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.