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.


Blogger pam said...

Hi Roger,

Thanks for playing pick-up and for the great twist on the game. I'm visualizing an American Idol style of scorecard for judging poems... "a lousy 2 out of 5, and ya can't sing either..."

Good to see you back.


2:05 PM  
Blogger Razib Ahmed said...

Nice article and nice insights. However, I find it some unnatural to see that Asian AMerican poets dont say much about the climate and season- which is perhaps the most common theme for many writers of Asia proper.
On the other hand, I have started an effort to present Bangla literature into English language. Bangla is perhaps the 5th largest language of the world and it got the first Nobel Prize outside of the European and American literatures in 1913.
My blog's url is:
If possible please visit it and let me know your idea.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Pam, thanks for the prompt! It's a neat game.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Razib, great blog! I didn't know that Bangla was spoken by so many people in the world, but it feels like something I, and everyone, should know, so thanks for pointing it out to us.

7:01 PM  

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