- Asian American Poetry in the First Decade of the 2000s
At the start of the twenty-first century, Asian American poetry finds itself in a curious position. From one perspective, it is a mature and well-established literature that has produced several generations' worth of major writers since the 1970s, from Lawson Fusao Inada to Li-Young Lee, from Janice Mirikitani to Myung Mi Kim. Over the past two decades, Asian American poets have been widely anthologized, published by small and mainstream presses alike, and recognized with major awards. Younger Asian American writers continue to thrive, form new communities, and push the boundaries set by their predecessors. But from another perspective, Asian American poetry continues to be marginal. Even among readers and critics of Asian American literature, poetry still receives far less attention than novels or prose memoirs. The first book-length studies of the field are only now beginning to be published. Journals, presses, and institutions devoted to Asian American poetry—with a few notable exceptions—have been ephemeral. Even as the ranks of Asian American poets become more numerous and more diverse, there seems to be increasingly less agreement about what the category of "Asian American poetry" might mean (any poetry by an Asian American? poetry with recognizably Asian American content?), with some readers suggesting that the label may be growing less coherent and relevant as time goes on. My goal in this essay will be to confront these questions about the place of Asian American poetry by surveying its development in the first decade of the [End Page 818] twenty-first century. While an exhaustive account of Asian American poetic production in the past ten years is not possible here (the sheer quantity of material is itself a sign of Asian American poetry's vitality), I do hope to identify some major authors and trends that situate twenty-first-century Asian American poetry with regard to its history and its literary and social context, and that may provide some guide to where it may go in the future.
I begin by examining the ongoing careers of four major poets who established their reputations in the 1980s and 1990s: Li-Young Lee, John Yau, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Myung Mi Kim. All have continued to publish actively and even reach new heights of prominence in the first decade of the 2000s, and each represents a particular tendency or strain within Asian American poetry at the turn of the century. It is Kim's work, however, that may have been the most influential in setting the direction of Asian American poetry of the past decade. That direction, I suggest, combines the engagement with history and politics that has traditionally characterized Asian American poetry with a burrowing into language, exploring both its limits and its creative potential in poetic styles influenced by experimental modes within American poetry. The result is a poetry that is not always explicitly marked by Asian American sites or subjects, but that clearly emerges from the context of race and ethnicity within which the Asian American author is situated. I move to a discussion of three distinctive Asian American poets who have emerged in the last decade: Linh Dinh, Barbara Jane Reyes, and Cathy Park Hong. These writers' multilingual and multicultural sensibilities problematize the position of the Asian American writer but also create reading positions that can be seen as analogies of Asian American subjectivity. This work is part of several larger trends within Asian American poetry—trends that echo and vary larger trends within contemporary American poetry: language-centered experimentation; formalism and postconfessional lyric; and the sampling and remixing of popular culture. These aesthetic trends unfold against a backdrop of rapid demographic change in the Asian American population, with a particular emergence of South and Southeast Asian American poets; [End Page 819] the growth of new genres of Asian American poetry; and a changing institutional context for Asian American writers. Finally, I will examine the long-delayed emergence of a significant critical discourse around Asian American poetry in the past decade, with the publication of the first book-length studies of Asian American poetry and increased academic attention to the topic.