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."


Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...


My friend Cha the Durian fruit in her own fructal manner had a very similar conversation with me on the edge of a sleazy bar next door.

However, she came to the conclusion that this sort of thing is a yellow-on-yellow, and a prime example of internalized racism that equates terms like this as presupposing inferiority or material that would only receive notice when viewed through a particular lens.

That Cha. People can choose whatever framing and categorizing method they choose to to find their favorite poets and writers.

Some lenses will fit better than others, but if it helps you find poets who speak to you, what does it matter?

Perhaps you only like to read people who write in the beat style. Perhaps you only like to read the work of green-eyed poets. Perhaps you choose only the suicidal babes of poetry. Or South American poets. The poetry of people whose names rhyme with orange.

Or, Asian American poets. Cha and I looked at our bookshelves, and while there are indeed some crappy Asian American poets in our collection, we also have many more that we treasure and feel a strong connection to because of the way they speak to our experience and our histories.

Cha says Melvin the Cantelope better watch his back, or the thugs from Mango City will tip over his ivory throne and stomp on his myopic eyes.

It's in the ghettos that some of the finest examples of Jewish, African American, Latin American and Asian American thought and writing have emerged. Those in the privileged castes have rarely produced as much of note to resonate across the ages as those who have seen society from its ungainliest angles.

In many instances, the best of our times have begun poorly. But I digress. Cha and I still have to finish a game of scrabble now.

12:37 PM  
Blogger pam said...

Roger, this is hilarious and crazy-brilliant. I'm blending up a batch of post-essentialist agua fresca right now-- you in?

5:43 PM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...


This is seriously cool. Have you considered sending it out? Email me---leeherrick@hotmail.com---I want to talk to you about publishing it.

peace and cheers


8:46 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Bryan, Pam, and Lee,

Thanks a lot for the comments! Always good to have visitors. Yes, I'm definitely up for the post-essentialist agua fresca. Cheers!

- Roger

12:42 AM  

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