In what sense can Asian American poets be said to form an avant-garde? Although it is frequently acknowledged that there are a certain number of Asian American poets who now write in recognizably “experimental” styles, including John Yau, Myung Mi Kim, and Tan Lin, such writing is often regarded as a recent development in Asian American literature, a departure from the familiar Asian American literary modes of autobiographical lyric and narratives of family history. What I argue in this chapter is that from its inception in the 1970s, Asian American poetry as a whole was an avantgarde, a grouping that defined itself not just through race but through bold experiments with form and style in the search for an Asian American aesthetic. If white avant-gardists such as the Language poets were compelled to “ethnicize” their writing, it was in part because of an awareness that emerging categories like “Asian American writing” were taking their place alongside those groups traditionally labeled “avant-garde.”
The image of Asian American poetry familiar to most readers is a product of the 1980s, which saw the rise to prominence of poets like Li-Young Lee, Cathy Song, David Mura, and Marilyn Chin. Like many of their non– Asian American peers, these poets were largely trained in poetry workshops and are now often professors of creative writing themselves; their work fits comfortably into what some critics have called the “MFA mainstream” of the 1980s and 1990s, with its emphasis on personal voice, epiphanic insight, and loose verse form.1 This formal consonance has allowed Asian American poetry to become an acceptable part of the multicultural curriculum, a transparent conduit for those neglected stories that some have asserted it is the job of minority literature to tell.
But if we return to the scene of Asian American literature’s emergence in the 1970s, in the ephemeral newspapers, journals, and anthologies of that period, we get a very different image of Asian American poetry, one that is not so easy to place in the mainstream of American poetry. The poems in publications like Gidra, Aion, and Bridge are politically charged and direct, angry and passionate, frequently reaching for a populist aesthetic. Their authors—Fay Chiang, George Leong, Ron Tanaka, Francis Oka— are absent from recent anthologies of Asian American writing; only Janice Mirikitani and Lawson Fusao Inada continue to be read. And the influences on and directions of this work are much more diverse than the canon of the 1980s and 1990s, with Beat, jazz, and Asian influences reflecting an interest in aesthetic as well as political vanguardism. Indeed, the poetry of writers like Lee, Song, and Mura may eventually come to be seen as an anomaly within the development of an Asian American poetry whose allegiances are much more appropriately placed with the avant-garde. Walter K. Lew’s anthology Premonitions, which places writers of the 1970s like Inada and Mirikitani alongside experimental writers of the 1990s like Kim and Lin, is one of the most striking statements of the continuity of the Asian American avant-garde.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, though, is just how central a role poetry seems to have played in the politics of the early Asian American movement. Each issue of the seminal monthly Gidra, for example, included a section called “The People”—a full-page selection of poems written by readers. The groundbreaking 1971 anthology Roots: An Asian American Reader contains over twenty pages of poetry—and no fiction. Its 1976 sequel, Counterpoint, contains a section on “Literature” of over one hundred pages, with more than thirty poems. It is hard to imagine a recent political movement giving such a central place to poetry. Why, in the early 1970s, did poetry seem vital to the Asian American political project?
To answer that question, we must acknowledge that the early Asian American movement was as much a cultural revolution as a social one—a purposeful phrasing that evokes many Asian American activists’ attraction to Maoism and the example of Chinese communism. Asian American manifestos of this period emphasize education, historical and cultural awareness, the establishment of Asian American publications and ethnic studies programs, and the rejection of “Oriental” stereotypes, all in the name of claiming an authentically Asian American identity.
Asian American poetry of the 1970s shared the documentary impulse central to political poetry of the period and found, in its different ways, in the work of Allen Ginsberg and Ron Silliman. Moreover, Asian American writers shared the desire of Ginsberg’s “Howl” to portray the life of a community. But this should not be taken to mean that Asian American poetry is a poetry of pure content, one that transparently represents Asian American subjectivities and communities. In fact, the 1970s witnessed a long and politically charged negotiation of the forms that Asian American poetry would take, a negotiation that took place, like the emergence of Language poetics, in a post–new left political and aesthetic context.
Although it would be simplistic to choose a single origin for the Asian American movement,2 the student strike of 1968–9 at San Francisco State was perhaps its most important catalyst. Central to the strikers’ demands was the establishment of a department of ethnic studies that would focus on the identities, histories, and communities of students of color. The most immediate model for this kind of cultural nationalism was the Black Power movement, embodied in the Bay Area by the Black Panther Party, whose rise was one of Silliman’s markers for the demise of a unified, multiracial new left.
Events like the rise of Black Power and the San Francisco State strike may have served to make white radicals feel marginalized. But that does not mean that the conversion of Asian Americans into authentic revolutionary “Third World” subjects was an automatic or natural process. Just as the new left’s adoption of the black civil rights movement led to a kind of imitative anxiety, with white activists “borrowing” the authentically revolutionary rhetoric of African Americans, Asian Americans in the 1970s found the rhetoric of black identity both exemplary and chastening. It provided a model for an Asian American identity but at the same time suggested, at least to some writers, how far Asian Americans had to go in defining their own racial consciousness.
In his introductory essay to the recent collection Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment, Steve Louie debunks the suggestion that young Chinese Americans were honoring their heritage in taking up the ideas of Mao: “I heard about Mao’s ideas from the Black Panther Party. The Panthers introduced the Red Book to the American movement” (Louie and Omatsu xxii). This idea—that Asian Americans were coming to consciousness in part through the structures of black identity—was not limited to the realm of politics but extended to culture and aesthetics, though in this latter realm the point is tinged with anxiety. Many of the writings on literature in the early issues of Bridge, one of the most prominent Asian American journals of the 1970s, lament the relative paucity of Asian American writers; an essay in the September/October 1972 issue asked, “Why Are There So Few Sansei Writers?”—a point sometimes contrasted with the plethora of African American writers. In a panel discussion published in Bridge‘s third issue, one speaker, Bill Ling, noted of Asian Americans, “There aren’t any people who are willing to write a book and get it published and publicized throughout this whole damn place. . . . There are no playwrights like LeRoi Jones to put it as it is” (“What Interests Chinatown Is $, Not China!” 29). Ling’s explanation for this is a harbinger of discussions throughout the 1970s of Asian American culture:
One thing that I can see is the Chinese have a culture, and if you dig hard enough it’s there, but blacks have had a terrible time identifying with the African culture so they have developed a subculture in the United States: black literature, black playwrights. They are creating something for a good foundation to get back on, and develop their own economic ways. I don’t know whether it is going to be attached to the Establishment in the U.S. or separate. (29)
African Americans, Ling argues, have developed a distinctive African American culture in the face of racism and cultural holocaust—an ethnic culture internal to the United States but still possibly oppositional to it. Chinese Americans, in contrast, have a culture still continuous with that of China; yet this has had the paradoxical effect of stifling their ability to construct an ethnic subculture in the United States. The culture of Chinese Americans in the United States, unlike that of African Americans, still remains to be formed.
Although Frank Chin has made a career of criticizing those, like Ling, who suggest a continuity between Chinese and Chinese American culture, Chin’s own writings display a similar unease in the face of the distinct cultural identity claimed by African Americans. One of Chin’s best-known essays, “Confessions of a Chinatown Cowboy,” is motivated in part by admiration of what he calls the “badass” image of African Americans, in contrast to the “kissass” stereotype of Asian Americans.3 It is a concern shared by Chin’s audience as well: in a review of Chin’s play The Chickencoop Chinaman in the July/August 1972 issue of Bridge, William Wong writes, “The play confronts the issue of the self-contempt we all feel at one time or another. . . . Our self-contempt is also evidenced in our language—or our lack of one. The language of both Tam and Kenji is laced throughout with black jargon, and other American subcultural dialects that aren’t really their own” (26). Just as some white radicals saw black language as an authentic speech they could only imitate, Wong worries that Chin’s attempt to discover an Asian American language is parasitic, doomed to a kind of parody of African American vernacular.
The larger point here is that the example of black cultural nationalism, and the politics of identity to which it gave rise, could be just as discomfiting to Asian American writers as to white leftist writers like Ron Silliman. For all the talk of roots, history, and Asian cultural heritage, many Asian American writers confronted what they saw as the task of building a culture from the ground up with whatever tools were at their disposal. The task could not simply be one of filling extant cultural forms with Asian American content; the struggle to describe an Asian American consciousness was also a struggle to find appropriate and distinctive forms for that consciousness, one that led Asian American poets to draw from a wide range of styles and traditions throughout the 1970s.
It is generally acknowledged that the first Asian American literary magazine was Aion, which published its two issues in San Francisco in 1970. The journal grew directly out of the San Francisco State strike, and its chief editor was Janice Mirikitani, a master’s student in creative writing during the strike who would become one of the best-known Asian American poets of the period.
Aion‘s two issues were substantial—the first issue contained more than sixty pages, the second, more than one hundred—and included poetry, short stories, photography, drawings, and essays. Even between these two issues, however, the distribution of material shifted. In the first issue, it is not immediately clear to a reader that Aion is a literary magazine per se; the opening editorial describes it as “a forum for Asian American self-definition and expression on issues relevant to problems and needs of our communities” (5). The journal’s cardstock cover and heft make it resemble a periodical like the later Bridge, and the number of pages devoted to political essays and journalism—including such pieces as “The Need for a United Asian American Front,” “On the Containment of China,” and an interview with Alex Hing, minister of information for the Red Guard Party—far outweigh those devoted to poems. But by the second issue the journal’s literary task has become explicit: its self-declared role is as both a community forum and a place “for the self-definition of Asian artists and writers.” And poems now outnumber essays by more than two to one.
Aion, then, is a kind of microcosm of how Asian American poetry emerged in the context of the radical Asian American politics of the early 1970s. It provides a glimpse into the theory and practice of Asian American writing, while also showing Asian American literature in the process of becoming a category relatively autonomous from political rhetoric.
The editorial that opens the first issue gives what would become a standard argument for the need to construct an Asian American culture, centered around negative stereotypes of Asians in America:
As Asian Americans, we have been conditioned by stereotypes imposed upon us by the white middle class and have internalized the consequent insecurity and confusion. Dependency upon these values and standards has caused an absence of self-knowledge and its complementary fear and paralysis.
Our continued complacency within this racist society will bring about our cultural destruction. We must join the international movement to end the exploitation of all Third World peoples and work to create our own revolutionary culture in this country. (“Editorial” 5)
Like nearly all Asian American writings of this period, the editorial characterizes anti-Asian stereotypes as a scourge that oppresses—and potentially unifies—Asian Americans across ethnic lines. But the focus on stereotype also shifts the battleground from politics or economics to culture, and to an emphasis on the way in which racism can be “internalized” by Asian Americans. Stating the challenge to Asian Americans in these terms also dictates the solution: to “create our own revolutionary culture,” one opposed to the racist culture that currently traps Asian Americans. But there is an ambiguity here as well in the dynamic between “cultural destruction” and cultural creation. Is the culture of Asian Americans something already present but submerged, something that needs to be celebrated and preserved from destruction? Or is it something that does not yet exist and needs to be created?
This tension is evident as well in the dominant political presence in Aion‘s first issue: Alex Hing, who contributes both an opening essay and an interview. Hing was “minister of information” for the Red Guard, a group modeled on the Black Panthers that became one of the best-known Asian American revolutionary groups.5 Hing’s essay “The Need for a United Asian-American Front” captures some of the issues that will become central in debates about Asian American culture:
The most politically aware of the Asians in America are usually those who have reached a high level of assimilation into the White Mother Country’s culture. . . .
Most of the politically aware Asians are students who are undergoing identity crises. They realize that they cannot fit into White society, yet at the same time they are also rebelling against the strict, Confucian ideas instilled into them by their parents. The contradiction caused by trying to assimilate into two cultures at one time can be resolved not by rejecting one and assimilating more into the other, but by rejecting the bad elements in both cultures and building a revolutionary culture from the best elements of both. (9)
Hing acknowledges that political consciousness is culturally mediated—a nod to the fact that Asian American activism, like much activism of the late 1960s, was centered around universities. Hing portrays the Asian American as caught between cultures (an image Frank Chin and others will roundly critique over the course of the decade) and describes the Asian American cultural task as a kind of bricolage, an active construction drawing on both white American and Asian cultures.
Hing expands on this task, and the Red Guard Party’s role in it, in an interview with Neil Gotanda later in the issue:
The Red Guard is part of the Cultural Revolution that’s going down in the United States. Most of us are Asian Americans who were born here and we spent most of our lives trying to assimilate into the culture. And, you know, we can’t relate to that because they won’t let us anyway. . . .
And there are cultural things and hang-ups in most American people that makes it hard to reach them, so what we’re trying to do is set up an alternative—an alternative for the people to groove on, and that is to educate the people—Third World and White—to the fact that we’re all people struggling to live normal, comfortable lives. Chinese people shouldn’t try to be white, because we’re not, and that we have to identify with what we are and make it all work out so that we don’t think we have to throw away our culture to live and be comfortable. (32)
The goal of activism, then, is from the beginning cultural, aesthetic—to create a different “groove”—but also ultimately didactic. Here, though, the emphasis is on cultural recovery rather than on creation, the need not to “throw away our culture” and to “identify with what we are.” But Hing gets into a final rhetorical wrinkle when he talks about struggling to bridge the gap between American-born Asians and immigrants:
[W]e American born Chinese tried to be Americans and found that we couldn’t do that. And by doing that, we’ve divorced ourselves from the people, the immigrants—the people who think Chinese and speak Chinese. Those are the people we want to relate to and like we’re going to have to learn to speak our language. So we’re starting to educate ourselves, politically and scholastically so we can get back to our people. (33, emphasis added)
“We” has become a divided entity; “we” American-born Chinese have become estranged from a language that is “ours” but that we do not know how to speak. This, in a nutshell, is the paradox in which Asian American writers of this moment find themselves: faced with a culture that is somehow felt to be naturally “theirs” and in need of recovery and telling, yet having to learn how to describe that culture, to find or create appropriate aesthetic forms for it. Like Allen Ginsberg, whose most spontaneous work required the maximum amount of technological intervention, Asian American writers needed to draw on a wide range of artifices to construct a writing that was somehow distinctively Asian American.
Perhaps the most interesting presence in the pages of Aion is that of Mirikitani’s co-editor, the Japanese-born Francis Naohiko Oka, whose writing combines the didactic impulse of many of the other poems with an irreverent “groove” that seems reminiscent of Beat writers like Ginsberg. Oka is listed as co-editor on the masthead of Aion‘s first issue but was killed in a motorcycle accident in June 1970 at the age of twenty-four; Aion‘s second issue is dedicated to his memory and contains a selection of his poems.6 Given the sensibility evidenced in those poems, it seems likely that Oka had a hand in the witty list that follows the very serious opening editorial in Aion 1.1. The list notes that the magazine is “dedicated to” all those “who made this magazine necessary,” and includes S. I. Hayakawa, Dean Rusk, William Randolph Hearst, Charlie Chan, Commodore Perry, “R. Mill- house Nixon,” ” ‘Fat Jap’ Agnew,” the Ku Klux Klan, and the Chevron Island Girl.7 The list moves cleverly from historical and contemporary political figures to American cultural icons, suggesting a seamless link between American imperialism and American culture.
Oka’s poems show plenty of political awareness and fire but also a withdrawal from and ironizing of politics, a trait his work shares with Ginsberg’s. Oka’s poem in the first Aion juxtaposes public and private, using the image of the “cell” as both a place of resistance and a domestic space, but ambiguous on whether the personal or the political is meant to be seen as the real:
We spoke of politics— our love-making a reflection in revolutionary posters hanging as spectres on our bedroom walls. (“Cell” 12)
The most striking poems by Oka in the second Aion explicitly state their Beat origins; one, an apostrophe to “America,” evokes Ginsberg’s poem of the same name; two others are marked as being written at City Lights Bookstore, the Beat mecca in San Francisco’s North Beach.8
Oka’s “America,” like Ginsberg’s, is an ironized and even agonized paean that condemns America’s failings even as it acknowledges the speaker’s own complicity in and attraction to America and its culture:
America, I could have loved you with your T.V. sets blinking across a mindless eye and your automated forests recoiling in horror at the christening of your newest campsite. … I’ve seen the final analysis of your culture and have grown to accept roast beef and have come to like your money being greener than your forests and redundant to my tastes.
Oka’s City Lights poems move into another realm explored by Ginsberg: that of the bodily grotesque, a radical awareness of the physical that undermines the pretensions of the powerful.9 The anaphoric “Reagan Poem” mocks the then-governor of California in a style reminiscent of the “Moloch” section of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” But whereas Ginsberg’s anaphora is centripetal, creating a kind of constellation around the figure of Moloch—”Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war!” (Poems 131)—Oka’s is centrifugal. Rather than coming together into a condemnation or demonization of Ronald Reagan, Oka’s caricatures turn “Ronald” into a free-floating signifier, of which “Ronald is Governor of California” is only one aspect.
The poem’s humor is gleefully juvenile; even those characterizations of Reagan that are ostensibly political quickly veer into the comic or grotesque: “Ronald is a reactionary paper tiger pissing in his pants . . . Ronald is John Birch turned conservative . . . Ronald is Hitler’s left ball castrated” (“Reagan Poem” 8). Indeed, many of the images crudely perform this “castration” of Reagan: “Ronald is finger nail polish on a dyke / Ronald is long hair on girls pubes . . . Ronald’s cunt grows mildew.” But perhaps the poem’s most interesting gesture is to move—or rather, to return—Reagan, the former actor, to the realm of culture: “Ronald is Donald Duck in ‘Gone with the Wind’ / Ronald is Joey Bishop’s hairstylist . . . Ronald is Ringo Starr’s drumstick.” There’s even an attempt to equate Reagan with stereotyped (and false) images of Asian Americans: “Ronald is the I-Ching in paperback by Dell publishers . . . Ronald is psychedelic fried Won Ton with pineapple sauce.” “Ronald” has become a monstrous cultural-political amalgam, identified with those specifically cultural forces that oppress Asian Americans. But putting Reagan in this realm also opens up the possibility of a cultural response, as the poem’s conclusion shows:
Ronald is the Confederate General from Big Sur in disguise Ronald is all watched over by machines of loving grace Ronald is against interpretation Ronald doesn’t want to relate to me. (8)
The first two lines allude to titles of books by Richard Brautigan, a Beat-affiliated writer whose novel Trout Fishing in America made him a cult figure in the late 1960s. The surreal blend of casual speech, romance, and the grotesque in Brautigan’s poetry seems to have influenced Oka’s style. Brautigan’s poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” imagines a strange utopia that is both natural and technological, a “cybernetic ecology” in which we are “joined back to nature” while being “watched over / by machines of loving grace” (1). This intertext gives a surprisingly optimistic turn to the poem’s conclusion, as does Oka’s identification of Reagan with Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation—we might well expect Reagan to be identified with the philistines of interpretation rather than with the aesthetes of formal appreciation. But the last line makes clear that these identifications are against the subject’s will. Governor Reagan would not willingly have anything to do with a young, radical, Asian American poet, but Oka’s poem has forced “Ronald” into a relationship with him on the ground of culture, engaging an out-of-reach political figure in a strange kind of dialogue.
If “Ronald” is hard to pin down in this poem, so is the “me,” a figure defined only by how he “relates” to the other cultural icons cited in the poem. Though Oka may draw techniques from Ginsberg, his “I” is not Ginsberg’s bardic speaker or even Brautigan’s self-deprecating romantic; he shares Silliman’s post–new left skepticism about the individual voice and perspective. Oka’s more personal poems in Aion 1.2 are vexed by the self ‘s inadequacy to the outward-looking political vision of works like “Reagan Poem”; the poet worries that “I am too far drawn / within myself ” (“Shades Drawn Tight” 4). Yet Oka does retain a sense of a private self that he is wary of politicizing and labeling Asian American:
The pale yellow composition is not my skin; it is only what my brothers would have me believe, though they mean well my skin is not yellow . . . My skin is skinny (no pun intended) or arrogant, clear and without doubt a complexion acquired thru the meager trials I’ve faced in my life. (“Blue Crayon” 5)
Oka displays a keen awareness of Asian American identity as a composition rather than a biological or biographical fact. The perceived gap between that identity and the self of personal experience gives a post-Ginsbergian pathos to Oka’s work.
Another possible direction for Asian American writing appears in the work of perhaps the most established writer who appears in Aion, Lawson Fusao Inada. Inada’s first collection of poems, Before the War: Poems As They Happened, would be published the following year by William Morrow. In a contributor’s note for the special “Asian American Poetry 1976” issue of Bridge in October 1976, Inada writes that Before the War was “probably” the first book of poems published by a Japanese American; he also notes that he (as well as Frank Chin) attended the prestigious Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in the early 1960s and “knows a thing or two about jazz” (“Asian American Poetry” 61). In a limited sense, Inada might be seen as a model for those Asian American poets who would come to prominence in the 1980s. Writing in a polished style, with skills honed in a university creative writing program, Inada was a professional writer years before the advent of the Asian American movement—unlike most of the poets in early Asian American publications, who came to writing largely through activism. But Inada’s position “before” the upheaval of the Asian American movement means that the lack of models for Asian American writing is starkly evident in his writing.
For Inada, as for Frank Chin, a similarly situated writer, African American culture, especially jazz, becomes the touchstone for his writing; jazz is a source of inspiration that Inada shares with American avant-gardists of all stripes, from the Beats to the Black Mountain poets to the Black Arts movement. But just as the example of black activism seems double-edged for many Asian Americans in this period, the African American cultural example is hardly a “natural” fit for Inada, as the opening poem of Before the War, “Plucking Out a Rhythm,” shows:
Start with a simple room— a dullish color— and draw the shade down. Hot plate. Bed. Little phonograph in a corner. Put in a single figure— medium weight and height— but oversize, as a child might. The features must be Japanese. Then stack a black pompadour on, and let the eyes slide behind a night of glass. The figure is in disguise: slim green suit for posturing on a bandstand, the turned-up shoes of Harlem . . . Then start the music playing— thick jazz, strong jazz— and notice that the figure comes to life: (13)10
The poem’s title suggests jazz improvisation, but also the piecemeal, almost Frankenstein-like manner in which the poem’s subject is constructed. The figure’s race is not a natural trait, but a conscious, even forced identification: “The features must be Japanese,” not “are.” The body’s building is described in mechanical terms, “stack” and “slide,” delivered in the imperative, as if in an instruction manual. But perhaps the most striking statement is the claim that the figure is “in disguise”—a phrase that surely would have conjured up to the reader Daniel Okimoto’s autobiographical American in Disguise, published in the same year. Inada, Chin, and the other editors of Aiiieeeee! would later characterize Okimoto’s book as a case study in Asian American self-loathing, with its dominant image of Asianness as a mask obscuring the true American beneath.11 But in this poem Inada’s figure dons a mask marked as African American, “posturing on a bandstand” in “the turned-up shoes of Harlem.”
It is music—the jazz of the poem—that animates this patchwork creature. But it is hard to say whether Inada means this to unify these complex identifications. The poem’s conclusion shows the figure’s life to be fleeting:
Then have the shade flap up and daylight catch him frozen in that pose
as it starts to snow— thick snow, strong snow—
blowing in the window while the music quiets, the room is slowly covered,
and the figure is completely out of sight. (14)
The layers of Japanese and black masks are covered by another layer—one that is, disturbingly, white, though the word never appears—and ultimately erased. Inada gives us no sense of an authentic racial or even personal identity; the Japanese American jazz his construction produces is unstable, audible only for a brief interval.
Inada’s poem in Aion 1.1, “Father of My Father,” is much less abstract and more explicitly biographical, foreshadowing the almost exclusive focus on personal history that will come to characterize Asian American writing by the 1980s. But even in this poem racial identification is unstable:
Have you ever seen blue eyes in a Japanese face?
That is the main thing I remember . . .
Have you ever been wakened by blue eyes shining into your face?
You wondered who you were.
You couldn’t move. (45)
The conjunction of blue eyes and Japanese features, like the conjunction of Japanese features and the “Harlem” suit, throws the identity of both viewed and viewer into doubt. This doubt seems to contaminate memory itself, as Inada writes toward the poem’s end: “[W]hat comes second-hand / is not the same. // Something is missing.” In Inada’s work, neither the example of black identity nor the details of personal history are sufficient to ground the Asian American subject.
Oka’s and Inada’s styles ultimately prove, for the 1970s at least, to be outliers, moments that show Asian American writers working within or borrowing from established traditions in American poetry and culture. It is, instead, the work of Janice Mirikitani that proves to be, among Aion‘s writers, paradigmatic for the period. Mirikitani epitomizes the activist, populist poet: her direct and explicitly political writing is matched by her commitment to political activism and community work, and her work as an editor has included Third World, feminist, and Japanese American anthologies. Her style and credentials would seem to place her in opposition to university- trained professionals like Inada and make her less uncertain about the solidity of Asian American identity.
But even Mirikitani’s work is much more complex than this, still vexed in its approach to Asian American writing. These tensions are evident in a 1976 interview in the Asian American Review, published out of the Ethnic Studies program at the University of California, Berkeley. The interviewer, Teri Lee, gives us the standard image of Mirikitani’s work as a direct and raw poetry of protest:
Her poetry speaks from a Third World perspective. Her images can be often savage, as she mourns the effects of the internment experience on the Japanese American self-image, attacks the war on Vietnam, screams at liberated White women who do not see the racist undercurrents in their own behavior. Her poetry also speaks joyfully of unity in struggle of Third World people. (36)12
Mirikitani in part supports this image, noting that “when you read poetry you spill your guts” (34), and argues for the need for writers of color to fight stereotypes and speak for themselves:
Others are constantly trying to study, talk, write about us, resulting in distortions, myths, and lies about Third World people. . . . Even the well-meaning outside of the Third World cannot express the soul of it because they have not “lived in the house,” and do not speak the depth of the language. (37)
But what is this “language” that Third World writers are to speak? Like other Asian American writers, Mirikitani is only able to say with certainty what this language is not:
Now, Japan is part of the (Japanese American culture), but it is not us. We are a unique culture, authentic to us. . . . The Issei had a unique experience in this predominately White culture. Our experience in this White culture has GOT to be different from the White experience. And our experience has got to be different from the Asian experience. (38)
Remarkably enough, this question of cultural distinction, one that continues to haunt Asian American writers, turns out to be in part a question of poetic form. This may seem especially surprising given Mirikitani’s own claims elsewhere in the interview that writers of color “don’t have the luxury at this time” of concerning themselves with aesthetics; Lee writes, “Jan contends that Third World poetry must transcend the pure aesthetic and deal with concrete social and political issues” (38). But the “pure aesthetic” seems to be more an issue of content—poems, as Mirikitani puts it, “about bees, or birds, or nature.” Poetic form, on the other hand, seems absolutely crucial to staking out a distinctive Asian American culture:
For instance, I can’t write haiku. And I feel that haikus written in English [are] a prostitution of the form, since it’s a form specifically meant to be used in the Japanese language. But the feeling of the haiku—the cleanliness, the simplicity of the feeling, is something I can incorporate into MY language and MY style. Yet I have no desire to copy haiku. See what I mean? (38)
The haiku, as a poetic form, is a synecdoche for Japanese culture, but Mirikitani argues that the importation of the haiku’s mere numerical pattern into English misses the essence of that form. One task of an Asian American writing, then, might be to discover an equivalent form in English that would capture the sensibility of the haiku without imitating it—an analogy for the Asian American subject herself.
Mirikitani’s rejection of the “aesthetic” might also seem to place her in opposition to the Anglo-American canon. Yet her position turns out to be much more ambivalent than this. To label her anti-academic would be simplistic; she has, after all, done graduate work in creative writing, albeit at San Francisco State rather than at Iowa. Although it seems at times that it is only Third World writing that deserves the label “political,” Mirikitani ultimately thinks better of this position:
“When you pick up a Third World anthology, you don’t want to read about bees, or birds, or nature, but you want to read about what experiences have made us suffer, what we have enjoyed, what makes us love. I mean, if you want to read something like ‘Ash Wednesday’, or ‘Prufrock—'”
She stops suddenly, hand arched in midair, and cocks her head to her side, eyelashes fluttering in thought. “But then, Prufrock is a political poem,” she says aloud to herself. Her eyebrows furrow as she admits abstractedly, “Okay, Shakespeare’s political too,” but then she immediately hits the table with her fingers and says, “But that’s Shakespeare’s perspective. I want to hear Third World problems. From the people who can talk about it firsthand.”
“I don’t read poetry to escape. I want reality. That’s what poetry should be. I’m very opinionated about that. I really am.” (38)
Mirikitani begins to dismiss Eliot and Shakespeare—two pillars of the canon— as irrelevant, but realizes that the question of their relevance is not the same as asking whether or not they are “political.” Her subsequent assertion that they are political may seem somewhat surprising; to argue that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is political is to expand one’s sense of the political beyond the explicit assertion of a political position or the articulation of a dissident viewpoint. Instead, Mirikitani concludes that the political poetry that interests her can be measured by two traits: its perspectiveand the reality it portrays. A Third World poetry has to emerge, she suggests, from an alignment of these two elements: the realities of ethnic minority life in the United States told from a distinctively minority perspective—a unity, we might say, of content and form, if we understand form to include the sensibility or “feeling” of haiku that Mirikitani describes.
It should not surprise us, then, that the poems of Mirikitani’s that appear in Aion are much less direct, much less easily read, than Lee’s initial characterization might lead us to believe. The interview hints at this in discussing Mirikitani’s attitude toward personal experience—in particular, her family’s experience of being interned at the Tule Lake internment camp during World War II:
Jan’s own family was sent to Tule Lake, a desolate community on the California- Oregon border. She was too young to remember the camp experience, and her family is reluctant to discuss that time with her. Many of her internment poems are about her relatives. . . . Even in such mentally searing works, Jan is painstakingly careful to keep her voice separate from the other voices in her poems. “I write about my experience with that person— it’s not fair to project myself and write as if I am that person.” (40)
This indirectness or distance is evident in a poem by Mirikitani from Aion 1.1, written to accompany a photo-essay documenting conditions in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The poem appears below a photograph of people walking through a rainy alley.
Broken alleys clutching my broken doorway
Rain like nails making a splintered wall against my face
It pains me, too that my umbrella is old
and my room empty. (“Broken” 15)
Mirikitani does, in fact, speak in the voice of a Chinatown resident here, but the voice is quite different from that in some of her other works—the line breaks more severe, the images concrete, the voice subdued. In fact, the form and sensibility are quite close to what Mirikitani describes as emerging from the haiku. Mirikitani represents but does not presume to speak for this person; only “It pains me” is a direct expression of emotion, and even that is ambiguous, displaced onto an arrangement of objects in the room.
Mirikitani’s more characteristic voice is what might be called archetypal. Her other poem in Aion 1.1, “Poem to the Alien/Native,” presents a female speaker in a dreamlike state who seems to move through all phases of womanhood, from childhood to motherhood to old age:
I watched a child sleep dreaming away her age and we woke to the sound of a woman dying.
The old woman said:
“A tree sprang from the belly of stone We bled for many days, I and the stone— The tree darkened.
Worms choose my leaves to spin their graves.
Moths die when born I was born old before beautiful.” (28-9)
The breaks are less charged than in the earlier poem, generally corresponding to the beginnings and ends of phrases, giving a more “natural” feel to the lines. The diction tends toward the aphoristic or gnomic, the imagery toward the elemental (stone, tree, leaves). This may, perhaps, be Mirikitani’s attempt to render a “Third World” consciousness. But it is less clear that this poem presents the “realities” faced by U.S. minorities or that a peculiarly Asian American sensibility can be found within it.
The second issue of Aion contains two more Mirikitani poems that pull her aesthetic in very different directions. “The Time Is Now” is her most explicitly political poem, accompanying photographs of internment camps. It is a model for those many Asian American historical poems that take internment as a unifying experience for Asian American politics, linking World War II–era racism to the war in Vietnam:
You have seen the towers guarded in your bowels, Miniature high rise monuments to the white man’s dream.
Slow motion dust storms mushroom. And yellow skin sheds like pitiful leaves on burning trees.
But Mirikitani’s juxtaposition is far more indirect than another accompanying poem by Pat Sumi, “Tule Lake”:
TULE LAKE! You are the history we seek the defiance always there! You are the pride of our people the ancestor spirit of our movement! You are the otochan and okachan of us now. (100)
Sumi’s poem takes the form of revolutionary song or rallying call, addressing itself directly to her “Brothers and Sisters” and anthropomorphizing the camp as a symbol. It is a public, not a personal response. Compare this to Mirikitani’s other poem in the issue, “Tansaku”:
A time too worn by ghosts
Sometimes I am that spectre seeking a refracted self in language
Kotoba Kagami— soretomo tansaku ka . . .
Language to fracture or mend.
There is less of me now than when I began. (57)
The ostensible subject is one raised in Mirikitani’s interview: the Japanese American’s alienated relation to the Japanese language. But perhaps more disturbing is the sense of how the self is “refracted,” and perhaps even dissipated, in the poem, rather than that self ‘s identification being confirmed or shored up. The ghostly, undefined quality of the Asian American self is thus evident in the work of writers as different as Mirikitani and Inada.
For poets of the 1970s, defining an Asian American perspective is thus a self-conscious and self-critical project, one that cannot take for granted the poetic form that is most appropriate for Asian American content. Indeed, the acknowledgment of the fragmentation of the Asian American self, and of the artifice necessary to articulate that self, is reminiscent of Language writer Ron Silliman’s interest in presenting a “white male” perspective that is simultaneously broken up and undermined. In this sense, both Language and Asian American writing participate in a distinctively post-1970 avantgardism, which openly acknowledges the social location of its emergence while using formal gestures that acknowledge the limits of that location.
If Aion shows a snapshot of Asian American poetics at the beginning of the 1970s, Bridge, one of the best-known Asian American publications of the period, can give us a good sense of its development over the decade. Published by the Basement Workshop, an Asian American arts and community organization in New York’s Chinatown, Bridge began publishing in mid-1971 and continued through the mid-1980s.13 It began as a Chinese American publication whose stated goal was to bridge the gap between immigrants and American-born Chinese, but it rapidly became a multiethnic Asian American publication. Although, like Gidra, it carried Asian American news, it adhered more to the format of a magazine, with theme issues, long articles, and interviews. It always published poems, but its commitment to literature gradually increased; by 1975 it was publishing a pull-out insert called “Poetry: An Asian American Perspective,” and in October 1976 it published a special number, “Asian American Poetry 1976,” with the work of over thirty poets. What Bridge illustrates is the gradual waning of avant-gardism in Asian American writing, characterized by a growing divide between Asian American aesthetics and Asian American politics, and culminating in a turn toward the personal lyric as the dominant paradigm of Asian American poetry.
Bridge lacks the consistently radical political program of Aion, a fact visible in its poetry as well as its prose. Even though Mirikitani rejects the poetry of “bees, birds, or nature” as apolitical, a poem in Bridge‘s first issue by Eleanor S. Yung might well be characterized in that way:
And I heard your voice in the green wilderness, like a stream of sunlight coming through the sheltering of the leafy branches And the shattering coolness is sprinkled by the songs of the birds (19)
If poetry and politics are seen as continuous in Aion, in Bridge they are often an opposition to be carefully negotiated. By 1974 the journal is proposing “a series of annual awards for the best literary work published in these pages each year.” In 1975 frequent contributor Fay Chiang publishes a poem called “For Those Who Runaway from the Movement.” A report on the 1975 Asian American Writers Conference by Dale Yu Nee notes, apparently approvingly, that “there was a complete absence of any discussion of Imperialism, Indochina, Struggle, REVOLUTION. . . . This conference wasn’t going to be any One Struggle Many Fronts Movement” (42).
Like Aion, Bridge published a number of articles on the question of Asian American culture and its relation to politics. Because of its interest in engaging with immigrants, Bridge did not share the position held by Mirikitani, Chin, and others that Asian American culture had to be understood as radically separate from Asian culture. Its sense of possible continuities inflected its attempts to articulate what an Asian American culture might be.
The second issue opens with an editorial by Frank Ching, “American in Disguise,” which encourages the Chinese American to respond to the “search for identity” with a “turn inward, seeking emotional security and personal identity in his family and his parents’ ancestral homeland” (4). This turn to Asia is evident in the wide range of translated and Asianthemed materials in Bridge, many of which serve to complicate the voice of Asian American writing emerging from the magazine. Bridge 1.2 includes Lo Yen’s “Moon and Old Folks,” translated by Wan Kin-lau, which employs a style of juxtaposition of words borrowed by American modernist poets; Bridge 1.4 publishes excerpts from a 1960 Chinese collection of songs and poetry by Chinese laborers in the United States. And Bridge published a number of installments from a martial arts novel, Flying Fox of Snow Mountain, translated from the Chinese.
Ching’s assertion that Asian Americans could access Asia simply by turning inward, however, did not go unchallenged. The difficulty of “Japanese” identification, and its potential toll on the self, is evident in Mirikitani’s and Inada’s work. In Bridge, the challenge came in an exchange of letters between Ching and Frank Chin, who would edit the groundbreaking anthology Aiiieeeee! and who was then coming into prominence as the author of the play The Chickencoop Chinaman.
The initial part of the exchange was published in the December 1972 Bridge (2.2) as “Who’s Afraid of Frank Chin, or Is It Ching?” The debate took place around a discussion between Ching and Chin about publishing part of Chickencoop Chinaman in Bridge. Ching had questioned Chin’s rejection of connections with Chinese immigrants, and Chin responded with a blistering attack on Bridge‘s aesthetic:
Your notion behind BRIDGE to appeal to both the immigrants and the American-born leaves me cold. . . . FLYING FOX OF SNOW MOUNTAIN is a piece of shit. The writing is embarrassingly out of touch with any language any sensibility and wit. . . . There’s no excuse for bad writing. . . . If the purpose of BRIDGE is to bind me to the immigrants, I’m not interested in being bound. If it is to acquaint me with immigrant thought, I find it dull and tediously working hard to be hip and/or intellectual/ scholarly following white rules of language, argot, slang and grammar and, like Charlie Chan’s Number One Son, fucking it all up badly and yet admirably. (Chin and Ching 31)
Chin here articulates his now-famous argument that Chinese American culture and sensibility are entirely distinct from either Chinese or white American culture and grounded in the historical experience of Chinese in America. But his rage is as much aesthetic as ideological: his major complaint is simply that Bridge is full of bad writing.
Chin’s disagreements with other Asian American writers have often been understood as matters of political dogma—cultural nationalism, masculinity, an American-born sensibility. This exchange, however, shows us Chin as champion of aesthetics and the literary against the political, narrowly understood—a writer opposed to the kind of continuity between politics, culture, and writing that Mirikitani endorses. Chin reproaches Ching not merely for having the wrong political opinions but for neglecting Chin’s achievements as a professional writer:
[W]e do and should continue to work the way we know how. . . . For me that means practicing my trade and working my badmouth out into the open where it’ll be heard, get all kinds of people mad, uptight, happy, thinking and told off. . . . Badmouth is my practice I like to work in the open and make them pay for. My plays, stories and novels are my work and have been working for me since 1962. Neither you nor Ralph Blumenthal ever heard of my literary motion before the 70’s . . . but then, I’m not surprised. Why should you know anything about Chinese-American writing? (32)
Indeed, the only writer that Chin recommends to Ching is one whose politics he finds loathsome, Diana Chang. Chin endorses her on purely aesthetic grounds, as someone “whose work I respect and find fucked up as a thinker. . . . She fails to come to grips with her Chinese-American identity, but does repeat the clichés and racist stereotype with a certain style and an occasional nice line” (32).
Rather than defend himself by critiquing Chin’s division of politics and literature, Ching surprisingly endorses it, apologizing for the poor quality of the writing in Bridge and adopting Chin’s rhetoric of the “professional” writer:
[Y]ou feel the quality of the writing is low. I readily concede that much of Bridge can be dull and uninspiring. That is because there are few professional Asian writers. Moreover, the Asian-American movement itself is so new that much of the literature that reflects and explains it is coming out of the universities, in the way of term papers, theses, etc. (34)
In this account, the rough, raw quality of Asian American writing is not, as Mirikitani might argue, the sign of a dissident sensibility; it is merely an effect of apprenticeship, one that will presumably disappear as Asian American writers mature.
By mid-decade, however, individualism was prevailing in the Bridge aesthetic. Although the journal continued to publish work by populist poets such as Mirikitani and Fay Chiang, more representative of the period’s mood was the work of Alan Chong Lau. Lau did not lack activist credentials; Dale Yu Nee, in his report on the Asian American Writers Conference, describes him as “one of the most popular poets at San Francisco State before and during the Strike” (44). But his work displays a certain skepticism toward communal and activist projects, preferring to register the impact of historical and contemporary events on a sensitive individual consciousness.
Lau’s first poem in Bridge, “my ship does not need a helmsman,” appears in the February 1974 issue. According to Lau, however, the poem was written much earlier, during the San Francisco State strike:
i was going to san francisco state university during the strike when [S. I.] hayakawa was president. we met in classes off campus with teachers who honored the strike and taught in their homes. in the evenings we would go into chinatown and volunteer to tutor kids at commodore stockton school and help out with their home work. i wanted to see this changing dynamic sweeping through chinatown through the eyes of an old-timer, a first generation member of the bachelor society who might be just a little confused and puzzled at the rapid changes going on right before his eyes. (E-mail)
The poem earns a mention from Garrett Hongo in his introduction to his 1993 anthology The Open Boat, a book that marked the full mainstreaming of Asian American poetry; Hongo writes that when he was handed the poem by a friend in Kyoto in 1973, “it was the most moving thing I’d yet read by anyone of my generation” (xxvii). What Hongo does not say is that what made the poem “moving” was also what made it a challenge to the politicized Asian American poetry of that moment. Although the poem in Bridge does not have an epigraph, in Lau’s 1980 book Songs for Jadina an epigraph has been added that explains the title’s punch:
“a ship depends upon its helmsman for direction the great ship china is guided by mao tse tung” —as seen on the entrance to one of the floors of the people’s republic of china department store— kowloon, hong kong14
Given the attraction of many radical Asian American groups to Maoism, Lau’s declaration that “my ship does not need a helmsman” might well have read as a pointed critique of that brand of radical politics. The poem’s speaker is an elderly immigrant living in poverty in Chinatown:
here i lie in chinatown coughing into my mattress soaked with the odors of salted fishes dark years old
home is not, never was this graygreased smoke filled room
the walls smell the same as the rotting wood crates from china that lie piled with my memories buried under old papers scented with mothballs (30)
He is precisely of that immigrant generation that Bridge is designed to link to younger activists. But the speaker rejects this mission, turning away activists’ attempts to “organize” him with resignation:
the young barbarians urge me to protest in a western style, this gray life
they thrust red books in my face but I see nothing except the pigeons leaving droppings on my bench
they do not realize i would rather withdraw from what i have never belonged to than to embrace it (31)
The speaker does ultimately, as Frank Ching would put it, turn inward, but what he finds there is not political and cultural empowerment but the sadness of memory, “the bones / and ashes of my wife / who died waiting / in the home / of my province.” The speaker’s imagined refuge is not in politics but in privacy, in a longing for a lost domesticity:
a ship does not need a helmsman only a woman who strokes my brow and laughs at the moon when it is full (31)
It may be that the political power of this poem is in its pathos—its moving picture of a life lost to history, which might spur a reader into compassion and action. But there can be no question that its emotional effect derives directly from its explicit turn away from politics, from the “helmsmen” of the public world, whether they be statesmen or community organizers. Although Lau usefully points to the political context of the work’s composition, the poem would seem to cast a skeptical eye on the activists with whom Lau identifies himself. If this poem, for writers like Hongo, is Asian American poetry coming into its maturity, it does so by separating the public and private and questioning poetry’s explicit links to politics.
That Hongo chooses “my ship does not need a helmsman” as paradigmatic is no accident. For by the time of the publication of The Open Boat in the early 1990s, individualism and privacy had resoundingly prevailed in Asian American poetry. Hongo’s anthology contained no poems by writers such as Fay Chiang, Francis Oka, or Pat Sumi; instead, it was dominated by poets like Lau, Cathy Song, David Mura, and Hongo himself, whose work focused on personal reflection and family history and declined to speak openly in a broader political dialect. By 1993, Hongo could, in his introduction, give this arch description of a “seventies” vision of “what the Asian American writer was supposed to be”:
[T]he Asian American writer was an urban, homophobic male educated at a California state university who identified with Black power and ethnic movements in general; he wrote from the perspective of a political and ethnic consciousness raised in the late sixties; he was macho; he was crusading; he professed community roots and allegiances; he mocked Eurocentrism and eschewed traditional literary forms and diction in favor of innovation and an exclusively colloquial style; and, though celebrated in the Asian American “movement,” his work was widely unrecognized by “the mainstream.” (xxxi)
It is easy enough to recognize this as a caricature of Frank Chin. But what Hongo does not acknowledge is that Chin was already, in the mid-1970s, advocating the individualist and professional approach that would allow Hongo to call for a rejection of political dogma in favor of “diversity, intellectual passion, and an appreciation of verbal beauty” (xxxvii). What has been erased by the 1990s is precisely the communal urge that characterized Asian American poetry at its outset, and the unease that accompanied its search for a distinctively Asian American voice. The avant-gardism of Asian American poetry would “disappear” for over a decade; it would be reclaimed again only in the mid-1990s, in the wake of radical shifts in the reception of Asian American and experimental writing.
Piece originally published at Arcade under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Image by Paul Joseph Rio Daza.