Two poets and a critic discuss the current state of Asian American poetry

November 5, 2011

Our experts with lines from their own poems. Artwork by Julia Kuo.


By Abigail Licad and Cathlin Goulding

We have to confess: We at Hyphen like to nerd about poetry. We fancy a good sestina, rave over a well-crafted villanelle and swoon at extended metaphors. But with so many poetry-phobes who claim to just not “get” poems, we decided it was high time to devote some much-deserved attention to poetry.

Contemporary Asian American poetry has greatly evolved since the 1960s and ’70s, when the first groundbreaking anthologies of Asian American literature were published, such as Frank Chin’s Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, which brought about heightened cultural and political awareness. Asian American poetry came into more prominent view in the 1980s and ’90s as a result of award-winning publications by poets such as Cathy Song, Garrett Hongo and Li-Young Lee. Song’s momentous success in particular, as the first Asian American to win the prestigious Yale Younger Series of Poets award in 1982, presented the possibility for more Asian American poets to gain wider recognition. While Asian American poets today have yet to achieve the same popularity enjoyed by white mainstream poets like Billy Collins, they have produced a remarkable body of work that continues to proliferate and expand in theme, style and format.

Three experts aided our investigation into the current state of Asian American poetry. Nick Carbó is a Filipino American poet who has written three poetry collections and edited numerous anthologies on Filipino American literature, including Returning a Borrowed Tongue: An Anthology of Filipino and Filipino American Poetry. Victoria Chang is the author of two books of poetry and edited Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. Timothy Yu is a professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who authored Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965. Here is an edited version of our conversation: 

As a poet, who is your ideal audience?

Nick Carbó: I want my audience to be white high school students from Alaska, college students from Colorado, housewives from Florida -- a wide range of readers.

Victoria Chang: The most pressing issue for Asian American poets is just getting an audience, period. We have such a small audience in poetry, and then as an Asian American poet and an experimental avant-garde poet, you’re like a subsect of a subsect of a subsect, and it’s difficult for anyone to read your work. That’s the big question: Who is our audience? For each of us, it’s probably different. More poets are trying to get into the mainstream and win the main awards, which is almost impossible for Asian American poets to do.

Is mainstream the ideal direction to go?

VC: Definitely not. But what are you doing if nobody’s reading your work?

Timothy Yu: No group has a large audience for poetry. Even if you win the Pulitzer Prize, your book’s not going to be a best-seller. Ken Chen just won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, which is fantastic. But does it mean that the next day Ken Chen was famous? No, it meant that a few more people will buy Ken’s book and there’ll be more exposure, but ultimately we’re talking about a relatively small degree of audience. But on the other hand, Billy Collins was here at the University of Wisconsin last week. There were 1,500 people in the audience at his reading.

VC: It’s a fine balance. At what point are you trying to reach an audience that at the end of the day, you don’t really want to reach? I would never want to see Asian American poetry reach Billy Collins’ level of acceptance, because at that point, you’re reaching a different population and that’s a different kind of art. That’s more commercialism and it becomes about selling books. If you sell a ticket to a poetry reading and it’s not for charity, that’s not poetry anymore.

The general American public considers poetry rather inaccessible, but given the use of poetry as a political tool in the ’60s and ’70s, do Asian Americans have a better relationship with the medium?  

TY: In terms of the core issues around Asian American identity — what Asian American voices are going to sound like — poetry treats that as directly as anything. But, do I feel like Asian American readers are more open to poetry than other readers because of that? I don’t know.

NC: We also have to realize that Asian American poetry is being read worldwide, even in places like Italy. A lot of people in international writers conferences have asked me questions. The rest of the world is looking at Asian American poetry, but the American audience just seems to be not there.

Historically, poetry has been largely neglected by Asian American studies scholars, who have tended to focus more on novels and biographies. Do you see any improvement today? 

TY: The fact that it’s only within the past five years that the first books on Asian American poetry have come out — that’s just crazy, right? Asian American poetry has been around for 40 years and longer. I do think it’s changing in two ways. One, I see many more young scholars who are really interested in Asian American poetry and writing about it. But, there are also a lot of young, interesting Asian American poets working in all different styles, and that cohort only seems to be growing. So I’m very optimistic about where Asian American poetry is going. Certainly, the community around it has really grown.

VC: It heartens me to hear that there are younger scholars interested in writing. We need more Asian Americans writing critically about other Asian American poets, we need more book reviews and we need more Tim Yus. Once I look around and see 10 Tim Yus, that’s when I know that at least we have the conversation.

TY: Ten Tim Yus is a scary thought.

VC: I am a little fearful of academia because I don’t work in academia. All of my friends do, though. That’s an argument that has been going on for who knows how long: Should poetry be in the ivory tower or should it be out with the people? It’d be nice if there were more Asian American poets writing outside of academia, but that’s pretty much nonexistent.

Tim, you mention in your book that the poet Cathy Song gained popularity in part because her work was based in personal narrative rather than politics. It seems Ken Chen’s writing also emerges from a personal space rather than being overtly political. Is that still progress?

VC: He reinvents narrative. I’m always interested in poets that take traditional things like narrative and blow it out of the water and create these new ways of approaching really conventional ways of writing or conventional topics.

TY: If you read the introduction to The Open Boat, one of the more recent anthologies to focus exclusively on Asian American poetry, Garrett K. Hongo argues that the most important thing for poets of his generation was to turn away from that explicitly political rhetoric towards something that was different, more lyrical, more expressive. He thought that the other road had become oppressive. Obviously that’s not where we are anymore. We’ve had two decades of Li-Young Lee and Marilyn Chin and these writers who really risk prominence writing about their own personal experience. So there is a political reading of Ken Chen’s work. It’s clearly not a political creed, but do I think that there’s no political content? No.

Has Asian American poetry developed outside academia, for example, in Kearny Street Workshop or the Asian American Writers’ Workshop? What about renegade venues?

TY: It’s so crucial for those places to exist. Asian American poetry as we know it now comes out of this activist tradition, which also built those spaces. We have to remember that writers in the ’70s really did believe that doing things like publishing magazines and having writers workshops in the community were direct forms of political action. We’re in a different era now. I’m teaching an Asian American poetry class right now and the University of Wisconsin also has this really big presence of spoken word. But spoken word did not come out of the academy. And if you want to ask where has that kind of political impulse gone, where has the attempt to engage the community gone — it’s happening in a lot of spoken word venues.

Who are poets whose work you find particularly exciting?

TY: Barbara Jane Reyes. Poeta en San Francisco is such a great book. She’s somebody who’s thinking about what it means to live in an urban space as an Asian American woman and being inventive with language, experimenting with moving back and forth between English and other languages. Cathy Park Hong is somebody that I’ve been teaching recently. Dance Dance Revolution is just such a crazy interesting book, with this invented language.

VC: I’m always troubled by this question, “What Asian American poets are you interested in?” I’m not sure if you want me to pick poets that you can identify as being more Asian American poets because they’re covering these more politicized topics. A writer like Jennifer Chang, for example, doesn’t really fall into any of those categories. She’s very mainstream actually. (Laughs) But I love her writing and she just happens to be Asian American. When I was putting together an anthology, I struggled with whether there should even be an anthology at all for Asian American poetry. Because what is Asian American poetry?

Why does it seem difficult to define “Asian American poetry”?

VC: It’s probably my own feelings regarding what we want to do as Asian American poets. Are we trying to blend in and become mainstream? Or go outside of the mainstream and be more politicized? I struggle with all of those issues of how do we move forward, and where do we fit into? Part of me wishes we didn’t have as many schisms, that we didn’t work in so many separate pots. I wish it were more unified.

TY: I totally sympathize with people who would like it to feel more unified, for Asian American poets to be all on the same page. On the other hand, there’s something exciting about the fact that there’s such a range in practice. Asian American poetry has become this very capacious category that I’m totally comfortable with.

You use “capacious” to describe Asian American poetry: Are there any topics or trends now that didn’t exist when you first published your books?

VC: I think of Asian American poetry as this, I hate to say, stock chart. I can’t help it, I have an MBA! It kind of moves up and then down — not down in a sad way, but we’re always pulling from the past. Even among the more experimental writers there’s a holding onto the past and looking to what tradition they’re comfortable pulling from. I think we do, as a population, have this great sense of the past, and yet this great desire to push forward.

TY: A lot of the younger writers continue that tradition of a certain kind of political engagement, whether critiques of race or imperialism or American nationalism. But there’s also this heightened awareness of digging into language, speaking about how language works, and exploring it, and seeing how language is one of those ways in which political critique can get done. I do see anybody from Ken Chen to Tom Lin to Barbara Jane Reyes doing these kinds of things, saying, ‘What is this language we’re speaking?’ For Asian Americans, the question of the language we write in can be very vexed.

NC: Who I find interesting is Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Her father is Indian and her mother is Filipina, and the mix of cultures is very rich, and she mines that. It’s wonderful. More mixed-race Asian American poets would be very interesting.

TY: Mixed race writers are an important area to watch. People pointed me to Ronaldo V. Wilson’s Poems of the Black Object, which is an interesting book. He’s part African American and also Filipino. But Amy’s work is great, too, because it’s got this great humor. She’s a really funny, intimate writer. I see a lot of younger poets not being afraid to write poems that take on humor or who are willing to take everyday experiences and see what’s funny or silly in them.

VC: Asian American poets have in the past focused more on story and narrative. What I would like to see is a more specific focus on language and each particular word and the sound, music and musicality of poetry. As an Asian American writer, you get caught up in politics and the mission, something really spurring you to write — sometimes you get lost in that.

Do you see any expectations from publishers of what "Asian American poetry" should be like?

VC: People expect you to write about conventional "Asian American" or "Asian" subjects, especially if you have written on such topics in the past. In fact, often during readings, people talk about my ethnic heritage more than my poems. Once during a photo shoot, the photographer asked me if I had a "Mao outfit." I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

What do you think poetry can uniquely offer that other mediums can't?

VC: Poetry is really unique because it focuses on the word, the phrase, the sentence. Each word has to mean so much. Punctuation and turns can also have a large impact. I think of Emily Dickinson's quote about poetry taking one's head off. I like to think about poetry as going into the depths of your heart, into those little veins and arteries and swimming deep in there. I think of other genres as evoking other larger emotions too, but poetry is so poisonous, and thus so potent.

TY: I find poetry especially useful for its emphasis on form, on how things are said, not just what is being said. The question of “what does an Asian American voice sound like?” is still one of the major questions Asian American writers and readers confront. Poetry forces us to be conscious of this question. But it also gives us the freedom to experiment with different answers. Different poetic forms and styles are ways we can sound the different registers of the Asian American voice.


Wax Poetic with Our Pick of Poetry

The History of Anonymity (The University of Georgia Press) by Jennifer Chang
“[W]hat is / ruinous / is also vital” observes Chang and similarly, her poems hinge on the edges of psychological devastation and renewal. Defying straightforward narrative in favor of sprawling, associative impressions, Chang employs abundant natural imagery to explore the dark side of relationships, memory and love.

Juvenilia (Yale University Press) by Ken Chen
“The goal of love is to be unmastered,” asserts Chen in his intelligent book about relationships. His experimental poems relentlessly posit arguments about human nature in the midst of transition. Alternating between the glib and deadly serious, tragedy and comedy, Chen probes and confounds at every turn.

Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (W.W. Norton & Company) by Marilyn Chin
Drawing richly from ancient Asian references, Chin ponders identity, heritage and history through varied rhythmical and storytelling modes. By turns seething, mournful and pensive, the poems nonetheless anticipate transformation: “Someday, our pods and pupae shall turn in the earth / And burgeon into our motherlode’s bold beauty.”

Dance Dance Revolution (W.W. Norton & Company) by Cathy Park Hong
In this unforgettably imaginative collection, a fictitious former South Korean rebel-turned-tour-guide educates a historian about her post-apocalyptic city. Their intertwined stories lay bare the ravages caused by colonialism, capitalism and terrorism. Speaking in a brilliantly invented Creolized language, the guide ironically says of her horrific experiences: “betta to scrape dat fact / unda history rug, so shh…”

The Open Boat (Anchor) Edited by Garrett K. Hongo
Featuring 31 poets from Agha Shahid Ali to John Yau, Hongo’s pioneering anthology broadens and enriches perspectives of Asian American poetry beyond identity politics. “It may be that we seek a kind of serious bewilderment that clarifies experience,” Hongo suggests in his introduction, and the range of voices showcased in the collection attests to the vast possibilities in store.

Rose (BOA Editions) by Li-Young Lee
In Lee’s collection, memories of family members and their simple interactions are rendered tenderly in plain speech, yet elicit sublime feeling. “All things reveal themselves to men only / gradually,” Lee writes, and indeed his meditative poems enact how processes of remembering lead to greater understanding and acceptance of the past.

Lucky Fish (Tupelo Press) by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Nezhukumatathil’s poems are alive with concrete details, as resonant insight flows from objects as mundane as cupcakes to events as momentous as motherhood. Often celebratory and playful, the author exhorts readers to find joy in the ordinary: “There is always some cheer / worth something. Cheer for some worth, always.”

Poeta en San Francisco (TinFish Press) by Barbara Jane Reyes
“[W]hat may be so edgy about this state of emergency / is my lack of apology for what I am bound to do,” Reyes declares in her opening poem. Written in English, Spanish, Tagalog and ancient Filipino script called Baybayin, these bravely political poems alternate through various poetic forms from the confessional to urban slam in both an indictment of American imperialism and an interrogation of culture.

Picture Bride (Yale University Press) by Cathy Song
Infused with rich painterly imagery and a contemplative, quiet tone, Song’s poems tell stories about her ancestral and artistic roots. “I am not surprised / by how little the world changes” she professes, as her poems capture the timelessness of memories in their continual influence on the present.

Poems of the Black Object (Futurepoem Books) by Ronaldo V. Wilson
Grotesque, visceral, violent and erotic, Wilson’s poems take the physicality of the body as a locus from which to “[i]dentify with the fractured self, the process of the it forced apart by language.” Moving from strange lyrics to even stranger prose poems and essays, Wilson plunders the limits of language to apprehend and deconstruct race and sexuality.

Abigail Licad and Cathlin Goulding are Hyphen’s books editors.

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As a young Asian American poet and the editor of an online lit mag and blog that is dedicated to Asian American poetry -- thank you, many times over, for this. Thank you for shedding light on the work being done by contemporary Asian American poets, and thank you to Tim, Victoria, and Nick for their thoughtful commentary. To their remarks, I would add that there are many, many resources out there for those who would either like to become more deeply involved in, or who would like to find out more about what's going on in Asian American poetry. There is an amazing, thriving, welcoming community that exists--both online and in real life--amongst those who identify with the Asian American poetry "scene", largely in part to the work of landmark organizations like Kundiman. There's also a number of sharply-curated publications available that are actively interested in showing work by Asian American poets: The American Literary Review, Kartika Review, Tayo Magazine, to name a few. Both in my own writing life and in my editorial work at Lantern Review, I'm constantly amazed at the burgeoning vitality of the scene out there. "Asian American poetry" is such a slippery category (the range of voices, styles, and viewpoints that it encompasses is incredibly vast)--but I think that that same messiness is also a large part of what makes digging into and celebrating it so wonderful. At the risk of becoming redundant--thank you again. These "con-verse-ations" are not just timely, they are necessary.