Presenter: Carolyn Nakagawa

Carolyn is a fifth-year student in Honours English with a minor in Asian Canadian and Asian Migration studies. When she isn’t writing about poetry and critical race theory, she is a poet herself as well as a playwright, an editor for The Garden Statuary, and president of the UBC Players’ Club.

A different kind of pear: race and abstraction in Wallace Stevens and Roy Kiyooka

Japanese Canadian poet Roy Kiyooka’s Pear Tree Pomes is a profoundly intimate elegy for lost love and domestic life within the writer’s clapboard house in Vancouver’s Chinatown. In its autobiographical subject matter and attention to the specifics of everyday life, Kiyooka’s poetics seems at complete odds with modernist poet Wallace Stevens’ assertion that poetry “must be abstract”. And yet the racialized small-i speaker still yearns for the eloquence of Stevens’ pears and Stevens’ poetics: Kiyooka quotes Stevens as one of his epigraphs, and even directly addresses a section of the work to him: “dear wallace stevens […] i’m almost certain that you of all the poets i / read in my young manhood will indulge me with a passing nod / if not a handshake” (214). Drawing from critical race theory and phenomenology, I will interrogate Kiyooka’s use and non-use of abstraction in this deeply personal poem sequence, and how his small-i lyric voice and the decomposition of his pears both breaks down and pays tribute to high modernist poets like Stevens. How does a Canadian poet, especially a racialized one, write in the context of both lived experience in culturally peripheral Vancouver and the high-modernist literary canon? What is at stake when a marginalized voice reaches for the abstract? I hope to show Kiyooka’s poetics as a kind of “embodied abstraction” which dismantles the universal by locating it within the specific, and particularly within the marginal experience of a racialized Canadian. Without refuting Stevens’ high-modernist aesthetics, Kiyooka locates poetic transcendence within a racialized body, but it is only possible for him to do so by negotiating with the norms of implicit whiteness and Eurocentrism of “abstract” poets like Stevens.

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