‘by a minority’


so what are the dangers of the narrative sketched out in my previous post?

most directly related to selinger’s essay is how this narrative obscures the craft of the earlier generation of ethnic poets. as javier reminds us, “most scholars who study Corky’s work, or alurista’s, or any work of someone in that generation, tend to study it with a cultural studies lens or Marxist lens.” disrupting this tendency, javier’s aims to “critically engage their work to learn exactly what’s going on at the level of craft.”

simon, in javier’s original post, is even more blinded than selinger by the myth of the ethnic poet: “I detect in the lines a poet whose talent may be better suited for the Nuyorican-esque slam scene, where exaggerated gestures (such as, indeed, that “or”, or the ALL CAPS THIS IS SERIOUS) and steady, transparent “identity” definition work far better, and a, yes, slack and rhythmically dull line on the page can be revitalized by an idiosyncratic delivery. I’ve seen this quite a bit, actually, especially in work being pitched as explicitly “by a minority”: eager to transfer the slam to the more “professional” page, editors overlook quite a bit.”

simon claims to have “seen this quite a bit”, but the only thing he’s able to see is limited by the narrative that accompanies the pitch: “by a minority”. like any grand narrative, it dangerously limits the imagination; simon’s comments are symptomatic of this limit. (at least selinger is able to expand his imagination and see the striking prosodic structure of ‘i am joaquin’)

the danger of occluding craft coincides with another: the expectations that accrue from ethnic poetry being situated merely in ‘identity poetics’. ethnic writers are often expected–by the mainstream or by the minority community–to write in the mode(l) of the earlier generation (to choose the first path) and are punished if they dont.

Jose Garcia Villa is a good example. In “Asian/American Modernisms: José Garcia Villa’s Transnational Poetics,” [18] scholar Tim Yu writes:

It is Villa’s very allegiance to the universalizing aesthetic dicta of high modernism and the Anglo-American literary canon that has prevented him, up to now, from being considered under the rubric of American ethnic writing. Indeed, Villa’s admission into the Asian American literary canon may do less to stabilize Villa’s position and more to destabilize the category of Asian American literature itself; for one reason Villa has frequently been unfavorably been compared to his contemporary, Bulosan, is because Bulosan’s social engagement and activism, both inside his work and outside it, have been seen as more amenable to the political goals of Asian American studies than Villa’s detached aestheticism. To accept Villa, in short, is to alter our very notion of the ‘Asian American.’

again, the critical imaginary of Asian American studies was limited by the narrative of ‘identity poetics’ and Villa existed precariously outside their vision because he did not fit into the political goals and bounden aesthetic duties of ‘Asian American literature.’

In an interview with Harryette Mullen, conducted by Michael Magee and Farah Griffin in an issue of COMBO, Mullen talks about her struggles when she began writing experimental poems:

Well, I mean, one reason I wrote Muse and Drudge is because having written Tree Tall Woman, you know, and when I went around reading from that book there were a lot of black people in my audience. There would be white people and brown people and other people of color as well. Suddenly, when I went around to do readings of Trimmings and “Spermkit,” I would be the one black person in the room, reading my poetry […] it was interesting. But that’s not necessarily what I wanted, you know, and I thought, “How am I going to get all these folks to sit down together in the same room?” Muse and Drudge was my attempt to create that audience. […] and I didn’t think I was any less black in those two books or any more black in Tree Tall Woman but I think that the way that these things get defined in the public domain is that, yeah, people saw “Spermkit” as being not a black book but an innovative book. And this idea that you can be black or innovative, you know, is what I was really trying to struggle against. And Muse and Drudge really was my attempt to show that I can do both at the same time.

or, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s essay “Goodbye, Columbus? Notes on the Culture of Criticism,” he writes: “If black authors are primarily entrusted with producing the proverbial ‘text of blackness’, they become vulnerable to the charge of betrayal if they shirk their duty.”


there are two more things i want to cite in relation to the dangers of this narrative (and i will also get to the values of this narrative), but i am out of time so it will have to wait 🙂



2 thoughts on “‘by a minority’

  1. Your post today reminds me of the Introduction that Garrett Hongo wrote for his edited volume of Asian American poetry nearly twenty years ago called _The Open Boat_. My recollection of that Introduction is that he got a lot of flack for the volume’s aesthetic diversity, for including, for example, the work of John Yau.

    But I tend to be a tad optmistic on this question, based on my observations of the activities of such people like Roberto Tejada, who co-edits Mandorla (which he founded while living in Mexico City); Gabe Gomez and J Michael Martinez and their project Breach Press. And what J. Michael Rivera is doing in CO. And the fact that John Chavez is making experimental Latino poetry and this question in general the subject of his doctoral studies at Nebraska is great. Roberto Harrison in Milwaukee is also doing interesting work as an editor/publisher, in addition to his own work.

    I’m also very encouraged by the fact that Carmen Jimenez Smith is on the verge of taking over the editorship of PUERTO DEL SOL at New Mexico State. This bit of news is perhaps most ground-breaking of all: how many literary journals of this scope are headed by a Latino/a? The only other one I can think of is ROGER, edited by Renee Soto, but it’s still very recent and not as nationallly recognized as PDS.

    AND YET: One thing Roberto Tejada mentioned when I had the chance to speak with him at length in mid March is that it’s only been recently (if I heard him correctly) that he and others (like Rodrigo Toscano) has noticed what little visibility avant Latinos have gotten from the avant establishment. The most recent case in point was the Arizona Poetry Center’s festival/conference on innovative poetry that didn’t include any Latino/as event though it’s now clear that there are Latino/as writing from these innovative strands.

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