Thursday, May 28, 2009
Timothy Yu's Race and the Avant-Garde
Timothy Yu's Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965. Stanford UP, 2009.
In Fall, 1992, I taught Ron Silliman's The Chinese Notebook to a class of exceptional undergraduates at UH. Even in the years before cell phones, ipods, laptops, all the many paraphernalia of distraction, students had no trouble with Silliman's parataxes; their disjointed lives matched his torqued new sentences in a syncopated but exact rhythm. At the end of the course, I required each student to write a meditation on poetry in the form used by one of our authors. Several students wrote their own versions of Silliman's Wittgensteinian propositions. I best remember the title of one: "The Chinese-Italian Notebook." The shock I felt at receiving this essay came from the way the student had taken a title that refers to material (the Chinese notebook), and used it to mark his own ethnicity. The student's nationalities, as we say in Hawai`i, were Chinese and Italian.
Timothy Yu's new book addresses questions of race and Language writing and does two important things with them. First, he historicizes them. Then, he makes of that history a compelling argument about parallel avant-garde movements, both of them grounded in protest movements of the sixties, both existing on the margins of 1970s poetry, both entering the mainstream from the 1980s forward. I am most interested in what ethnic and experimental writing have to say to one another when placed side by side, or inter-leaved (I might credit this student's title with at least some of the impetus to start Tinfish Press in 1995). But Yu writes that his “interest lies in the vexed history of division between the two bodies of work . . . rather than in any argument for their unification” (16). Using a definition of the avant-garde that has less to do with aesthetics than with social groups composed of like-minded artists, Yu argues that Asian American poetry and Language writing formed parallel movements in the 1970s. (This is no critical Poems for the Millennium, in other words.) Both presented themselves in opposition to the mainstream; both were marked by questions of form and racial identity. Both meant to create art out of social groups, and reconstitute the social through the reception of their art.
The way in which Yu gets at his argument is sometimes paradoxical. While he's arguing about groups, his chapters focus on individuals. So Ron Silliman becomes the emblematic Language writer, while Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (by way of an excellent reading of her critics) and John Yau become representative Asian American writers. I'm being a tad simplistic, as Yu's narrative also includes a long discussion of what it meant to create an Asian American culture. Unlike African American culture, which can be defined through music, language, and other features, Asian American culture had to be constructed out of its parts—Korean, Chinese and Japanese (all featured in Yu's book), Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai (all outside the purview of this study). Also outside his study is the vexing realm of Hawai`i's Asian American writing, which is at once part of the larger category and a significant sub-category of its own. That Yu can call Cathy Song's poetry “apolitical” shows that his interest is in Asian American poetry outside Hawai`i, where even titles like “Easter, 1959,” bear a political freight, 1959 being the year of statehood. But I needn't torture that point, as Yu has enough fish to fry. The story of Hawai`i's avant-gardes remains to be written.
As I said, many of the larger issues he raises about social and artistic formations are treated at length in case studies of individual writers. As the prime representative of his avant-garde, Ron Silliman is at once the fool and the hero of Yu's narrative. At his worst, Silliman is the proto-Rush Limbaugh (“the Republican party is the oppressed minority”) of the avant-garde. In a letter to about Messerli's anthology of Language writing, Silliman wrote: “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” (Letter to Peter Glassgold of New Directions, 58). At his best, Silliman simply and honestly acknowledges (in the face of late-60s and 70s identity politics) that his identity is marked, as well. That Yu occasionally takes Silliman at his word, and assigns “white male subjectivity” to Language writing seems problematic to this reader. Ann Vickery has elucidated arguments about gender issues between members of the Language group, which included Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Susan Howe almost from the beginning. But he's right on target when he argues that “Silliman claims his own position as particular and universal, capable of registering class, race, gender, and sexuality while simultaneously transcending their limits” (50). Language writers such as Charles Bernstein and Barrett Watten, in their own ways, have tackled the issue of identity politics, vis-a-vis their nearly absolute distrust of identity. (This, too, is an historical point; Bernstein has embraced the Jewish American tradition of poetry increasingly as he has gotten older.) That they have often failed to do so persuasively illustrates Yu's point about the “vexed history of division” between movements, if not about future possibilities for migrations across them (more on this in a bit).
Yu is adept at revealing the history of Asian American poetry before Garrett Hongo's The Open Boat (1993), in whose introduction the editor tries to place Asian American writers in a mainstream where prizes are earned (Cathy Song won the 1982 Yale Younger Poet award) and photos accompany the poets professional bios. Yu is also good at reading David Mura against Li Young Lee, in terms of the ways in which they express their senses of Asian Americanness. Suffice it to say that Mura does not do well. He is most drawn to what might be termed “problem poets” like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and John Yau, both of whom test the categories of Asian American and experimental poetry in fascinating ways. The chapter on Cha is comprised mainly of close-readings of other critics on Cha, from those who treat Dictee as a narrative about nation and ethnicity to those who treat it as an anti-narrative about the failures of identities and histories to cohere. And then Yu comes in to show how these readings apply—but only to parts of the text. His reading locates her as both an Asian American and an experimental writer, if not at the same time. “Dictee charts a kind of path from the Asian American to the experimental and (perhaps) back again . . . Like modes of contemporary political criticism, it cannot escape the tension between the need for a foundation for action and the knowledge that no such foundation can any longer be taken for granted” (137).
John Yau's parodic postmodern work (Yau describes himself as “'the poet who is too postmodern for the modernists and too modern for the postmodernists'” 139) uses Chinese American identity to show that it cannot stand as such. For Yau, Asian American identities are produced by the work, and must remain provisional. It's with Yau one senses Yu is most at home, even if that home is like Ashbery's houseboat, sturdy yet afloat, at the whim of the literary and social winds and waters that surround it.
That writers do not organize themselves around their perceived (and actual) differences has sometimes been a disappointment to me, as editor of Tinfish (and member of an adoptive family). If Hawai`i's avant-gardes have included movements for Local Poetry (the late 1970s Bamboo Ridge group), for Hawaiian poetry (strongest since the mid-90s launching of `oiwi, Hawai`i's literary communities have not so easily welcomed the formalist avant-garde. And yet, as I watch some Tinfish poets, I see writers who can participate in many different groups. Craig Santos Perez is a Chamorro activist, a Latino poet, an indigenous poet, an experimental poet, and so on. Tinfish may be a place where he can be all at once, but the luxury (and responsibility) to move across and through alliances is his. I would be eager to hear what Yu thinks the future of his avant-gardes holds for him and for us. Have we arrived at the place pointed out to us by "The Chinese Italian Notebook," in the era of Obama's own multiple ethnic and political identities? Or have we, as I sometimes fear, simply entered into a new series of divisions, disalliances?