Wednesday, December 13, 2006

2nd Ave., Vol. 2

* Volume 2 features work by

ANSELM BERRIGAN michael coffey ERNEST CONCEPCION kevin coval DEL RAY CROSS thomas fink ROB FITTERMAN drew gardner RIGOBERTO GONZALES donna ho FANNY HOWE brenda iijima PAOLO JAVIER jack kimball SERENA LIU paolo manalo NOAM MOR joyelle mcsweeney BRUNA MORI daniel nester MANUEL OCAMPO tim peterson WANDA PHIPPS sreshta premnath MEREDITH QUARTERMAIN peter quartermain BARBARA JANE REYES tony robles PATRICK ROSAL thaddeus rutkowski SUKHDEV SANDHU leslie scalapino JENNIFER SCAPPETONE purvi shah DENNIS SOMERA rodrigo toscano TIM YU and more

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A New Prairie School?

At this past weekend's M/MLA convention in Chicago, Bill Allegrezza assembled a panel on "Experimental Poetics in Contemporary Chicago," with Bob Archambeau, Garin Cycholl, Ray Bianchi, and myself. Since Bob has been kind enough to post his paper at his blog, I thought I'd follow suit.

I think it’s fitting that two of the four papers on this panel have question marks in their titles. Because I think the title of this panel itself, "Experimental Poetics in Contemporary Chicago," is itself a question: can such a thing really be said to exist? Without presuming to speak for the other panelists, I would guess that most of us would like the answer to this question to be yes--that we would like to assert that a discernable and robust experimental poetry "scene" has emerged in Chicago over the past decade or so--but that we also harbor some serious doubts about whether this is the case.

My own contribution to this debate will necessarily be a mix of the critical and the anecdotal, since in raising the question of whether a new "school" of Chicago poetry has arisen in recent years, I am really looking at two linked phenomena: first, the rise of new institutions, such as reading series, journals, and presses, that offer an alternative to established venues for poetry; and second, any distinctive aesthetic that may have been nurtured and propagated through those institutions. So this question of a New Prairie School is a question that is simultaneously aesthetic and social, as much about friendships, networks, and ephemeral connections as it is about texts.

First: what’s the origin of the term I use in my title, the "New Prairie School"? I’ll freely confess that it’s a term of my own invention. When I moved back to Chicago from California in 2003, I began collecting links to Chicago-area poetry websites, journals, venues, and blogs in the sidebar of my own blog, tympan. Needing something to call this section, I decided, on a whim, to label it "New Prairie School." Perhaps I was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, which, as a resident of Hyde Park, I walked past most days. Perhaps I was also thinking of the "New Brutalism," a similarly tongue-in-cheek, architecturally inspired name adopted by a group of young poets I knew in San Francisco. Most likely I was just grasping for some sense of a regional aesthetic. But as the list grew, including the blogs of Gabriel Gudding and Jeremy P. Bushnell, Ray Bianchi’s Chicago Postmodern Poetry site, and the homepages of the Danny’s, Discrete, and Myopic reading series, I had to admit that something like a scene for experimental writing was indeed developing. So was all this coherent enough to constitute a "school" of Chicago poetic practice? And what about my improvised label? What, if anything, did the new Chicago writing have to do with the horizontal lines and open spaces of Prairie style?

Let’s begin with the institutional signs of life for experimental poetry in Chicago. Again, I’ll emphasize that this is largely an anecdotal account based on what I’ve seen since coming back three years ago; others with more experience should feel free to correct or add to my impressions. Experimental poetry’s profile on the Chicago scene has been most visibly raised by the emergence of new reading series. Most prominent among these is the reading series at Danny’s Tavern in Wicker Park, which tends to host better-known names: local luminaries like Mark Strand, high-profile visitors like James Tate and Peter Gizzi, and events with national journals like Fence. The Discrete Series, started in 2003 by Kerri Sonnenberg and Jesse Seldess and housed in several art spaces around the city, has been both more consistently avant-garde and more locally focused in its programming, pairing visitors such as Lisa Jarnot and Cole Swensen with Chicago poets such as Mark Tardi and Chuck Stebelton. In 2004, Stebelton himself took over the reading series at Myopic Books in Wicker Park, a series established some 15 years earlier by legendary poet Thax Douglas. The series quickly progressed from a few chairs gathered in the bookstore’s rec-room like basement to capacity upstairs crowds for a diverse range of poets including Daniel Nester, Linh Dinh, and Kristy Odelius. The most recent addition to the scene—and the first to break the North Side mold—is Bill Allegrezza’s series A, at the new Hyde Park Art Center.

Reading series, while crucial to bringing together a face-to-face poetry community, can be notoriously short-lived, so it’s worth noting that several of these series have been able to survive the departure of their founders. But perhaps the most significant thing about the emergence of the experimental reading series in Chicago is the challenge it poses to that standby of Chicago poetry: the poetry slam. While New York and San Francisco are known for their diverse poetic cultures—and for nurturing experimental writing in the tradition of the New York School or the San Francisco Renaissance—the contemporary Chicago scene is still thought of primarily as the birthplace of the slam, an association that is probably as welcome to some Chicago poets as the miming of a machine gun. Since slams at places like the Green Mill are still going strong, reading series are crucial to building a space for experimental writing in Chicago.

Now, I’m making a big assumption here: that the Chicago poetry scene has, to this point, been actively hostile to experimental writing. Is this justified? Well, we can begin thinking about this by observing that the preferred word in Chicago for the kind of poetry we’re talking about is not "experimental." It is, in fact, "postmodern"—as seen in the title of Ray Bianchi’s website, which has become an indispensable resource for its listings, interviews, and reviews. I must confess that I’m not so fond of the term "postmodern" to describe contemporary poetry, probably because it is simultaneously programmatic and vague, and reeks too much of the academic. But I think that’s precisely why it’s become the term of choice for Chicago experimental poetry, both for its proponents and its detractors.

Take, for example, a post from early 2005 by poet C.J. Laity on his slam-oriented site, which dubs itself "The Center of Chicago’s Cyberspace Poetry." Laity denounces as "an attempt to dig the rotted corpse of postmodernism out of its shallow grave and reanimate it" by Bianchi and his "academic camp." The association of the "postmodern" and the "academic" was no doubt reinforced in Chicago by the authority of Paul Hoover, formerly of Columbia College’s writing program and editor of the Norton anthology Postmodern American Poetry. Without any stable venues for experimental writing in Chicago outside of Hoover’s domain, performance poets have been less likely to see experimental writers as peers and more prone to view them as arrogant interlopers from the academy. If "experimental" and "performance" poetry seem more polarized and pugilistic in Chicago than in other cities, this may be, paradoxically, because of experimental poetry’s relatively weak presence on the scene, and its restriction to a very narrow academic realm, until recently.

Institutionally, then, experimental poetry in Chicago does face an uphill battle. But I think there’s good reason for optimism. The reading series I’ve described have endured and flourished; in the past year I’ve seen packed houses at Myopic and the Discrete Series turn out for poets from Chuck Stebelton to K. Silem Mohammad. Just as important has been the rise of journals and presses devoted to experimental writing, from online venues like Bill Allegrezza’s moria and Larry Sawyer’s Milk, to print journals like Kerri Sonnenberg’s Conundrum and Jesse Seldess’s Antennae, to the new press Cracked Slab Books. Such endeavors provide a more permanent home for new Chicago writing.

But the question remains: has a new aesthetic emerged from these growing institutions? Can we really speak of a "new Prairie school" in poetry? In the time that remains I’d like to address this question by looking at the work of a poet I’ve already mentioned several times, Chuck Stebelton. There’s some irony in my choice of Stebelton, who has recently left Chicago to become manager of literary programs at Milwaukee’s Woodland Pattern--an institution that’s often pointed to as an example of what Chicago’s experimental scene is lacking. But I think Stebelton’s curious mix of density, seriousness, openness, and sense of place may best embody Chicago avant-garde writing. Stebelton’s deadpan, enjambed, sharply etched sentences give his poems urbanity and, often, a political edge. Yet some of his most powerful pieces also effectively evoke the Midwestern landscape, not through nostalgia but through suggestion and abstraction. Stebelton’s "new" prairie may be a highly built environment, but it retains an awareness of the wider and perhaps more open spaces that structure it.

When I first heard Stebelton read, I was struck by the density and uniformity of his linguistic surfaces, a stark contrast to the casual, fluid, and often jokey surfaces characteristic of contemporary Bay Area writing, or to the rapid switchbacks and self-consciousness of post-New York School poetry. Indeed, it took me some time before I felt I could find a point of access—just as it took me a few weeks to find the entrance to Wright’s Robie House. Again, I don’t think the analogy is entirely inapt. H. Allen Brooks’s classic treatise on Prairie School architecture asserts that the main characteristic of the Prairie style is the way in which the horizontal line dominates and unifies every element of design, from roof to foundation, leading to a "continuity of line, edge, and surface." "Short vertical accents" play off this horizontal structure, and conventional ornament is rejected in favor of what Brooks calls "the textural expression of materials and the often lively juxtaposition of various shapes and forms."

I think Brooks’s architectural analysis gives a reasonably good description of a Stebelton poem like "To My Father’s Emperors," drawn from his first full-length collection, Circulation Flowers, which was published by California-based Tougher Disguises Press as the winner of the 2004 Jack Spicer Award. Syntactically, the poem is a single, unpunctuated, run-on sentence, a free linguistic flow. What orders this flow is not any narrative structure but, quite simply, the poetic line itself, breaking the sentence up into thirteen roughly equal units, with about four beats per line. But just as the horizontal planes of a Prairie house are not symmetrical, but overlapping and projecting, the grammatical ambiguity created by Stebelton’s line breaks creates an overlapping effect, where each new line seems to be revising or restating a part of the previous one: "to be the city they had hoped he would come to / be by this next act and looked around the watch." The city of Chicago is, perhaps evoked in this poem, but not through realistic depiction, nor by using obvious landmarks as poetic ornaments. Instead, I would say Stebelton evokes the city texturally, through the juxtaposition of images: "gray garages," "silver balls," "lost tunes," "chrome toasters," "bird shaped pool." The only proper noun is "Loomis," unlikely to be recognized by anyone but a native.

That Stebelton might think of this poetic mode as a distinctively Midwestern practice is suggested by his 2005 chapbook Precious, published by Chicago’s Answer Tag Home Press. Stebelton’s horizontal structures are even more severe here, with the book broken up into numbered sections, most of which consist only of a single line. The urban scene here is not Chicago but the town of Xenia, Ohio. While the narrative we expect might be that of a poet’s looking back at his provincial past from his urban present, Stebelton makes clear that his project is not a nostalgic one: "I come to bury Ohio, not to blame him." In fact, Precious suggests not only the continuity of the Midwestern town and the metropolis, but the continuity of the Midwestern landscape and its cities, creating a sort of urban pastoral. Stebelton’s isolated lines place cattle and casements, turtles and flaneurs in parallel. As in Prairie architecture, the definition of separate planes paradoxically results in a breaking down of borders, a sense of unity, even between the city and the country. Stebelton writes: "Internal conflict inside or outside the park / to walk the city according to plan." If city parks are "green spaces" within the urban fabric, samples of nature set off from the street, Stebelton breaks down those boundaries; we can’t resolve our internal conflicts by displacing them onto artificial distinctions between civilization and nature. In fact, the natural world might provide the perfect "plan" for thinking about the city, just as the open spaces of the prairie suggest a pattern for organizing urban living.

The distinctive textures of Stebelton’s work, and its structural analogies to wide-open Midwestern space, suggests that the idea of a new Prairie School of poetry is not so fanciful after all. New institutions for experimental writing have given work like Stebelton’s a home in Chicago, and Stebelton, along with other poets of the Chicago avant-garde, have responded by marking Chicago writing with a distinctive style. The accomplishments of such work suggests that Chicago’s experimental poetry is becoming a major force not only here, but on the national scene.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Urban Poetry at IUN

Next month’s groundbreaking conference Drawing the Lines: International Perspectives on Urban Renewal Through the Arts at Indiana University Northwest will feature an urban poetry panel on Thursday, Nov. 2 from 12:15 p.m. until 1:30 pm in the IU Northwest Savannah Center Auditorium.

Four published poets will recite their works during this presentation and will also discuss what it means to be an “urban poet.” Presenters will perform traditional styles of poetry, experimental compositions, and works related to Northwest Indiana.

“Northwest Indiana needs more celebrations of the literary arts, and this panel is a fantastic way to celebrate writing,” said William Allegrezza, Ph.D., lecturer of English at IU Northwest and organizer of the urban poetry panel. “The panel will feature some great poets showcasing their works, works crafted in the region. It will be an entertaining, enjoyable event, even for people that are not overly interested in poetry.”

Scheduled poets include:

Garin Cycholl -- Instructor of writing and literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Chycholl is also co-editor of Near South, a journal of experimental poetry, fiction and drama and the author of Nightbirds and Blue Mound to 161, a book-length poem on geological and historical displacements in southern Illinois. Chycholl’s recent work is slated to appear in the upcoming collections Admit 2 and Keep Going.

Kristy Odelius -- Poet and Assistant Professor of English at North Park University. Odelius’ work has appeared in Chicago Review, Notre Dame Review, ACM, and diagram.

W.K. Buckley -- Professor of English at Indiana University Northwest. Buckley received his Ph.D. from Miami University in Ohio. In addition to teaching at IU Northwest, he is the editor of Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Celine and New Perspectives on the Closing of the American Mind. Buckley is the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover: Loss and Hope and has been published widely in poetry journals, including Left Curve, Poetry New York, and New Orleans Review. His other published books include Athene in Steeltown and Lost Heartlands Found.

Tim Yu -- Co-author of Postcard Poems and instructor at the University of Toronto. Yu’s poetry and criticism have appeared in Interlope, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Shampoo, and Cordite.

Admission to the urban poetry panel is free for college students and Gary, Ind. residents. Others interested in attending may register for the Drawing the Lines conference at Registration fees vary according to days of attendance and lunch options.

The urban poetry panel is an important element of the Drawing the Lines conference, which will bring together international experts on urban renewal and the arts with community leaders, local policymakers and legislators, artists, social and cultural entrepreneurs, city planners, economic development officials, arts and humanities councils, and civic leaders. Scheduled keynote speakers will discuss topics such as how creativity and culture influence community change, what role the arts and culture play in urban renewal, and what factors need to be considered on a local level when advancing urban renewal initiatives. The conference itinerary also includes roundtable discussions and public forums.

“We believe that this conference will develop a dialogue about how integral arts and humanities are to urban life in the 21st century and how the particular communities in northern Indiana and Chicagoland can shape their own transformations,” said Robin Hass Birky, associate professor of English at IU Northwest and co-organizer of the conference.

“In this event, we join existing initiatives in renewing the area’s urban communities and revitalize Indiana University Northwest’s contribution and commitment to the Hoosier culture,” added Eva Mendieta, associate professor of Spanish at IU Northwest and co-organizer of the conference.

For more information regarding Drawing the Lines, visit

Monday, September 04, 2006

Paolo Javier and Tim Yu at Myopic Books

Myopic Poetry Series presents


Sunday, September 10, 7 p.m.
Myopic Books
1564 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago

PAOLO JAVIER is the author of 60 lv bo(e)mbs (O Books), and the
time at the end of this writing
(Ahadada), which received a Small Press
Traffic Book of the Year Award. He edits 2nd Ave Poetry, and lives in New York.

TIM YU's poetry and prose have appeared in Chicago Review, Meanjin, SHAMPOO, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. He teaches English at the University of Toronto. A native of the Chicago area, he now lives in Toronto and Chicago.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Hyde Park Poetry!

series A, a new reading series, is hosting its first reading on Thursday, July 20, at the new Hyde Park Art Center at 6:00 p.m. The featured readers will be Kerri Sonnenberg and Chris Glomski. I invite everyone to come out and celebrate the launch of a new series in Chicago and to celebrate the writing of these wonderful poets.

For more information, please see

The Hyde Park Art Center is located at 5020 S. Cornell Avenue. The reading will be held in the conference room.


Kerri Sonnenberg lives in Chicago where she directs the Discrete Reading Series at the Elastic Arts Space in Logan Square. Her books include The Mudra (Litmus, 2004) and Practical Art Criticism (Bronze Skull, 2004). Other writings can be found in recent issues of MiPoesias, Factorial, Magazine Cypress and Unpleasant Event Schedule.

Chris Glomski was born in Pueblo, Colorado in 1965. Raised in Illinois, he has also made his home in Iowa and Italy. His first collection of poems, TRANSPARENCIES LIFTED FROM NOON, was published last fall by MEB / Spuyten Duyvil Press in New York. His poems and critical writings have appeared in Notre Dame Review, Chicago Review, The Octopus, Pom2, and ACM. Recently, he has been translating poems by the Italian Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Those Glittering Asian Guys (II)

An unexpected trip to Boston, plus a cold I picked up there, pretty well knocked me out for the past week and a half. Meanwhile this discussion has gone a few more rounds and should perhaps be left alone. But it's surprisingly persistent. In my last post I tried to outline two modes of using Asian stereotypes in contemporary poetry--the ambivalent and the ironic--and I do still want to see if there is some "third way" that Magee's poem is pursuing.

Let's go back to the beginning. "Their Guys" got its initial round of attention not because of an uproar from Asian American readers who stumbled across it, but after being featured at a Bay Area reading, where it caused a stir (among a presumably largely white audience) and provoked a first post on the topic over at Minor American. And in looking back at Maggie's initial post, I'm struck by the impressionistic language she uses to describe the poem's impact: talk of "ruffle[d] feathers," being made "uncomfortable," a poem that "felt as if it were written for a campus audience at the height of identity politics." But Maggie, not having the poem's text in front of her, could only remember the poem's central epithet: that of the "Asian Chick" (who in fact only appears once in the poem, although "Asian cutie" and "Asian girl" do also appear).

It's that immediate, visceral reaction that seems most important in the audience's discomfort with the poem--and it's also, I think, the major factor for those who have critiqued the poem, as well as for me. It's this visceral reaction to what I can only describe as the poem's surface that I think has not been given enough attention in the earnest attempts to probe the poem's ostensibly more complex intention. And I think that visceral reaction needs to be attended to in any understanding of how the poem "works." Because racially charged language, at least in contemporary usage, is precisely that which lacks depth; used as stereotype or slur, it acts a veil or as a weapon, meant to short-circuit thought and debate or to substitute for it. Any self-conscious use of that language has to take this into account, especially if its goal is to overcome this short-circuiting of thought.

As I was first trying to get up to speed on this debate, I found the poem and read through it quickly--skimmed it, really--to see if I could also get a "feel" for it. Normally I would not really report the results of such a first, preliminary reading. But I want to do so here because it strikes me as relevant to the poem's effect--and perhaps as analogous to the experience of hearing the poem read, once, in a crowded room, grabbing what words one can as it passes. What I got from my initial read-through--what I "heard" of the poem--might look something like this:

.........Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay

Ten years and this will be just another big Asian city...
.................let the Empire swallow them.........
..................................................the thin
Asian chick, burgundy car coat, Hong Kong chic. They like
opium, the old guys down in Chinatown....................
.....................................Asian Norms............
......................................Asian Santa is 7" tall.
You always hear about sleazy guys who get blowjobs matching
their spectacular looks to Kimmy, a 21-year-old Asian cutie.
Young ladies dial a number on their cell phones--I understand.

The country guys are having a model minority Asian
................................. I don’t want to sound stereo-
typical, but most Asian people I HAVE MET, are pretty short.
Their evil plots always lose in the end and Asian girl in shower
makes soapy mess, soaking wet both in and out of their Hispanics––
different, however, depending on their skin tone...............
.........................................he was definitely Asian
or Malaysian or something. The 2000s may well be the Asian
century, a fantasy world where even the bad guys are beautiful.
........................the Dragon Lady cum Asian sex goddess).

An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking
about tomorrow. They expected to see an Asian in the
remote areas. Guys in military uniforms ..............
.....................................Asian action ................
..................the 1998 Asian markets crisis..................
...............the little guys that you rape with less than 3 guys
more like an alien than an Asian. An Asian business man rips off
his coat, revealing a glittering, Vegas style................
...................................predominantly female ethnicity.

Tomorrow, the English guys are drinking: enjoy engaging
with their culture caught in between two guys while a video
camera mounted in the wall behind their couch OH NO! NOT!
jams mint into her mouth. .................................
they don’t really look Asian, necessarily, so much ......
................................our little guys are ruined.........
................................(“As we retreated two white guys on
bikes appeared...”) ...........................................
You may argue that I'm being profoundly unfair to the poem--just grabbing on to the most provocative, inflammatory, "naughty" parts. But I think there's some logic here. First, I think my telegraphic version may well reproduce the experience that many folks seem to have had in hearing the poem read aloud and reacting to its most uncomfortable sections. Second, if I give Michael Magee the credit for intention and intelligence that I am trying to, I cannot do otherwise than assume that creating this discomfiting, attention-grabbing, even "offensive" surface is part of the intended effect of the poem, a means of seizing hold of the reader in a certain way (with the presumption that one will then go somewhere else from there).

But the third, and most important, point has to do with my position as an Asian American reader. For as an Asian American reader, I am hailed by these images in a very particular way; the passages I've highlighted are precisely those that I cannot turn away from or skim over. (It's a curious paradox of racial address that the broadest stereotypes can be so personally felt, as if they were addressed solely to you.) And in this version of the poem, as seen by an Asian American reader, we have what amounts to a review of the hoariest stereotypes of the Asian: short effeminate dope-smoking men, sexualized and degraded "Dragon Lady" women, the financial and political Yellow Peril.

Is it any wonder, then, that an Asian American reader might not wish to "get past" these images--that such a reader, having experienced the surface of this poem as a barrage of stereotypes directed at him or her, might simply turn away in disgust?

It's the position of this reader that the poem, I think, fails to take into account. And I'm going to argue that this failure--the failure to imagine, not an Asian American speaker, but an Asian American reader--is what ultimately keeps the poem as a whole from achieving what it ostensibly intends.

And what does it intend? To what end this deploying of base stereotypes? In what way are these stereotypes framed--is there some clear way in which they are not expressions of racism, but (as many have claimed) critiques of racism?

The first thing that's clear to me is that neither of my first two categories--ambvialence and irony--can be applicable here. Though others might disagree, I will take at face value Kasey's claim for "the absence of any coherent subject-position that can be said to operate throughout." If that's true, then we simply cannot call the poem either "ambivalent" or "ironic" in its use of stereotypes, because both those labels (as I'm using them) depend on the identification of some kind of speaker or subject whose attitude toward racist material we can gauge. If we cannot find any such stable subject-position, we can't (for instance) assume that the poem is a dramatic monologue by a racist speaker who is ironically distanced from the author.

This cuts both ways for the poem, as Kasey notes: although it may in some sense insulate the poem from a charge that it is coherently "racist" (in the sense of proceeding from a "racist" speaker), it also prevents anyone from coherently claiming that the poem is somehow "anti-racist" (proceeding from a speaker who is clearly opposed to racism). In any conventional sense, then, the poem is at best neutral toward its racist material, since it has denied itself the luxury of ironic distance; the images are not framed in some coherent way. Indeed, I would extend this point further and see this self-denial of irony as something like paradigmatic for flarf itself: flarf is precisely that writing that refuses to take an ironic, high-handed position with regard to its "degraded" and "offensive" materials, but gets right down in the muck with those materials, exploring both pleasure and disgust, while being profoundly implicated in and by both. If I'm wrong about that, then perhaps I just don't get it.

If the poem's use of stereotypes is neither ambivalent nor ironic--if it can't partake of either of those labels--then what is it? The best label I can come up with for what the poem seems to want to do in using those stereotypes--based both on my reading of it and on subsequent discussion--is:

3. Self-critical. Rather than taking a position outside racial discourse, the poem seems to want to deploy, explore, and even amplify that discourse in the hope of breaking it down, turning it against itself. It's impossible to think of a "speaker" in this sense because if the gambit works, it's the discourse itself that will "speak"--and, hopefully, speak damningly. It's an idea somewhat like that put forward by Adorno in "On Lyric Poetry and Society," which suggests that in great lyric works it's not some individual who is speaking, but "language itself" that "acquires a voice."

One of the "target" discourses is obviously orientalism, as indicated by Magee's title--a punning allusion, as he and Kasey noted, to lines from Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli": "Their eyes, / Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay." The "they" here are a group of "Chinamen" that Yeats imagines "carved in lapis lazuli." Magee asserts that his poem "directly engages with the Orientalism at work in [Yeats's] poem". And Kasey: "Yeats' poem uses its precious gestures of chinoiserie as a means of rendering a racial other manageable, comfortable, reassuring. Magee's poem 'translates' those gestures via debased chatter and social noise into anxious, offensive tics, but at the same time burlesques some of their seductive formal effects." In this reading, Magee's "Their Guys" is an exposure of orientalism, paradoxically, through an updating of orientalism, translating Yeats's modernist orientalism (with its aesthete Chinamen, their plum-blossoms and mournful music) into "our" own postmodern orientalism (fears of Asian economic domination, sexual fetishization of both the male and female Asian).

But this kind of historical contextualizing doesn't account for the full impact of Magee's images on contemporary readers--and certainly not on the contemporary Asian American reader, whose existence orientalism cannot possibly imagine. Think again to the title, which for Magee is an echo of The Tradition, and also a critique of it. Now I didn't hear that allusion until Kasey pointed it out. What I did hear--and what I suspect almost any Asian American reader would hear on first reading--is "Asian guys...are gay," which conjures up not Yeats but a whole contemporary hot-button context of denigrated Asian masculinity, exemplified by wretched artifacts like Details magazine's infamous "Gay or Asian?" feature. (The point being, of course, not that one cannot be gay and Asian, but that in this conception both "gay" and "Asian" are abject positions located outside the "norm" of white male heterosexuality.) What I don't see in Magee's title is any critical awareness of this context, of how the images he deploys might signify in a particularly Asian American context.

Here's the risk of the self-critical mode: that in trying to make the discourse of orientalism "speak," it can become nothing more than that discourse speaking to itself. Critiquing the discourse of Anglo-American orientalism from the inside alone neglects the proliferation of more complex subject and reading positions; the Asian American reader is both subject and object of orientalism, and the "other" created by orientalist discourse is also, for the Asian American reader, a distorted and perhaps unwanted vision of "self."

I have to dispute Magee's claim that his poem must be read as "dystopian," as well as Anne Boyer's assertion that the poem is "relentlessly and complexly anti-racist." For both of these assume that the poem produces a stable position of critique, from which one could look at the poem's imagery and say, "These images are sick and wrong." If I understand Kasey's reading at all--if I understand flarf at all, which I'm starting to think I don't--the whole point is that the poem does not produce such a position, that by its very nature it cannot. It can't be "relentlessly" (i.e., consistently) anything, certainly not as coherent a thing as "anti-racist."

Here's a perverse argument: for me to accept the "dystopian" reading--the idea that the images Magee employs are so inherently sick and wrong that I could only attribute them to an evil civilization (and not to Magee himself)--the imagery would actually have to be far worse than it is. What do I mean? Well, note for example that Magee has stopped well short of including any actual racial slurs in the poem; comparisons to "What's up my N____?" notwithstanding, there are no "chinks," "gooks," or "slants" to be found anywhere in "Their Guys." In fact, Magee has quite pointedly undone one epithet found in his source text; Magee is obviously quite aware (unlike those folks on the Poetics list who still like to say "Jap") that Yeats's term, "Chinamen," is no longer used in polite company. So he replaces it with the pan-ethnic, politically acceptable, post-1970 term, "Asian." For those of you who have seen the poem as a satire of political correctness, guess what? The poem is itself politically correct!

My point here is that Magee, far from seeking to expose the discourses of orientalism and racism at their dystopian worst, has in fact quite self-consciously pulled his punches. What we see here is not the ragged and ugly face of unadulterated racism, but a muted, sculpted, even aestheticized version of that discourse that can be incorporated into a poem. Imagine that Magee's poem started like this: Ten years and this will be just another big Chink city... That Bay Area audience wouldn't have been grumbling; they probably would have been throwing things and walking out. But the use of the relatively neutral, "PC" term "Asian" throughout blunted the edges of these images enough that many readers could actually get through the poem and even like it, while still scratching their heads.

But this strategy couldn't get the poem past most Asian American readers, who largely reacted as if the slurs were there anyway. Such readers recognized that the structure of the stereotypes had not been altered, even if the wording had been muted. In fact, from my point of view there's a sense in which the use of "Asian" throughout actually made the impact of the stereotypes worse; since these images are couched in language that shows the author "knew better," I can't attribute them to ignorance. Thus my response is less that of anger than of profound disappointment.

An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking / about tomorrow. Magee argues that this is a turning point in the poem, "a fairly sophisticated line" that "departs from the lanuage that comes before it" and says something about "the urgency to communicate." My reaction: Is this how the poem imagines my speaking, my halting but ultimately noble desire to communicate? Must the subject position of the Asian remain not only outside discourse but outside the English language? If the language of this line differs from that of the rest of the poem, this is not because it is so "sophisticated" but because it is so naive, implying some kind of vague shared human aspiration (cf. "Iraqis want to be free") while excluding the speaker from any kind of full hearing. If that's the glimmer of hope that "Their Guys" offers me in this roiling discourse, I'm not particularly interested.

If this poem is supposed to have a salutary effect--the message that "everybody needs to wake up," as Magee puts it--the sense I get is that I, as an Asian American reader, am not included in that "everybody." Not just because, on this subject, I'm already wide awake. But because ultimately what we see in this poem is orientalist discourse talking to itself--indeed, white orientalist discourse talking to itself. I, too, find the conclusion of the poem chilling in a way, but not because I take away from it some steely-eyed denunciation of racism and imperialism; it's chilling precisely because in the final lines the Asian has disappeared entirely ("they don’t really look Asian, necessarily, so much"), replaced by "two white guys." I can only maintain the Asian presence in the poem if I assume that "our little guys" and the "others" who "turned to see one of their men had fallen" are still marked as Asians--in other words, if the poem is in fact speaking for Asian characters, precisely as Kasey and others claim it doesn't. I agree that it doesn't, and that these "little guys" at the end "don't really look Asian"; they have become unmarked, allowing white power to engage in a discourse with itself.

Do I expect this poem to try to speak for Asians? No. But I do expect it to follow through on what it has already partially done: to acknowledge that there may be an Asian American reader out there, one who is something more than the object of orientalist discourse. An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking / about tomorrow: this to me is not the most optimistic, but the most unpleasant line in the poem. Not because of its "offensiveness," but because of its condescension.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Those Glittering Asian Guys

Hoo boy. So I was in San Francisco last weekend (more on which soon) and heard some murmuring about a Michael Magee poem that had caused a stir at a recent reading by talking about "Asians." That poem, of course, was "Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay", and after some pointers from Barbara Jane Reyes and Brent Cunningham I found the discussions going on about the poem at Minor American, lime tree, Asian American Poetry, and other places. I'm coming very late to this, and I (like others) debated whether to get involved at all, having developed a certain level of fatigue about calling out examples of Asian stereotypes in contemporary poetry.

But there did seem to be something a bit different about this case, in part because it involved a poem written by someone whose work I generally like and defended by someone else I agree with about 90% of the time. And in part it made me think about precisely how images of the "Asian" get used in contemporary poems, and whether one could usefully distinguish between those kinds of uses. I'm going to try to approach this by (empathetically and idealistically) imagining how the "general reader" might receive such issues, before going into how the position of an Asian American reader might differ.

As I've observed before, the most feared epithet in these kinds of discussion is not "Asian," or "Oriental," or "Chinaman." It's "racist." The arguments of those who critique stereotypes or racial imagery in a poem are often reduced to, "So-and-so says the poem is racist," and the charge of racism is seen as so toxic as to end all further discussion. More to the point: there's no such thing (today, at least) as a good, racist poem. The charge of racism is understood to place something outside of reasonable discourse and of aesthetic appreciation. This is not to say that there aren't poems written and published now that, upon closer reading, can be seen to have racist implications; it's simply that no acceptable poem can explicitly claim a racist position--one that openly seeks to caricature, demonize, and inspire hatred or fear of a particular racial group. One can certainly think of any number of historical examples of this kind of writing--for example, Bret Harte's poem on the "heathen Chinee"--but it's nearly impossible to imagine a "serious" poet today attempting such a thing.

So when we do encounter racial stereotypes in a contemporary poem, we tend to assume that "something else" must be going on. (For example, when I critiqued racial imagery in a poem on the Poetics list, the response came back, "Well, obviously we know no one on this list is a racist, so...") I'll attempt to describe two of those "something elses"--two ways in which racial images or stereotypes seem to get used in contemporary writing--before discussing the third "something else" that Magee's poem may or may not represent.

1. Ambivalent. This can best be described as a simultaneous fascination with and repulsion from racial imagery, an unease with the racial other that can manifest itself as mockery, ethnography, or fetish. The writer's intention and attitude toward the subject matter seem to be unstable. The examples that immediately come to mind are two pieces posted to the Poetics list, one titled "WHY DO THE TIAWANESE" and the other infamously referencing the "Filipino crack whore," that I discussed at some length here and here. In these cases, what the author allegedly intended as "realistic" or even "sympathetic" portrayals of Asians seemingly cannot help but partake of the most degraded stereotypes, not least because the author seems to lack any awareness of the destructive power of such stereotypes.

I think also of a story I read a few years ago in the New Yorker in which the protagonist is a young white woman who works as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, describing the food as dirty and disgusting and the proprietress's communication as consisting of guttural "ngs" and "oks."

It might easily be protested that these writings are straight-up racist--no ambivalence about them. Without a doubt the worst writings in this category lean that way. But their dynamic of repulsion and attraction (the young woman in the New Yorker story describes her attraction to a young Asian man who works in the restaurant) and the apparently unconscious nature of their racism gives them a kind of bare cover that in some cases can allow them to get away with it (at least to some readers).

2. Ironic or parodic. The vast majority of contemporary racial stereotyping in poetry, and perhaps even in popular culture, falls into, or wants to fall into, this category: it's a self-conscious use of racial imagery that holds the stereotype at an ironic distance, ostensibly parodying or satirizing the very stereotype it deploys. (In popular culture, cf. South Park, Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, and so on.) In other words, using a racial stereotype is okay if you are aware that you are doing it, since then you couldn't possibly take it entirely seriously.

The simplest example of this is when the irony is provided by the position of the speaker, e.g. when Marilyn Chin refers to the "mega-Chinese-food tropes" of her poems or an African American comedian uses the "N-word." Since it's assumed that these speakers are not being racist toward their own racial groups, it follows that their words must be ironic or appropriative. As Pam Lu has pointed out, this strategy is by no means always, or even usually, successful; an Asian American writer who self-consciously portrays Asian Americans in stereotypical fashion can easily end up reinforcing those very stereotypes.

Another technique of ironic distancing is that of the dramatic monologue: you use racist words but put them in the mouth of a speaker clearly marked as a character, distinct from the author. Think, for example, of the opening scene of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, in which white male real estate agents invite each other to dine at "the Chink's" and inveigh against "Patels." The usual interpretation given is that Mamet is not himself a racist, but rather is realistically portraying the racism of his rather unattractive characters. (In the context of Magee's poem, this would be the "redneck reading"--that the poem's references to Asians should be attributed to an ignorant and racist speaker whom Magee intends to satirize.) Of course, a closer reading reveals that there is nothing remotely "realistic" about the racist language Mamet puts in his characters' mouths (one describes Indians as "A supercilious race"), which, depending on your view of Mamet, can lead in one of two directions: toward the idea that Mamet is adding another layering of irony in order to satirize us, who believe that we can comfortably distance ourselves from the racism of others; or back toward ambivalence, in which Mamet is not distancing himself from racism as much as we might initially think. (For a fictional take on this scene, see Bharati Mukherjee's story "A Wife's Story.")

For an instance of this strategy of ironic distancing, take a couple of poems that another Asian American poet recently pointed me to: two pieces called "Chinese Movies" by Bernard Henrie in the latest issue of SHAMPOO. (In order to insulate myself against the suspicion that I am anti-SHAMPOO, I should note that I and many of my, um, best friends publish our work there.) Henrie's title suggests the mass-culture source of Chinese stereotypes, and the poems' serial numbering suggests the mechanical reproducibility of such stereotypes. The poems are stocked with what Anglo-American readers have come to expect as the cliches of chinoiserie: silk garments, snow cherries, plum blossoms, bamboo, persimmons. The frame suggests that we are meant to receive these images with a wink and a nod, that they are cliches being used satirically.

But how ironic is it? There's a distinct speaker, but despite his language of cliches it's not at all clear how distanced we're supposed to be from him. When he describes a female artist, "Chen," the imagery is almost comically piled on:
A Mandarin when she works,
her oversize smock and sleeves
look like petals. I expect rice fans
to appear for shade, gifts from
her village in rural China.
And perhaps the "I expect" registers this as a product of the speaker's stereotypes.

But the poem never leaves this level, never actually gives us a position from which to critique the speaker. In fact, the poem's conclusion seems to do nothing so much as seek to reanimate the stereotypes, to reaestheticize them and restore their erotic charge:
Her painting dry and bamboo
brushes wrapped, she prepares
to bathe, pausing to peel
a fat persimmon, the juice drips
and forms a glistening drop
on her gold thigh:

"Look, another water color."
The final words, I assume, are Chen's own; she's actually shown to be participating in her own orientalized objectification. So this is a poem that seems to begin from an ironic position but fails to maintain it; instead, it slides toward ambivalence by seeing the stereotype as a source of attraction and pleasure.

Irony and parody can, however, be highly successful methods of critiquing and reworking racial stereotypes. The work of John Yau is probably the best example I can think of in the current context. Yau's series "Genghis Chan: Private Eye," like Henrie's poems (which actually seem derivative of Yau series like "Late Night Movies"), signals in its title its sources in mass culture, but the title itself mashes up seemingly incompatible stereotypes: that of the fearsome Asian warrior (Genghis Khan) and of the effeminate and deferential Asian (Charlie Chan); then it places these in a wholly unexpected American context (that of the film noir). The result is parodic but also unstable, not permitting any established stereotype to gain traction, seeking to create a new and hybrid speaking position.

The poems themselves often seem to function as junkyards--or recycling bins--for racially charged language, which is fragmented and reconstructed into something compelling yet monstrous:
shoo war
torn talk

ping towel
pong toy

salted sap
yellow credit

hubba doggo
bubba patootie

wig maw
mustard tongue
The result is less an attractive reanimation of orientalism but a pastiche of it whose primary emotion would seem to be a charged disgust.

So what does any of this have to do with Magee's "Their Guys"? My sense is that while most attempts to read the poem have fallen into one of the two above categories, the poem is tryihng to do some third thing; for what that might be, and how successful it is, stay tuned.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Reviews, Resurrected (II)

Thanks to Ron Silliman for pointing to my review of Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation--although it is a bit disturbing to think that this is the best available picture of me.

It's always illuminating to hear someone else summarizing your argument, which often brings out things that you may not have noticed yourself. Silliman's pithy precis defines the three "generations" of Asian American poets quite nicely along the lines of politics. I had also hoped to emphasize that I saw some degree of continuity between the "politicized & populist" poets of the 1970s and younger "post-avant" writers (with the implication that it was the "lyric" turn of the 1980s that could be viewed as anomalous in the history of Asian American poetry). But that's certainly a debatable point.

Thanks also to csperez for pointing (in Silliman's comment box) to the discussion that's been going on here and elsewhere. I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to respond more fully to the thoughtful comments by him and by Pam Lu, in part because I've been away the past few days (on which more to come). But I'll try a quick stab at answering now.

Both commenters raise the question of whether perhaps the anthology does represent some sociological "truth" about Asian Americans: as Pam puts it, maybe the anthology's "dehistoricized, deculturalized, uncritically-examined perspectives do actually reflect the perspectives of a (growing) sector of the population."

It's difficult for me to assess this as a sociological claim. It's certainly true that one hears Asian American activists complaining all the time about the problems of politicizing Asian Americans, and perhaps some might see this as a decline from the activist days of the 1970s. But is the Asian American population in general less politically engaged and less historically aware than it was three decades ago? My guess would be no: a generation of students has gone through American colleges with at least the opportunity to study Asian American history, literature, and politics, and Asian American student organizations remain robust (if rarely politically radical).

But I think Pam may be right in another sense, in that there are now a multitude of models for how one might be an "Asian American writer." To claim that label in the 1970s meant a rather particular thing, both politically and aesthetically--which also rather excluded one from "mainstream" acceptance. But the "breakthrough" success in the late '70s and 1980s of writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Cathy Song made it quite possible to be both an Asian American writer and a "mainstream" one--or, better yet, to be a writer who "just happens to be" Asian American.

For me, The Open Boat plays out the political and aesthetic logic of this moment. But what I don't think I'd realized in my past readings of Garrett Hongo's anthology was how pointed Hongo's dissent from the aesthetic/political conjunction of the 1970s was. To take up Silliman's characterization, Hongo's stance is probably not apolitical but purposefully anti-political, a reaction against "ethnic consciousness" dogma. But that resistance, at least, was still a kind of engagement, a conscious departure from a certain norm; an ironic awareness of ethnic politics is still a form of awareness.

But what happens when one places into the category of "Asian American writer" those who do not see their work in those terms at all? What Chang's anthology seems to argue is that it is now possible not to allude to the tradition of Asian American writing in form, content, or intention, and yet still to be called an Asian American writer. In short, that there is now a completely dehistoricized and decontextualized way of being an "Asian American poet," and indeed to be a highly successful one. To make this point even more contentiously: it may be precisely that success itself (measured in terms of fellowships, publications, and teaching positions) is the gold standard of acceptance into the category of Asian American poet. The Asian American poet thus becomes the model minority.

Finally, the question has been raised of what an ideal anthology of Asian American poetry really would look like. It's interesting that Silliman read me to be saying that such an anthology would essentially be Premonitions redux. That's perhaps what I would like to have said, or perhaps should have said were I a more loyal post-avanter. What I actually said was
The new, truly comprehensive anthology of Asian American poetry that is needed now would draw generously from both the 1980s lyric represented in Hongo’s Open Boat and the avant-garde work of the 1970s and 1990s featured in Premonitions, offering notes and introductions that place both aesthetics in historical and literary context. But it would also offer a much longer historical perspective on Asian American poetry...It would place this work alongside poems by younger writers who represent some of the newest Asian American immigrant groups, while using three decades of experience by teachers of Asian American writing to help measure what poems have been most useful in the classroom. Such an anthology--ideally a collaboration between critics and poets--would provide an invaluable introduction to Asian American poetry for general readers, while providing the depth students, scholars, and writers need.
That's the anthology that, to me, would seem the most useful--one I could use in my own classroom, but that I'd also love to read.

Friday, May 19, 2006

That's Progress!

I've signed up as a blogger for Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, the spinoff of the Asian American organization within the Howard Dean campaign. I'll be making occasional posts (with a couple other bloggers) over there on politics and Asian Americans. This may protect all of you from having to hear so many political rants from me. Unless of course you like that sort of thing, in which case come on over.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Few Good Fences

The Senate...backed construction of 370 miles of triple-layered fencing along the Mexican border Wednesday...

The vote to build what supporters called a "real fence'' - as distinct from the virtual fence already incorporated in the legislation - was 83-16. The fence would be built in areas "most often used by smugglers and illegal aliens,'' as determined by federal officials. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., estimated the cost at roughly $3.2 million per mile, more than $900 million for 300 miles...

"Good fences make good neighbors," Sessions said.
Perhaps the gentleman from Alabama should read a bit more closely.
"...Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me--
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Chinese Restaurant Syndrome"

I was kind of hoping that this was a joke, but apparently it's not.
Chinese restaurant syndrome is a collection of symptoms that some people experience after eating Chinese food.
Following this logic, I propose that obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer be relabeled American food syndrome.

Don't worry, though.
Most people recover from mild cases of Chinese restaurant syndrome on their own. Their prognosis is excellent.

Reviews, Resurrected

The second issue of Galatea Resurrects is up, including a reprint of my review of Victoria Chang's Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. It's a good opportunity for me to try to respond to the interesting discussion around reviewing--particularly of Asian American poets--that's been going on the past couple weeks.

Barbara Jane Reyes has been asking some tough questions (parts 1, 2, and 3) about the function of criticism: in particular, what happens when an Asian American critic reviews an Asian American writer.
...the question came up of whether we ought to be even writing these critical reviews, non-endorsing reviews, stating that a book written by one of our community members does not appear to be well-written, does not appear to accomplish what it has set itself up to accomplish. Then citing the text in order to explain why we think this is the case. Perhaps then proposing alternatives, what do we think would make the work work...So, should we be doing this to books written by "our own"?
I'd venture to say that this is a question not just for Asian American writers but for almost any poet today: the reviewer is likely to be part of the same, relatively small "community" as the author being reviewed. As I argued a while back in saying "death to reviews" (a command I obviously haven't heeded myself), the print-culture model of the critic as objective gatekeeper, sorting the wheat from the chaff, would seem to have little relevance in an era where major book reviews ignore poetry and most critical discussions of poetry take place in relatively specialized zones (little magazines, blogs, academic articles). It's increasingly unlikely that a writer will be asked to review a book of poetry by someone he/she doesn't know and in whose work he/she has absolutely no stake. This might seem like a rather cynical view. But I think it can also be rather liberating. Reviews, in this model, are less a Siskel-and-Ebert-style thumbs-up-or-down and more a way of keeping a certain kind of aesthetic conversation going, an engagement with and response to a book as much as an evaluation of it.

I tend to take the same approach to thinking about reviews of Asian American writing, although the stakes may be somewhat different. This is, after all, as much a political category as it is an aesthetic one, and the promotion of Asian American writing is often seen as part of the broader cultural and political struggles of Asian Americans. The critic Sau-ling Wong puts this point powerfully: just as the category "Asian American" is a political coalition, the category "Asian American literature" is a "textual coalition," whose interests it is the professional task of the Asian American critic to promote. Or as Barbara Jane puts it:
there appears to be so little F/Pilipino American literature "out there," that we ought to be calling people's attention to the work, writing reviews to convince readers to read the work, ultimately, buy the work. The rationale is solid, I think: we F/Pilipino American authors need our books to sell. Otherwise, we are constantly crippled by statistics which show that F/Pil Am authored books do not sell, and that F/Pil Am's do not read.
These certainly seen like reasonable goals. But it's also true that under this logic, the negative review is going to become an increasingly endangered species, and a positive review risks being seen as mere boosterism.

I don't particularly enjoy writing negative reviews. I'm more likely to follow mom's advice on this one: if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. We all know that when it comes to books there's no such thing as bad publicity (cf. runaway sales of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces or the brisk eBay trade in now-illict copies of Opal Mehta). Particularly when it comes to a poetry book--which is not likely to get noticed by a large number of reviewers--the nastiest thing you can do to a book you don't like is to ignore it. For me, this is less a question of intellectual honesty or fearlessness than a question of the best use of my time, and yours: I'd much rather discover what is interesting and productive in a book than spend time bashing it. Nor do I think it's my job as a critic to explain to a writer what they're doing wrong and how to do it better: that's a role better approached as a colleague or a friend.

All that said: so under what circumstances does it become necessary to write a negative review? I use the word "necessary" because that seems to be my own standard: such a review has to be written when the book in question is potentially going to have a significant impact, and when that book--I don't know what other way to put this--puts forward an argument that seems to me wrong or even pernicious. It may seem strange to characterize a book of poetry as having an argument, but I think most do: they argue in favor of a particular aesthetic, a particular politics, a particular way of looking at the world, in a way that goes beyond some simple judgment about whether they are good or bad.

I think this is especially true of books we put into the category of "Asian American poetry." Because to do that to a book is to make some kind of claim about it, about what it is for and what it is doing in the world. I do not say that there is only one kind of way in which to make this claim, or even that I can say with any precision what I would mean by it myself. But it's important to recognize that it is a claim, not just a neutral category. Sometimes this claim may be made quite directly by the author; sometimes it may be made by an editor or publisher; sometimes it may be made by a reader, critic, or teacher. But because it is a claim with some ostensible political substance, I think we have a responsibility to evaluate its relationship to the work at hand.

When we start doing this kind of evaluation, I think we're less in the realm of reviewing than in the realm, more broadly, of criticism: a kind of writing that steps back from a work, views it in its historical, aesthetic, and political contexts, and tries to understand why we might value certain things in it and not others. That's what I tried to do in my review of Asian American Poetry (and why the thing ended up so darn long). Call a book that and you clearly are making a certain claim: that there is such a thing as Asian American poetry and that what's between the covers shares its characteristics. But what troubled me was that the anthology itself seemed to undermine even that claim, suggesting that Asian American poetry had little about it that was distinct at all. I think that was because the anthology didn't cast its net widely enough, either historically or aesthetically. There was no sense that the anthology was entering into a four-decade-long debate about Asian American poetry and politics, and the anthology's position seemed to me to come perilously close to the argument that Asian American poetry is just poetry written by those who "happen to be" Asian American: in which case why have the category at all? That's the point, I think, where the critic needs to get involved.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Geeky Bumper Sticker of the Day

Seen on a pickup truck parked in front of my house, printed on a red background:

If this sticker is blue, you're driving too fast.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Lyn Hejinian, May 10 and 11 @ U of C

Reading and Lecture Series
University of Chicago

Wednesday, May 10
LECTURE by Lyn Hejinian: "The Return of Interruption"
Rosenwald 405, 1101 E. 58th Street

Thursday, May 11
READING by Lyn Hejinian
Social Sciences 122, 1126 E. 59th Street

Lyn Hejinian was born in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1941. Poet, essayist, and translator, she is also the author or co-author of fourteen books of poetry, including The Beginner (Spectacular Books, 2000), Happily (Post Apollo Press, 2000), Sight (with Leslie Scalapino, 1999), The Cold of Poetry (1994), The Cell (1992), My Life (1980), Writing Is an Aid to Memory (1978), and A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking (1976). Description and Xenia, two volumes of her translations from the work of the contemporary Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, have been published by Sun and Moon Press. In 2000, the University of California Press published a collection of her essays entitled The Language of Inquiry, and she was Guest Editor of The Best American Poetry 2004. From 1976 to 1984, Hejinian was editor of Tuumba Press, and since 1981 she has been the co-editor of Poetics Journal. She is also the co-director of Atelos, a literary project commissioning and publishing cross-genre work by poets. Other collaborative projects include a work entitled The Eye of Enduring undertaken with the painter Diane Andrews Hall and exhibited in 1996, a composition entitled “” with music by John Zorn and text by Hejinian, a mixed media book entitled The Traveler and the Hill and the Hill created with the painter Emilie Clark (Granary Press, 1998), and the experimental film Letters Not About Love, directed by Jacki Ochs, for which Hejinian and Arkadii Dragomoshchenko wrote the script. Her honors include a Writing Fellowship from the California Arts Council, a grant from the Poetry Fund, a Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, and a Fellowship from The Academy of American Poets. She lives in Berkeley and teaches at the University of California.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

"Where Are You From?"

Why can't I go out for lunch in Chicago without getting asked this question? There I am, sitting in a Hyde Park restaurant, minding my own business, when this elderly white man comes shuffling toward me and strikes up a conversation.

Elderly White Man: I guess these are the high-class seats!*

Me: Yeah, I guess so.

EWM: I've never been in here before! I had no idea it was so luxurious!

Me: Yeah, it's pretty nice.

EWM:: You look like a regular customer.

Me: I guess I come in here occasionally.

EWM:: So! Where are you from?** Some other country?***

Me: ...**** [shaking my head]

EWM: This one?

Me: [nodding]

EWM: Oh! I never would have guessed!***** But your ancestors must have come from some faraway place.****** Japan? Korea?

Me: ...******* China.

EWM: [utters something incomprehensible]

Me: Excuse me?

EWM: [repeats previous utterance]

[At this point I realize that the man is actually speaking Chinese. Not the usual "ni hao, ching chong" stuff: I distinctly make out the word "zhongwen" at the end of his sentence.]

Me: [laughing nervously] Well, your Chinese is better than mine.

EWM: It should be! I had a good teacher! The American government! You ever been to China?

Me: A few times.

EWM: Well, that's more than I have! But when I did go I stayed a long time!

Me: [packing up my stuff] Well, enjoy your lunch.

EWM: See ya.



*I was sitting next to the windows. I should note that at this point the man was actually hovering over my table, as if he were going to sit down with me; over the course of the conversation he gradually backed away.

**Notice the weird way in which this question is almost always used as a conversational entree, like asking about the weather. "Say, it's a beautiful day! Hey, did you notice that your skin isn't the same color as mine?"

***This oddly pointed clarification prevented me from using the usual response to "Where are you from?" which is to say something disarming like "Chicago" or "California" and look at the questioner blankly.

****This is the slightly stunned silence that you retrospectively fill with comebacks like "Why? Where are you from?" or "Same as you, jerk." At the time, though, one part of your brain is saying
Is this really happening? and the other part is saying Yes, it's happening, again, which makes it a little difficult for your mouth to work.

*****I will admit that I was entirely clad in olive, which perhaps the man mistook for the uniform of the People's Liberation Army.

******This is, of course, a slightly more sophisticated variation on the usual follow-up, "No, where are you really from?"

*******Here I'm weighing the desire to just stop talking to the man against the realization that that would just prolong this further. Anyway, what was I going to do? Lie?


I've gotten the hostile version of this question, i.e. "Why don't you go back where you came from," only once that I can remember, on the subway in Boston.

I have never been asked this in California.*

Once, in Toronto, a guy on a park bench called out to me as I was walking to work, "So what about you? Are you from this country?" I just laughed, because the answer, of course, was "No, I'm an American."

*After I told Robin this story, she reminded me that this had, in fact, once happened to me in California, when a guy in a bookstore in San Luis Obispo decided to harass me (and my people) for being short.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


New link (well, new to me): Chicago Poetry, a group blog by Ray Bianchi, Kerri Sonnenberg, Jeremy P. Bushnell, and others.

(Not to be confused with, "The Center of Chicago's Cyberspace Poetry.")

Vote 4 Me!

What is the origin of the political phrasing: "[Name of politician] for [name of state or country]"? I was thinking about this when looking at the banner at the top of Ron Silliman's blog entry yesterday: not "Pennacchio for U.S. Senate," for instance, but "Pennacchio for Pennsylvania." (I imagine in this case Pennacchio is taking advantage of the fact that "Penn" is part of his name.)

The first time I remember seeing this locution was "Dean for America," and I remember thinking it was really weird at the time. (Actually, living in Hyde Park, I still see those words looking at me from every other bumper.) Was Howard Dean running for the position of "America"? Was there an implied ellipsis: "Howard Dean [is best] for America"? Or was Dean "for" America in the same way that you might be "for" the Cubs or the White Sox?

After that, though, it seemed like everyone was adopting the "for..." Barack Obama's website, if I recall, was Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's campaign site is called, um, "Rod for Illinois."

So is this a new phenomenon? I don't remember "Dukakis for America" or "Arnold for California" or anything of that ilk. And is it a largely Democratic phenomenon? A random troll of political sites doesn't turn up any Republicans using this formula.

A note on the actual content of Ron's post: What Ron calls the ideological incoherence of Democratic tickets this year seems, perversely, to be an effect of a national campaign effort that is more centralized than any time in recent memory, with the national party deciding well in advance of primary season who can win--based almost entirely on biography and name recognition rather than on ideology--and then sinking huge resources into getting that person on the ballot in the general election. The best example around here is "Fighting Dem" Tammy Duckworth, an Asian American officer who lost both legs in Iraq and who (with a lot of national funding) edged out a more established (and possibly more progressive) local candidate who had come with striking distance of victory two years before in a heavily Republican district. National concerns (the desire to reclaim credibility on Iraq and the military) and Duckworth's compelling story clearly trumped the grassroots here.

This isn't to say that Duckworth isn't a great candidate, and she has a good shot at winning a seat formerly held by Rep. Henry Hyde--in another parallel, Hyde has long been the House version of Santorum in the vehemence of his opposition to abortion (most prominently through the infamous Hyde Amendment, which prohibits Medicaid from funding abortions). But it's hard to say what the ultimate result of this centralizing strategy will be: we're watching a large, diverse, decentralized party that loses trying to make itself more like the small, disciplined, centralized party that wins.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Greetings, with Shameless Plug

Hello all. I'm rather amazed to report that the U of T's spring term is over, which might mean--could it be?--occasional reappearances in blogland by me over the next few months.

If you're wondering what I've been up to, you might check out the new issue of Chicago Review, which in addition to much fine work by and on Canadian poet Lisa Robertson, contains my rather lengthy and belated review of Victoria Chang's anthology Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. (Please note that the belatedness is entirely my fault, not CR's.)

And in more belated news, thanks to wood s lot for the notice of "The Badger," widely interpreted as a chronicle of my struggle with Canadian identity, but really an ode (thanks Cassie) to this.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Glencoe's Favorite Son

Why this should stir me out of my shell, I don't know. But so I get this email announcement:
Poetry Foundation Presents
Archibald MacLeish’s JB
A Staged Reading Produced by Bernard Sahlins

CHICAGO —The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, is pleased to announce a staged reading of Archibald MacLeish’s JB produced by Bernard Sahlins. This is the fourth production in the Foundation’s Poetry on Stage series and runs from March 4-5.

What: Archibald MacLeish’s JB: A Staged Reading
When: Saturday, March 4, 3:00pm & 7:30pm; Sunday, March 5, 3:00pm
Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street, Chicago
Tickets: $20.00 adults; $15.00 students & seniors.
For reservations, call Steppenwolf Audience Services. Phone: (312) 335-1650.

JB ambitiously retells the Book of Job, transporting it to a modern circus setting. It renews God’s wager with the Devil, raising the still urgent questions of why a righteous man should suffer and how a God that is good can abide evil.

“We are pleased and excited by the enthusiastic response to the Poetry on Stage series,” said Stephen Young, Program Director of The Poetry Foundation. “These lively productions have helped further the Foundation’s goal to bring the best poetry before an ever-wider audience.”

JB won MacLeish his third Pulitzer Prize when it was staged on Broadway in 1958. MacLeish, a son of Glencoe, Illinois, managed to leverage his versatile talents as a writer into multiple careers: in law, teaching, publishing, diplomacy, and public service as Librarian of Congress. This production stars Poetry on Stage veterans Nicholas Rudall, Greg Vinkler, and Scott Jaeck. Richard Christiansen, former Chief Theater Critic for the Chicago Tribune, will lead audience discussions following the performances.
Well, thank goodness those Poetry Magazine folks are leading the long-overdue MacLeish revival. But a few quibbles about that biography: "a son of Glencoe, Illinois"? Oh dear. If anyone ever leads a biography of me with "a son of Wilmette, Illinois," at least tell them I was born in Evanston, so there's some hope of salvaging my street cred.

And he "managed to leverage his versatile talents..." Ugh. Forget the MFA; I think the poetry degree of the future is the MBA. Leverage those talents! Stage hostile takeovers of Ploughshares!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Hats Off

Wherever We Put Our Hats # 3 docks this week.

Dana Ward
Clayton A. Couch
Heather Brinkman
Rodrigo Toscano
Valzhyna Mort
Matt Turner
Kristin Prevallet
Anne Boyer

4, 5, or trade

Friday, January 06, 2006

Contemporary Poetry: Write That Syllabus!

Look out world: next year they're letting me teach contemporary poetry. Here's your chance to write my syllabus.

Okay, more precisely: The course is called "Contemporary Poetry in English," which would seem to include writing from any country except Canada--not that Canadians don't speak English, but that there is already a separate full-year course on modern Canadian poetry. It's a one-semester (13-week) course, so figure at most one short collection of poetry per week.

"Contemporary" I would usually interpret to be post-1945, but most of the "modern" courses here run to 1960, so perhaps we should think post-1960; in any case, it seems likely that I'll emphasize much more recent writing. Given my own interests, it also seems likely that I'll focus on American poetry.

I've got plenty of ideas of my own. But I'm interested in hearing suggestions, either just of what you all think would be important or that you've taught before. Also, has anyone ever found a contemporary poetry anthology that would work for a course like this? All the ones I can think of have various drawbacks, but let me know what you think.

From the Reader's Guide

Americans are often criticized for being ignorant and indifferent to cultures that exist beyond their own. To what extent do you believe this is true?

Where does the tension in this story lie? Did you guess the outcome?

Have you ever witnessed or participated in this kind of aggression against a group of people in your community? What was the outcome?

Do you think she has learned from her mistakes, or is she becoming mixed up in her own?

In what ways do the characters in these stories reject Western ideas and culture? In what ways do they buy into the American ideal?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

APIA Blogs

New link: the APIA Blog Network, which collects feeds from a range of Asian American blogs.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Happy New Year, all. Seems the holidays aren't really so good for blogging: even less likely than usual that I'll be sitting in front of my computer for more than 15 minutes at a time.

The first week of term is perhaps not the best time to go into the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, whose basement warren is claustrophobic enough on a slow day; I kept getting poked by elbows and handbags. Still, I managed to do plenty of damage: the big offender being Ted Berrigan's Collected Poems, which I've been eyeing for weeks in two countries. You know you're at a good bookstore when the woman at the register (despite the crowd) says how much she loves Berrigan and that she'd given the book as a gift to an old teacher of hers.

I feel more or less professionally obligated to at least glance at any new book by an Asian American writer. The Seminary Co-op is remarkably cooperative (ha) in this respect; the new-fiction shelves surrounding the main table (always groaning with the latest scholarly hardcovers) always have a remarkably good selection of Asian American writing. I took a pass on Gish Jen's new novel--a line on the first page, something like "My Asian--or, should I say, Asian American--children..." struck me as a little too knowing--but did pick up Aimee Phan's story collection We Should Never Meet; the day before I'd gotten another collection, Sightseeing, by Thai American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap.

I also picked up Tibetan American poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa's second (!) book, In the Absent Everday. I haven't had a chance to read through it yet, but I think this is probably the first time I've seen a blurb on a book that's taken straight from a blog: it's from Ron Silliman, of course.