Ron Silliman remarks that poetry contests "substitute an administrative social context for poetry in the place of a community one...To win a contest generally is to announce that one as a poet does not come from any community."
"Community" here is something analogous to being a member of a poetry "scene," though Ron notes (as I would) that membership in such a scene can be determined by geography, aesthetic, or even race.
It's that last type of community that interests me here. Because when Ron characterizes contest-winning as a kind of rejection or abadonment of community, I think immediately of a moment that is often seen as a breakthrough for Asian American poetry: Cathy Song's winning the Yale Younger Poets competition in 1982. (Asian American prose has a similar "coming of age" story, with Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior winning the National Book Critics' Circle award in 1978.)
For many Asian American writers and critics (see, for example, Garrett Hongo's introduction to The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America), Song's winning the Yale contest was a moment of recognition and validation for the Asian American poetry community. Indeed, one might go so far as to argue that the visibility Song's award gave to Asian American poetry helped create the flourishing Asian American poetry community we see today, since it gave younger writers who might have been working in isolation an example, an awareness that other Asian American poets were out there and finding success.
If we follow Ron's argument, though, Song's contest victory ought to be seen not as a great victory for Asian American poets but as a kind of betrayal of Asian American poetry: to be named a Yale Younger Poet is to declare oneself part of no community, Asian American or otherwise.
There's certainly something to that. To read Song's poetry of the early 1980s is to realize what a departure it is from the vast majority of Asian American poetry of the 1970s--much of which was a poetry of explicit political engagement, raw emotion, and archetypal sweep. Song's sensibility, in contrast, is pointedly lyric, focusing less on Asian American social realities than on the inward states of a sensitive and somewhat detached observer. It might be too easy to assert that such poems turn away from "the community," but in the context of the early 1980s, as a younger generation of Asian American writers began to come of age and seek opportunities beyond "movement" literature, it's not entirely inaccurate.
The paradox, though, is how a book that looks like a departure from the inside of a community looks like an arrival from the outside. While Song's poetry didn't look much like what other Asian American poets were doing at the time, it was consonant enough with "mainstream" practice to be seized upon as "representative" Asian American writing--opening the door for other Asian American lyric poets of the 1980s, from Garrett Hongo to David Mura to Li-Young Lee. In Ron's terminology, I supposed we'd have to say this is a transition from a "social" Asian American poetry community to an "administrated" one, mediated by MFA programs, trade presses, and academic recognition.
Indeed, it would be hard to argue, at least in the very narrow and local sense in which Ron uses the term "scene," that there is now anything like a single community of Asian American poets. (The one exception might be the activity surrounding the Asian American Writers' Workshop in New York, although I've never sensed that institution--as valuable and necessary as it is--producing anything like a scene or a coherent aesthetic.) We can now speak of "Asian American poetry" as a broad and abstract project, going on all across the country in many different venues; we cannot speak of it as a social community, a network of peers forging their own standards and their own aesthetic. Whether that's good or bad, it's a vision of Asian American poetry that began with one poet winning a contest.