Friday, March 31, 2006

The Adventures of Kudos the Poet - Part II

I've never been one of those anglers who have read much of poetry. That's not how my mind works. I've read a few poets like Shakespeare and Degas, but I've never really had the heart to decipher. People have told me that I should write poetry, but I always take it as an insult. I refuse to take it like an unkempt man.

"Anyone can be charming nowadays," Kudos the Poet expounded. "That's the problem with this world. You take a barrel of maple leaves. Even if you decided that you really wanted to chortle at the company picnic, you would not. With issues such as sandals, it is a matter of volition."

Kudos and I sat on top of the tatami roof of my great aunt Wei-Wei's bed-and-breakfast. Neither of us wanted to play the fashionable video games that had come out in the past three years, so conversation seemed to be the only option. I was glad. It started to drizzle. What made the rain wax the impatient heart into solitude?

Kudos had grown up in Monterey Park, California. Everyone in his family wanted him to be a astrophysicist. His mom surrounded his bed with silver candelabras till he turned 15. His dad made him dress up as a sheep-herding chemist for Halloween every year till he turned 18. His older brother performed as a juggler from the age of six in the second-largest Asian-American owned-and-operated circus in North America, and the family followed him around the country for several years till the circus industry slowed down. His little sister collected enough sharpened pencils to place third at the Hallibrook Festival of Uninvited Oddities. All in all, he had a childhood with a sufficient quantity of happiness.

On his eighteenth birthday, his mother discovered what must be one of the ultimate nightmares of any concerted family member: Kudos was thinking of becoming a rhyming poet. Not just any poet. But a poet who refused to write in free-verse, who only operated in the bewildered fixedness of monstrosities like ottava rima.

It happened that Kudos accidentally left his membership card for the Society of the Secret Pantoum People (SSPP) -- a rebel offshoot of the mainstream organization People for Pantoums -- on his dresser drawer. The SSPP was dedicated to returning the traditional rhyme scheme back to the writing of the pantoum and had been charged by many a poetry editor with "rhyming at all costs". A group of shiftless, undocumented bums. (At least the free verse poets were documented. You have to give them credit for that.) His mother was about to give Kudos a book of dim sum recipes for his birthday when she spotted the card before Kudos had the chance to hide it under his glass figurine of Nikola Tesla. His mother screamed, and his whole family ran to his room.

A search of the room began. Dozens of poems, hundreds of poems, thousands of poems. Hidden in the covers of textbooks, in his trigonometry notes, in yellow sticky notes underneath a bowling pin lamp. Rhyme, rhyme, rhyme! The habit had spiraled into addiction. While Kudos's mother and brother restrained Kudos, Kudos's father and sister seized all the evidence. Kudos's mother dialed the poetry emergency hotline and told everyone than the authorities would be there in less than half an hour.

Suddenly, Kudos managed to shake himself free and started to run. The chase had begun...

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Adventures of Kudos the Poet - Part I

Recently, I had the privilege of venturing to Poplar-Nakagaki Square -- right near Shady Lake off Rutabaga Road -- where my great aunt Wei-Wei operates a five-room bed-and-breakfast. I had just finished off a bowl of her notorious leek dumpling soup, climbed up the oval staircase, and was heading to my room when I heard the sound of someone typing on a laptop. It came from up above.

Now you have to understand that I'd been here in Poplar-Nakagaki Square for many a moon festival, and I knew that the house only had two levels. I was no amateur. I wore floral pajamas with feet. Someone must have been typing on the roof, which made me curious, if only because I'd always been a boring person with an amazing sense of appreciation for the trivial.

I found the ladder for the roof, and up I went, rung by rung, till I popped open the ceiling. No one was there. I looked around, so you should trust me. But oh, the moon! You should have seen the moon. It was a Mrs. Moon from all the public libraries of our youths. If I was one of those kimono-making pygmies that you always hear about in the media these days, I would have stitched a giant kimono for Mrs. Moon. The laughter of a pygmy is often the size of a poncho. Then again, I thought, I have always been one of those people jealous of round objects, and there comes a time in every guy's life when he has to find his inner cubicle, master the art of triangles, and go work for the Trapezoid.

You don't know how lonely it gets sometimes in America. Everyday you order chicken fingers with curly fries. Some morality within you objects to combining curly fries with ketchup. You learn to watch cars, because isn't that what your parents always wanted? You tell yourself to grow up, and exactly three days and twenty-two hours after you have decided that you wanted to be a "grown-up," you find yourself piecing together a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a Minneapolis car salesman's interpretation of Hong Kong circa 1983 with your parents, because your sister decided to come home from San Jose State six hours later than usual, and who can rest comfortably before your sister has arrived back home? Self-acceptance can be brutal.

I was just about to head back down when I heard a voice behind me whisper, "Rhombuses are squares with scoliosis." I gasped and turned around. The voice said, "Hi, my name is Kudos. And just who are you supposed to be at this hour?"

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

On David Mura's Angels for the Burning

Here is a book of dogged poems, totally intentional in its racial and ethnic politics. Evocations of "my/glass of RC with Pepperidge Farm," ("Astronomy"), "the Buddha/step[ping] forth, like those ballplayers/ in the Field of Dreams" ("The Last Days"), and "Bon-o-dori celebrations" ("Internment Epistles") consciously dwell upon the temporal and explore a particular time and place with a studied social realism. Many poems in this volume focus on Japanese-American experiences, in particular, experiences during the internment years.

It is also a very "American" book of poems in the way that it moves beyond the politics of the poet's own ethnicity and meditates upon worlds of different ethnicities and races. Examples of such poems include "Guests from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore" ("No Epic Song"), "the firehouse and Little Saigon Auto" ("First Generation Angels"), Chinatown and the world of early Chinese immigrants ("Father Blues for Jon Jang"), and Bosnia, Somalia, Puerto Rico, and a whole host of other races and nations ("Minnesota Public"). There is a daring attempt to render these "others" a cognizable part of a heterogeneous though unified polity.

Both substantively and stylistically, David Mura's Angels for the Burning (Boa Editions, 2004) is a throwback, echoing many of the poems of Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Wing Tek Lum, James Mitsui, Janice Mirakatani, and Nellie Wong, whose work constructed a poetics around matters of "race" and "ethnicity." Substantively, the poems are direct with their primary subject matter -- race and ethnicity -- and primary agenda -- to meditate upon the discrimination and racism that racial minorities and Asian Americans in general, and Japanese Americans in particular, have experienced in America. Another important theme is multiculturalism and the recognition of the idea that America is a complex, multicultural society. Stylistically, the poems, with a few exceptions like "Internment Camp Psychology" and "Dahmer and the Boy," are fairly formal with well-controlled, left-justified stanzas of the roughly the same number of lines and lines of roughly the same length. While there is variety in word choice, language in and of itself is not the most important feature of the poetry.

I do not think that this book of David Mura's represents the future of Asian-American poetry, and I do not know if that is a good or bad thing. For example, "Father Blues for Jon Jang" is a critique of Charlie Chan, Flower Drum Song, and Stepin Fetchit. These figures clearly were concerns in many Asian-American poems of the 1980s but not so much in the poems of "political" Asian-American poets today. I can't think of a poet under the age of 40 who has written on Flower Drum Song, for example, because such references are just less likely to resonate with a contemporary audience. This is the age of Better Luck Tomorrow. Furthermore, the "Japanese-American" poems like "Relocations," "Hyde Park, 1950," and "Internment Epistles" evoke a historical memory that does not appear to have a prominent place in the works of many of the Asian-American spoken word poets and is not a central project of the Asian-American poetic avant-garde.

In this sense, one might say that the poems are dated. But look, you have to remember that to say poems are "dated" is not to say that poems are "bad." In fact, I think that part of the power of Mura's Angels for the Burning resides precisely in its uncompromising "datedness," its adherence to anti-discrimination precepts that grew out of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

It may be that this book of poems represents one of the last great gasps of an era of poetry that consciously delves into historical memory to find political meaning rather than a past that should be thrown aside for the sake of "progress" in poetry. There is a passion and narrative here often absent in many of the poems written today, for all the talk that we live in times of great urgency. All in all, I accepted and liked the book for what it is and believe that it well exemplifies its liberal project and carries out its mission of encouraging greater tolerance and understanding.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Loneliness and Connection in a Vast World

While listing the "characteristics" of Asian-American poetry, I think that we should not overlook one of the most important qualities of Asian-American poetry -- its power to counter loneliness in an often vast and sometimes unforgiving world. That is, the very existence of "Asian-American poetry" is a form of connection that may unite people who share this area of interest. (Of course, there is the danger of exclusivity -- a danger that all "united" identities face in terms of walling themselves off against "others". But I think that if one shifts the focus from persons/poets to poems, then we may diminish this danger.)

But back to the point of this post: I think that it is a great gift to really enjoy something as I enjoy Asian-American poetry and discover quality folk who share this enjoyment. A real quality of human beings, perhaps not sufficiently emphasized, is the fact that we have the capacity to connect and empathize with one another. Art and poetry take the form of sharing, and I somehow take comfort in the fact that "Asian-American poetry" may be a conduit into our mutual minds and hearts. Even in a society that often alienates, we can still find each other.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Five Weird Habits of Asian American Poetry

Following up on Pam Lu's request,, I've come up with five weird habits of Asian American poetry (or something like it).

1. Food: Because John Donne never grabbed Chinese takeout, it apparently has become the obligation of every Asian American poet to interject food into some poem or another. It's not tough to account for this phenomenon. Names of ethnic food may score points for original word choice (even "rice," which -- though I haven't done any studies here yet -- must appear in fewer contemporary poems than either "bread" or "water"), food can evoke multiple senses, and food can also serve as effective proxies for "cultural meaning". The type of food is important. Take Li-Young Lee's "Persimmons" -- I doubt that that the poem would be as effective if he called it "Watermelons" and used watermelons as the driving metaphor.

2. Asia: Often in Asian-American poems, there is some reference to various locales in Asia. Again, original word choice and the evocation of "cultural meaning" are plausible reasons for such usage. More bonus points. Whether Asian American poets use names of cities and places in Asia to exotify locales for an English-speaking audience is open to debate, though the evocation of geography itself in poetry is often a means of exotification, especially with American geography and the perception of regionalism that constitutes the nation, so perhaps the point is moot.

3. In a Language Other Than English: Asian-American poets sometimes like to throw in "foreign" words and phrases into their English-language poems -- whether Tagalog or Korean or Chinese. I'm not sure why. My guess is that it instinctively looks and/or sounds cool. A drawback is that a reader who is not bilingual in those particular two languages may find it hard to understand the poem. It makes more sense when there's some purpose behind the use of more than one language, when it is intended to play up some comparison between the English and the "other" language itself or to make a statement about cultural/ethnic difference. More unusual is the poem by an Asian American poet completely written in a language other than English -- these kinds of poems are more unusual than a satelite dish on top of a fast food restaurant in Taipei.

4. Cultural Memory: In many poems by Asian-American poets, there is a hearkening back to a "cultural memory," not entirely invented but not entirely extant in an objective sense either. If you are bothered by representations of the individual poet's conception of "culture" as indicative of "group culture," try not to think that way. Seriously. This is poetry folks, and it's important to remember that individual poets are projecting their individual perceptions on to culture, shaping it but not necessarily representing it (save the few cases in which the poet explicitly asserts that she or he is speaking for the group as a whole).

5. Experimentalism/Avant Garde: Over the past decade or so, Asian-Americans have increasingly engaged in avant-garde/experimental forms of poetry. There are many reasons, of course, but one particular not oft-stated reason, I think, is that generally Asian-American poets were never as beholden to some schools of poetry as, say, many non-Asian-American poets have tended to be. In the nineteenth century, for example, there was never an Asian-American poet equivalent to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Robert Browning or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Similarly, much of the twentieth century witnessed the overshadowing of Asian-American poets and poetry. It appears that the relatively recent rise of Asian-American poetry is related to such poets' predilection for newer ways of conceptualizing poetry and the desire to be on the cutting edge, or what is perceived to be the cutting edge, of poetry and thinking in poetry.