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Journal of Asian American Studies 8.1 (2005) 81-92
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Teaching Asian American Poetry
During The winter quarter of 2003–4, I taught a course on Asian American poetry at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The course was simultaneously a course on criticism and on creative writing—students studied a representative sample of contemporary Asian American poetry and wrote their own poems. An upper-division course, it was open both to Asian American Studies majors and non-majors. The class size was forty, about three-quarters of whom were of Asian descent—Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, etc. Most of the students had no literary training; and most came from families where English was not the native language. Their previous exposure to poetry was generally limited to the standard canonical poems taught in high school—Frost's "Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening," Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow," and so on.
Never having taught a course exclusively devoted to poetry before, I was daunted by the task. My previous experience teaching poetry to undergraduates had been discouraging. Poetry was often perceived as irrelevant and obscure; there was a reluctance to engage with difficult syntax and diction; cultural contexts and references needed to be explained. In the era of cell phones and the Internet, many students seemed averse to interpreting texts which did not yield instant meanings.
A more subtle, though perhaps no less important, problem was that poetry seemed to be marginalized in the curriculum itself. In contrast to [End Page 81] my own college experience two decades earlier, very little poetry was being taught to undergraduates. The introductory anthologies used in freshmen courses consisted mostly of fiction and essays. Consequently, not only did students seem biased against poetry, the educational environment itself implicitly reinforced this bias. Because departments themselves seemed to privilege narrative prose, students got the message that poetry somehow wasn't as important.
The situation was even worse with regard to Asian American poetry. When I arrived in Santa Barbara in the Fall of 2003, there was no record of anyone ever having taught the subject. The department, to its credit, was receptive when I proposed the class; however, it was clear that the course was considered an experiment, something which was not expected to have high enrollment or become a regular course offering.
Asian American Studies 170mm –"Asian American Poetry"—met twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 11-12.15 pm for ten weeks. Contrary to everyone's expectations, the course was oversubscribed and enrollment remained steady throughout. Far from being a course that needed to be sold to students, it seemed to have a ready constituency that no one had suspected. The reasons for this must remain speculative. Perhaps it was because, having suffered neglect, poetry was seen as new and different. Perhaps it was because its subject matter appealed to students who were not used to literary representations of Asian American experience. Perhaps the fact that the syllabus combined creative writing with a critical reading of texts gave the course a dynamism it might otherwise have lacked.
The latter was a deliberate decision. I have always believed that good reading and good writing cannot be separated—that critical reading and creative writing are, in fact, activities which inform and support one another. Yet finding the right balance was a challenge. How was it possible to introduce the critical vocabulary needed to read poetry and nurture the students' own fledgling work at the same time? Could I present them with poems by prize-winning poets without having them be intimidated or slavishly imitative? Could I encourage them to develop their own voices while inculcating a respect for form and tradition? Most students viewed poetry as self-expression, but could I make them see that good poems [End Page 82] were linguistic artifacts that needed to be judged by independent standards?
I made several important decisions at the outset. The first concerned my choice of texts. I decided that instead of using an anthology such as Hongo...