Friday, October 27, 2006

Collaborative Poetry

In this post, I'd like to think more about collaborative poetry as it relates to Asian-American poetry. If one defines "collaborative poetry" as a poem or sequences of poems authored by two or more poets, I think that there is simply not much collaborative work in Asian-American poetry. I know that I've never come across a sequence of poems, or even a single poem, authored by two or more Asian-American poets, and I'm not sure if there are any such poems out there.

In general, one could say that there is and there isn't much collaboration in American poetry today. As I've defined collaborative poetry, there isn't too much of such work going on, especially on the level of book publishing, which makes Reb Livingston and Ravi Shankar's Wanton Textiles, as well as the postcard poems of Tim Yu and Cassie Lewis, relatively unique works of art. But I would say that there is a lot of collaboration among poets in other forms -- for example, writing workshops and conferences, feedback from poetry editors, suggestions and critiques from other poets and friends. You could even expand this list and point out that poets live in societies and are greatly influenced by the time and place in which they live. I would thus assert that the notion that poems typically exist in some kind of "pure" form, uninfluenced by the opinions of other individuals, is somewhat overly romanticized and outdated. In this sense, I think that most poems are the products of a certain degree of collaboration among poets.

But in the less abstract sense of "collaborative poetry," I find it interesting that there is almost none of that happening in Asian-American poetry today. I think that it points to the importance of the individual in the generating of poetry, especially poems that are more personal in nature. But I also wonder whether such a lack of collaboration is essentially a byproduct itself of a particular tradition in contemporary American poetry that presumes a poem to have only one author and thus approaches collaborative poems with some measure of bewilderment. In other words, if you read enough poems in literary magazines that have only one author, pretty soon you presume that is the way that poetry works.

From both history and modernity, however, we know that there are different ways in which the art of poetry could and does work. In some Asian cultures, oral history is the primary means through which poetry is generated, shared, and passed down from generation to generation. The renga is a form of collaborative poetry that originated in Japan, and poets throughout the world continue to work in the form today. Then there is the whole concept of "postcard poetry" in which, in its simplest form, poets exchange poems on postcards, which may or may not touch upon specific geographic locales depending on the poets' definition of such poetry.

While I think that most poets who engage in collaborative poetry find it amusing and a nice change of pace, I also think that such work can and should be taken more seriously as well. There are many potential upsides to collaborative poetry -- it could point to similarities and contrasts in writing styles between two poets, work as a means to highlight different perspectives on particular issues, like matters involving race or ethnicity or gender, and help poets grow as authors and thinkers by showing them a different way of approaching a topic or theme.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Wanton Textiles and Collaborative Chapbooks

I just finished reading Wanton Textiles (No Tell Books, 2006), a collaborative poetry chapbook by leading emerging American poets Reb Livingston and Ravi Shankar, and it's an entertaining read. I imagine that if Regis and Kelly were ever to emcee at a Dadaist poetry festival, this is what they would say to the crowd of spools and yarn.

In this slim volume, the distinctive voices of Livingston and Shankar emerge unscathed as their personas exchange prose poems with each other. While both poets continue in the "avant-garde" tradition of poetry writing and seem at ease with surrealist techniques, I think that we essentially have a successful study in contrast. Even though one poet (Shankar) is Asian-American, while the other poet (Livingston) is not, I would say that gender is a more obvious proxy than race for the representation of "difference" here.

Livingston's passages are generally marked by her use of the second person "you," her relatively more personal voice, her plain speech, her directness, her observation of concrete, everyday objects, and her evocation of "feminine" reference points (e.g. "hosiery" (p. 9), "silk worms" (p. 9), "mermaid" (p. 11), "beautiful pinching stilettos" (p. 15), "grapefruit-scented" conditioner (p. 24)).

Shankar's passages are generally marked by his comfort with the third person, his preference for the abstract, his scattering of relatively obscure names and places, his use of long and/or difficult words (e.g. "multitudinous" (p. 14), "clairolfaction" (p. 14), "vestigial" (p. 19), "slabyard of recurrent camisoles" (p. 21), "entropy" (p. 23)), and a certain gender-neutrality that nevertheless still possesses qualities of a "masculine" voice.

I should note that I'm more familiar with Shankar's poetry than Livingston's. I haven't talked about my thoughts on Shankar's poetry on this blog before, so I'll do it quickly here. In my opinion, the greatest strength and weakness of Shankar's poetry is its intelligence. The poetry is often brilliant and eloquent. It's often "erudite," so to speak. The voice, vocabulary, and tone are somewhat like Vijay Seshadri's or John Yau's. There's an implied skepticism towards the personal and/or confessional and not too much of an everyman feel to the poetry. There's usually no obvious invocation of the poet's race. In short, this isn't the work of Adrienne Su or Li-Young Lee here.

I was particularly fascinated by the fact that Shankar largely kept his usual voice, as described previously, but also expanded it in response to Livingston's passages in certain lines. To note just a few of Shankar's lines that break from the prevalent rhythms of abstractness: "Let's stretch together, sky, breasts/ silhouettes, our own recognizable heads/ unnumbered and damp upon the grass" (p. 26), "Nothing doing./ Not a single train has left the station/ grown over with snarling vetch, sandwich wrappers," (p. 23). At times, there's a shifting of gears here towards relatively simple, plain, everyday talk, and what an admirer of Adrienne Su or Li-Young Lee's poetry might characterize as charming.

I'm bringing up this point, because it suggests one of the great potentials of collaborative poetry chapbooks. Collaboration can lead to shifts in a poet's style and add to a poet's repetoire. The back-and-forth between two poets makes each think about his or her work in relation to the other poet's work. I think that I may blog more about collaboration in poetry as it relates to Asian-American poetry in a future post. But for now, I'll just say that Wanton Textiles represents a nice example of, and model for, a collaborative chapbook of poetry.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Catalina Cariaga-Cultural Evidence Conundrum

Over the past few days, I have been thinking about Catalina Cariaga's Cultural Evidence (1999). I first came across Cultural Evidence as a college student, and I must admit that I really did not understand it back then. More precisely, I didn't understand why something "like this" was even published and in our library. At around the same time, I had similar reactions to the poems of Myung-Mi Kim and John Yau, which generally bear a certain similiarity to Cariaga's in the sense that they are rather "avant-garde," may arguably classified as "language" poems, and often push the limits of form in poetry. At the time, these poems made relatively little sense to me.

Now I think that it is natural for people to gravitate towards certain "schools of poetry" and enjoy certain kinds of poetry more than others. But here is the thing -- I also think that we should challenge this natural inclination to, essentially, stick with the types of poems we like. It builds our capacity to relate to each other as readers of poetry, challenges our preconceptions regarding different schools of poetry, sharpens our minds and expands our perspectives on the possibilities of poetry, and may lead us to eventually discover that we like certain styles of poetry that we may not have in the past. On a related note, I also think that people should read within and outside of Asian-American poetry as well as both contemporary and non-contemporary poetry.

I wonder sometimes, though. I wonder whether my views on the importance of reading many different types of poetry might change in the future. The existence of the very phrase, "schools of poetry," suggests that it might. My experiences in general suggest that my sense of the importance in reading poetry broadly and historically may be in the minority here. It appears that the vast majority of poets and readers of poetry tend to "stick with what they like," so to speak.

And practically speaking, it makes a lot of sense. There are lots of poems to read. There are only so many hours in the day. There are only so many days in the year. We can only check a limited number of poetry books out of the library. We can't afford to buy every book of poetry out there. We have lives outside of poetry. It makes sense, on a practical level, to focus on the kinds of poetry that we intuitively feel we like and quickly move past the ones we don't. Also, by focusing on the poems that we have a certain affinity towards, we can read them in greater depth. We can arguably develop a greater understanding of that particular body of work.

In terms of relating this phenomenon to my own experience of reading poetry, one might call it the Catalina Cariaga-Cultural Evidence Conundrum. That is, to appreciate a text that I found challenging, like Cariaga's Cultural Evidence, I needed to put in more time and effort into it than I probably would have when reading a more accessible work of poetry. By putting more time and effort into it, I was perhaps spending less time on poems that I found easier and more enjoyable while not spending as much time developing a particular expertise in the poetry that I more naturally enjoyed.

But the conundrum presents itself in another form -- I would never have appreciated Cariaga's Cultural Evidence, if I had not been open-minded enough to return to the book. I would have missed out on a great piece of literature, and I would not have sharpened my skills as a reader. In fact, I'm glad that I stepped out of what had been my comfort zone as a poetry reader and took a more in-depth look at a genre of poetry whose importance I had not fully comprehended before.

In addition, by focusing on a particular "school of poetry" without making an effort to look outside this particular field, one risks not gaining sufficient insight into the very field itself. I find overspecialization somewhat worrisome, because it could breed complacency and lack of understanding of the more general context within which a school of poetry, or specialty, is situated. The ability to make cross-field comparisons can add to the quality of the reading and writing of "one's own school of poetry." A greater understanding of the diverse schools of poetry may lead to more innovation in both the scholarship on poetry and the writing of poems.

At this point in time, as a reader, I think that one of my goals is to read a wide range of poems to get a greater sense of the possibilities that are out there. At least in the forseeable future, I would like to remain open to the diversity in poetry and gain a better understanding of Asian-American poetry and beyond.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Asian-American Poets Not Named Li-Young Lee

How many Asian-American poets do you know? You might be able to name Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Justin Chin, Garrett Hongo, Eileen Tabios, and Nellie Wong off the top of your head. You might think that you know most, if not practically all, of the Asian-American poets out there. But do you really?

On her blog, Barbara Jane Reyes recently made an insightful commentary on the general preoccupation with Li-Young Lee, and it made me think. It made me think that, for a greater understanding of Asian-American poetry, we should read a wider range of poets. It made me consider the possibility that all of us -- even Asian-American poets, even people who study Asian-American poetry closely -- may not know as much as we think we know, as far as appreciating the scope of Asian-American poetry goes.

There are at least several dilemmas with this lack of knowledge. First, it renders any of our assertions of "what Asian-American poetry is" less accurate, given that we have only a limited, partial view of this body of literature. Second, it prevents us from making comparisons between the poetry of, say, a "Justin Chin" and the poetry of a perhaps lesser known Asian-American poet. Third and related to the previous points, it makes progress in defining and comprehending "Asian-American poetry" (and perhaps in the writing of such poetry itself) more difficult. There may be a constant reinvention of the wheel, a swinging of the pendulum between "language" and "political/identity" poetry camps in both the poems themselves and the scholarship on the poems, fostering "schools of thought" that are not terribly original and cannot fully negotiate all the nuances of "Asian-American poetry."

Where am I going here? In the remainder of post, I want to introduce three Asian-American poets that we should know. I say, "introduce," because I have never come across a discussion of any of these poets, or any of their poems or books of poetry, on any poetry blog. In fact, I have very seldom encountered their names or poems anywhere and thus do not know much about their poetry. But I say, "we should know," because all three of these poets have something in common -- in the past seven or eight years, important publishers have published their first poetry collections.

It is somewhat of a puzzle to me that certain poets are more generally well-known than others. Does the popularity of the poet correlate with the perceived quality of the poetry? I really cannot say. I cannot say, because these poets have something else in common -- relatively few of their poems are online, which makes it difficult for me to form a judgment. Now I could buy their books, but the catch-22 here is that I actually do not know enough about their poetry to make an intelligent decision as to whether I should purchase them. Perhaps these poets and/or their publishers had not done quite enough in terms of publicity. Or perhaps it is those of us in the blogosphere who are behind the curve. I don't know. At any rate, I'd like to give their books of poetry another look with this post:

Arlene Biala: In 1999, West End Press published her first poetry collection, Continental Drift. Here is her biography: "Arlene Biala was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area. Her poetry explores stories of the generations who have left their native lands to live in America, particularly Philipino/a people. A performance artist with an MFA from the New College of California in San Francisco, she has studied under poets Genny Lim, Juan Felipe Herrera, Margarita Luna Robles, David Meltzer, and Lyn Hejinian. She performs with her brothers, Jimmy Biala on percussion and Billy Biala on saxophone, throughout California. Her stark, tender, sensual and political poetry goes beyond chronological storytelling into the dance of simultaneous experiences called forth by tragedy, family, and love" (

David Chin: In 2000, Mellen Poetry Press published his poetry collection, The China Cupboard and the Coal Furnace. Here is his biography: "David Chin grew up in Jersey City. He received his PhD in English from Binghamton University. His poetry appears in various journals, anthologies, and in a chapbook, Chalked in Orange (Mbira Press). He has been the recipient of a Clara Woo award" (

Richard Hamasaki: In 2001, the University of Hawaii Press published his poetry collection, From the Spider Bone Diaries: Poems and Songs. Here is his biography: "Richard Hamasaki's home is in Kane'ohe, on the island of O'ahu. He has published two poetry chapbooks, 7 Poems/8 Photographs (with brother Mark Hamasaki), and virtual fleality. Hamasaki co-produces a series of publications, including spoken word and music recordings, and he writes articles, reviews, and essays, as well as poetry" (

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Lack of Asian-American Lit Mags at Colleges and Universities, Part II

A short while ago, I made a post commenting on the lack of Asian-American literary magazines at colleges and universities. And someone who came across the post recently asked me the following question: "I wonder if there is a way that an organization could be set up into helping campuses start their own Asian American lit mags?"

I thought it was an excellent but difficult question. I attempted an answer, and I am basing this post on the answer that I gave:

At this point, my best answer, which is not directly answering the question, is that I think that undergraduate and MFA students alike may start an Asian-American literary magazine without the existence of such a centralized organization -- by making the publication an online one. While it would be nice to have a print publication -- and personally, I like to read fiction and poetry on paper myself -- I think that an online publication would not only be more financially feasible but would most likely reach a wider audience than a print publication as well. Actually, I think that online lit mags are the wave of the future, even though print lit mags will never become completely obsolete.

It would definitely be nice if the college or university gives financial and/or infrastructural support to an Asian-American literary magazine, and I think that students should at least try to seek support from various sources at their respective colleges and universities. Possible sources of assistance include student organizations, faculty members, student governments, and the Dean's Office. In general, I would say that the broader the institutional support that an Asian-American literary magazine possesses, the more successful it will be and the longer it will last. It takes time and effort to start a lit mag, and if there are fiction and/or poetry student groups on campus, an undergrad or grad student who desires to start such a publication may want to contact members of these groups to find others willing to help out as editors and staff members. The Asian Student Associations at various colleges and universities are another potential source of funding and assistance.

Given the lack of Asian-American literary magazines out there, I would add that anyone who started such a publication at a university or college would be filling an important niche. Particularly if the Asian-American student population is not that large, I think that it may be a good idea to seek submissions on a national basis, and I would speculate that there would be a respectable number of responses. Such a publication could be limited to undergraduate and/or graduate students, depending on the preferences of the editor(s). Also, it may be useful to visit existing online literary publications to consult the formats of their websites and their guidelines...Anyhow, I think that it is possible for undergraduate and graduate students to set up Asian-American literary magazines, and that's my personal though definitely far-from-perfect take on things here.