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?


Ross Brighton said...

This sounds interesting. What is Yu's argument for Cha's work being unable to be both Asian-American and experimental at the same time? And does he have anything to say about writers such as Myung Mi Kim and Tan Lin?

susan said...

he's writing about Language writing and Asian American writing as separate entities, and Language writing as white and mostly male. And no, he doesn't discuss Kim or Lin. It's a surprising book in many ways. There are times where I think he's about to fall off a cliff, and then he doesn't.

Ross Brighton said...

Thats interesting. Its the same thing as always seems to happen - i think i've read Kim discuss it somewhere, and I know Harryette Mullen has written on it - That 'ethnic' writers are supposedly incapable of innovative writing.
Simmilar attitudes toward Female writers were the catalyst for the publication of "Out of Everywhere".

Its surprising that these attitudes continue, especially with the vast weath of innovative writing being published by women and non-anglo writers.

Interesting that you refer to Siliman as a "proto-Rush Limbaugh", considering his previous statements on the subject in 1991 (hopefully he's lived to regret and retract) that "[W]omen, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire
spectrum of the 'marginal' - have a manifest political need to
have their stories told [so that] their writing [...] often
appears much more conventional".
Sounds very Limbough-esque to me.

Laura Mullen said...

Just popping in to say hey, the historical! While Yu's research interests include some of the writers the book doesn't get to, the work the book does (even if it seems to arrive late, like most criticism) matters a great deal. While this area of inquiry was opened, arguably, by Harrryette Mullen and Myung Mi Kim, having Yu's research is a strong addition to the work we need to do to understand how the idea of the Other and the idea of the Difficult have been opposed to each other (about that--ask yourself cui bono?); this book will be helpful, even if it's partial. And the book needs to be thought about in context. It took a long long long time to even see Yau as "Asian American" (check the anthologies), indeed, it seems as if his actual work on identity is constantly trumped by reminders that he studied with.... Remind me: is there any other contemporary, major, 60 year old poet who is still so relentlessly yoked to his time as a student? What's that about?

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,

A lot of interesting food for thought here. I get the feeling that Yu, like yourself, is "interested in what ethnic and experimental writing have to say to one another when placed side by side." In some ways, it might have not been a good word choice when he talks about "the vexed history of division between the two bodies of work"--I get the feeling that he's really interested in the productive tensions that arise when these two bodies of work are put into conversation--something that Nathaniel Mackey might call a "discrepant engagement." In the conclusion, Yu says that his book “critiques the notion of sharp divides in contemporary poetry” (162). I have a different take on the book in my most recent blog post:

And, Laura, your comment about Yau is well taken. I think his Lorre and Karloff poems are really fantastic engagements with the slippery nature of identity.

susan said...

Michael--I agree that Yu is interested in that "productive tension," though he tries very hard in his book not to be. The Cha chapter is fascinating in the way Yu splits "experimental" from "Asian American" apart in a single book, assigning part of the book to one category, another part to the other. And I find it a bit odd that the blurbs on his book are mostly divided between comments on the book as Asian American (Perloff and Bernstein) and experimental (Lye), though Lye's is surely the most comprehensive. The book has a great deal to say about Language writing, as well, and I hope that isn't missed in the larger conversation . . .