Academic journal article Chicago Review

Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation

Article excerpt

Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. Edited by Victoria Chang. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004. 194 pp. $19.95

If lyric poetry is the most introspective of all literary forms, the most remote from public and political concerns, how should we read lyric poems that come to us under the label of Asian American writing? Should we read a minority writers embrace of the lyric as a sign of literary maturity, a transcending of narrowly ethnic concerns and political propaganda? Should we see it as a strategic withdrawal from society, following Adorno's dictum to read social pressures as "imprinted in reverse" on the lyric? Should we join those who would criticize lyric poetry as an abdication of the poet's political responsibilities to his or her community? Or are such demands themselves a form of racism, denying the writer of color the same freedom we grant to white American authors of lyric?

These are just some of the questions raised by the publication of Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, a new anthology of young Asian American poets. They are the same questions addressed a decade ago by the first two major anthologies of Asian American poetry: The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America (Anchor Books, 1993), edited by Garrett Hongo, and Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry (Kaya Press, 1995), edited by Walter K. Lew. These groundbreaking anthologies were conceived and published at a moment when Asian American literature, once seen as a vehicle for political goals, seemed to be embracing a wider range of aesthetic commitments. Both anthologies, in their very different ways, acknowledged and responded to this shifting landscape, placing their selections in dialogue with the history of Asian American writing. While Asian American Poetry cites these earlier collections, its lack of historical awareness may cause readers to question whether "Asian American poetry" has any continuing relevance as a category. Nevertheless, a few writers within its pages do offer a new kind of public lyric-one that never loses sight of the ways in which the individual consciousness is shaped by the discourses of race.

Despite its sweeping title, Asian American Poetry is a slim volume with relatively modest ambitions, surveying the work of about two dozen writers under 45, whom its subtitle calls "the next generation" of Asian American poets. As editor Victoria Chang acknowledges in part, it has less in common with The Open Boat or Premonitions than it does with collections like American Poetry: The Next Generation, whose goal is the promotion of rising young stars. It speaks less for the Asian American community than for that familiar demographic known as Generation X.

Chang is more frank than is usual about editing with an eye to the market. Asian American Poetry, she writes, is part of "the growth of anthologies that cater to specific subgroups of readers, a development that indicates readers' strong desire for editorial expertise." This volumes publication by an academic press would seem to confirm that editorial authority. Yet the historical and aesthetic narrowness of this collection stands in sharp contrast to the scope suggested by its title. The editor of a specialized anthology should not be faulted for selecting work according to her own tastes. But readers have a right to expect more from a collection titled Asian American Poetry and published by a university press. The volumes publisher, it seems, wishes to capture the growing market for Asian American literature without committing to the necessary scholarship.

The work of the "next generation" of Asian American poets, Chang writes in her introduction, represents a departure from the work of "first generation" writers like Cathy Song, Li-Young Lee, and Marilyn Chin-writers who form the core of Hongo's Open Boat. First-generation Asian American poetry, Chang argues, "tended to focus on issues of culture, identity, family, politics, ethnicity, and place. …

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