Sunday, May 4, 2008

Language for A New Century-Asian Poetry

I am a sucker for anthologies. Many times they give us a good idea of what is going on in a place. There are some great anthologies- Poems for the Millennium, In the American Tree, Nothing the Sun Could not Explain are all masterpieces.

Last week when I was shopping at Seminary Co-op here in Chicago I found Language for a New Century; Edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar which is billed as contemporary poetry from Asia. Having just finished doing my own anthology of Chicago poetry (The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century) I know how hard this is to do.

There have been some anthologies that markedly fail in their project Legitimate Dangers edited Cate Marvin comes to mind as a work that was basically an anthology of friends rather than a real collection. Language for the New Century does not make this mistake. The work is so broad that it seems that every poet who has anything to do with Asia is included. The book is so dense as to take a long time to read and I am still working through it.

There are some really great poets in this book. Nikmet Hazmet, Sarah Gambito, Prageeta Sharma, Ha Jin and Bei Dao among them. The fact is however that the weight of the size of Asia makes this book seem unsatisfying in its scope having said that how does one encapsulate Asia in 695 pages?

The book is in reality a triumph and gives many Asian voices a chance in the American market and does what Norton does well and that is create a college textbook- and that is what this is. The poetry and the sections that were created make it accessible and the editorial choices are very fine- this is a book to buy.

One of the problems with After-Postmodern Racial politics is that there are no boundaries. When does someone stop being "asian" and become just American or British? It is hard to argue that some of these poets are really "asian" in fact 102 of the over 240 poets are in fact immigrants or natives of the USA, Australia and the UK and if their goal was to create an anthology of all poets with any Asian blood- where are the Latin American Asian poets?

Poetic identity politics is a really dangerous road. This might have been the result of the fact that all three editors are Anglo-American academics the inclusion of a poet editor from the Middle East or East Asia might have mitigated this problem. There are poets in this book who it is hard to argue they are Asian- Yehuda Amichai comes to mind is he really a Middle Eastern Poet? Is Ashkenazi Israeli culture Asian? You see why this is problematic.

Would Peter Gizzi or Jennifer Scappettone be included in a contemporary Italian anthology? Of course not- but people whose connections to Asia are just as distant are included here and I think that it is a weakness of this book. I think that the anthologists should have limited themselves to poets living in Asia or ones whose primary formation was in Asian culture not Immigrant Culture. Many of the poets included who are of Asian origin are really part of their immigrant cultures- not Asian culture directly and this is the only weakness of this book.

I think that this book is an essential addition to our libraries. I would urge people to sit with the work and I laud the anthologists for getting a tough job completed. In the end however contemporary poetic identity politics gets in the way of a book that might have been seminal instead it is only important.