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.


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