on an issue seldom dealt with in mainstream media.

Monday, June 27, 2005

George Uba's "Unrequited Love: An Essay on Identity, or What Went Wrong, Suzy Wong?"

Unrequited Love: An Essay on Identity,
or What Went Wrong, Suzy Wong?

What can I wear to please you at last?
An epicanthic fold across a staged reaction,

or something small as a crease in my self-esteem,
abetted by surgery & American TV?

Shall an imperial flag bind my feet?
The slave takes mincing, mincing steps.

To the harbor she goes, dutiful beggar
to the rich man who owns the past.

What can be done to make you stay?
If I satisfy this thirst of the senses

for the rosemary touch, scent, persimmon mouth,
agile hips, the play of mysterious words in the dark,

will you honor my every request?
If I bring you books, provocative hours

of thought, feelings disguised as maxims
from the Orient, will you unveil your secrets?

Dear one, let us read from an authentic text,
let us mingle our sacred breaths.

My whole life I have loved without possessing you,
spectre, elusive ghost, changeling, my torment--

even now I feel the subtle churnings of the heart.
Intemperately, the turnings of the tide.


Note from George Uba: "[This poem] is a satirical take (written in persona) on the medical procedure of creating an extra epicanthic fold around the eye, which some Asian Americans still undertake in order to look more Western. It's from my book Disorient Ballroom, published in 2004 by Turning Point Books in Cincinnati. The book itself, fyi, builds off of traditions of lyric and narrative poetry in English--but from a postcolonial perspective. I examine Asian American history and myth, family conflict and personal loss, and ultimately the surprises inherent in the colonially marked yet strangely liberating activity of international ballroom dancing. It is fairly lengthy for a book of poetry--136 pages--and sells for $16. It can be ordered online from http://www.turningpointbooks.com/uba.html."



I currently serve as Professor and Chair of the Department of English at California State University, Northridge. My critical work on Asian American poetry includes the principal essay on "Asian American Poetry," as well as individual entries on David Mura and Garrett Hongo, for the forthcoming, five-volume The Encyclopedia of American Poetry (Greenwood Press). Also, the critical essay on Jessica Hagedorn for Asian American Poets: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook (2002). Also, "Coordinates of Asian American Poetry: A Survey of the History and a Guide to Teaching" in MLA's A Resource Guide to Asian American Literature (2001); and a variety of other critical pieces relating to Asian American poetry and poets dating back to 1985. My poetry has appeared in the following (partial list): Verse Daily; Ploughshares; The Southern Poetry Review; Carolina Quarterly; Two Rivers Review; The Asian Pacific American Journal; Asian America: A Journal of Culture and the Arts; Quarry West; The Seattle Review; The Journal of Ethnic Studies; The Jacaranda Review; and Breaking Silence.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Review of Barbara Jane Reyes' "[ave maria]"

Barbara Jane Reyes' "[ave maria]" is written in the form of a praise poem. I view it as an attempted subversion of the form, and I think the attempt is most successful where the subversive energy is strongest. Because the poem is not a traditional narrative, but a kind of "list" poem with discrete lines that can work on their own, it is easier to read and consider each line on a line-by-line basis.

The strongest lines of "[ave maria]", mainly in the middle of the poem, have a real sexual/religious undercurrent. Lines such as "our lady of unbroken hymen," "your uterus is a blessed receptacle," "our lady of neon strip joints," "blessed mother of cholo tattoos," and "our lady of filas and lipliner" are provacative and interesting. They stand out not just because of their sexuality juxtaposed with a wild religiosity but because of their originality of language. The third and fourth stanzas are especially strong.

Some lines, mainly at the beginning of the poem, don't work as well for me, either because they venture too far into cliche or because they aren't showing me enough. Lines like "our lady who crushes serpents," "our lady of building demolition," and "our lady of crack houses" don't really provoke as much thought or emotion as the aforementioned lines. Perhaps "our lady of garbage-sifting toothless men" might have worked better as "our lady of toothless men" or "our lady of garbage-sifting men." (I'm actually not a poetry handyman in the business of rewriting poems according to my own warped vision here, but, you know, I might as well make suggestions when they come to me.)

I feel like this poem would work quite well read out loud. Especially the final (or next to last) stanza before "amen." In a spoken word venue, each line could be given a different inflection, and the strengths of the poem could be emphasized while the weaknesses skimmed over. The poem also builds energy as it goes along, which can more effectively keep the audience from drifting and thinking about their shopping lists and other places they could be.

It is never easy to write a provocative poem. I think that narrative and provocative poems are two of the hardest types of poems to write. I appreciate Reyes' "[ave maria]" for its willingness to juggle and engage in complicated themes of sex, religion, and class. The poem really does do a lot of work in a fairly small amount of space.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Barbara Jane Reyes' "[ave maria]"

To read Barbara Jane Reyes' poem, "[ave maria]," go to Word Riot, http://wordriot.org/template.php?ID=661.



BARBARA JANE REYES received her undergraduate education at UC Berkeley, where she also served as Editor-in-Chief of the Pilipino American literary publication Maganda. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing (poetry) at SF State University in May 2005.

Her work was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and appears or is forthcoming in Asian Pacific American Journal, Chain, Interlope, Nocturnes (Re)view, North American Review, Papertiger (Australia), Tinfish, Versal (The Netherlands), in the anthologies Babaylan (Aunt Lute, 2000), Eros Pinoy (Anvil, 2001), InvAsian: Asian Sisters Represent (Study Center Press, 2003), Going Home to a Landscape (Calyx, 2003), Coloring Book (Rattlecat, 2003), Not Home But Here (Anvil, 2003), Pinoy Poetics (Meritage, 2004), and forthcoming in Red Light: Superheroes, Saints and Sluts (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2005), and Graphic Poetry (Hong Kong: Victionary, 2005).

Her first book, Gravities of Center, was published by Arkipelago Books (SF) in 2003, and her second book, poeta en san francisco, is forthcoming from Tinfish Press (Kaneohe, Hawai'i) in late 2005.

For more information, please see http://barbarajanereyes.com and http://bjanepr.blog-city.com.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Review of Tina Chang's "Libretto"

I'm not sure whether I should be surprised that Tina Chang's "Libretto" was apparently not published in a literary magazine before the publication of Half-Lit Houses. It has all the earmarks of a "bad" lit mag poem. First, it's too short. Second, it makes no sense on a first reading. Third, it does not seem to be saying anything "important," not obviously falling into any readily identifiable theme (e.g., love, death, time, etc.) that poets often like to dwell upon to make themselves seem important to imaginary, illusory readers.

My claim here is that "Libretto" is actually a brilliant poem, original and wildly ambitious. I think of it not as the type of poem that gets anthologized but the type of poem whose genius later helps account for why the poet her or himself was anthologized in the first place.

The "empire" of the opening line, coupled with the [New York, 2000] tagline, reminds the reader of the Empire State Building with all its strange, abstract grandeur. The rest of the opening line and the second and third lines shock the reader with its radical shift in perspective -- the abstractness is reduced to a "smoldering seed" and rendered concrete through the image of red bean pastries. Might Chang be suggesting here a claiming of New York by Asian Americans, if the red bean pastries symbolize an Asian American presence? I also like the fact that the description of red bean pastries is not dumbed down -- describing the filling as "a bit of mud" is empirically accurate in a place where such accuracy is useful if not essential.

In lines four through six, the narrator appears to be standing in front of a Chinese BBQ, but that is my own conclusion. You don't have to arrive at that conclusion, and you probably won't. Line four is the weakest of the poem -- "rotten" is not the most interesting adjective in the world to describe "city," and "smoke flowers" is a cliche that is almost, but not quite, saved by the following half-line, "from her face." The most fascinating aspect of lines four through six is reading it in light of the other poems in the book, where one is often amazed by Chang's intelligent observations of scent and sound, which are two very difficult senses to render plausible in poetry.

The poem ends abstractly and powerfully, not wimping out into a cute image or easily accessible phrase. I have no idea what the "angled little bones" of the ninth and final line refers to -- I want to say Chinese BBQ again, but that may be because I haven't had dinner yet and I'm hungry -- but my guess, which is also an aspiration, is that it hearkens back to the "Chinese characters" of line seven. I really like the idea of each brushstroke of a Chinese character being a bone, the bones constructing the body of the character. I'm also not sure what "the moon fixed/ into a picture" is in reality, but it fits well with the dramatization of urban containment and anxiety present throughout the poem.

Chang's world in "Libretto" is not an easy one to inhabit, because we've seen none quite like it before. I'd say it works on the level of great science fiction by imagining an abstract, anti-narrativistic, anti-chronlogical universe, while rendering it emotionally plausible. It's a bit of a sad, "fixed" urban world, but it's not a sad poem, because the oddness of the imagery represents a hope that beauty not only may be reborn but still exists in New York. And, not being capable of a simple interpretation, the poem itself is a celebration of the idea that wonder may exist in the phenomenon of the common cohabiting with the unusual.

Tina Chang's "Libretto"

[New York, 2000]

An empire falls to a smoldering seed.
A voice fades from it. Pastries: little
purses of custard, red bean, a bit of mud.
The rotten city where smoke flowers
from her face, her lungs etched
in perfume. Shop signs: Chinese characters
contained in squares, the moon fixed
into a picture, strange glass she looks
into, angled little bones.

- from Tina Chang's Half-Lit Houses


Tina Chang, the author of Half-Lit Houses (Four Way Books, 2004), received an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. Her poems have appeared in American Poet, Indiana Review, The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Quarterly West, Sonora Review, among others. Her poems have been anthologized in Identity Lessons (Penguin Putnum, 1999) Poetry Nation (Vehicule Press, 1998), Asian American Literature (McGraw-Hill, 2001), Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation (University of Illinois Press, 2004) and forthcoming in Poets 30: Poets in Their Thirties. She has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, Poets & Writers, the Van Lier Foundation and has held writing fellowships from Fundación Valparaíso, The MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Villa Montalvo. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. For more information, please go to http://www.tinachang.com.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Reviews: My "Theory" of Poetry Reviewing Here

I never like it when people try to hide the ball about what they're thinking, so there won't be any ball-hiding here. So here are some quick disclaimers concerning my "theory" of reviewing Asian-American poetry here on this blog:

1. Very Wrong: As I've pointed out several times, I can be very wrong. You don't have to agree with me. You don't have to take any advice that I may happen to give. I'm not your poetry professor. This blog is all about persuasion, not coercion.

2. Fun: I don't want to become a babbling monkey-critic who remembers too many SAT words, has digested too many "serious" reviews, and is gunning for tenure. I want to be the hot host in the leather jacket at the beach party on a Saturday night (though, rest assured, I won't restrict my blogging to Saturdays alone). At least that's the intent. In other words, I don't want the reviews to be dull.

3. Common Language: Related to the previous point, I won't be trying to show everyone that I'm smarter than you. Sorry.

4. Pet Peeve: Comparing to Other Poets: This one is a pet peeve of mine. Pretty much every poetry critic does it, and I may do it from time to time as well. But I'm not a big fan of comparing, for example, Li-Young Lee to Walt Whitman. Basically, I don't think it says much of anything. So Li-Young Lee's poetry has some similarities to that of Walt Whitman. Whoopdee-doo. The main problem here is when a poetry critic goes overboard and tries to compare the poet to every obscure, or not-so-obscure poet, that he knows. Usually, the reader doesn't have the same knowledge as the poetry critic, so the only purpose is for the critic to show off. Even if the reader comprehends the comparison, however, it typically doesn't say much. The exception is if a poetry critic is doing an in-depth comparison of two particular works, devoting roughly equal time to each, which is different from my pet peeve and quite possibly worthwhile. Man, that was a long pet peeve.

5. Asian-American Poetry: This one is the wildcard. I'm going to *try* and tie back each poem to the larger idea of Asian-American poetry. Not easy to pull off, but we'll see...

Basically, I'm trying to develop my own voice and theory here. I figure that, if you're reading this blog, you'd like something a little different and not be bored. So I'll try not to bore here.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

An Announcement: Featuring and Reviewing Individual Asian American Poets

As you may have heard, my poetry critic-comrade Simon DeDeo (http://rhubarbissusan.blogspot.com) has recently fallen to the time-vaporizing monster known as his astrophysics dissertation. Before he said his online farewell, however, he had been planning on reviewing Asian-American poetry, and he encouraged me to do so as well. I shared with him my up-until-now private fears that my reviews of Asian-American poetry would quite possibly offend, not be helpful, and not stimulate discussion at any rate. He asked me to reconsider, and I have.

Now that Simon has decided not to pursue his plans of reviewing Asian-American poetry, I have decided that it is up to me to carry the "DeDeo" torch -- at least with respect to Asian American poetry. So the announcement here is that I will be starting to feature/review individual poems by individual Asian-American poets on this blog. I cannot promise the brilliant precision of DeDeo's reviews (and I'd want to develop my own voice and cultivate my own style, at any rate), but I'll try, as DeDeo might put it, to live up to my responsibility to shine a light on the poetry of this community.

Careful readers of this blog will note that I am essentially announcing at least a slight departure from the content and rhythm of previous blog posts. It's probably about time. So far, I have been more interested in the "macro"-structures/phenomena of Asian American poetry, but I feel like I've covered most of that terrain by now. Don't get me wrong -- it's been fun, I have no regrets about dwelling on it, and I will continue to cover relatively more general topics on "Asian American poetry" should more occur to me. But I want to move this blog towards featuring individual AsianAmerican poets and their poems in the coming weeks and months as well.

How will I go about doing it? Good question! This is where you come in -- you folks, out there, who write Asian-American poetry.

Like DeDeo, I will be focusing on individual poems, but unlike DeDeo, I don't necessarily want to focus on poems published online. Actually, it won't be hard to find poems online. Pretty much all Asian American poets have at least a few poems somewhere on the World Wide Web. But you might not want someone to choose poems from five or six years ago and read/comment upon them as if they are as indicative of your work/philosophy of poetry and life today.

So, if you write Asian-American poetry and would prefer, I welcome you to e-mail me a poem that you want me to explore on this blog. You should also send me an updated bio (I could always cut-and-paste biographies available online, but they might be outdated). Otherwise, I'll probably just choose the online poem that I think is the most recent and/or most indicative of your body of poetry and the bio that I think is the most recent one.

I'm hoping that this enterprise will be productive and that not only will I learn a lot from it but that readers of this blog and random websurfers who happen upon this blog by googling "Billy Collins and speedo" will watch just a little bit less of Wimbledon on television and take greater notice of the interesting work that is being done in Asian American poetry.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Aesthetic

In a recent post on (or against) poetry reviews, poet Tim Yu notes, "This is why every poetry review in a "major" journal sounds like an ax-grinding: it has to do enormous work just to position itself within the highly contested field of contemporary poetry, if it's going to have any credibility with poetry readers. Yet such gestures make poetry reviews increasingly useless, both to non-poetry readers and to poetry readers who don't share the reviewer's aesthetic." http://tympan.blogspot.com/2005/06/death-to-reviews.html#comments

This particular post has nothing to do with poetry reviews, so I'm going off-topic, or rather, in a different direction here. Rather, this post focuses on the idea of poets and poetry reviewers having "an" aesthetic.

I'm going to propose here that that is a mistake. I think that having "an" aesthetic is like eating the same meal or wearing the same socks and/or underwear everyday. After a while, at least from the perspective of outsiders looking in, it can become a tad repulsive.

And I realize that I've been eating Asian American peanut butter and jelly sandwiches everyday with this blog, so viewing this blog in isolation, I'm the one who should be doing laundry, that is, pointing the abstractly pointed finger of the previous paragraph at myself. (In my defense, hey, I'm just an ordinary hunk in blue suspenders. I know there's African American poetry, narrative poetry, Buddhist poetry, etc. But I can't do it all!)

Seriously, though, I don't limit, or believe in limiting, myself to Asian American poetry, and I think that this might be where the difference lies. I think it's perfectly fine to have "schools of poetry" or aesthetic values, but to limit oneself to a particular aesthetic or school seems rather boring, arbitrary, and more than an ounce snobbishly elitist to me. It parallels racism or sexism in the sense of believing that one group is superior to another, only it is not about race or sex per se but about poetry.

Furthermore, such a limiting frame of reference, IMHO, has a detrimental effect on poetry itself, that is, if one believes that poetry should strive for individuality and originality. It is essentially the triumph of reproduction over originality. If one cannot read beyond "an" aesthetic, to fully appreciate other aesthetics, then one will more likely than not be repeating over and over again the same patterns of likes/dislikes in poetry and never grow as a reader, critic, editor, publisher, or poet.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

On Blogging

And here we have yet another self-referential post from the blogger who, in his previous post, had suggested that this blog is not really about himself. :)

In comments to my previous post, Pam poses two interesting questions, "Are a person's thoughts and ideas any less a reflection of them than their personality and biographical details? What does it mean to get to "know" someone through blogland?"

Man, I certainly hope that my thoughts are ideas aren't necessarily a reflection of me as a person. Or do I? I imagine that the more profound response would be that this blog represents a side of me that many people who know me in person might not know -- energetic, bold, opinionated, sincere, passionate, and at least trying to be witty/funny. About Asian American poetry, and perhaps I'm suggesting about life as well.

This blog is almost a wish-fulfillment blog in the sense that I, the blogger, am becoming someone I want to become and at the same time am a bit frightened of becoming. As I noted in the previous post, I am performing as commentator and critic. I am also creating a persona that I'd claimed didn't represent the real person.

But Pam was right to call me out on this one. Because being a "performer," "commenter," "critic" -- regardless of what I want to call myself -- is at least partly a representation of self. My thoughts and ideas, and the way I phrase them in writing, are at least partly a representation of who I essentally am. On balance, I still feel that my biographical details and personality in person are probably more indicative of me as a person, but that is open to debate. And it's an important debate for poets and anyone interested in poetry to have, I think, because it deals with the whole language of the poetry vs. person of the poet question. It is also an interesting issue for any writer of any stripe to contemplate as well.

So, in answer to the second question, I concede that people who read this blog, whether I want them to or not, do at least "know" a part of me. I'm not at all sure if I like that or not -- at least through this particular blog on Asian American poetry. That is, some people who may like me in person may be turned off by some of the opinions on this blog. But then again, some people who may have never known me in any way may like me through this blog as well. I guess it's not that much different from real life -- chance remarks, innuendos, glances, etc. can draw us towards, or repel us from, different people. The hope is that they draw much more than repel, but it's hard to figure out sometimes.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

This Blog Is Like a Television Set

I have no personal connection to my television set. When I am polishing off the latest rerun of The Simpsons, I have no feelings for the set itself. I can turn off the set and leave the room without any profound sense of joy, sorrow, or anguish.

This blog is like a television set in the sense that readers of most, if not all, of the blog entries are not expected to develop a personal connection with me. The design of this blog is purposeful. I have not entered any information in my profile (not solely due to laziness); the template is plain (not solely due to laziness and technical ineptitude); there are no pictures of myself (not solely due to shyness and technical ineptitude); I have told relatively few of my family members and friends about the blog; the subjects of my entries are about "Asian-American poetry" and not about me.

Even the voice of this blog is a performance. I certainly don't go running up to strangers on the street imperiously proclaiming my strong opinions on Asian-American poetry. (I have a feeling that they'd run away from me, call the cops, or drop a quarter in my hand.) More importantly, this blog is almost like a Halloween costume in tone and feel. You might be able to make out the form of a person behind it, but it is not the real person, I don't think. (Or is it? -- I think that many of the blog entries have an authority and presence of voice that I might like to claim as mine, but, as the few readers who know me in real life know, this blog is basically not what I'm like in person. And yet, I'm a much nicer, gentler person than this blog, so maybe there would be a tradeoff if I tried to personally inhabit the shell of the authoritative energy of this blog.) So, in essence, this blog is a persona blog.

It is kind of ironic that this blog is basically a persona blog, because I tend to prefer reading the more personal blogs that are not simply about "issues" -- the ones where you actually get to know the person behind the blogger. But, psychoanalyzing myself just briefly, I think that this blog has just been fulfilling a small desire/need of mine to talk about Asian American poetry, so it has been serving its purpose. Discussing Asian-American poetry on an independent blog has been escapist and meaningful in this sense.

Anyhow, I think that if I started a new blog, which won't happen any time soon, it would be about myself and the wacky everyday happenings of my life. It would have a completely different tone, deal with a different set of observations and concerns, and probably have a largely different set of readers. For now, I'll push forward with this blog on Asian American poetry: my virgin blog. (Unlike Oprah, who apparently feels as if there is a limited set of great contemporary novels, I do think that the topic of Asian-American poetry is limitless.)

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Asian American Poets and Representation

I wonder whether anyone has done a recent study on a statistical racial breakdown of poets with MFAs, published books, and/or poets published in "leading" literary/poetry magazines. It would quite possibly be interesting...

My wild guess would be that Asian Americans are not statistically underrepresented vis-a-vis the general population (4 percent of the American population is Asian American) in any of these three categories, except possibly with particular literary/poetry magazines. In addition, I would imagine that certain ethnic groups (e.g., southeast Asian American ethnic groups) are not represented at all. But I think that, among older and more established poets, there are relatively few Asian Americans.

In general, I think that there should be more empirical studies done on the all-too-voluptuously fascinating world of poetry. Perhaps one could compare the demographic breakdown of poets (e.g. in terms of race, gender, religion, etc.) with the demographic breakdown of the general population.

Friday, June 03, 2005

What is Asian-American Poetry? - A Summary/Recap of Part Three

(Note: If you're like me, you probably haven't had enough time to go scanning through blog archives for other people's evolving views on Asian-American poetry. So, for those who are relatively new to the blog, here is my most updated post on the matter in general.)

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.