As noted in the previous post, I have more to say about Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (BOA Editions, 2006, ed. Earl G. Ingersoll
. Specifically, I want to highlight Ingersoll's introduction to the series of interviews, which I identified as "one of the most perceptive introductions on an Asian-American poet that I have ever come across" in the previous post.
As devoted readers of Asian-American poetry know all-too-well, there has been a long history of non-Asian-American poets giving awful introductions to/readings of the poetry of Asian-American poets. What do I mean by "awful"? I think that I would define "awful" here as "profound misreadings of poems that veer dangerously close, or plunge vigorously into, crude stereotypes." What are the features of such a maladroit introduction? First, it typically includes overuse of such words as "quiet," "tradition," "humility," etc. Second, none of those words accurately describe the poems themselves (and probably not the respective poets-as-people either). Third, there is an indefinable hovering over the "exotic," "oriental," and/or "foreign" features of the poetry, more profoundly present if the Asian-American poet happens to be female.
I have to add quickly here, however, that I think that the intent of the non-Asian-American poet who reads/introduces the work of an Asian-American poet is not necessarily bad. In other words, I think that the origin of such stereotypical misreadings typically comes not from ill-will towards Asian-American poets or his or her poetry but from some deeper inability to approach the text with less static, so to speak. I don't know if it is possible to read poetry without having some thoughts on the race, ethnicity, and nationality of the poet -- especially if explicitly referenced in the poetry -- but I would say that an introduction to a book of poems should not primarily be about "the extent to which the poet her or himself is 'Asian' or 'Asian-American'"but should help focus the readers' attention to the qualities of the poems themselves with reference to larger issues of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, class, etc., should the narrative call for it.
Earl G. Ingersoll's introduction is, of course, not an introduction to a book of poems by an Asian-American poet. It is an introduction to an Asian-American poet himself. I can't say whether that it is easier or harder to write such an introduction, but I think that the dangers of inaccurate stereotyping still exist, and Ingersoll not only skillfully avoids them but paints a remarkably clear and interesting portrait of Li-Young Lee.
Ingersoll's introduction opens with a wonderful paragraph that manages to provide a glimpse into Li-Young Lee's personality, a history of the Lee family, and a brief discussion of Lee's poetry and memoir, Winged Seed
, while maintaining the flow of the narrative. All three have been done before elsewhere but to do it all in one paragraph is no easy task.
As editor, Ingersoll then undertakes the risky (but adroitly executed and thus very readable) enterprise of speaking through Li-Young Lee, ventriloquizing Lee through a general reading of his interviews. There are multiple examples here, all emphases mine. "Lee is well-aware
that excessive emphasis on his life and especially on his ethnicity can direct attention away from the poems themselves" (p. 9). "Lee knows
how indebted he is to American poets" (p. 10). "He might well identify himself
as an Asian-American to the census-taker at the door; however, it is as an American poet that he would see himself as
first and foremost" (p. 10). "Paradoxically, Lee as a poet has reservations
about language" (p. 11). "Once again, Lee is a poet who takes his vocation very seriously
" (p. 11). The list goes on and on.
I think that this technique works really well here -- and it is very difficult to tell that it works really well until you have gone through most of the interviews -- because Ingersoll has closely read and digested all the interviews, as well as having interviewed Lee himself, which allows for an intimate yet global reading of Lee as poet, artist, reader, father, and man. In other words, the success comes not by accident but as a result of hard editorial work.
Perhaps more importantly, this technique helps Ingersoll sidestep the perils involved with projecting his personal opinions on the "Asian" or "Asian-American" features of Li-Young Lee's poetry. For example, we don't have Ingersoll saying whether it is a good or bad thing that Li-Young Lee "is not likely to think to himself, Here I am, an Asian American setting out to compose an Asian-American poem"(p. 10). We have Lee's perspective from the interviews, and that seems sufficient here.
Ingersoll then answers the question that I think that all editors of collections of interviews, poems, short stories, etc. should answer: Why this volume? Why should anyone undertake the task of collecting interviews by Li-Young Lee? Why should any potential reader of this collection care? In my previous post, I suggested that the two main answers to these questions are that 1) Lee is a prominent poet who has sold many books and that 2) Lee gives really good and interesting interviews. That is implied in the very undertaking of this enterprise, but Ingersoll adds another important reason: 3) Lee is not an academic and thus "is just not likely to write essays, explaining his notions of his craft as a poet" (p. 12). In other words, these interviews are basically all we've got, aside from speaking personally with Lee himself, in terms of learning Lee's thoughts and views on art, poetry, and life. As Ingersoll puts it, "These conversations offer access to Lee's sense of himself as a working poet and his concept of what it means to be a poet" (p. 13).
Ingersoll does a few other technical things well in the introduction. First, he appears to prefer to call these interviews "conversations," as opposed to "interviews" (even though he does use the term "interviews," probably for the sake of clarity), which seems more appropriate, given the free-flowing feel of most of the exchanges in the volume. Second, he integrates about the right amount of quotes from Lee in the right number of places. Third, towards the end of the introduction, he remembers to clearly reference the original publications in which the interviews first appeared as well as list all of Lee's honors -- again, Ingersoll moves quickly and devotes just about the right amount of space here (two paragraphs). Fourth, Ingersoll does not use the words "foreign," "exotic," or "oriental," which is consonant with the fact that Lee refrains from using these terms as well, but at the same time, Ingersoll does discuss Lee's Chinese heritage and Lee's views on race and ethnicity, which is consonant with the fact that Lee does, in fact, discuss these topics in his conversations. In short, Ingersoll pays close attention to the substance of Lee's interviews.
A larger question went through my mind as I reflected upon Ingersoll's introduction. Would it have been possible for anyone to write such an introduction twenty years ago? I don't know. One could argue that Ingersoll, and perhaps future authors of introductions to the works of Asian-American poets, have the benefit of decades of response and critique from Asian-American scholars. One could also make the "demographic" argument that the increase in the Asian-American population over the past two decades has led to a degree of mainstreaming of the Asian-American population that has made more possible a reading of an Asian-American poet's work without a complete preoccupation with the race of the poet her or himself. Regardless, I think that Ingersoll successfully paints an accurate and informative portrait of Li-Young Lee that will last through at least the first half of the twenty-first century.