Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Sort of Muffled and Far Away

It's not that I'm such a Jonathan Safran Foer fan, but I did feel a little bad for the guy after reading the NYT review of his new book. Think poetry critics are conservative and intolerant? They've got nothing on your average fiction reviewer, who still holds up Psychological Realism as the holy grail of all writing.

And it's not that I have anything against Michiko Kakutani in particular--she usually seems reasonably intelligent--it's more that she's representative. That pining for someone who would write in an "earnest, straightforward manner" (code words for realism that turn into moral qualities) ought to show how remote that ideal is from anything like what writing looks like now--or has looked like for the past century.

In my extremely brief (about a year long) career as a fiction writer, I found myself more or less by accident as a member of what I was told was a very prestigious writing workshop, held at the home of a prominent editor. In retrospect, it's pretty clear that I wrote fiction like a poet: a lot more interested in linguistic riffs and the endless mining of specific moments of experience than in such niceties as plot and character. But that said, I produced what I thought were some reasonably accomplished passages from a third-person pseudo-autobiographical piece featuring a character whose chronological age must have been about six but whose brain occasionally played host to certain non-six-year-old thoughts and ideas. Or rather: it hardly seemed as if I could render the complexity of a six-year-old's experience if I were limited to a six-year-old's vocabulary.

As soon as I got the piece to workshop, though, I was reamed on precisely those grounds (and precisely the ones Kakutani faults Foer on): the story was not realistic; it contained thoughts a six-year-old couldn't possibly have; that wasn't really what elementary school was like; it was, God forbid, "contrived." (The distinguished editor, talking to me in the kitchen during a break, used the word "arch.") I wanted to ask if anyone had ever read Proust or Joyce or Faulkner, or, really, anyone but Updike and Cheever. That's the funny thing about realist nostalgia: it's nostalgia not for, say, 1750 or 1850 (do Dickens's children "sound" like children?) but for 1950, more or less as it happened in lower New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic.

So that's why I feel a pang of sympathy when I see even a writer as modestly "experimental" as Foer (oh! heavens! he's using magical realism!) get taken to the woodshed for being "contrived." I've been there. Though I don't sell as many books.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Whistle while you work

Ever since I was in high school I've found that there's certain music I can have on in the background while I'm working, and certain music that, no matter how much I love it normally, completely shuts my brain down to any kind of rational thought.

I'm thinking about this in the upstairs room in my Toronto apartment, in part because the CDs are still in stacks on the floor--it's a media fortress, actually, with stacks of books that have to be stepped over on the other side of the desk.

So what can I work to? Mostly, it seems, music I formed some kind of attachment to before I started college. The Smiths, for some reason, not only seem to allow me to work but somehow allow me to work faster. R.E.M.: yes, but only up through Fables of the Reconstruction. Bach: yes, pretty much anything, although the Glenn Gould recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier seems to work much better than the cling-clangy Brandenburgs. Beethoven: symphonies yes, string quartets no. No Doubt: definitely not.

I'm not sure that I can write poetry, incidentally, to any background noise other than the screeching of an elevated train.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A list of our own?

A comment on a previous post got me to thinking:

What if someone created a listserv for Asian American poetry and poetics? Would anyone join such a list? What would be its function? Would it help nuture a community, or would it be isolating and exclusive? Is there already such a thing and I don't know about it?

Even a cursory trip through blogland shows that there's a lot of Asian American poets out there blogging; and I'm sure for every blogger there's a dozen more poets.

Here's the thing, of course: the Poetics list, at least ostensibly, operates under an aesthetic principle (that of "experimental" or "avant-garde" writing). Would an Asian American poetry list have any such principle, or would it invite in all readers regardless of aesthetic? If so, would they have anything to talk about?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Listless (II)

Okay, I'll confess: I've been following some of the responses on the Poetics list to my sign-off. Yes, I did unsubscribe; but since a few folks have been cc-ing me with their posts to the list, my curiosity's gotten the better of me.

Actually, I find looking at the list via the web archive much less unpleasant than having things land in my inbox. Perhaps that's why the rhetoric on the list is so upsetting; it's easier to distance oneself from something that's on a website than something that lands in one's own personal mailbox. It goes from mere language to an attack.

I find it interesting that two of the people who spoke up most generously in my defense, Nick Piombino and Stephen Vincent, are both folks who have a major blog presence as well; there were also interesting responses from CAConrad and Richard Newman. I was rather (pleasantly) surprised to find what sounded like a regretful note from Andrew Loewen, whose poetry I had previously cited as an example of the list's anti-Asian rhetoric.

There were, of course, the predictable responses from the peanut gallery. (I think of these men as something like the two old guys on The Muppet Show who hurl abuse down from the balcony.) I was variously labeled "too sensitive," "melodramatic," and "up-to-no-good" (this last from a guy who thinks that no one should ever talk about race), not to mention taunted with refrains of "chinaman."

Sunday, March 06, 2005


My first days in exile from the Poetics list. Are those the pangs of the outcast that I feel? Maybe I just skipped breakfast. But my inbox is thanking me.

I've received quite a few cheering, supportive backchannels and comments. Stephen Vincent was kind enough to cc me a message he sent to the list, noting Zukofsky's openness to a range of cultural influences and lamenting the opposite, "insular" state. OKIR and fait accompli pointed my way. And Roger Pao has a response up at his Asian American Poetry blog.

Friday, March 04, 2005


SHAMPOO issue 23 is eagerly awaiting your lovely locks.
Please conspicuously catwalk over to:

and lather up with poetry by Tim Yu, Muesser Yeniay, J. Marcus Weekley, Alli Warren, Mike Topp, Shannon Tharp, Andrew Slattery, Barry Schwabsky, Cassandra Schiemann, C. Allen Rearick, Stephen Ratcliffe, James Penha, Ronald Palmer, Wanda O'Connor, William Moot, rob mclennan, Eric Low, Jon Leon, David Koehn, Stephen Kirbach, Raud Kennedy, Christine Neacole Kanownik, Malia Jackson, Yuri Hospodar, August Highland, Jeff Harrison, Nada Gordon, Ethan Fugate, Monica Fauble, Olivia Cronk, Bruce Covey, Amy M. Conger, Todd Colby, Brandon Brown, Jason Bredle, Taylor Brady, Kelly Bartolotta, Glenn Bach, Jane Adam; plus do enjoy glamtastic ShampooArt by Nico Wijaya.

Thank you for looking so good!

Next up: 5 Year SHAMPOO Anniversary Extravaganza (stay tuned)!

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.