Eileen R. Tabios introduces the Poetry Section of BOLD WORDS: A Century of Asian American Writing, edited by Rajini Srikanth and Esther Y. Iwanaga
(Rutgers University Press, New Jersey and London, 2001)
ABSORBING AND BEING ABSORBED BY POETRY
“The dragons on the back of a circular bronze mirror
swirl without end. I sit and am an absorbing form”
I sit before a manuscript I received as a gift: the poems in BOLD WORDS. I have read them all and am returning to an excerpt from “The Redshifting Web” by Arthur Sze. To paraphrase this poet whose clear-eyed openness to the world has taught me as much as his words about the grace that is poetry, I absorb “the moments of molten gold” wrought by this book’s 27 poets.
I turn to a goblet on my desk and raise the thin crystal to the white light embracing St. Helena, California where I recently moved from New York City. Within its hold lies a swirling liquid poured from a bottle of Philip Togni cabernet. The wine is colored dark red—and I recall mother’s gift of a ruby bracelet. I notice glycerine leaving visible tracks against the wine glass—and I recall a long afternoon looking at London behind rain streaming across a hotel window in a manner similar to the liquid coating my glass. I raise the wine and revel in its bouquet, inhaling aromas of vanilla, leather, oak and herbs—and I recall the scent of my grandparents’ tobacco fields in the Philippines where I once frolicked as a little girl. Finally, I take my first sip; the wine does not disappoint with its rich and concentrated tannic taste bearing elements of plums and black berries, leather and smoked meats—and I recall a set of memories involving goats: a backyard barbecue in Vallejo which, in turn, evoked an alley in Kathmandu where I had stared at the long-whiskered animals peering at me from second-story windows.
Once more, I return to Arthur Sze’s poem: “as moments coalesce, (I) see to travel far is to return.” Yes, it is time to return to the poems themselves. Are these “Asian American” poems? After the seminal anthology PREMONITIONS (Kaya, 1995) edited by Walter Lew required over 500 pages to even come close to displaying the range and diversity of Asian American poets, I am considering the challenge posed to any scholar, editor or critic asked to put together a collection representing “Asian American” poetry. Such a task occurred for the editors of BOLD WORDS amidst a growing recognition at the turn of the century that there may be no such thing as “Asian America.” Perhaps the label was once—for some, is still—convenient for addressing the invisibility of certain writers within the so-called literary canon of the United States, as addressed by the first anthology I read described as Asian American poetry: the groundbreaking THE OPEN BOAT (Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1993) edited by Garrett Hongo. But, unless all such anthologies can bear at least 500 pages of poems, does not the label also work to reduce the presentation of diversity within its community?
As I consider what to say about the poems in BOLD WORDS which is described as an Asian American anthology encompassing a century of writing, I sit and am an absorbing form. And it occurs to me that much wisdom might be available in simplicity: what I wish to suggest to you, Dear Reader, is to read and interact directly with the poems themselves. Read the poems for what the poems say to you, rather than through the clouds of context in which the poetry of their authors have been featured, whether as works by writers-of-color, creations from a multicultural canon, songs from a diaspora, or hymns from Asian America. These poems are not tokens—let alone tokens of something that artificially exists, or may not exist, called “Asian America.” These poems are poems.
These poems are poems—what does that mean? I suggest that poems have their own lives separate from what are said about them, and that they exist so that you, Dear Reader, may respond directly to them and not to what I or anyone else would say about them. A poem, or any work of art, can engender a space for interaction with the audience—there is no need to predefine the nature of that engagement. Indeed, I suggest that poems ask you to respond to them in the way I responded earlier in this essay to the experience of tasting Philip Togni’s cabernet. Like poetry, wine can be about nostalgia—linking a smell, sight, taste and feel to a prior experience by the wine drinker. Thus, one can hear oenophiles relating wine to such things as “grilled lamb,” “tobacco,” “blackberries,” “the smell of wet hay,” “dust,” or “gravel.” Notwithstanding phrases that may seem over-reaching, the wine lovers are trying to relate the experience to their memories—is this not how one may also read a poem? That is, a poem transcends its author’s autobiography when it manages to articulate a space where different readers will feel a variety of emotional responses to the same words—a variety of reactions because each reader bears a different set of memories.
Consequently, I don’t wish to present the poems in this book within only one context, e.g. “Asian America.” I don’t ever wish to tell readers how to respond to Art. How can I? Dear Reader, you and I are different people. For instance, how can you mirror my response to Janice Mirikitani’s poem “Recipe” unless you were (with) me as a teenager attending Gardena High School with someone we shall call “Tammy.” Gardena, California contains/ed one of the largest Japanese-American communities in the mainland U.S. Tammy was an unprepossessing-looking girl who easily got lost in the crowd. The first time I noticed her was when she arrived at school one day bearing the feature of “round eyes” for which Mirikatani had written a recipe-poem. Julia apparently attained the desired result, complete with double eyelids, through bodily surgery rather than through the use of scotch tape and black liner as suggested in Mirikatani’s poem. As I envisioned the scalpel slitting the smooth seamless slopes of Tammy’s eyelids, I winced.
It is the same wince I felt upon first reading Mirikitani’s poem. But you, dear Reader, who’s never met Tammy or someone like her, might respond differently. You might look at the poem and think it a comment on society’s views on what defines Beauty; that the poem uses recipe to reference the importance of food in Asian social interactions; that the directive “Cleanse face” rather than “wash face” implies something “dirty” about the Asian face; and that the overall focus on “face” relates to the masks attributed to and, indeed, worn by some Asian Americans.
Both responses are equally valid—my response of a deeply-felt shudder or the latter reaction I imagined from a reader sensitized to read the poem in an Asian American context. I share both interpretations because I believe that most if not all of the poets in BOLD WORDS—to the extent they even consider their poems’ audience—would not wish to privilege one type of response over another. Do you need to have the phrase “Asian America” running through your mind to appreciate Li-Young Lee’s love poem, “This Room and Everything in It”? Lee sings: “This desire, perfection./ Your closed eyes my extinction/ . . .The sun is/ God, your body is milk/ . . . it had something/ to do with love.” Faced with these words, I wish only to move out of the poem’s way.
In another example, one of my friends read Vince Gotera’s poem “Beetle on a String,” a poem set in the Philippines. My friend loved the poem because it reminded her of similar childhood play in New Orleans. “The poem,” my friend added, “made me realize how intimate this vast world can be.” As my friend did, dear Reader, go directly to the poems themselves. Read and trust your responses—or lack thereof—to the poems. Sit and be an absorbing form. The direct relationship between reader and poem unencumbered by critics, academics and theorists (or writers of poetry introductions) is the most honest, most passionate and most true interaction.
I confess that I am also reluctant to contextualize poems because I believe it is impossible to fully capture the poem in talking about it; one can experience the poem without verbalizing the experience. The impossibility of defining the golden moments called poems relates, I believe, to the experience of the poem being formed significantly by what the reader gives to it. Empathy—with its related intangibles that have been called “heart,” “spirit,” “grace” and “compassion”—are crucial if one is to engage with the poem, whether in writing or reading it. Thus, in discussing the poetry in BOLD WORDS, I am left inarticulate—and wish to remain inarticulate—in addressing the humanity of the poet and reader that would determine their experience with a poem. But I can address poetic form.
Many of the poems in BOLD WORDS use a narrative which allows the poets to share stories: Alfred Yuson’s co-optation of the Pop artist-icon in “Andy Warhol Speaks to His Two Filipino Maids”; Garrett Hongo’s moving description of how Los Angeles in October “seethes like a billboard under twilight” in “Yellow Light”; Chitra Divakaruni’s heart-rending evocation of the sacrifices of Punjab immigrant farmers in “The Founding of Yuba City”; Lawson Inada’s urgent love cries in “Filling the Gap”; Cathy Song’s deft riff on miserliness in “A Conservative View”; the sensuality of chocolate in Tina Koyama’s “The Chocolatier”; and the way memories refuse to die in Linh Dinh’s “The Dead.” These poems explain why Meena Alexander was moved to write, “We must always return/ to poems for news of the world.”
I wish to address poetic form because the presence of Marilyn Chin and Kimiko Hahn in BOLD WORDS reminded me of the controversial THE BEST OF THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY (Scribner, 1998) edited by Harold Bloom. This anthology was culled from the 1988-1997 BEST AMERICAN POETRY annuals. The 1996 volume guest-edited by Adrienne Rich and featuring many ethnic-American writers such as Chin and Hahn was the only volume not represented in Bloom’s compendium. Indeed, Bloom attacked this volume as one where he “failed to discover more than an authentic poem or two in it.” Bloom explains, “That 1996 anthology…seems to me a monumental representation for the enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming us.” Us? Bloom continues, “It is of a badness not to be believed, because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet.”
After reading Bloom’s essay, I immediately recalled Chin’s counsel in my book which interviews 15 Asian American poets, BLACK LIGHTNING: POETRY IN PROGRESS (AAWW, 1998). Chin notes, “My advice to young poets is to cultivate a strong stomach for rejection. The dominant society will tell you that you may not enter the canon, because what you have to say does not matter to them.”
This is not the place to rebut Bloom and those who feel the way he does. But I wish to note this issue—and for young Asian American poets reading this book, to offer encouragement—because this issue is not likely to go away. How can it? Poems are not mere words; they are living creatures. Bloom is entitled to his opinions—but should not his criticism directly address the “badness” of the poems rather than the overall approach of the poems in addressing “race, gender, sexual oriental, ethnic origin and political purpose”? Poets write poems based on their concerns. For example, Mitsuye Yamada’s poem “Thirty Years Under” evokes a disgraceful period in U.S. history when Japanese Americans were interned in camps: “there is nothing more/ humiliating/ more than beatings/ more than curses/ than being spat on// like a dog.” Such a poem needs to exist. The alternative is, as Yamada writes, to “travel[…] blind.” Let me repeat the excerpt from Alexander’s poem “News of the World” and continue it one line further: “We must always return/ to poems for news of the world/ or perish from the lack.”
How can an Asian American poet ignore one’s culture, ethnicity and community in writing poems? The question evokes what I consider to be a dead-on assessment by poet and critic John Yau which he shares in BLACK LIGHTNING, “The identity issue is a major issue not being addressed by modernist and post-modernist poets. It’s not been addressed by later modernist poets because many often want to assimilate and be part of the mainstream and, thus, do not question the mainstream’s use of identity, how it fixes them with a narrow possibility. It’s not being addressed by post-modernists because they say the author is dead. But why is the author dead at a point when demographics have changed such that all these people who were once marginalized and silenced can now talk—but during a period when the author is supposedly dead?”
Identity, of course, is a critical issue for the Asian American community where the silencing of poets may mean the silencing of history or translate to invisibility within “mainstream” culture. Indeed, one of BOLD WORDS’ strengths lies in how—as an Asian American collection—it includes the work of ethnicities less published than East Asians: Vietnamese-, Filipino- and South Asian-American poets. Indran Amirthanayagam recalls how a civil war devastated a country now lost to him called “Ceylon”—“Pity the poor lion,/ pity the poor tiger,/ the cobra, the elephant,/ the fish and fowl/ the birds and beasts/ who see their jungle cut down/ to build huts/ for knife throwers guns/ bombs rapists/ thieves of every color// who come to drink the milk/ and eat the bread/ of young boys and girls/ who’ve always been told,/ when the beggar comes/ give something, give something you like/ like your life.”
Whatever poetry’s unique special demands may be are not necessarily divorced from a poet’s social concerns. Some Asian American poets who do not “talk story” in their poems do so in opposition to a sociological reading of their works which often prevails among critics and academics. The latter response, however, still reflects a poet’s social consciousness. Thus, when it comes to poetic form the Asian American poet’s concerns—to the extent one understands that such factors as racism and objectification have afflicted Asian America—might also lead to the rupturing of traditional poetic forms which predominate in the literary mainstream. I, for one, am interested in disrupting narrative in my poems as a result of exploring issues of colonialism and postcolonialism. In this book, one may interpret form as opposition through the prose paragraphs of Christian Langworthy’s “Sestina”; Jessica Hagedorn’s bow to Black vernacular in her poem “Smokey’s Getting Old” written during a period when she was searching for a language that also evoked the hybrid “Taglish,” a combination of Tagalog and English; Walter Lew’s gorgeous use of the page as a field in “Ch’Onmun Hak”; Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s use of Hawaiian “local” language in “Kala Gave Me Anykine Advice Especially About Filipinos When I Moved to Pahala”; and, naturally, Janice Mirikatani’s recipe-like structure in “Recipe.”
A significant number of Asian American poets have addressed and continue to push the boundaries of poetic form: Mei-mei Berssenbrugge (whose groundbreaking poems informed by a feminist perspective turn politics into astoundingly-beautiful art), Yau, Myung Mi Kim as well as more emerging poets such as Catalina Cariaga, Tan Lin, Brian Kim Stefans, Sianne Ngai, Nick Carbo and Oliver de la Paz. (I specify these poets partly because they have published at least one poetry collection). When one understands that the 21st century is unlikely to leave behind the race-based atrocities or diaspora-induced anguish that have afflicted Asian America, it makes sense to me that many Asian American poets also would write in opposition.
Nonetheless, it is the slippery nature of art that as soon as one attempts to categorize it, the art slips away. As a poet—thus, practitioner—I realize that before a poet came to write something that is later labeled “oppositional” the poet may have intended something else, including simply trying to develop one’s craft. Sometimes, a poem is just a poem—or, as Eric Chock writes in his poem “Strawberries” and which I choose to read as a metaphor for this point: “I’m just an ordinary man/ who loves strawberries./ I love to grab the green fuzziness/ in my gathered fingertips/ and dip the seedy point in sour cream/ and brown sugar/ and into my waiting lips./ Mmmm, that’s a sweet kiss worth/ repeating all night,/ just an ordinary man/ loving his strawberries./ And I don’t want to have to think/ who picked them with/ what brown illegal alien fingers,/ back bent under the California sun….”
In other words, a poem by an Asian American poet can be read, too, for pleasure alone rather than within a particular context. This possibility again highlights the importance of the reader investing attention in reading a poem for it is that investment which will cause the poem to mature. Indeed, I mentioned earlier that BOLD WORDS is admirable for including members of ethnicities not as well represented by older Asian American anthologies. However, the more that one widens the net cast to round up poets for a collection, the more one may see commonalities of experience: the pensiveness of reminiscence in Aga Shahid Ali’s “In Search of Evanescence”; the meditation/mediation on dying in Bao-long Chu’s “The bitterness of Bodies We Bear”; the questioning of laws in Luis Francia’s “Walls”; the disconcertion—hidden fear?—felt by a child monitoring how parents slip irrevocably into old age in Barbara Tran’s “The Body”; the anticipation of returning to a childhood home in Reetika Vazirani’s “Reading the Poem about the Yew Tree”; and an immigrant’s invisibility in Alfrredo Navarro Salanaga’s “They Don’t Think Much About Us in America.”
This “universality” makes sense, and only emphasizes again the critical role of the reader in making poems live. Critics have written about how humanity relates to common experiences in the remote past when many of our propensities were acquired as adaptations to environment. In a recent conversation, the Filipino poet Bino A. Realuyo said, “I look at a page the way I have always looked at a canvas because I used to paint. Our eyes have an intense desire for symmetry. Even those who try to go against nature by drawing assymmetrical lines eventually create beauty through abstraction—one reason why the avant garde never quite remains avante garde for long is because they eventually fulfill our human desire for beauty.”
In other words, poems live through the exercise of the shared humanity among and between poets and readers. You, the Reader, play a critical role in the life of a poem. The poem is a hand reaching out and it lives only if you yourself reach out and clasp that hand. I return to Arthur Sze’s poem which—like many of this poet’s works—is marked by his ability to find connections among varied elements within the universe. The open-minded and open-hearted empathy in Sze’s words may teach much about how one may write and read a poem: “I absorb the weight of a pause when it tilts/ the conversation in a room. I absorb the moments/ he sleeps holding her right breast in his left hand/ and know it resembles glassy waves in a harbor/ in descending spring light. Is the mind a mirror?/ . . . I absorb the stench of burning cuttlefish bone,/ and as moments coalesce see to travel far is to return.” Dear Reader, sit and be an absorbing form.
In response to a request by BOLD WORDS’ editors to predict some trends in Asian American poetry, I believe there will be a continued diversity in poetic styles without departing from the stories in one’s community—neither are mutually exclusive. This point seems rather basic, until one understands that a major tension in contemporary American poetry has been the debate between (i) language as material versus (ii) that the poem is rooted in the ego. This paradigm cannot adequately address Asian American poetry. For Asian American poets, the poem is not separable from culture even when the form would seem to suggest less focus than overt narrative indicates on issues related to identity.
It is apt for poetry to combine two seemingly opposing positions—the reader’s subjectivity and the importance of the poet’s biography. As Alexander noted in BLACK LIGHTNING, “The poem on the page is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of what endures, turning into the soil of the poem, is carried within, unseen, even worldless.” Autobiography matters, and the Poem also transcends autobiography.
In fact, it seems to me that being an Asian American poet lends itself to transcending not just canonical views on “form” but to transcending poetry itself to work in other categories such as fiction and essays. As one who edits in addition to writes, I consider all of my activities integral to being a poet, particularly as an Asian American poet. Garrett Hongo, David Mura and others who also write both prose and poetry have spoken about the importance of providing criticism concurrent with creating their poems. In particular, I recall Mura once saying that he writes memoirs partly to lay out a context for his poems—that otherwise no one else might do so, or perhaps do so in a manner that Mura would appreciate.
I believe the overwhelmingly positive response to BLACK LIGHTNING resulted because, as Sze notes in his Introduction, up to BLACK LIGHTNING “critical discussion of Asian American poetry lag[ged] behind artistic accomplishment. The discourse tend[ed] to center on race and identity, and …just beginning to address theory and practice and the polysemous nature of the work.” However, by offering a poetry-in-progress format, BLACK LIGHTNING also allowed poets to comment on their own writing processes versus the more common presentation of having "others" critiquing their works. Subsequently, my favorite review of the book would come to be from a critic who said the book damned the notion that there is no “I” behind poems.
The best poems resonate, leave behind a simmering feeling in response to its words. The same occurs with wine: long after the wine has been swallowed, its aftermath lingers along the edges of your tongue. What we might call “resonance” in a poem is what oenophiles call “finish” for wines. For me, I often say about a moving poem, “It has a long finish” versus “It resonates.” The poetry in BOLD WORDS reverberate in a manner I need not define for you. Dear Reader, simply Sit and be an absorbing form.
Let me share some of what resonates for me from the poems in BOLD WORDS: questions, not answers. Christian Langworthy’s question, “Why does autumn undress the way you do?” Meena Alexander’s question, “What ink can inscribe them now/ the young of Tiananmen?” Marilyn Chin’s question, “What shall we cook tonight?/ Perhaps these six tiny squid/ lined up so perfectly on the block?” Vince Gotera’s question, “It makes me shiver now/ to wonder what thoughtless boy holds my string?” Cathy Song’s question, “How else are you going to get those damn pa-kes to share?” Jessica Hagedorn’s question, “did you/ come with yr daddy in 1959/ on a second-class boat crying all the while/ cuz you didn’t want to leave the barrio”? Alfrredo Navarro Salanga’s question, “Who cares?”
I introduce the poetry in BOLD WORDS by asking you, dear Reader, “Which poem(s) shall transport you with a long finish?”
More information about Eileen R. Tabios is available at her website: http://eileenrtabios.com