Making the Case for Asian American Poetry
One evening, after my course on Asian North American literature, I struck up a conversation with two students. One of them asked what else I was teaching that term, and I responded that I was teaching contemporary poetry. This produced quite a divergent response:
"I would never take that class."
"I would love to take that class!"
"No way. I hate poetry."
"What's wrong with poetry?"
"I don't know. It doesn't interest me. It's just too difficult. I feel like I can't get a handle on it. It's harder to get what you need out of it."
"Really? I think it's easier. There's so many things you can talk about—tone, structure, imagery, style...What, are you interested in plot?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
Teachers of poetry will no doubt find this argument familiar. In Asian American literature, however, the student who dismissed poetry enjoys the backing of professional Asian American literary critics. Like my poetry-loathing student, Asian American critics have found it far easier to "get what they need"—autobiographical narratives of immigration, assimilation, and identity formation—from novels and memoirs, leaving poetry almost entirely out of the Asian American canon.
So the question of how to teach Asian American poetry is bound up with the question of how to make a case for poetry within the field of Asian American literary studies. It turns out this isn't so hard to do. Any classroom account of how we came to be studying Asian American literature has to begin with an understanding of the Asian American movement of the 1970s, which helped establish Asian American studies as an academic discipline. The central genre of this period was not prose, but poetry. Early Asian American journals such as Gidra and Bridge included regular poetry features; the first Asian American literary magazine, Aion, was founded by two poets; and anthologies such as Roots: An Asian American Reader included generous selections of poetry—and no fiction.
I find that there's no more engaging way to outline a history of the Asian American movement than to track its development through poetry. Lawson Fusao Inada's 1971 volume Before the War was the first major book of poetry published by a Japanese American writer. Inada's jazz-influenced rhythms show the influence of African American culture on Asian Americans at this crucial moment. But a poem like Inada's "Plucking out a Rhythm" also displays the anxiety attendant upon this influence. The poem unfolds in distinct stages that "build" a Japanese American figure from the ground up, then "disguise" him in the "turned-up shoes of Harlem,"1 foregrounding the question of whether the jazz aesthetic can be a "natural" fit for the Asian American writer.
The work of Janice Mirikitani illustrates Asian American writing's deepening engagement with politics. Mirikitani's "Looking for America" lays out—more forcefully than any lecture—a catalog of the racist stereotypes that confront the Asian American. Mirikitani's directness is a jolt to students, and her framing of these issues through a poetic speaker opens up the question of how stereotypes shape the individual Asian American consciousness.
Students often respond more readily to these writers, whose rough surfaces show Asian American identity visibly under construction, than to more polished exemplars like David Mura or Li-Young Lee. There is an unfinished and even—dare I say it?—amateur quality to such works that in no way detracts from their power but that may grant access to students ordinarily intimidated by the impermeable surfaces of more professionalized work.
I'm certainly not suggesting that the poetry that works best in the classroom is that which is easiest. I have also seen students respond enthusiastically to work that is usually characterized as experimental or difficult. Students often name as their favorite texts not canonical novels but poetic and hybrid works like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictée and Fred Wah's Diamond Grill. These texts engage with the autobiographical strain that has dominated Asian American and Asian Canadian writing, but they also depart radically from conventional narrative treatments of these topics. Dictée's mix of narrative, poetry, and images destabilizes historical and biographical narratives in favor of a concentration on the workings of language, and Wah's reminiscences are rendered as discrete prose poems that force readers to draw their own linguistic and thematic connections between them.
Why are texts like Dictée and Diamond Grill pedagogically successful? A work like Diamond Grill is, as Wah wryly puts it, "apparently, prose,"2 allowing poetry-phobic students to lower their defenses long enough to give the text a chance. But I think students are also responding to the inventiveness and excitement of these texts, which take nothing for granted in their exploring and expanding of the very ground of Asian North American experience.
The bottom line, then, is that we should not shy away from giving poetry a central place in the Asian American literature classroom—and, indeed, that we should not shy away from giving Asian American poetry a central place in the way we teach literature more generally. Rather than adopting a defensive position in which we read a few token poems that do the same kind of narrative work that stories and novels do, we should expose students to the most exciting and exploratory work. Hybrid texts like Dictée and Diamond Grill may turn out to be even better candidates for inclusion in American and Canadian literature courses than usual suspects like The Woman Warrior and Obasan; the work of writers like Cha and Wah challenges any impulse toward tokenism through its poetic, critical approach to the terms under which ethnic stories are told. Finally, as it turns out, the students just plain like these texts. One student recently scolded me for dropping Dictée from my syllabus in favor of a novel. And the two poetry-hating and poetry-loving students whose argument sparked my thinking here will soon be reading Diamond Grill as part of our course. We'll see if it's a text they can agree on.
1. Lawson Fusao Inada. & quot;Plucking out a Rhythm." Before the War: Poems as They Happened. New York: Morrow, 1971. 13.
2. Fred Wah. Diamond Grill. Edmonton: NeWest, 2006. 177.
Reprinted from Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, by permission of the University of Iowa Press. Copyright ©2010 by Timothy Yu.