I have the pleasure and honor to once again guest curate a week of blog posts here for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM). Thank you very much to Best American Poetry for offering this space for thinking and writing.
I consider myself active in Asian Pacific American (APA) arts and culture, but my allegiance isn’t to the identity–it’s to issues, histories, and lineages. The truth is, a lot of contemporary APA poetry is less an inspiration for me than is poetry and writing from other communities, past and present.
Those who help me find new ways to think and write about our world, like Michel Foucault, Cherríe Moraga, Jacques Derrida, Edmond Jabes, and others, are those I consider my lineage and poetic community.
“By orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the centre of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form… Nevertheless, the center also closes off the play which it opens up and makes possible.”
One of the challenges of identity politics, which it inherits from classical European philosophy, is its underlying teleology. At some point it needs to call on essentialist thinking–a centre where we can safely rely on a pre-definition of the identity–in order to act. If one steps outside of this centre, sometimes there can be backlash. This is true not only for racial identity, but also gender, sexual identity, nationality, and more. For example, just look at how transgendered people are attacked for not restraining themselves to the conventional gender binary.
While it may be a bit odd for me to say so as the poetry editor of Kartika Review, an APA literary journal, APA identity is not the beginning and the end of writing for me. It’s important to note that I’m not encouraging sleight-of-hand color blindness or the mental bypass of pretending that race has nothing to do with life, how one views things, and how one writes. I’m simply seeking to include more.
As a poet, I’m not just interested in writing about or from within racial identity, but more how its functioning tells me something about history, gender, colonialism, and capitalism. The same goes for the poetry I like to read, and the writerly communities I feel a kinship with.
I have to admit that in some ways I joined Kartika Review to search for evidence that APA poetry isn't overly constricted by essentialism. The fact that I grew up lower-middle class in a former US colony, the only son of an eldest son born in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, who later married a Japanese woman–these are of great interest to me in my writing, and I look for a sense of multidimensionality or difference in the poetry of others.
The commonality among my influences is that they inspire me to excavate hidden histories, explore the multi-layered social, political, and cultural subtleties that most might overlook, accidentally or not. They also help me take a step back from “Asian Pacific American” to see its limitations and possibilities. Some of these influences include the guest writers I’ve asked to contribute this week.
What ties together all the guest writers this week is, yes, we all fit the APA moniker in some way. But what also connects us is that we are situated within cross-community and transnational influences, challenges, politics, and solidarities. There are ways the position of APA is ill-fitting for each of us as a single descriptor, even while it remains a relevant point of focus. The nationalist framework of Asian Pacific American is at times too parochial.
This week I’ve brought in five other APA poets whose writing and political commitments I respect–Ching-In Chen, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samaransinha, Craig Santos Perez, Barbara Jane Reyes, and Andre Yang. Each will be reflecting on APA poetry and transnational or cross-community alliances and dialogues in their own way.
Thank you again to Best American Poetry for this opportunity. I hope that everyone who reads this week of guest posts will benefit from seeing the complexities that are “contained” (though not always successfully) within Asian Pacific American poetry. Please comment and share widely!
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.