Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: Ken Chen

Ken Chen author photo



Walt Whitman and I were hanging out the other day. He had thick and dirty hands and a regal look in his eyes and was so friendly I would not have trusted him if he had not been so shy. But he seemed moved by something strange and deep. He wanted to tell me about all his friends, the whole gang of them. He told me about his secretary, the poet Sadakichi Hartmann, who wrote avant-garde cosmological rhapsodies. "I like them," I said. "It's like László Moholy-Nagy directs the Big Bang."

We walked to Angel Island, where so many lonely men carved their souls into the gray, unlit walls. One of the men was still there, all skeleton and tea-stained smiles. He said, "Did you know the Filipinos came here before the Mayflower? Barbers for the Spanish Armada. Did you know Idaho was once one-third Asian American?" He handed us a Styrofoam cup, the white surface of which appeared crenellated with small grooves and indentations. Walt Whitman saw me looking at the indentations. "I think it's Arabic," he said.

"I found the cup on the floor when I was walking through Gitmo," our host noted. "Those flecks are poems that the prisoners wrote with their fingernails."

Walt and I look at each other, not sure what to say. We offer to buy the man a drink, but he only smiles. "It's okay," he says. He lies down and waits for us to leave.


What's American about American poetry? You know already the first step in answering this question. Feel queasy. Make darting glances at your wristwatch. You must avoid the obvious traps of answering the question's America side or its Poetry side. You can answer by broadly defining American identity (Mongrel! Plain-talkin'! Democratic!) or by narrowing your inquiry to literary genealogy (the names Whitman and Dickinson as prefix to a yawn). If you answer on the America side, you feel like a caricaturist painting your bathroom mirror. If you answer on the Poetry side, you risk pedantry, the vain docenting of your own poetry mix tape. And there is a third, far worse problem: when you point this out, you sound like a prig.

Whether on the America side or the Poetry side, the question requires one to engage with the word American as it first appears in the question (normatively), rather than in its second appearance, where it is irrelevantly descriptive ("American poetry" no doubt defined as any poetry written by Americans). The question asks for the respondent to assume a firsthand acquaintance with the American essence. Here, we can imagine a demotic visionary doing Walt Whitman impressions by the bar, part speaker of the soulful language of the black church and the glued-together English of immigrants, part slangy and savage maverick-hustler—in other words, the barbaric love child of Martin Luther King and Lady Gaga. While I'd love to hang out with such a poet, such essentializing would ignore actually most contemporary American poets, play into some sketchy American exceptionalism, and mischaracterize as daring our MFA finishing schools, lit mag slush piles, and ladies who lunch. And it would ignore the transnationally porous nature of American writers—the Transcendentalists cribbing from Hindu and Buddhist dialectic, the Modernist project of parodying Classical Chinese verse, and maybe our central contemporary poet, John Ashbery, who often reads to me as a Gallicized and privatized, rather than expansively "American," Whitman. In other words, a normative response to this question (e.g., "American poetry is democratic") could only be non-democratic.


It's 4 pm, Walt Whitman, and we're drinking! We're having a pint at one of those holy houses, a London pub. It's my friend Daewha's bachelor party. The gents we've met ask us where we're from. Daewha, the affable expostulator, says, "I was born in Oregon in the States, I live in London and my ancestry is Korean." Two other guys in his wedding party are there. The Czecho—dude grew up in the Czech Republic, so we call him the Czecho—is a London-based architect who looks like a werewolf. He is proud to be a Werewolf American. Job grew up in Denmark, spent his adolescence in America, and now lives in Albany. Who knew that the most perfect model for pluralistic multi-nationalism was a drinking hall?

The man we've just met? He says, "I'm a Welshman. My boy, he's born in England but there's nothing that's going to make him not a Welshman." He actually makes a fist when he says this—not belligerently, but in a way that unambiguously communicates his status as a proud dad. "You know what they say. You got a dog that's born in a barn, that don't make it a horse."


I left a career in law to become the Executive Director of The Asian American Writers' Workshop—a classic American story of transformation!—and part of my job description is being asked to interpret what we mean by "American" or "Asian American." Alongside my other vocations as grant-writer and strategic planner, high cultural talk show host, and toilet-seat-installer, one of my roles at the Workshop is what could be called a therapist of nationalism. I have two constituencies. The first constituency consists of Asian Americans, many of whom do not consider themselves American and many of whom do not consider themselves Asian. Believe it or not, many Asian American writers, the sometimes enthusiastic lapdogs of assimilation (myself being the most obvious example), find themselves breaking out in hives when encountering the label of "Asian American." Writers, like nerds, a non-identical but overlapping category, are often writers because they had no choice. Writing rescued them from their loneliness, their brains, their lovable ineptness—and so, having been loners all their lives, many writers of color find themselves startled to find that their identities have become a genre, their isolation, a group. Many of the Asian American writers I've hosted realize that when the target of one's writing becomes an attempt to achieve something essentially "Asian American," then one has written kitsch—the same kitsch one commits when one's exclusive goal is to write as an American or a lyric poet or an avant-gardist, rather than hitting such adjectives accidentally while aiming to describe a true and not-conforming object. Many of the Asian American writers I know are eager to clamber out of what Amitava Kumar once called the ghetto of multicultural literature, which is assumed, with a type of unconscious racism, to be sentimental, extra-literary, possessing low literary merit, and other ways of demarcating people who you don't want to hear from. Speaking of myself, I always believed that I chose my own generally non-Asian American forebears, a motley clubhouse that included psychedelic comics writer Grant Morrison, faux-blue-collar modernist Henry Greene, and Taoist stand-up comedian Lieh Tzu, none of whom I now realize are American. I did not, in fact, believe I was an Asian American writer until I noticed that much of my first book, Juvenilia, focused on assimilation, post-colonialism, and the other greatest hits of ethnic studies. (Silly me, I'd thought I'd been scribbling gossip about my parents' divorce!) I grew up in Silicon Valley, where I was often bored by everyone, including all the Asian Americans that wanted to become doctors or lawyers. I became a lawyer. Most my life, in other words, I've been a self-hating Asian American. The funny irony—no, let's call it fate!—is that my job requires me to let other Asian Americans know that it is okay to be Asian American and themselves.

Oh, what's the second constituency I mentioned? This constituency consists of non-Asian Americans. Members of this constituency may not view themselves as prejudiced (a rather low bar to pass as egalitarian), but it would never occur to them to imagine themselves as being Asian American. This may seem like a strange request, but consider how the most innocuous blockbuster or TV min-series requires the typical viewer to imagine herself as white or a man. My job is to talk these constituents into empathizing with writers who do not look like them. I try to show them that Asian American literature is not just a niche sliver or a tribe or a heritage knitting circle, but a thrilling chapter of the American story. I try to imply that Asian American literature is tautologically American literature. I am not always successful.


I used to pretend I was American.
This was before I realized I was American.


I was once on Chinese TV in college for being an outstanding nerd. I would answer questions in a Mandarin that was enthusiastic and dumbo and give up and finish in English. The other two guests spoke Chinese fluently. A man called up and said, "This question is only for Ken, not for the other guests. Ken, if you saw a Chinese man and an American drowning, who would you leap into the waters and save?"

He hung up and the host looked at me. The host said, "And we'll cut to a commercial break!" And after the show was over, I told the story to my Milton professor, Stephen Booth, who said, "You should have said, I would save them both because they would be one man and that man would be Chinese American."

I looked at him, baffled and a little stupid. It had never occurred to me, at the age of twenty, that people actually believed in the mythology of America, all this democracy and inclusiveness stuff, which I'd assumed was something we kept around for good manners. I was naïve, not cynical. I grew up in a household where the word "American" meant white people. I think the word is commonly used this way in immigrant households. I think this is how the word is used by Americans themselves.

Speaking of myself, sometimes I want nothing more than to be American, for better or worse. I approach classical Chinese poetry, which I appropriate, like an American. I love Duke Ellington and Richard Rorty and Lincoln's Second Inaugural the way an American would. I am bemused by the wonderful myth of America, a myth that I too love. And I've spent my life being asked where I'm from, a question that could not possibly be answered by "America"—or by my standard comeback, "San Diego." Many of the writers I work with—let's call them Asian American—have also been asked to go home, a request many Americans have also submitted to more than a quarter of Arizona's population and to the President of the United States of America, who could not possibly be American. Maybe these writers have spent their lives being called Asian without the suffix of "American," as in the sentence, "His wife is Asian and he's American." And maybe the writers I'm thinking of could not be anything other than American and could not think of their home as other than America, a nation at once home and foreign, a country that may have very well colonized his mother's country (my friend Tom), overthrown the government of her father's old home (my friend Susan) or instigated a war that killed their grandparents (my friends Alice and George). In fact, what I think was hilarious about the Bush administration is that it could have been the first time many Americans felt the conflicted, patriotic, moral yuckiness that the typical second generational immigrant may feel about her own American identity. The politics and humor of this ambivalence is captured in the poetry of Frances Chung, who wrote:

oh lucky me
I am of some use
I am of some inspiration
to the two men
across the lunchcounter
I remind them of the
last Chinese restaurant
they took their family to
did you know that
Chinese food was delicious?

You can hear it in the following lines by Iranian American poet Solmaz Sharif: "My father says say whatever you want over the phone • my father says don't let them scare you that's what they want • my mother has a hard time believing anything's bugged." Or in Ed Dorn's one-line rejoinder to the Western lyric tradition: he said, he couldn't be European American—being American was enough psychic punishment. The point is not banal moralizing ("Racism is bad!"), but another ironic joke. These alienated and humorous stories so often interpreted as anti-American, these sad poems with one stanza starting "I'm leaving this party" and the next stanza following, "Well you were never invited in the first place"—such writings could not be other than quintessentially American.


Walt Whitman's made several walk-ons and cameo appearances in this essay as the laureate of American nationalism. This is not surprising—after all, is he not the eulogizer of Lincoln, the man who demanded a "genius in America" and who celebrated America as "a poem in our eyes"? It was against this inherited interpretation that June Jordan first discovered another Walt Whitman, the homosexual bohemian who nodded his head sadly at the slave market and called for an infinitely inclusive New World poetics. Jordan writes with an astonished and jokey affinity, surprised that the canonical American poet ended up being a poet of witness (!), the forebear not of the self-hating all-American anti-Americanism of T.S. Eliot, one of my favorite poets, but of ethnic studies:

Listen to this white father; he is so weird! Here he is calling aloud for an American, a democratic spirit. An American, a democratic idea that could morally constrain and coordinate the material body of USA affluence and piratical outreach. . . I too am a descendant of Walt Whitman. And I am not by myself struggling to tell the truth about this history of so much land and so much blood, of so much that should be sacred and so much that has been desecrated and annihilated boastfully. . .

(She also notes, quite convincingly, that Whitman would never get published today.) Borges also noted what we may call Whitman's multiculturalism--his "ferocious tenderness" that allowed him to imagine himself as "[t]he mother of old, condemn'd for a witch, burnt with dry wood" or "[t]he hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover'd with sweat." Yet Borges expanded Whitman further: "Whitman felt and was all of them, but fundamentally he was . . . a kosmos … He was also the one who would be in the future, in our future nostalgia." In other words, Whitman is not exclusively an American patriot or a multiculturalist, but a writer so capacious that his empathy extends in all directions of space and time. We may then reason that if Whitman is a cosmic poet, then he could not be a national poet. He is almost, you might say, the poet of our globalization.

At The Asian American Writers' Workshop, I am often asked what "Asian American" means—a question that differs from our American question only in scale. We have answered this question by presenting writers that a typical American would not consider Asian or American: not just the usual Chinese or Indian writers, but writers from an Asia fatter and wider than the way we typically use the word Asian (Iran, Palestine, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Burma), adoptees who grew up in non-Asian American families, and transnational and émigré writers who would never think themselves American. When looking at Asian America and by extension America in this playing-around, hapless, inclusive way, startling combinations emerge. You can argue that an essential part of the American canon might be the American-obsessed literature written by the folks detained at Angel Island ("I intended to come to America to earn a living. / The Western styled buildings are lofty; but I have not the luck to live in them. / How was anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison?"), the Japanese detention camps ("In the shade of summer sun / guard tapping rock / with a club"—Shiho Okamoto), and the holding pens at Guantanamo Bay ("America, you ride on backs of orphans /and terrorize them daily"). You might see nothing wrong with a panel that brings together an academic studying Arab American youth, a Pakistani novelist writing a post-9/11 Huck Finn, and a band playing from the emerging genre of Pakistani punk rock. Or for that matter, a symposia that explores the ethnic politics of what it means to be a nerd.

We've sought to look at our question not as a chance to make a category cohere within a limited boundary, but as an adventure in dreaming. Like Whitman, we conceptualize Asian American identity as simultaneously an American project, a multicultural story of injustice, and an expanding story that noses sideways with transnationalism and invention. We sense that our identity, whether as "Asian Americans" or as "Americans," is necessarily incomplete, just like the always unfinished manuscripts of Leaves of Grass, because we are always open to what the future of these categories might hold for us. You will notice that this method of definition is happily problematic. We abhor the neatness of definition in favor of possibility, pragmatism, and the all-loving, self-contradiction of Walt Whitman. And we also believe that if it's possible for Asian American literature to imagine so broadly, then it must be possible for American literature to do likewise. In fact, one of the central projects of American art—in Whitman, in Agnes de Mille, in Duke Ellington—has been to build a maximalist collage that can encompass a nation that believes itself beyond limits. We may ask the What is American poetry? and dumbly answer, poetry written by Americans. Okay, then, who are Americans?

"Racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 83 percent of U.S. population growth from 2000 to 2008. The continued faster growth of Hispanic, Asian, and black populations put the country as a whole on track to reach 'majority minority' status by 2042, and for children to reach that milestone by 2023." William H. Frey and Audrey Singer, The State of Metropolitan America (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2010).


Another microcosmic avatar of American poetry might be that goofy old crackpot Ezra Pound. Pound—that bigoted and multicultural poet who sought commerce with Walt Whitman and invented Classical Chinese poetry—famously defined poetry as news that stays news. What one often forgets about this maxim is how it defines poetry as reportage. (Pound may have been familiar with the Yueh fu, the musical bureau of the antique Chinese government that'd send Confucian poets into the countryside—imagine Alan Lomax garbed in Han Dynasty robes—to record folk ballads, specimens of the nation's moral mood.) And the obvious question one would ask any two-bit journalistic outfit is: how good is the coverage? The boring and obvious answer is that American poetry would make a lousy national news bulletin, one that only reported on the melancholia and stand-up comedy of well-educated elites. From reading American poetry, you would rarely read a poem by a prisoner or a postoperative transsexual or, for that matter, a Christian. You would not learn that one out of every eight Americans is an immigrant and that nearly half of all kids are second generation immigrants in Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and New York. Viewed in this way, it is easy to see the underlying affinity between the camps that Ron Silliman has simplistically labeled quietist or post-avant-garde. Both of these poetics are largely apathetic about the poet's role as a citizen, rarely curious about the subject matter of the world, and largely written by the same scholar class adjuncting at academic institutions. Forget whether or not anyone's racist. The question is whether, to borrow the jargon of wealth disparity, we want 96% of American poetry to be written by only 2% of the population (cf. numbers I just made up).


Pragmatism is a future-oriented practice premised on hope. It asks us to solve our way towards the more idealized situation of our imagination. So, I'd like to ask a rather serious question. Have you ever thought about the American poets in Blade Runner? How about the poets in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—what do they write about? Would these dystopic bards care about our internecine poetry warfare, our contests and careerism? This is a cheeky way of saying that one answer to our instant question is to ask what American poetry can become, unshackled from historical kitsch. We can ask what it would mean to live within a poetics where, to quote Eric Gamalinda, "in the moonlit arms of America / you and I are possible." The curious, unreliable hope we might feel as we mentally grope our way towards a future American poetics might resemble that of an immigrant first landing in America. An immigrant such as Ichiyo, who wrote:

Day of spacious dreams!
I sailed for America,
Overblown with hope.

What strange lineage will these future poets cobble together from our instant moment, what wonderfully miscegenated narrative of their own they will lift from our present, like someone pulling up a colored thread that had been buried in the sand?


Walt and I strolled from the Bronx to Bowling Green and saw Bangladeshi cab drivers chatting on earpiece, an international arbitration panel about the legal rights of two imaginary giants, a hungry man burping trombone in subway basement, shops that sold cigarettes and dreams and coffee, a man and a woman ditching work together at the Frick (what nerds!), a Jamaican girl raising her hand in class even though she was not sure she knew the answer, an exhausted banker who went to a movie in the summer and fell asleep while it played and felt liberated. In fact, everyone was falling asleep. There were bodies snuggling the sidewalk. There were heads nestling on steering wheels. I thought they were dead at first. I felt the pulse of the woman who was now slumped against the unicorn tapestry at the Frick and her pulse was still beating. These men and women were not dead, they were dreaming together. They were snoring this silly behemoth into invention.

Published 2010.

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