Mg Roberts and Timothy Yu: Nests and Strangers and the Asian American Avant-garde

In this conversation, Mg Roberts and Timothy Yu discuss the origins of Kelsey Street Press’s anthology, Nests and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets and the Asian American avant-garde.

Nests and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets (Kelsey Street Press, 2015)
Nests and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets (Kelsey Street Press, 2015)

Mg Roberts: Your name has become synonymous with the Asian American avant-garde. How did this specialization happen?

Timothy Yu: My interest in the Asian American avant-garde really came through my discovery of the poetry of John Yau. I first read him just after college, at a time when I was beginning to think about Asian American identity but found myself dissatisfied with the typical narratives in which that identity was usually expressed. Yau’s work seemed to challenge and undermine those narratives while still actively exploring the way the “Asian” was represented in our culture. His work seemed to show me a way I could link my interests in experimental writing and my exploration of Asian American issues, which ultimately became the focus of my dissertation and my book, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry.

MR: How do you define avant-garde?

TY: There are a million definitions and plenty of good books out there that try to define the concept, but what I tend to focus on is the fact that “the avant-garde” is both an aesthetic and a social phenomenon. In other words, it is not just about being aesthetically radical or “ahead of your time,” but also generally involves forming or defining a group or community linked to your aesthetic. This is why I argued in my book that Asian American poetry could be seen as an avant-garde phenomenon, since it seeks to create the category “Asian American” through aesthetic means.

Timothy Yu: How did you get your start working with Kelsey Street Press?

Mg Roberts: I came to Kelsey Street by way of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and then through the amazing poet Amber DiPietra. At some point in my MFA and after (maybe 2007), I immersed myself in the world and works of women avant-garde writers, specifically Asian American poets. Perhaps I needed to figure ways in which to enter/access and or think into rhetoric. I was studying something and I just kept returning back to the Kelsey Street catalogue.

In 2009, I was searching for a copy of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Four Year Old Girl for my four-year-old girl, which was out of print with exception to the special edition copies, which of course I couldn’t afford. So I wrote to Kelsey Street and Amber DiPietra, a KSP member at the time, responded and we began a correspondence. And I made one of my dearest friends and later received a copy to read aloud to my four year old. I became a Kelsey Street Press member in 2011 just as KSP reprinted Four Year Old Girl.

TY: How did you first come up with the idea for this collection and what was your vision for it?

MR: Truthfully, I imagined this project as a way to meet Yoko Ono. I had hoped to create an anthology that included her work in some way. I was scheming to create my personal Asian Am canon in an accessible, bound, single-print book.

The idea to create an anthology of critical work stemmed from a conversation Rena Rosenwasser and Patricia Dienstfrey, the co-founders of Kelsey Street Press, had with Eileen Tabios. In that conversation, Eileen mentioned your book, Race and the Avant-Garde. Before that moment, I merely had a project sketch and green light. You’re the one who came up with the Nests and Strangers concept.

What was your first reaction when asked to edit a critical anthology on Asian American Women poets by Kelsey Street Press?

TY: To be honest, my first reaction was that I shouldn’t do it, because I didn’t want to be the male academic explaining how everyone should read Asian American women poets But you were very persuasive! And once I began to think about who would be included in the collection, I realized that there were lots of great critical voices out there—most of them women’s voices—who would be able to do justice to this work. There is still so little attention given to Asian American poetry that a collection like this is sorely needed.

MR: How did you choose the essayists for Nests and Strangers?

TY: I knew I wanted to have a mix of poets and scholars in the collection. I did not want to have it be a strictly academic collection, because the critical community around Asian American poetry is one that includes both poets and scholars (and poet-scholars!), and because I wanted to be sure the collection remained accessible to a non-academic audience. Dorothy Wang is one of the most brilliant critics working on Asian American poetry—I knew I wanted her on board. Juliette Lee is someone I’ve long known and admired as a poet, but someone who is also a scholar with deep knowledge of this subject, and I was really eager to hear her perspective. Sarah Dowling was recommended to me by another scholar, and she provided a really inventive take on Myung Mi Kim. And I was so pleased to be able to get Merle Woo to write on Nellie Wong. I knew the two of them had been longtime friends and comrades, and I was able to track Merle down and get a really remarkable contribution from her.

What were the most interesting and/or challenging things about working on this collection?

MR: I am so indebted to my fabulous mentor and Senior Copyeditor Ramsay Bell Breslin, who taught me to read and dream according to the Chicago Manual Style. I am also in deep appreciation for the amazing proofreading efforts of Valerie Witte, Steffi Drewes, and Anna Morrison.

What advice do you have to young Asian American writers interested in the avant-garde?

TY: Read a lot. There are so many remarkable Asian American writers out there right now whose work in some way touches on the avant-garde. The poets covered in Nests and Strangers—Myung Mi Kim, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Bhanu Kapil, Nellie Wong—are just a few. John Yau, Tan Lin, Linh Dinh, Pamela Lu, Brian Kim Stefans, Cathy Park Hong, Trisha Low, and many, many others. Go back to anthologies like Walter Lew’s Premonitions, which still feels fresh and amazing 20 years later, and to writer-artists like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Yoko Ono. And unlike when I was starting out, there are now books about the Asian American avant-garde, not just my book, but books like Joseph Jeon’s Racial Things, Racial Forms and Dorothy Wang’s Thinking Its Presence. But maybe the most important thing is to find a community—of other Asian American writers, of other writers interested in avant-garde writing. You can’t make an avant-garde by yourself.

Your afterword asks the question, “What does it mean to be an Asian American woman?” Do you think the collection helps us toward an answer to that question?

MR: I think Nests and Strangers makes a bigger space for poetic intersections of praxis and marginalized narratives to exist and be in dialogue with the notions of flight and arrival—as it pertains to the vastness and multiple experiences within the identification of Asian American. I think the poet Muriel Leung sums this notion best in her essay “Nests and Strangers: A New Anthology Gives Voice to Asian American Woman Avant Garde Poetics,” “… poetry is about guts—an embodied process that intimately involves the individual person and is inextricable from a politicized existence.” Yes, I want to be this—always.

TY: What impact do you think working on, reading, and writing for this collection will have on your own work as a writer?

MR: Working on such a large project and seeing it completed is a relief and a bit scary. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m crying because I’m happy or afraid. Frankly, I’m still reeling. My name is in the same book as Tim Yu! Sarah Dowling! Merle Woo! Sueyeun Juliette Lee! Dorothy Wang! Myung Mi Kim! Nellie Wong! Mei-mei Berssenbrugge! Bhanu Kapil. To say I’m humbled is just simply an exaggeration.

I’m so thankful to the women of Kelsey Street Press (Rena Rosenwasser, Patricia Patricia Dienstfrey, Ramsay Bell Breslin, Anna Morrison, Steffi Drewes, Valerie Whitte) who not only believed in this project, but believed in my writing.

Born in Subic Bay, Philippines, Mg Roberts teaches writing in the San Francisco Bay area. She is a Kundiman Fellow, Kelsey Street Press member, and author of not so, sea (Durga Press). Her work is appears in Nests and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets (Kelsey Street Press) and The Stanford Journal of Asian American Studies, Bombay Gin, Web Conjunctions, and elsewhere. She’s currently working on producing an anthology on the urgency of experimental writing written for and by writers of color.

Timothy Yu is the author of 100 Chinese Silences, forthcoming from Les Figues Press, as well as three chapbooks: 15 Chinese Silences (Tinfish), Journey to the West (Barrow Street), and, with Kristy Odelius, Kiss the Stranger (Corollary). He is also the author of Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 (Stanford) and a former Kundiman fellow. He is associate professor of English and Asian American studies and director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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