Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How Not To Be Inclusive

Drunken Boat celebrates its 10th anniversary by publishing ten folios of work, ranging from electronic arts to tribal people. Four of my poems appear in the folio, Arts in Asia. The folio presents a corollary to the anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond, edited by Ravi Shankar, Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal. So electronic folio and printed book combine to form a kind of hybrid monster.

In his introduction to the folio, Shankar explains that the editors do not intend the book-folio to be "canonical the way cages are," but "open-ending, a pointing outwards rather than a closing down." His key words are inclusiveness and capaciousness. However, I think the choice of media is somewhat at odds with editorial intentions. A book, no matter how big, cannot be all-inclusive, and so it dictates a selection, and therefore a principle of selection. I have not read the anthology, but the folio's introduction does not give a principle of selection. On the other hand, an electronic folio is conceivably all-inclusive--and certainly more accessible than a book--but, having that technological capacity, why publish a book, with its material exclusiveness?

The fact of the matter is, as I see it, all-inclusiveness is an editorial chimera. You can include all Asian and Middle Eastern poets in a huge database, but few would want to read an indiscriminate hodgepodge collection of writings. Poets need to be evaluated, and to be contextualized, so that their selection means something more than a contribution to inclusiveness. The poets in the Arts in Asia folio, however, are arranged according to alphabetical order. This appears to me like an abdication of editorial duty. One may argue that such an arbitrary order facilitates encountering each poet on his own terms. But we never encounter a poet purely on his own terms. Not only does he write in a context, the reader brings with him his reading context as well. These contexts constitute the "thick" meaning of the poets, who otherwise, arranged arbitrarily, look rather "thin."

Perhaps the anthology provides such contexts, such explanations for the choice of poets. I don't know. The folio's introduction is dominated by the rhetoric of inclusiveness. This rhetoric reflects the American perspective of the anthology's editors. I call the imperative American because I suspect it does not have the same force or place in the poetries of Asia and the Middle East. The countries that most nearly embrace that aesthetic/editorial ideal are also the ones most influenced by the USA. For instance, Singapore (I am thinking here of the recent Singapore-Australia anthology Over There). I am of course implicated by my desire to be published in an American, that is, prestigious, journal. My desire is an indication of the reach of American cultural influence, represented materially by the book and folio, and geographically by the huge number of countries covered.

By appearing to criticize the editors, I may seem to be biting the hands that feed me. I am not. I think it is vital to think through what inclusiveness means, what it encompasses and excludes, and what are the difficulties of trying to understand the Other.

1 comment:

Gregory Lewis Bynum said...

That makes sense. Your criticism is interesting, and I don't think you appear to be biting the hand that feeds you. (Your annoyance at this book's representation of inclusion reminds me of my annoyance at the title of the PBS radio news show, "All Things Considered," which I find arrogant and offensive.)