Putting on the lit hat for the moment, I'm having an internal debate about what we call poetry at an intercultural level.
A long standing assumption has been that every culture has, or is capable of and should desire, a poetic tradition. And that poetry is universal (and if you don't like it as a culture, you're Philistines.)
What if that's wrong?
The history of Hmong writing (or relative lack thereof, until recently) provides an interesting and relevant hook upon which to frame this discussion.
We know it's possible for cultures, even those in remote tribal areas, to have what might be called "poetry" but conversely, it seems there are few large cultures without poetry, or something that passes for it.
But does a culture need poetry, or can it even set its version of poetry aside like, say, the art of scrimshaw (which, while not extinct, is certainly not at the forefront of people's artistic consciousness.)
Some cultures don't have a tradition in sculpture, batik or shadow puppetry, and broadly speaking, they get along perfectly well in the world. Why should they have to have a tradition of 'poetry'?
And even with what we've said IS 'poetry' in Asia- are we sure it's really poetry, or is it a thing in itself?
When we talk of Haiku, for example, or Kanshi, or Kwv Txhiaj, we're talking about stylized language, but as Confucius points out, "wisdom begins when we call things by their proper names."
I've constantly argued that the zaj and naga aren't dragons, although they're often erroneously thought to be interchangeable terms. And there's a serious degradation of meaning and a loss of understanding when that erroneous interchange takes place.
That being said, I'm now beginning to think we should have an earnest interest in what the literary or oral forms truly are that we're using. Maybe it's not a poem after all. Maybe it is just a Kwv Txhiaj, nothing more, nothing less.
That Kwv Txhiaj is not less for being a Kwv Txhiaj any more than an Opera is not less for being an Opera (even though it is not strictly a play, a concert, a musical, or even a musical play depending on how exacting a definition you want to get into.)
We often default to saying that it's all a form of poetry, but aren't we just being lazy?
I wonder if we're not exploring these words and their organization to see what they really are. And importantly, how they interconnect to the culture, and the other cultures they encounter.
In Japan, a haiku is really much more than 5-7-5, bad grammar and incomplete thoughts.
The Ramayana is certainly organized in something that looks like poetry, but that's really short-changing it, isn't it?
What if in fact, we have new literary or cultural forms of expression that we're not recognizing because we're trying too hard to pigeonhole them into Western terminology for which there isn't yet an exisiting analog?
Some time ago, Yoel Hoffman wrote a book about the tradition of Jisei, or Japanese death poetry- and I find myself thinking that while it can be read by people from other cultures, it's a perfect example of poetry with a far more profound EXPERIENCE involved that also requires explicit engagement with the culture that cannot be commodified or bought like some tsotchke from the mega-bookstore. The Jisei seem far more than just 'poems' or what passes for poetry among today's contemporary letters.
Taking this down to real-world application, the question is, why do Hmong, Lao and Tai Dam writers have to write poetry that fits Western standards?
We should be writing in whatever way or form is necessary to capture the true cultural heart and soul.
This isn't to say that I'm advocating a free-for-all, anything-goes approach- let there be craft and interest in the matter, or else it's all just random gibberish.
But at the same time, do we have the nerve to do whatever it takes to express the collective and private hearts of our people and our selves, even if it means going outside the boundaries of 'established forms'?
If that means of cultural and personal self-expression looks like a Western-style poem, or a rap, or spoken word or an ear-splitting performance art piece that Yoko Ono would cringe at, so be it. And if it doesn't look like any of these, so be it. And even if it doesn't look like an Asian-style 'poem', so be it.
Ultimately, whatever emerges, I think it's important to start becoming aware that we have the liberty to make our own rules, and we can and should throw off arbitrary shackles.
I'm sure people were freaked out when they first ran into the Tale of Genji, but so what.
Look now: The world is filled with novels today. Perhaps tomorrow they'll be filled with Ca Dao, Kwv Txhiaj or some other magnificent new literary and cultural form we haven't even come up with words for yet.
Let's get writing and see what comes up.