The notion of poetic originality may seem elusive, even quaint, in the era of the global postmodern. The language of mimicry and hybridity frames our understanding of writing from postcolonial spaces, and more broadly helps us grasp the relationship of any minoritized or marginalized writing with regard to the dominant mode. And collage, appropriation of texts, and other styles of “uncreative writing” are the most prominent manifestations of the contemporary U.S. poetic avant-garde.
My own poetry collection, 100 Chinese Silences, would seem to participate in this flight from originality. The poems in the book are all parodies, rewritings of poems by other modern and contemporary authors that thematize Asia in some way. A deep irony I’ve been aware of throughout this project is that Asians themselves have often been stereotyped by the West as mere imitators, incapable of the originality and invention that allegedly characterize Western modernity. Having, supposedly, no voice of my own, I was reduced to rewriting the works of those who had already spoken for me. Indeed, I strove to be a diligent pupil, trying to capture the voice, style, and rhythms of each poet I was imitating.
But of course “imitation” is itself fundamental to poetry, whether in the broader sense of an “imitation of nature” or in the more specific sense of an apprenticeship grounded in the imitation of other poets’ works. As a master term for global poetics, “imitation” may have the advantage of signifying a conscious inhabitation of another text or voice, one that is fully aware of its belated, secondary nature, and of the relationships of power that connect the “original” and the “copy.” And yet a poetic imitation is not merely a copy. It is an attempt to “sound like” someone else, but as a means toward finding one’s own way of speaking. [End Page 380]
timothy yu is the author of 100 Chinese Silences (2016) and Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 (2009). He is professor of English and Asian American studies and director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.