In his review of Bao Phi’s book, which we posted yesterday, guest contributor Greg Choy made some particularly intriguing observations about shifting trends in Asian American poetry, especially with regards to its relationship with community-based activism. The discussion about how best to engage with politics (and specifically, about whether to engage with identitarian politics) in our work is broad and ongoing, and in light of that, I thought I would follow up on Prof. Choy’s thoughts by pointing you towards a few insightful write-ups that provide additional perspectives on the matter.
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1. “CON-VERSE-SATIONS” (Hyphen Magazine Roundtable with Timothy Yu, Victoria Chang, and Nick Carbo)
I appreciate the thoughtful dialogue to be had in this article with regard to Asian American poetry’s stylistic diversity, its audiences, its status both inside and outside of academia, and its current relationship to its activist roots. In particular, I think Tim Yu makes a spot-on observation that while, in the wave that immediately followed the 70’s, poets were more interested in the confessional mode than in political rhetoric, poets are now coming back towards the political, some through the overt expression of activist “creeds,” as is true in the spoken word scene, and others more quietly, by infusing their approaches to craft and subject matter with strong political undertones (Yu points to Ken Chen as an example of one such poet). “We’ve had two decades of Li-Young Lee and Marilyn Chin and these writers who really risk prominence writing about their own personal experience,” he says, but “that’s not where we are anymore.” His claim is exemplified by the list of recommended titles the editors provide at the end of the article: from Cathy Park Hong to Barbara Jane Reyes to Ronaldo V. Wilson, the body of contemporary Asian American poets who are again engaging with the political (particularly through experimental forms) is strong, and seems to be growing.
After reading Bao Phi’s remarkable collection of poems, Sông I Sing, I was reminded of an incident that occurred about ten years ago when I was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. I was attending a panel discussion at UMinn entitled, simply, “Asian American Poetry,” sponsored in large part by Minnesota Poets Society, and was greatly looking forward to listening to two acclaimed Asian American poets speak on the topic. Disappointingly, the only thing the Society members, through their persistent questions about it, seemed interested in was the “poetic process”—and more particularly a process devoid of those nattering issues about race, identity, or politics. Toward the end of the discussion, an elderly white woman, clearly a senior member of the eminent Society, raised her hand and said, “Well, after listening to you both talk about your poetry, I’m wondering why we need to apply the name ‘Asian American’ to your poetry at all.” To my astonishment, at the time, both poets—both award-winning Asian American poets—agreed that the term “Asian American” as it’s applied to their poetry or to them as poets, felt limiting if not downright debilitating.
Such a response has its precedent. It’s reflective of the conundrum of the ethnic writer: how to keep from falling into the binary of either writing to a prescribed aesthetic steeped in a history of political ideology or writing as a fully realized individual shaped by an accumulation of discrete, personal experiences. It ‘s a false binary, of course, as a number of Asian American poetry anthologies have already shown, from The Open Boat: Poems From Asian America, edited by Garrett Hongo, to Premonition:The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, edited by Walter Lew, and Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation edited by Victoria Chang. All three anthologies rally around the diversity of themes and poets as opposed to a unifying call to some singular identity and community. Though anchored from a historical perspective to linear coordinates such as identity construction and political ideology, Asian American poetry is not bound to those coordinates. It is a fluid, changing body of work in time and space.