Timothy Yu (continued): Such an insight may also be enormously productive for the poet of color. The sense of play proposed by Evie in thinking beyond the boundaries of the “poem about race” is to the point here. Poets of color have come to see how conventional modes of writing about race can ironically restrict and limit their own self-expression. The next step is not to “transcend” or “get beyond” race but to burrow more deeply into its structures of meaning, to see how race is embedded not just in our bodies but in our language. In such work, we cannot take comfort in our own politically righteous positions or exempt ourselves and our own language from scrutiny, for racial discourse constructs us as much as we construct it. Such writing is risky, but it may also be a place for the work of white and non-white writers to meet in a critical landscape.
I’ve recently been working on a series of poems called “100 Chinese Silences.” A few months ago I heard former poet laureate Billy Collins reading his poem “Grave” to an enormous audience. Early in the poem, Collins remarks on “the one hundred kinds of silence” in which the Chinese believe, only to reveal later in the poem that he “had just made up” the idea of the one hundred Chinese silences. I decided that these 100 Chinese silences needed to be written, and set out to write them, beginning by parodying poems by Collins that in some way thematized Asia.
I discovered that Collins’s work is shot through with orientalism, from his poem about the enormously long titles of Chinese poems to his “Shoveling Snow with Buddha.” In parodying the poems, I was beginning from the limited place that this orientalist discourse gave me to speak—a place of “silence”—and seeing if I could elbow my way out of it, not by condemning it from the outside but from writing within it, trying to make it take itself apart. Would that possibly also give me, as an Asian American writer, a place from which to speak?