Friday, March 04, 2005

Why I (Finally) Quit the Poetics List

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.

11 comments:

SB said...

I have not read this list for some time, though I am still a member. You remind me why I don't read it, and why I need to take my name off the list.

ideaist.wordpress.com said...

Poetry/poetics could be a synonym for 'retrograde' and, for all intents and purposes, is racism. Best to work outside it.

Arlee Christian said...

I can't blame you.
It's sickening.I quit the Poetics List also, many years back. I was sickened by the derisive and insulting gestures made toward others.

You mention that :"
one list member noted that he was operating on the discussion that no one on this list is a racist".

I was operating on the same assumption when I joined back in 1998. It was a shock to acknowledge that this kind of insulting activity was occurring

Good luck.

Arlee

lord patch said...

yo yu dude,

there are 1000 members maybe on this list who read what they want and
delete the rest.
we get 5 regular posters of bad pomo played out wack quasi homo flow who
try and parley this tragic
period of neofascism and ethnic, cultural cleansing into a neocon faux
liberal career tweek.

they don't like black folk
they don't like asians (maybe a hiku here and there)
they are stuck in deadend jobs of acedamia ripping off their students
or getting hardons reading lesbian poetry in "creative wrtitng" crses
they don't like the evolution of language
they are out of touch with the scene
they have attended too many circuit parties of incestous literary
conferences of failed writers
and they are condemned to trolling with coffee bar stars of closed up
open mics in their played out area


so don't sweat it. just don't buy their chap books or jack into their
hurtin minimpeg movies and your set

yes, for a genre of "art" which once signified intellegence and elegence
-- to get a group of shock jock
hacks who publish too much is a bit dis heartening -- b.u.t. remember
the last time this happened we got gidget movies and alot of
campy homoerotic musicals with waspy skanky male dancers and with busty
fag hags as the stars -- 'whatever you do don't try and improve their
minds' to paraphrase "all the kings men"

but what do you expect when publishing in a time of blacklists and
stupid white men and women (jack booted lullu belles) with money and no
taste
"run the shit round heYAh?"

just bomb them flow and welcome to the terrorist dome

and remember 'all poets are jewish'

?

wt foooc, mayn

ha

Timothy Yu wrote:

> I was stunned last week to find an apparently serious discussion going
> on over this 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.
>
> Perhaps my remarks will lead to a serious discussion about the purpose
> and politics of this list; perhaps not. For my part, I will no longer
> be a participant in it. Once I have sent this message, I will
> unsubscribe from the Poetics list, and I will not return.
>
> Tim Yu
> http://tympan.blogspot.com
>

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Anonymous said...

its all good is what i say. its fun healthy diverse,fertile sterile etc. as a reader i can assure you we are enjoying it all!

GJPW said...

Thank you for this post, Tim. Posts like these are the reason why I'm very glad you've returned to your blog.

I know exactly what you're talking about in terms of the racial dynamics among some "avant-garde" (or "mainstream") poetry scenes. U.S. Latinos face a very similar form of orientalism/racism in regards to having access to publication, readings, etc.

Thankfully, one doesn't have to remain silent nowdays. But the dangers and tribulations remain as real today as they were decades ago when (for example) Gary Snyder could freely steal from Native American poetics and claim to be an "expert" on the topic.

One must continue to write and read against this type of idiocy.

--Guillermo Parra

shanna said...

i think it's been about a year since i quit that list, for similar reasons. happy recovery. somebody should make Buffalo Lister Anonymous coins.

Patrick said...

A compelling, fitting, and eloquent despedida. Amen.

C. Dale said...

If this list is insenstitive, it is good that you left. Do not dwell on it. Crap like this will happen again, and you just always have to remember you are better than that crap. I hope to God our kids or our kids' kids are able to navigate life with less of this crap to deal with.

eeksypeeksy said...

Without some rules and an administrator to make sure the rules are followed, the list is tedious and is useless as a poetics list.

It needs an administrator who will encourage conversation about poetics and discourage its use as "a bulletin board, dominated by announcements, as well as a medium for several members to post daily installments of ongoing projects."

So it also needs some simple rules, maybe something like: do not post more than one of your poems per month (if you need to post more than that, get a blog!), and do not post any poem at all unless you accompany it with some supplementary text, something about the poem and the poetics and the yourself, as part of or as the start of a discussion on poetics -- never post your work just to publicize your work.

Tim said...

Thanks to everybody for your comments.

The list does have a moderator, Lori Emerson, who seems generally well-meaning, but her role is pretty minimal. Usually she'll appear on the list when someone is displaying truly outrageous behavior and a lot of members are complaining; her response will be to repost the list guidelines and plead for compliance. On a few extremely rare occasions I think people have been banned for personal attacks. Never, though, as far as I can tell, for racist attacks. List members seem to fear the ad hominem attacker far more than the bigot.

The list "rules," such as they are, do restrict discussions on the list to topics of poetics; they discourage long or excessive postings (no more than two per day), and ban flaming. Those rules, of course, don't address most of the problems we've been discussing; nor are they really ever obeyed, as far as I can tell.