Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of essays on Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde. Read the rest.
My 2013 collection, Undergloom, sent me raging through the spaces around me—through the academy, through poetic forms, through my various communities. I stomped around in my unruly, racialized body, wearing the rubber clown suit (brown version) I was born in, with its "Kick Me" sign in raised letters on the back, chopping the heads off of everyone’s flowers and trying to arrange the debris into comprehensible patterns. Blinking and looking around in the aftermath, my attention fell on what remained—in the way that D.W. Winnicott says that only that which can withstand the full blast of our hatred can be seen as real. For the most part, these remnants were friendships: both present ones and formative, sustaining, Bildung-ish ones from the past. I reposed on these for a while, and, in that leisure, unzipped the clown suit a bit—they won't let me take it off—to let some air out and in. I organized a conference on race and creative writing where others might be free to unzip a bit, too. In that cooling space, a kind of counter-reality was formed where I could dream.
I write to obstruct syntax and obfuscate meaning and yet own my first person speaker and her diction are honest.
The first time I was in such a dream: In 1995 when I was finishing my M.F.A. at Brown University, many students of color were straddling two aesthetic camps—narrative and language poetry. Because of this they felt they had to choose their racial themes carefully, based on the aesthetic work they chose to do. Should they omit or emphasize? But, somehow, nontraditional work was emerging out of this tension and force. This seemed to be an answer to the conundrum: to believe as fully as you could a way of imagining yourself into and out of binaries and deficient definitions of self and race in the poem without being literal, obvious, or untrue about your situation of always being racially marked, of being in a clown suit. Today, there is an abundance of multidisciplinary, polywriting out of racial themes, and that writing has entered the M.F.A. institution. Still, I wonder how it works in the classroom: when teachers pair difficult, avant-garde writing by minorities with “acceptable” canonical models, can this difficult work survive and be supported? Can students be coached to engage with the politics inhabited in such works, to account for the processes, procedures, and tensions the poet invites her contemporary readers to imagine but not to determine?
I have come to feel simultaneously cynical and optimistic when teaching my own students avant-garde and postmodern creative writing by minorities. Maybe these feelings are just a result of being in a remote place in a program with a deep, embedded history of a particular kind of Western poetics—informed by Richard Hugo and narrative poetry—a place specifically uninhabited by many poetry faculty of color or anybody outside a close-knit community. I have begun more intently teaching non-white, non-traditional writing and insisting on something having to do with race and politics in my classrooms. But even as I do this, I have started to wonder about my own role and value in the world of poetry and the M.F.A. program. These are questions of affinities and affiliations: What do people deem worthy to read? What are they willing to be taught? The common answers have started to feel to me like a kind of pedagogical occlusion.
When I say occlusion I mean that, while race sometimes constitutes a subject of analysis, its effects in a white classroom—or a classroom where white students are a majority—are not considered. Occlusion consists in the perception that the racial body or the racial poetic is a transient space for the white poet body on his or her way to learning poetry: a stop here and a stop there, one strategy here, one poet there. If you want to value or show how you are subsisting as an Asian American avant-garde or postmodern or lyric experimenter, or whatever you may be called, you have to prove that you have accomplished enough to teach out this space. If your classroom is not diverse—aesthetically or racially—you run the risk of being outside of your own classroom. I have now made my teaching practices more openly defiant, or at least I aspire to.
I see occlusion outside of the classroom as well. When Daniel Tiffany borrowed from me the term “cheap signaling” for his Boston Review essay on class conflict and diction in avant-garde poetry, he was borrowing a phrase that I, in turn, had borrowed from Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In this uncited double borrowing, Tiffany also obscures important context. My own poetic repurposing of the term in my poem “She Did Not Want to Embody Cheap Signaling” overtly reflects on whether such repurposing is possible, whether one can carry the idea over to poetry, which has its own code of signals, metaphors, and vernacular. I wonder in my poem if I could ever be as openly or cosmetically defiant in my poetry as I believe myself to be. I contemplate my act of confessing and articulating discrimination in a previous poem (“A Situation for Mrs. Biswas”), a kind of lyric essay about my father and the racial discrimination he experienced. My poem wonders about my own “state of rage.” I believe that I have been a poet both inside and outside of the poetry world. Most of the time when I don’t fit in, I realize that there is a racial barrier—possibly also intersecting with gendered assumptions. The rage, unconscious while I was growing up has become ever clearer and more singularly defined. I have kept writing through this filter and want to make sure I can delve into a craft that doesn’t feel performative or “cheap” in relation to my content or my speech acts.
I write to obstruct syntax and obfuscate meaning and yet own my first person speaker and her diction are honest. I want to do all of it at the same time. I want to destabilize the way my poems behave because much of what gets rewarded in poetry by minorities is when they behave well: when they perform their canonical duties and contribute to the mainstream. I started to see these acts as constituting a “model minority” poetry—this worries me because while I do believe that the mainstream needs to diversify, I am afraid of the consumptive properties within the act of participation itself. Such “behaving” would be enacting the “American Dream” of poetry. This is why I am taking myself out of believing in this dream, even if in the many ways my poems put me there.