Reading Asian American Poetry
Chang, Juliana, MELUS
In the 1960s and 1970s, with the historic emergence of racial and ethnic consciousness movements in the United States, poetry was considered an important vehicle for expressing the politicization of race. Indeed, this poetry could be viewed as a "racial project" in race relations theorists Michael Omi and Howard Winant's sense of forging links between cultural representations and social dynamics of racial inequality and racialized empowerment. Poems were read at rallies, fundraisers, and other events, and circulated in independent low-budget racial and ethnic publications. Rodolfo Gonzales's Yo Soy Jouquin/I am Jouquin (1972 ) is a prime example of a poem that was valued for articulating a cultural and political subjectivity and history that had previously been marginalized. The anthology Time to Greez! Incantations from the Third World (1975), focusing on U.S. "Third World" writing and edited by a multiracial collective, included mainly poetry. Although published in 1984, Audre Lorde's argument that poetry is a genre suited to those with few material resources and little uninterrupted time might have been formulated by her observation of emergent racialized and gendered poetries during this earlier period. "Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper." Poetry, Lorde argues, "has been the major voice of poor, working class, and Colored women" (116). Lorde's well-known formulation that "poetry is not a luxury" posits that the knowledges conceived and produced by poetic discourse are vital to the cultural survival of marginalized peoples.
We can see an apparent turn away from poetry toward prose, however, beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when prose fiction became a prevalent means of circulating narratives of racial difference among a larger audience. Immensely popular works of this period, Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior were "crossover hits" that were considered successes in the mainstream marketplace, i.e., among consumers not necessarily of the same racial identity as the authors. No longer mainly the political tools of "movement" audiences, narratives of race became explicitly commodified and promoted by publishing corporations to white as well as nonwhite readers and to secondary- and college-level educational institutions as teaching materials. When we consider what works are de rigeur in the multicultural literature curriculum and in multicultural literary studies, we think mostly of prose fiction and nonfiction: Richard Wright's Native Son, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, essays by Richard Rodriguez, Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, in addition to the above-mentioned titles by Walker and Kingston. I give this recent historical account of the genres in which we "read race" in order to situate my project of reading Asian American poetry within the context of Asian American and multicultural literary studies. What accounts for the contrast in the reception of prose versus poetry within multicultural literary studies? What difference does it make to specifically recognize poetic practices as part of racial, and specifically Asian American, discourse?
When Asian American literature is recognized at all as a body of work distinct from Asian literature, it is assumed to be a recently invented and individualistic phenomenon, associated with the names of bestselling authors Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. Those that are aware of specific Asian American poets again often assume that the body of Asian American poetic writing originated in recent volumes of poetry by individual critically-lauded writers. …