Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Contests and Communities

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.


A.R.B. said...

Hi Tim,

I’m having some difficulty in understanding the apparent need for the so-called establishment’s validation of an individual’s work as group representative. It seems, almost, like reverse-elitism. Let the establishment validate and we shall appease the group and be content with it. How is Cathy Song’s winning of a poetry prize representative of the Asian-American Poetry community? Is this akin to saying: boy, Cathy’s good, we best start paying attention to her “community” of poets? How does she speak in the name of that community?

I have a lot of trouble with these concepts. In a similar discussion with C. Dale Young he once noted that he is 25% Chinese, if I am not mistaken, for which he was apparently invited to participate in Victoria Chang’s Asian-American Poetry Anthology. I had asked at some point how C. Dale’s work represented the Asian-American community, for I did not sense that it did in any particular way I could identify. As a minority—damn that word—raised in America I cannot grasp what if anything in our poetics makes us so different from other poets. How shall we dissect the beast further? Asian-American LangPo, Latin-American New York School? Shouldn’t we validate our individual poetry beyond alleged group similarities or must we always carry our community baggage along. Should our work be considered on its own, read for its enjoyment, quality, strangeness, freshness or must we attach birthrights to be understood and accepted? Do we need groups, of any kind, to peddle our goods?


pam said...

I'm interested in the ideas brought up by Tim's post and Alberto's comment. They strike at the problematic issues underlying group affiliation and the definition of literary "schools." It would be good to continue articulating these various issue strands.

I'd like to comment more about this, and probably will, but for now I just have enough time to say that I have a related post right now that deals with Zulfikar Ghose's ambivalent take on being an writer from a recognizably ethnic/racial minority background. Ultimately, his essay is about the careful manipulation of the canon by individuals and institutions alike. But I'd like to note his skeptical attitude toward being chosen as a literary "representative" of his ethnic group. Clearly he resents the label in part because it has been thrust upon him as a term of strategic containment, so to speak. His situation is quite different from that of a writer who intentionally seeks out an ethnic community for specific political, aesthetic, or social reasons, and who views that community identification through a lens of empowerment. (Sorry for sounding so 1992 here.) What relates to the discussion here is the complexity of motives involved. And the boundary/loyalty lines that are implied.

Tim says, 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.

This brings up my own ambivalence and uneasiness about the terms "Asian American poetry" or "Asian American writing". Can such things really be said to exist as definable entities, given their broadness and even dissonance of scope? Would it be more accurate to say something like "an anthology of poems of widely divergent styles and aesthetics, all written by younger poets who share DNA and/or cultural backgrounds with one or more of the peoples of Asia"? Poems that deal thematically, semantically, or aesthetically with Asian American issues, and poems that do not deal with these issues at all but whose authors can be legally identified as Asian American on the US census, can both be categorized as Asian American poetry. Yet I question the usefulness of aesthetic categories that are based primarily on the race/ethnicity of the artist, with secondary regard to content.

My own personal definition of "Asian American writing" is something more like: "a text whose thematic or aesthetic content invites an Asian American reading or interpretation." I guess I think of the "Asian American" part as more a particular reading approach (among other reading approaches that could be applied to the same text) than an essentialist quality of the text itself. My interest in that reading approach is why, after all my kvetching in the previous paragraph, I continue to seek publication in Asian American venues. But even if a piece of mine appears in the context of an Asian American experimental poetry journal (to cite a real example of the kind of subcategorization that Alberto critiques, and I share his skepticism even as I participate in the beast), it's still up to the reader to decide if I've written anything "Asian American."

Susan said...

If Cathy Song's work seems out of touch with Asian American poetry generally, it surely seems far removed from much poetry being written in Hawai`i. But her Yale Younger Poets award was signaled as a triumph for Hawai`i writing (I was not here at the time, but heard a tape of her first post-prize reading at the Art Academy, where she was greeted with high enthusiasm). That first book, despite its quiet surfaces--all that Richard Hugo noticed, along with Song's "exoticism," see his weird introduction--was quite incisive on issues important to Hawai`i. See "Easter, 1959," as a statehood poem. So, like her work or not, that prize made waves here. Susan Schultz

Anonymous said...

I do not know if I should be embarassed to say I do not know and have not read the work of Cathy Song! In 1982 - inverse snobbery or not - I think I had long stopped paying any attention to the Yale Series of validation of anything - though Jack Gilbert and James Tate are the ones with winning books that I remember as carrying real weight at the time of their emergence.
In 1975 I published Jessica Hagedorn's Dangerous Music (Momo's Press) - a book that sold 7,000 or so copies, with multiple printings. It was a book that one could say came out of and was supported by communites that crossed several borders. The book and Jessica's performances were definitely a large influence among emerging writers of color and women - and yet, in reading itthen and now, it was not a political or "movement" book in a specifally contextualized, activist way.
Yet it was "activist" in that the book put folks on electric alert to worlds that shared the other side of the hyphen as in Pilipino-American, Japanese-American, etc.
Ironically, the initial emergence of LangPo - heavily anglo-centric and upper-class in educational background - felt little comfort, or seeming interest, in Third World communities - and, as we know LangPo was adverse to the voice centered character of much of Third World writing in any case. This is not said to argue for or against the principles and/or content of either aesthetic. It's just to say that there was little bridging between the two different groups. With few exceptions I don't think writing in this country has ever fully recovered the splits and snubs. Ghettos ignoring each other is perhaps more true.
Talking now off the top of my head, it took awhile before we began to get the emergence of writers such as Pam Lu, Rene Gladman, and Eileen Tabios who obviously wrestle with theory, etc, in the approach to their writing. Yet I personally do not know how much this new writing connects to a community - mythical or not - that was true of the early seventies.
That all said, perhaps poorly from the margins - no matter how many copies of small press book may sell - somehow validation and public approval still swing on the cradle of New York publishers, or winning these bizarre contests (bizzare, in agreement with Ron, because they books do not reflect the work of writers woking with editors who have fierce visions in combination with publishing houses that are willing to take risks on breaking new ground. In my opinion that's real publishing - at least the kind I have most enjoyed.
But then we now have blogs. Ron's report that his blog site has received now over 450,000 visitors may indicate that a New York publisher with a little bit of imagination might figure that a House could publish a Ron book and expect a good financial return. Don't bet on it - maybe in five years they will think so!
And then Ron will be formally validated as a real writer with the same enthusiasm that was reserved for Cathy Song.

Stephen Vincent

EILEEN said...

Tim says: "(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.)"

I suppose I can say I was in the AAWW scene while in NY, in part due to helping edit its Asian Pacific American Journal. The lack of "a coherent aesthetic," to quote Tim, was deliberate, on my part anyway -- partly because I thought attempts to define an Asian American (AA) aesthetic inevitably excluded (e.g. experimental writings are not AA), objectified (AA poems typically address food, immigration et al) or got reductive (it's not AA if it doesn't raise ethnicity, as if that "raising" of such is so easily identified). I've said many a time -- if an AA poet writes about the beauty of the sunset, then that resulting poem is an AA poem because its author is AA.

This is a way of saying that, in my experience, AAWW encouraged the freedom of AA writers to write as they wished. It's the third parties who, in my experience/observation, created problems because said third parties (like academics or critics) need to define in order to, or have a paradigm in which to, operate.

But these things aren't ahistorical and in the mid to late 1990s, my influences were -- for example -- AA poets who appreciated my including Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in various AA texts (e.g. my first book BLACK LIGHTNING) as she apparently had not been considered AA in some quarters, or complaints about how AA academics themselves exacerbated the problem by, in attempting to introduce AA literature, focused on the accessible and narrative poems.

I believe AA poets should be able to write as they wish and then not have their ethnicity/culture denied because their work presumably doesn't fit some paradigm.

I've lost touch with much of the AA scene since New York. But I suppose I have a problem with "Asian American" -- I think it is clearly an artifical construct that nonetheless offers curatorial convenience for a variety of goals -- e.g. more textbooks and programs that would offer literatures written by AA writers. I could go on but it's late and I already feel my thoughts begin to scatter....

Thanks for the mention, Stephen. And in response to your comment, in my work, I don't usually address defined communities but individual readers, which is not to say I'm disinterested in communities. It's just that I aim for poems that generate new communities or new perspectives (not to say I succeed). An aesthetic matter, of course. But also a reason for the irony of why, despite my work with AAWW and editing a number of AA anthologies, my own poetry is not popular in AA academia. Fortunately, I see the logic in that result.

(I hope I don't wake up tomorrow regretting I posted this comment -wink.)

pam said...

I for one am grateful Eileen posted her comment and see nothing to regret. Thanks to her for talking about some of the background thoughts she had while editing APA Journal.

Regarding "if an AA poet writes about the beauty of the sunset, then that resulting poem is an AA poem because its author is AA," my own (perhaps way too technical) reservation is that such a formulation privileges the identity of the author over the features of the text. Which makes me uneasy because it feels potentially static and confining, in pinning down the text as a "this" or a "that." But I suppose it's only confining if we assume a text can't be BOTH a "this" AND a "that," as, in Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge's case, both AA and experimental/theoretical, plus any multiplicity of other interpretive qualities we might apply to her work. Eileen's editing strategy contributes to the opening up of what the term "AA writing" can encompass, just as Susan's Tinfish enterprises help open up the field of discussion around the textual and conceptual space of Pacific Rim writing.

Anyway, I bring this stuff up not because I'm interested in arguing about the definition of terms, but because at this point in time the terms are so open in scope that they invite us to voice our various interpretations of them. And because the many border crossings and recrossings and multiplicities of the socio-political-literary world that Stephen alludes to result in some pretty fascinating stuff.

I guess I can summarize my long-winded thoughts as a wish for:

Specificity => Freedom of Crossing and Multiplicity


Specificity => Confinement

EILEEN said...

The notion of specificity leading to multiplicity is interesting on another level (in my experience and with AAWW) -- geez, Pam, you're scratching the bowels of my increasingly-pressed memory!

Anyway, on another level, the historical definition of Asian America (by within, and not just outside, the AA community) has been problematic itself. In part, due to how AA had been defined as primarily the hyphenated Chinese, Japanese- and maybe a couple of others in terms of attention within AA projects.

So that AAWW, actually, addressed this by -- in its anthology publications -- doing books by Filipino-, Korean-, & South Asian-Americans (as well as gay/lesbians) to open up that definition of AA via specificity.

More recently, the last AA anthology I coedited (Screaming Monkeys) is AA but with a particular (specific) theme rather than just putting out yet another AA anthology out there ( could -- but won't because I'm in a cheerful mood -- contrast that with another recent AA anthology whose approach I deem regressive because it didn't have that, uh, specificity). So I agree generally with Pam's thoughts on how best we continue moving forward along the lines of specificty. I will be interested to see how such manifests itself in the future....

When addressing the future, I certainly hope we can leave behind the (binary idea that a poem can only be its text and not allude to its author. It seems particularly apt to do that for, say, a reading approach with the POV "Asian American"....

When I first began my activities with AAWW, an established AA poet who'd been around for a while once shared, The last group of people who should allow their discourse to be defined by how the dominant canon creates its categories are ... Asian Americans.

Cheers to you smart people,

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