Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 (Stanford University Press, 2009) by Timothy Yu
The central claim of Timothy Yu’s fascinating new book, Race and the Avant-Garde, is that Asian American poetry and Language poetry constituted two parallel avant-garde movements in the 1970s. His provocative goal is to highlight “the vexed history of division” between these two groupings rather than arguing for their “unification” (16). This approach is evident in his readings of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and John Yau—particularly in his rejection of the popular belief that both writers represent a “synthesis” of the experimental and the ethnic (122, 161). Yu’s keen distrust of the impulse toward “unification” and “synthesis” is one of the most uncompromising and thus compelling aspects of the book. Here, the recently published anthology American Hybrid, edited by Cole Swenson and David St. John (Norton, 2009)—while it is not particularly engaged with race—can provide a useful contrast in that the anthology features (in the words of Swenson) “rich writings…that hybridize core attributes of previous ‘camps’ in diverse and unprecedented ways” rather than perpetuating “[t]he notion of a fundamental division in American poetry” (American Hybrid xvii). In his conclusion, Yu is also careful to note that his study “critiques the notion of sharp divides in contemporary poetry” (162). But instead of imagining a happy synthesis or “hybrid” of Asian American and experimental poetries, Yu’s interest lies in excavating the productive tensions between these rubrics which allows for a more historically aware understanding. Hence, Yau does not “hybridize core attributes of previous ‘camps'” but rather, in Yu’s formulation, “stages the history of and conflict between…contemporary avant-garde modes” (18). The weakness of the hybrid model is that it risks normalizing challenging poetry into too easily digestible texts while smoothing over what Charles Bernstein calls (in a blurb of Yu’s book) the “lineages as well as misalignments” of those texts’ constitutive parts. To speak of “core attributes” also risks essentializing and reifying categories like “Asian American” and “experimental” which Yu is so at pains to avoid.
Yu’s approach is sociological so, following Renato Pogglioli, he understands the avant-garde not strictly in formal or aesthetic terms but rather as a “social fact” (4). The advantage of this framework is that Language poetry, a movement that appears to cohere on predominantly aesthetic grounds, can be seen as a social identity while Asian American poetry can be correspondingly understood, not strictly in terms of identity, but as a series of formal and aesthetic negotiations.
In Chapter 2, “Ron Silliman: The Ethnicization of the Avant-Garde,” Yu most convincingly links formal innovation with social position. He presents some fascinating archival research from UCSD’s Archive for New Poetry that involves correspondence between Silliman and writers like Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews and analyzes letters that demonstrate deep anxieties about the social positioning of Language writers vis-à-vis historically marginalized people. Silliman envisions Language based writers (at least the white male heterosexual ones) as constituting a marginalized group in its own right—analogous to African Americans, women, and gays. In perhaps the most eye-opening excerpt from Yu’s discoveries, Silliman writes to Peter Glassgold of New Directions regarding an anthology of Language writing, “I hope, in choosing your title, that you are aware of the comparability of the phrase ‘language poetry’ to epithets such as nigger, cunt, kike or faggot” (58). Yu reads “this ethnicization of Language writing…as an attempt to reclaim the moral authority extended to the writing of women and minorities” and quite deftly connects this “ethnicization” to Silliman’s most famous formal invention: The New Sentence (60). According to Yu, Ketjak, Silliman’s magnum opus, attempts to provide a comprehensive social map while at the same time disperses and scatters Silliman’s straight white male perspective through the trademark New Sentence techniques of recursion and parataxis. Ultimately, “Silliman’s utopian gamble, and the gamble of all Language writing, is that experimental techniques can render the Language poem both particular and universal” (70). While it is a tad risky to draw conclusions about “all Language writing”–and Yu himself recognizes this point via Marjorie Perloff’s “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject”–Yu’s close textual analysis of Ketjak and his illuminating archival research amount to a formidable argument.
Chapter 3, “Inventing a Culture: Asian American Poetry in the 1970s,” however, raises more questions for me but, as all good studies should, presents promising directions for future work. Yu does a great job of recovering little known and largely forgotten writers like Francis Naohiko Oka, Janice Mirikitani, and Alan Chong Lau that published work in Asian-American journals like Aion and Bridge and such work importantly shows what Yu calls Asian American poetry’s avant-garde roots. This is surely a welcome project since, as Yu mentions, Asian American poetry is still very much associated with the individualist lyric styles of Li-Young Lee, Cathy Song, and David Mura which came to prominence in the 1980s and were institutionlized within Garrett Hongo’s anthology The Open Boat (1993). In fact, if there is a villain of the book, the villain is the 80s, a decade in which the rise of MFA programs abetted a general mainstreaming of American poetry in which experimentalism became abstracted and dehistoricized and Asian American identity rigidified within predictable poetic forms that focused almost exclusively on family history and autobiography . As Yu demonstrates, the Asian American self as it was represented in the poetry of the 70s was more undefined and fragmented and was associated with a wider range of poetic modes, so that one couldn’t “take for granted…[which] poetic form…[was] most appropriate for Asian American content” (92). This point is well taken, but I’m still left unsure about the relation between this generation of the 70s and more recent experimentalists like John Yau, Myung Mi Kim, and Tan Lin. Yu writes,
Although it is frequently acknowledged that there are a certain number of Asian American poets who now write in recognizably ‘experimental’ styles, including John Yau, Myung Mi Kim, and Tan Lin, such writing is often regarded as a recent development in Asian American literature, a departure from the familiar Asian American literary modes…What I argue…is that from its inception in the 1970s, Asian American poetry as a whole was an avant-garde, a grouping that defined itself not just through race but through bold experiments with form and style in the search for an Asian American aesthetic. (73)
I don’t wish to challenge Yu’s quite original and provocative claim that “Asian American writing was always experimental” (163), but I would like to put pressure on what Yu terms “bold experiments with form and style.” To me, the excerpts from Chapter 3—particularly if we think of recent books like Kim’s Commons (2001) or Lin’s BlipSoak01 (2003)–seem far less bold. An example from Oka’s writing, with its ironic observation, seems to me more like the MFA-style poems of the 80s:
We spoke of politics—
in revolutionary posters
hanging as spectres
on our bedroom walls.
And the excerpt from Mirikitani’s “archetypal” “Poem to the Alien/Native” seems less a “dissent from the conventions of mainstream American poetry” (2) than a variation of the so-called Deep Image poetry that was popular in the 60s and 70s (two years after “Poem to the Alien/Native” was published, James Wright—who like Robert Bly and Galway Kinnell was associated with Deep Image poetry—won the Pulitzer Prize):
The old woman said:
“A tree sprang from the belly of stone
We bled for many days, I and the stone—
The tree darkened.
Worms choose my leaves
to spin their graves.
While I don’t wish to go so far as to say that Oka and Mirikitani are not sufficiently “experimental,” I do wish for a more variegated understanding of the term “experimental” which can account for the continuities and discontinuities between the avant-garde Asian American poetry of the 70s and the exciting Asian American poetries of the new century which, to me, experiment with poetic form with an unprecedented level of “boldness.” If as Yu claims, “the poetry of John Yau points the way to a return to, and a revision of, the idea of the Asian American avant-garde,” I would like to know exactly what this “revision” entails—but this is undoubtedly a question for another (much needed) study (138).
In Chapter 4, “Audience Distant Relative: Reading Theresa Hak Kyung Cha,” Yu takes on a truly “bold” and inimitable work of the 80s, Cha’s Dictee (1982), a pioneering example of what Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls the postmodern scrapbook poem (see her “Anne Waldman: Standing Corporeally in One’s Time.”) This chapter is a valuable resource for Cha scholars as it presents a clear synopsis of Dictee‘s reception by both white and Asian American critics, and Yu makes interesting claims regarding Asian American critics’ neglect of Dictee‘s later portions. Dictee, says Yu, “charts a kind of path from the Asian American to the experimental and (perhaps) back again,” though the qualifiers “kind of” and “perhaps,” again, raise some questions (137).
I found Chapter 5, “Mr. Moto’s Monologue: John Yau and Experimental Asian American Writing,” particularly exciting in that it implicitly highlights Yau’s dramatic imagination—we remember that Yu’s claim is that Yau’s work “stages the history of and conflict between…contemporary avant-garde modes” (emphasis added). Yu’s close reading of the dramatic monologue “Peter Lorre Improvises Mr. Moto’s Monologue” adeptly shows how, in Yau’s hands, the monstrous persona of Lorre/Moto (Lorre was a white actor who played the Japanese character Mr. Moto in the 1930s) becomes “a weapon against American mass culture” which desires a commodified simulacrum of the Asian; the poem, through its exposure and reappropriation of faux Asianness, ultimately “exposes American identity itself as a costume” (158). “[I]t is only by riding the cliches, the markers of Asian ethnicity,” says Yu, “that the monster that is Lorre/Moto can penetrate into the interior of America.” And it is no surprise that “penetrating into the interior of America” entails an engagement with Walt Whitman, that quintessential American poet. The language of “Peter Lorre Improvises”—“I’m one of those arrows. I fly again and again…You can’t disown me because you’ve never worn out my cashmere coat. I’m an engine of rebuilt fur. I’m what slips through your purified crave”—eerily echoes the fluid and elusive speaker of “Song of Myself” who claims to be “the hounded slave” and “the mash’d fireman with breast-bone broken” and who “depart[s] as air” only to reappear “under your boot-soles.”
This engagement with Whitman, identity, race, and America is further elaborated in Borrowed Love Poems (2002), a collection that is outside of Race and the Avant-Garde‘s purview (Yu’s coverage of Yau goes up to the 1996 book Forbidden Entries). Here, we find another series of dramatic monologues like “Peter Lorre Records His Favorite Walt Whitman Poem for Posterity” as well as the stunning “Movies as a Form of Reincarnation: Boris Karloff Remembers Being Chinese on More than One Occasion” (Karloff played the detective Mr. Wong, another Charlie Chan type character):
Among the pretenders, I was one of the best. So good in fact I have been confused with many of the shadows pinned against your city walls, embracing, as Walt Whitman did, the legions of castoffs, the hordes of those fate has tossed into the kegs. But Whitman could not make them walk the streets of your city as easily as I can. This is why I am still among you, a kind of peril whose color you might think you know, but are no longer so quick and willing to say. (Borrowed Love Poems 31)
As Yu claims of Yau’s earlier work, this passage questions our conception of what Asian American poetry and identity should look like and Yau’s rich and challenging poetry makes us “no longer so quick and willing to say.” I find particularly compelling the way Yau obliquely layers within this critique of yellowfacing historical allusions to both the xenophobic Yellow Peril campaigns (“a kind of peril whose color you might think you know”) and the Chinese Exclusion Act which detained immigrants at Angel Island (“the shadows pinned against your city walls”; “the legions of castoffs.”) This is a powerful poem that surprisingly redeploys the rhetoric of Whitman, who is so widely seen as the all-embracing, inclusive poet, to confront histories of social exclusion.
In a curious review of Yu’s book, Susan Schultz, editor of Tinfish, calls Yu “most at home” with “the parodic postmodern work” of John Yau “even if that home is like Ashbery’s houseboat… at the whim of the literary and social winds and waters that surround it.” While I do agree that some of Yu’s strongest analytical work occurs in Chapter 5, I think Schultz’s review shortchanges the significant contributions that Yau has made to contemporary American poetry. To call Yau merely a parodist (who is at the whim of his literary and social milieu) is to overlook how his poems act as critical interventions that keenly situate themselves within historically specific contexts. A case in point is “Borrowed Love Poems” which represents a tremendous example of one of Yau’s non-parodic modes. Here is the tenth and final section:
Now that the seven wonders of the night
have been stolen by history
Now that the sky is lost and the stars
have slipped into a book
Now that the moon is boiling
like the blood where it swims
Now that there are no blossoms left
to glue to the sky
What can I do,
I who never invented anything
And who dreamed of you so much
I was amazed to discover
the claw marks of those
who preceded us across this burning floor
(Borrowed Love Poems 131)
Yau’s comments in the “Contributors’ Notes” of Best American Poetry 2000 are particularly enriching:
The borrowings, which recur throughout, are from Osip Mandelstam and Robert Desnos. Their lines generated the individual poems in the sequence, but not the unfolding—that seems linked to a life lived in time. Whose life? Anyone who has been in love, I would like to think. One reason to write a sequence of lyric poems on the subject of love in the late 1990s is that it seemed to be something that couldn’t or shouldn’t be done. As my father was half English and half Chinese, born at a time when miscegenation laws were in effect in many parts of the world, doing something that shouldn’t or couldn’t be done was an act of necessity–like the word ‘love’ (Best American 256).
These supplementary comments show, once again, the avant-garde impulse to address both the universal (“anyone who has been in love”) as well as the particular (“a time when miscegenation laws were in effect.”) They also support Yu’s point that we should historicize poetic experimentation: that in the late 90s, writing a love poem of this ambition can be seen as an experimental act. One might compare this utterly expansive poem that folds within it both literary and personal history—I read the “claw marks” on the “burning floor” as an homage to the struggles of Yau’s literary and biological ancestors—with Li-Young Lee’s “This Room and Everything in It” (a more conventional love poem which Yu reads in Chapter 5) which in its claustrophobic lyricism “becomes a moving admission of the failure of poetry and poetic form” (146).
My main issue with Race and the Avant-Garde is with Chapter 1, “Auto Poesy: Allen Ginsberg and the Politics of Poetry,” which Yu uses to address the political ramifications of avant-garde writing. In opposition to “Howl” which carefully balances the universal and the particular, the later “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” according to Yu, is a poem in which “Ginsberg is, finally, unwilling to give up the authority offered by the existing language of power” and “must retain…[his] allegiance to the language spoken by those institutions if…[he] wishes to speak back to them” (36). To my mind, this makes “Wichita Vortex Sutra” seem less interesting than it actually is and ignores the alternate languages and modes of communication that Ginsberg actually suggests; he mentions an “ecstatic language” which is in contradistinction to the corrupted language of politicians, and, earlier in the poem, Ginsberg suggestively asks, “What if I sang, and loosed the chords of fear brow? / What exquisite noise wd / shiver my car companions?” (The Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg 405, 397) I wonder if this “exquisite noise” might be productively discussed with what Silliman calls in “The Chinese Notebook” “an unalienated language” (40)?
But this is a minor point and I don’t want to minimize Yu’s informative and thought-provoking research. Race and the Avant-Garde is a lucidly written study and should be required reading for anyone interested in contemporary poetry.