- Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965
Timothy Yu's first book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Asian-American poetry (such as Elaine Kim's and San-ling Wong's studies), but critically supersedes previous discrete achievements. Yu refuses to ghettoize his subject and instead contextualizes it in a wider cultural-poetic practice. Although a convincing notion of avant-garde does not emerge (Yu relies heavily on Poggiolo's now generally discredited theory), the book offers surprising felicities, the prime one being (to my mind) Yu's insight into a tension between particular and universal that is an identifying feature of the classic avant-gardes. The author is also aware that movements are in truth often moments - a year or a decade in which an avant-gardist intervention is effective - and in its essence Race and the Avant-Garde presents a study of one decade and its aftermath. It is [End Page 373] on the 1970s that Yu focuses - and rightly so, for these are the germinal years of the emergence of Language Writing and the proactive construction of an Asian-American poetic consciousness.
Presupposing the inseparability of the aesthetic and the social in any avant-garde practice, Yu moves to a bold comparison between Language Writing and certain contemporary Asian-American poets: 'I suggest the two groups share key traits that enable us to see them both as avant-gardes; at the same time, they display a distinctively contemporary concern with social identities that is most often centered on the discourse of race.' There is a certain historical distortion here. Yu seizes on an unfortunate comment by Ron Silliman to construct a shaky argument for an 'ethnicization of the avant-garde.' In truth the early debates in Language Writing were never on race but the functioning of language and signifying practice under late capitalism. The main vector of critique was directed toward the entrenched ideologemes of 'authenticity' and referentiality (as distinct from reference per se) as well as the perceived fetishistic grounding of narrative as a passing through (as opposed to an engagement with) language as such.
The book offers several archival disclosures, and the abundant selections from previously unpublished correspondence between Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, and Bruce Andrews are particularly welcome. There is a strong chapter on the fate of Teresa Hak Kyung-Cha's now canonic volume Dictée, and Yu forcefully argues that Asian-American 'experimental' poetry does not commence in the 1980s. (Yu's discussion of John Yau's work I find less persuasive.) If the book is to be faulted it must be on its over-reliance on Ron Silliman's theories. Indeed, Yu stands guilty of committing what Marjorie Perloff has termed the 'synechdochal fallacy.' A glaring example is Yu's geopolitical assertion that 'both Language and Asian American writing were emerging in the same politically charged Bay Area atmosphere in the 1970s' - a statement whose truth value is counterbalanced by its entire bracketing out of consideration the complex relation of the emergence of Language Writing on both the East Coast and the 'third' coast (Toronto). Although Yu's book is a valuable and welcome contribution to the growing scholarship in Asian-American literature, it is less so in the critical history of the avant-garde.
Steve McCaffery, Department of English, State University of New York