Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Review of The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian-American Poetry

If you keep a blog on "Asian-American poetry," then I think that the chances are fairly decent that you would read Xiaojing Zhou's The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian-American Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2006) -- the first published book-length critical study of Asian-American poetry. When I started this blog, I pointed out that no full-length study of Asian-American poetry had ever been published, and much to my approval and delight, that fact has now changed.

Also to my delight is the fact that Zhou's The Ethics and Poetics is a real tour de force. In characterizing the book as a "tour de force," I mean that Zhou illustrates her central thesis -- "in developing a poetics of alterity that insists on confronting social injustice against the other and exploring the ethics and aesthetics of otherness, Asian American poets demonstrate that their transformation and displacement of the lyric I engage with broader issues than merely the poetic" (pp. 275-76) -- with real persuasiveness and intelligence. It's a difficult thesis. I read Zhou as claiming that Asian-American poets have transformed "the traditional lyric I, the lyric voice, and the lyric form" (p. 20) into a poetics that is more conscious of the "we" and the "you" aspects of human relations, that is more engaged with philosophical questions concerning otherness and the self.

Zhou demonstrates this thesis through an exploration of the work of seven Asian-American poets -- Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, David Mura, Kimiko Hahn, Timothy Liu, John Yau, and Myung Mi Kim -- "moving from autobiographical and confessional poems where the lyric speaker is central, to surrealist and Language poems where the poet-I as the lyric I is replaced by multiple voices of other, and the lyric voice gives way to impersonal, hybrid, and other-sounding patterns" (pp. 20-21). She divides the book into seven chapters, exploring the work of one poet in each chapter, and adds an introduction and conclusion. I found the book very well-organized, and it covers a diverse range of poetic traditions.

Perhaps the greatest quality of the book is Zhou's perceptive readings of the poems themselves. Over and over again, she uses the pattern of describing a particular poem, quoting excerpts from the poem itself, and then analyzing the excerpts. She usually analyzes the poem in light of her aforementioned central thesis, but she does not push it to the degree of rendering her assertions incongrous with the text. The points do not become forced or repetitive, but instead, they provide us with greater insight into the poetry itself. The book contains quite a few wonderful readings of various poems.

While I enjoyed the book, I will point to several issues that I had with it as well, many of which may be addressed in a future edition of the book. First, I found my asking the question, "Why these poets?" While I understand the necessity of limiting the number of poets, if only for reasons of space, I think that Zhou should have explained the reasons that she believes that these particular poets' works exemplify "Asian American poetry," given that there are dozens of other Asian-American poets whose works she potentially could have selected for this volume. Second and related, I would say that the book would have been stronger with poets from a wider range of ethnicities -- there are four Chinese American poets, two Japanese American poets, and one Korean American poets. As is, perhaps a more appropriate term than "Asian American poetry" would have been "Asian Pacific American poetry." Third, I would have preferred that the book contain more information on Asian American history, the history of Asian American poetry, and contemporary Asian American society, but this point may be a minor one, because I know that you can only do so much in a limited amount of space, and I found the book's length to be quite appropriate at 312 pages. Fourth, I think that Zhou could have better explained her rationale for choosing the poems that she does select in light of the poet's larger body of work -- for example, she quotes heavily from John Yau's "Genghis Chan" poems, but many of Yau's poems do not engage in questions of Asian American identity, and it would have been interesting if there had been some compare and contrast between poems that are relatively more engaged with such issues of "otherness" and poems that are not as engaged with these issues. Fifth, especially since this book is the first published full-length study of Asian-American poetry, I think that it would have been better with more of a discussion on the reasons for having such a published volume of analysis on Asian American poetry at this point in time.

Let me pause for a moment here. The previous paragraph was relatively long. I want to say again that I think that this book is not only fascinating and well-written but groundbreaking. It's not easy to do "groundbreaking" work, because you face a lack of texts written before yours. Furthermore, there are not a lot of scholars of Asian-American poetry, which means that a professor like Zhou (or a PhD student) must deal with the issue of having relatively few people who would have read her text with much interest or expertise before its publication. As someone who has read and written on Asian-American poetry for years, I can sympathize. I think that the book stands as a pretty amazing accomplishment.

That said, I'll describe arguably my most important issue with the book here. It's not really a critique, and it has to do with the thesis. Basically, I wonder about the extent to which these Asian American poets' transformation of the lyric I to make it more engaged with philosophical questions of otherness is distinctive to Asian-American poetry. I am guessing that Zhou would assert that such an engagement is not distinctive to Asian-American poetry, because she notes the importance of the poetry of Asian-American poets to larger questions of feminism, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and critical studies in race, gender, and culture in both her introduction and conclusion.

But the book is a study of Asian-American poetry, and I find myself asking, "To what extent do the poetics and poems of various contemporary non-Asian American poets engage in such innovations with the lyric I?" In other words, to what extent should this "Asian-American poetics of alterity" (p. 19) be adjudged as "Asian-American"? The very writing of this book strongly suggests that Zhou does think that Asian-American poetry is different from, for example, feminist poetry or African-American poetry or rural American poetry. Again, a more in-depth discussion of Asian-American history, the history of Asian-American poetry, and/or contemporary Asian-American society would probably have helped. I think that Zhou might even have provided her own working definition of "Asian-American poetry," even if it would have been subject to critique, or perhaps outlined multiple definitions of "Asian-American poetry," so readers could better understand her perspective in this respect.

As you may conclude from this rather involved discussion of The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian-American Poetry, I think that the book is a must-have for anyone who reads and enjoys Asian-American poetry. It's a very useful volume that belongs on the bookshelves of libraries, scholars of contemporary poetry, and readers of Asian-American poetry alike.


Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity of Seven Asian-American Poets ... Twenty years ago when I was starting to pay attention to who was who among contemporary American poets Cathy Song stuck out because she was Asian and American. She had won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, her poems appeared in the teaching anthology The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. She wrote poems about the Asian-American experience (her first book was called Picture Bride) in the then dominant (so far as I knew) style of first person free verse that used personal history as its main material and presented it in a way that could be read fairly straightforwardly as prose. It does not seem to me she practices a poetics of "otherness". Does this have any bearing on the Asian-Americanness of the "poetics of alterity"? ... But perhaps I am not a good enough reader of her work to notice its otherness.

Twenty years along I'm glad to say I recognize all the names Zhou studies in her bookk. John Yau is a favorite.

9:48 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks a lot for the comment, Glenn. Yes, I think that Cathy Song belongs to a "school of poetry" that might arguably include Garrett Hongo, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, and other poets who rely relatively heavily on narrative to discuss Asian-American experiences.

Whether she, and poets like Hongo and Lim, do practice a "poetics of alterity" is an interesting question, and I think that there are good arguments for either side. It depends greatly on the particular poems in question as well as one's interpretation of the scope of Zhou's definition of the poetics of alterity.

5:02 AM  

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