Saturday, April 26, 2008

Review of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond

Over the past year, I have eagerly anticipated the publication of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar, W.W. Norton, 2008, 734 pp.). Sometimes when you eagerly anticipate the delivery of a new book on the virtual doorstep of your local transnational online bookseller, the work itself does not meet your lofty expectations, but I am happy to say that I am delighted with Language for a New Century, which is a triumph on so many levels.

I think that the anthology greatly benefits from Carolyn Forche's foreword, Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar's preface, and each of Tina Chang's, Nathalie Handal's, and Ravi Shankar's short personal essays before each section, which are elegantly written and effectively contextualize the geographical, linguistic, national, and thematic terrain of the poetry. The preface thoroughly outlines the selection criteria for poems in the anthology: 1) a broad definition of "the East", 2) representation of a broad selection of countries and nationalities, 3) the definition of "contemporary poetry" as post-1946, 4) a broad representation of various schools/styles of poetry, 5) a balance of emerging and established poets from different generations, 6) the selection of many different aesthetic sensibilities, 7) the publication of at least one book, with limited exceptions, and 8) the inclusion of translations. In the preface, the editors also explain the organization of the poems into nine major thematic sections -- characterized by Forche in her excellent foreword as "childhood, selfhood, experimentation, oppression, mystery, war, homeland and exile, spiritual life, love and sexuality, from Afghanistan to Yemen" (p. xxxi). Elegant touches like the inclusion of a country index and language list, along with more traditional features like author, translator, and editor biographies, permissions acknowledgments, and a general index (along with an explanation of the rationale behind the inclusion of a country index) further exemplify the wonderful editing. In short, I think that the editors have organized the anthology clearly, intelligently, and thougtfully.

Yet while clear, intelligent, and thoughtful, the anthology is also bold, ambitious, and makes major claims about the natures and meanings of Asian and Asian-American poetry. A reader should not simply dismiss the book as a coffee-table anthology. Each of the eight criteria for inclusion noted above, though I tend to agree with all of them, raises such difficult questions as, 1) why does the "East" not include more of Europe or Africa?, 2) what about Caucasian or African-American poets who were raised in Asia or have lived in Asia for a long time, who write about Asia extensively in their poetry, or who have written poems in such forms as haiku, ghazals, or pantoums?, 3) does the inclusion of poets from so many different nationalities necessarily exclude certain poets from "overrepresented" nationalities (like Indian and Chinese poets) from having a poem appear in the anthology? I think that the editors correctly do not raise such questions in the preface, as it would have probably lengthened and disrupted the flow of the preface, but I think that such questions are worth considering in a careful reading of the anthology.

Perhaps all of these questions point to, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and provocative elements of the anthology, which is the "effort to include as many crucial voices as possible" and to do so by "cho[osing] one poem per poet" (xxxvii). I think that the editors do successfully accomplish the important goal of including as many poets as possible, though at times, that causes the anthology to have the effect of feeling like The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics in the sense that the inclusion of just one poem -- as opposed to several poems per poet, as was done in The Open Boat (ed. Garrett Hongo) and Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation (ed. Victoria Chang) anthologies -- may limit our understanding and appreciation of the work of any particular poet. But I feel for the editors here, as the inclusion of more than one poem from a given poet would probably have led either to a volume of an unmanageable size or to the exclusion of certain poets from the anthology. I think that the editors made a justfiable decision in limiting the number of poems per poet, but it must not have been easy. One almost wants this anthology, as in the tradition of the first Star Wars trilogy, to have a volume II and volume III. At any rate, just as The New Princeton Encyclopedia remains a comprehensive and necessary work for any poet or student of poetry, at least partly by virtue of its thoroughness, so does Language for a New Century.

As far as the poems themselves go, I would make the highly subjective and throughly unjustifiable claim that they generally are quite terrific. This claim is "highly subjective and thoroughly unjustifiable," because there are just so many poets and poems! There are over 400 poems in the anthology, and I think that any generalization of the poems as a whole would be an overgeneralization. But I have already greatly enjoyed reading many of the poems and will probably be discussing at least a few of them on this blog. I would add that I think that the fact that there were three different editors with different tastes really strengthens this anthology by allowing for an even more diverse array of poetic styles and sensibilities. Language for a New Century possesses the beauty of a freshly assembled five-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle.

So, in short, I highly recommend Language for a New Century, which I think is an essential work for anyone, and not just anyone interested in Asian-American poetry, to have on their bookshelves.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Brief Thoughts on Premonitions: the Kaya anthology of new Asian North American poetry

On his blog, Glenn Ingersoll recently made a few nice posts on various poems in Premonitions: the Kaya anthology of new Asian North American poetry (1995), edited by Walter Lew. Premonitions is one of the most ambitious Asian-American poetry anthologies out there and a landmark collection in Asian and Asian-American poetry.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Price of Language for a New Century

I have to give props to W.W. Norton & Company for pricing the 734-page anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond, at the very reasonable price of $27.95. In fact, Amazon is currently selling the book for $18.95. I feel that Norton made a smart decision in publishing the anthology as a paperback, and I think that the relatively inexpensive price of the anthology will encourage more people to buy it.

Even though I imagine (just as I imagine that the grass is green) that not every publisher has the financial resources of a W.W. Norton, it always irks me a little when a publisher does something like price a fifty-page chapbook for $39.95 or a hardcover anthology for $79.95. There is a legitimate argument that the "free market" can dictate the pricing of books, but I think that it's better not to price out potential readers (e.g., college students with tens of thousands of dollars of student loans) by overpricing a book of poems in the first place.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

It Is a Real Gift to Love

After close to a twelve month hiatus from my blog, I am back! In my absence, here is a lesson that I have learned: it is a real gift to love. To love Asian-American poetry, any kind of poetry, or any kind of art is a blessing. It is to feel that indefinable joy that most of us crave but can experience only fleetingly. Some of us try to grasp at this je-ne-sais-quoi by resorting to the deification of consumer goods, theme park vacations, or cliches like cigarettes or alcohol. But, at least in my humble estimation, these temporal stopgaps can never quite compete with that ethereal love of art.

It is a real gift to be able to share my thoughts on Asian-American poetry through this blog. I feel lucky to be living in a time of blogs. When I started this weblog way back in December 2004, I was greatly inspired to blog by the then-recent publication of Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation (edited by Victoria Chang, 2004). Similarly, my return has been greatly motivated by the recent publication of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar, 2008), which I plan to comment upon extensively in the days and weeks ahead. Also, hark, methinks that Li-Young Lee has a new collection of poems out as well, his first in seven years and his fouth overall, and I plan on getting around to blogging about it as well.