Sharp, accessible and witty, Slant offers a fresh exploration of issues of race, sexuality, and life in the global village. The collection alternates between three main themes of childhood and family in the Chinese diaspora; gay sexuality, community and rites-of-passage; and voyages literal and metaphorical. Slant asks “how do we belong?” and answers in a voice that is compelling and unique.
University of Toronto Quarterly (Volume 72 Number 1, Winter 2002/3) announced Slant as such:
Nightwood Editions offers four new collections: Billie Livingston’s The Chick at the Back of the Church, Andy Quan’s Slant, Jay Ruzesky’s Blue Himalayan Poppies, and Norm Sacuta’s Garments of the Known… Andy Quan is also a writer of fiction, as well as a singer and songwriter, and Slant is his first book of poems. A third-generation Chinese Canadian, Slant explores the experience of the Chinese diaspora. The poetry journeys through a range of places and cultures, always welcoming ‘ceremony, extinction, discovery, new life’ (‘Flight Ice Blood Metal’).
Back Cover Blurbs
“Andy Quan belongs to that species of poet who remembers home and family but travels everywhere to make discoveries that deepen his insights into himself.”
– Wayson Choy
“Andy Quan plumbs the delicate inevitability of connection between child and parent, siblings and extended family, between men as lovers and as friends, between insiders and outsiders, across cultures, continents and generations. And whether these connections are made by air, over coffee, or on the dance floor, Quan tunes them in language that is empathic and direct. The last word of one of this first book’s finest poems most aptly describes its import: Slant launches the career of a poet whose trajectory is assured ‘glitter.'”
– John Barton
The Danforth Review – Alex Boyd.
A lovely review of Slant, full of praise in a stylish, smart Canadian-based literary review on the net.)
The poems in Slant, by Andy Quan, make occasional references to race, such as in “Mr. Wong’s Children,” which concludes:
with no accent
was as easy
as water the eyes
were a little
harder to hide
But the poems in Slant cover such a diverse range of topics, and all with enough careful crafting, empathy and expressive language, that it becomes impossible to close the book believing in one interpretation of the title. This is not meant as a criticism. In fact, one of the joys of reading the book is that so much falls out of it. Quan is Vancouver born of Chinese descent, but explores gay sexuality and has also clearly done a great deal of travelling, firing off poems from Berlin or London with poetic observations that can’t help but be cultural explorations as well.
Like all good poets, Quan can photograph a moment using words. In the poem “First Sun,” (set in Savona, Italy) he greets the sun after “winter travels” and takes it in “like a pop star preening on a balcony / that juts out like a proud chin.” As a careful writer, Quan ensures that even his description of the balcony matches his mood, and we are immediately allowed to step into how he felt at that moment. He continues to carefully control the perspective of the reader, observing next that “young men on mopeds” down below “bob” like “human buoys.” In “The Old Woman of Seville” we find the women are draped in polyester flowers “as bright as language.”
Not every image in the book works perfectly. In the last example, I can’t help but think that while Quan might use bright language in his poetry, language is simply a tool for most people. In the poem “Sun Bathing,” he describes breasts as “fully developed double summits,” an image more amusing than effective. It strikes me as unoriginal and awkward enough that even something like “large breasts” might have been better. Titles like “Letters Backwards in Time” tell me that he can do much better than “Gym Boy,” though it is only his own talent that gives him away. At times, simple lack of punctuation forced one line to bleed into another, so that it wasn’t clear to me where one thought or image began and another ended. This is not a tremendous problem, but it does mean the poem jams and I have to go back and reread a few lines to be sure I understand it.
Are these minor quibbles? Yes, they are. Quan is a talented writer who provides many worthwhile moments in his book. Have a look at these descriptive lines from “The Last Visit,” how he makes the eye of the reader move from one detail to another and add them up:
rising from narrow
a white pigeon
tucked into the window-frame
a bright fallen orange
on the cobblestone.
He allows the reader to see through his tangible description, as though he had painted it rather than spoken about it. The poem “Nails,” is literally about him cutting his nails, something I’d normally call a worrisome topic for poetry, but have a look:
Each of my new fingertips
the shape of a harbour
or a just-opened tulip
or my round face.
The mention of a harbour (which is constructed for something else) allows for a subtle way to include others, even in his privacy. What would be pure narcissism in the hands of a less empathetic poet is another worthwhile moment here, and it is because of this compassion, craft and talent that I can recommend the poetry of Andy Quan without hesitation.
Alex Boyd is a Toronto writer with samples of poems, essays and fiction online at alexboyd.com.
Books of Note – by Richard Labonté: Review in Lambda Book Report, October 2001 (North American gay and lesbian literary review)
(A lovely review by Richard Labonté appearing under Poetry in the Books of Note section of the Lambda Book Report. There aren’t actually any poems from Greece, maybe it was Italy Richard was thinking of.)
As with the short stories in Quan’s recent collection Calendar Boy, the poems in this slim, rich volume are borne of a mind and a body forever on the move – back into the roots of his immigrant Chinese family, out and into reflective and sexual and erotic gay moments, and through a myriad of lands, among them Greece and Spain, Ecuador and Australia, Malaysia and his homeland Canada. Quan writes with an enticing style whose conversational simplicity blossoms smoothly into intricate, evocative imagery; the result is poetry both musical and highly visual.
Quill & Quire Review – by Adam Sol – August 2001
(At the time that this review appeared, I was indignant: The “one exception” to the weaker poems is the whole last third of the book. How can a third of a book be an exception? More annoying was the analysis of identity politics. What counts as “substance” when talking of a life experience? And how could someone, whether gay or Asian or neither of those, evaluate what constitutes an intrinsic part of belonging to that particular identity? My brother pointed out that the Jewish identity is always political and perhaps the reviewer looked at my book through this lens. But I disliked the imposition of another cultural political identity on my own. To require someone, because they are identified in a particular way, to be political is an odd form of tokenism, and reduces that person to only one part of their identity is a way that is unconsciously racist or homophobic. You’re Chinese so your poem about your Chinese grandmother must examine the Asian cultural experience. Your poem about your ex-lover is inherently political because you are gay. I railed, “How about being gay and Asian, without apology and without having to explain myself? I’d rather report my particular journey and a larger human one than somehow being required to S-P-E-L-L things out.” Years later, I look back, and while I sympathize with my younger self – who made some not bad points – at the same time, I can see that the poems in the last third of the book were richer and more complex. Ah, touchy authors…)
The title of this debut poetry collection is an evocative pun on author Andy Quan’s varied perspectives – that of an Asian-Canadian whose eyes are “slanted”; of a gay man whose sensual interest is “bent” or slanted away from the norm; and most importantly, of the slant view that the combination of these identities affords its author.
Other poets have made vivid use of minority experience as a way to analyze the world and their own place in it – Li-Young Lee comes to mind, as do Mark Doty and Dionne Brand. But all too frequently minority writers rely too heavily on the fact of their marginality rather than how that marginality sheds light on the world. Identity politics without the politics is really only narcissism disguised as soul-searching.
The problem with Slant is that, apart from a few complaints about customs officials and other brutes, little of substance is said about either the gay experience or the experience of being Asian in North America. Contrary to what Quan may believe, men dancing together are not inherently interesting, and his lyricism rarely transforms this by-now-familiar subject matter into the truly evocative. Quan has a responsibility to make his images and scenes more than reportage, but his poems rarely fulfill this mandate.
One exception is in the travel/love poems that appear in the final two sections. Here, Quan finds a lyric impulse that transcends the journal-entry style that hinders some of the other poems. The combination of subjects – lost love, unfamiliar landscapes, the feeling of foreignness – brings out the best in Quan, as in “Last Europe”, which closes with “All these cities burnt into my eyes/like a chance eclipse, I feel your hand/touch my face, the whorl of your/fingerprints, my breath becoming short.”
– Adam Sol, a Toronto poet and reviewer.
Asian American Literature Fans – by Stephen Hong Song
(Stephen is a professor at Stanford and I was flattered that he engaged with Slant and gave it a long online review, delving into 5 different poems, and mostly letting them speak for themselves. He posted it up in April 2009 – it’s good to discover my books are still out there.)
“Quan’s Slant is a more autobiographically-inflected and traditionally lyric collection in its focus on a lyric speaker assumed to be a kind of double to the writer. The poems take us across multiple continents and geographies, highlighting the complex nature of the Asian diaspora…At th[e] productive intersectionality [of race, ethnicity, and queerness] , Quan’s Slant stands and offers, in particular, a lyric terrain of contestation and challenge, but also of the incredibly rich journey and a struggle to soldier onward.”
To give you a taste of Slant, here’s a selection of three poems:
People follow love to this continent and decide to stay
long after romance has shrivelled like a seed without soil
they open bookshops, teach English, write poetry and marry
cover their roots with each new snowfall and
hide unease in the vowels of a new language
content to join novelty to an old tapestry
like the restoration of a masterpiece
or the slow shifting of continents
something familiar with a scent of change.
People tell me this isn’t quite the right time to travel in Europe
and true, the night comes as quickly as melancholy
the statues in great Sans Souci are boarded up like outhouses.
But winter trees have their own beauty
the greys in cold seasons have many shades
people at times are unguarded
like those who have just woken
and with tourists few,
cities become like the ends of parties
where those who stay are those who belong.
Bequeathed my grandmother’s blood,
her allergies, her weak arches,
possibly her frugality and occasional neuroses.
She loved to know I played piano
“that must come from me”
I have sea salt in my veins
warm from her ocean-side house:
everything damp to touch
yellow like unripe fruit
and hollow bamboo.
When the will was read
all to the eldest son
my mother and aunt
took it stoically
the boat was not rocked.
My grandmother’s blood courses through me
her monied name through my uncle’s house
my skin when cut bleeds quickly, or not at all.
After Mardi Gras
the city’s largest bacchanalia
a dazzling display of breast
feather sequin sleek flesh
muscular loins and electricity
thegrit of hard labour. Now
the body unwinds like string
from a yo-yo, the mind tightens
into routine, toxins clear
skin takes in water.
Whole days when I cheated
on any lover I ever had or
will have, both in spirit
and body and unlike this city
I am incapable of hiding secrets
my words are open like the
deep blue night shedding
obscurity, a white dawn
before colour fills sky.
The rains come marking colder
seasons, the near scent of
hibernation, garish umbrellas
try to recapture glamour.
How can they?
rich lay down with
the poor, the lions with lambs
the drag queens meanwhile
remove their make-up and
rest the arches of their feet
this is the state of how it all
should be, a comet in the dark
joy unbounded, so what if
it’s enhanced, doesn’t it
show the capacity for happiness
is big as a dance hall
you arrive clean and shirtless
when you return home
in your hair, on your face