Overview of Asian American Poetry

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Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 84

The term “Asian American” encompasses diverse groups of people whose ethnicity cannot be pinned down by a single label. Because they are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from various regions of Asia and at different junctures in the history of the United States, Asian American poets bring with them heterogeneous...

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The term “Asian American” encompasses diverse groups of people whose ethnicity cannot be pinned down by a single label. Because they are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from various regions of Asia and at different junctures in the history of the United States, Asian American poets bring with them heterogeneous cultural values, practices, and expressions that interact with the mainstream white culture in various ways. Asian American poetry, the product of such interactions for more than a century, is therefore inherently pluralistic and polyphonic.

Chinese American poetry

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 926

Chinese American poetry can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century. In the isolated cultures of Chinatowns, Chinese immigrants began to compose poetry in Chinese. The earliest volumes in English that can be tracked down are Hsi Tseng Tsiang’s Poems of the Chinese Revolution (1929) and Moon Kwan’s A Chinese Mirror: Poems and Plays (1932), both of which have an ostensibly Chinese component. A preliminary breakthrough came when two Chinese-born poets, Stephen Shu Ning Liu (born 1930) and David Raphael Wang (born 1931), began publishing in English and continued to do so for several decades. Both Wang and Liu naturalize Chinese formats, sensibilities, and stylistics into idiomatic English, demonstrating that Chinese Americans fluent in both languages can be versatile poets capable of imbuing their work with either an American or a Chinese flavor.

Wang and Liu also epitomize the inevitable movement between two cultures that would become characteristic of the younger generation of Chinese American poets, especially those who have been directly exposed to the cultures of both China and the United States. Diana Chang (born 1934), for example, was American-born but was reared in China until 1945; she had authored half a dozen novels before turning out two volumes of poetry. Chang is constantly reminded of her cultural duality: “To me, it occurs that Cézanne/ Is not a Sung painter.” Like many people of multicultural upbringing, she enjoys an immense personal freedom (“I shuttle passportless within myself,/ My eyes slant around both hemispheres”) yet acknowledges a deep longing to be “accustomed,/ At home here.” Embedded in the poetry of Liu, Wang, and Chang there is an acute awareness of global tensions between East and West, First World and Third World, tradition and modernity.

Most Chinese American poetry collected in book form is an outgrowth of the immigration experience, which is not only a collective memory but also a collective reality of the struggle for survival in an uncongenial environment. Authors intent on delineating inexhaustible vignettes of the immigration experience include Nellie Wong, Fay Chiang, Alan Chong Lau, Kitty Tsui, Amy Ling, Marilyn Chin, and Genny Lim. In their books, the poems are arranged according to thematic concerns such as ancestors, family, childhood, adulthood, and marriage. At times helpless, bitter, and outraged, at others respectful, nostalgic, and humorous, they join their variegated voices into a sonorous chorus for the combined elegy and eulogy of an ethnic destiny that has taken more than a century to be reckoned with.

When Chinese American poets speak of themselves as U.S. citizens, the immigrant background heightens their sense of identity, as in Genny Lim’s “Yellow Woman”:

I am the daughter ofseafarers, gold miners, quartz minersrailroad workers, farm workersgarment workers, factory workersrestaurant workers,laundrymenhouseboys, maids, scholarsrebels, gamblers, poetspaper sons

The background may be a stigma, but it can also be a means of self-definition, as in Kitty Tsui’s “A Celebration of Who I Am”: “I am afraid only of forgetting/ the chinese exclusion act of 1882.”

In any case, thanks to their self-awareness, the generation of native-born American Chinese who survived the immigration predicament of their forebears took pride in being living contradictions to the stereotypes perpetuated by racist Americans. Daryl Ngee Chin, for example, expresses this pride in “Skin Color from the Sun.”

The world of Chinese American poetry is fast becoming more dazzling in its wide variety. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge (born 1947) and John Yau (born 1950), who have published voluminously, are virtuosos of poetic form. Li-Young Lee’s Rose (1986) deals mainly with haunting memories of a deceased father and a tender, loving relationship between husband and wife, and is exemplary in its seamless amalgamation of the best in both Chinese and Western poetry. While others shuttle between dualities, Lee blends the two cultures subtly and organically into a mellow brew.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, younger poets began to reflect an interdisciplinary trend toward combining poetry, drama, and performance art. Lim, for example, wrote in a number of genres, including fiction and drama, and became a member of the performance group Unbound Feet. In an interview, she complained about the labels that have been applied to her and other artists: “I am what I am. Chinese, American, womanlabeling is a preoccupation of mass media, marketers, and politicians.My priority has never been to fit in a box.” Whereas Chinese Americans once were confined to literal ghettos in the United States, now, Lim notes, they and many other cultural and racial groups have graduated to academic and literary ghettos, as represented by labels such as “Asian American” and “African American.” Lim, therefore, seeks to escape the box of labels. In poems such as “Ahmisa” and “Bardo,” she addresses universal themes. On stage, her multimedia performance pieces have incorporated Butoh, sculpture, live music, poetry, and video.

Beau Sia (born 1977) gives further proof of the desire to encompass more than one art form. Author of edgy confessionals that touch on fame, money, sex, and Asian cultural stereotypes, Sia has released a spoken-word compact disc, Attack Attack Go! (1998), that makes references to popular culture—Nike shoes, time shares, the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, and the Transformers television show. Sia is known for brutally honest, aggressive, and humorous performances in a deadpan delivery reminiscent of comedian Stephen Wright. He befriended Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who, echoing other poets, taught him the interconnectedness of all: “He taught me how to be positive and genuine and connect everything universally,” said Sia. Like other poets, Sia credits a wide variety of sources for his inspiration—rap music as well as Frank O’Hara and William Carlos Williams.

Japanese American poetry

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 697

Writing in the early twentieth century, the first generation of Japanese American poets, Yone Noguchi (1875-1947), Carl Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944), and Jun Fujita (1888-1963), employed Japanese forms such as tanka and haiku in their often nostalgic works. Later generations of Japanese American poets continued to explore Japanese poetic forms. After the great divide of World War II, however, Japanese American poetry began to be marked by a decisive sense of identity and coherence.

The trauma of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II served as the rallying point for their literary expression. Lawson Fusao Inada produced a seminal collection of poems revolving around the relocation experience, Before the War (1971). Similarly conceived collections include James Masao Mitsui’s Journal of the Sun (1974), Mitsuye Yamada’s Camp Notes, and Other Poems (1976), and Lonny Kaneko’s Return from the Camp (1986). Although not all have drawn their inspiration explicitly from the internment experience, Japanese American poets have used it to consolidate a collective memory and established an ethnic identity for themselves. However, rather than simply musing upon the wrongs they suffered in their incarceration, they have moved on to explore its various ramifications.

The result of such explorations is epitomized by the phrase “breaking silence.” In Shedding Silence (1987), Janice Mirikitani develops the idea that “the strongest prisons are built/ with walls of silence” (“Prisons of Silence”). In the widely anthologized poem “Breaking Silence,” she articulates the mission for an entire generation of younger Japanese American poets. The poem could very well be regarded as a manifesto in verse. In the first place, to break silence is to come to terms with the turmoils of the incarceration that Japanese Americans before the 1970’s had generally avoided discussing:

We were made to believe our facesbetrayed us.Our bodies were loud with yellow screaming fleshneeding to be silencedbehind barbed wire.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .We must recognize ourselves at last.

As a corollary, to break silence is also to learn a lesson about the body politic of racist America. In “Block 18, Tule Relocation Camp,” Mitsui describes “a quiet man,” by day surrounded by Italians and Germans, who by night retreats to a boiler room. There he fashions a samurai sword from scrap metal: “A secret edge/ to hold against the dark mornings.” Mitsui is well aware of the stereotypes perpetuated about his race:

White voicesclaim the other side of the oceanis so crowdedthe people want to find deathacross the phantom river.

By extension, then, to break silence is to sympathize with other peoples of color. Many of these poets look beyond the United States to discover an alliance with the developing world; many of them also condemn the warlike mentality that led to the great devastations of World War II and the Vietnam War. (See, for example, Geraldine Kudaka’s Numerous Avalanches at the Point of Intersection (1979), Mirikitani’s “We the Dangerous,” and David Mura’s “The Hibakusha’s Letter.”)

Above all, to break silence is to dare to critique and dissent in a country that, through legal instruments of exclusion, antimiscegenation laws, segregation, and discrimination, stubbornly refused to practice what it taught. In order to establish this voice, Japanese American poets such as Mura in After We Lost Our Way (1989) began to memorialize the details of the family lives of generations past and present. Others aimed to establish a sense of origins and direction (Garrett Kaoru Hongo, Yellow Light, 1982, and The River of Heaven, 1988) or to assess the everyday life of Americans at large (Ai, Cruelty, 1973; Killing Floor, 1979; and Sin, 1986). Especially worthy of attention is the fact that Japanese American poets looked toward the past of their immigrant forebears (Mura, After We Lost Our Way) and proudly but judiciously retraced their cultural roots and heritage (Yamada, Desert Run, 1988; Hongo, The River of Heaven).

In the midst of these developments, an interesting discord can be detected among those who hold opposite views of “tradition,” which must be broken for a Japanese American to be American (Mirikitani, “Breaking Tradition”) but at the same time must be preserved so as to retain one’s distinctive voice as an American of color. The resolution of this conflict will probably continue to be a major issue in Japanese American poetry.

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