What art and poetry do to you in the springtime. L-R Evan Huang of BaoHaus Restaurant and Lisa Lee of ThickDumplingSkin.com at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, Michigan. | Photograph by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, contributor.
A sudden cold snap has sent me scurrying for my Hello Kitty scarf and gloves. Hard to remember that only one month ago, I was splashing through puddles at balmy midnight, wearing a Hawaiian print skirt and flip flops.
A woman I see every morning walking to school growled about the cold this morning, and I, for some reason, sang out, “But it’s National Poetry Month! The sun is shining, the birds are singing.”
She was not quite sure how to respond.
On my way home, I found a stack of five free SAT and ACT and AP Calculus AB prep books on a neighbor’s lawn. A Tiger Mom score! Life does not get better than this.
So here we are, in the last week of National Poetry Month. A few more days to take the NaPoWriMo challenge of writing a poem a day. Last year, I was so impressed by all those poets who dared to publicly take the NaPoWriMo challenge, writing and publishing in real time, that this year I wanted to try, too.
I am not a poet. I just write essays. However, I am quite easily seduced by a good turn of phrase. (Hear that, Beau Sia? Oops, did I just say that out loud? Uh, just kidding! Uh, sort of…).
Now the sun is shining, the birds are singing.
I never really understood poetry. For years, I thought that there was something wrong with me, something lacking in my education, that I simply was not smart enough to “get” poetry. Finally, I went to the library and borrowed ten years’ worth of “The Best American Poetry” anthologies and read them backwards in time, one year at a time, hoping that by simple immersion, I could figure this poetry thing out. I read through the volumes, several poems a night, for weeks.
When I got to the tenth volume, published ten years before that day, I came across a poem about Szechuan chili peppers set in a Thai restaurant in Berkeley. The restaurant owner’s son was wearing a full Samurai costume and scowling at the customers. A Chinese gang sat making deals in the back. Huh? I searched for any possible way to turn this bizarre mishmash of images into something meaningful, something deep, something lyrical, and I realized that this was just the same old mixing up of random Asian American stereotypes that I see anywhere else. There was no magic. This poet was just a person like anyone else. His poetry might work for people with the same stereotype confusion. It did not work for me. (This is why ethnic studies is so important, Arizona!)
I stopped reading “The Best American Poetry” and found a book of Asian Pacific American poetry instead—which I understood, which made me laugh, which made me think, which did not offend. Then I started seeking out Asian Pacific American poetry and poets.
Slowly, I realized that the problem was not me, the problem was finding poems that fit me.
A few months ago, Little Brother’s second grade class all wrote poems entitled, “I am From.” His poem included this stanza: “I am from/ rice cooking,/ spam sizzling,/ hot cocoa spinning in the microwave,/ curry burning,/ and cookies baking in the oven.” Little Brother has already found that fit.
I have been teaching a class at Washtenaw Community College called “Finding your Voice,” and the key exercise is simply writing every day (a la Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron, and Carolyn See). It does not have to be good. It does not have to be finished. It just has to be ten minutes (or three pages or 1000 words) every day.
The amazing thing I always find is that as our writing becomes more honest, more in tune with who we are, we also become more honest, more in tune with who we really are. I like who I am so much better when I am writing every day. When I am too heartbroken or my head too cluttered to write, the rest of my life falls apart, too.
Did I mention that the sun is shining, the birds are singing? And I am writing.
How about you?
Note: April 26 is National Poem in your Pocket Day. Here is the poem I will be carrying around in my back pocket, Li-Young Lee’s, “Persimmons,” published in Rose (1986), which takes me right back to my parents’ persimmon orchard (we had both hachiya and fuyu persimmons)…
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is a contributor for New America Media’s Ethnoblog, Chicagoistheworld.org, PacificCitizen.org, and InCultureParent.com. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her Web site at franceskaihwawang.com, her blog at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.