蔚雅風 is speaking…
What was the first thing that you wrote that you liked?
“Don’t Go Down to the Sea, My Son” was my first published poem. It was a short, somewhat lyrical piece written about a fictive moment based on the loss of a child.
I was 22 years old when it was published in The Explosion
which was the student newspaper for the Black Student Union at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.
I liked it then, but I have since lost it. But if I had it to examine it today, I would probably have to admit it is amateurish.
I was just starting, and it had been four years since I dropped out of university. Publishing the poem was a way of bemoaning my choice in life.
I had become a factory worker and would be so for a total of fifteen years. That was the first poem which I did like, which gave me a sense of validation.
~ in Beijing, Spring 2005
It is lunchtime, say the feet clomping out from
tarpaulins, metal riggings, walls in progress, men
with blue hats in their hands, clothes thick with work.
In China this hard march to uplift and wealth
is called the time of cruelty, mandatory twelve
hour shifts, a mouth of a gift horse for the poor.
They pass me frozen in the intersection,
it is time for lunch and I reach for my brown bag,
fried chicken sandwich, sweet potato pie, a cup
of coffee on the top of the heater in the steel mill,
somewhere in my pocket a hidden book speaks–
Three Negro Classics, DuBois looking ahead
of me to now, my mecca to China, the math
of fifteen years of factory life coming to a dance
between three and five, the three the way things
come to be as the immortals dream of the Yijing
way to reality, the oracle of all change, a thin
Howling Wolf looking for peace inside the blues,
where five is the flattened fifth or the five tones
of this language of hand and ache, the rhythm
of my life, my worker heart a lotus pond
in Hainan, the water murky, the sun an unsure
but steady nuclear fume that breathes a sting into
spring, with daffodils, with children who do not die.
Some whistle blows, I go back down under
with these men I do not know, singing a song
my father sang–fifteen years ain’t no long time
I got a brother somewhere got a lifetime.
Does your writing construct or deconstruct?
It seems, as I look back now from the age of 61, that iconoclasm was inevitable for me.
My factory life of fifteen years was my woodshed, and as a survivor of child sexual abuse who has chosen to write about that subject, I am deconstructing black masculinity.
The organizing thread of my odyssey as a poet has been my lifelong engagement with Chinese culture that began when I started reading the Dao de Jing when I was 21 years old and progressed to studying Taijiquan when I was 27 years old. I am now one of my Taiji teacher’s Dao disciples, which means I practice Daoist sitting meditation under his instruction. The Daoist teachings are transmitted only by word of mouth, and my lineage goes to a Daoist organization in Taiwan. Finally, I am an older student of Mandarin and work in translation projects with poets in Taiwan and China.
So I have come from my beginnings in a poor working class family in East Baltimore to a place no one expected me to occupy — including myself.
There were many times I thought the odyssey would cost me my life, but here I stand, painfully unique. So I would say I have evolved in what Antonio Gramsci would say is an organic path, assembling and building after taking apart what I was supposed to assume and believe. I would also say my odyssey has been a “coming home”, to that black working class inferiority, in my own utterly singular way.
If the world was less violent, would your writing be different from what it is today?
I’m assuming I would be different, too. So yes, my writing would be different. I would write about our spiritual nature, the way we are a part of all that exists, how love is the breath of the soul. Our sentience tempts us to think we are not connected to what connects everything else energetically.
Our ability to believe we are objectively experiencing the world leads us to believe our own illusions and manufacture the unreal as if it were real.
Yes, I would write poems about light, and they would not be light, but the heavy exuberance of a life lived by humans who have learned the lessons we are failing to even know exist at this point.
What do you refuse to ignore?
Injustice as I see it. Change as it is necessary. My first line of vigilance is the safety and wellbeing of all children. I do not tolerate people who think the children of other groups are less important than their own children. The injury or death of any child diminishes all of us.
Male society has to take on the gargantuan task of taking apart male violence and healing the systemic dysfunction that creates and perpetuates that violence and therefore threatens all of us with continuing insanity.
As for racism, racism needs to be de-centred by seeing people as individuals rather than groups and by rejecting generalizations when possible. My last pet peeve is what I see as ego driven behavior dressing itself up as making change in the world.
Selflessness will shine above the narcissistic crowd just as will the decency of a willingness to do real, actual work; rather than spinning rhetoric and seeking accolades and spinning rhetoric. Maybe that’s the factory worker inside my experience speaking.
What the Lotus Said
It will hurt when the knife is pulled away,
pain no longer my walking staff and candle,
mist taking over where doctors and medication
once were the compromise with being born,
stuck down in the algae of a coral reef, mind
more than what settles into the brain, mind
lost, mind found in the summer palace, walking
along, following a man painting the sidewalk
for tourists, each stroke born in a center
between his ears, rippling out from his fingers,
the knife gone, my eyes pulled back, opened
the way angels tip open the speck of a body
to pour in the soul, and my soul sat up, afraid
to believe it had been let loose in a place so far
from where it began, set loose to walk backward,
follow the lines of thought to where a blossom
lifts its head and thrives where flowers die.
Why do you think you are a writer?
The African American Baptist in me says, “I was given the gift of writing and challenged by child trauma so that I could do my best toward making a contribution to the world.” In plainer terms, poetry is what I do best, and it seems to have come from gifts I observed in my parents, natural gifts for a vernacular eloquence and metaphor in my father, and a theatrical brilliance in my mother.
How do you explain DNA and the process of learning from your parents? I was taught that gifts and talents come from the Creator.
We have a responsibility to use them. These gifts are not free. I think I am a writer because it was the immediate task, what was set before me in life. I was at the University of Maryland and chose love and a very romantic and unaware notion of developing my craft as a poet and writer among the masses, as we used to say in those days. I was in denial of the reality of being very much rooted in the masses myself. I loved writing when I was a child, I invented languages using the table of alphabets in the dictionary. In the battery of aptitude tests I took in the military my language skills were among the highest among the men who were tested.
In plainer terms again, you can learn to do just about anything, but there are some things for which you have aptitude.
What is the origin of such things? I am a spiritual person. I believe we are given these things along with consciousness by the Creator.
Tell us about the excerpt you’ve contributed.
These are poems from a manuscript entitled City of Eternal Spring,the third book in a trilogy where the first book was The Plum Flower Dance, which is followed by the forthcoming book The Government of Nature. In The City of Eternal Spring I am moving away from the subject of child trauma in the healing context of cultural hybridity vi-a-vis my involvement in Chinese culture to where I hope to write more of what it has meant to travel in that culture physically. In 2002, I went to Taiwan on a Fulbright and have been traveling back and forth since that time. I have lived in Taiwan for extended periods of time on one sabbatical and two summers. These poems that I have submitted were first published in Asian American Review’s Spring 2012 issue where Maxine Hong Kingston and I were the two main features, with lengthy interviews with each of us.
Crushing Peanuts in a Hakka Village
In the afternoon the farmers sleep, the sun
too much in love with its own fire to work,
folks hiding in the house with shades drawn,
visitors creeping in the courtyards built to praise
sunrise, begging prayers at sunset, their shoes
all around us, the blue and white tiles colors
the color blind can remember, the way foam
breaks over waves we are told are blue.
Peanuts are everywhere, spread without touching
so they can dry and not connect in the gossip
that weighs peanuts down to the dull way of drying,
instead of this burning that feels like care, feels like
the prick and tickle when the skin is turning dark
on women in Taipei parks on Sunday who forget
their parasols and wince in the shade, their fear
what beauty fears in the sound of crushed peanuts.
Each nut two teardrops connected in the way
a farmer’s thumb and finger press the newborn crop,
make them glad to be anchored in the earth until
the day comes to take everyone home to be eaten,
to be crushed in mealy old mouths and mealy mouths
of children, to be made the wish of superstitions
like the hoodoo of Africa, or the wish of markets
here in the low belly of a dragon song in Chinese.
I step on them with feet rude with wonder,
and when one snaps, the hush from windows takes
me to black hands spreading crushed peanuts,
rootworkers casting spells, so I beg forgiveness.
The working of this juju has no medicine I know.
The Three Black Goats of Mei Nong
At breakfast the monkeys in the trees behind us
cluster over fruit, families of them rustling
the thick leaves over their hair. We can only see
what hides them, watch them move when the leaves
shudder in a snake pattern rising up the mountain,
the noise the threat of monkeys who will stand up
to humans and speak their rights with hands
that can shoot rocks into our guts like balls
of cannons, so we eat without words on the bench
made of old things of wood, the poor woman
picking up thrown away things on the edge of trees
that know what was here long ago and is gone.
It is the way of aborigines, the people standing
with their boats and spears when strangers come
from Mainland, the aborigine way of being unseen
while seeing all the searching eyes of strangers,
until they are beaten back into mountains and
mountain becomes their name, the name of ghosts–
our hearts grow sick of absence one day, we give
love in the way love looks back at loss and cries.
We clean our bowls, put our chopsticks back
where boiling water will make them virgins again,
the three black goats who butt my door
at night now plop down in their own poop,
making the sly smile of chewing cud.
On Walking to the Hundred Year Old Tree
~ for Penning
The book of one hundred characters guides me,
a children’s rosetta stone, the paces in the street
I count to remember when to turn, across
from the restaurant where everyone goes, the ladies
looking out to call me only with their eyes.
It is a tree of hundreds as hundreds and thousands
are everything, heaven and what is not heaven,
the mind above the great mind of the Yijing,
all the immortals flying, a celestial address book
in every way a hundred or a thousand can be.
I see the leaves of it now, around the corner,
they are all there is, the voices silent, the chatter
of motorcycles nothing, the drum conundrum
of heat now the still hand on the drum’s skin,
the great wish of spirit that made trees becomes
a poem as full as hundreds and thousands can be–
the sum of the still wish of loneliness.