(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.