Tag Archives: Andy Quan

Contemporary Asian Australian Poets

Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann 2013)

1caapThis book seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing. The current Southerly focuses on ‘Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, with particular attention to Asian Australian (or Asian-Australian, or Asian/Australian etc) work. The recent OzAsia Festival in Adelaide included a two-day OzAsia on Page component which featured ‘significant and contemporary Asian and Australian voices’. Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Writing Series is looking formidably good.

It’s hard to imagine a more disparate gathering of poets than those collected between these covers, not just in nationality or ethnicity (‘Asia’ is a big and varied place, and there seems to be someone here from just about every part of it except, interestingly, Japan), but in just about every other conceivable way as well. The poetry ranges from work with the exuberance and directness of Spoken Word to compressed, elliptical, allusive capital-L Literary offerings. It’s the poets who are Asian Australian, not necessarily the poetry, so though there are poems of the pain of loss of home and culture (I was going to say ‘nostalgia’, but that’s a word that no longer conveys any sense of real pain), poems that explicitly deal with or enact cultural duality or hybridity, poems about multicultural relationships, poems that tackle white racism head-on, and poems exploring questions of cultural identity, there are also poems that don’t do any of those things.

There is a brief introductory essay from each of the three editors. Adam Aitken outlines and celebrates the extraordinary range of voices and attitudes in the anthology, and the range of possibilities in the term ‘Asian Australian’ itself. Kim Cheng Boey focuses on the experience of migration:

Home is never a given, for first-generation migrants, and continues to be a complex issue for subsequent generations. Being beneficiaries of two or more cultures, and entangled in a complex web of affiliations and attachments, they are wary of identity politics and monolithic formations.

Michelle Cahill points out the anthology’s significance in bringing greater visibility to Asian Australian women poets, who experience ‘the double exile of migration and mediation of patriarchal terrain, so inimical to the female psyche’. Seventeen of the 37 poets in this collection are women, and very few Asian Australian women have been included in any previous anthologies.

All three introductory essays are worth reading, and they give invaluable guidance to the poetry. But in the end, it’s the poetry you pay for – and I’m happy to report that I was immersed in this book for days, being dragged from one engaged mind to another. Christopher Cyrill, whom I have previously known as the events organiser at Gleebooks who always spoke too softly when introducing people, here turns out to have a clear, strong, brilliantly modulated voice in the extract from his prose poem novella Quaternion (and that’s me saying it who hates extracts and doesn’t much care for prose poems). Andy Quan’s ‘Is This?’ is a brilliant abstraction of the moment of anticipation on meeting a new person. Omar Musa contemplates buying a pair of shoes and redefines the notion of choice. I finally get to read Kim Cheng Boey’s ‘Stamp Collecting’, which I’ve heard him read at festivals and loved, and his ‘Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB’ – what can I say? Eileen Chong is here, with some of the finest poems from ‘Burning Rice’. I was about to read Debbie Lim’s ‘How to Grow Feet of Golden Lotus’ aloud to a friend and then realised I wouldn’t want to inflict it on anyone who didn’t have plenty of time to recover. Merlinda Bobis’s ‘Covenant’ (‘after you bomb my town / I’ll take you fishing / or kite-flying or both’) conveys the poignancy (another word that has lost its hard meaning) of peace for a defeated people. Jaya Savige’s ‘Circular Breathing’ could hardly be more mainstream Australian, a kind of version of Les Murray’s ‘Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’ set it in Europe and acknowledging Indigenous Australia (with only the barest allusion to Asia, but who’s counting?). Louise Ho’s ‘A Veteran Talking’ is a killer poem, a chilling, hard, dry killer. I’m glad Adam Aitken included a decent, brilliantly varied selection of his own work.

Please don’t let this book be seen as a marginal anthology of poems by the marginalised. It’s a fabulous collection and belongs at the centre of our culture.

Overland 207

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 207, Winter 2012

The winter issue of Overland arrived here while I was summering in Turkey, and it was still in its plastic wrapper when spring arrived with a burst of grevillea flowers and the thud of issue 208 on the front step. The spring arrival looks great – it includes a comic – but it will have to wait. Winter is enough for now.

Fat people are oppressed, says Jennifer Lee in ‘A Big Fat Fight‘, and they’re organising on many fronts. It’s a pugnacious article, which seems to anticipate a hostile response, and indeed I found myself wanting to argue with it. Anwyn Crawford responds in issue 208, and addresses the things I was uneasy about much better than I could. I recommend the articles as a diptych. It doesn’t help your argument to tell readers that if they disagree with you it’s a knee jerk reaction.

Porn and the misogyny emergency‘ is a debate between Gail Dines and Sharon Smith, which I’m happy to report doesn’t descend into name-calling, as feminist debates on this subject have been known to – as in a twitter storm around Gail Dines at a recent Sydney Writers Festival.

Jessica Whyte’s ‘“Intervene, I said”‘ addresses the vexed subject of how talk of human rights is used to rationalise imperialist aggression and other nastiness. It strikes me as a sober discussion, not looking for villains or getting lost in its own rhetoric as sometimes happens when mainstream discourses are being critiqued. I didn’t know that Médecins Sans Frontières, undoubtedly good guys in my book, played a major role in popularising the so-called ‘right to intervene’ on humanitarian grounds, which was used to justify the invasion of Iraq and other dubious military ventures.

Matthew Clayfield’s ‘Waiting on the Arriaga-Ixtepec‘ is a first-hand observer’s account of the ordeals of undocumented immigrants to the US from South and Central America. It’s powerful stuff. I could have done without the occasional literary flourish, especially the opening reference to Casablanca with its use of the manglish ‘torturous’ instead of the original’s perfectly sound ‘tortuous’.

Louis Proyect, in ‘Republican Democrats‘, offers an analysis of Obama’s policies that is a bracing contrast to what wishful thinking would have us believe. He argues that the time may soon be at hand when the USA’s rigid two party system yields to something closer to real democracy. In the meantime, he seems to be suggesting that African-Americans are mistaken to support Obama. Having just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant ‘Fear of a Black President‘ in The Atlantic (if you haven’t read that article stop wasting your time here and click on the link now), I found Proyect’s argument thin and unconvincing on this point.

There are three pieces identified as fiction, though the most immediately touching of them, 19 year old Stephen Pham’s ‘Holiday in little Saigon‘, isn’t fiction at all, but a meditation on the changes he has seen in his suburb, Cabramatta, in the last ten years, as it has transformed from heroin capital of Australia to tourist destination.

Sequestered up the back on different colored paper is the poetry. I particularly liked Andy Quan’s ‘Islands‘, a cool despatch from a grieving family; Mark O’Flynn’s ‘Corydalis‘, a poignant glimpse of someone else’s homesickness; Fiona Yardley’s ‘Your Bath‘, an unlikely celebration of a long lived love, perhaps an elegy; and Alan Wearne’s ‘Also Starring …‘ poem as parlor game or vice versa, in which actors arecast as dozens of Australian poets living and dead, and a couple of politicians. The pairings that I recognised in that last poem ranged from the wittily spot on, through cheerfully insulting, to gloriously inspired. My favourite is George C. Scott as Francis Webb. It’s a poem that invites reader participation: I’d add Robert Morley as Les Murray and Katharine Hepburn as J S Harry.

Undoubtedly the serious reflections in this issue on all that’s amiss in the world and the possibilities for change will have lasting impact on how I am in the world, but right now my vote for the best thing in it goes to Alan Wearne’s utterly frivolous poem.

Out of the Box

Michael Farrell and Jill Jones (editors), Out of the box: Contemporary Australian gay and lesbian poets (Puncher and Wattmann 2010)

I approached this anthology with suspicion. Does it really make sense, I wondered, to read David Malouf’s or Pam Brown’s poetry in a context that draws attention to the poet’s sexuality? Wouldn’t it skew, and narrow, the reading? My suspicion wasn’t allayed by having recently read editor Michael Farrell’s ultra-skewing assertion in Jacket Magazine 39 that he has ‘always read Judith Wright’s “Woman to Man” as referring to the experience of gender transfer’. But … well, once again the Book Club has dragged me from the path of least resistance.

Of Michael Farrell’s introduction and its use and abuse of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I can reasonably say I didn’t find it congenial, and his readings of poems strayed too far into hip idiosyncrasy for my taste. Jill Jones, his co-editor, gives a nice potted history of identified gay and lesbian writing in Australia since the late 70s, and provides some useful orientation to the lesbian poems – I mean of course the poems written by identified lesbians, because as the book’s subtitle makes clear it’s the poets, not the poems, that have sexual identitites.

The poems are wonderfully diverse. They belong together not because of shared themes or concerns or formal qualities, but because their creators are contemporary (ie, alive?), Australian and gay or lesbian. A number of the poems are outed by the context – that is, poems I would elsewhere have read as heteroerotic I here read as homoerotic. That’s probably a good thing – my heteronormative mentality is being challenged. Others shrink: Pam Brown’s ’20th Century’ (‘And as we were the tootlers / we tootled along’) here tends to read as referring to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras rather than something more global. I don’t know that that’s so good. At times I caught myself approximating a Beavis and Butthead snigger: ‘Hur hur! He said fist!’ Definitely not cool, though I plead in mitigation that Michael Farrell’s introduction does something of the sort more than once, and a handful of poems seem to be intent on a kind of high-culture gay Beavis-and-Buttheadism.

A good bit of the time while reading these pages, I got to feel very straight – not necessarily in the sexual sense, but in the sense that I prefer my language syntactical, don’t warm to commas at the start of sentences or parentheses that don’t close, and hate it when I can’t tell whether something is a typo or deliberate wordplay (when Javant Biarujia’s ‘MappleTROPE’ gives us Mapplethorpe’s deathbed utterance as, ‘I just hope I live long / enough to see the frame’ – has he inserted that r into the last word as a piece of witty surrealism or is it just bad proofreading? I genuinely don’t know, and it bothers me).

There are wonderful poems by David Malouf (‘A History Lesson’), Dorothy Porter (‘The Ninth Hour’), Pam Brown (‘Peel Me A Zibibo’), Martin Harrison (‘About the Self’), Peter Rose (‘Plague’), Kerry Leves (‘the escape’ – I’ve known Kerry mainly as a children’s writer, and he is definitely not that here) and joanne burns (‘aerial photography’), among others. I was delighted to be introduced to Stephen J Williams (‘Museums of beautiful art’), Andy Quan (‘Oath’, possibly the single poem that touched me most directly) and Tricia Dearborn (‘Life on the Run’) among others.

It probably doesn’t make sense to talk about a book of poetry without quoting any, but every poem I wanted to quote turns out to feel like an all or nothing proposition. I guess if you’re interested you’ll just have to find the book.