Research Interests

My primary research interests are in modern and contemporary American and Asian American literature. I am particularly interested in what might be called the "politics of form" in poetry: how are political and social pressures registered formally in the poem, and what political effects can follow from a poem's form? My focus has been on the avant-garde or experimental tradition, including writers such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Robert Creeley, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, John Yau, and Myung Mi Kim.


The Sociology of the Avant-Garde: Politics and Form in Language Poetry and Asian American Poetry

In examining two modes of contemporary poetry, Language writing and Asian American poetry, I argue that the category of the avant-garde—as an aesthetic formation that is simultaneously conscious of itself as a social formation— allows us to bring these bodies of work together, illustrating both their shared origins and the reasons for their divergence. Language poetry and Asian American poetry exemplify a division in contemporary American writing described by the poet Ron Silliman, who distinguishes in a 1988 essay between the work of "poets who identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history—many white male heterosexuals," and that of "women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the ‘marginal.’" While many of the former are apt to "call into question…such conventions as narrative, persona and even reference," the writing of the latter group will "often appear much more conventional," as such writers "have a manifest need to have their stories told." Yet ultimately Silliman’s controversial formulation sees both groups as part of a spectrum of "progressive poets," whose apparently radical aesthetic differences are comparable political responses to their social conditions, and who must be seen as partners in a larger cultural project. I propose a sociology of the contemporary avant-garde, one that is conscious of how racial, gender, and class differences inflect aesthetics. Drawing on archival materials, including Allen Ginsberg’s recordings, Ron Silliman’s correspondence, and ephemeral Asian American periodicals, I reconstruct the material and cultural contexts often overlooked in studies of contemporary writing, revealing links between poetries that have been read in isolation.

My point of origin for these concerns is Allen Ginsberg’s poetry of the late 1960s—poems dictated into a tape recorder while driving cross-country. In these poems, which he dubbed "auto poesy," Ginsberg hoped to combine the media’s generalizing power with the humanity of the individual consciousness. But his original recordings reveal a subjectivity that is uncertain and self-revising, relying not on spontaneous thought but on will and assertion to create its desired effect. These aspects of Ginsberg’s project are emblematic of the fragmentation of the new left in the late 1960s into the identity politics of the 1970s—a situation to which both Language poetry and Asian American poetry arise as responses.

The work of Language writer Ron Silliman, the subject of my second chapter, extends Ginsberg’s vision of a documentary poetry, but employs formal techniques, such as the parataxis of the "new sentence," that attempt to guard against Ginsberg’s excesses of subjectivity. But with the breakup of the left in the 1970s, Silliman’s project is threatened by the limits of both individual and group subjectivity—by boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. In studying correspondence among Language writers, I show how Silliman and other Language writers adapt by redefining the avant-garde, positing Language writing not simply as an aesthetic movement but as a social identity. Silliman’s first major work, Ketjak, is both a convincing map of the contemporary social landscape and an often uncomfortable exploration of white male consciousness—a sensibility awkwardly aware of its own "pervasive presence."

While one might assume that Asian American writing of the 1970s would be less prone to such anxieties, my third chapter shows Asian American poetry engaged in comparable struggles over identity and poetic form—a response, in part, to unfavorable comparisons to the strength of black nationalism. Poetry fulfills an avant-garde function in early Asian American publications, not by reporting on, but by actively creating an Asian American culture. The work of such poets as Janice Mirikitani, Francis Oka, and Lawson Fusao Inada, in which the Asian American subject is visibly under construction, reflects a dynamic fusion of Beat, jazz, and populist influences.

During the 1980s, as Language writing and Asian American writing become visible to mainstream readers, their common avant-garde orientations are obscured, making their practices seem radically separate. I explore this process in my fourth chapter by documenting the reception of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book Dictée. While Cha was known in white avant-garde circles in the 1970s and 1980s, she was neglected by Asian American readers until the early 1990s. Dictée’s difficult career illustrates the avant-garde continuity of Language and Asian American writing, but also cautions against any simple attempt to integrate the two. The multiple and often conflicting structures that organize Dictée—linguistic, poetic, mythical, historical, personal—make it a text in which the impulses of experimental and Asian American writing meet in mutually critical fashion.

By the 1990s, the term "experimental Asian American poetry" has emerged to describe work like Cha’s. In my final chapter, I critique this concept through a survey of the work of John Yau. Yau’s use of ethnic signifiers allows his work to be positioned within the discourse of Asian American writing; at the same time, he adopts the Language poets’ conception of a self constructed in language. But in hanging on to the emptied-out structures of ethnic identity, Yau gains a foothold from which to critique Language poetry’s attempt to incorporate the "marginal." Far from providing a synthesis, Yau’s work stages the history of and conflict between these contemporary avant-garde modes.