John Yau 1950-
American poet, critic, and short story writer.
Yau is considered to be a major Chinese American poet. Critics praise the complexity and originality of his poetic style as well as his bold exploration of identity politics, racial stereotypes, and the process of ethnic identification. A prolific and influential author, his work has been perceived as providing a new direction for Chinese American poetry.
Yau was born on June 5, 1950, in Lynn, Massachusetts. His father, Arthur Lau, was a half-Chinese American who had lived in China for several years; it was there he met John's mother, Jane Chang, who descended from a prestigious Shanghai family and never fully adjusted to life in the United States. Although his parents spoke Chinese to each other, they refused to teach it to their children. Therefore, Yau felt alienated from his Chinese heritage, and was often a victim of discrimination in the world around him. This sense of cultural dislocation has influenced Yau's poetry throughout his career. After two years at Boston University, Yau transferred to Bard College and received his bachelor of arts degree in 1972. During his junior year, he was involved in a serious car accident and was hospitalized with severe injuries for eight months. In 1975 he began studying for his master of fine arts degree with the renowned poet John Ashbery at Brooklyn College. Ashbery proved to be a profound influence on Yau's life and career, encouraging his student to pursue an interest in art criticism. In 1976 Yau published his first collection of verse, Crossing Canal Street. In 1977 he received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and has been the recipient of two Ingram-Merrill Foundation Fellowships (1979-80, 1985-86). In 1988 he received a New York Foundation for the Arts Award, a Lavan award, and a General Electric Foundation award. He has been the curator of several important art exhibitions, and has written numerous essays and books of art criticism. He has also been a visiting critic at the Pratt Institute and the Maryland Institute as well as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in New York City.
Major Poetic Works
Critics identify Yau's explorations of racial and cultural identification as the central theme of his poetry. They contend that he not only explores such thematic concerns as cultural dislocation and assimilation, racial stereotypes, exile, and discrimination, but he also strives to incorporate Chinese history, mythology, culture, and literary traditions into his work, creating an innovative blend of Asian and American styles. For example, in his first collection Crossing Canal Street, Yau features allusions to Chinese poetic form and imagistic verse to capture everyday experiences in New York's Chinatown. In “An Old Chinese Gentleman Drops in to See His Cronies in a Coffeeshop (Mott Street),” five old men sitting a coffee shop in Chinatown are transported to a mystical countryside in ancient China where poets are gathered before their exile by the government. Yau's use of Chinese American imagery and experience has developed within the context of racial identification in modern American culture. His poetry has also become more autobiographical in nature, although critics have pointed out that it differs from the confessional mode of poetry that has become popular in the late twentieth century. Instead, Yau experiments with syntax, sound, and the structure of language to explore issues that are significant to Asian Americans and transform the ways in which language has been used to oppress and exclude minorities. Perhaps his best-known poetry, the “Genghis Chan: Private Eye” series, blends his distinctive use of language with his concern about identity construction to subvert Asian American stereotypes in popular culture. In these poems, Yau creates the character of Genghis Chan—an amalgamation of the fierce warrior Genghis Khan and Charlie Chan, the Hollywood stereotype of a Chinese detective—to disrupt the process of Asian American identification by eschewing conventional racial markers which would allow readers to decode the speaker's racial identity. Moreover, critics contend that by experimenting with the identity of “I” in his poems as well as by his word choices in the poetic series, Yau reflects the pervasive racism experienced by Asian American immigrants.
Yau's work has garnered critical attention for its innovative poetics as well as its focus on cultural and racial identity. Reviewers have found his explorations of the relationship between language and subjectivity, as well as between representation and identity construction, to be compelling and thought provoking. Others have taken issue with his representation of Chinese American culture and have questioned his racial authenticity. Critics have commended his use of parody, cinematic techniques such as film noir, and his experimentation with language. Yau's stylistic innovations have led to many of his verses being categorized as prose poems, in that they eschew traditional poetic form and blur the lines between poetry and prose. As a prose poet, he has been placed within the context of other American poets who have explored the relationship between prose and poetry, such as John Ashbery, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Creeley. His interest in art and art criticism has also been viewed as an influence on his verse. Commentators contend that Yau's poetry is not easily categorized, and his verse has been discussed within the poetic traditions of modernist, postmodernist, multiculturalist, and language poetry, as well as the New York School. The influence of Ezra Pound's translations of T'ang Dynasty poems in Cathay has also been a frequent topic of critical discussion. Because of his transgressive approach to Asian American poetic traditions, Yau is regarded as a distinctive voice in contemporary American poetry.
Crossing Canal Street 1976
The Reading of an Ever-Changing Tale 1977
The Sleepless Night of Eugene Delacroix 1980
Broken Off by the Music 1981
Corpse and Mirror 1983
Dragon's Blood 1989
Radiant Silhouette: New and Selected Work, 1974-1988 1989
Big City Primer: Reading New York at the End of the Twentieth Century [with Bill Barrette] 1991
Edificio Sayonara 1992
Postcards from Trakl 1994
Forbidden Entries 1996
I Was a Poet in the House of Frankenstein 1999
My Heart is That Eternal Rose Tatoo 2001
Borrowed Love Poems 2002
A. R. Penck (criticism) 1993
In the Realm of Appearances: The Art of Andy Warhol (criticism) 1993
Hawaiian Cowboys (short stories) 1994
Ed Moses: A Retrospective of the Paintings and Drawings, 1951-1996 (criticism) 1996
My Symptoms (short stories) 1998
James Castle: The Common Place (criticism) 2002
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SOURCE: Sihjeldahl, Peter. “Cabin Fever.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 9, no. 1 (spring-summer 1981): 294-95.
[In the following excerpt, Sihjeldahl offers a favorable assessment of The Sleepless Night of Eugene Delacroix.]
John Yau's intense, high-strung prose-poetry [in The Sleepless Night of Eugene Delacroix] makes use of the Borgesian conceit that pastness equals ancientness. This conceit is a remarkable survival of the pre-Romantic European “picturesque”—all those late-eighteenth-century pictures of overgrown ruins—given a second life in nineteenth-century popular literature and a third in the poetics of modernist lostness and irony. It has appealed particularly to sensibilities, like Borges', that are top-heavy with sophistication in cultures, like Argentina's, that are bottom-heavy with barbarity. Yau is Chinese-American, which, pending a denial from him, I choose to think germane somehow. He is very Borgesian indeed in pieces like “The Abandoned Observatory,” set in a Morocco of the mind inlaid with realistic detail. The best thing for me about these pastiches is that Yau writes them in American English, not in the eerily flat translated-Spanish idiom of our surrealist mandarins.
In this city everything is red, except at night, when the air conditioners are turned off, and the window onto the balcony is opened to let in moonlight. The...
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SOURCE: Eshleman, Clayton. “A Poetry of Omens and Memories.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 August 1983): 3, 9.
[In the following favorable review of Corpse and Mirror, Eshleman contends that Yau's poetic abilities establish him “as one of the most genuinely gifted poets of his reticently emerging generation.”]
Corpse and Mirror, selected by John Ashbery as one of the five “National Poetry Series” books this year, is John Yau's seventh collection. It is clearly the most experimental, and probably the strongest, book to appear in the series publishing five books each year, now in its fifth year.
One might begin to think about Yau's writing by summoning aspects of Confucianism, Edward Hopper and Franz Kafka. As a Chinese American, Yau draws on images from ancient China, evoking a world of omens and memories that is not “now” but not entirely “then” either. He has a way of presenting his materials, via the atmosphere of a post World War II Chinese background permeated by the lack of any real American past, that is gentle, “correct” and bizarre. Here is a poetry in which Chinese chariots must, in effect, make their way through the desolate landscape of late night Hollywood movies.
The result is a poetry frayed with loneliness; the peculiar is juxtaposed with the ordinary and even the trivial. A kind of surrealism, in which dead and...
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SOURCE: Friedman, B. H. “Always Street-Smart.” American Book Review 14, no. 4 (October-November 1992): 20.
[In the following favorable assessment of Big City Primer, Friedman describes the collaboration between Yau and photographer Bill Barrette.]
In these pages, in 1982, I reviewed the first six books of John Yau's poetry. I liked his work then, and I like it now, seven books later. His most recent volume, Big City Primer, is a collaboration between him and Bill Barrette, photographer and sculptor. Barrette's shifting vision—sometimes frontal, sometimes angular, always street-smart—and his technical ability to present the intense blacks and whites and subtle grays of the cityscape complement Yau's new prose poems. However, this is not a “perfect” collaboration: neither in the sense that James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is thought to be—a piety that should be laid to rest, since Evans's straightforward photography only emphasizes Agee's often oblique excessiveness; nor in the sense that neglected books by Wright Morris, such as The Inhabitants and God's Country and My People, are truly perfect collaborations between Morris the writer and Morris the photographer.
Agee and Evans gathered their material together, no matter how different their respective literary and visual styles. In contrast, Barrette, working...
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SOURCE: Foster, Edward Halsey. “John Yau and the Seductions of Everything That Used to Be.” Multicultural Review 3, no. 1 (March 1994): 36-9.
[In the following essay, Foster discusses Yau as a Chinese American poet, contending that “his work has much wider implications than such labels may imply.”]
You ask. What words will return us to the words we were using yesterday? …
Instead of answering, I tell you that I have decided to return my hands to their owners, and begin packing for the journey to the bus station.
—John Yau “Big Island Notebook 11”
John Yau's poems are startling thoroughfares defining their own very intricate linguistic necessities.
Words or images or what detonates them when they no longer point to events they name their trajectories splitting the sky implanted in his cranial orbit.
Yau has been seen as a major Chinese-American poet, perhaps the most important of our time, but his work has much wider implications than such labels may imply. His ethnic background marks him as an outsider in America, but he is not interested in merely recording the terms of that exclusion. His work examines and transforms ways in which language has long been used, often quite subtly, to oppress and exclude....
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SOURCE: Perloff, Marjorie. Review of Forbidden Entries, by John Yau. Boston Review 22, no. 3 (summer 1997): 39-41.
[In the following review, Perloff surveys the broad stylistic and emotional range of verse in Forbidden Entries.]
John Yau has always cultivated the image of Angry Young Man. The picture of him on the back cover of one of his early books, Sometimes (Sheep Meadow Press, 1979) presents the poet, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, slouching on a bench in old army fatigues, his long black unkempt hair, moustache, cigarette dangling from his unsmiling mouth, and matchbook open ready for the strike giving him the appearance of streetwise tough guy, perhaps on his lunchbreak from a construction job. The pose, one guesses, is designed to distance Yau from his middle-class background: the poet grew up in and around Boston and received his B.A. degree from one of the most expensive liberal arts colleges in the United States—Bard. More important: there was no indication, at this stage of Yau's career, that the poet is in fact Chinese-American.
Oppositionality, in the early poetry, took the form of linguistic density, dislocation, and fragmentation, very much in the vein of Yau's mentor John Ashbery, in whose footsteps he has followed both in his poetry and in his professional role as art critic and occasional curator. But in his more recent collections, Radiant...
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SOURCE: Chang, Juliana. Review of Forbidden Entries, by John Yau. MELUS 23, no. 3 (fall 1998): 226-28.
[In the following evaluation, Chang examines the ways in which Yau utilizes racial identity and stereotyping in Forbidden Entries.]
The poetic and critical writings of John Yau present an intriguing site of investigation into questions of racial authenticity. Because Yau's writings in general do not address racialized identity in a straightforward, explicit manner, it is difficult for critics of multicultural literature to read his work as “representative” of ethnic/racial experience. What is remarkable, however, is that Yau's ethnic and racial authenticity have been most publicly called into question not by members of his own ethnic and racial groups, but by white poetry critics. In his response to Yau's critique in American Poetry Review of his anthology American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders, Eliot Weinberger notes that Yau “barely speaks and cannot read” Chinese, and that he has “created a remarkable new persona for himself: that of the angry outsider ‘person of color’” (American Poetry Review 23.4 ). In her review of Forbidden Entries, Marjorie Perloff similarly considers a photographic image of Yau to be a “pose” as “Angry Young Man,” positing that “there is no indication” from Yau's early writings “that the poet...
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SOURCE: Devaney, Tom. Review of Borrowed Love Poems, by John Yau. Rain Taxi Online 7, no. 3 (fall 2002) http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2002fall/yau.shtml.
[In the following review, Devaney asserts that “spilling over with formal mastery, Borrowed Love Poems is an utterly pleasurable collection.”]
John Yau's recent Borrowed Love Poems is a dazzling exploration of deft and unforgiving openness. The poems engage the reader with a wide and wild array of characters, disembodied and otherwise, with an imaginative and capacious use of the lyric “I.” It is a collection fed on a steady diet of movies, modernism, and all manner of mercurial identity, swift perception, and modes and inventive odes of riddling otherhood.
In this impressive 130-page collection, Yau offers new poems and continues series such as his “Genghis Chan: Private Eye” in addition to his long “Vowel Sonatas,” and various poems to and about painters, poets, musicians, and movie stars, to name a very few.
As in Dante's Divine Comedy, we meet all manner of unrepentant madmen and women here, all manner of peacemakers and other folks just blown to pieces. In the poem “After My Chronology by Peter Lorre,” Yau writes: “What is chronology, but detachable hands / sifting for condensation...
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SOURCE: Morris, Daniel. “‘Death and Disaster’: John Yau's Painterly Poems.” In Remarkable Modernisms, pp. 41-60. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Morris analyzes the relationship of Yau's art criticism and his poems “Electric Drills” and “The Telephone Call.”]
John Yau's art writings illustrate the new modernism in that he revises the narrative history of painting in the United States since about 1940. Like Creeley and Frank O'Hara before him, Yau is also able to write ground-breaking poems because he is what Marjorie Perloff called “a poet among the painters,” an author who adapts nonliterary means into his writing. Yau's poetry extends from art, even as he does not react to art by trying to describe it in any direct way. A form of establishing the self through a relationship to a visual manifestation of the not-self, Yau's poetry illustrates Kristeva's notion of an uncanny identity that is simultaneously oneself and a stranger to oneself. Yau's observation that Creeley's “experience of someone else's art” turns out to be “the starting point of his contribution” is certainly true of his own work (Yau 2000a, 47).
In essays on relatively obscure artists at work in the 1980s and 1990s, Yau has called attention to what he loosely refers to as “The School of Johns.” In the photographer Thomas Daniel; the...
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SOURCE: Xiaojing, Zhou. “Postmodernism and Subversive Parody: John Yau's ‘Genghis Chan: Private Eye’ Series.” College Literature 31, no. 1 (winter 2004): 73-102.
[In the following essay, Xiaojing argues that Yau's “Genghis Chan” series “connects postmodernism in poetry to debates about postmodernism and Asian American identity in ways that engage larger issues concerning the relationship between postmodern discourses and minority American literatures.”]
Alluding to critical reception of his poetry, John Yau refers to himself as “the poet who is too postmodern for the modernists and too modern for the postmodernists” (1994, 40). Yau's poems evoke different schools of poetry and mix multiple genres. “I am an indigestible vapor rising from the dictionary / you sweep under your embroidered pillow,” says the speaker in his poem “Peter Lorre Records His Favorite Walt Whitman Poem For Posterity” (1999c 159).1 Elements of Surrealism, popular culture, history, and deconstruction coexist in Yau's poetry. In one of his recent prose poems, “Boris Karloff in The Mummy Meets Dr. Fu Manchu,” “a heavily jacketed though unpimpled boy points out the newly severed head of the evening moon, which, elsewhere, is floating directly above the Bank of Shanghai's misaligned ideograms and misplaced radicals” (2002a, 43). These poems not only shed light on the apparently...
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Allen, Frank. Review of Edificio Sayonara, by John Yau. Library Journal 118, no. 3 (15 February 1993): 168.
Describes the poems in Edificio Sayonara as a “meditation on contemporary urban realities.”
Elman, Richard. “Three American Poets.” New York Times Book Review (18 September 1983): 36.
Offers a negative review of Corpse and Mirror.
Finkle, Jori. “Having His Fling.” San Francisco Bay Guardian (29 January 1997): n.p.
Considers Yau's use of language in Forbidden Entries.
McDowell, Robert. “Recombinative Poetry.” The Hudson Review 37, no. 1 (spring 1984): 126.
Mixed assessment of Corpse and Mirror.
Review of Forbidden Entries, by John Yau. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 48 (25 November 1996): 71-2.
Maintains that the poems in Forbidden Entries “vary in tone from playful enigma to seemingly idle blathering.”
Wald, Priscilla. “‘Chaos Goes Uncourted’: John Yau's Dis(-)Orienting Poetics.” In Cohesion and Dissent in America, edited by Carol Colatrella and Joseph Alkana, pp. 133-58. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
Elucidates the defining characteristics of Yau's verse....
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