Dorothy Wang’s Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford UP, 2014) is a bold book that takes the occasion of analyzing five important Asian American writers—Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, John Yau, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Pamela Lu—to make a discipline-wide call for “a rethinking of how poetry is critically discussed today” (xix). More than just a rejuvenation of the institutionally marginalized subfield of Asian American poetry studies (though it is surely that as well), Wang’s book intends to break down the siloization of English studies that has separated, for example, Asian American writing from broader inquiries into literary form and contemporary poetics. Such intellectual apartheid has also tended to delimit, in often epistemologically condescending ways, ethnic American literary production to sociological and political frameworks.
For Wang, race and form are inextricably linked though she is careful not to essentialize either. Her book’s starting point is the assumption that Asian Americans are “constitutively and immutably ‘alien’ racialized subjects” (xix). This shouldn’t be particularly controversial.1 Wang’s more subtle, and inventive claim, is that the various ways that Asian American poets negotiate their perceived cultural and linguistic alterity “surface as much in the formal structures as in the thematic content” of their poetry writing (27). (This argument goes some ways in elucidating why I, the son of an immigrant father with a heavy accent, would have hypercathected to the English language during the course of my education and come to favor complex hypotactic constructions in my poetry.)2 Ecumenically covering the breadth of the aesthetic spectrum, from Lee to Lu, Wang redresses myopic interpretations that persist across disparate reading communities. “Whether critics focus solely on ethnic content in more mainstream Asian American poetry,” she says, “or whether critics ignore issues of race in avant-garde Asian American poetry and privilege ‘purely’ literary or formal (against the ethnic), the full complexity of Asian American poetry—and minority American poetry—has not been acknowledged” (33).
Published in 2014 at the tail end of the so-called post-race era, a dubious term to be sure, Thinking Its Presence has continued to demonstrate its timeliness for our current critical moment. In reviewing this book in 2016, I had noted that despite major poetry controversies focalized around race in 2015 (Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of “The Body of Michael Brown,” Vanessa Place’s removal from an AWP subcommittee in light of her serial republishing of Gone with the Wind via Twitter, and the inclusion of Michael Derrick Hudson in the guise of “Yi-Fen Chou” in The Best American Poetry 2015), the many discussions about poetry, race, and appropriation that followed were, unfortunately, not “accompanied by the rigorous historicization and subtle boundary crossings for which Wang calls.”3
Hence, Wang’s institutionally critical question—“Why is it so difficult for poetry critics to talk about race?” (xxiv)—is even more urgent. A recent case in point is a curious footnote in Kaja Marczewska’s This Is Not a Copy: Writing at the Iterative Turn:
The controversy about [Vanessa] Place’s [Gone with the Wind] project emerges at a particularly sensitive time in North America. But complex debates about race in contemporary creative practice are beyond the scope and focus of my argument. Those better qualified than myself have been committed to exploring the issues and a growing number of publications focusing on questions of race and poetry is testament to the current concern with the matter. . . . And while the concern with questions of race in Place’s project cannot be ignored, issues of freedom of expression, contemporary modes of creativity, and her preoccupation with models of copyright also merit attention. These serve an important role, contributing to debates about personal liberties in the contemporary society which should not be ignored. . . . And while I do acknowledge here the racism accusations and the controversy that followed as an important statement on state [sic] of the contemporary artistic practice, it is the latter concern, and Place’s work as a statement on systems of authorship and propriety models of creative production that are of relevance to my argument. For that very reason I am also not going to engage with another controversial text, Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy report, “The Body of Michael Brown,” at the Interrupt 3 festival at Brown University in 2015, although Goldsmith’s work more broadly is key to my argument and manifests very explicitly a range of concern [sic] put forward in this book.4
I quote the bulk of this periphrastic passage to demonstrate how the issue of race has considerably strained Marczewska’s language and rhetorical positioning. This is essentially an extended apophatic defense: a discussing at length of why Marczewska is not discussing race. As if to inoculate herself against the type of critique I am pursuing here, she acknowledges “the current concern” with how poetry relates to race though she attempts not to ignore race by simply stating (in a footnote) that it “cannot be ignored.” At the same time, she suggests that paying too much attention to race would conflict with exploring matters of expression, creativity, and copyright, which, according to Marczewska’s logic, supposedly have no bearing on histories of racism. There are, of course, significant points of contact between copyright and white supremacy.5 Moreover, the way in which Marczewska blithely outsources inquiries into race to “those better qualified” than herself should give us pause. Whatever our race and whatever our sub-speciality within English studies, we all need to be better qualified in participating within “complex debates about race in contemporary creative practice.”
In contrast, the contributors in this symposium posit race and ethnicity as central to any analysis of poetry. Indeed, Wang’s book offers a general method of reading “all [the] poems in the American body” (39) as it offers, on a more local level, important insights into five Chinese American authors. It is not surprising, then, that the contributors’ spirited responses below take up—in often surprising ways—a range of poets of diverse subject positions and aesthetic styles, including Claude McKay, Elizabeth Alexander, Michael Derrick Hudson, Ginger Ko, Jameson Fitzpatrick, and Juliana Spahr. As a whole, these responses by Lucas de Lima, Eunsong Kim, Julia Bloch, Laura Vrana, and Walt Hunter imagine the future of interdisciplinarity, experimentation, and multiethnic coalition within poetry studies while cutting across and reimagining the partisanships that have fractured the field. I hope that other commentators continue to think and rethink the presence of racial subjectification in contemporary American poetry in equally attentive ways.
In lieu of replying individually to each response, Wang has engaged with each contributor through an interview with me, which took place over Skype and which we edited for clarity. We hope our wide-ranging conversation—which follows up on the multiple concerns of our contributors—can spark future debate and discussion.
In a footnote, Wang recounts an anecdote that demonstrates the troubling extent to which Asian American scholars within the humanities are treated as unwelcome outsiders: “I was once asked by an Ivy League professor of philosophy whether English was my native language, though he had heard my completely American accent and knew I was an English professor; before I could even respond, he answered his own (rhetorical) question: ‘I think not’” (320n69). When I had first read this account, I had received it as a kind of inside joke: this man’s ignorance is irritating, to be sure, but his doltish racism makes him into a humorous caricature, one that I immediately recognize from numerous past experiences of my own. Nevertheless, Asian Americans, such as Wang herself, continue to be misapprehended within the academy in ways that go well beyond any laughing matter.↩
Wang says, “As we know, not all accents are created equal. A British or French accent is an added bonus, whereas a Mexican or Chinese one devalues the person bearing it and functions as a mark of shame” (319n65).↩
Michael Leong, “Forms of Asian Americanness in Contemporary Poetry,” Contemporary Literature 57.1 (2016), 140.↩
Kaja Marczewska, This Is Not a Copy: Writing at the Iterative Turn (Bloomsbury, 2018), 235–36n164.↩
K. J. Greene observes, “The history of the production of cultural property in the United States follows the same pattern as the history of the racial divide that inaugurated the founding of the Republic.” Greene, “Intellectual Property at the Intersection of Race and Gender: Lady Sings the Blues,” American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 16.3 (2008), 365.↩
Form as Opposition
Dorothy Wang, Ginger Ko, and Radical Translation
In a December 1997 interview called “Generosity as Method,” Myung Mi Kim argues that we need a poetics that refuses to follow the narrative logic of opposition. One of the challenges with committing to opposition as a politics, she says, is that opposition is so often linked to narratives of empire. Kim, in conversation with Yedda Morrison, describes a poetics that seeks an alternative way, a poetics that instead provides multiple points of entry for radicalization: “If we could simply acknowledge that any move towards radicalization doesn’t always look like just one thing, that then we can begin to talk to each other,” she tells Morrison. Opposition too often, she adds, invokes the machinery of empire:
To thematize opposition for me is a direct replication of the whole machinery of the narrative of empire making, the narrative of sense making, the narrative of power-making. I think of the last decade as a time of trying to develop some way of acknowledging that there’s an arc along which people are at different points of understanding their own meaning of opposition. If we can respect this in each other, especially around issues of ethnicity and those things which are more thematically recognizable, they don’t simply become part of a whole language of opposition.1
When Kim emphasizes ethnicity as “thematically recognizable” in modern and contemporary poetry, her comments anticipate the methodological critique made by Dorothy Wang in her 2014 book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry. Wang’s critique seeks a way beyond disciplinary oppositions (lyric/avant-garde; historicism/formalism) as well as ideological ones (politics/testimony; historical/personal); her critique leverages intricate close readings of poetic form in a range of work by Asian American poets for what that form reveals about the social world. In what she calls a “praxis-based methodology of theorizing,”2 Wang uncovers the interlinking of race, ethnicity, and poetic form in work by a number of poets not often grouped together in literary studies, poets who come from a number of different aesthetic lineages and affiliations: Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, John Yau, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Pamela Lu. But the word “interlinking” is not quite accurate enough to describe how Wang treats form in this book: one of her main interventions is to disrupt the notion that there is something called “form” and something called “the social world” and that our task as scholars can be (or is—the notion that this task is optional is one contested by this book) to discover the intersections or overlaps between them.3
Each chapter in Thinking Its Presence focuses on a poetic form that not merely gestures toward but embodies structures of the social. Form “isomorphically captures the structural logic governing social and psychic processes,” as Wang puts it in the chapter on metaphor in Li-Young Lee’s work (57), or “mirrors the structure[s]” of “subjectification,” as Wang puts it in the chapter on the subjunctive mood in Pamela Lu’s work (297). By emphasizing structure in each case, Wang’s work rejects a genre of criticism which Divya Victor has described as one in which “formal strategies are analogies for life experience.”4 Wang also takes up the same method to read poets with diverging relationships to avant-garde poetry and canonical literary institutions (for example: Lee, canonized in the mainstream Norton anthology, and Lu, published by Language poet Lyn Hejinian’s small Atelos Press), and in doing so offers a way to engage one of the questions Kim asks in the 1997 interview: “How can we keep making wider the terms by which we politicize or radicalize?” Attending to the incremental formal work poetry can do is what allows Wang to consider as fundamental and broad a poetic category as metaphor alongside the highly specific, even idiosyncratic, category of the subjunctive mood. But whereas Kim above links the question of opposition to the “thematizing” of ethnicity, Wang’s aim is to trouble sedimented notions of opposition not at the level of theme but at the level of form. And Wang’s book challenges the longstanding tendency in criticism of avant-garde poetry to treat race and ethnicity as a matter of theme, rather than of form.5
Wang’s formalism, then, is productively read against Kim’s call for new forms of radicalism in the interview I cite above. And Wang’s readings of metaphor and the subjunctive mood in particular offer a model of criticism that is as intricate in its close readings as it is sweeping in its challenges to disciplinary norms. But what about the notion of “divestment” in Kim’s remarks? Here is what Kim seems to posit as the alternative to the narrative logic of opposition:
I think there is always some kind of invisible, constant, millisecond-by-millisecond negotiation between the form and its divestment, between the poem and the world, that you’re engaging every time you decide to write anything.6
Does Kim suggest a parallel between poem and form, and between divestment and world, as if the poem were the form and the world were something else? How can a poem divest from the world and yet be resolutely of it? What if a poem divests from its own form?
In order to address these questions I want to question one specific aspect of Wang’s method, which is whether that method has the capacity to deal with form as well as its divestment. Wang uncovers how catachresis within a poem like Lee’s “Persimmons” structures the processes of cultural and linguistic naturalization (67) and the way the logic of the subjunctive mood in Lu’s Pamela structures the logic of racial interpellation (289). (I mention these two chapters in particular because the method seems especially delineated and close to the page, but other chapters follow the same methodological principle.) There is no poem without form (no such thing as free verse, as Williams would say), but how can Wang’s method address moments of what Kim calls divestment? How can the method deal with a poem of formal failure, rejection, or nonpoetic rhetorical tropes? How can an assessment of such formal failures assume a critical stance that does not neatly resolve into the whole-language opposition Kim asks us to think beyond?
Ginger Ko’s recent book Inherit offers a particular case study in which the poem divests from form, even from the start, by inviting and then undermining two rhetorical registers: testimony and translation. Ko’s book, a multivocal engagement with immigration, assimilation, motherhood, and intergenerational trauma, opens with a poem named for three years that contrasts the thematic with the formal:
by branch with
that it was never meant to be unbound:
I don’t care what
freedom has led you
to believe—this blood is for testament.7
The years in the poem’s title might refer to the birth years of three voices throughout the book—voices that are differentiated but also overlap—but also, set hyphenated as one compound, suggest the compounding of generational experience, the “branch / by branch” outreaching of affect and memory along the family tree. The “testament” in this opening poem’s last line anticipates other moments throughout Inherit in which speakers deliver “testimony”: later on a voice tells us, “I came back from Japan when the Gold Banner Manchurians were labeled as class enemies / in my long days of confinement I didn’t stop writing”;8 elsewhere a voice remembers, “She preferred not to think about the Red Guard stamping up the stairs to fetch her mother, who then disappeared for years. Now that her mother was living with her in America, she found herself spitting back injustices until her tongue ran dry.”9
The “testament” of Inherit invites and then disrupts the poem-as-testimony in the book’s entire first fifty-seven-page section by setting each poem on the left across from a poem on the right set under the word “transl.” Facing the poem quoted above, for example, we get this:
Married for five years, her husband gave her a credit card to use in case of emergency. On the way to a friend’s birthday party, she stopped for a clutch of flowers and found she had no cash. That night her husband hung his mouth down, because at the time life was very small and one could waste time showing disapproval for insignificant things. It was a lesson she never forgot, and years later when her five-year-old daughter unraveled the fabric rosebuds displayed on the dining room table, had forcibly blossomed them into full-headed roses, she wept and beat the floor with her hands because at the time life was very small and one could waste time.10
Consider the title: “transl.,” abbreviated and italicized, not quite the more standard “trans.” of citational convention but set with an extra letter; set as a subhead more than a title; an unconventional mark. And to read this paragraph as a translation is to question its status: both pages are in the same language, English; one is in verse, the other in a prose paragraph; the content doesn’t seem to track—do the themes of testament, freedom, blood, inheritance? The translation that follows the first section of “1930-1963-1984” both does and does not interpret, transmit or, in the Latin origins of “translate,” “carry across”—which is also the Greek origin of “metaphor.” The most obvious form of translation might be between Chinese and English, for this Chinese American poet writing about immigration and inherited traumas of flight. Instead, the translation is doing something else entirely despite announcing itself as a moment of legibility.
To take another example, consider this one-line translation that follows a poem about going to the market and remembers “my father’s land-born riches: strange wild parrots”:11
A constant fear of furthering the sequence.12
And this one-word translation, which follows a poem that includes the lines “I’m not into anything these days / I swallow it down”:13
In cases like these the “translation,” indexical, increasingly more abbreviated, functions as a way to reread the testament. And yet in other cases the “transl.” appears as capacious, diverging, allowing the poems on left and right simply to be read together for what emerges between them, incrementally and at an angle—undoing the work of translation and testament.
It’s also possible to read “fear of sequence” as a reflection on Inherit as a critique of poetic sequence and seriality—again even where that form diverges. I have been describing left-hand and right-hand poems, but Inherit is also two long poems set together in the same book that contain sequences within them. The first’s title, “Lacunae,” refers to a blank space or missing portion of a bound book or manuscript; it also, of course, refers to language that has been obscured or wiped away by damage to paper or parchment. The second, “Sequelae,” indicates the aftereffects of disease or injury, here the aftereffects of inherited trauma. To fear the sequence, then, suggests both fear of promulgating the legacy of intergenerational trauma as well as fear of putting these passages (or poems, or poems within poems) down on the page in this sequence. Joseph Conte contrasts a poetic sequence, which depends on its order to make meaning, with a poetic series, which contains discrete “modules” whose placement is not assigned by an external schema: “A sequence is a hypotactic structure (meaning, ‘arranged one under another’) whose elements are subordinate to or dependent on other elements for their meaning,” but “the series, however, is a paratactic structure (meaning, ‘arranged side by side’) whose elements, although related by the fact of their contiguity, are nevertheless autonomous.”15 By leveraging both seriality—translations that at times seem modular and at others vitally linked to the language they follow—and sequence—poetry that thematizes legacy and actively questions the logic of that legacy—Inherit engages both hypotactic and paratactic structures in order to move away from “the narrative of sense making” Kim describes.
To identify the social meanings embedded in those structures is the kind of formal intervention Wang asks us to make. And above I have briefly begun to historicize the poetic forms Ko draws on, which is the methodological intervention Wang asks us to make: a longer version of this discussion would trace the social embeddedness of seriality and sequence (and translation, and testament) that has constituted those forms from the beginning. And to more attentively, historically, theoretically trace the divergences from those forms will more fully reckon with what Wang calls for at the end of Thinking Its Presence: to recognize “the relation—sometimes mysterious but always abiding—between all poetic utterances and the subjectivities and histories from which they spring” (305), including those utterances that thematize and formalize their own rejections of form. Ko writes: “days of war are over / now just a modern fear,” the poem turning away from its own history even as it traces its shapes on the page: “the world is silent with words I don’t bother understanding.”16
Myung Mi Kim, “Generosity as Method: An Interview with Myung Mi Kim,” interview with Yedda Morrison in San Francisco, December 1997, Electronic Poetry Center, http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/kim/generosity.html. Kim also differentiates between “opposition” and the “dialectic” when discussing intertextuality in an interview with Divya Victor in Jacket2 in April 2013; see “Eight Discourses Between Myung Mi Kim and Divya Victor,” http://jacket2.org/interviews/eight-discourses-between-myung-mi-kim-and-divya-victor.↩
Dorothy Wang, Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), 35. Subsequent citations in text.↩
“Intersections” or “overlaps” also don’t quite connote how the field has tended to approach the relationship between form and the social. Rachel Blau DuPlessis uses the phrase “helix” to refer to the interdependence of “a text’s social and aesthetic aspects,” but Wang’s method would question the premise of this schema, perhaps suggesting there is no constant angle within that helix: there is simply no “aesthetic aspect” that is not “social.” See DuPlessis, Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 122.↩
As articulated in the Jacket2 interview with Myung Mi Kim. Victor and Kim in that conversation both question the notion that poetry happens when a “perceiving subject […] converts something into ‘experience.’”↩
Wang points out in detail in her introduction that scholars of avant-garde poetry frequently locate structures of class or gender difference in the structures of form, but that “race alone seems unspeakable” (xxii).↩
Kim, answering Morrison’s question: “How broad can something be, how much can a form hold before the form is compromised, how inclusive can a poem, a movement, a poetics be before its ‘aim’ is completely diffused?”↩
Ginger Ko, Inherit (Portland: Sidebrow, 2017), 2.↩
Ko, 35. In an interview with Grace Shuyi Liew in The Conversant (no longer online at the time of this writing), Ko describes Inherit as “an entire book of the unrelenting inheritance” of the affect of suffering, citing as influences work by Sara Ahmed on “the physical damage, on a genetic level, that trauma can inflict intergenerationally” and by Hiromi Itō on poetry as a form of “relentless” testimony. In one of Inherit’s “translations” we find a rejection of inheritance: “She didn’t triumph to own, she didn’t want the stories at all, those charred tangles in the genome” (55).↩
Joseph Conte, Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 23.↩
Reading American Poetry Multiethnically
Qualities, Not Quality
In her introduction to Thinking Its Presence, surveying the misguided state of criticism on all ethnic American poetry, Wang mentions that misreading that has haunted African American verse: “If minority writers are acknowledged as producing literature at all, it is a literature that functions mimetically and sociologically as a ethnographic window into another ‘subculture’—or, in Founder Thomas Jefferson’s words, a poetry of the ‘senses only, not the imagination’” (20).1 Citing Jefferson’s derogation of Phillis Wheatley when describing the tendency to interpret minority poetry “mimetically and sociologically” demonstrates the centuries-long persistence of racialized reading practices across American poetics.2 Further, this reference connects two threads of Wang’s work that I wish to intertwine further.
The first is her call for reading multiethnically, “examin[ing] the connections between Asian American poets and poets and writers from other minority groups” (305). Indeed, often one thing “better left unsaid” (16) among scholars is sustained examination of the relationship between, say, Asian American and African American poetry—although critics like Evie Shockley3 are analyzing the latter in terms similar to Wang’s. Reading multiethnically requires eschewing approaches that address only “recognizably black” (Nielsen 539) elements in poems by black writers (and so forth) and grappling instead with those thematic, formal, and political qualities of individual poems and bodies of work that transgress supposed racial boundaries.
The second thread is the model Wang provides for countering misreadings of ethnic poetry—which date at least to Jefferson, often erupting into controversy—by not only reading the poems through public reactions, as is common, but also using the poems to elucidate arguments surrounding them. Wang asserts: “Critics are more likely to think about formal questions—say, poetic tone and syntax—when speaking about Ashbery’s poems but almost certainly to focus on political or black ‘content’ when examining the work of Amiri Baraka. . . . We should, I argue, be reading both minority poets and canonical poets with attention to formal concerns and the social, cultural, historical, and literary contexts” (xx–xxi). In parallel, we must address both form and content in the scuffles that emerge around poems when race is at stake, rather than focusing only on their content, which enables dismissing some concerns as “political.” However, “the primacy of race in the US imaginary and reality . . . has been, and continues to be, determinant of the forms of our textual production” (19).
To illustrate, I will address two starkly different instances of public misreading of poetry and race. The first is criticism of African American poet Elizabeth Alexander’s reading at Obama’s first inauguration; the second is the backlash prompted by Michael Derrick Hudson’s poem, published in Prairie Schooner and The Best American Poetry 2015 under his “strategy” of putting the pseudonym “Yi-Fen Chou” on pieces repeatedly rejected bearing his name (Best 167). Race-related incidents4 in the poetry world, of which these are merely two examples,5 tend to elicit virtually identical reactions, regardless of circumstances: repeatedly denigrating the poem(s) as not worth reading. Yet these pieces offer useful insights if read multiethnically: Alexander’s rejects efforts to limit its lineage to only African American antecedents, intermingling multiethnic allusions; Hudson’s illustrates the use of reading even white-authored verse with attunement to multiethnic influences. I juxtapose these two specific instances to, first, contrast the forms assumed by the attendant controversies when the poet is a person of color6 versus a white writer; and, second, echo the insistence of Wang, Timothy Yu,7 and others that reading all American poetry itself with attention to race proves useful, if we apply questions that reject binary oversimplifications. As Wang shows, “the posited choices are false ones” (10).
One of those questions might be: what is that “form” on which Wang focuses? We intuitively know what “form” and “content” mean, but reading for “form” in relation to “race” of course means more than discussing aesthetic details. “Form” often becomes a proxy for what makes a poem generically legible as such—but the standards for that legibility must be rendered transparent. Allow me to demonstrate by looking at “Praise Song for the Day” and “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve.” Analyzing the texts proves key to understanding the misrecognitions that spurred controversy and offers lessons for discussing all verse. Rather than jumping to evaluative conclusions without establishing clear evaluative terms, as though “quality” is a transcendent signifier, we must discuss the plural qualities of all poems in a descriptive, not prescriptive, mode; reading texts and their attendant controversies multiethnically can help achieve that aim.
* * *
Although the announcement that Alexander would read at Obama’s inauguration was greeted positively, the poem—and her performance—were ultimately panned by editorials and (white) poet-critics as “too prosaic”8 (Ulin) and “inauthentic” (Kirsch). Occluding Alexander’s gesture of titling her poem in reference to both African American religious music and an African oral literary tradition, this occasion was read according to white-produced standards. That reaction left the poem’s qualities underexplored in favor of nearly-uniform, yet ill-defined, condemnation of its quality.
Upon closer examination, though, “Praise Song for the Day” exhibits strategies frequently praised when practiced by white poets: Alexander’s anaphora mirrors that of pieces venerated in oral and schoolroom traditions, and the poem’s elevation of quotidian activities and everyday labor has been central to “great” American verse since at least the early twentieth century. Specifically, “love thy neighbor” evokes Frost, particularly his well-known (ironized) claim that “good fences make good neighbors.” And the references to “cross[ing] dirt roads” and “know[ing] there’s something better down the road” echo his much-misinterpreted “The Road Not Taken.” Of course, they signify on Frost with the pronounced twist of black liberation theology—assertively intertwining plural legacies.
Indeed, Alexander strove overall to address multiple ethnic experiences: the poem incorporated colloquial speech significantly, but not in ways specifically evocative of black vernacular. It hinted at the labor of the enslaved and of all working-class Americans: “Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, / who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, // picked the cotton and the lettuce, built / brick by brick the glittering edifices / they would then keep clean.” The balance between “train tracks” and “bridges,” “the cotton and the lettuce,” subtly interweaves African American, Asian American, and Latinx labor histories9—but the latter references are often ignored. Many refuse to see any one poem as both grappling with black histories and invoking Frost, let alone also alluding to other cultural heritages. But “Praise Song” insists that such simultaneous, multiple, intersecting traditions are foundational to American life.
* * *
Dwelling with Hudson’s poem understandably induces discomfort, for his hoax10 highlights contradictions between the understanding that “authenticity” is a problematically essentialist concept—and the fact that we adjust reading practices based on authorship. Rather than confront these contradictions, many simply dismissed the poem as unworthy of attention. Times columnist David Orr labels it mediocre, “perfectly fine,” before concluding that projects like BAP become “tricky” when “our ideas about excellence in poems collide with our ideas about the worthiness of poets.” Whose “ideas of excellence” are “our[s]”? Judging negatively—as did representative online comments—that “the only thing interesting about this poem is imagining the Chinese-American woman who was supposed to have written it” despite not even having “looked at the Best of . . . collection yet” (Borders), enables sidestepping a host of meaningful anxieties. Adjudging the poem mediocre without defining criteria can even bolster Hudson’s false claims about the publishing industry, reinforcing his implication that poems are interpreted only through the lens of authorship. Further, the dismissal of this poem operated somewhat differently from the dismissal of Alexander’s: critique here focused on Native editor Sherman Alexie,11 who admitted favoring the poem in part due to believing it was authored by an Asian American woman. This displaced blame onto a writer/editor of color, merely gently chiding the white poet. Yet this poem can reveal more than most accede regarding the intertwined multiethnic heritages of American poetry.
For example, the poem’s trope of inadequacy regarding the speaker’s relationship to the depicted landscape can be read in multiple ways. S/he “can never remember the names of” the flowers described and asks: “What is it I’m doing here . . . Am I supposed to say something, add / a soundtrack and voiceover? My life’s spent // running an inept tour for my own sad swindle of a vacation // until every goddamned thing’s reduced to botched captions / and dabs of misinformation.” Juxtaposing “inept,” “swindle,” and “botched” hyperbolizes the speaker’s incompetency. Orr deemed this theme “predictable,” deciding that the poem is merely “about consciousness . . . as so many poems these days tend to be.”
However, the poem intertwined references to: Greek mythology; the Bible; Western, Anglo-American Romantic lyric (bumblebee, “Ancient Purpose”); and Asian cultural stereotypes. Addressing only one of these is reductive, whether one does so to justify reading the poem as influenced by Asian American literature or to critique Hudson for appropriation, yet many white readers displayed that narrow focus. Hudson’s “fractured, // not-quite-right English” and “seeds / pooped by ancient tigers,” served as equivalents to “mascons” in black poetry, or “certain words and constructions” that “seem to carry an inordinate charge . . . [indicating] a massive concentration of Black experiential energy” (Henderson 44).
By contrast, Alexie’s subsequent explanation argued that the poem “contained nothing that [he] recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian” and that it is instead “obsessed with European culture.” Thus we see how the evaluator’s positionality influences evaluation: Alexie’s background and experiences shaped his reading, just as many white commentators saw the poem differently, and just as I as a white scholar of African American poetries read it still differently. We must not let these limitations lead to such heavy emphasis on signal phrases/forms as to prohibit attention to the entirety of poems. That move reduces discussions about (value-laden) “quality” to a single dimension, rather than addressing poems’ many (value-neutral) qualities.
* * *
Talking together about Alexander’s and Hudson’s poems, and exposing the parallel and divergent forms of the surrounding fights, also yields new questions and clarifies terms. The tendency to zoom in on “ancestors” in the former and on “fractured, // not-quite-right English” in the latter evince clumsy efforts to grapple with how racial authenticity affects poetic evaluation—when we could be querying that very concept, addressing head-on its role in undertheorized evaluative terms. Further, the pieces’ relative similarity in terms of diction, line length, and layout demonstrates the narrow range within which most American poetry is permitted to operate. What qualities of linguistic/formal experimentation can poems exhibit to prompt wholly different questions about race and poetry—and what poems do so, but are segregated into separate conversations on the “avant-garde,” as Yu, Wang, Shockley, Nielsen, Nathaniel Mackey, Urayoán Noel,12 and others are highlighting?
It is therefore troubling that a poem’s “quality” often becomes a trump card to end these arguments. The brilliant Brian Kim Stefans even performs this move in his “Open Letter to the New Yorker” that pointed out “the racism he’s found to permeate the[ir] controversial” profile of Kenneth Goldsmith (Harriet): “The real issue with Kenny’s Michael Brown piece, to my mind, is the general awfulness of Kenny’s artistic production” (Stefans). I agree with his assessment but seek more specific terms to express it, terms less reliant on the ideal that all good critics can agree on certain markers of aesthetic/formal quality and goodness/awfulness. That awfulness is tied to aesthetics, politics, and myriad inextricable issues that must be brought to light, examined as plural, intersecting qualities. (Orr highlighted that perhaps the most interesting outcome of the controversy was Alexie’s dissemination of the criteria by which he chose the poems for BAP 2015; rendering such clarity more widespread would certainly be productive.)
The requirement to respond publicly to race-related poetic incidents understandably provokes knee-jerk responses. But our critical conversations must be subtler, addressing unexamined assumptions about poetic “quality.” The useful question is not whether these pieces are excellent or “awful,” but what work they can do, and for whom. For critics of ethnic poetry, these poems and events help identify modern iterations of Jefferson’s dismissal of Wheatley’s verse as a product of “the senses only, not the imagination.” The expanded “imagination” needs to be that of critics, who at times remain behind poets in complexity needed to address how readings of race remain tied to the “senses.” A step toward expansively asking new questions can result from reading all poems multiethnically, in modes that embrace the non-binary multiplicity of allusions and lineages that constitute American poetry. Doing so may be enabled by at least bringing into the same spaces conversations on black, Asian American, Latinx, Native, and white poetries. That can leave us on uncertain terrain—but it is a necessary start, for if we attend to the intertwined heritages of poems and their contexts, they themselves help guide us toward richer “cross-cultural” (Alexie) analysis and clearer articulation of all analytical terms.
Alexie, Sherman. “Sherman Alexie Speaks Out on the Best American Poetry 2015.” Best American Poetry (blog). September 7, 2015.
Alexie, Sherman, and David Lehman, eds. The Best American Poetry 2015. New York: Scribner, 2015.
Borders, Dorothy. “Poetry Sunday: The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve.” The Nature of Things (blog). September, 13, 2015.
Harriet staff. “‘Open Letter to the New Yorker’ from Brian Kim Stefans Points Out Structural Racism of Goldsmith Profile.” Poetry Foundation (blog) October 5, 2015.
Henderson, Stephen. Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References. New York: Morrow, 1973.
Jarrett, Gene. Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature. New York: New York University Press, 2011.
Kirsch, Adam. “Adam Kirsch on Elizabeth Alexander’s Bureaucratic Verse.” The New Republic, January 20, 2009.
Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. “This Ain’t No Disco.” In The World in Time and Space: Towards a History of Innovative American Poetry, 1997–2000, edited by Joseph Donahue and Ed Foster, 536–46. Jersey City: Talisman House, 2002.
Orr, David. “Michael Derrick Hudson Posed as a ‘Yi-Fen Chou’: Did the Name Sell His Poem?” New York Times, September 9, 2015.
Shockley, Evie. Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011.
Stefans, Brian Kim. “Open Letter to the New Yorker.” Free Space Comix: The Blog. October 4, 2015.
Ulin, David. “Inaugural Poem Is Less Than Praiseworthy.” Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2009.
Wang, Dorothy. Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.
Unless otherwise specified, parenthetical citations refer to Thinking Its Presence.↩
Just as Wang’s book illustrates that Asian American in/exclusion in/from citizenship is connected to views of Asian American poetry, African American literary scholars highlight that Jefferson used this aesthetic denigration to prove that “blacks do not have the capacity for formal political representation and governance” (Jarrett 32).↩
For example, Shockley asks us to dismantle “the assumption that, if race is going to be significant to a poem by an African American, we will be able to tell at a glance” (196).↩
I use this term intentionally for its evocation of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), where the title illustrates the ubiquity rather than anomalousness of occurrences that are unspeakable in polite company.↩
See also: the heated exchange at the 2011 AWP conference over African American poet Claudia Rankine’s critique of white poet Tony Hoagland’s “The Change” as racialized, which became the basis for an online forum Rankine cultivated and from which she edited selections into The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (2014); Helen Vendler’s and Marjorie Perloff’s critiques of black poet Rita Dove’s editorial work for The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2011); the outcry against white Conceptualist Kenneth Goldsmith in the summer and fall of 2015 after his remixing the autopsy report of slain African American teenager Michael Brown as performance art, which prompted criticism, a high-profile piece in The New Yorker, and subsequent backlash; the simultaneous exposure of white Conceptualist Vanessa Place’s Twitter project reproducing Gone with the Wind (1936), which caused Place to be disinvited from conferences and removed from high-stature committees, due in part to what was widely viewed as an inadequate statement of (non-)apology to “those who were deservedly hurt,” to whom she “ha[d] no response”; and the racist backlash sparked by the January 2016 awarding of the (British) T. S. Eliot Prize to Sarah Howe, a poet of Chinese descent, among others. Those instances where a white poet has come under fire for addressing race in ways viewed as improper (Hoagland, Goldsmith, Place, Hudson, etc.) result in greater sympathy for the poet. By contrast, poets of color whose work have become the center of racially charged controversies, like Rankine, Dove, or Howe, tend to be subjected to more negative scrutiny.↩
Although space prevents my diving into the subject, gender (and class, sexuality, etc.) also shape such responses.↩
See Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009).↩
Labeling it “prosaic” evoked Wang’s question, “Who has the power to decide who gets to sit at the table of ‘real’ poetry, and what kind of table it will be?” (xxiv).↩
I am indebted to Michelle Nancy Huang for helping me think through this point and clarify this piece generally.↩
Hudson was not claiming to be a Rachel Dolezal-type figure identifying “transracially”; he revealed the “hoax” in his biographical note after Alexie selected the piece. Thus, it was his attempting to use the occasion to make a point about the publishing industry that poets of color know to be false that induced justifiable outrage.↩
Tellingly, Orr’s article was accompanied by an image of Alexie, not Hudson.↩
See, for example, his In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (University of Iowa Press, 2014).↩
We Owe Our Antagonizers NOTHING
Experimental and formal readings of poetry are dependent on the recognition of the experiment, which is often a racialized endeavor. Conversely, lyric readings are dependent on the recognition of the subject, which too is the process of racialization. Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry, by Dorothy Wang, takes up the recognition of the experiment and its subject by examining current methodologies of poetic genre and form. Throughout the book Wang forensically examines the continuity of blanket whiteness at poetry conferences, journals, and criticism forums. Materially, she lays out a landscape in which nonwhite critics have little structural presence in the conceptualization re: experimentalism. In this oeuvre, it should not surprise that poems by Asian American poets are allotted into formulaic projections, their language relegated to secondary forms: an argument so often debunked yet as Thinking Its Presence displays, has become incorporated into the marrow of US poetics.
While being a groundbreaking text on Asian American poetics, Thinking Its Presence situates the racialization of the lyric vs. experimental debate for the field of poetry studies. Lyric poetry has been defined in relation to the subject position; its form is said to posture a narrative or offer individual insight and personal feeling. The white lyric poet is in conversation with or against the nation state, and their work is to themselves. Experimental poetry supposedly strikes against this subject-driven poetry through formal inventions that antagonize quaint notions of inspiration, self, and feeling.
Recognition is pivotal and essential to this rendering of form and genre1. Whether or not the vehicle has been witnessed and for whom the omission remains is one of Wang’s central arguments. For these reasons, formal methodologies might be best described as a practice of racialized reading and recognition practices, and not a structure of learned sophistication. Wang argues,
Whether critics focus solely on ethnic content in more mainstream Asian American poetry or whether critics ignore issues of race in avant-garde Asian American poetry and privilege the “purely” literary or formal (against the ethnic), the full complexity of Asian American poetry—and minority American poetry—has not been acknowledged. These critical approaches profoundly impoverish our understanding of the complex multidimensionality and contradictions of American and English-language poetry. (33)
Rather than taking up form as set of recognizable devices, techniques, stabilized for close reading as previous studies have performed, or isolating content, Wang takes up form as the mediated and unstable structures of politicized language formation. The forms Wang examines range from: metaphor, translation, irony, parody, difficulty, and abstraction/grammar. Utilizing the poetic forms of “lyric” poets such as Li-Young Lee and Marilyn Chin, Wang unhinges the racialized dynamics of their genre limitation. If say, “unreadability” or “difficulty” (as narrative, beautiful, direct poetry allows for easy consumption, which the avant-garde purports to push against) marks the difference between lyric (and here, lyric does not fluidly absorb the “ethnic” as Lee and Chin are not read as lyrically writing about an abstract white self but divulging the secrets of ethnicity) and experimental, where could they fit? Wang interrogates how Chin’s deployment of irony and Lee’s unstable metaphors have been managed as content and not form in order for their work to remain in the thresholds of lyric poetry, rather than experiments of their own. She argues that previous formal reading techniques have been unable to register the Asian American subject, and work instead to conflate readings of race to a subpar category. Throughout the book she offers new ways to read Asian American poetry as connected experiments, rather than as didactic ethnic markers of history.
In my discussion I will focus on Wang’s convincing argument that US experimental poetic studies and its criticism is rooted in racial dispossession. Through my engagement with Wang, I wish to display how the methodology of Thinking Its Presence pushes forth a radical, materialist politics that the textual arguments themselves often do not fully encapsulate. Ultimately I wish to argue that Thinking Its Presence lays the groundwork for a premier poetic studies imbued in institutional critique, racial politics, that tends most carefully to poiesis.
* * *
In chapter 5, “Undercover Asian: John Yau and the Politics of Ethnic Identification and Self-identification,” Wang analyzes the criticism poet John Yau received while critiquing the whiteness of American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders, an anthology of US poetry. In the chapter Wang describes the racialization of the debate and recounts a familiar mise-en-scène: Yau writes a critique of the racial makeup of the anthology (mostly white! surprise!). The editor Eliot Weinberger responds not by addressing the critique but by demanding racial evidence of Yau: namely, has Yau behaved authentically minor thus far? Weinberger responds not to the criticism of the anthology but by stating that Weinberger himself is more authentic than Yau (“I spent years studying Chinese—which John can barely speak and cannot read” ). Through this familiar scène-en-scène, structural critiques of the anthology become absolved as personal drama.
Taking up the criticism leveled concerning authenticity, Wang examines the use of parody in Yau’s “Genghis Chan: Private Eye.” Throughout this forty-four-part poem that spans Yau’s many poetry collections, a Genghis Khan character is refashioned through the detective persona of Charlie Chan. In the series, Wang displays how Yau parodies detective work as the processes of racial assimilation. The practice of the detective: the guises, the guises for passing, the gathering of the other’s information, organizing their stories to decide and select the truth to be accepted—the detective is the perfect racial parody/allegory. The parody of Charlie Chan, who is a white appropriation of the oriental stereotype, is enacted through the refashioning of Genghis Khan, its masculinist historical contradiction. Yau’s parody of the racist detective conqueror, or racist construction of a simulacra of the detective reveals the racialized labor in both the figure, and the author. Pleading with injury is what the victim does and confession is the criminal’s activity: mocking the agenda of the agent as the agent is the role of someone who has already crossed and can signal?
Of the political possibilities of Yau’s parody Wang writes, “Given the overwhelming power and ingrainedness of American racial representation and discourses, the degree to which any parodic text can effectually undermine or overthrow remains an open question” (212). Yau’s “Genghis Chan” as a critical figure to assimilation narratives remains debatable. Yet, chapters 5 and 6 spotlight the structural positioning of nonwhite criticism as formally destabilized through racial dispossession. In the case of Yau’s criticism of Weinberger’s anthology, akin to the function of “Genghis Chan,” Yau’s lack of authenticity was under investigation. The setup was in itself a kind of a parody: a critique of whiteness must come at the behest of verified non-whiteness, which can only be approved by whiteness. In the case of Yau, and as Wang demonstrates, parody might be one response to the phenomena of verification as it allows for repetition and reexamination. However, it is a tenuous process as the form is wholly dependent on recognition.
Additionally, and through Weinberger’s criticism of Yau and Yau’s poetics, we can see the historically rooted dichotomy imposed by experimental poetry criticism. The marker of racial dispossession means that one cannot speak of it too often, for fear of being marked aesthetically infantile. For nonwhite poets writing about immigration, race, or what is visibly viewed as immigration/race will mark them a lyric poet. And yet apparently, not writing explicitly about (or parodying) race, immigration, assimilation marks the Asian American poet an unqualified critic of their racialized existence.
Pushing beyond existence, what are the racial politics, the political potential of an Asian American poetics? In Wang’s extrapolation on the singularity of Asian American Poetry (rooted in a complicated relationship to immigration, colonialism and language, and permeant foreignness) and Asian American-ness (the endless wars, the forgotten wars) she leaves a potential either/or step. Citing a verdict from Plessy v. Ferguson Wang argues that “the Chinese were seen as more unassimilable than even ex-chattel slaves” (25). And cites Supreme Court Justice Harlan’s dissent saying as much. While assimilation is a point of contention that Asian American poetry will continue to grapple with, this variant elides how in the torturous present of segregation, Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation for all, including Asian Americans. Any comparison—as more—elides how Brown v. Board of Education overturned Rice v. Lum, the 1927 Supreme court case that ruled against Chinese students from attending white schools2. In effect, how rights for nonwhite persons are won and how freedom is conceptualized expands the framing of as more. Asian American history cannot be discussed in isolation, as it is intimately intertwined with antiwar, Civil Rights, and transnational feminist social movements. A horizontal discussion, rather than a comparative one, is not about inclusion or additions: it’s imperative to the reckoning of Asian American. The formation and trajectory of Asian Americans are relational processes and in pushing for a distinctively nonwhite, Asian American poetic trajectory, Thinking Its Presence limits its engagement with the politics of multiethnic coalitions, histories, and antagonisms.
There are two instances in particular that struck as constrained encounters full of potential. First is the discussion of Li-Young Lee’s usage of metaphor, and second is the function of irony and race mixture in Marilyn Chin’s poetics.
In chapter 2, “Metaphor, Desire, and Assimilation in the Poetry of Li-Young Lee,” Wang lays out a formative reading of Lee’s work, and the racial work of forms. She juxtaposes the biography of the poet to his poetics. In countless interviews Lee denounces the politics of his work for a more digestible “universal” art narrative (51). And yet by formally reading Lee’s metaphors, Wang exhibits its politics. Wang writes of Lee, “Metaphor’s structure—always reaching toward but never arriving—also mirrors the structure of memory, a major obsession with Lee, and the immigrant and hyphenated poet’s relationship to language, both the ancestral language from which he no longer has access and the new language, English, which he strives to speak ‘properly’” (61). Even in the pursuit of a universal artistic transcendence, Wang argues that Lee’s formal experiments (metaphor) recount the processes of racial formation.
This move toward the universal, yet technically concerned with the particularistic, is a reoccurring narrative for mainstream nonwhite writers. Lee’s mainstream acceptance comes with his depoliticized, racial rhetoric. This seems to be a story that’s shared across colorlines: from immigration to assimilation to the successful writer who wishes to transcend it all. For this reason it was surprising that the chapter ended with Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” with Wang writing, “This nation, this idea, and this poetry we can call ‘American’ is large and contains multitudes. Minority poets can be poets of the soul as well as of the body” (92). Perhaps in a move to contextualize Asian American Studies for readers unfamiliar, Wang compiles Lee into a familiar white canon rather than suggesting that Lee (in any movement to and away from the high towers of the canon) fundamentally question poetics a priori. This contextualization towards a white American ideal of its expanding self, while understandable, does a disservice to how Lee’s metaphor may be in conversation with Black and Latinx poetics. Labor narratives, (forced) immigration, the complexities of assimilation, and the rhetoric to transcend this history ghastly link nonwhite rhythms. In Wang’s very analysis of Lee’s metaphor these linkages can be witnessed.
This witnessing of others also occurs in chapter 4, “Irony’s Barbarian Voices in the Poetry of Marilyn Chin.” In reading the usage of irony in Chin’s poetry, Wang lays out the literary history surrounding the deployment of this form: from early claims that irony works to support and maintain structures of power, to contemporary arguments concerning heteroglossia. Wang situates Chin as both a figure that deploys the variations of irony as predescribed by canonical, white literary scholars, and at the same time altering their preexisting claims. She writes that “using a multivoiced irony allows this Chinese American female poet to mimic and dissect conflicting states of self-hatred, self-colonization, and erotic desire for the white male, even as she hits hard at forms of domination” (116).
Wang is careful to situate that Chin is not reinventing irony, but floating inside its prospects. She writes, “Chin’s use of irony does not set up simple either-or-formulations or oppositions—of ‘Chinese’ or ‘American,’ of Chinese American female victim versus Chinese male oppressor, and so on (117).” However, we find that the focus of much of Chin’s irony circles race mixture and the romance of miscegenation. Chin’s descriptions of white male lust for Asian women, and Asian male desire for white womanhood test the limits of irony in contemporary poetry. Chin’s irony is deployed at foundational US arguments regarding, race and immigration, but particularly and repeatedly concerns around race-mixture. In Chin’s poetry, white men and white women appear as lovers and colonizers who desire and harm. Likewise, the various speakers of Chin’s poetry desire them and mock them. Of the descriptions on the potentiality of race mixture in “Happiness: A Manifesto,” Wang writes, “There seems to be no conflicted ambiguity to this sexual hunger, though there is obvious ironic humor in the description (‘My post-colonial position . . . was supine’)” (148). Through the deployment of irony, the speakers range from activists to recklessly active settlers to the politically unhinged. Akin to parody Wang notes that irony is dependent on its political recognition.
In addition, perhaps misrecognition as a device is useful as it reflects contemporary Asian American politics. Wang writes, “This fear and loathing and celebratory desire structure the Asian American woman’s subjectivity and her desires for whiteness (and white recognition for her as a subject, citizen, and as a poet)” (145). Desire for whiteness through race mixture (miscegenation) is in itself an ironic approach when taking the greater US context into consideration, particularly chattel slavery and genocide. From systematic forms of gendered violence and rape, forced sterilization, and boarding schools, to relocation—for native, Black, and Latinx communities—romantic miscegenation covers but one aspect of the fears and desires of racialized existence. In fact, romance through this process is a kind revisioning. Utilizing race mixture as a metonym for assimilation may be ironic: it may also be literal and historical. And through this Wang points out, Chin is at risk of perpetual misreading. Which leads to me wonder about the race mixture unimagined in Chin’s poetics that can be imagined in the analysis, as the analysis succeeds in opening up something else.
* * *
Throughout the text Wang models institutional critique for poetic studies. She takes up familiar arguments in literary scholarship (the racelessness of forms, racial authenticity, originality) and juxtaposes their argument with their events. Universities, presses, conferences, and critics are examined historically and theoretically. The methodology exhibits that nonwhite poets and critics make poetry and poetry criticism despite field constraints, and in spite of the institutional conditions against their making.
For this reason, I found it peculiar that Wang opens the book by crediting the field debt of experimental poetry to the very figures who normalized racial antagonisms in the scholarship. While critiquing the racial politics of the 2008 PLMA special issue of “The New Lyric Studies,” Wang writes of the contributor Marjorie Perloff, “Anyone who works on avant-garde poetic writing in this country owes a debt to her—including myself” (7). Throughout the text, Wang’s methodology and material pushes against the gesture of debt, origins, and order, as much of her argument concerns how the field of poetic studies refused to read Asian American poets, or misread them consistently. Of this poetic institutional history Wang writes,
To discuss American poetry and not discuss a single American minority poet—or include only the token one or two—speaks volumes about both a delusive blindness and a double standard in poetry studies. Because minority subjects and cultures as viewed in the American imaginary as occupying the realm of the bodily, the material, the social, they are often overlooked when considering questions of literary and the cultural (in the sense of cultural value and high culture). Form, whether that of traditional lyric or avant-garde poems, is assumed to be the provenance of a literary acumen and culture that is unmarked but assumed to be white. (20)
Providing examples Wang discusses the dynamics of “The New Lyric Studies” issue. The issue rehashed many of the polemics (we aren’t studying enough of the great poets anymore) and grievances (no one cares about poetry anymore) of poetic studies in its usual “post-race” fashion. Eight of the nine scholars featured were white, and they wrote implicitly or explicitly about whiteness and poetry. The PMLA is just one example of many in Thinking Its Presence. Poetic formations have been and remain structurally white in its imagination of the reader, speaker, and thinker. The evidentiary findings in her book support this claim.
With this example Wang discusses the 2010 “Rethinking Poetics” conference at Columbia University. Akin to the 2008 PMLA issue, nonwhite critics existed as token figures, exceptions to the blueprint. Throughout we see the inclusion of nonwhite critics and poets to institutional forums as just that: inclusions. Their presence is treated as unpivotal, unfoundational, unorganizing: tertiary.3 So then where does nonwhite poetry criticism come from, and is our debt to our very antagonizers? This argumentative yet methodological contradiction is painful as much as it is erotic: Wang points to the roots of whiteness in poetic studies as needing to be pulled up and out, while rhetorically suggesting the notion of repayment (what is a debt other than a transaction that remains?). Citationally, white poets and authors continue to appear; in the analyses a nonwhite, cross-racial future looms.
If there is a debt to the tradition-building of an experimental poetic studies, it is to Thinking Its Presence and figures such as Dorothy Wang, who forge political and unfixed theorems for the experiment poetry allows.
A larger and longer conversation regarding recognition must be had in poetry studies. One scholar who has written about the difficulties of this terrain in philosophy is Patchen Markell. See Markell, Patchen. Bound by Recognition. Princeton: Princeton University. 2003.↩
These two cases were referenced directedly during Claire Jean Kim’s talk at the 2014 UC Irvine’s APAAC conference, in the workshop “Anti-Blackness and Asian Americans.” I want to reference her work explicitly as her scholarship has taken up most pivotally how anti-Blackness continues to structure the critiques of white supremacy made in Asian American communities, by both activists and scholars.↩
This can no longer be. Thinking Its Presence prompts us towards this unbeing.↩
Race, Wokeness, and the Possessive Individualism of American Poetry
In her discussion of Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel, Dorothy Wang excerpts a passage that continues to bear relevance on questions of literary authorship, subjectivity, and race:
The self was a mystery so consumed by its own questioning that it had no room left for us, a condition which we nevertheless preferred since we were totally unprepared for the alternative. . . . We desperately depended upon the spectacle of the large “I,” with all its artifice and white noise, to keep us alive and functional in the world. We sometimes wondered who this “I” really was. Raw speculations placed “I” at the dawn of Western civilization. . . . There was no way to find “I” without by definition losing it, and therefore losing ourselves. (33–34)
As Wang points out, Lu’s writing pushes against normative conceptions of the self. Even as Lu “resists her interpellation into the category of identity implied by ‘ancestral memory,’ she does not find solace in that very American refuge, the privileged idea of the ‘self’ or the ‘individual’ (or its corollary reserved for ethnic Americans: ‘identity’)” (286). Extending Wang’s analysis of Pamela: A Novel to other examples, I suggest that both the Asian American poet and her critic anticipate the lyric’s current configurations. In tackling the reception of minoritized poetry, Wang and Lu mark a lacuna wherein experimental poets of color—forever subject to exclusionary reading practices—have recently contended with a shift in the politics of recognition. Spectacularly late to diversity management, literary institutions have finally centered writers of color in light of a heightened awareness of racial injustice and the global resurgence of white nationalism. And yet, this inclusiveness has mostly followed the script of multiculturalism, incorporating otherness by privileging certain aesthetics over others. While poets such as Bhanu Kapil, Jennif(f)er Tamayo, S*an D. Henry-Smith, Eunsong Kim, Layli Long Soldier, Demian DinéYazhí, and Precious Okoyomon reenvision the self—displacing the waning influences of a white avant-garde lineage—a possessive individualism characterizes US poetry. To map the lyric’s contemporary subject, I explore how a propertied self becomes compatible with anti-racist speech. My discussion makes connections between critical and literary texts in what could only be a preliminary attempt at charting the relationship between race, neoliberalism, and lyric subjectivity.
According to Grace Hong, “Because neoliberalism is so centrally a refusal to recognize its own violence, and a stubborn pretense that the racial, gendered, and sexual basis for the distribution of protected life and premature death has been remedied and leveled, it is structured by a deep disavowal” (Hong 29). To position Pamela: A Novel against such dismissal of structural violence, Wang illuminates the text’s critique of post-identitarian discourses and the straw-man of essentialized identity. As Wang argues throughout her book, critics of both experimental and mainstream poetry have de-racialized form, positing “the provenance of a literary acumen and culture that is unmarked but assumed to be white” (20). Poets of color, in turn, are taught to avoid identity politics. By this logic, to see race in aesthetic form is to essentialize identity and uphold a fixed, transparent notion of the “I” that does not account for the social mediation of the self. For Wang, Lu’s writing debunks this dichotomy between avant-garde authorship and raced perspective. Demonstrating the degree to which form is always already an extension of identity formation, Lu articulates not the fiction of a stable self but the processes whereby subjects are continuously shaped by race, gender, sexuality, class, and other vectors of power. The social field is what the text navigates, then, with a deftness and complexity that critics have neglected in the work of Lu and other Asian American poets. Here Wang lays groundwork for an urgently needed model for reading poetry beyond calcified paradigms. Sensitizing us to the ways race and form are enmeshed, Wang traces an othered subjectivity in Lu’s writing that escapes whiteness and heteronormativity even as it shows itself to be structured through the latter’s optics. Because of their double consciousness, the experimental poet of color is able to anticipate the white reader and intervene in racialization—an imaginative striving and form of survival that I interpret as the taking back of scopic power. Instead of allowing the white gaze to continue seeing without being seen—presuming an unmarked vantage point—Lu’s speaker upends this very act. At the same time as Lu seems to overcompensate for her otherness through linguistic virtuosity, her writing encodes an “unplaceable essence” that resists legibility, eluding the optics of whiteness (Lu 31). By focusing on the subjunctive mood in Pamela: A Novel, Wang thus argues that Lu situates Asian American diasporic experience less through readily identifiable thematic markers than the opacities of grammatical structures. Borrowed from a poem by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, the title of Wang’s book highlights this dynamic whereby alterity is experienced and manifested at the threshold of meaning, beyond the level of denotation. A secretive and slippery presence that proves irreducible to “superficial citations” or the “reifiable and quantifiable,” racial otherness inhabits language as mood, feeling, syntax, and tone (301–24). While indexing the harms of assimilation, Lu does not so much name her subjectivity as much as animate its (dis)location “not in a ‘here’ or ‘there’ but in the hoped-for, the contingent, the hypothetical, the impossible, the utopian, in the ‘as if’” (299).
If Thinking Its Presence situates a post-racial era before wokeness and poetry’s focus on racial justice, Wang’s readings raise the stakes of experimental writing today, shedding light on continuities. To consider the present juncture, I reframe Wang’s arguments in light of Jodi Melamed’s and Sara Ahmed’s trenchant discussions of neoliberal anti-racist discourse. Putting Wang in dialogue with other critical race scholars allows me to foreground new hegemonies in US poetry while showing the work of experimental nonwhite poets to be as crucial as ever. According to Melamed, US literature reveals how during neoliberal multiculturalism “newly privileged racial subjects have emerged—the white liberal, the multicultural American, and the multicultural global citizen, respectively—along with newly stigmatized racial subjects, including the un-American, the overly race conscious, the monocultural, and the illegal” (Melamed 13). For Ahmed, the self-declared white anti-racist would be one such subject of racial privilege. Analyzing how the very recognition and declaration of one’s whiteness often ends up reproducing white supremacy, Ahmed writes, “Calling for whiteness to be seen can exercise rather than challenge white privilege, as the power to transform one’s vision into a property or attribute of something or somebody” (Ahmed 2004). By linking Melamed’s and Ahmed’s critiques of the propertied subject, I argue that two recent poems by mainstream and experimental poets alike reveal an idealization of whiteness despite their purported anti-racism. The fact that each poem limits itself to the declaration of whiteness points to a possessiveness masked as wokeness, narrating a self whose ownership has formal as well as political bearings. If Lu’s writing asks us to rethink the opacities of subjectivity and the social embeddedness of form, the poems I discuss claim a transparency that could only be manufactured. They reiterate whiteness as a “‘standpoint’, a location from which to see selves, others, and national and global orders” (Frankenberg 113).
Published within the last few years in the New Yorker and Boston Review, Jameson Fitzpatrick’s “White Gays”1 and Juliana Spahr’s “My White Feminism” locate their speakers at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality.2 Signaling awareness of how white privilege operates in queer and feminist circles, Fitzpatrick and Spahr perform a well-worn script of admission. Each poem registers the familiarity of this script by capitalizing their categories of identity, ironizing the act of self-labeling:
What I’m trying to say is
proximity is the problem with White Gays.
I’m one of them, so I can say that. (Fitzpatrick)
Germaine Greer is a white feminist.
And I resemble that remark.
All day long My White Feminism do this and do that. (Spahr)
Positioning themselves at the same time as they poke fun at their self-designation, Fitzpatrick and Spahr manufacture a kind of dis-identification. By admitting to their racial privilege, the speakers of each poem simultaneously assume proximity to and distance from whiteness, invoked here not as a formation of state power but as a checklist of undesirable social dispositions. In Fitzpatrick’s poem, the clueless figure of entitlement is also an object of desire, a cishet white male train passenger who splays on the seats of a train. For Spahr, it is the Australian feminist Germaine Greer who triggers the leftist academic’s ambivalence and handwringing, leading her to feel “stupid rude / for talking to them about Germaine Greer and her pretty crotch.” Despite their affiliations with mainstream and experimental camps, respectively, Fitzpatrick’s and Spahr’s poems converge formally and thematically. Reframing the aesthetics of abjection that has characterized much white-authored queer/feminist poetry in the past decade, the declarative “I” of “White Gays” and “My White Feminism” cannot but draw on the impulses of Confessionalism, foregrounding shame as an affective model for white subjectivity. The speaker of “My White Feminism” even professes to having edited “the listing of childhood memories into a sex scene” for sensational effect and googling Sylvia Plath along with Ted Hughes’s other lovers, satirizing her self-centeredness. “White Gays” similarly reflects on its composition, describing the universalism of white cishet male subjectivity in literature as the epitome of privilege: “It is also my not having / to describe his leather loafers for you / to fill in the white space of his body / straight and able.”
Pointing to the literary expressions of whiteness that inform their writing, Spahr and Fitzpatrick recast the white anti-racist’s anxieties and complicities through the lens of gender and sexuality. Such triangulation, however, demands analysis on a scale larger than the world of each poem permits. Even as both poets contextualize themselves within literary tradition, I argue that their poems narrow the scope of race relations, relegating racism to the sphere of individual psychology as “a matter of ignorance, irrationality, feeling, or habit” (Melamed 15). Fetishizing white guilt, each poem rebrands the admission of complicity as virtue signaling. As Ahmed suggests, “The white subject that is shamed by whiteness is also a white subject that is proud about its shame. The very claim to feel bad (about this or that) also involves a self-perception of ‘being good’” (Ahmed 2004). By signaling an ability to see racism where the normative white queer/feminist fails to do so, Spahr and Fitzpatrick center not the voices of people of color but the individualized possibility of white exceptionalism. Directed at what could only be a white audience and imagined community, “My White Feminism” and “White Gays” repackage the self for woke times, reducing anti-racism to an attribute of the intersectionally enlightened, aptly guilt-ridden subject. Never mind that intersectionality was first theorized by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, or that the critique of whiteness as a social location goes as far back as W. E. B Du Bois’s The Souls of White Folk (1920). Beyond Spahr’s passing mention of Black feminists (intended to mock the tokenizing gestures of a reading group), neither poem works through the white anti-racist’s indebtedness to the labor of Black thinkers. Here I contend that the lyric expression of shame proves strategic. While letting the subject dwell “ethically” on their positionality, shame about being white does not relinquish racial power. Instead, the amplification of shame drowns out a critical and spiritual debt whose recognition would threaten self-possessed whiteness. What Lu calls “the spectacle of the large ‘I’’’ thus restores each speaker’s sense of ownership precisely as “artifice and white noise”—the self-referential loop of the propertied lyric. Duly catalogued and personalized, whiteness becomes a condition that might be psychologically contained and managed by its beneficiaries rather than structurally dismantled in relation and solidarity with people of color. In “White Gays,” the critique of white supremacy becomes so banal as to lose its historical specificity and provenance altogether, flattened at the end of the poem into a universal “we” and diluted into the lessons of the classroom: “Privilege is a tease, we forget, / what we learned in grade school.”
It becomes provocative, along these lines, to compare Spahr’s and Fitzpatrick’s identitarianism with the opaque subjectivity of Pamela: A Novel. To do so is to follow Wang and think the presence of racial formation, a task Spahr’s and Fitzpatrick’s poems fall short of when they atomize whiteness within the individual, failing to interrogate it as “a creative authority, a creative regime” (Jennings 60). If whiteness shapes the creative imagination through processes of representation, Lu’s text rejects the givenness of identity categories. In this sense, Lu mobilizes “Asian American,” “queer,” “postcolonial,” and “diasporic” not as attributes to be (re)possessed but as political coordinates to be critically and imaginatively navigated. Embodying these descriptors through the subjunctive mood and other devices, Pamela: A Novel scrambles the grammar of the self—the colonizing and assimilative drive of the English language. Where “My White Feminism” and “White Gays” proceed denotatively by naming the social traits of whiteness—retreating, in turn, from the linguistic exploration of identity—Lu’s speaker inhabits language self-reflexively. As if addressing the construction of guilt at the core of the white anti-racist’s moral compass, Lu theorizes how affect escapes ethical categories: “In my mother’s world a painting always bled from being right, whereas in mine it bled freely as the slightest consequence of its existence or else it had no more blood to give, and none of this had anything to do with being either right or wrong” (Lu 71–72). Accordingly, Pamela: A Novel calls for a poetics that seeks less to name the self or claim its ethics than perform an ontological richness and embeddedness: “Everything boiled down to ‘a feeling,’ which could be demonstrated but never named because its very precision existed on another level altogether, irrelevant to the field of names” (32). Implicit in this statement, as Wang observes, is a critique of diasporic literature’s reliance on legible ethnic/racial markers—what Lu captures elsewhere as “tedious round-table affirmations of ‘identity-related’ experiences” (19).
It is ironic that Spahr’s and Fitzpatrick’s poems rehearse precisely such affirmations. If experimental poets of color have long contended with the charge of essentialism by remaking the self, producing the most formally innovative work of the contemporary era, Spahr’s and Fitzpatrick’s poems reckon with whiteness as a newly visible identity under crisis. Once maligned by critics such as Marjorie Perloff as the racialized negative to avant-garde poetry, identity-themed writing here becomes the province of the white gender/sexual minority whose positionality has finally been singled out. The transparency that Spahr’s and Fitzpatrick’s speakers assume—their thematic marking and narration of an ethically shameful, self-disclosing white subject—thus manifests as imaginative deficiency. Unequipped to wrestle with the underlying structures of subject formation and account for the expansiveness of the relationship between language and racial power, the prescribed forms of “My White Feminism” and “White Gays” treat identification as a site of resolution rather than contestation. Identification, in this scenario, does not work toward coalition-building. What each poem tries to resolve is not the historically fraught relationship between feminists of color and white feminists, or gay men of color and white gays, but the white feminist/queer’s ephemeral feeling of moral lack.
I conclude on a note of caution. Even as a possessive individualism underwrites the white anti-racist’s claim to moral worth, it would be a mistake to reduce this model of selfhood to the poetry of white people alone. As they iterate an intersectional analysis, the white-authored poems I have discussed reveal how the logics of racial management are alive and well in discourses of wokeness, tacitly operating in the service of whiteness at the same time as the US state openly colludes with white nationalist policy and rhetoric. Eager to revise their histories in the face of official state racism, literary institutions curate difference by privileging lyric subjectivities that are not just morally redemptive but also ethnographically packageable. When articulated by nonwhite poets, possessive individualism leads to tokenism, diluting raced experience into what bell hooks calls “spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks 21). In this sense, the current paucity of critical discussion about poetry is telling. While blogs once gave poetry criticism a vital forum, what propels careers nowadays is not so much the ways a poet’s work might be framed within the history of aesthetic forms but the degree to which it visibly satisfies the diversity mandate. Branded for consumption, radical embodiment has been converted into a personal attribute, making it easy for venues and gatekeepers to mine the possibilities of intersectionality and their attendant activist/political narratives without enacting structural change. As Ahmed puts it, “This model of cultural diversity reifies difference as something that exists ‘in’ the bodies or cultures of others . . . if difference is something ‘they are’, then it is something we ‘can have’” (Ahmed 2007, 235). Such is the framework in which young queer poets of color, now widely celebrated, have become a particularly desirable tool of diversity management. Disconnected from lineages it never wanted us to know about in the first place, our bodies, memories, and dreams are what the institution uses to shield itself, concealing archival violence and the erasure of our elders’ work. Analyzing this proprietary view of literature in the context of liberal multiculturalism in the 80s and 90s, Melamed writes:
A work of multicultural literature was understood to be an example of the value of different racialized cultures and a commodified form of racialized cultural property. The idea of culture as property owned by people of color functioned within a consumer economy in which antiracism could be expressed by a desire for diversity, which consuming racialized cultural property presumptively fulfilled. [In turn,] the author’s racialized identity was of utmost importance because information retrieval for liberal multiculturalism was tied to ideologemes of representativeness, authenticity, and “gaining voice.” (114–15)
In many ways an extension of the canon wars that Melamed examines, today’s co-optation of activist-oriented cultural pluralism is worrying for the ways it innovates ownership over otherness. As awareness of racial inequality has spread, the stage of wokeness has idealized new subjects across the color line, elevating the individual and their (multi)cultural legibility and currency at the expense of a more visionary and collective politics. In this gap between institutions, bodies, and souls, the experimental poet of color whose embodiment is their art and whose life is their politics plays a singular if necessarily opaque role, as Wang illustrates in her discussion of Lu. To protect themselves and the legacies of their kin, such a poet chooses not the branding of the self but what Lu would call “unclickability” (Lu 91). And yet, even this remaking of subjectivity cannot be seen as the choice of a self-possessive individual. It is, I would say, the forced choice of the dispossessed, of those who live in the throes of relation. Here I refer to experimentation in the most fundamental sense as a way of remembering, surviving, and dreaming from the margins. To quote the queer Brazilian poet Roberto Piva, “Poetry is a delirium. The poetic is itself an act of transgression in the sense that it deals with invisible things on the planet, with invisible forces. This is why I say the true poet is marginal. And there is no experimental poetry without experimental life.”
Ahmed, Sara. “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism.” 2004. http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm.
Ahmed, Sara. “The Language of Diversity.” Ethnic & Racial Studies 30.2 (2007) 235–56.
Fitzpatrick, Jameson. “White Gays.” New Yorker, October 2, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/02/white-gays.
Frankenberg, Ruth. “On Unsteady Ground: Crafting and Engaging in the Critical Study of Whiteness.” In Researching Race and Racism, edited by Martin Bulmer and John Solomos. London: Routledge, 2014.
Hong, Grace Kyungwon. Death Beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End, 1992.
Jennings, Willie James. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
Lu, Pamela. Pamela: A Novel. Atelos, 1998.
Melamed, Jodi. Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Spahr, Juliana. “My White Feminism.” Boston Review, April 7, 2016. http://bostonreview.net/poetry/NPM-2016-juliana-spahr-my-white-feminism.
Wang, Dorothy. Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014.
Poetic Dimensions, Critical Vocations
It is a challenging task to write a response to a book that feels indispensable for anyone reading and studying literature today. Dorothy Wang’s Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry calls upon its readers to think about poetic form as co-emergent with the conditions of racialized, Asian American experience. The book examines, through its many inviting, detailed readings of poetic form, processes of cultural assimilation, identity and subjectivity, racial interpellation, and diaspora. There are several overlapping interventions that Wang makes. One of these, the one which has understandably received the most attention, is an indictment of twentieth- and twenty-first-century US poetic criticism for its prolonged and conscious refusal to bring race into discussions of poetic form. Wang shows how the marginalization of minority poets takes place through institutional exclusions in academic book publishing, conferences, and mainstream poetry journals. Throughout the book, she critiques methods of reading that create false binaries between racially marked themes and avant-garde experiments with language.
Thinking Its Presence offers an urgent and elegant response to work that would apply sociological and thematic criticism to some poets while treating others as universal subjects unmarked by race, gender, ability, or class. In addition to this, Wang’s book also functions as a corrective to histories of poetic criticism that treat US and European poetry as a claustrophobic system of formal cross-references. “Corrective” treads too softly: Thinking Its Presence is a critically insurgent text that makes the strongest case I know against the shibboleths of twentieth-century poetry criticism. By refusing to remain within the disciplinary cordon sanitaire of poetic criticism—by reclaiming poetry as an aesthetically complex intervention within the political and social—Thinking Its Presence opens up possibilities for the study of poetic form in the twenty-first century.
To bring Wang’s method into the sharpest relief, it might be useful to compare Thinking Its Presence briefly to a book that also contains a strong methodological claim, John Hollander’s Melodious Guile: Fictive Pattern in Poetic Language (1990). Melodious Guile makes the case that poetic trope and scheme—for instance, a metaphor or a refrain—refer outward to the world by referring back to their previous uses by poets. For Hollander, poems tell stories about their own tropes and schemes, their own figures of speech and arrangements of syntax. I read Hollander’s book carefully as a graduate student while I was writing about Claude McKay. But McKay’s innovative work with the ballad and the sonnet complicates and resists Hollander’s approach. I knew that McKay’s experience, as a racialized, colonial worker in early twentieth-century Jamaica, had to have shaped his work with the ballad and sonnet, as much as or more than his reading of Keats’s or Kipling’s poetry did. McKay himself often said as much. Still, these defining characteristics of McKay’s life did not appear only as visible evidence within the themes of the poems I liked the best. Wang’s book addresses the reader of poetry caught in this bind, faced with the question of how to understand the lived conditions of racialization as manifest in the endless renewals of poetic form.
I have not chosen Hollander’s book as an example primarily for its exclusion of McKay, or poets of color in general, from its canon—though I continue to be appalled by the paucity of black, Latinx, and Asian American poets in books of poetry criticism published by many university presses. The problem is not only that Hollander’s sample set comprises white European and US poets. It is, to follow Wang, that those poets are read in such a way as to treat the author’s experience as immaterial to a formal reading of the text. In an important late moment in Wang’s book, she demonstrates how her method applies to white, male poets: “What one says of Berssenbrugge can also be said of Lowell: his use of qualifying phrases is influenced by a particular constellation of personal, familial, social, and aesthetic experiences, histories, and interests” (270). One of the most radical aspects of Wang’s book is that, using case studies drawn entirely from the work of non-white poets, Thinking Its Presence argues that “all poetic production” and “all members of a society, not just those visible minorities seemingly most directly affected” should be understood in their “full dimensionality” (305).
The idea of “full dimensionality” brings out the scope of the work that still needs to be done after Thinking Its Presence. Hollander’s book helps make visible how the elements of poetry recur across time. Wang’s book adds to the dimension of the text that of social space, in which, as she shows, the same forms are operative. As Wang puts it,
There have been attempts to do something like this with the idea of the poetic subject, though even there, some of the most important critiques of subjectivity, such as Saidiya Hartman’s or Jodi Byrd’s, have yet to be acknowledged fully by many poetry critics. But extended social and political examinations of metaphor, irony, parody, syntax, and mood—some of the elements of form and genre that Wang analyzes—would make the case that poems were always active partners in the disclosure, arrangement, and negotiation of the structures of racial capitalism.
Wang’s “full dimensionality” is at serious odds with poetry criticism’s inveterate, institutionalized partiality. Hollander’s interest in the self-referential qualities of poetic form speaks of a deep disciplinary modesty. In much US poetry criticism, this restraint from trespassing into other humanistic and social scientific research can quickly modulate into a chastening, finger-wagging gesture. The scowling tendency to defend poetry as the sole and proper object of study for the criticism of poetry differentiates poetic criticism from nearly every other mode of literary and social analysis. Wang departs from what has been a sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit claim that the study of poetic form is contaminated by anything outside literary studies, with the occasional exception made for biography, moral philosophy, and psychoanalysis. Wonderfully, Thinking Its Presence makes the counterargument by wearing on its sleeve the most careful attention to and love for the nuances of poetic trope and scheme. Wang writes, in her epilogue,
It makes good sense that this paragraph comes in the epilogue: Wang’s book culminates with and, in a sense, combusts in this assertion, since the book’s own ventures into “new modes of knowledge” are somewhat more lightly sketched than its profound engagements with the genealogies of literary genres and forms. This gesture back towards the book’s own incompletion is, for me, its most notable, inspiring, and indelible mark on literary criticism. Wang’s conclusion here is a clarion call to disciplinary curiosity. It is also an exhortation that brings into mordant prose the renewed vocation of the critic of poetry. I think it is important that Wang refers to “new modes of knowledge” here because that phrase emphasizes the necessity for literary critics to de-specialize, to engage with the radical work being done in, for instance, black studies and indigenous studies.
More damningly yet, it has become clear that the parsimoniousness of poetry criticism is inseparable from the racializing processes that Wang’s book examines. Like contemporary defenses of “free speech,” the liberal tradition of poetry criticism secures and immunizes itself through the active exclusion of forms of thought that deal explicitly with race as a determinant of poetic form. No accident, perhaps, that the most pronounced moments of formalist criticism have occurred during the postwar instantiation of US global capitalism and during the violent moments of its contemporary crisis of overaccumulation.
To recover alternative genealogies of poetic criticism means decentering, testing, and critiquing texts like Hollander’s. Wang offers a model for an eclectic, catholic approach to the history of criticism. To follow her would be to set off on a mission of intellectual discovery, curiosity, speculation, and engagement with other thinkers: from the politicized formalisms of Edward Said and David Lloyd to the anthropological approaches of Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments and Khaled Furani’s Silencing the Sea; from the critiques of political economy, neoliberalism, and global capitalism staged in Michael Dowdy’s Broken Souths and Christopher Nealon’s The Matter of Capital to the interventions within black studies of Fred Moten’s In the Break and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake. Ultimately, however, Wang’s book reveals the perils of the paths it lays out ahead. Excluding the study of Asian American poetry from the study of poetic form has been a way of reinforcing the property claims of white critics. But including the study of Asian American poetry by reducing its formal complexity to a set of thematic commodities has also been a way of reinforcing the property claims of white critics. Wang’s concluding exhortation to take seriously new modes of knowledge offers one way of resisting the enclosure movements that have long terrorized poetry criticism from both sides.
8.19.20 | Dorothy Wang
Response to Hunter
ML: Walt Hunter’s “Poetic Dimensions, Critical Vocations” contrasts your book with other more insular approaches within poetry studies that avoid what he calls “trespassing into other humanistic and social scientific research.” He says, “The scowling tendency to defend poetry as the sole and proper object of study for the criticism of poetry differentiates poetic criticism from nearly every other mode of literary and social analysis.” He goes on to discuss a passage from your epilogue in which you call for a criticism that incorporates “new modes of knowledge opened up by years of civil rights and institutional struggle” (304). I want to ask you about methodological approaches that are granted the epistemological privilege of claiming newness. Of course, English studies has seen, in the past few decades, the emergence of new formalisms, the new lyric studies, along with a range of interdisciplinary methodologies legible under the umbrella “the new humanities,” from digital to environmental humanities. Yet race and civil rights might figure very little in such approaches. Can you comment more on your vision of a renovated poetry criticism in this context?
DW: I really like the way Hunter has phrased the issue here; elsewhere in his piece he speaks of “the disciplinary cordon sanitaire of poetic criticism”—an especially evocative phrase. Yes, it’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about. With the new lyric studies and new formalism, there have been, as you’ve said, a few things that have popped up recently, but for me there are a few problems with these so-called “new” approaches. First and foremost, there continues to be an enormous elephant in the room, something that has not been dealt with in poetry studies: namely, the absolutely foundational influence of colonialism and race and racialization—the role of race, race science, and, yes, racism—in the formation of English poetics, English literary studies, and the methodology of close reading.1
Poetry has been seen as the jewel-in-the-crown for not only English literature but for the empire and for English culture. Shakespeare was not only considered the greatest poet in the English language—for many people, he’s the greatest poet that ever lived in Western languages or in the world—and used as an example of inherent British superiority. His genius was used as an active cudgel, as a form of domination, against non-English, non-white people, against the colonized. So we have to think very deeply about the role of colonialism and race and racialization in the very foundational concepts of poetics and poetry.
It’s more than saying, “Let’s contextualize this poem,” “Let’s talk about history that’s important for understanding this poem,” or “Let’s add some black, brown, yellow or red faces to our syllabus or conference”—the by-now familiar kind of liberal multicultural diversity, what Lucas de Lima calls “diversity management.” It’s not enough to quote a few lines from Jay-Z in a chapter on poetic rhythm2 but otherwise not engage at all with a long history of black critical thought on aesthetics and the racial histories and contexts that produced hip-hop. I am speaking of a really foundational problem in English aesthetics and poetics, in particular. The new lyric studies and the new formalism have not dealt with that really—even as they talk about material culture and decry the privileging of the lyric over other historical poetic forms. As we saw with the nearly seven-hundred-page The Lyric Theory Reader (2014),3 there were no contributions by US ethnic minorities and no discussion of African American poetry or other minority poetry or the issue of race. Aamir Mufti wrote about the lyric in India. It was as if race didn’t matter at all in the Western lyric tradition. And in Caroline Levine’s widely acclaimed and award-winning book Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network,4 she has one chapter on the TV show The Wire but discusses no minority literature and makes no acknowledgment of a century of work by black and other minority scholars and writers on the issue of the relationship of the formal and the social. It was as if she were the first person to discover the links between forms and society.
We need to go full out in a very new direction.
There’s really exciting work, as you know, Michael, in critical black studies, in critical race studies in general—for example, by Christina Sharpe, the “Afropessimists,” Fred Moten, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Saidiya Hartman. There are young poets of color and young scholars of poetry who have no interest in doing PhDs in English. They’re not interested in literary criticism or thinking about literary critical studies in the same old ways—even engaging those people who work on, say, black poetry in the old ways. There is this whole body of interesting, exciting scholarship that is directly confronting issues of colonialism and race and diaspora, and it has been ignored, generally, by English literary studies and by those doing poetry and poetics in academic literature departments. Hunter is accurate in his description of “histories of poetic criticism that treat US and European poetry as a claustrophobic system of formal cross-references.”
There are other possible new directions, too: for example, thinking about other poetries in English that are not American, British, Canadian, or Australian but English-language poetries coming out of Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong . . .
ML: The Philippines.
DW: And the Philippines. All of them are former British colonies or, though not officially so, American colonies. What might be called “other Englishes.” English literary scholars have traditionally considered this poetry to be of marginal or no interest, as it was considered “inferior.”
There is also the issue of translation—people think it’s just a comparative literature concern—but it’s not. Those of us studying poetry and poetics in English departments should be less parochial and provincial and actively be in conversation with poetry and poetics from non-Anglophone traditions. I greatly admire the work of Aimé Césaire and Édouard Glissant and consider them fundamental to the study of poetry and poetics. Yet it was possible to have an entry entitled “Avant-Garde Poetics” in the fourth edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics a few years back that did not mention them at all.5 John Keene has written on how translators of works into English often ignore writing by black writers in other languages.6
De Lima has pointed out in another context7 (not in the essay here) that some American critics of the avant-garde are only interested in work in other countries and in other languages—say, Brazilian modernism—primarily because they see it as being very much in line with a white Anglo-American modernism. These critics end up completely ignoring Afro-Brazilian modernism and other forms of Latin American writing or poetry—you’ve written on this about Chilean writing—that do not fit within high modernist Anglo-American standards, standards that, in a way, are being franchised as a way of globally disseminating a high-modernist aesthetic that focuses only on a certain kind of formal innovation. The same is happening with these conferences with Chinese scholars on “experimental” poetry, which again serve to export now-dethroned (racially suspect) forms of white avant-garde poetry to nonwhite, non-English-speaking audiences alongside a superficial token engagement with “native” poets and scholars, despite these Western critics not knowing a word of Chinese (or Portuguese, for that matter). And I think a lot of what is being done abroad in countries such as China and in Brazil is a new form of aesthetic colonialism and another way to dodge the question of race and racism that has been raised in the United States about avant-garde poetics.
That privileged version of high modernism or modernism has been and still is very powerful. I’m not saying that we do away with modernism—I love a lot of that poetry—but we have to rethink what that was about and why was it that so many of those revered modernists were not just racially problematic but were virulently extremist in their fascist views or their racist views—even for their time. So I think of Wallace Stevens’s comment about Gwendolyn Brooks upon seeing her in a photo of National Book Award judges—“Who’s the coon?”8—and obviously Pound . . . .
Another thing that I’ve been thinking about is the centering of white poets as the focus of any serious discussion about poetics: we often put poets of color in the categories that have to do with the social, or, say, a Native American poet in the one about the environment. But when we talk about poetics, it’s always white poets—and that is true not only with modernist poetry but with contemporary poetry too: so we’re going to talk about Cole Swensen or whomever when we talk about formalism and then we’ll throw in a black or brown poet at some point to talk about something like “community.”
To me, the most exciting work being done today—and I said this in my epilogue and it still holds true—is by experimental minority poets. There’s no doubt in my mind. It’s an incredibly vibrant time for US poetry but it’s not always in the familiar places; it’s poetry, for example, put out by very small presses, and that work should be absolutely central to our thinking about poetics. So instead of having Will Alexander or Don Mee Choi serve as kind of sui generis, marginal examples, they should actually be central to how we understand what is going on in American poetry and poetics today.
I also am really interested in a lot of the work that people are doing in archives—not only the Lost & Found Project by Ammiel Alcalay at the CUNY Grad Center but research by scholars and poets, such as Eunsong Kim, who are looking at archives not only in terms of manuscript and the formal choices poets made during the writing of their poems but in the very material and ideological structures of, say, the collections themselves. You’ve seen Kim’s article on the Archive for New Poetry at UC–San Diego? That’s an amazing article, in which she traces the formation of that archive.9 She’s now working on things like the Philadelphia Museum’s purchase of Duchamp, who is the exemplar of the avant-garde in the twentieth century for poets and for artists. She’s been looking at how the museum bought his pieces; she’s also thinking materially about his urinal in relation to the function and place of urinals in the Jim Crow era.
So there needs to be archival work that is both about the recovery of forgotten poets of color—or looking, as Lost & Found has done, at the teaching materials of Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde—but also thinking about material, institutional, and structural questions of money and power. That is where one sees the influence of American Studies and a kind of cultural studies that has been poo-pooed by people in English departments—especially in poetry. I mean, they wouldn’t want to dirty their hands with that stuff, right?
ML: I have a follow-up question about a few things that you just brought up. It’s interesting that neither of us teach in English departments. You’re in an American Studies program and I’m now in a School of Critical Studies, which has an MFA Program, so we’re kind of adjacent to English studies. I’m wondering if you can say a little bit more about the potential of being outside of English but overlapping with some of its concerns.
DW: That’s a really great question. Actually, I don’t think it’s an accident that both of us are not in English departments, having both been in English departments before. Both of us were trained in English, and you were in [SUNY] Albany’s English department and I’ve been at Wesleyan and Northwestern in English departments and taught PhD students in the latter.
In my case, there is no doubt in my mind that the English department at the college where I teach now did not want to hire an Asian Americanist because they did not take Asian American literature seriously as English literature (to this day, they still have not hired an Asian Americanist). One need not rely on my opinion but on hard facts: in the long history of the department, they have never tenured anyone hired into a minority literature position. The first two black women ever hired in the history of that department arrived in 2017—eight years after our first black president was elected; one resigned last year and the other has just announced her resignation.
Minority American poetry was and is often seen as basically social science or as cultural studies. It’s not seen as really being literary—that’s the problem that I talk about in my book. So I was marginalized—as were the two people who were doing African American lit at the same time I was hired in 2006—they were hired into Africana studies; I was put in American studies because there was no Asian American studies. That exclusion was symptomatic and completely logical given the way that English literary studies has been battening down the hatches even as it’s sinking. We know that English is not doing well; it’s losing majors and becoming more and more irrelevant. And yet even as that has happened, many English departments have not opened the doors willingly to people doing minority literature or working on cultural studies. They have closed the doors and became even more elite and elitist.
There are advantages and disadvantages, to be honest, of not being in an English department. I had the usual kind of English snobbery. I’m the daughter of two English professors; I wasn’t an English major as an undergrad, but I have a PhD from an English department and an MA in poetry-writing; I had taught in two English departments; I had directed a dissertation in English. So when I was put in an American studies program, I actually had the same kind of elite snobbery about it, thinking, “What am I doing here? I’m not trained in American studies. This is not really literary. This is not what I want to be doing.” And it ended up being one of the best things that could have happened to me—not only pedagogically but in terms of my own work—because suddenly I was forced to learn about American studies and teach the intro course and the theories and methods course, and because of the influence of that teaching and self-directed study, I had a much broader historical and ideological frames for literary analysis. I had always thought about race and racism, but I started to think a lot more about institutional structures, issues of power, issues of money, material culture questions. They were never not there but they were suddenly foregrounded.
I don’t think I could have written the introduction to Thinking Its Presence if I had not been teaching in American studies—and if I had not been so enraged by the incredibly racist treatment that I’ve suffered at the hands of English departments and also having been excluded by English departments at Northwestern and Williams (but not Wesleyan). So it gave me a view of institutions and the disciplines and thinking much more broadly about field and reception that I probably wouldn’t have done. And, of course, a lot of people focus on the introduction in the book; they were much more interested in controversies around Perloff, Goldsmith, and others, but there’s the whole rest of the book, too, which are the actual readings in the chapters that think through the ways in which the institutional and the cultural and questions of power enter into language and are not separable and aren’t just the background to the poetry . . . they actually enter into the language.
So I think it’s been very fortuitous to have been teaching in American studies, but the difficult part is trying to make a difference in English literary studies. A lot of people tell me to give up on it—some young radical poet-scholars of color have said to me, “Who cares about English studies? Why even bother?” And I’ll tell you why I think it’s still important: what students are being taught in English departments, they take that knowledge out into the world when they’re teaching, as in primary and secondary education, or writing—whether academic work, creative work, journalistic pieces and reviews, on blogs or social media. What is taught in academic English departments and published in the field of English literary studies has a huge impact around the world that I can’t dismiss. I think that it’s very important how we’re thinking about literature, especially English. When I was visiting Palestinian universities a few years ago, I was surprised that they were mostly teaching from the Norton Anthology and assigning all traditional poets, such as Eliot . . . They were looking at the MLA and what Harvard was doing. And I asked one professor, “Why aren’t you teaching your students minority literature that speaks more to their lives?” A lot of the Palestinian English professors that I met—especially the older ones—had a colonial way of looking at what was important. I saw the same tendencies when I taught in Japan and Hong Kong, too.
So what happens in English literary studies has a strong influence globally and in different areas and levels of society. It’s very difficult to make change, but we should try to do the work that is needed to bring English into the twenty-first century in a real foundational way. But it’s going to be a really daunting task. You and I have known personally the kinds of traumas that get visited upon faculty of color in academic institutions, in English departments or even outside of English departments, and it’s quite difficult in so many ways and there aren’t large numbers of us. In recent years there were quite a few poets and some scholars talking about race on social media and there was quite a lot of discussion, but I think most of that discussion stayed in the realm of social media. I’m concerned about whether we can make a change in academia at the level of the field because what I see is still the domination of very old-fashioned views on poetry. I think this change will have to happen. But there’s a lot of work ahead.
ML: It’s very tough and grueling work that involves an infinite amount of patience and I’m certainly glad that you’re doing it!
See Dorothy Wang, “English Poetics and the Inconvenience of History,” Poetry Review 110.1 (Spring 2020) 135–38.↩
Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 183.↩
The Lyric Theory Reader (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).↩
Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).↩
Kent Johnson, “Marjorie Perloff, Avant-Garde Poetics, and The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics,” Chicago Review 57.3/4 (Winter 2013) 209–15.↩
John Keene, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” Poetry Foundation blog, April 28, 2016, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2016/04/translating-poetry-translating-blackness.↩
Lucas de Lima, “Whitened Americas: Racial Neoliberalism and Hemispheric Poetic Avant-Gardes,” paper presented at the Modernist Studies Association conference, Pasadena, November 17, 2016; “The Hemispheric Entanglements of Anthropophagy,” paper presented at the Modernist Studies Association conference, Boston, November 20, 2015.↩
Joan Richardson, Wallace Stevens, A Biography: The Later Years, 1923–1955 (New York: Beech Tree Books / William Morrow, 1988), 388.↩
Eunsong Kim, “Appraising Newness: Whiteness, Neoliberalism, and the Building of the Archive for New Poetry,” in “Critical Archival Studies,” edited by Michelle Caswell, Ricardo Punzalan, and T-Kay Sangwand, special issue, Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1.2 (2017).↩