Theorizing Difference in Asian American Poetry Anthologies
McCormick, Adrienne, MELUS
Anthologies of American literature and processes of canon formation are closely linked to contemporary cultural debates about Americanness, identity politics, and questions of ethnic and racial difference. In The American Equation: Literature in a Multi-Ethnic Culture (1971), Katharine D. Newman, whom this volume celebrates, writes that multi-ethnic literature "commands respect, not sentimentalization, exploitation, or neglect" (xiii). Yet she goes on to ask how a scholar can unite literatures as different as a "Japanese haiku, a Black play, a poem by Archibald MacLeish, a translation of a Yiddish story, and a monologue in dialectical English?" (xiii). Our questions today have multiplied: what happens when we take difference as our starting place and not our end? How do we attend to differences within variously defined groups as much as between them? How do we account for differences within poetic subjects themselves? How do we attend to what Newman describes in Ethnic American Short Stories (1975) as the "performance and potential, the problems and the paradox" of American identities in a constant state of process (16)? The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America (1993), edited by
Garrett Hongo, and Premonitions. The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry (1995), edited by Walter K. Lew, both take differences within the category Asian American poetry as their starting place. Each explores ethnicity and identity, never fixing that which is "ethnic" or "Asian American" or "ethnic American writing," for example, but constantly questioning the boundaries of such identifiers. These anthologies represent two of many locations where op/positional poetic practices are being formulated in contemporary American poetry. The anthologies, and the poems they anthologize, oppose mainstream anthologies that continue to marginalize and tokenize poets of color. They oppose easy categorizations of what counts as Asian American writing. They identify and disidentify with Asian Americanness. In other words, they are oppositional in the "traditional" sense of the word. But they are not merely reactive. These poets and anthologies actively examine their positionality in the complex and dynamic body of writing referred to as contemporary American poetry. Hence, they are op/positional; they examine the politics of oppositionality, but they also construct new approaches to their multiple positionalities in American literature.
In the past few decades, numerous literary critics have worked to broaden the canon of American literature to reflect more inclusive literary values. The success of Paul Lauter's work on restructuring the canon of American literature and the widespread use of The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1989), now in its fourth edition, suggest that literature departments and teachers are receptive to such initiatives. In Canons and Contexts (1991), Lauter describes his project and its culmination in the Heath Anthology as "designed to present and validate the full range of the literatures of America" (37). Cary Nelson's Anthology of Modern American Poetry (2000) engages in this same project, taking as its focus the genre of poetry. Nelson argues that the "anthology urges a major reassessment." For example, it is "the first comprehensive anthology to give sufficiently full and diverse coverage to Langston Hughes" (xxix). Furthermore, Nelson provides "more detailed annotation than any comprehensive American poetry anthology has offered before," contextualizing how processes of racialization and ethnicity situate poetic production (xxx). Yet dissenting voices continue to question the validity of such efforts, and argue that revisionary projects dilute the "truly great" American literary tradition. (1)
Jane Tompkins documents a long struggle with such points of view in her scholarship on the consolidation of American literature. Indeed, Tompkins argues, the history of American anthologies is full of editorial voices claiming that they did not "select" the great works of American literature, but merely served as vassals "codifying choices about which there could be 'no question'" (189). …