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.

7 Comments:

Blogger pam said...

Hi Roger,

My current vote would be for radical definition #1, "poetry about Asian Americans -- i.e., poems dealing with Asian-American characters and issues."

I guess I am calling for unhinging the poetry from the poet, as in, one can be a poet who is Asian American in identity, but every poem that one writes is not necessarily an Asian American *poem* unless it deals with the concerns listed under radical definition #1.

In other words, I see the "Asian American poet" designation as determined by identity, a nonexclusive identity at that: the Asian American poet may also be a gay poet, a male poet, a vegetarian poet, whatever. But the designation "Asian American poem" depends on the reading of the poem itself.

I guess I'm more interested in a text that deals with actual issues than one that just beats its chest and recites the roar of identity. Probably we all are. What I'm actually trying to say is that if an Asian American poet writes a poem that does not deal with Asian American issues at all, explicitly or implicitly, and if we go with radical definition #2 and call that poem an Asian American poem, then we have diluted the concept of what Asian American poem can be.

Of course, this same scenario does not preclude the possibility of taking the body of this poet's poems, whatever kinds of poems they might be, and doing an Asian American reading of that body of work, as in how do these poems as a system interact with the identity of the poet? I'm going in circles here, I realize-- perhaps these questions will come into fuller relief if we look at and discuss specific poems or books of poems?

11:44 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Pam,

Thanks for posting!

"What I'm actually trying to say is that if an Asian American poet writes a poem that does not deal with Asian American issues at all, explicitly or implicitly, and if we go with radical definition #2 and call that poem an Asian American poem, then we have diluted the concept of what Asian American poem can be."

Yes, that's a wonderful way of putting it.

I think that your view is a very interesting one, though I certainly don't think that it's the most popular one. Neither is my tentative position.

At this point, I don't think that we have moved past the conventional definition of "poetry written by Asian Americans." That is why the back cover of a book like Li-Young Lee's "Book of My Nights" says that it belongs in Asian American studies.

Of course, both radical definition #1 and #2 would open up Asian American poetry to non-Asian Americans. At least in practice, that's not a popular view in the Asian-American community. To the best of my knowledge, neither AAWW nor Kundiman has featured a non-Asian American poet (e.g. Gary Snyder) and posited whether she or he is writing Asian American poetry.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

Hi Roger,

I do poetry reviews at rhubarb is susan. I'd be interested if you could recommend some young, recently (online) published Asian-American authors for me to review.

Best thing is to backchannel me: glas[at]freeshell.org

4:10 PM  
Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

It's practically a koan of course.

From my point of view, I'm reminded of the judge asked to define pornography: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."

So too with Asian American poetry.

I'm troubled by Asian American poets who distance themselves from the title of Asian American poet as if it's some kind of epithet or that they'll become ghettoized and pigeon-holed.

Is there a universal pan-Asian aesthetic? Probably not. The case would be hard to argue.

Are there Asian American issues that are largely unique to the Asian American communities? Definitely yes, but my point is not to launch a sociology textbook chapter.

Ultimately, it is a conscious decision on my part to not shy away from writing about the people and the situations within my life as an Asian American.

I will not be cowed into "toning it down" for the sake of acceptability and broad accessibility any more than I will shy away from taking on more cosmopolitan, universal topics in my work if my artistic drive requires it at any particular moment.

"Asian American Poetics" is perhaps ultimately an organizing category, just as is GLBT Poetics, Post-Modern Poetics, Beat, etc. that helps us filter and drill down to find poets whose voices we feel resonate with our own selves.

It would be foolish to say that all non-Asian writers' work can resonate perfectly with every facet of an Asian American life.

And to be fair, not every Asian American poets' work will resonate with another Asian American's experiences.

But we should not be afraid to write work that holds greater meaning for ourselves and reflects our specific experiences more accutely.

At one level, Asian American poetics is a beginning point, not an end point, of course.

Within Asian American Poetics we will find formalists, experimentalists and any number of other sub-categories within each of the more specific Asian American ethnic identities.

One probably shouldn't find the entirety of one's reading material in their lifetimes strictly within the work of Asian Americans, but on the other hand, neither should we think that there is no rich trove worth plumbing for its treasures.

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