Staff Picks: Holiday Reads 2010

Last year, we asked our staff writers to recommend books that they’d read in the last year and thought were worth passing on.  This year, we’ve decided to continue with this tradition.  In light of that, here are our holiday staff picks for 2010 (poetry, prose and more—yes, we read more than poetry!)

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Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 | Timothy Yu | Stanford University Press (2009)

Recommended by Mia: “This is one of the key critical texts on my reading list for the holidays.  I’ve only skimmed the first few chapters, but thus far have found Yu’s argument compelling, his analysis rigorous, and his wide-ranging knowledge of Asian American and Language poetry in the United States to be informative to my own work—not to mention useful in historicizing these two movements/moments in contemporary poetry!

From the Tinfish Editors’ Blog: ‘Using a definition of the avant-garde that has less to do with aesthetics than with social groups composed of like-minded artists, Yu argues that Asian American poetry and Language writing formed parallel movements in the 1970s. […] Both presented themselves in opposition to the mainstream; both were marked by questions of form and racial identity. Both meant to create art out of social groups, and reconstitute the social through the reception of their art.'”

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Radiant Silhouette: New & Selected Work 1974-1988 | John Yau | Black Sparrow Press (1989)

Recommended by Mia: “Yau is one of the two major poets that Timothy Yu addresses in Race and the Avant-Garde (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is the other), so I’ve been reading through his New & Selected Work for an introduction to the thematic and aesthetic scope of his early career.  He’s a fascinating figure in Asian American poetry and, as Yu points out, ‘might best be read as a restoration of the links between politics, form, and race that characterize the avant-garde Asian American poetry of the 1970s [… providing] the first opportunity for most readers to recognize […] the presence of that avant-garde back into the very origins of Asian American writing.'”

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Man on Extremely Small Island | Jason Koo | C&R Press (2009)

Recommended by Iris: “Jason Koo’s style is very different from my own, but this book (his first collection) managed to completely charm me with its quirkiness.  The voice of the book’s primary speaker manifests a world-weary exhaustion that is, on the surface, darkly melancholic and painfully self-deprecating.  He obsesses over his dirty apartment while eating a tuna sandwich, dreams about floundering clumsily through an encounter with Lucy Liu, envisions himself stranded on an island in the middle of an ocean, worrying about the size of his nose.  But beneath the speaker’s (at times endearingly hyperbolic) self-consciousness lies a striking vulnerability and a luminous ability to evoke the fantastic within the mundane: BBQ chip crumbs echo the ‘fine grains / of my slovenliness,’ becoming ‘barbecue pollen,’ and later, ‘orange microbes’ (9); Lucy Liu becomes a motherly goddess figure who guides him through a secret mission, ‘pulling you after her diving into the stage,’ which becomes the arena for an undersea showdown complete with battleships, lingerie models, and harpoons (22) , the island transforms into the kneecap of a giant woman who ‘has no nose. Just a space where mine / can fit’ (77). Part Frank O’Hara, part tragic hero of his own sardonic comic-book series, the speaker’s sense of humor, whimsy, and wonder, as transmitted by Koo’s craft, paint a picture of a world that reinvisions the now-archetypal image behind John Donne’s famous ‘No man is an island’ with simultaneous irreverence and tenderness. ”

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Review: Shin Yu Pai’s ADAMANTINE


A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University

Adamantine by Shin Yu Pai | White Pine Press 2010 | $16

Adamantine, as the title reflects, is a collection filled with luster, gleaming with deep insight, and further characterized by an ethereal landscape, focused on emotional connections, on spirituality, on death, and on the afterlife.  Pai’s work travels both within and outside of ethnic and racial frames, thus complicating any transparent categorization of the collection as “Asian American” literature.

Stephen H. Sohn

Nevertheless, the political character of many of her poems does make Adamantine speak to many of the field’s traditional concerns.    I begin this review further into the collection, with what I believe is the larger project of the work.   In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Vulture,”  Pai’s lyric speaker considers the responsibilities of one who chronicles the lives of others:

of the witness
the I of the commentator

grubby children at the rim
of a Guatemala dump
stunned orphans in Russia (76)

The homonyms of “eye” and “I” function in different contexts, both on the level of ‘one who watches’ and ‘one who speaks.’ The following lines accordingly consider the issue of witnessing, with respect to the plight of global poverty. What is the responsibility of the lyric speaker, Adamantine continually asks, with respect to voice and sight?  In that vein, I’d like to concentrate on one of the overall lyric approaches that Pai takes, which is to place current events and historical figures in comparative perspective.  As part of Pai’s relational approach, the collection opens fittingly with an epigraph from Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost.  The passage from which Pai excerpts refers to prayers and mantras and explores how such spiritual inscriptions speak to individual loss and to aesthetic beauty.  At the same time, by invoking Anil’s Ghost, Pai sets Adamantine firmly within a tradition that queries human rights and global conflict.  Perhaps we are not surprised, then, when we find that the first poem’s title is “This is not My Story,” as if to immediately query the autobiographical impulse of the confessional lyric.   The lyric stories of “Adamantine” are often those of Asian or Asian American figures who move beyond the speaker, including Thich Quang Duc in “Burning Monk,” where the lyric speaker repeats, as a kind of mantra, “his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn” (19).  Of course, Thich Quang Duc is most famously known for his self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam War.  The use of the word “heart” arcs out across this collection.  We are reminded in the very first poem, “This is not my Story,” that the “human heart is / a wholly different animal, / we must sense when to give in / before the other gives up” (11).  The importance of emotion and affect imbues the lyric speaker with a kind of power, leading her toward a pathway that involves spiritual reawakening.  Another figure invoked is James Kim, the Korean American who died tragically when he and his family were caught in a winter snowstorm in Oregon. The lyric speaker gestures again to loss, but contextualizes his death within the frame of sacrifice, as James had attempted to situate help for his family despite the possibility that he could have succumbed to the austere weather conditions.

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