Saturday, April 26, 2008

Review of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond

Over the past year, I have eagerly anticipated the publication of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar, W.W. Norton, 2008, 734 pp.). Sometimes when you eagerly anticipate the delivery of a new book on the virtual doorstep of your local transnational online bookseller, the work itself does not meet your lofty expectations, but I am happy to say that I am delighted with Language for a New Century, which is a triumph on so many levels.

I think that the anthology greatly benefits from Carolyn Forche's foreword, Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar's preface, and each of Tina Chang's, Nathalie Handal's, and Ravi Shankar's short personal essays before each section, which are elegantly written and effectively contextualize the geographical, linguistic, national, and thematic terrain of the poetry. The preface thoroughly outlines the selection criteria for poems in the anthology: 1) a broad definition of "the East", 2) representation of a broad selection of countries and nationalities, 3) the definition of "contemporary poetry" as post-1946, 4) a broad representation of various schools/styles of poetry, 5) a balance of emerging and established poets from different generations, 6) the selection of many different aesthetic sensibilities, 7) the publication of at least one book, with limited exceptions, and 8) the inclusion of translations. In the preface, the editors also explain the organization of the poems into nine major thematic sections -- characterized by Forche in her excellent foreword as "childhood, selfhood, experimentation, oppression, mystery, war, homeland and exile, spiritual life, love and sexuality, from Afghanistan to Yemen" (p. xxxi). Elegant touches like the inclusion of a country index and language list, along with more traditional features like author, translator, and editor biographies, permissions acknowledgments, and a general index (along with an explanation of the rationale behind the inclusion of a country index) further exemplify the wonderful editing. In short, I think that the editors have organized the anthology clearly, intelligently, and thougtfully.

Yet while clear, intelligent, and thoughtful, the anthology is also bold, ambitious, and makes major claims about the natures and meanings of Asian and Asian-American poetry. A reader should not simply dismiss the book as a coffee-table anthology. Each of the eight criteria for inclusion noted above, though I tend to agree with all of them, raises such difficult questions as, 1) why does the "East" not include more of Europe or Africa?, 2) what about Caucasian or African-American poets who were raised in Asia or have lived in Asia for a long time, who write about Asia extensively in their poetry, or who have written poems in such forms as haiku, ghazals, or pantoums?, 3) does the inclusion of poets from so many different nationalities necessarily exclude certain poets from "overrepresented" nationalities (like Indian and Chinese poets) from having a poem appear in the anthology? I think that the editors correctly do not raise such questions in the preface, as it would have probably lengthened and disrupted the flow of the preface, but I think that such questions are worth considering in a careful reading of the anthology.

Perhaps all of these questions point to, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and provocative elements of the anthology, which is the "effort to include as many crucial voices as possible" and to do so by "cho[osing] one poem per poet" (xxxvii). I think that the editors do successfully accomplish the important goal of including as many poets as possible, though at times, that causes the anthology to have the effect of feeling like The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics in the sense that the inclusion of just one poem -- as opposed to several poems per poet, as was done in The Open Boat (ed. Garrett Hongo) and Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation (ed. Victoria Chang) anthologies -- may limit our understanding and appreciation of the work of any particular poet. But I feel for the editors here, as the inclusion of more than one poem from a given poet would probably have led either to a volume of an unmanageable size or to the exclusion of certain poets from the anthology. I think that the editors made a justfiable decision in limiting the number of poems per poet, but it must not have been easy. One almost wants this anthology, as in the tradition of the first Star Wars trilogy, to have a volume II and volume III. At any rate, just as The New Princeton Encyclopedia remains a comprehensive and necessary work for any poet or student of poetry, at least partly by virtue of its thoroughness, so does Language for a New Century.

As far as the poems themselves go, I would make the highly subjective and throughly unjustifiable claim that they generally are quite terrific. This claim is "highly subjective and thoroughly unjustifiable," because there are just so many poets and poems! There are over 400 poems in the anthology, and I think that any generalization of the poems as a whole would be an overgeneralization. But I have already greatly enjoyed reading many of the poems and will probably be discussing at least a few of them on this blog. I would add that I think that the fact that there were three different editors with different tastes really strengthens this anthology by allowing for an even more diverse array of poetic styles and sensibilities. Language for a New Century possesses the beauty of a freshly assembled five-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle.

So, in short, I highly recommend Language for a New Century, which I think is an essential work for anyone, and not just anyone interested in Asian-American poetry, to have on their bookshelves.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Brief Thoughts on Premonitions: the Kaya anthology of new Asian North American poetry

On his blog, Glenn Ingersoll recently made a few nice posts on various poems in Premonitions: the Kaya anthology of new Asian North American poetry (1995), edited by Walter Lew. Premonitions is one of the most ambitious Asian-American poetry anthologies out there and a landmark collection in Asian and Asian-American poetry.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Price of Language for a New Century

I have to give props to W.W. Norton & Company for pricing the 734-page anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond, at the very reasonable price of $27.95. In fact, Amazon is currently selling the book for $18.95. I feel that Norton made a smart decision in publishing the anthology as a paperback, and I think that the relatively inexpensive price of the anthology will encourage more people to buy it.

Even though I imagine (just as I imagine that the grass is green) that not every publisher has the financial resources of a W.W. Norton, it always irks me a little when a publisher does something like price a fifty-page chapbook for $39.95 or a hardcover anthology for $79.95. There is a legitimate argument that the "free market" can dictate the pricing of books, but I think that it's better not to price out potential readers (e.g., college students with tens of thousands of dollars of student loans) by overpricing a book of poems in the first place.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

It Is a Real Gift to Love

After close to a twelve month hiatus from my blog, I am back! In my absence, here is a lesson that I have learned: it is a real gift to love. To love Asian-American poetry, any kind of poetry, or any kind of art is a blessing. It is to feel that indefinable joy that most of us crave but can experience only fleetingly. Some of us try to grasp at this je-ne-sais-quoi by resorting to the deification of consumer goods, theme park vacations, or cliches like cigarettes or alcohol. But, at least in my humble estimation, these temporal stopgaps can never quite compete with that ethereal love of art.

It is a real gift to be able to share my thoughts on Asian-American poetry through this blog. I feel lucky to be living in a time of blogs. When I started this weblog way back in December 2004, I was greatly inspired to blog by the then-recent publication of Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation (edited by Victoria Chang, 2004). Similarly, my return has been greatly motivated by the recent publication of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar, 2008), which I plan to comment upon extensively in the days and weeks ahead. Also, hark, methinks that Li-Young Lee has a new collection of poems out as well, his first in seven years and his fouth overall, and I plan on getting around to blogging about it as well.

Monday, April 30, 2007

On Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station"

Whenever I want to experience the life force that poetry can provide, I often turn to the poems of Elizabeth Bishop. While a poem like Bishop's "The Moose" may be grander in scope, and a poem like Bishop's "One Art" may be more technically ambitious, I find a poem like Bishop's "Filling Station" more emotionally rich and satisfying. In a way, it is kind of like the As Good As It Gets of Bishop's poetry.

In "Filling Station," Bishop details the everyday particularities of "a family filling station" with Norman Rockwellian precision in six stanzas with six or seven lines each and an ending couplet. Aside from the second stanza, which alludes to a father and his "several quick and saucy/ and greasy sons," the poem is focused on setting and, more specifically, the objects in that setting, including "a cement porch/ behind the pumps," "a big dim doily/ draping a taboret," and, of course, as only Bishop would phrase it, "a big hirsute begonia."

I like the "Filling Station," in particular, because it embodies many different, overlapping yet conflicting, ideas and emotions. It demonstrates the richness of humanity, optimistically suggesting that people can enact their love through quotidian rituals and, as the final line goes, that "Somebody loves us all."

First -- and I want to highlight this point first, because I think that critics typically have not noted it -- the poem is not only serious but humorous as well. Some might not think of Bishop as a humorist, but I think that the poem shows that she clearly has a sense of humor. There are the lines with the overtly witty double meanings to demonstrate the cleverness of the speaker herself -- "quick and saucy/ and greasy sons," comic books that "provide the only note of color --/ of certain color," "somebody waters the plant/, or oils it, maybe." Then there is Bishop the poet herself with her use of vivid, over-the-top adjective-noun combinations like "oil-soaked, oil-permeated to a disturbing over-all black translucency," "high-strung automobiles," and of course, our lovely "hirsute begonia."

Then there is Bishop making that certain kind of smart, poet inside-joke with her characterization of "the doily" -- "Embroidered in daisy stitch with marguerities, I think, and heavy with grey crochet" -- as if proclaiming, "I am an Elizabeth the Poet," with the talent and ability to write circles around other poets. Indeed, I would characterize this description of "the doily," which is as "extraneous" as the "extraneous plant" (i.e. the begonia) and as "extraneous" as the depiction of the begonia itself, as the equivalent of a Michael Jordan wagging his tongue while leaping from the foul line for a slam dunk. No real need for it, but you've got to give your props -- if only we could all write like Bishop.

Second, and related, Bishop consciously infuses the speaker of the poem with a voice that is at once haughty and humble, which is as difficult a combination to pull off as serious and humorous. Bishop is clearly aware of issues of class and gender here. Her speaker self-consciously partakes in an upper/upper-middle class, stylized, self-consciously feminine way of talking, using phrases and words like "all quite thoroughly dirty," "crushed and grease-impregnated wickerwork," "a taboret," "embroidered in daisy stitch with marguerites," "embroidered the doily," and, of course, let us not forget our "hirsute begonia." These fancy objects -- e.g., taboret, begonia, and doily -- seem almost out of place in an oil-soaked family filling station.

But the key word is almost. The speaker never states that they are out of place, instead posing the questions of "Why the extraneous plant?," "Why the taboret?," "Why, oh why, the doily?" and answering that "somebody" put them there and that "Somebody loves us all." Essentially, Bishop is saying that they do have their place in the filling place, and their presence exemplifies the presence of love. Love is exemplified through the simple particularities of everyday life -- a wicker sofa, a dirty dog, comic books, a taboret, and yes, even a hirsute begonia.

It is like what John Ashbery says in "Some Trees" -- "That their merely being there/ Means something," except that Bishop uses the anaphora, "somebody," in suggesting the importance of the things having been "embroidered," "water[ed]" or "arrange[d]" there by someone -- perhaps the mother or grandmother of the household. The poem thus suggests that the presumption that there are "male" settings that may exist without women, or the presumption that classes of upper class and working class people may be discretely separated, is wrong. "Somebody," a presumably upper class woman, has helped fashion the space of the filling station and at least coexists with the working class men there. Furthermore, this "Somebody," in her own particular way, brings a different kind of generative love that enlivens the filling station, just as the father and his sons enliven it in their own way, and thus "the rows of cans/ [may] softly say: ESSO--SO--SO--SO."

At any rate, what does this poem have to do with Asian-American poetry? (Why, just about everything!) But in all seriousness, transitioning from the previous couple paragraphs and making my third and last point here, I think that "Filling Station" deals profoundly with questions of identity and belonging. Practically every noun in the poem is trying to find its place in the filling station, and by extension, I would say that Bishop is suggesting that we are all trying to find our own niche in a flawed but beautiful world. Our beauty, and the beauty of the world around us, comes from funny, silly, quirky, charming, vivid specificities that make us diverse and unique. We are often both out of place and in place at the same time, as "the dirty dog" and the "greasy sons" exist in the same space with a "doily/ draping a taboret" and the "Somebody" who "embroidered" it. While the taboret, begonia, and doily may seem out of place at first glance, they actually have their own place and are essential to the existence of the filling station.

Be it the speaker with the haughty vocabulary, the parent in a dirty monkey suit, Bishop herself, anyone of any race, and the reader of the poem, "Somebody loves us all." Sometimes, I think that this ending is too simple and pat, but at other times, I feel that this poem earns this ending by showing us the love in the previous six stanzas and one line. There is a kind of reconciliation of the diverse elements of the poem, and I enjoy the generosity of this line and the poem as a whole.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Asian American Writers' Workshop and Cave Canem Workshop

Thursday, March 8th, 7pm

A Celebration of Poetry with Cave Canem and Asian American Writers' Workshop

The Asian American and African American communities gather for a night of brilliant poetry and music. Readings by Elizabeth Alexander, Justin Chin, Kimiko Hahn, Linda Susan Jackson, Gregory Pardlo, Vijay Seshadri and the musical stylings of Patrick Rosal in collaboration with Aracelis. Curated by Tina Chang and Tracy K. Smith

Elizabeth Alexander's collections of poetry include Antebellum Dream Book (Graywolf Press, 2001), Body of Life (1996), and The Venus Hottentot (1990). Her poems, short stories, and critical writing have been widely published in such journals and periodicals as The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Callaloo, The Village Voice, The Women's Review of Books, and The Washington Post, and her work is anthologized in over twenty collections. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Chicago, and the George Kent Award, given by Gwendolyn Brooks.

Justin Chin is the author of Harmless Medicine and Bite Hard, and three collections of essays, Burden of Ashes, Attack of the Man-eating Lotus Blossoms, and Mongrel: Essays, Diatribes and Pranks. His newest collection is Gutted (Manic D Press).

Kimiko Hahn's seven books of poems include The Unbearable Heart, which received an American Book Award, and most recently, The Narrow Road to the Interior. In this new volume, she collects work inspired by the Japanese forms, tanka and zuihitsu; the title, itself, comes from Basho's famous poetic journal, Okunohosomichi. She is a Distinguished Professor in the MFA program at Queens College, The City University of New York.

Linda Susan Jackson's first collection of poems, What Yellow Sounds Like, was a finalist in the 2006 National Poetry Series Competition and will be published by Tia Chucha Press in Spring 2007. She has published two chapbooks, Vitelline Blues and A History of Beauty. Her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Brilliant Corners, Asheville Poetry Review, Gathering Ground, Heliotrope, Los Angeles Review, Rivendell, Warpland, and Brooklyn Review 21 among other journals and has been featured on From the Fishouse audio archive. She is an Assistant Professor and Deputy Chair of the English Department at Medgar Evers College/City University of New York and a Cave Canem graduate fellow.

Gregory Pardlo is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in poetry and a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems, reviews and translations have appeared in Calalloo, Lyric, Painted Bride Quarterly, Ploughshares, Seneca Review, Volt, Black Issues Book Review and on National Public Radio. He teaches creative writing at Medgar Evers College, CUNY, and lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant with his wife and daughter. His manuscript, Totem, was chosen by Brenda Hillman for the American Poetry Review/ Honickman First Book Prize and will be published Sept. 2007.

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full length-collections of poetry, My American Kundiman and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. The closest he got to conservatory was secretly struggling with first species counterpoint during the graveyard shift of his second job at 19. He once jammed with Max Roach -- and was terrible.

Vijay Seshadri's collections of poems include James Laughlin Award winner The Long Meadow (Graywolf Press, 2004) and Wild Kingdom (1996). He currently teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

@ The Workshop
16 West 32nd Street,
10th Floor (btwn Broadway & 5th Avenue)
$5 suggested donation

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library

Tina Chang (Half-Lit Houses), Srikanth Reddy (Facts for Visitors), Victoria Chang (Circle, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation) will be reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC on January 29th. The event will be introduced and moderated by Joseph Legaspi of Kundiman. Please see for details.