Thursday, November 24, 2005

Guest Blogger: Melvin Wong the Cantaloupe

(Editor's Note: Melvin e-mailed me from his Blackberry yesterday and asked if he could respond to my two most recent posts on Ghettoization. I have given him permission to respond here. - Roger)

I would like to thank Roger Pao for giving me the chance to make this post on his blog. While Pao and I did indeed have such a conversation last week at Kroger's, his posts contain a number of glaring mischaracterizations, omissions, and flat-out incorrect assertions, which I would like to correct here.

First, as a minor matter, Although, Although ($14.95, Hirsute Begonias Press) came out in February 1996, not 1995, as Pao indicated in one of his previous posts. Also, my daughter was in the fifth grade, not the third grade, when she played the role of Lavinia in Mr. O'Neill's play.

Second, for the purposes of this post, I will be assuming a priori that I am a cantaloupe, even though I believe that such distinctions are meaningless.

Third, I was indeed penning a sestina -- I was finishing the fifth stanza -- when Pao tapped my rind with his knuckles. Forced to stop my work in the middle of the poem, just as I had finished the brilliant line, "Mastadon masters emasculated the massuesse on Christmas morning," I came out to tell Pao to stop thumping me. Theoretically, I can comprehend the act of thumping vis-a-vis watermelons, but I do not understand why so many customers operate under the illusion that they would learn anything by thumping cantaloupes. We are not united by our differences. All of us are orange inside.

Fourth, I want to discuss the problem of reverse discrimination, which I believe has infiltrated the poetry establishment as well as Pao's last two posts. These posts portrays me as weepy, angry, and emotionally unstable. If I was a member of a "protected" minority group -- a homosexual, African-American, or the like -- I believe that no one would have dared to paint such a blantly officious portrait. Because I am an "Asian-American" and a "cantaloupe," these posts take liberties that might not otherwise have been taken.

Fifth, Pao dunked me in baking soda, not flour. Just to set the record straight: I am neither Taiwanese nor homosexual.

Finally, I may be wrong here, but I think that Emily Dickinson once wrote in one of her letters to Carlos Bulosan, "The category of cantaloupe is an affront to human dignity. When shall we be free of the chains that bind?" Though now appropriated by Adrienne Rich and others in the radical, faux-deconstructionist left, Dickinson was obviously saying that affirmative action hurts the cantaloupes that it tries to help. For example, people ask me all the time -- how do you procreate when you are a sphere and nothing else? Well, if you abolished affirmative action, I would not have to face these ridiculous questions. Indeed, we need to use our imaginations in order to achieve true equality.

-- mwc

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Ghettoization - Part I

I was in the supermarket yesterday and came across a talking cantaloupe. The cantaloupe told me his name was Melvin Wong. I usually don't like to converse with supermarket fruit, especially melons I have just met, but I was amused by the sestina that he was etching on his rind. He was the first cantaloupe that I had ever encountered who was working with fixed forms.

Melvin the Cantaloupe shared the story of his life as a poet with me. He immigrated from Hong Kong with his parents at the age of five in the early 1960s to San Francisco. He grew up in a suburb adjacent to the city and was raised in a conservative, heterosexual household, where people of all races lived happily in the '70s. He attended UCLA, majoring in computer science and minoring in English, but he was still miffed that the quota system had kept him out of UC Berkeley (he started college three years before the Supreme Court issued the Bakke decision).

At UCLA, Melvin the Cantaloupe took up poetry and enrolled in poetry classes. His first poetry professor was a feminist, and he studied Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Nellie Wong during his freshman year. But his second poetry professor, who soon became his mentor, hated feminism and identity politics for "depurifying" the art of poetry ("depurifying" was a word that this particular professor coined in his most famous book, The Clarity of Mystification (1969), which was largely regarded as a rebuke of the politics of the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school of poetry for having obliquely encouraged the rise of the feminists and multiculturalists during the civil rights movement.) This poetry professor introduced him to Hart Crane, John Berryman, and John Ashbery, and he loved these poets with almost the passion of the 3,288 cantaloupes who congregated on an ice rink coated with margarine to protest the annexation of San Diego shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Melvin the Cantaloupe enrolled in the MFA program at UC Davis straight out of college, much to the dismay of his parents. Melvin was not too happy there, because he felt that too many of his professors there wanted to "indoctrinate" him by forcing him to write poems about his Asian heritage and Asian-American identity. In short, he felt that they wanted to "ghettoize" him, and he did not want to be confined to their petty categories...

Here I interrupted Melvin the Cantaloupe to tell him that I kept a blog on Asian-American poetry. At first, Melvin did not know how to react and even seemed a little embarassed at having criticized identity politics in general, thinking that I supported the agenda that disgusted him. So I quickly added, "No, no, no, this isn't your run-in-the-mill blog on Asian American poetry. I provide my own 'strange and outlandish takes' on the subject, and I challenge practically every presupposition in the field of Asian-American poetry."

Melvin still appeared a little suspicious, and nobody likes a suspicious cantaloupe, so I continued, "My blog is mainly about me trying to think things through. I don't have any particular fixed view that I'm defending here. The main purpose of this blog is for me to learn."

Melvin paused for a second, stuck a straw into a nearby coconut and took a long suck, and told me the following: "I object to the existence of your blog. I think that your blog ghettoizes Asian-American poets, which I find confining and demeaning. My whole life, I have had to fight people like you, people who want to place artificial limitations on the art of poetry. I think that you should take your blog down."

Ghettoization - Part II

Melvin the Cantaloupe said that everything started when he came out with his first book of poetry, No Raisin in the Sun (1988). It received the S.Q. Chalmers Award for the best first book of poems by a poet under 35, judged by the eminent Kenneth Koch, as well as rave reviews in American Poetry Triquarterly, Contemporary Poetics, and Stunned Gasping. Such now oft-anthologized poems as "Single Bird," "Harpischord Who Shook the Cherry Branches," and "Clouds of the Enemy Dolphin" appeared in this book.

But the Asian-American critics hated it. They dubbed Melvin the Cantaloupe the "Hello Kitty" of American poetry. Melvin was allergic to cats. When he went up to NYC, the other Asian-American poets did not invite him to their annual Asian-American literary gala, which he interpreted as a rebuke to his work. The cultural feminists hated it as well, arguing, in particular, that "Clouds of the Enemy Dolphin" demeaned women and trivialized housewives with such lines as "womanly minnow/ who swam among the thousand whores" and "the territory of the absent vagina is a woman with no womb." In 1990, he locked himself in the bathroom for three days straight, sustaining himself only with Cheese Balls and drinking water, upon learning that his longtime friend and fellow poet, Emma A. Cho, had ripped him apart in Asian-American Poetry Review without letting him know beforehand.

I had no idea that cantaloupes could be such drama queens. By now, I was ready to move on to the grapes, since I knew that grapes are the type of fruit most likely to study in the library on a Saturday night. But not being the type of person who could leave a cantaloupe in despondency, I gave him a couple Kleenexes and tried to console him.

"I am not a cantaloupe," he suddenly exclaimed. "Why does everyone treat me like a cantaloupe! I have never claimed to be a cantaloupe, and it is my prerogrative to choose whether to be one. People think that I am just a self-hating cantaloupe, but I am not! I am not a circus animal. I just want to be more than another melon, another fruit. Is that too much to ask?"

I picked Melvin the Cantaloupe up, dunked him in flour, and called him a donut hole. He soon calmed down again. During the past fifteen years, Melvin had been quite prolific. He had come out with five different books of poems -- The Clown Who Ate Paris with One Fist (1990), After Pistachios (1993), Although, Although (1995), Landing Upon the Gates of a Solar Eclipse (2001), and Every Salad Without an Ostrich (2003). After Although, Although, Melvin went through a dry spell, writing only two poems from 1996 to 1998, until one day, attending his third grade daughter's school production of Mourning Becomes Electra, it suddenly occurred to him that he could rhyme "bologna" with "phony," which made everything in the world make sense again. Since then, he had been experimenting with rhyme and fixed forms, penning a 28-page opus in terza rima, entitled "Sweetheart," which made up about a third of his most recent book.

The critics still bother Melvin the Cantaloupe from time to time, but nowadays, they leave him alone for the most part. He has few Asian-American poet friends and even fewer cantaloupe poet friends but no real regrets. Glancing at his sestina, I spot the six end words: "pizza whimsy orifice jacket mooch farmer." I ask him for his autograph.

Friday, November 18, 2005

A Dilemma of Originality

Here is a problem that I am having. I am wrestling with the dilemma of whether poetry can be original and whether we want it to be original. By "original" poetry, I mean that poetry which is innovative and unique in both substance and form. (The subjectivity of originality is something that I would like to address in a separate post, but I will just work with this basic definition for now.)

One of the problems with poetry is that it cannot be entirely original. In terms of substance/content, the same basic themes emerge over and over again: love, life, death, religion, politics, etc. In terms of form, the same basic structures emerge -- rhyme, fixed forms, free verse, dream transcription, visual poetry, etc. Poetry uses language and is a form of communication. Poetry follows a certain set of rules, though the set itself varies from poet to poet, from reader to reader.

Within these fundamental confines, elements of originality are present. I am not saying here that all poems are alike. A Catalina Cariaga poem is unlike a Lee Herrick poem, a Garrett Hongo poem is unlike a Tan Lin poem. You could make the more radical argument that no two poems are alike, meaning that every poem, in a sense, is original, or you could even assert that every stanza or line is original.

But the more interesting question to me is whether we want poetry to be original. Should poets aim for originality? Most poets would answer yes, but maybe most poets have not given enough thought to the question. Original does not always mean good. For example, in Cambodia, in the late 1970s, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge sought to return the nation to a state of originality, making their nation different and apart from all other nations, and it led to the destruction of all major cities and the auto-genocide of millions of innocent civilians.

Originality can paradoxically mean regression. If we seek to write an original poem, we run the risk of writing a regressive poem. A poem can be a pale imitation of another poem without having intended to be, just as Pol Pot probably never intended the anarchy and chaos in which his search for the original and the regenerative ended. Examples of regressive poems abound in the volumes of the International Library of Poetry -- they strive for originality but end in unintended imitation.

Because originality is not necessarily good, we need role models as poets and models of good poems. In Asian-American poetry, we need and want a Carlos Bulosan or Li-Young Lee or Marilyn Chin to guide us. We need to read their poems and take them seriously. Tradition is important. History is important. We need a past. We need a coherent narrative from the past to the present to guide us into the future...Or do we? Maybe this paragraph is entirely untrue. As readers, we should always be aware of that what is asserted boldly, as this paragraph does, may not necessarily be right.

After all, one can make a good case for originality as well. One can argue that tradition is dangerous. History is dangerous. The past is dangerous. Even a coherent narrative is dangerous, because it implies linkages that might not otherwise exist, and whether triumphalist or apologetic, ratifies what it says through the telling. We do not need or want a Carlos Bulosan or Li-Young Lee or Marilyn Chin to guide us. First, they have already done it, and we have their poetry already, so why bother to imitate. Second, it could turn out that their poetry is awful; their poetry is not inherently good -- it is up to us to decide. For example, I think that slavery is awful, but tons of people thought it was good and right for centuries, and it turned out they were being stupid. We should not seek to think and write like our predecessors. We should seek to think and write like ourselves, independently and critically. We need originality.

At any rate, I am saying here that originality is a double-edged sword. Boring people will tell you that you can dabble in both tradition and originality, building upon the traditional to formulate the original. I suppose, although I don't understand why that isn't just another way of trumpeting tradition as the main course and throwing in a little originality as cole slaw. There are gradations of tradition/originality, but there are choices as well. Important choices -- in what we read and what we write.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

On the Process of Writing a Poem - Language and an "Asian-American" Identity?

When you are writing the first draft of a poem, do you pay attention to your use of language or to an "identity" of yours (racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, gender, etc.)? If you have been following this blog, you may think that I have blogged extensively about this subject before, but I have not. Here I am speaking of the actual process of making a poem.

Essentially, I am personalizing the identity-language debate, making it a debate concerning one's own work. There is no right or wrong answer, because I am asking what "you" actually do in the composition of a poem, and no government is not big enough yet to stop you from your own individual act of artistic creation.

Here is my own opinion: First, if you do not care whether you are writing a good or bad poem, if you are not writing for the sake of the art of poetry, if you do not want to publish, then this question should not matter to you. You should feel free to write random goobledygook about daisies in Lichtenstein or rant all about cruising down the mean streets of Monterey Park in the Honda that your parents bought for you. This is not a poetry-fascist state: we have so many stresses in our daily lives that it would be unfair of me to argue for denying the right of people to compose poems just for the pure fun of it without being burdened by the pressures and pleasures of craft.

Second, if you do care, I think that both a veering towards language and a veering towards identity present opportunities and perils. If you choose the former, focusing on words and sounds and the structure of language, then you may come up with a highly original poem in terms of style and language, but you risk losing the emotional center of your poem -- the deep-down feeling that drove you to write it in the first place and presumably will drive your readers to enjoy reading it. If you choose the latter, for example, focusing on your Korean-American identity, then you may get your point across forcefully, but you risk losing the ability to turn well-crafted, original phrases that can startle, entertain, and illuminate the complex intricacies of language and life.

Third, at this point in my life, I would have to say that I am focusing more on the language and craft of the poem, while I am writing a poem myself. Of course, I think that it always depends on the particular poem. But I am not purposefully channeling everything into any one identity in general, which I am enjoying and think is good, because it helps liberate me from being too obvious or preachy, even though this does not mean that my poems are not still haunted by multiple questions of identity.

But do not take anything here as the final word. With each poem, as a reader and writer, I try to bring to the table an open-mindedness, hoping that my own perspective on poetry will change for the better, whatever that "goodness" or "betterness" may entail, and these days, as always, it is nice to have hope for the good.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

You Know

You know what I hate? I hate bloggers who blog only once a month, and then, their first post back, talk all about blogging only once a month in a half-apologetic, half-arrogant tone. I mean, what's up with that?! First, you're assuming that we care. We don't. We have lives of our own. Get over yourself. Second, we know that you haven't been blogging, because we aren't important enough for you. You ramble on about being busy with caring for your next-door neighbor's eight Siamese kittens, carving Jack O'Lanterns with the gang from the boondocks to scare the old folks up in Mr. Pepperidge's Square, or (gasp) writing poetry of your own. We get it, OK, the blog has moved down your magical list of priorities. Congrats on finding a social life or writing that masterful novel! Third, we have more important things to do with our own lives than sit around and read posts that have nothing to do with why we came here. You may not think so, but we've got other things that we could be reading right now -- like David Woo's Eclipses, the latest gossip about Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, Michiko Kautani's reviews in the NY Times, etc.

But here's what is the absolute worst: bloggers who sneak in a self-promotion with their first post back. So, for example, you've been gone for a month, and you want to show at least part of what you've been doing with your time, so (tee hee!) you link to a modest little publication -- -- that has nothing to do with the focus of your blog. "Golly, I'm so embarassed. Have I been editor-in-chief?! I didn't want anyone to find out." Really, I think that kind of behavior is uncalled for.