This May, in celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share writing exercises with us in lieu of our regular Friday Prompts. This week’s installment was contributed by Rick Barot.
Once, I mentored a graduate student who had been obsessively reading the stories of survivors of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings in World War II. These stories were horrifying and moving by turns, and my student was consumed by them. Because she was a poet, it was inevitable that her engagement with the stories would manifest itself in her work. But here was the problem: she was a comfortably situated Caucasian woman who didn’t feel she had the right to write about this subject matter. Even more complicated: she wanted to write poems directly in the voices of these survivors, making her use of the material doubly problematic. Part of me, of course, wanted to advise the student to step away from the project, because it was simply too fraught with pitfalls that would make the project insurmountable at worst, and awful at the least. But a larger part of me wanted to advise the student to move forward, which is what I did.
We artists get on a tightrope when we tackle subjects that are beyond the merely personal. But far from ever trying to dissuade anyone from writing about these subjects, I urge them to head straight into those subjects. The risks that come with any writing project are in fact the opportunities of that project: they are what make the project worth doing in the first place. In poetry, there is no such thing as hands-off material. A poem never fails because of its subject matter—it fails because the poet has inadequately given depth and shape to that subject matter. Dramatic historical periods, natural disasters, grand personal wounds—writing about these subjects raises the stakes tremendously high when you have to write about them inventively, feelingly, thoughtfully. You have to be ingenious to avoid failure—or, at the least, ingenuity will allow you to fail well.
In Gerald Maa’s interview with Arthur Sze in this issue of the Asian American Literary Review, Maa quotes from Auden: “Many things can be said against anthologies, but for an adolescent to whom even the names of most of the poets are unknown, a good [anthology] can be an invaluable instructor.” The same can be said of this 300-page journal, with its wide range of material including: a forum discussion with some of the editors about the “check all that apply” race option on the 2010 Census, an enclosed DVD of Kip Fulbeck’s video short Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids, and a complete bibliography of Carlos Bulosan provided by the Library of Congress’s Asian American Pacific Islander Collection. This is all in addition to fiction, memoir, poetry, interviews with Arthur Sze (on editing Chinese Writers on Writing) and Chang-rae Lee (on his most recent novel, The Surrendered), book reviews, documentary photography, and a short graphic piece.
This issue’s theme is “Counting Citizens” and begins with a discussion about the question of multiracial self-representation on the Census. Jeffrey Yang takes a stance against the very structures of any representation and rejects claims for a ‘post-racial’ present: “not representation but transmutation, alchemy. . . . Representation is the impossible ideal of our democracy, where influence rules.” Srikanth Reddy uses the development of Walt Whitman’s poetry as a model, charting his expansive ownership of multitudes to his subjective position as an individual: “This progression—from the poet as a vatic representative of everybody to the poet as a specimen capable only of registering her own experience—might in some ways be a natural progression, from the exuberance of youth to the epistemological modesty of old age.” He suggests an alternative perspective: that of the Other. Yang riffs on this and together they broach the aesthetic of language arts and “the problem of form—the ‘logic and order’ of an artwork” which seems to find friction between the canon and the margin. A different take on Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” perhaps, in which the artist is in constant tension between the codified mastery of forebears and the yet unnamed mystery of the present/future individual. Linguistic and cultural transplantation complicate loyalties, heritage, assumptions about audience, andformal considerations. Reddy writes:
To write a haiku or a ghazal in English does not bring us any closer to shifting the grounds of literary representation. In Yang’s memorable formulation, such a literary gesture would fail to “reposition the frame structure.” Rather, our formal labor [as Asian American writers] has to occur beyond the frame, in the abstract conceptual space where form is given particular shapes suited to the particular historical moment.
Waking up to bright sun and brisk, springy weather every morning was just one of the many small points of brilliance that characterized AWP for Mia and me this year. Having just come off winter (we both live in places that are not known for their sunshine during the first few months of the year), it was a treat to look outside our hotel room in the morning and see sun, blue skies, and mountains in the distance. Denver was beautiful. Even the snow that had been forecast for Wednesday held off for us. But not even the gorgeous weather or the lure of spring fever proved powerful enough to distract us from the activity going on inside the harshly-lit interior of the Convention Center this weekend. When I say that it was a wonderful AWP, I really mean it. After last year’s conference in Chicago (I met Nick Flynn! I heard Sun Yung Shin read! Lan Samantha Chang complimented my sweater! Poetry played in the elevators all day!) I was prepared for this year to be pretty darn awesome. But my experience this year totally blew me away. Part of it was the fantastic panels and readings that I attended. Part of it was the excitement of walking around the bookfair and getting to talk about LR and hand out our bookmarks and mini-books. Part of it was the great hotel, great food, and Mia’s great company (I’ll admit that we took at least one night off towards the end of the conference just to spend some catching up and discussing each other’s poems over styrofoam cups of Ramen). But a large part of what made the experience so great was the amazing generosity of the people that we met there, and the passion with which we heard them speak of their work and their involvement with communities of other writers.
Over the course of the four days, Mia and I went to panels and readings galore and spent lots of time in the bookfair. In this two-part series, we’ll be reflecting on just a few of our favorite events. For my post, I’ll be focusing on one off-site reading and three panels/readings that I particularly enjoyed. For more about our experience, look through our Flickr gallery of photos from the weekend, and check back here at the blog for Mia’s followup later this week.
Follow the jump below to read my reflections on the Kundiman/Cave Canem Joint Reading on Wednesday, Thursday’s Kundiman Panel, Friday’s From the Fishouse reading, and Saturday’s Split This Rock’s panel.
A poet’s utopia, Open Books: A Poem Emporium, is a poetry-only bookstore located in Wallingford, Seattle. Owned and run by husband and wife duo John Marshall and Christine Deavel, Open Books is the only bookstore of its kind on the West Coast (the other is in Cambridge, MA). The store’s collection caters to a wide range of poetic sensibilities and carries not only recently published works, but a variety of rare and first editions as well.