Why Write? Why Publish?

A few different things have turned my attention once again to this “why” of writing and publishing.

I have been writing an essay, which was requested of me, and to which I gladly agreed. The subject is Asian American Literature. One of the prompts had to do with canon, and whether Asian American Literature had “arrived.” I had to say yes to the request, precisely because these kinds of questions typically raise my hackles. Whose/what canon? Who decides whether a work of literature belongs in said canon? What criteria do the deciding bodies use to determine whether a work of literature belongs in the canon.

I know that canon is dynamic, and it is open. I remember reading Lawrence Levine’s The Opening of the American Mind, which got me thinking about when works of authors of color do gain inclusion into the Western Canon. It is ideally because that “American mind” has become aware of our literatures, and has become aware of our literatures’ importance to a changing American society.

Opening is a slow process. Remember when the canon was all classical literature. Remember when English language literature was not. Remember when American literature was not.

So then, sure, it should be a good thing, that our works gain inclusion into this thing called the canon.

My questions remain though, regarding criteria. How does a canon making body determine a work’s importance?

And then as authors of color, is that what our goal should be, when we set out to write. And then, if you think, why yes, it should be, then I have more questions. How does an author of color go about writing a canon-worthy work? What must one write about, and how must one write about it?

This brings me to this excellent essay by Sean Thomas Dougherty: “Best American Poetry Reading 2014 or a Plea to Stop Talking Trash on American Poetry and Maybe the Problem Isn’t American Poetry or the Anointed (and yes of course there are some who are anointed) but maybe the problem is you. Read the work and shut up motherfucker.”

A lot of my friends on the other hand are mostly caught in the poetry system, fighting for jobs, tenure, publications mean something more to them than just a cool book to be in. The subtle jabs and insults I received from some of them were so hurtful. Their jealousy direct. […]

But I learn from them. I learn how dead they already fucking are, how they are actually everything they pretend to hate. And how truly free I have become.

I have to say all of this because it points to the sense of hierarchy and desperation that the system of American poetry both enables and dissipates and also to the great disappointment I often feel with other artists.

So much in Sean’s essay is speaking to me about my own confusion about the literary community in which I suppose I belong. I have been losing friends in this business, and so much of it has to do with disparate sets of expectations for “our literature.”

As you all know about me by now, I have chosen not to pursue a tenure track professorship for many reasons. I prefer my life as an adjunct professor, because I like and I value the work I do outside of the university. I also like that I have a certain amount of freedom to write what I want to write, and to publish what and where I want to publish.

I have always taken my freedom for granted. Here, I don’t mean, simply freedom as an American, living in a “democracy,” with constitutional rights. Of course I know I will probably never be imprisoned for anything I say in print. That’s not what I mean.

I have always just written, and sought some bomb-ass publishers for my work, because I would like to see what can happen. I know now, much can indeed happen. I’ve gained much, earned much in my author career, by following my mentors’ advice about seeking publication where I think I would be a “good fit.” By “good fit,” I have always thought that meant aesthetically, culturally, and politically. This has placed me in a lot of awesome places.

My writing and publishing have never determined my job security in the university. I have never been told by my superiors that I need to publish in “better” venues, lest my job security, my livelihood, become insecure. (Though I have been told by others in my community that I should be less confrontational, use less profanity, foreign language, and sexual violence, it’s not like I listen. It’s not like possibilities for my publishing have been jeopardized by my foul mouth and difficult subject matter.) (Isn’t that about respectability politics?)

So I don’t know what it feels like to have my livelihood jeopardized like that. I plan to never know what that feels like. I certainly don’t want to ever feel obligated to de-claw myself for institutional inclusion and security. I plan to always write what I want to write, publish how and where I publish. I never want this to be a chore. I never want to be jaded and embittered by it. I want to always love writing.

I feel like this question of inclusion in the university, and inclusion in the canon are very much the same question. What do you give up of yourself and your deepest beliefs and integrity, in order to be included by institutions that really don’t care or want to know what we are really about, but the image they have constructed of us.

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