Saturday, November 19, 2011

Timothy Yu's "Race and the Avant-Garde"

In this work of criticism, Tim Yu brings together two groups of poets not usually considered together, the Language poets and the Asian American poets. The first is usually thought of along aesthetics lines whereas the second is usually described as a social category. By thinking of the avant-garde as life praxis, Yu illuminates the common origins of both Language and Asian American poetries in the New Left politics of the 1970s.

Faced with the splintering of the Left into what they saw as identity politics, the Language poets, mostly straight white men, had to confront the ethnicization of their own subject positions. Their Beat precursor Allen Ginsberg in writing his auto poesy provides a clear example of how not to be mix poetry and politics in the 1970s, as Chapter One discusses. Chapter Two examines Ron Silliman's attempt, both in his correspondence with other Language poets and in his book Ketjak, to acknowledge his ethnicized position and still maintain his centrality.

Discussed in Chapter Three, the project to create an Asian American identity was supported by a great deal of poetry writing appearing in new Asian American publications such as Gidra, Aion and Bridge. Poets such as Janice Mirikitani, Lawson Fusao Inada and Naohiko Oka were forging a poetry that would distinguish itself from being Asian and being White American. They borrowed inspiration and poetic strategies from the Black Arts movement, but were also embarrassed by their borrowings.

Chapter Four looks at the two opposite ways of reading Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's book Dictée, published in 1982, and canonized in Asian American studies by the mid-1990s. One way reads Dictée as an experimental poetry of form, a reading that has sometimes emphasized Cha's foreignness. Another way is to read the book as an "ethnic" writing of pure content. Yu argues that Dictée shows both ways of reading to be inadequate: it stages, instead, the clash between these strategies of interpretation.

John Yau is held up in Chapter Five as a poet who is both experimental and Asian American. In de-essentializing the Asian American identity through formal innovations, Yau continues the tradition of experimental Asian American writing started in the 1960s and 70s. The tradition has been obscured by the rise of introspective lyrical poetry written by poets such David Mura and Li-Young Lee in the 1980s. One of the achievements of Yu's book, then, is the restoration of the link between early and contemporary experimental Asian American poetry. Yu writes, "Like those early avant-gardists, Yau takes Asian American identity not as a given but as a product of the poem's own formal strategies--an identity that is thus provisional, shifting from poem to poem and even from line to line."

This description of Yau's project strikes a chord with me. I have said elsewhere that I don't consider myself Asian American, having neither the history nor the papers. After reading Yu's book, however, I now see that my own ontological project bears great similarity to that of Asian American poetry. If not (yet) a signed-up member of the Asian American community, I am certainly an ally. Yu's book is an absorbing read. The analysis of individual poems is deft. The prose is clear and jargon-free.

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