Responses / December 2015 (Issue 30)

A Second Response to Dragoș Ilca (February 2016)

by Kate Rogers

Foreign Skin, Aeolus House, 2015. 83 pgs.

It appears that my response to Dragoș Ilca has upset him. I am sorry he feels bad. I was not trying to hurt the reviewer but to make him think. In my response, I aimed to match the tone he took in his review published in the December 2015 issue of Cha. In that review, he made several assumptions about the origins of my most recent poetry collection Foreign Skin and its author—me. They were implicit in dismissive comments he made about observing life in Hong Kong through an expat filter. His tone was also dismissive of what he referred to as a feminine style of searching for love, and the relevance of Foreign Skin outside Hong Kong. Frequent and facile comparisons of my work to that of Baudelaire could not conceal Ilca's agenda. I experienced his review of Foreign Skin as an attack. I believe he used that approach because it is easier to go on the attack than to analyse poetics. I asked him questions in my response, but he has refused to engage with a number of them.

In Ilca's latest response, he states that he does not want to engage with humour, or irony, or poetic language in Foreign Skin. He makes a jab at the title and doesn't see the irony in it, or that it refers to being a poet in Hong Kong, not being "foreign" in a literal sense. He fails to recognise the poems which play with the idea of being a "foreigner" and an expat in Hong Kong.

He also choses not to engage with the ideas about "home" and being "foreign" which I quoted from Pico Iyer and George Santayana. That's too bad because they are relevant to any discussion of my work and that of other "expat" writers.

The most serious criticism Ilca leveled in his review of Foreign Skin was one of Orientalism. I have already done my best to answer that in the initial response I wrote to his review. Following the posting of that response, I had some dialogue with writers/poets from Hong Kong and Singapore. That discussion was constructive. Some of it is still on the Cha page for everyone to see.

To support his charge of Orientalism, Ilca contends that the persona poems in the "Ah Ku" chapter of Foreign Skin objectify Asian women. He does not see that they were written to express empathy, or admiration, for the women who inspired those poems and/or feature in them. Those are the feelings behind persona poems for many poets.

I have written other persona poems. One which recently appeared in a Canadian journal was inspired by an American highwire artist. Does that mean I objectify Americans or tightrope artists? No. Another persona poem I wrote appeared in the women's world poetry anthology, Not a Muse, and in my previous poetry collection, City of Stairs (reviewed in Issue 18 of Cha). That persona poem is about the storyteller from the 1001 Arabian Nights. Does that mean I objectify the title character Scheherazade and women from "Arabia" (a place which does not exist, except in the Western imagination)? No. That persona poem imagines how stories helped that character—that imagined woman—survive. This poem is also similar in theme to some of the "Ah Ku" poems in Foreign Skin. I have not intended to stereotype or diminish any of the women portrayed in the persona poems I have written.

I think I have said almost everything I can say about the review of Foreign Skin written by Dragoș Ilca. Of course, he is entitled to his opinions. We all are. And I continue to question his tone and lack of engagement with poetic devices in his review.

I will end this response with a quote from an email written to me about Ilca's review by the Toronto-based publisher of Foreign Skin, Allan Briesmaster (Aeolus House). It has been quoted with permission:

The writing itself strikes me as somewhat strained and not particularly discerning. And there is little indication that the reviewer is attentive to the artistic dimension, i.e., to what is inherently poetic, when he dwells only on thematic, psychological and cultural aspects. To me, that suggests deficient competence and authority. Still, he appears to have been not altogether unfavourably impressed with your treatment of Hong Kong. It's odd, though, to have concluded that the book won't be of interest to anyone outside that city. This is plainly untrue and further undermines his credibility as far as I'm concerned. It will be unfortunate if readers of this review believe him. The same goes for the "Orientalism" crack. People who read Foreign Skin without prejudice or an axe to grind will, I am sure, understand, relate to and enjoy the poems in the spirit in which they were written.

I will be interested in any general comments from this stage of the exchange, which may appear in Cha.

Editors' note: Foreign Skin can be purchased here.

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