I was stunned last week to find an apparently serious discussion going on over the Poetics list over whether the term "Jap" should be used in polite company--a discussion that has been accompanied by all of the ignorance, "eye-rolling," juvenile humor, and outright racism that I have come to expect when such topics appear on the Poetics list.
"Jap" is, of course, a term of racist abuse. The idea that it is harmless because it is merely a "shortening" of "Japanese" is a canard: terms become racist not because of anything inherent in them but because of the history of their use. It is racist precisely because of its indiscriminate use as a label that dehumanizes anyone perceived (correctly or incorrectly) to be a member of a particular racial group; witness the Korean American families (described in Ronald Takaki's Strangers from a Different Shore) greeted in California during WWII with signs that read "Japs go home." And yes, it is still in wide use today.
But I really have no interest in dignifying this "debate"--one whose relevance to poetics I simply cannot grasp--with any other contributions. Instead, I want to explain why it is the last of a series of factors that have led me to conclude that I can no longer remain a member of this mailing list.
As an Asian American, I often have the (dubious) privilege of being able to "pass" in everday life, with my race unremarked upon on the street or in my workplace. There are moments, however, when this is not possible--when I become aware (often uncomfortably) that I am a racial minority. I am saddened, and more than a bit shocked, to realize that over the past few years, it is on the Poetics list itself that I have most frequently experienced this awareness of my own race--of being, as it were, the only Asian American in the room. Frankly, the Poetics list is still dominated by the voices of white men; other voices are rarely heard, and when they are, they tend to be ignored or shouted down.
The crude discussions of race that have characterized the list of late are, to my mind, the final symptoms of the death of the Poetics list's ideal: that of a truly inclusive forum for the entire community of those committed to avant-garde poetry and poetics. I use the term community quite purposefully here. For me, as, I imagine, for many others, one of the major reasons for remaining a list member, year after year, was that sense of remaining in touch with others deeply engaged with poetry--in particular, with kinds of poetry that might receive little attention in the classroom or major publishing venues. Locally, one might glimpse that poetics community at a lone reading series or bookstore; academically, one might see it only at a sparsely attended conference panel; but the Poetics list was, in theory at least, a place where a much larger, national, and even international community could exist.
Clearly that vision of the Poetics list is no longer viable. That's in part due to some of the factors cited back in January, when Bruce Andrews suggested a restructuring of the list's digest form. Far from a forum for active discussion, the list has now largely become a bulletin board, dominated by announcements, as well as a medium for several members to post daily installments of ongoing projects. Those are perfectly valid functions, but they are largely static and unidirectional, and would probably be better served by a website or a weekly newsletter. mIEKAL aND made something like this point at the end of January, when he wondered whether "a listserv as a tool for organizing community has become somewhat outdated, especially when such large numbers are involved." In a way, the Poetics list has become a victim of its own success: its membership (and the community it serves) has grown so large that reasoned conversation is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information traveling over the listserv.
It's no surprise, then, that large segments of the community no longer actively participate in the list. Many of the founding members have moved on to other forums, and many younger poets pay no attention to the list at all. But the list membership remains quite large. The result is the worst of both worlds: a forum that feels impersonal and anonymous, yet with an increasingly narrow spectrum of active participants.
Members of this list have been sharply divided about the value of newer forums for discussion, such as poetry blogs; the number of posts ridiculing or dismissing blogs is probably marginally outnumbered by those by members promoting their own blogs. I am, occasionally, the author of a blog myself. While blogs have many of their own drawbacks--most notably, in this context, a sense of decentralization that can make it difficult for many people to participate in a single conversation--I have observed that discussions on poetry blogs are far more civil and inclusive (and, I think, productive) than anything I have seen on the Poetics list in recent years. Poetry bloggers seem a far more diverse group, not just in their interests and aesthetics but along lines of race and gender. While I almost never see Asian Americans posting to the Poetics list (even when they are the subjects of racist attack), I know many, many Asian American poets who post to blogs quite regularly and eloquently. This enrichment of the ranks of experimental poets--more women, more young writers, more writers of color--is a development to which the Poetics list has been utterly deaf, and even, it would seem, actively hostile.
I have to say a few words about the particular ways in which Asians get talked about on this list, which I would argue has everything to do with the peculiar, at times even pathological, relationship American poetry has with Asian culture. For the past hundred years (and longer), Asian cultural influences have played a role in some of the most significant breakthroughs in American poetry, from Pound and Moore to Rexroth, Ginsberg and Snyder. But for some American writers, this fascination has become a kind of appropriation--a claim to insider knowledge of Asian culture that turns the West into the privileged interpreter of the meanings of the East. The insidious implications of this dynamic are evident from discussions on this list, where members defend stereotyped and even racist images of Asians by pointing to their own personal experiences in Asia. It's a gesture that's particularly frustrating for Asian Americans, who often find themselves being treated as merely attenuated examples of "real" Asians (as opposed to an ethnic group with a particular history in the U.S.) and lectured on the true meaning of Asian culture by white men who have traveled to Asia. (It's not the resident of China or Japan who is most likely to be affected by an ethnic slur, but the person of Asian ancestry in the U.S.) As more and more young Asian American writers appear on the scene, the American avant-garde is going to have to reevaluate the terms of its romance with Asia.
In last week's discussions, one list member noted that he was operating on the discussion that no one on this list is a racist. After the many, many incidents of anti-Asian rhetoric I have seen here, I fear that I can no longer be so confident about that sentiment. For me, the costs of remaining a member of the Poetics list have come to outweigh the benefits.