Let’s begin with oral poetry, which I ended the last blog post on, because I neglected to note that the cowboy poets have nothing on the Basques who sell tickets in the tens of thousands for their oral poetry competition, broadcast on national television, to name the Bertsolari Txapelketa, the national championship of bertsolaritza, a complicated Basque oral tradition of improvisational poetry that’s composed on the stage to compete in an appropriate melody constructed by the poets, three cycles (or sequences of bertsos) of poems that respond dramatically to the challenges posed by the emcees. And let’s not forget the Tibetan epic King Gesar, perhaps the longest epic poem ever conceived, whose many “incarnations span the Tibetan and Mongolian languages, Buddhist and non-Buddhist paradigms, verse and prose, and oral and written forms of composition… No “complete” version of King Gesar has ever been recorded.” Nothing totalizing exists but luckily we can still hear parts of it today.
Now to change tracks completely, I need begin by confessing to being a detail in a recent piece in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle by poet and SUNY Nassau professor Pramila Venkateswaran about Recent Trends in South Asian American Poetry. This admission prefaces my response to it, so let me be the first to acknowledge the taint in my lenses, if it exists, since no poet likes to be told they have a most successful poem or that they have written an academic’s volume when it’s clear they haven’t been very deeply investigated or even fully read. Made aware of this possible defensive posture, I’m actively working against it, I promise you, because there’s much in Venktaswaran’s readings of Meena Alexander and particularly Reetika Vazirani to admire. Having co-edited Reetika Vazirani’s posthumous book Radha Says with Leslie McGrath, and having helped publish it for Drunken Boat, I was pleased to see this perceptive reading of her earlier work: “She [Vazirani] goes beyond the immigrant tale to delve into the language that embodies the fragmentation of the exile. Multiple voices, broken lines of conversation—almost like long distance conversations that are cut off when phone lines go dead – mix of languages, quotes from letters and from the past that reappear, and observations in the present tense make her poems dynamic and ever-shifting.” That’s a deft embodiment of the form of World Hotel, an impulse towards verbal fracture and white space that would grow ever more extreme in her last collection.
However my main problem with the essay is that there’s nothing recent about it. It’s a roundup of the usual suspects who constituted and indeed broke necessary ground for a generation of South Asian poets over two decades ago. A.K. Ramanujan, Chitra Divakaruni, Meena Alexander, Reetika Vazirani, and Agha Shahid Ali, Vijay Seshadri thrown in as the conceptual bracket, someone who has “distanced himself from the immigrant theme,” as if that’s unanticipated or that Seshadri should have felt such compulsory obligation. They are all iconic poets - two of whom have tragically passed on - but if they’re said to constitute “recent trends,” then break out the fat shoelaces (foot fetishists beware)
and the parachute pants.
A smattering of other poets are mentioned casually in Venkateswaran’s review but none are focused on with extended keenness. I’m glad nonetheless that the much-underrated Mangalore-American poet Ralph Nazareth is intelligently if briefly discussed, for his sensibility is singular, his deployment of craft strategic and I’ve been an admirer of his work for a while now.
Still the omissions are glaring. First, I realize that the issue of the AWP Writers Chronicle came out in Spring 2011, but not mentioning Indivisble: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry is criminal.
Particularly because it came out in April 2010 and Venkateswaran’s own work is included in it! The anthology is by far the best definition of the current poetry literary substratum crossed interestingly along the axis of South Asian identity. This book should begin any conversation about “trends” in South Asian literature. Just to quote from a few of the self-attributions that each of the 49 poets (not just Indian American, but Nepali, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan-American) wrote about themselves to give you some sense of the variety: I am a Malayali Hongkonger, Bombayman and New Yorker (not American), and my nation is the republic of English (Jeet Thayil, himself an editor of a seminal anthology on Indian poetry in English with Bloodaxe); resisting the largely monoglotic nature of American poetry, I continue to work in two languages, in between and around (Aryanil Mukherjee); and a rural Nepali and an urban Washingtonian with a buffalo-riding past and a Metro-riding present (Homraj Acharya).
Then where’s Srikanth Reddy in Venkateswaran’s piece? Who says about the inspiration for his latest book Voyager, which performs three erasures on former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s memoir, In the Eye of the Storm. Waldheim was allegedly associated with collaborating with genocide during World War II, accounts of which he skews and misrepresents in his writing about himself. According to Reddy, “just as Waldheim was a shadow haunting my imagination, I began to see my own silhouette embedded within Waldheim’s purgatorial words. So I decided to paint my own self-portrait through erasure as well.” His book is the trace of that triple erasure and I’d put Reddy at the forefront of the Oulipo’s true heirs in post-avant America.
And on the Voyager flights, we sent up the golden record:
Or Raza Ali Hasan? Born Muslim in Bangladesh, grown up in Indonesia and Pakistan, educated at University of Texas, Austin, and Syracuse University and author of 67 mogul miniatures, probably the best rendition of Urdu poetic giant Mohammad Iqbal’s work in English I’ve ever read, which is saying something since he’s not translating. Rather the poems are inspired by Iqbal’s “two part sequence of Urdu poems called Shikwa (Complaint) and Jawab-e-Shikwa (Answer to Complaint), published in 1909 and 1913. The first part is a formal complaint to God and the second part is God’s answer.” Ali Hassan grafts “Iqbal’s traditional Urdu poetic form of musaddas (a short poetic unit consisting of three rhyming couplets) to a free verse poem with three unrhyming couplets…loosely follow[ing] the narrative arc of the original sequence and transform[ing] his vision for the contemporary world.”
What about Vandana Khanna? Whose Train to Agra would seem to fit the contracted aperture of Venkateswaran’s ethnicity binoculars like a rare quail from the family of blabbers thought to be extinct but rediscovered in the wood. Khanna transfuses her work with the immigrant narrative foregrounded in the way that’s so celebrated in the essay, as the eponymous title poem “Train to Agra” describes the requisite trip back to India with luminous particularities and an authenticity that belies exoticism. Like this confession from “The India of Postcards”:
The only thing we wanted we couldn’t have:
water—unbottled, un-boiled—pure, sweet,
american-tasting water. With every sip,
a prayer to one of the gods: the god of good
health and an easy flight home, the god of
treasures hidden away in crowded street stalls.
Or how about Jaswinder Bolina whose Colorado Prize for Poetry prize winning Carrier Wave breaks new perceptual and sonic ground? Said by someone no less than Lyn Hejinian to possess, “Oppen's sense of the unfathomable nature of what exists…and a polycultural erudition that bears comparison with that of Ezra Pound's Cantos.” More than any of the examples cited by Venkateswaran, he encapsulates the American South Asian immigrant experience, at least as I’ve experienced it. Take the opening of “Portrait of the Self”:
The self wakes up extruded of whimsy.
No tango in its Rorschach,
no mermen in its sea.
Just the self with its dull appendages,
all radial arm and ulna, no wing.
Dark face of the self in the reflective dark
of the microwave door,
the self so somber no-one would hold its hand
at a roller rink any longer than two revolutions.
If I’m going to be attacked, let it be by a rare pathogen
not some yokel hurling
sand nigger at me
from a beat-up Cutlass Sierra at seven a.m.
If I’m going to be attacked,
let it be by asteroid or metastasis
not the toothless yahoo of my expectations.
What I can’t understand is
who has the energy to be a xenophobe at seven in the morning.
Not me anyway, though I have energy enough to think of language.
That's the energy that energizes the reader and I mention those last three poets particularly because I deeply lament we weren’t able to include them in Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond (W.W. Norton & Co.), co-edited with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, and more timely than ever in this moment when our relationships in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Egypt are more crucial and less certain than ever. I sincerely wish every member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations would get a copy of the anthology in their stocking. Because there’s nothing like hearing in the voice of a poet from one of the countries you’re trying to invade, or prop up, or proselytize to, or provide first aid and build schools for, what, regardless, remains important to them, the native citizens. But if, as I imagine, that’s a body too mired in hearings, treatises, and resolutions to open their imagination, at least the book can be used in the classroom to insure a new generation of policy makers won’t suffer the same myopia.
Many other Asian American poetic communities have better developed lineages over the years. Lawson Fusao Inada paved the road for Ronald Tanaka and Kimiko Hahn. Or Luisa Igloria (who began publishing in the Philippines as Maria Luisa Aguilar Cariño), Eric Gamalinda and Luis Francia serving as an elder generation to younger Filipino American poets Nick Carbó and Eugene Gloria who in turn bequeath the possibilities of language to Pat Rosal, Shirley Ancheta, Jaime Jacinto, Paolo Javier and Sarah Gambito, all of whom shape dramatically different poems but retain a sense of Filipino culture, however particularly refracted. We’ve matured enough as a literary community that such transmissions should also be possible with South Asian poets as well. Let’s praise what’s passed, then concentrate on what’s happening now because there are reefs rich with new voices that need to be championed and resounded.