Monday, November 06, 2006

On the Goodness of Asian-American Poets

In a recent column entitled, "Yes, We Have Role Models," Sports Illustrated writer Jon Wertheim writes that "the overwhelming majority" of people in the sport of tennis are "good people," pointing to the prevalence of such individuals as James Blake, Carlos Moya, Monica Seles. (I'm not sure whether Asian-American poetry aficionados would recognize all these names, but rest assured, they are well-known in the world of tennis.)

While Asian-American poets do not make millions, or even thousands or hundreds, in endorsement deals, I think that the same compliment may be directed towards them. I would say that the overwhelming majority of Asian-American poets are good people. By "good," I mean something akin to Wertheim's observation that world number one tennis player Roger Federer "will return from his matches to write a thoughtful, entertaining blog for this tour's website" -- that is, most Asian-American poets are kind and generous with their time and are not opposed to engaging in some dialogue with readers of their poetry.

Partly that has to do with the present state of Asian-American poetry. The other day, I was telling a friend that, in Asian-American poetry, unlike in fiction and non-fiction and perhaps poetry in general, no author is really so "big" as to be completely inaccessible to a scholar's or reader's letters or feedback on their writing. At the time, I was probably thinking of the "fame and money" factor, suggesting that no Asian-American poet has become so rich and famous through poetry as to, either through choice or neccessity, basically ignore the responses they get from readers of their work. The top poetry books generally just do not sell as well as the top fiction and non-fiction works.

But I have thought it over some more, and I think that the relative lack of fame and money cannot totally account for the "goodness" of Asian-American poets. For one thing, the leading Asian-American poets have achieved an analogous level of fame, such that one might presume that they could feel entitled to ignore scholars' requests to explain their poetry, for example. Yet, in Xiaojing Zhou's The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian-American Poetry, which I'll be reviewing and discussing on this blog, Zhou thanks all of the poets whose work she discusses in her book -- Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, David Mura, Kimiko Hahn, Timothy Liu, John Yau, and Myung Mi Kim "for taking the time to discuss their writings with [her] and to respond to [her] readings of their poems" (p. x). I found it kind of touching that these leading Asian-American poets would be open to discussions and scholarly analyses of their poetry.

My hypothesis here to account for the generosity of Asian-American poets with their time, especially with regards to such scholarly endeavors, is that the vast majority of Asian-American poets are interested in fostering the idea of "an Asian-American community." They are aware of their existence in American society as Asian-Americans and do care about other Asian-Americans. Participation in organizations like the Asian American Writers' Workshop and Kundminan count as another example of the willingness of many Asian-American poets to reach out to the community as a whole.


Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

To play the devil's advocate here, because it's too easy to nod in agreement with this post otherwise:

Is it possible the problem is we don't have enough bad Asian-American poets?

But I'm not talking about poets who can't mash together a couplet to save their life. I'm talking poets who are all-out, Darth Vader bad.

Maybe we've been going at it all wrong, and despite all the wonders of love and support and stuff like that, we really DO need a John McEnroe.

Some brazen bugbear to trample on our poetic aspirations once in a while like a terrifying poetic Godzilla.

Some entity who's great when he's good, but a real pain when he's being a menace.

Someone who opens the field up by firmly identifying as an Asian American poet but just the same, saying: Poseurs need not apply, and makes hacks cry.

Because we've got deep and kind and funny and wise. We've got sexy and sassy, we've got rich and poor, left and right, noble and struggling all spoken for.

We can do that sh!t to death.

But bad? Honest to goodness, terrifying, Dr. Doom bad? Nah.

Hacks aplenty, yes, but no one who shows us an Asian American poetry that can be ornery and grand at an epic scale.

Someone who conclusively demonstrates that you better watch out, or Poet X is gonna chomp off your poems' heads and use the leftovers for toothpicks while kissing your sister.

At best, right now, it feels like we've got passive-aggressive misanthropes. And that's boring.

So, I say, come out, come out, Poet X, and start trampling.

2:46 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks for the post, Bryan. Yes, I don't think that there is a "Poet X" figure in Asian-American poetry. But I'd also add that it's hard to think of one in poetry in general. Maybe it's the general lack of money and fame in poetry, and with it, the lack of Godzilla-esque hype in the promotion and publication of poems.

5:11 AM  
Blogger USpace said...

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6:42 PM  
Blogger Rethabile said...

Sorry this is off topic. I'm killing myself to find Laotian poetry. I'm having a hard time of it. If you know of names or URLs....


2:05 AM  

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