Friday, September 16, 2005

Asian-American Poetry and Class - Revisited

I once had a stimulating discussion with someone who claimed only rich, or at least upper-middle class, people write and read poetry, so poetry is only for the rich or upper-middle class. Now I don't think that's true, but admittedly, neither of us had the statistics to back up our claims but could only rely on anecdotes.

Related to Asian-American poetry, I do wonder about the socioeconomic-educational background of Asian-American poets. The recent Next Generation anthology provides some information on this matter with its relatively extensive biographies on the poets -- all the poets are at least college graduates, and it's very possible that all the poets have at least some graduate degree with the majority having MFAs. That doesn't exactly lead to anything conclusive about their socioeconomic status, though socioeconomic status is highly correlated with education.

Demographically, Asian-Americans are the "wealthiest" race in terms of family income. But the category of "Asian-American" conceals variations between ethnicities as well as among a particular ethnicity ("among" as in the case of recent Chinese immigrants who labor in factories versus Chinese immigrants who have come to the US to get their PhDs.) There are Asian-Americans living in poverty out there.

I think that it could become problematic for all Asian-American poets to be college graduates and have MFAs, if one wants poetry to truly be representative. You know, we talk all the time about having the proper race, gender, sexuality balance, but I find it fascinating that "socioeconomic class" tends to be a taboo. No "Asian-American" poems about living in poverty or growing up poor come to mind.

I feel that, as readers, we should remain critically aware of our biases, and I'm aware that I may be biased against poems whose experiences that are more difficult for me to comprehend -- growing up in poverty, being one of a whole laundry list of experiences that fall under this category. But I'm not satisfied to merely read poems that seem to more directly relate to my own socioeconomic class or ethnicity, for example. I'm also hoping for a more diverse poetry canon that expresses a broader range of human experiences.

[Note the strong assumption that I've made here: I've assumed that a poet's socioeconomic class directly influences his or her poetry. This discussion of class is yet another critique against the idea of having a single "poetry" as capturing "the" universal.]


Blogger pam said...

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7:14 PM  
Blogger pam said...

Good topic. Thanks for bringing it up.

Regarding the college-grad status of the contributors to the Next Generation anthology, this might say more about the editorial process of seeking and soliciting contributions than about the socioeconomic status of Asian American poets in general. In other words, the editorial process might have been hooked into and dependent on the largely academic network of young poets who hold degrees from institutions or in some cases teach at them. This often connotes a middle/upper-middle-class background, but not always. There may well be poets in the anthology who graduated from an Ivy League but grew up working-class, with that working-class background informing their work explicitly or implicitly. Granted, this is not what most people rightly assume when they encounter an Asian American writer who has an MFA from some or other top-rated institution. To find a larger pool of working-class poets, an editor would have to do some active searching outside of academia and the literary establishment, for the system is not set up to promote the visibility of such writers. Like, searching through State University programs and slam/spoken word scenes and community-based writing workshops like Kearny Street Workshop in SF Chinatown, for example.

My perception is that class is one very broad category that separates the earlier generation of Asian American writers (Maxine Hong Kingston, Frank Chin, etc.) from the newish crop of MFA or BA grads. The 1970s generation of, say, the Big Aieeeee, seemed to be based more primarily in community activism, and the literary networks that grew out from that encompassing network of community activists. They were more or less outsiders to academic and cultural institutions, and/or pioneers of disciplines like Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies. Whereas the Next Generation of poets can be seen much more as institutional insiders, a status inextricably tied to middle-class codes and middle-class “performance.” And tied to very real modes of access—access to editors, publishers, teaching jobs, fellowships, prizes, recognition, etc. So a downside of the trend of more Asian American writers getting published and recognized (which on the one hand I feel great about, but on the other hand I can’t help cringing at too, as possibly the latest instance of the “here model minority, here’s a reward for how well you fit into our institutions” phenomenon that yeah, well maybe I get a little overly paranoid about) is that poor, working-class, and otherwise economically/culturally marginalized Asian Americans become even more invisible, with this invisibility hidden under the increased visibility of their more privileged counterparts.

Related to this topic, Dodie Bellamy has some significant stuff to say about being a working-class writer trying to make it in a middle-class-controlled literary world: Well worth checking out.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Lyle Daggett said...

I went to the link in Pam's post, and related very much to the comments there by Dodie Bellamy, and the comments by several of the other poets and writers included in the page. (The comments make up a forum of responses to the question "What's a working class poetic, and where can I find one?")

The following website, about Carlos Bulosan, might have a little material relevant to the questions you've raised in your post:

The most recent selection of his poetry and prose that I'm aware of was published by West End Press a number of years ago. A short bio article which lists some more of his published works is here.

10:01 PM  
Blogger pam said...

Lyle, thanks for the Carlos Bulosan exhibit link. Lots of good stuff there.

Have people been following the latest Kent Johnson--Kasey Mohammad debate that's been going on over at Kasey's blog? Occasioned by Kasey's review of Also, with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada's Letters in English (Combo Books, 2005)?

Kasey's review is here, Kent's response is in the comments to that post, Kasey's response to Kent's response is here, and the comments get sidetracked into an argument between two other guys, neither of whom happens to be Kent or Kasey. Go figure, Araki Yasusada starts brawls!

But really, I thought of mentioning it here because I'm not personally qualified to comment on the whole Yasusada, or is it Araki, thing, not having read any of the books, and in the comments Mike Magee happened to cite the original posts and discussions that happened here at Roger's blog and Barbara Jane's blog, and so I was curious if anyone has thoughts on the new Yasusada book in the context of Asian American poetics, or maybe this topic just way too tired and overtalked about already?

5:31 PM  
Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

From my own experiences of what I know of the Hmong and Laotian writers, I readily disagree with saying most readers and writers are coming from a rich/upper-middle class strata.

A good number of our writers have experienced significant periods of poverty following our refugee years, and to be honest didn't come from a middle class or upper class background to begin with.

The literary arts play a role in helping many succeed and get more out of college and education, and to actually shift up a writer's position in the strata from what I've been seeing.

I should note that an overview of the writers within Bamboo Among the Oaks, as well as issues of the Paj Ntaub Voice and the SatJadham Lao Literary project do indicates that the majority of our regular writers have attained or intend to attain at least some college education.

Having overseen the submissions for several issues of the Paj Ntaub Voice journal, as well as from observing the types of poets and audience members who show up for the I.C.E. Open Mic programs, I would say that there are many from an upper lower-class to lower-middle class strata who are writing and enjoying poetry on a regular basis. Perhaps not that many from the lower, lower classes, however.
I'd go into some issues regarding prejudicial issues among some of the academic literary journals and publishing houses, but this isn't quite the space to do so today.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks a lot for all the comments. Sorry I've been a little absent from the blog as of late, but I have been reading and will actually comment on at least some of these comments in future posts.

7:33 PM  
Blogger deborah said...

Where can I find a copy of The Big Aieeeee & The Little Aieeeee ???
Amazon doesn't seem to have these books.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Deborah, sorry for the delayed response, hope you're still reading or at least come across these comments.

I think that you could check out your local bookstore or used bookstore. Or you could check out WorldCat and try to find the book at a library. I think that they're really important books, but unfortunately, list most anthhologies or most books of poetry in general, they aren't that accessible.

3:46 PM  

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