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The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry

Xiaojing Zhou

Publication Year: 2006

Poetry by Asian American writers has had a significant impact on the landscape of contemporary American poetry, and a book-length critical treatment of Asian American poetry is long overdue. In this groundbreaking book, Xiaojing Zhou demonstrates how many Asian American poets transform the conventional “I” of lyric poetry---based on the traditional Western concept of the self and the Cartesian “I”---to enact a more ethical relationship between the “I” and its others.Drawing on Emmanuel Levinas's idea of the ethics of alterity---which argues that an ethical relation to the other is one that acknowledges the irreducibility of otherness---Zhou offers a reconceptualization of both self and other. Taking difference as a source of creativity and turning it into a form of resistance and a critical intervention, Asian American poets engage with broader issues than the merely poetic. They confront social injustice against the other and call critical attention to a concept of otherness which differs fundamentally from that underlying racism, sexism, and colonialism. By locating the ethical and political questions of otherness in language, discourse, aesthetics, and everyday encounters, Asian American poets help advance critical studies in race, gender, and popular culture as well as in poetry.The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity is not limited, however, to literary studies: it is an invaluable response to the questions raised by increasingly globalized encounters across many kinds of boundaries.The Poets: Marilyn Chin, Kimiko Hahn, Myung Mi Kim, Li Young Lee, Timothy Liu, David Mura, and John Yau

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xi

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pp. 1-23

In his memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (1995), Li-Young Lee recalls painful experiences of learning to speak English at primary school. “More than once I was told I sounded ugly. My mouth was a shame to me, an indecent trench” (76). He often felt panic and anxiety when being asked a question in class, afraid that his classmates would be baffled and annoyed, or would wince and ask, as they often did: “What did you say? or, turning to someone else in complete exasperation, What did he say?” (77).

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1. Your Otherness Is Perfect as My Death

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pp. 25-65

At a 1993 symposium on Asian American literature sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, Li-Young Lee stated: “When I write, I’m trying to make that which is visible — this face, this body, this person — invisible, and at the same time, make what is invisible — that which exists at the level of pure being — completely visible” (qtd. in Hummer 5). While evoking his experience as a raced and ethnic other, Lee’s statement articulates a poetics that resists social inscriptions of racial meanings on the bodily surfaces through exploration of interiority that is elusive, multifaceted, and protean.

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2. She Walks into Exile Vowing No Return

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pp. 66-101

In a 1995 interview with Bill Moyers, Marilyn Chin speaks of her poetic aspirations in terms of her sense of responsibility as a poet, a woman, and a Chinese American. “I see myself as a frontier. . . . And I feel that I’m a conduit for many voices. Historical voices, ancient voices, contemporary feminist voices. Women’s voices mostly” (Moyers 67).

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3. Where Am I, the Missing Third?

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pp. 102-132

In response to Harold Bloom’s essay, “They Have the Numbers; We, the Heights,” which critiques poems such as those included in the 1996 Best American Poetry collection edited by Adrienne Rich, David Mura entitled his essay, “A Note from Caliban.”1 In referring to himself as “Caliban,” Mura identifies himself with the racial other who is posited beyond the pale of the Western canon of which Bloom assumes the position of foremost guardian.

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4. The Passion of Leaving Home

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pp. 133-166

In her essay “Memory, Language and Desire,” Kimiko Hahn speaks of her conviction about the importance of desire as a necessary force in her poetry: “I believe even the most intellectually oriented literature should throb with desire; not necessarily explicitly sexual but so informed.” For Hahn, desire “looks toward the future”; the future is shaped by “political action.”

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5. Each of Us Harboring What the Other Lacked

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pp. 167-195

In his foreword to Timothy Liu’s first book of poetry, Vox Angelica (1992), Richard Howard speaks of Liu’s work as “a shocking poetry,” noting that “the shock is not of recognition but of estrangement.” For Howard, the extraordinary strangeness of Liu’s poetry lies in the fact that it “makes an unfamiliar claim upon us, the claim of apostasy” (x).

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6. The I of Changes, the Destroying I, the Its of the I

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pp. 196-228

John Yau’s poetry is characterized by a poetics of resistance from the position of the other. “I, who was and is one of Them, do not want to become one of Us,” states Yau in his essay, “Between the Forest and Its Trees” (1994 “Trees” 43).1 In an earlier version of the same essay, Yau writes: “I am interested in what lies beyond reason, what is irreducible.

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7. Speak and It Is Sound in Time

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pp. 229-274

In her fourth volume of poetry, Commons (2002), Myung Mi Kim raises a number of questions which underline the challenges and politics of a language-centered poetics that she has developed since her first volume, Under Flag (1991). “What is English now, in the face of mass global migrations, ecological degradations, shifts and upheavals in identifications of gender and labor? How can the diction(s), register(s), inflections(s) as well as varying affective stances that have and will continue to filter into ‘English’ be taken into account?

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pp. 275-280

The relationship between self and other entails both ethics and politics, as shown in the work of seven contemporary Asian American poets. In their investigations of the ethical and political questions of otherness, these poets demonstrate an intricate relationship among aesthetics, poetics, and politics, which is embedded in a Levinasian ethics. “Levinasian politics is the enactment of plurality, of multiplicity,” states Simon Critchley in arguing for “a Levinasian politics of ethical difference” (225).


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pp. 281-287


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pp. 289-301


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pp. 303-312

E-ISBN-13: 9781587296796
E-ISBN-10: 1587296799
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877459828
Print-ISBN-10: 0877459827

Page Count: 326
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 219758183
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American poetry -- Asian American authors -- History and criticism.
  • Difference (Psychology) in literature.
  • Asian Americans -- Intellectual life.
  • Asian Americans in literature.
  • Ethics in literature.
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