Thursday, April 21, 2005

Asian American Studies Conference + Yoruba

AA Strike PhotoThis past weekend at the Asian American Studies Conference (Activism, Ethnic Studies, Diaspora, and Beyond: Commemorating the 1995 Hunger Strike for Asian American Studies), I got to hear and spend a little time with some writers who are leaders in advancing new possibilities for what poetry, and the arts in general, can do, including Tan Lin (whom I mentioned a few columns ago), Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (whom I hadn't seen read since I was an undergraduate, back in the late 1980s), and Brian Kim Stefans (someone had left one of his chapbooks lying on a table with discarded programs, so I after asking around, I took it as a gift!). A revelation was Max Yeh, who wrote Beginning of the East (a singular work that he calls "history," but which has been marketed by his publishers as "fiction") and read from an unpublished manuscript that explored the letters that the Emperor of China exchanged with Miguel de Cervantes (who knew?).

Other writers present whom I got to break bread with included Ed Roberson (who gave one of the best readings we hosted all year during the winter quarter with Cecil Giscombe) and Stephanie Strickland (a visiting writer at Columbia College who, like Tan and Brian, also has created a range of digital and online projects).

My colleague Dorothy Wang, who played a major role in organizing the conference and inviting these writers, deserves mega props. (She powerfully framed what these writers were doing, which is to say, writing outside the assumed and expected racial, ethnic and cultural markers, using multivalent forms and structures, while still functioning within and through subjectivities and subject positions shaped by their being Asian Americans. This is hard enough for people to grasp when addressing Black experimental writing, and it's no less difficult when discussing parallel work by Asian Americans.)

Some of the quotes I took down included:
  • "A poem is just a machine for words" (Lin)
  • "All poems should be written over and over" (Lin)
  • "things they love becoming weapons they love" (Lin--from Ambient Stylistics, his sampled novel)
  • "Palindrome in Chinese is shen ji tu, or "spinning mirrors" (Yeh)--he also mentioned that because of its structure (being not a grapholexic language), Chinese actually has an 840-character palindrome! [My extemporaneous (on Saturday, that is) palindrome: "O beat it, I tae-bo." (I know it's really bad, but....)] This led him to comment that in fact Chinese "isn't a language," at least not as we think of language in the West. Max also talked about the Chinese practice of extensive borrowing from previous sources, which led me to mention to him Benjamin's brief and seductive mention of the Chinese scholar's practice of this in One Way Street, which I've subjected some of my students to over the years.) He also spoke of the difficulties inherent in Chinese for political organizing, since it is a language that functions, to a great degree, in vagueness (no tenses, a very different sense of how nouns, adjectives, etc. function, and so on)--and this got us to talking about the inherent possibilities in a language like English, which can be both precise and vague, or German, and so on, and how this has borne out over history. It got me to thinking about Ong's discussion of oral language vs. grapholects, though I haven't formulated a clear enough thought on it to make any pronouncements.
  • "[The poem or novel] is a supplement to history" (David Eng, scholar and Rutgers prof)

One writer present especially important to me that I got to hang with for a short bit was Ishmael Reed, who gave one of his ferocious and intellectually provocative talks. He even called himself a "conservative," though he was, as always, quite critical of what passes for right-wing (and simplistic left-wing) critical thought in this society. I always think of him as a "conservator," in a way--not backwards looking, but someone whose career at many points, not only as a writer, but as an artistic and social activist, has been to create and conserve spaces for creativity that challenge the dangerous assumptions that emanate from what passes as the "mainstream." Berssenbrugge, literary pioneer Frank Chin, and Lawson Fusao Inada (author of Legends from Camp) were among the Asian American writers Ishmael was publishing when few others were; and as he noted, in his 19 Necromancers from Now, in adddition to Chin, he also included Victor Hernández Cruz, the noted Puerto Rican writer and author of Snaps and Red Beans, at a time when many anthologies were closing ranks around racial and ethnic essentialities (and non-whites in general were still being excluded, as now, from the mainstream ones).

FiguresI'll say more about Ishmael's comments at another point, but before the reading on Saturday, he, Brian Kim Stefans and I were chatting about learning languages outside the lecture hall. Brian was telling us that he was currently learning Korean, and Ishmael was discussing how he'd recently been to Japan, where his last novel, Japanese by Spring, which was tepidly received in this country, was still being celebrated. Though Japanese is one focus of that book, Yoruba is another, and he said that he thought Yoruba was even harder than Japanese. (I've tried to teach myself Yoruba, and I must say, it was very difficult going, so I bagged off it for a while.) As we were talking, I silently vowed to myself that I'd go back to Yoruba at some point to refamiliarize myself with it, but I also recalled a site that I came across a few months ago: Yoruba, a celebration of Yoruba Culture.

It's a cool but very simple Webspace, with information on the Yoruba, a gallery of Yoruba artworks, a fun poetry generator and visual prompts, and activity sheets you could use in school classrooms.

Here's one of the poems created by the "Poetry in Motion" generator:

this black paper
plays like a
child and
jumps like
the night

It's not a masterpiece, but a charged little kernel of simile and, like haiku, concrete imagery. Check out the links to the various poets' works and the Yoruba Culture site.

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