Wednesday, July 16, 2003

I'd read Brian Kim Stefans's most recent post on his debates with Ron Silliman but hadn't noticed this bit until just now:

Worse (I've just thought of this), these concepts [School of Quietude, etc.] don't really give us tools to look at literatures that are not primarily white, and not primarily American. For example, these lines in the sand don't exist for Australian literature -- though there was a New American-style rebellion in the sixties, it produced very stanzaic poets like John Forbes, Martin Johnson and John Tranter, and radicalism was still tied to some form of Surrealism due, I think, to the Ern Malley incident -- nor does it is exist in Asian American poetry, which I learned when working on Premonitions with Walter Lew.

They do exist in some ways, but it's more complex than saying that Theresa Cha and Gerry Shikatani reflect an interest in big-M "Modernism" that poets like Arthur Sze or David Mura don't immediately seem to have. If the argument is for a thing called "Asian American poetry" -- and I've argued that such a thing might not exist -- but if so, then the universe of that poetry must be incredibly diverse and rich, heterogenous and electric, not just depicted as a rivulet departing from the so called "avant-garde" line. Asian American poetry is not "better" because "we" are no longer just "telling our stories" -- that historical determinism (expressed in one of RS's essays) has always seemed offensive to me, for obvious reasons, but also simple-minded.

I assume the essay BKS is referencing is Silliman's 1988 Socialist Review essay "Poetry and the Politics of the Subject," in which Silliman writes:

Progressive poets who identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history—many white male heterosexuals, for example—are apt to challenge all that is supposedly "natural" about the formation of their own subjectivity. That their writing today is apt to call into question, if not actually explode, such conventions as narrative, persona and even reference can hardly be surprising. At the other end of this spectrum are poets who do not identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history, for they instead have been its objects…These writers and readers—women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the "marginal"—have a manifest political need to have their stories told. That their writing should often appear much more conventional, with the notable difference as to whom is the subject of these conventions, illuminates the relationship between form and audience.

I've said more on this quote elsewhere ("Form and Identity in Language Poetry and Asian American Poetry," in Contemporary Literature, Fall 2000)--I agree with Stefans that its implications are potentially restrictive and offensive, but it's also been provocative in my attempts to think about what the relationship of avant-garde writing has been to those bodies of work identified with women writers and writers of color over the past few decades--are these just totally different things, "apples and oranges" as somebody once said to me, or connected in some way?

I heard Harryette Mullen talking about this quote once. Her response: "I'm glad he said it." Mullen suggested that Silliman had put his finger on something that was widely held as an assumption out there though rarely spoken about.

Since Stefans raises the question of Asian American poetry in relation to all this (something that concerns me too), I thought I'd point to an interview that Silliman did a few years ago with Gary Sullivan, in which Silliman says:

It’s not particularly an accident, for example, that so many formally progressive Asian-American writers have emerged, including Sianne Ngai, Brian Kim Stefans, Linh Dinh, Prageeta Sharma, Tan Lin and Pamela Lu in addition to more established poets like Myung Mi Kim, John Yau, or Mei-Mei Berssennbrugge. The startling thing about Walter Lew’s rich and wonderful anthology, rightly called Premonitions, is not how many fine writers it contains, but rather how many more are out there for whom it could not find room.

My own sense is that younger African-American poets still find it much harder, not only to publish – although that too seems the case – but also to find audiences for a broader ranger of work. That is changing, but not nearly as quickly as one would like to see.

Finally BKS asks whether there is even such a thing as Asian American poetry. I think the cat's out of the bag--there are anthologies, books, conferences devoted to the topic--it exists, for better or worse, as a concept that people use. We might want to take issue with the way it's used, but we're not going to strike it from the language.

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