As many readers of poetry are aware, the topic of Asian American poetry has been the site of much recent turbulence with respect to race and the avant-garde. Indeed, we seem to be at a watershed moment in American Poetry which has been in formation for decades. Before moving to some of the craft issues in play between the more dramatic elements in the work of John Yau, I’d also like to briefly remind us of another context whose sheer obviousness with regard to the largest capacities of reading seem starkly apparent, if only through the historical gift of hindsight. Here’s a passage from Eliot Weinberger’s preface to Susan Howe’s influential 1985 book, My Emily Dickinson:
Dickinson’s complexities tended to be lost, as Howe says in an interview, “in the reductive portrait of a spinster genius clothed in white…a spidery recluse, a Queen at Home, sewing.” Criticism concentrated on “neurosis, repression, rejection.” Dickinson was, in the title of a popular feminist critique, The Madwoman in the Attic, driven there by society-at-large, inhabiting the only space allowed an intelligent and sensitive woman. Howe’s mission was to avoid further psychological speculation and revisionist politics to present Dickinson in the kind of literary, intellectual, and historical context in which male poets are routinely considered (Howe, x-xi).
We take it for granted now, I believe, that Dickinson’s work is best read in light of all three categories: historical, intellectual and literary, the latter of which would include her innovations at the level of “craft” (such as her use of metaphoric and metonymic complexity, deployment of the ballad stanza, her characteristic trope of definition, the gesture of the dash, enjambment, diction “choices,” and the like).
I find, however, that we cannot take for granted this same breadth and depth of analysis when it comes to poetry that is labeled “Asian American.” Within this moniker, study tends inevitably to explore issues of the historical and the social more fully than those of craft elements. As long as this habit continues, the discourse will be racist by the degree to which our Asian American poets are reduced primarily to a racially marked or narrowly social category. And as long as scholars tend to privilege race and culture over poetic technique, and not to consider poetic technique at least as crucial as content or heritage background, then the most fully acknowledged prerogative of self-definition is being denied to poets whose background may include ties to Asia or any other country beyond US borders. This traditional split between minority “sincerity” and white “complexity,” between social representation and allegedly more sophisticated critiques on the act of representation itself, is a division that characterizes not only contemporary scholarship but also the poetry world itself. (I lay aside, for now, the counter-strand of the supposed “new sincerity” school of poetry, which both complicates and re-inscribes these binary notions.) As a practitioner of the art rather than a scholar, my own creative work takes issues of race and culture as subject matter often but not exclusively, I work hard on the creation of musical fields of assonance, consonance and alliteration, on my line breaks, on the juxtaposition between high and low diction, pacing, form, rhetorical flourish and all the many aspects of craft that are given to the genre. Moreover, in my poetry, as in my person, though I am always Thai-American, I am always not reducible to the category of Thai-American. The category shifts and re-shapes constantly; it may be in the background or foreground or somewhere in between at any given moment. Race is experienced not as a stable or permanent element of some authentic inner self—but in fact, both in life and in the work, race is a highly contingent and inevitably partial methodology for interaction or reading. To what extent is the category of Asian American poet different from that of Woman poet with respect to Dickinson? One may well invoke the social in one’s work because it is a huge aspect of our lives. But no one wants to be reduced to some kind of social result.
At issue here always is agency, power, and who is able to claim the prerogative of definition.
A related point worth touching on here is the extent to which poetry in America, for better or worse, is a highly balkanized sphere. No one wants to be perceived in their work as irrelevant or out of date, and so the poetic gestures and discourse most associated with the experimental or avant-garde have been granted the power to define what is innovative and what is not. Clearly, with the domestication of language poetry into mainstream poetic practice—what could be called the by now normative style of our era—experimental poets and manifestos have dominated the discourse and set the terms to which the poetry world responds. And yet, to a degree, the dictums of innovation that stem from the still so-called avant-garde can themselves seem out of date with respect to the needs of many practicing poets.
As anecdotal evidence for this last point, here’s a quotation from one recent letter of recommendation on behalf of an MFA applicant to our program at UW: “Having been to school to the UC Berkeley poets, [this young poet and MFA applicant] came into contact with the local sense of avant-garde poetics, which tended to be skeptical about the heritage issues she has been increasingly drawn to. [Her mother’s background is Japanese; her father’s European and Jewish].” The recommender goes on to add that this “skepticism” has “made for rich tension in her work that I imagine she will be working out in the next few years.” It is less a scholarly paradigm than a deeply felt personal experience for myself that governs my response to the reminder of how prevalent the relatively privileged space of supposed innovation can lead not only to the urge to define the other as a mirror version of themselves, but also to prohibit the other’s prerogative of self-definition. At one time I had hopes that the sort of things I was told by fellow students and professors, twenty years ago, were no longer in play for younger poets. I’d been advised, for instance, that I shouldn’t write about my heritage because then I would never know whether my poetry was really good or just being used for token minority inclusion purposes. I have no doubt that the professor who let me know this believed he had my best interests in mind and that he was genuinely cautioning me against a kind of self-ghettoization that still lamentably prevails in the poetry world. Around the same time, some felt free to let me know that, because my mother is Thai and my father is Caucasian, surely to bring up my mother’s culture at all was a mere affectation at best, a pitiful call for attention in an affirmative action oriented world in which my “authenticity” was not valid. “Authenticity” itself is a dominant culture concern in my experience, whereas minority groups tend to welcome additional numbers when possible. The notion of the “Asian American” in particular is a dominant culture name, meant to include many whose heritage as a common group is meaningless outside of relation to the prevalence of whiteness.
Even as I bring up now the specter of the personal, daring to relate an “I” in a scholarly context, I can feel the shadow of an internalized censorship pressing against the personal. A related pressure in the poetry world has long dominated American contemporary work. During the 70’s and 80’s, the representation of the personal seemed to dominate contemporary poetry, in the relentless confessional fashion of Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath, but the pendulum has now swung too far the other way perhaps toward a colder, less openly emotional, and impersonal fashion inaugurated by experimental poetry. One of the salient features of experimental or avant-garde poetry has been the eschewing of first person narrative. As easy presentation of personal feeling is associated with confessional, abhorred by Lyn Hejinian in her influential essay “The Rejection of Closure,” several generations of poets have written by now under a deep apprehension of the pronoun “I.” During their lifetimes as well, with the rise of Facebook, twitter, Instagram, snap chats, and the like, the performativity of self-presentation has become ubiquitous. Much of what is deemed indecorous for poetry because too personal, sentimental or mundane (check out my kid pics, pets, recent vacations and most spectacular desserts) nevertheless makes its way into the public sphere even from poets who might eschew the first person pronoun in their creative work. My own MFA students are deeply concerned with not appearing sentimental in their poetry, yet want to learn how to track feeling through reading current affect theory. There isn’t time to fully trace here the ways in which a complex theory on the instability and contingency of ‘self’ devolved into a dictum of fashion demanding that poems routinely forego the use of the first person, or employ it only in heavily ironized ways, but this fashion remains in many circles, including that of the preeminent writer’s workshop at Iowa. As a standard, to “I” or not to “I” is a primary signpost, either to be obeyed or to be pushed against more radically.
I’m interested in the ways in which self-presentation plays out in dramatic monologue, a genre that traditionally, stemming at least as far back as Browning’s famous poem “My Last Duchess,” incorporates strategically timed oscillations between self-concealment and self-revealment, between the masked and the naked, bespeaking both bravura and vulnerability, and in how this mode might be taken up by poets who wish to complicate the seen and unseen qualities of race. These craft issues may include diction choice, imagery, tone, syntax, statement and question, underscoring the inevitable multiplicity of masks one writer/scholar/ teacher must wear in order to function. I would argue that these masks become more constructed, more foregrounding of a dissonance between inner and outer “selves” when the writer is racially “other.” As the Korean poet Kim Hyesoon writes regarding point of view in her book, MOMMY MUST BE A FOUNTAIN OF FEATHERS, “This is the inside of somebody’s skull--/ you can’t look out without the two black holes” (36). The “black holes” are all the more visible in the use of the persona or dramatic monologue, where the genre’s inherent ability to delineate both the constructed and relational qualities of personhood can complexly problematize issues of naming, language, and cultural framing.
John Yau is one of several Asian American poets who employ the form to advantage in distinctly different ways. (Although there isn’t time to cover more poets here, Yau’s colleagues in this area include Cathy Park Hong, Ken Chen, Nick Carbo, and John Berryman, Robert Hayden, and Derek Walcott before them, among others.)
John Yau inherits but substantially reconfigures some of the traditions of his former teacher, poet John Ashbery. Both poets are immersed in art and art criticism, and share some commonalities of style and subject matter, including the staging of aesthetic consciousness, juxtapositions between high and low cultural markers, the use of humor, parody, pop culture and quoted material. But Yau marks a distinct territory in a poem I’d like to spend some time with, entitled “Movies as a Form of Reincarnation: Boris Karloff Remembers Being Chinese on More Than One Occasion.”
Boris Karloff played Chinese characters six times in the course of his career, making five films in which he played the cold, quietly dignified but terrifyingly clever detective Mr. Wong, and once again in playing the main character in the film “The Mask of Fu Man Chu.” Through Yau’s prose poem, in which Boris Karloff is the central speaker, parody oscillates with a kind of momentary recovery from the rules for identity set by others and their expectations. Yau’s poem directly tackles and reconfigures the inherent racism of Hollywood circa 1938 which saw fit to cast a white actor to represent an Asian rather than casting Asians to represent themselves. Although the putative time frame is the 1930’s, the poem highlights what has long been a central predicament for Asians marked as Other, a constant need to assert one’s prerogative of self-definition in the face of pre-conceived notions from the dominant culture. At the time when Karloff was cast to play his first Chinese character, he was already famous for having played Frankenstein, the role we still most readily associate with him. As Dorothy Wang points out in her book Thinking Its Presence, Yau “recognizes the power of popular culture...to create …a Frankenstein-like Asian American subjectivity… a cobbled-together creature” who cannot fit into the mainstream seamlessly. Here is the prose passage that starts the 12 section piece:
I was not born in Dulwich or Brighton, but in Camberwell, south London. Because I was illuminated from the outset, I did not find it necessary to become an animal, a water buffalo, a rat or a snake, in order to understand what Buddha was preaching. I did not even need to know such an immense figure might truly have existed, walking the bereft earth in a faraway place. This wasn’t my job, which was easier than knowing. I didn’t need to know, I only needed to pretend, become what you saw. Among pretenders, I was one of the best. So good in fact I have been confused with many of the shadows pinned against your city walls, embracing, as Walt Whitman did, the legions of castoffs, the hordes of those fate has tossed into the kegs. But Whitman could not make them walk the streets of your city as easily as I can. This is why I am still among you, a kind of peril whose color you might think you know, but are no longer so quick and willing to say (Yau, 31).
In John Yau’s hands, an actor’s multiplicity of roles as job description underscores not only the constant requirement to invent and re-invent oneself, but also the inherent strengths and unique predicaments of the being who can speak/ must speak performatively rather than essentially. Hence, Karloff begins with his assertion that he doesn’t need to know the Buddha’s teachings on reincarnation, since “[his] job was easier than knowing. I didn’t need to know, I only needed to pretend” and later, at the end of section 2: “Remember, only a movie actor can say these things without retribution, being as the body is not, as the audience has been fooled into thinking, a vehicle of the physical” (Yau, 31). This entity, part image, part flesh, part actor, part Whitmanian poet aligned with the “legions of castoffs,” is centered and decentered by turns, simultaneously privileged and besieged by the non-optional mask of race for John Yau, the person-poet, who speaks through the racial mask’s optional use (and Hollywood appropriation) by Boris Karloff, the actor (now re-appropriated by Yau). This multiplicity serves to underscore the project’s problematizing of a kind of post-identity, one whose complexity might not have been afforded a readership within the aesthetic confines of stable selfhood and sincerity more routinely associated with minority poets and “identity politics.” Clearly in this invented, multiply-voiced role, Yau asserts the privileges of a writer’s identity rather than solely that of the Asian. In highlighting this identity on the page, what is “revealed” at the surface immediately is multiplicity, empathy, and a visionary scope. What is “concealed,” or made to serve as background rather than foreground, is the dominant culture definition of race. In doing so, the method of the mask, its capacity to create self-revealment and self-concealment simultaneously or in oscillation, creates a dramatic juxtaposition both at the level of content and of form.
Yau turns a conventional disadvantage into the advantageous position of a speaker who is a more knowing outsider, able to view doubly the civilization that seeks to cage monstrosity primarily for purposes of display. This position forces the speaker Boris Karloff into other realms, ultimately affording him knowledge of an occult underworld that defies the limits of race and personal memory, moving beyond the boundaries of individual incarnation into a conscious awareness of re-incarnation as role-playing, performative, imaginative and unfixed: “In each life I lived, the mask I wore was my own face.” (Yau, 34) The blurred “I” is ghostly, unfixed, and marginal but also given the key to the library of the occult. The artist-magician performer wears a mask of phantom malleability “at the edge of sight” in the “ruined world of [deceptive] memory.” This is a position of relative power in that the speaker knows that “the story is not a story but a chain of events” in which the audience members and himself are merely a link. The specter of racial violence, born of all too neat categories of difference, that perpetually lives at or just below the surface of normative culture, is depicted here as the ghost that “tug[s] at you when nothing and no one is there.” Like Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Mary Shelley and other writers, John Yau embraces haunting as one of the primary tropes of difference and damage. Further, Karloff’s shadowy nature allows him to quit allegiance to either side of various binary oppositions: “[I am] marked by the entrances and exits of my shadow” (32). Neither allied entirely to whiteness nor to Asian identity, exiled but thus able to seek fortune elsewhere, immigrant-like, Yau creates a speculative universe in which the speaker may move not only across space but also time, shifting lives as an actor shifts roles. This third element is hybrid, slippery, unmoored in time and body, but thereby able to take on more roles, “which served me to become more and more distant from the one you thought was me.”
Through incorporating a multiplicity of perspectives in his poetry, Yau’s dramatic monologue defies the linear narrative approach to a relatively stable, less dimensionally complex identity that had once been so much the province of minority poets in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. Nevertheless, Yau’s work, with its close affiliations to John Ashbery’s, is typically viewed still as either relatively white for an Asian writer, or as an Asian writer who rounds out a typical experimentally oriented syllabus but whose work may be read as representing the Other. Whether Yau’s literary and social-historical contributions to the art in the form of his polymorphous subjectivities create equally complex readers of poetry is, I believe, something that remains to be seen.
Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1985.
Hyesoon, Kim. Mommy Must Be A Fountain of Feathers. Translated by Don Mee Choi. Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2008.
Yau, John. Borrowed Love Poems. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.