Tuesday, May 30, 2006

APIA Blog Network

Along with asianamericanpoetry.com, another website that has emerged as a useful and important resource on various issues involving Asian-Americans is the "Asian Pacific American Islander Blog Network" (www.apiablogs.net), which engages in "the exploration of Asian-American identity through blogging." More specifically, it is a blog network that syndicates posts from various Asian American-related blogs. The APIA Network "bring[s] together bloggers of the Asian American community and help cultivate greater debate and discussion on our identiy, community, collective experience and heritage" (http://www.apiablogs.net/about.php). And just in general, I have to say that I think that it is quite a creative and fascinating idea to link to/bring together different blogs on one website.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Good People

On this Memorial Day weekend, I thought that I'd spread a little positive energy on this site and thank my readers. You know, when I started this blog, I expected that I would engage with a diverse array of people on issues that relate to Asian American poetry, that it would be an informative, educational, and fun experience for myself and for anyone who happened to come across this blog. It has surely been such an experience, and I thank the people who have read and commented on this blog.

But keeping this blog has also been a nice experience in another way -- one that I had not anticipated. I have come across many good people, some of whom are Asian American poets, some of whom are either Asian American or poets, some of whom are neither. And I have to say that, at least from this blogging experience, I think that pretty much all Asian American poets are basically good, decent people, and I have been lucky to have gotten to know their thoughts and their humanity through this blog. So you, dear reader, I thank you for coming along with me on this journey through Asian American poetry. Thank you.

Monday, May 15, 2006

On Walt Whitman's "A child said, What is the grass?"

Growing up, I never loved Walt Whitman. Back then, I never loved Whitman, because I formed my perception of Whitman solely upon his oft-anthologized "O Captain, My Captain!" (a decent poem but really quite one-dimensional -- it's cool that the war was won, but it's sad that the captain died). I thus made the abysmal error of conflating a single poem with the poet's work as a whole. It ain't all broccoli, folks. Just because you don't like celery, doesn't mean you won't enjoy tomatoes.

Whitman's "A child said, What is the grass?" (http://poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15816) is a prized tomato in my book. I view it as one of the first American poems to successfully explore issues of race and multiculturalism in an emotionally compelling way.

I'd like to draw your attention to the stanza that proceeds, "And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow/ zones,/ Growing among black folks as among white,/ Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the/ same, I receive them the same." Rather than bogging himself down in the sameness versus difference dichtomy that sometimes confounds multiculturalism and feminism, Whitman moves fluidly between sameness (sprouting alike), difference (in broad zones and narrow zones), sameness (growing among black homes as among white), difference (Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congresman, Cuff,), and sameness again (I give them the same, I receive them the same). This particular stanza explicitly focuses on race,

but then Whitman makes an abrupt transition to the next stanza, comprised solely of the elegant line, "And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves." It is a distinct quality of this poem that -- while it celebrates diversity in age, gender, and race -- it alternates this celebration with an honoring of what is universal about life at the same time. And this alternation is a vibrant one -- like bubbles blown in the air by children, not like a pendulum.

In "A child said, What is the grass?," Whitman also refuses to suppress or make stereotypical uses of color, which may stand for race. For example, in this stanza -- "This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,/ Darker than the colorless beards of old men,/ Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths" -- darkness is not a representation of evil but merely exists as is, as a part of life. Sameness and difference both juxtapose and stack upon each other here with "The grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers" and "Darker than the color beards old men" taken as representations of sameness among each of the respective groups ("old mothers" and "old men") but representations of difference when read alongside each other.

In the following stanza, Whitman also proclaims, "O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!/ And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing," which one may interpret as a celebration for the fact that many dialects and languages are spoken in the United States of America.

The last couple stanzas move surprisingly from relatively more questioning and unsure stanzas (e.g., "What do you think has become of the young and old men?/ What do you think has become of the women and children?") to crescendo in a daringly self-assured proclamation of hope -- "They are alive and well somewhere;/ The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,/ And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait/ at the end to arrest it,/ And ceased the moment life appeared.// All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,/ And to die is different from what any one supposed, and/ luckier."

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Asian American Writers' Workshop

I have already explored Kundiman, http://www.asianamericanpoetry.com, and Interlope on this blog, so I think that it is only appropriate that I discuss the Asian American Writers' Workshop (AAWW) -- http://www.aaww.org/ .

I've always looked at the Asian American Writers' Workshop as a stereotypical Asian-American child might look at her or his stereotypical immigrant parent -- filled with a vague sense of duty, fear, and admiration. Although I have always respected the AAWW, it has never been that entirely accessible to me in an emotional sense. Perhaps it is because I first learned of the organization when I was a teenager. Perhaps it is because the organization is quite New York-centric, and I am not a New Yorker, even though I think that I have a New York personality, even though my New York friends say I'm too nice to have a New York personality, whatever that means. Perhaps it is because its agenda and programs (described below) have such a grand and ambitious scope. Perhaps it is because some of the biggest names in Asian American literature populate its board and advisors. At any rate, it seems sometimes to me more like a venerable institution, important and older and more established, more than anything else.

The description on the About page of the AAWW, http://www.aaww.org/aaww_aboutus.html, probably encourages one to view the organization with awe:

"Established in 1991, The Asian American Writers' Workshop, Inc., is a nonprofit literary arts organization founded in support of writers, literature and community.

Operating out of our 6,000 square-foot loft, we sponsor readings, book parties and panel discussions, and offer creative writing workshops. Each winter we present The Annual Asian American Literary Awards Ceremony to recognize outstanding literary works by Americans of Asian descent. Throughout the year, we offer various youth arts programs. In our space we operate a reading room of Asian American literature through the decades.

The only organization of its kind, the Workshop has become one of the most active community arts organizations in the United States. Based in New York City, we have a fast-growing membership, a list of award-winning books and have become an educational resource for Asian American literature and awareness across the nation. "

But, as the History page suggests, http://www.aaww.org/aboutus_history.html, the AAWW started out humbly and meekly, just as pretty much all Asian-American arts organizations commence, before it blossomed into a well-respected institution:

"The Asian American Writers’ Workshop began in 1991 when six writers began meeting at a Greek diner in the East Village. A core group of ten formed, gathering at a space donated by the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence and the Asian American Arts Alliance. By January 1992, the group held its first standing-room-only reading in Chinatown, and the event was rebroadcast on WBAI. In 1992, the Workshop became a non-for-profit organization and published the first issue of The Asian Pacific American Journal.

Within a year, the Workshop began a newsletter and the national Poetry Caravan Series. Additional funding from the New York Community Trust permitted the Workshop to launch the Van Lier Fellowship, which annually supported the work of three writers under the age of thirty. The Workshop also moved into its first offices at 296 Elizabeth Street. The 500-square-foot office was shared with A Magazine.

In 1995, the Workshop moved to its own space at 37 St. Mark's Place, adding a conference room, a bookstore and performance space; it also launched in-house youth summer writing institute, CreateNow. The following year, the Workshop began its Small Press Division, which eventually published ten anthologies and a collection of poetry.

Throughout the late 1990s, the Workshop expanded its scope and vision. The first Annual Literary Awards were presented in 1998 at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. The move to the Workshop’s current home, a 6,000-foot loft space at 16 West 32nd Street, permitted the Workshop to enlarge its lending library and accommodate growing audiences at events. Currently, we have 800 members and an annual audience total of 11,000. "

Friday, May 12, 2006

Asian American Poetry - Book Review - An Example

Here is a delightful review of Marilyn Chin's The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty (Milkweed, 1994) -- http://www.rambles.net/chin_gone.html -- that both contextualizes the reading of the book and acknowledges Badurina's authorship over the review. I think that it could benefit from Badurina further elaborating upon her personal thoughts on specific poems in the book itself and a more detailed discussion of the content of the poems, but the review's strength resides in the reviewer's comfort with her voice, in not having to assume a false omniscience and dictatorial control over the reading of the poetry. Thus, we get a nice reading that particularizes the presence of the reviewer.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

On Having Taken the "I" Out of Book Reviews

You know what I don't really understand? I don't really understand why reviewers of books of poetry have taken the "I" completely out of their blurbs and reviews. This problem has reached epidemic proportions. Almost all reviews are framed as questions of "What is this book of poems about?" and "Why do poems in this book work or not work?," rather than "What do I think this book of poems is about?" and "Why do I think poems in this book work or not work?"

It seems to me that there is something snobbish, insincere, and overwrought about taking the I completely out of book reviews. No book review exists outside the frame of reference of the individual reviewer, and to speak of "readers' perceptions of the author's work" is merely to say that "I, the reviewer, feel this way about this book." It strikes me as especially strange when a reviewer speaks of "what the poet is doing in particular poems," as if she or he could not only inhabit the mind of the person but somehow utterly transpose his or her entire personage into that of the poet. An individual book reviewer should not behave as if his or her opinion was representative of that of every single past, present, and future reader of the book, because no human being can achieve that level of ubiquity -- sadly, not even the most pompous of us are that amazing.

I am not saying that I am immune to this problem myself. I am not even saying that the third person has no place in a particular book review. But I am speaking of the problem as a matter of degree -- it becomes problematic when the pronouns "I" and/or "you" are totally or mostly absent from a book review.

If we only had a problem with poetry book blurbs/reviews, then that would not be extremely problematic. Who reads book reviews of poetry at any rate? I'm sure that the audience for book review of poetry even magnifies the audience for poetry by comparison. (As a side note, I imagine that if reviewers worked harder to make at least some of their reviews more entertaining, warm-hearted, amusing, personal, vital, or evocative -- see, e.g., how some movie reviewers have succeeded in these aspects with their movie reviews -- then the audience for poetry reviews would be larger than a pre-2005 Los Angeles Clippers home game, this coming from a Clippers fan who stuck it out all through the 1990s and not some fairweather playoff harpie.)

But unfortunately, the problem has reached our readings of individual poems as well. At least sometimes. Just colloquially, we say things like "this poem is great," "this poem uses language well," or "this poem stands as a metaphor for two Japanese penguins on a flotilla of ice," as opposed to "I really like this poem," "I like this poem's use of language," or "I think that this poem stands as a metaphor for two Japanese penguins on a flotilla of ice, but I could be wrong, because I'm just random dude in San Jose who majored in cultural antropology and what do I know about penguin metaphors?"

In short, I encourage moving towards a greater recognition of the notion that to say "what a poem/book of poems is" is merely to say what the person who makes this particular claim thinks it is.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Interlope: a journal of asian american poetics and issues

Sometimes you feel like you want to make the coolest post in the world on an important topic, and then you wait and wait and wait for the "ideal" post to come, and it never materializes. Well, I have waited for seven or eight months now, and I realize that the "moment of the ideal" may never arrive, so I might as well say what I have to say here and now, imperfections and all.

I'm referring to blogging about Summi Kaipi's Interlope: a journal of asian american poetics and issues, which has been arguably the most significant journal on the Asian American poetry scene over the past decade. It has featured some of today's better known Asian American poets as they just started out and/or have been on the rise -- like Linh Dinh, Tina Celona, Hoa Nguyen, and dare I say, poetry bloggers Lee Herrick, Pamela Lu, and Tim Yu (yes, friends, the Asian-American poetry universe is not that large) -- as well as Asian American poets who seem to have completely fallen off the map.

The look and feel of the print version of Interlope echoes the characteristics of classic underground comics, where the poets and poems are feeling their way through into being and have a vibrant, slippery, alive quality about them. Interlope was also one of the first Asian-American poetry journals to use the Internet as a means of publicizing poetry and to have its own website. Here is a brief description of the journal from the website, www.interlope.org:

"Interlope's mission is to publish innovative writing by Asian Americans. The first issue of the magazine, developed out of Summi Kaipa's interest in Asian American literature and the contemporary avant-garde in poetry, was released in May 1998. Particularly helpful as a starting point was the Premonitions anthology (published by Kaya, edited by Walter K. Lew, also an Interlope contributor), which had already begun - in a much less detailed way - to address the Asian American avant-garde. With writers like Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha as muse and evidence of a developing tradition, Kaipa fully married Asian American identity issues with avant-garde literature, bringing poetry and fiction by writers of Asian American descent together in Interlope to provoke questions of the impact of ethnicity on literature: What is Asian American writing and what is unique about it? What is experimental in emerging Asian American writers and why? What is the scope and the purpose of the Asian American avant-garde?

Interlope continues to be one of the few Asian American literary magazines currently being published. It is an invaluable resource for contemporary writing by up-and-coming Asian American writers and is currently available at many academic libraries, including Brown University, Stanford University, Yale University, and UC Berkeley. In February 2001, Interlope celebrated its 6th issue, a "criticism issue" guest edited by Alvin Lu (The Hell Screens), with a multi-arts event featuring readings by Lu, Chris Chen, and Amar Ravva, as well as a performance by experimental musicians Yasuhiro Otani and Tatsu Aoki. Additionally, for the past two years, Interlope has participated in APAture, a festival of young Bay Area Asian American artists. Some of Interlope's past contributors have included Brian Kim Stefans (Free Space Comix), Sianne Ngai (Criteria), Pamela Lu (Pamela: A Novel), and local musician and artist Miya Masaoka.

As writer, filmmaker, and Interlope contributor Kirthi Nath has said, “We [Asian American writers] have all thought, for a long time, that there needs to be a place for dialogue about the Asian American avant-garde. The significance of what Interlope is doing is indubitable.”

Notice that I have used the terms "has been" and "was" here -- this online description is slightly outdated, and the website and the publication itself have been on hold since 2003. One of the primary issues is that editor Summi Kaipa (www.loveinthetimeofcoriander.blogspot.com), like all of us, is human, and being human, we (gasp!) have lives of our own outside poetry and sometimes wonder whether our projects/passions have run their course. After all, five years is a long time to run a poetry publication, and having gone through most of the issues myself, I think that it is evident that Summi put a lot of time, energy, and heart into editing and producing it.

At any rate, seven or eight months ago, I was corresponding with Summi about the future of Interlope, and I'm going to quote myself here, because it is late at night and I'm hungry and ready to grab a bite to eat but want to make this post before I go grab myself a slice of leftover pizza, and more importantly, much to my dismay, I don't think that I can come up with anything better than what I had written Summi before:

"To be honest, I actually think that you should continue editing Interlope or start a different Asian-American poetry publication under another name. There is definitely a void in Asian-American poetry and poetics magazines nowadays. I think there has been a retrogression since the 1990s. I'm pretty sure that the only "Asian-American" poetry publication out there now is the one published by the Asian American Writers' Workshop in New York, which comes out only sporadically. And Victoria Chang's Asian-American poetry anthology is the first of its kind to come out in about ten years.

I imagine that funding may be a major issue, and if it is, I'd suggest considering publishing online. There are deep, often unspoken prejudices against online poetry publications in the poetry world, but I think that they are the wave of the future. I think that the prejudices are more of a generational thing where poets over forty -- and virtually all poets with power, influence, and prestige are over forty -- tend to have anxieties about the use of the Internet as a medium for poetry and perhaps the Internet in general. That said, it's an open question whether their anxieties will influence a newer generation of poets and poetry editors/publishers."

Summi was just asking for my thoughts on what the 10th (and final) issue of Interlope should be like, and I was perhaps offering more than the question asked, implying that she should revive the publication if she feels like it. But the larger issue here, I think, is the complete lack of Asian American poetry publications -- whether online or print. It remains an open question whether there will be a regular Asian American poetry magazine or journal in the future.