Sunday, February 05, 2006


[First published in HYPHEN, San Francisco, Summer 2005]

Surveying Recent Asian American Literary Anthologies

Ask any anthology editor the rationale behind organizing a together a new collection of work and you’ll get a wide and complex range of answers. Market need. The wish to showcase a new generation of voices. Political imperatives. The reshaping of the canon. When Bay area poet Eileen Tabios talks about her history of involvement editing various anthology projects, Tabios explains, “I've involved myself in editing Asian American literary anthologies for generally two reasons. The first is to expand previously narrow categorizations of "Asian American Poetry, helping to expand offerings to include the avant garde or other poetic forms that depart from strict story-telling narratives about overt Asian American experience. The second reason I've involved myself in this area is to address certain ethnicities that previously were not as fully presented in Asian American texts.”

In an era when the new crop of literary anthologies are edited by practicing writers and cultural activists for the communities in which these editors participate, The Norton Anthologies no longer hold poetic authority. This article will take a closer look at three literary anthologies which have recently hit the market and are slowly making their way into classrooms: Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images, and Pinoy Poetics. While there is some overlap in authors appearing throughout the collections to be discussed, each of these books makes its own unique contribution to the ongoing discussion of Asian American literature, reflecting specific political and editorial sensibilities.

Taking its cue from anthologies like Jim Daniels and Edward Costanzo’s American Poetry: The Next Generation and David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series, Victoria Chang’s Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation (University of Illinois Press, 2003) gathers together and canonizes the work of 28 poets under the age of 35, including Cathy Park Hong, Mong Lan, Tina Chang, Skrikanth Reddy and Paisley Rekdal, who are framed in the editor’s introduction as representing the “new generation of Asian American poets”. Chang writes of her desire to assemble together a collection of work departing from a “recognizable Asian voice.” While poets such as Reginald Gibbons and David Baker have publicly praised the collection, The Next Generation drew fierce criticism from the Asian American literary community for its closed editorial approach and its assertion of authority which has prevented dialogue around issues of editorial process, the lack of poets outside the academy and the exclusion of radically experimental and innovative writers notably absent from this anthology. To find work for her collection, Chang, a Stanford business school graduate who exists on the fringes of the poetry world, combed through dozens of literary journals from which she created a master list of poets to solicit work. Chang mailed out approximately 60 queries to ”friends, friends of friends, editors, professors, and anyone that would respond” in order to get recommendations. In total, Chang considered the work of nearly 140 poets for her project, ultimately narrowing her selection to 28 contributors, the vast majority of whom have MFAs or PhDs and have some involvement with academia. The poets are arranged in alphabetical order and placed in context by essays from Marilyn Chin and the project editor.

Winner of the 2004 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award and Foreward Magazine’s Gold Award for Anthologies Winner, Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images (Coffee House Press, 2003) has quickly caught the spotlight for its ambitiousness, vision, and range. Screaming Monkeys grew out of a call put out to a community of writers, scholars, and artists by Editor M. Evelina Galang to respond to an article that appeared in an issue of Milwaukee Magazine in which a writer reviewing a Filipino restaurant referred to the owner’s child as a “rambunctious little monkey”. The Screaming Monkeys anthology is organized into thematic sections (including a final section on “transcendence” -- works that both depart from and transcend a “recognizeable Asian voice”) and compiles together historical documents and timelines, media quotes, and news headlines alongside fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art, and commercial images of Asians as represented by mainstream media. The collection is diverse in its range of writing styles and voice, and across generations, pairing elder established writers, such as Marilyn Chin, Walter Lew, Garrett Hongo, and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, alongside emerging writers such as Ricco Villanueva Siasoco, S.L. Kim, and Brian Komei Dempster. Loosely inserted throughout the book are artworks by Asian American artists including Barry McGee, James Yang, and Dindo Llana, and “found images” from sources including Apu from popular T.V. show “The Simpsons” to “go geisha” fashion images , which lack a clear editorial context or focus and more often than not distract from the textual works. Assembled by a collaborative team of editors under the leadership of Galang, Eileen Tabios, Sunaina Maira, Jordan Isip, and Anida Youe Esguerra contributed to giving shape to this collection, and scholar Leslie Bow provides a reading companion highlighting areas of inquiry to help make sense of the over 500 page collection. While Screaming Monkeys presents older work that has been previously anthologized or published before such as Li-Young Lee’s famous poem “The Cleaving”, the project of this collection was clearly to cast a wide as net as possible in gathering together a range of voices and to reframe these works in the context of the Asian American experience,

Pinoy Poetics: A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino-American Poetics is published by Meritage Press, an independent publishing company founded by cultural activist Eileen Tabios who contributed to editing the Screaming Monkeys anthology, and who has also edited several other projects including Black Lightning (Asian American Writers Workshop, 1998) and Babaylan: An Anthology of Filipina and Filipina American Writers (Aunt Lute Press, 2000) co-edited with poet Nick Carbo. Conceptualized by Tabios and edited again by Carbo, Pinoy Poetics collects together the work of 40 international Filipino English-language poets. The poets speak for themselves, touching on issues of poetic craft, identity, and practice, approaching the call with a variety of strategies -- Vince Gotera conducts a self-interview, Paolo Javier plays with typography and the visual presentation of text in his anti-narrative essay “Marginalia”, Oakland based poet Barbara Jane Reyes discusses the process of writing and revising her long poem “Anthropologic” from her collection Gravities of Center, Jean Vengua talks about the experience of writing poems “in public” for the internet, and others speak of poets influential to the development of their poetic sensibilities, defining a personal poetic and presenting poems which mirror aspects of their practice. Carbo includes a literary timeline marking major events in the history of Phillipine writing and Tim Yu contributes an essay on the work of modernist poet and former “National Artist of the Phillipines” Jose Garcia Villa.

Keep an eye out next year for Carbo’s latest editorial project, Son of the Dragon: Literary Dialogues with Asian America Men, an anthology of writings on Asian American male identity and experiences which Carbo is co-editing with performance poet Marlon Esguerra of "I Was Born With Two Tongues" fame. The idea for this project grew out of a discussion over Whitney McNally’s "Gay or Asian?" piece that ran in the April 2004 issue of Details Magazine. The project will examine what it is to be male and Asian in America and both respond to and subvert how Asian American males are portrayed by mainstream media.


Other Asian-American literary anthologies for further exploration:

Going Home to a Landscape: Writings by Filipinas
Edited by Marianne Villanueva & Virginia Cerenio

Black Lightning
Edited by Eileen Tabios

Edited by Nick Carbo & Eileen Tabios

Watermark: Vietnamese Prose and Poetry
Edited by Barbara Tran, Monique T. D. Truong & Luu Truong Khoi

also see other titles available at the website


Shin Yu Pai is the author of Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003), Ten Thousand Miles of Mountains and Rivers (Third Ear Books, 1998), and two titles which are forthcoming in 2005, Nutritional Feed (Tupelo Press) and Works on Paper (Convivio Bookworks).


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