Thursday, December 15, 2011

Imagining the Imaginary Audience...

In a 2003 review of Yi by Yang Lian for Rain Taxi, Lucas Klein opened with this interesting paragraph that has since lingered with me as a poet:

"Over a decade ago Harvard Sinologist Stephen Owen took on contemporary Chinese literature with his article "The Anxiety of Global Influence-What is World Poetry?," wherein he succeeded, through astonishingly sensible and even-tempered writing, in laying out a pretty bullet-headed point. Now required reading for Chinese poetry courses in English-speaking universities, the article faults Bei Dao and his fellow Misty Poets-poets who were raised on clandestine translations of experimentalist writing from outside China-for not being Chinese enough. The main point of Owen's review is simple: "Poems are made only for audiences," and the audience Misty Poetry is written for is international, not Chinese. He asks, "is this Chinese literature, or literature that began in the Chinese language? For what imaginary audience has this poetry been written?"

It's an interesting question as I imagine what might happen if we applied it within Lao American poetics: Is it Lao literature, or literature that began in the Lao language, or a Lao consciousness? Who are our imaginary audiences for whom we have been writing?

At the moment, the good majority of Lao poets abroad are writing in languages other than Lao, although many engage in Laoglish. This becomes increasingly interesting as Lao adapt and adjust to our new transnational mandala.  Wrestling with the question of what it means to be a people. Do we truly hearken back to Lan Xang, or should we embrace Lao as a new identity entirely, one only recently come into being in the early 20th century? Of course, Tai Dam, Khmu, Hmong, Mien, Lisu, Lahu and others who lived within Lao borders must also ask similar questions.

Over time, I usually find it's best not to let one's self get to tripped up over questions like this. Create first, sort later. Strive for readability, although as I told one student of mine: "As a poet, if I'm doing it right, and if as a reader, you're doing it right, we won't read a poem right in the very first try."

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