Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Few More Thoughts on Asian-American Poetry (What Else is New?)

Poets Bryan Thao Worra and Barbara Jane Reyes have made great posts on Asian-American poetry, and I would encourage you to check them out. I just have a few quick, general thoughts to add:

1. Asian-American poetry, of course, has a past. But it also has a terrific present and future, which look brighter than ever.

2. I second Pam and Bryan's remarks that Li-Young Lee has an indefinable "presence" that makes him a figure of interest for most people who have come across him in person. I would also add that Li-Young Lee deserves a lot of credit for that. It's primarily what he says and how he interacts with people that makes him so interesting and compelling, along with the fact that he is very generous with his time and energy.

3. I share Barbara Jane's concern over the equation, "Li-Young Lee = Asian-American Poetry." I think that Li-Young Lee himself would not want that to happen. I also concur that other Asian-American poets should have a greater share of the "Asian-American poetry" spotlight, so to speak.

4. There is a need for more Asian-American literary publications. Ironically, at at time when more Asian-American poets than ever are writing and getting published, there may be fewer Asian-American literary publications out there than at any point in the past decade.

5. Both Eileen Tabios and Bryan have mentioned this book, and I want to highlight it here: David Mura's Song for Uncle Tom, Tonto & Mr. Moto: Poetry & Identity (University of Michigan Press, Poets on Poetry series, 2002). Like Breaking the Alabaster Jar, it contains interviews and perspectives on poetry by the poet (the poet being David Mura here).

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Li-Young Lee on Asian-American Poets and Poetry

"That's another thing. A lot of art by Asian Americans is about being Asian American. That's a very dangerous thing because that's supposing that there's something unusual about us. There may be certain things about us that are unique, but ultimately, like you were saying, our experiences are all universal. We have to transcend, especially in art, we have to transcend those - what I call trivial aspects of our existence - and we have to move on to greater issues, that's really what art is about. It's not about this momentary thing, like about AIDS. It's like, 'I'm going to write all these poems or paint all these paintings about AIDS'. AIDS is a real thing. It's very frightening. It's very important in our time. But at the same time, is it art?" -- Li-Young Lee, "Art is Who We Are," Breaking the Alabaster Jar (BOA Editions, 2006, ed. Earl G. Ingersoll), p. 62.

In an interview with Patty Cooper and Alex Yu, originally published in the terrific but now seemingly defunct Chicago-based Asian-American literary/artistic magazine Riksha, poet Li-Young Lee offers a series of fascinating assertions on Asian-American art and poetry. From this interview, the above paragraph includes perhaps the most fascinating and provocative of these remarks, as Lee dismisses much of the work of Asian-American poets as lacking transcendence. I think that it also exemplifies Lee's true feelings on Asian-American art and poetry, as Lee makes such remarks in many of his interviews (though almost certainly in terms that are less stark than in analogizing Asian-American identity to living with AIDS and then suggesting both are "momentary".)

I have been giving these comments a lot of careful thought, as I believe they are important to the way that we conceptualize art and poetry. And I want to help Lee here by answering his ultimate question, "Is it art?"

In this paragraph, Lee suggests that art and poetry should seek to "transcend trivial aspects of our existence" and be about "greater issues," by which he means, "love and death" (p. 63). But what I think that Lee does not acknowledge is that one of the most important ways to address greater issues like love and address is through the "trivial aspects of our existence." In contrast to Lee, who claims that "our experiences are all universal," I would say that our experiences can be both universal and particular at the same time.

Let me elaborate. Lee praises Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson (p. 62) -- two of my favorite poets as well. But whereas Lee appears to believe that the greatest quality of Whitman and Dickinson's poetry is the ability to directly address the universals of love and death, I would say that it is the capacity to illuminate the universals of love and death through the use of vivid, specific images, words, and forms as well as through the evocation of contemporary social concerns with gender, class, and race.

Please correct me if I am wrong here, but I think that Lee posits a future without races by implicitly comparing poems about being Asian-American to poems about AIDS. Essentially, he offers a future in which AIDS (and race) are no longer real, salient issues. It is what I would call a "utopian waiting game theory" of art and poetry. That is, if we "wait" long enough (perhaps decades or centuries), social categories such as those of gender, class, race, ethnicity, disability, etc. will one-by-one no longer have relevance, and we will be left with a "pure" form of art and poetry that focuses on the essentials of love and death.

I think that there are a couple problems with the "utopian waiting game theory". First, I highly doubt that a "pure" form of art and poetry exists. (If one chooses to believe that language and grammar are products of society, then it definitely does not exist.) Second, assuming for the moment that such a "pure" form of art and poetry is possible, I question whether we should aim for it. For complete devotees of Lee's philosophy here, I think that a key problem is, so to speak, "a poetics of boredom" -- an adherence to such a philosophy could very well result in poems that are devoid of originality in language or ideas, e.g., poems that just keep on repeating the words "love," "light," "water," etc. Another issue may be the overproduction of poetry that is unengaged with the world in which we live.

I would suggest that art that "lacks transcendence" is still art. To return to Lee's question, I would answer that poems about being Asian-American or poems about AIDS are works of art, even if one believes that, for example, race will no longer be salient in American society or there will be a cure for AIDS in the future. Specific moments in time and space -- and detailed evocations of specific moments in time and space -- can be interesting, funny, warm, touching, noble, and/or beautiful. Beautiful art does not have to be transcendent to achieve beauty. Perhaps "transcendent art" is art that remains relevant for the society that experiences it. It can exist powerfully for the time being.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Introduction by Earl G. Ingersoll

As noted in the previous post, I have more to say about Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (BOA Editions, 2006, ed. Earl G. Ingersoll. Specifically, I want to highlight Ingersoll's introduction to the series of interviews, which I identified as "one of the most perceptive introductions on an Asian-American poet that I have ever come across" in the previous post.

As devoted readers of Asian-American poetry know all-too-well, there has been a long history of non-Asian-American poets giving awful introductions to/readings of the poetry of Asian-American poets. What do I mean by "awful"? I think that I would define "awful" here as "profound misreadings of poems that veer dangerously close, or plunge vigorously into, crude stereotypes." What are the features of such a maladroit introduction? First, it typically includes overuse of such words as "quiet," "tradition," "humility," etc. Second, none of those words accurately describe the poems themselves (and probably not the respective poets-as-people either). Third, there is an indefinable hovering over the "exotic," "oriental," and/or "foreign" features of the poetry, more profoundly present if the Asian-American poet happens to be female.

I have to add quickly here, however, that I think that the intent of the non-Asian-American poet who reads/introduces the work of an Asian-American poet is not necessarily bad. In other words, I think that the origin of such stereotypical misreadings typically comes not from ill-will towards Asian-American poets or his or her poetry but from some deeper inability to approach the text with less static, so to speak. I don't know if it is possible to read poetry without having some thoughts on the race, ethnicity, and nationality of the poet -- especially if explicitly referenced in the poetry -- but I would say that an introduction to a book of poems should not primarily be about "the extent to which the poet her or himself is 'Asian' or 'Asian-American'"but should help focus the readers' attention to the qualities of the poems themselves with reference to larger issues of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, class, etc., should the narrative call for it.

Earl G. Ingersoll's introduction is, of course, not an introduction to a book of poems by an Asian-American poet. It is an introduction to an Asian-American poet himself. I can't say whether that it is easier or harder to write such an introduction, but I think that the dangers of inaccurate stereotyping still exist, and Ingersoll not only skillfully avoids them but paints a remarkably clear and interesting portrait of Li-Young Lee.

Ingersoll's introduction opens with a wonderful paragraph that manages to provide a glimpse into Li-Young Lee's personality, a history of the Lee family, and a brief discussion of Lee's poetry and memoir, Winged Seed, while maintaining the flow of the narrative. All three have been done before elsewhere but to do it all in one paragraph is no easy task.

As editor, Ingersoll then undertakes the risky (but adroitly executed and thus very readable) enterprise of speaking through Li-Young Lee, ventriloquizing Lee through a general reading of his interviews. There are multiple examples here, all emphases mine. "Lee is well-aware that excessive emphasis on his life and especially on his ethnicity can direct attention away from the poems themselves" (p. 9). "Lee knows how indebted he is to American poets" (p. 10). "He might well identify himself as an Asian-American to the census-taker at the door; however, it is as an American poet that he would see himself as first and foremost" (p. 10). "Paradoxically, Lee as a poet has reservations about language" (p. 11). "Once again, Lee is a poet who takes his vocation very seriously" (p. 11). The list goes on and on.

I think that this technique works really well here -- and it is very difficult to tell that it works really well until you have gone through most of the interviews -- because Ingersoll has closely read and digested all the interviews, as well as having interviewed Lee himself, which allows for an intimate yet global reading of Lee as poet, artist, reader, father, and man. In other words, the success comes not by accident but as a result of hard editorial work.

Perhaps more importantly, this technique helps Ingersoll sidestep the perils involved with projecting his personal opinions on the "Asian" or "Asian-American" features of Li-Young Lee's poetry. For example, we don't have Ingersoll saying whether it is a good or bad thing that Li-Young Lee "is not likely to think to himself, Here I am, an Asian American setting out to compose an Asian-American poem"(p. 10). We have Lee's perspective from the interviews, and that seems sufficient here.

Ingersoll then answers the question that I think that all editors of collections of interviews, poems, short stories, etc. should answer: Why this volume? Why should anyone undertake the task of collecting interviews by Li-Young Lee? Why should any potential reader of this collection care? In my previous post, I suggested that the two main answers to these questions are that 1) Lee is a prominent poet who has sold many books and that 2) Lee gives really good and interesting interviews. That is implied in the very undertaking of this enterprise, but Ingersoll adds another important reason: 3) Lee is not an academic and thus "is just not likely to write essays, explaining his notions of his craft as a poet" (p. 12). In other words, these interviews are basically all we've got, aside from speaking personally with Lee himself, in terms of learning Lee's thoughts and views on art, poetry, and life. As Ingersoll puts it, "These conversations offer access to Lee's sense of himself as a working poet and his concept of what it means to be a poet" (p. 13).

Ingersoll does a few other technical things well in the introduction. First, he appears to prefer to call these interviews "conversations," as opposed to "interviews" (even though he does use the term "interviews," probably for the sake of clarity), which seems more appropriate, given the free-flowing feel of most of the exchanges in the volume. Second, he integrates about the right amount of quotes from Lee in the right number of places. Third, towards the end of the introduction, he remembers to clearly reference the original publications in which the interviews first appeared as well as list all of Lee's honors -- again, Ingersoll moves quickly and devotes just about the right amount of space here (two paragraphs). Fourth, Ingersoll does not use the words "foreign," "exotic," or "oriental," which is consonant with the fact that Lee refrains from using these terms as well, but at the same time, Ingersoll does discuss Lee's Chinese heritage and Lee's views on race and ethnicity, which is consonant with the fact that Lee does, in fact, discuss these topics in his conversations. In short, Ingersoll pays close attention to the substance of Lee's interviews.

A larger question went through my mind as I reflected upon Ingersoll's introduction. Would it have been possible for anyone to write such an introduction twenty years ago? I don't know. One could argue that Ingersoll, and perhaps future authors of introductions to the works of Asian-American poets, have the benefit of decades of response and critique from Asian-American scholars. One could also make the "demographic" argument that the increase in the Asian-American population over the past two decades has led to a degree of mainstreaming of the Asian-American population that has made more possible a reading of an Asian-American poet's work without a complete preoccupation with the race of the poet her or himself. Regardless, I think that Ingersoll successfully paints an accurate and informative portrait of Li-Young Lee that will last through at least the first half of the twenty-first century.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Review of Conversations with Li-Young Lee: Breaking the Alabaster Jar

The newly published, Conversations with Li-Young Lee: Breaking the Alabaster Jar (BOA Editions, 2006, ed. Earl G. Ingersoll), represents a landmark in Asian-American poetry. To the best of my knowledge, Conversations with Li-Young Lee is the first edited and published collection of interviews given by an Asian-American poet. While the fact that a book happens to be "a landmark" (in the sense that it attempts to undertake an original endeavor) does not necessarily make it good, I think that this volume of Li-Young Lee's thoughts on poetry, aesthetics, and life is superlative -- both in concept and execution.

I think that the first correct decision was in concept -- to make the collection about Li-Young Lee, as opposed to another Asian-American poet. Why was this initial editorial move a "correct decision"? Two reasons. First, Li-Young Lee has an almost twenty-year history of giving interviews on poetry. In fact, I imagine that it would be very difficult to do such a collection on other Asian-American poets, given their relative newness to poetry and/or their lack of published interviews. Second, Li-Young Lee's comments may be some of the most quotable and fascinating of any poet of his generation. In other words, he is very good at giving interviews. He is very good at sharing his thoughts on poetry and life in a compelling way, which all-too-often does not happen with poets talking about poetry. Even at the basic level of the sentence, Lee's ordering of words in plain speech has a certain poetry. I agree with Ingersoll's claim that Lee's interviews here "provide readers of Lee's poetry a sample of his provocative, witty, and engaging comments on his writing," and I think that Lee's skill at communicating with and relating to different people surely has helped contribute to his fame in the poetry world.

Next, I give a lot of credit to the editor, Earl G. Ingersoll, for his skillful editing of this collection. Most importantly, from interview to interview, the questions and answers do not become repetitious. We are not faced with the Sisphyusian phenomenon of Li-Young Lee answering the question, "So what is it like to be an Asian-American poet?," a million times. I could sense that Ingersoll put great care into the selection of the interviews. Ingersoll also makes the great editorial move of ordering the interviews in chronological order, which adds a certain logic to Lee's thoughts, as we can somewhat trace their development over time. I do have a slight quibble here -- I think that the Table of Contents should have included the dates of the original interviews, instead of having the reader figure out the reasoning behind the ordering for her or himself. In addition, Ingersoll adds the nice touch of opening with an introduction -- which is one of the most perceptive introductions on an Asian-American poet that I have ever come across (more in a subsequent post)-- and closing with his own interview of Lee. This bookending is done quite well.

But most important to me here, especially for the purposes of this blog, is that Li-Young Lee says A LOT about Asian-American poetry, writing, and identity. Now I don't agree with everything that he has to say, which I think is a good thing. I like the fact that Lee's remarks often challenged my own thoughts and views, further shaping them into what hopefully would be something better. In future posts, I plan to specifically address some of Lee's more interesting remarks, engaging in a kind of dialogue with the text.

In the meantime, I would definitely recommend this collection of interviews to fans of Li-Young Lee's poetry and to fans of poetry in general.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Asian American Curriculum Project

Recently, I came across the Asian American Curriculum Project, which focuses on marketing and selling Asian-American books. Here is a description of the organization from its website:

"Our mission is to educate the public about the great diversity of the Asian American experience, through the books that we distribute; fostering cultural awareness and to educate Asian Americans about their own heritage, instilling a sense of pride. AACP believes that the knowledge which comes from the use of appropriate materials can accomplish these goals...

The Asian American Curriculum Project, Inc. has been an award winning non-profit voluntary educational organization since 1969. Our original name was Japanese American Curriculum Project JACP, Inc. Since our beginning in 1969, we have grown to offer the most complete collection of Asian American books.

The books and other materials offered are for all age groups, all levels of education and all Asian ethnic groups; including and not limited to Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Hmong, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Samoan, Tongan, Thai, & Vietnamese Americans and Hawaiians.

Materials include literature, folk tales, posters, magazine, tapes on language and music, games, activities, teachers guides, dictionaries, bilingual materials and reference books on history, social issues and education."

I find the idea of a bookstore that specializes in "Asian-American books" quite fascinating. A thought occurred to me -- there are lots of grocery stores that sell Asian food and cater primarily to Asian and Asian-American grocery shoppers, but I had not come across any place that specializes in the sale of Asian/Asian-American books until the AACP, Inc. Evidently, it's a lot harder to go without bok choy or litchee than the latest offering in Asian-American poetry. Fair enough. But here is a bookstore/organization that makes a nice effort to cater to readers of Asian/Asian-American literature.