The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry
Publication Year: 2006
Published by: University of Iowa Press
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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).
1. Your Otherness Is Perfect as My Death
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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.
2. She Walks into Exile Vowing No Return
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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).
3. Where Am I, the Missing Third?
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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.
4. The Passion of Leaving Home
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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.”
5. Each of Us Harboring What the Other Lacked
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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).
6. The I of Changes, the Destroying I, the Its of the I
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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.
7. Speak and It Is Sound in Time
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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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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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Page Count: 326
Publication Year: 2006