As someone who was raised as a man, my gender is an incredibly slippery experience to write about. Attempts to explore the making of my gender through poetry is an ongoing and uneven unraveling of layers.
For inspiration, I look to critical race studies and whiteness studies scholars who point out that whiteness is so normalized and taken for granted, white people have a remarkably hard time grasping its deep reach in their own lives. Those who spend the majority of their lives as the norm or ideal have little practice putting it under the microscope. Similarly, for me writing about being a man happens slowly in bits and pieces, with reliance on the work done by feminists and gender outlaws.
As a man whose particular alignment of gender and sex has been generally affirmed since birth, my intersection with race and racism is an important and generative space to write from. I’m inspired by the Asian American feminist work of poet and scholar Margaret Rhee (recently featured in the Poetry Foundation’s blog by Barbara Jane Reyes), who in thinking about how Asian American women’s bodies are objectified, forces me to ask the same of mine:
“We can think of the body (digital or real) as a field, space, a location where oppression names and constrains and where freedom resides—our vulnerable human bodies. How to remap, reclaim, and rewire our bodies?”
The Asian American man’s body is a space shaped by many forces. In the popular US imagination, it invokes many ideas and histories that are traceable to Orientalist manifestations of colonialism, imperialism, and militarism.
To me, however, there is both constraint and production. To grow a properly socialized man, manhood’s rules have to become so ingrained that its creation story is lost. The basic energy of a human being is constrained (Freud might say sublimated) within the requirements of manhood. If I don’t act the way a man should within this view, my behavior gets discouraged in ways that might range from ridicule to death. A man is produced.
At the same time, the Asian American man is often demeaned as an inferior masculinity, as less desirable, as effeminate (mix in a little homophobia), as un-American, etc. While individuals may be able to circumvent or unlearn these, the institutionalization of these constraints produces a cultural, political, and economic reality. Under these circumstances, freedom is an interesting problem. Freedom may not be the typical US understanding of total release from all impingement on the individual, or from responsibility. It might be subversive mimicry, satire, irony, and fragmented theatre.
So how to write poetry in this context? Good poetry can explore the sensations of gender and its enmeshment in social forces without being didactic. Juxtapositions, fertile tensions, the entire palette of human feeling–through rhythm, enjambment, punctuation, erasure–all the tools poets have are useful.
Yet to keep it in the realm of personal experience is only half the process. The other half is to reveal, outline, and implicate the social forces we struggle against. All the multi-syllabic words that lead to didactic and cliche poetry–oppression, injustice, racism, patriarchy–these are placeholders, temporary stand-ins for the real meat of poetry. For me, poetry starts in the minutiae, in skillful showing, not just telling.
Perhaps this is one way to “remap, reclaim, and rewire our bodies”–through a poetics that, by mapping the vessels and capillaries of gender and race, allows a bit of breathing room. To notice a constraint is the first step towards not letting it rule me entirely, much like any other habit. The next task is to write, so that others will hopefully see that they are not alone, that there are other options besides just black or white.
This past week, we’ve had very striking and provocative posts, many from APA communities whose stories are rarely heard within Asian Pacific American literature, much less the mainstream. If anything should be obvious, it’s that it’s practically impossible to make generalizations about Asian Pacific Americans. This kind of complication is a good thing, because it’s closer to lived reality.
On behalf of all the guest bloggers this week–Craig Santos Perez, Ching-In Chen, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Andre Yang, and myself–thank you for reading and thinking with us. Thank you also to Best American Poetry for providing this valuable space again.
Kenji Liu is a 1.5-generation immigrant from New Jersey. His writing arises from his work as an activist, educator, artist, and cultural worker. His poetry chapbook You Left Without Your Shoes (Finishing Line Press, 2009) was nominated for a 2009 California Book Award. His writing has appeared in RHINO Poetry, Generations, Kweli Journal, Doveglion Press, Lantern Review, and others. He has received a Pushcart nomination and is working on a multi-genre full-length collection of poetry, prose, and visual art. Kenji is currently the poetry editor at Kartika Review.