Steven G. Yao's flexible methodologies
Steven G. Yao’s Foreign Accents begins with a humorous account of Maxine Hong Kingston’s 2002 declaration, “I want the life of the Poet … I want the easiness of Poetry” (3). Although Kingston’s statement may seem a bit naïve, Yao explains that it nevertheless marks a significant turning point in Asian American literature and Asian American studies: Kingston’s turn to poetry sanctions a similar turn for readers and writers of Asian American literature alike (4). Much like the past few decades of university-based literary study, Asian American studies has largely been dominated by a focus on prose narrative. Yao’s monograph seeks to correct this methodological emphasis by considering the ways in which poets represent Chinese cultural elements, especially language. Rather than comparing degrees of cultural authority, however, Yao attends to “what any given works knows, or shows that it knows [about ‘Chineseness’], as well as … how it arranges that knowledge against an epistemological field of its own construction” (7).
Recognizing the increasingly multilingual nature of poetic production, Yao focuses on the representation of the limits of English in Chinese American poetry and attends to poets’ rhetorical and formal strategies for articulating an ethnic subjectivity. This study begins with Ezra Pound’s Cathay and the Angel Island poets, two extremely different models of literary production that in turn represent two very different modes of scholarly approach: the high-literary, and the sociohistorical. Between these poles, Yao creates a methodological framework that moves flexibly across a broad range of poetries that are commonly understood as disconnected, if not fundamentally opposed. Tracing a trajectory from Asian American activist poetics of the late 1960s and afterward, through the popular and highly individualized lyrics of Ha Jin and Li-Young Lee, to Marilyn Chin’s and John Yau’s “difficult” experimentation, Yao develops a schematic of three significant modes in Chinese American poetry: racial protest, lyric testimony, and ethnic abstraction. In examining each, Yao foregrounds the significance of transpacific exchange and articulates a combined sociohistorical and literary focus. In turn, the poems’ own critiques of “(il)logic by which dominant constructions of racial and ethnic constructions of difference in the United States have … functioned and achieved their hegemony” are illuminated through careful readings of their form (9–10).
This flexibility is especially clear in Yao’s evenhanded deployment of both the high-literary techniques of poetics and the recuperative activist ethos of Asian American studies. The first two chapters establish the paradigm for Yao’s approach to the more recent poetry: writing first on Cathay and then on the Angel Island poems, which were composed in anonymity by would-be Chinese immigrants and carved into the walls of the immigration detention center at Angel Island, Yao uses Cathay’s “poetics of Chineseness” and the Angel Island poets’ racial protest to argue for an “explicit internationalism shaping ‘American’ literary culture at the time” (34). While Pound’s rendering of medieval Chinese verse “establish[ed] … a particular set of relationships between form, cultural authenticity, and language” that both challenged and perpetuated certain stereotypes about “Chineseness” (61), the Angel Island poets, though not “American” in the traditional sense, created “expressly demotic or popular” renderings of high-art forms, in parallel to second-wave American modernist practices, as well as jazz and blues (90).
In this way, Yao connects poetic form with larger cultural debates by focusing on the relationships among form, cultural authenticity, and language. In the third and fourth chapters, which concern Ha Jin’s spare realist verse and Li-Young Lee’s lyric testimony respectively, Yao demonstrates the concurrence of “the rise of lyric testimony and its focus on the expression of individual subjectivity,” and the displacement of “race” by “ethnicity” in US political and cultural discourses of liberal multiculturalism (101). That this is an argument about lyric and its reception is especially instructive; Yao demonstrates that disagreements over the meaning and substance of ethnicity have helped to create a social climate (and market) especially receptive to individualist expressions of “ethnic” difference “by persons considered … to embody that difference” (106). Yao explains that within the domain of poetry this emphasis on individualized expression “has not only led to the explosion since the late 1970s of published verse in English by people of Asian descent in the United States” it has also displaced more collectively-based racial protest “as the dominant expressive mode” in Asian American poetry (107).
Already it should be obvious that Yao is somewhat critical of the poetics of lyric testimony, and Foreign Accents includes many humorous comments to this effect. More significantly, however, the recuperative activist model of Asian American scholarship finds unlikely objects in Foreign Accents as Yao uses this scholarly mode to advocate for Marilyn Chin’s and John Yau’s poetics of “ethnic abstraction,” even as these works seem to require the more abstruse literary methodologies of poetics. While Chin’s sexual and linguistic transgressions of “poetic decorum in ‘ethnic’ verse” do not take her fully beyond the formal category of lyric testimony, Yao argues that Chin repeatedly challenges “assumptions about linguistic transparency and the adequacy of English as a medium for the representation of individual ethnic subjectivity” (190). In a highly engaging analysis of Yau’s work, Yao argues that Asian Americanists’ neglect of Yau’s hugely significant oeuvre demonstrates the “limitation of dominant hermeneutic approaches to minority writing in general” (237). Because Asian American studies typically privileges the liberal notion of difference, it lacks the “analytical capacity to address a growing body of work that unapologetically declines to bid for any sort of ‘recognition,’ and instead strains against the premise of an individual subjectivity … as the conceptual ground for ethnic (poetic) enunciation” (237). Yao provides an entertaining and compelling analysis of Yau’s “Genghis Chan: Private Eye” sequence, arguing that it “probes the terms of a specifically Asian American masculine identity” (248). In this way, Yao suggests new directions for scholarship in Asian American poetics: the “ethnic abstraction” he locates in Chin’s and Yau’s work is also, and significantly, sexual.
Foreign Accents makes a crucial intervention into the study of Asian American poetry. A few other scholars — Josephine Nock-hee Park, Timothy Yu, Joseph Jonghyun Jeon, Xiaojing Zhou, and Dorothy Wang — have recently drawn important connections between Asian American poetry and various Euro-American avant-gardes. Foreign Accents contributes to this rising trend by revisiting and reinvigorating the more sociological and narrative-based paradigm that predominates in Asian American studies, turning this technique to the advocacy of nonnarrative experimental art forms. In doing so, Yao makes a claim for the significance of poetry as a cultural product: the poets he considers are thinking through the relationship between form, cultural authenticity, and language, “a relationship whose implications … are far larger than simply the question of ‘Chinese’” (61). In an increasingly multilingual poetic tradition, Yao explains, “the question of form’s relation to language and to authenticity (both linguistic and ethnic) is, finally, at the core of how we can understand the work that poetry does” (61–62).