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New faculty: Poet-scholar Warren Liu explores the boundaries of ethnicity and literary form

Despite the periodic warnings of cultural doomsayers, poetry is alive and kicking in the United States, says Assistant Professor of English Warren Liu, who is just finishing his first year on the Bryn Mawr faculty.

"People have been talking about the decline or demise of poetry for decades," Liu says. "But I recently read a study saying that the audience for poetry is actually increasing. Slam poetry, performance poetry, and rap are clearly increasing in popularity. The problem isn't that students don't like poetry—it's that there's an unfortunate gap between the varieties of poetry that occur in our culture and the kind of poetry that tends to be studied."

"In the academy, it's traditional to view poetry as separate from and untouched by commodity culture or the polluting demands of the marketplace. But anybody who's ever tried to publish poetry knows very well that there is a market; it's just a market that hides its own operations," explains Liu, himself a published poet who earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa before undertaking a Ph.D. in English at the University of California at Berkeley.

At Bryn Mawr, Liu teaches a course on experimental poetry—a historical overview of poets who, at the time their work was written, "saw themselves as writing against the grain of mainstream American poetry culture. Some of them have since been more or less accepted into the canon, but they were all somewhat oppositional at the time. "

"Part of the goal of teaching it for me is to expand students' ideas of what poetry is or can be," Liu says. "You could equally do that with a course on hip-hop or performance poetry—it's just that my area of expertise is experimental poetry."

Liu's research focuses on experimental writing by contemporary Asian-Americans, most prominently Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Theresa Cha, Myung Mi Kim, and John Yau. A current project is an investigation of the role of boredom in the work of Tan Lin.

"I wouldn't necessarily characterize all of these writers as oppositional, although much experimental poetry is," Liu notes. "What I think the best experimental poets share is a resistance to thinking about the poem as a beautiful object that is to be mounted on a pedestal and admired like a sculpture. They see it instead as a sort of interactive, collaborative space. Their work is about a process—it engages the reader in thinking about the very construction of the poem itself."

These poets' calculated disruptions of traditional poetic form also work to complicate poetry's relationship to ethnicity, nationality, and the standard narratives of American immigration, Liu says.

As for his own poetry, Liu prefers not to describe it because "when poets talk about their own work, they're almost always wrong. We've read some of the manifestoes written by the poets whose work I'm teaching, and I tend to think, 'Well, that's an interesting set of speculative conditions, but I'm not sure that it actually makes any sense as a way to explain what your poems are doing.'"

In addition to the 300-level course on experimental poetry, Liu has taught a College Seminar titled "Destination: LA," and 200-level courses on Asian-American poetry and contemporary American fiction.

Next semester, he will debut a new course on the graphic novel.

"I'm interested in form," Liu explains, "and I think that some graphic novels are very innovative in terms of narrative form.

"Again, it's a question of what we characterize as 'literature' worthy of study. I'm eager to think about how the graphic novel relates to more traditional forms of literature, and I expect to learn a lot from the students, who are probably more immersed in comic-book culture than I am."

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Posted 5/13/2008 by Claudia Ginanni

photo: Warren Liu