Smith College’s Floyd Cheung presents personal works in Asian American poetry

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Floyd Cheung presents his poetry while former graduate school student Bunkong Tuon sits among the audience. Courtesy of Dr. Gretchel Hathaway
Floyd Cheung presents his poetry while former graduate school student Bunkong Tuon sits among the audience. Courtesy of Dr. Gretchel Hathaway

Floyd Cheung, an Associate Professor of English Language & Literature and American Studies at Smith College, came to campus on October 11 to read his poetic works and lead a discussion on Asian American poetry. While hailing from a different school, Cheung is a familiar among Union’s faculty. In fact, Cheung has a former graduate student in Associate Professor of English Bunkong Tuon.

Seeing how Tuon is familiar with Cheung’s work both as a former student and as someone who is in a similar field of study, I was lucky to have the opportunity to ask Tuon a few questions on his feelings toward Cheung’s work.

Q: What did you and Cheung collaborate on while you were in graduate school (and where was grad school for you)?
A: Dr. Cheung served on my dissertation committee when I was a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Whenever we met for coffee or lunch to go over my work, I always felt inspired afterward. He took the time to read and comment on my many drafts. He was perceptive, critical and encouraging. It was quite an honor to welcome my former professor and mentor to the college where I work as a professor.

Q: What was your focus of study in graduate school, and what was Cheung’s throughout his career?
A: Both Dr. Cheung and I work in the field of Asian American Studies. I am a specialist in Southeast Asian American history and literature. Dr. Cheung, associate professor of English and American Studies at Smith College, is a specialist in early Asian American literature, editing and publishing Kathleen Tamagawa’s “Holy Prayers in a Horse’s Ear,” “Sadakichi Hartmann: Collected Poems,” as well as H.T. Tsiang’s “And China Has Hands” and “The Hanging on Union Square.” He helps us to re-conceptualize the history of Asian American literature and, in the process, restructure the literary canon of Asian America.

Q: What issues seem to prevail the most in his writings? Political, social? Or are there no issues at all and it’s more of a documentary on society and culture from his perspective?
A: I’ll try to answer your two questions in one place. Dr. Cheung wrote in different poetic styles, from short imagist to narrative poetry. His topics range from the personal to the political (from his grandmother, wife and children to Japanese American internment and the Keith Scott shooting in Charlotte), from poetry about the art of poetry to poetry inspired by art (emphasis on poetry). In his discussion with students, he said he wanted to keep the subject and style of Asian American poetry open and expanding rather than limiting it to one or two things. In his book, “Jazz at Manzanar,” there are poems about toothache, the survivors of the Manzanar internment camp, the narrator’s love for his wife, birds and so on. It’s quite eclectic.

Q: How do you and he view Asian American identity in writing and just through the everyday lens as a human being? What have you observed about society today, given that there is more tension in the Asian-American community (especially after that segment on Fox News)?
A: I can’t speak for Dr. Cheung because he’s not here to answer your question. But for me, that Fox News segment was inappropriate. It rehashes all the stereotypes people have about Asians; it reduces the diversity of Asians into one group (conflating Japanese references with Chinese, for example); it is unable to distinguish between people from Asia and people from the States. That last point was the reason why Japanese Americans were rounded up and forced to live in internment camps during WWII. The “Daily Show with Trevor Noah” did a terrific response to this segment on Fox News. To answer your question about Asian American identity in writing, see my comments above regarding the depth and breadth of Asian American writing. Asian-American writing encompasses everything and anything.

Q: Any comments on Cheung?
A: Watching him read his poetry and discuss Asian American literature and culture with students, it was apparent that Dr. Cheung is a natural teacher. He effortlessly weaved reading poetry together with telling personal stories and leading discussion. It was like watching a master magician at work. It’s no wonder he won Smith College’s Prize for Distinguished Teaching and is now the Director of the Sherrerd Center for Teaching and Learning. Dr. Cheung represents the best of what a liberal arts education has to offer. He is smart and perceptive, critical in his thinking and writing, engaged and engaging, kind and compassionate. He’s a good, decent human being, and that is sometimes rare in this day and age, where decency, dignity and goodness seem to be lacking. I brought Dr. Cheung to campus because I wanted to contribute to Union’s strategic mission: to help bring diversity to the intellectual, cultural, and artistic Union community. With that said, I would like to thank Gretchel L. Hathaway, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, Jason Benitez, Director of Multicultural Affairs, and Jordan Smith, Edward E. Hale Jr., Professor of English, for their support of this reading event.

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