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.↩