Nationality: American. Born: 1950. Career: Art critic and independent curator. Distinguished visiting critic, Pratt Institute (Graduate School of Art), 1985–90, Maryland Institute, College of Art, spring 1986, and School of Visual Arts, 1988–90; visiting poet, Brown University, spring 1992; visiting scholar, Getty Center, winter 1993; visiting professor, University of California, Berkeley, spring 1994 and spring 1995. Ahmanson Curatorial Fellow, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1993–96. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1977–78; Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship, 1979–80, 1985–86; New York Foundation for the Arts award, 1988; Lavan award, 1988; General Electric Foundation award, 1988; Brendan Gill award, 1992; Jerome Shestack prize, 1993. Address: c/o Black Sparrow Press, 24 Tenth Street, Santa Rosa, California 95401, U.S.A.
Crossing Canal Street. Binghamton, New York, Bellevue Press, 1976.
The Reading of an Ever-Changing Tale. Clinton, New York, Nobodaddy Press, 1977.
Sometimes. New York, Sheep Meadow Press, 1979.
The Sleepless Night of Eugene Delacroix. New York, Release Press, 1980.
Notarikon. New York, Jordan Davies, 1981.
Broken Off by the Music. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1981.
Corpse and Mirror. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1983.
Radiant Silhouette: New and Selected Work 1974–1988. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1989.
Dragon's Blood. Colombes, France, Collectif Generacion, 1989.
Big City Primer: Reading New York at the End of the Twentieth Century. New York, Timken Publishers, 1991.
Edificio Sayonara. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1992.
Postcards from Trakl. New York, ULAE, 1994.
Berlin Diptychon. New York, Timken, 1995.
Forbidden Entries. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1996.
Hawaiian Cowboys. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1994.
My Symptoms. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1998.
A.R. Penck. New York, Abrams, 1993.
Editor, with David Kermani, Fairfield Porter: The Collected Poems with Selected Drawings. New York, Tibor de Nagy, 1985.
Editor, In Pursuit of the Invisible: Selections from the Collection of Janice and Mickey Cartin: An Exhibition at the Loomis Chaffee School. West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Hard Press, 1996.
Editor, with others, Original Sin: The Visionary Art of Joe Coleman. New York, HECK, 1997.
Editor, An Anthology of Fetish Fiction. New York, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998.*
Bibliography: "John Yau: Contributions toward a Bibliography" by Ed Foster, in Talisman, 5, Fall 1990.
Critical Studies: "Reconstructing Asian-American Poetry: A Case for Ethnopoetics" by Shirley Lim, in MELUS (Amherst, Massachusetts), 14(2), summer 1987; John Yau issue of Talisman (Jersey City, New Jersey), 5, fall 1990; "'Chaos Goes Uncourted': John Yau's Dis-Orienting Poetics" by Priscilla Wald, in Cohesion and Dissent in America, edited by Carol Colatrella and Joseph Alkana, Albany, State University of New York, 1994; "A Bughouse Interaction" by Eric Peterson, in Bughouse, 2, summer 1994; Word and Flesh: Materiality, Violence and Asian-American Poetics (dissertation) by Juliana Chu Chang, University of California, Berkeley, 1995.* * *
John Yau is a poet who, like John Ashbery, has earned much of his living in the world of the visual arts, writing art criticism, curating exhibitions, teaching at the Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts, and often collaborating with artists on book, print, and mixed-media projects. It is not surprising then to find that Yau's poems are often as much a product of his visual sense of the world as they are of his awareness of his double heritage from both oriental and occidental cultures.
Yau often uses the technique of surrealism disguised as imagism in his poems, as in "A Suite of Imitations Written after Reading Translations of Poems by Li He and Li Shang-yin":
When she left she took everything—her hair
Was a dream filled with colors gone by noon.
Yet, if nothing can be retrieved, I am still pulled
Toward this woman, who is still asleep, locked
Away in another life; her hair
Piled up like red peonies at noon.
But even more characteristic of Yau's later work is the attempt to bring stereotypical images from the pop culture of the oriental into satirical play, as well as to co-opt American myths to his own purposes. He does this in a series of poems called "Genghis Chan: Private Eye," for example, or in a poem like
"Sam Spade Haiku"
Perfect oval Dark intermissions
Unlaced leather smile Satin waist nipper
Tall drink of water Coal blue lips
Fist full of trouble Pink alabaster burden
These aspects of his work reveal Yau to be a New York school poet of the younger generation who, like Frank O'Hara, might be looking for a poetics that would allow him to create poems of greater immediacy. The surrealist prose poems have not stopped or even changed, and, in fact, Yau has always moved back and forth between sparsely imagist formations on the page, as in the early poem "Shimmering Pediment"—
An overloaded circuit—lightning
jammed the horizon, and for days
The echoes remained in my eyes
—or in the later "Radiant Silhouette I"—
Blue leather harness slips off glistening shoulders
A row of whispers burns on the windowsill
—to the denser texture of prose poems such as those in Corpse and Mirror, like "Carp and Goldfish," or the later "Spin, Spell, Spill":
I lift the velvet tourniquet closer to the whale lamp and review the fabled grains, their yellowing history murmuring behind my salvaged eyes. The sky is not quite the color of dawn. It is January, and you are in Bozeman, Montana. I thought I would begin this while you were in the air above the floor plan of the clouds, their exhumed disarray and brittle gleam.
This often seems more like prose than poetry, but the focus is always directed toward lyrical images—of women, of light, of the burdens of love—that seem to represent the incommunicable. In "Bare Sheets II" Yau says,
None of the many words we summoned to our sides fitted what we said to each other. Words and phrases, like small birds, their pulsing colors, rose up and scattered in every direction. Frantic wings tore the remaining stars further and further apart. Although winter had claimed the city, the bay windows were still open. Night or something known by that name was soaking through the last porous layers of language we had left, the ones we imagined keeping from each other. It is time to start removing our skin, you whispered, its alphabet of disguises.
As with the poems of Ashbery, O'Hara, and Kenneth Koch, the subject of Yau's poems is frequently love and its failure. But more important is the emphasis on the failure of communication, of words losing their power, and perhaps, especially as might be found in Ashbery, a sense that old values, old meanings have collapsed and that words are only empty repositories. The frequent surrealist gesture of satire against language itself, and especially poetry, is a trait Yau shares with these older poets. He uses it in a more lyrical way than his predecessors, however, perhaps because of the invocation of Chinese poetry.