Hannah in the Attic: The Sequel

The last time I wrote in this blog, I mentioned that before starting my thesis, I’d be 1) going to Shanghai for the Battle of the Bards competition, 2) figuring out how to print a Hangzhou poetry anthology, 3) celebrating my birthday, and then you know, 4) starting my thesis. Since then, I’ve been to Shanghai and back (twice) having met new artists and friends and literary connections interested in collaborating with Hangzhou’s writers, I’ve already picked up the printed anthologies and put them in my closet away from the cats and their wandering claws, have celebrated not only my birthday but also Thanksgiving AND have put up Christmas decorations, and have, you know, actually started my thesis.

Things move fast in the world of Hannah.

But this past weekend, I let things move slow as I joined other writers in an Air BnB meant just for art retreats to get away from the bustle, learn about some writing tactics, and then of course write.

The last time I went on a retreat, it was this October with some people I’d met through the Shanghai Literary Review. It was relaxing in its own right, but was more of a working retreat in which we disappeared to write for hours on end, and then resurfaced in the evenings over hotpot to dish about how it went. This retreat was very much focused on writing, and everything we did was to inspire more writing and give us new angles and ways to approach our projects.

But of course, like the last time I went on a retreat, I gravitated once more to the attic, where I would fall asleep to the slanted roof. There’s something about being the shuffling ghost overhead. Perhaps not something good, but something nonetheless.

At this retreat, we did games that seemed silly, like making up a song using random words to describe the day, to more intriguing poetic exercises such as writing a madrigal and setting out to write 30 haikus throughout the weekend. We huddled around candles in the evenings, passing around wine bottles and Irish cream whiskey, as ideas ricocheted off the walls and into our heads. We gave each other Tarot card readings (with cards based off of Native American animals) and when we invited to cook to stay for dinner with us, I gave him his reading in Chinese. (Side note: he was the fox, while his wife was the inverted wolf). I met someone who had just finished translating the script for the staged version of “The Three Body Problem” which I’ve been reading (and when she saw the book on the table, she just moaned “I just can’t escape work!”), and I met some other grad students, as well as a meditation instructor who gave us guided meditations every morning.

And yes, we wrote. For long, quiet stretches, curling toward sources of heat like cats in the winter. I came to the retreat with a specific writing problem I wanted to face, and by the end of the first day, found myself feeling more confident about it and where I was headed.

With December well under way and the end of the year approaching, I guess it’s just about time to think about my resolution for this past year. I kept it simple: “Do better,” because there was no denying that I already knew what I needed to improve.

And you know what? With the retreat still humming in my ears and my pen on the move once more, I really think I did better this year. Lumbering in the attic and all.


30 Days of Poetry and Beyond

Well, Hangzhou’s whirlwind month of poetry has come to a close now. ‘Good while it lasted,’ I couldn’t help but think as I planned for our first poetry slam in a couple months at the end of this poetic venture. Our wechat group had been alive and buzzing with new original works for the past month, but I knew it would come to an end sooner or later. Would it continue? That’s the question Katie and I ask ourselves all the time about this little poetry group that could: will it stay alive after we leave Hangzhou? Or, as with many start-ups in China, will it die the moment the founders leave?

That night, it would come alive in person, whether I soliloquized about it or not. I schlepped the our poetry box and duffel bag full of English books onto the subway, (getting more than a few strange looks, but that’s nothing new) and made my way to Underline Cafe.

When I got there, I was met with several pleasant surprises. First, we had a good turnout, who was there ON TIME (for once). Then, I had some friends who had been meaning to show up actually show up to the event, AND share their own works that they’d never shared in public before. THEN there were people I’d never met who’d done the 30-day poetry challenge who were excited that an group like ours even existed in Hangzhou. THEN I was approached by people asking when submissions would kick off again, when we’d meet up again, and that they’d share more original work next time. A friend of mine from the Shanghai Literary Review came all the way to Hangzhou, and actually won second place in the slam, and by the end of the night, we had more members in our group.

It’s hard to say what will happen in the future. I might be participating in a mental health awareness event by reading an original poem. We might be having a “black history month” event in the near future. Our website might get more traffic. A couple of years from now, who knows? It might grow, it might die. But one thing’s for sure: god, will it live.

Slowly, but Surely: the Thesis Saga

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been participating in a 30-day poetry challenge through the poetry group in Hangzhou. And always, in the back of my mind, is the mammoth thesis paper that I will be completing next spring. So far, I’ve done a fair amount of research, and am zeroing in on my direction/outline.

For a marriage of these two ideas, I present a recipe poem I wrote about what it takes to write a thesis. (All in good fun, naturally).

“How to Write a Thesis”

10-20 Academic articles
3 cups overconfidence
1 computer
4 existential crises
1 bottle whiskey
2 eggs

First, take 10 Academic articles and mix in with 2 cups overconfidence. Pour them into your computer and let sit for several months.

Next, remove what should be a bony, flesh-less lump and stir. Do not add anything, but perhaps remove one article.

Wait one hour, and put said article back in.

Insert 1 existential crisis and stir.

Let sit for another month, before picking up the remaining 10 Academic articles. Add another existential crisis into the concoction, but do not add the Academic articles. Just hold them and insist that you will.

Make an omelette out of the two eggs to avoid looking at the rest. Let one more existential crisis fall into your omelette. Convince yourself that it’s “All part of the process.”

One week before the deadline, throw in all remaining Academic articles in no apparent order, mix in your final existential crisis, all while slamming your bottle of whiskey.

Heyyyyy thiss islooking prettygood

Sprinnkle in tha lasy cuppa ovrecofindence

Print tha betch

You did ittttt

A Song of Summer

I decided to bike out along West Lake because I thought there were free tango lessons in one of my favorite bars, Carbon. But once I got there, it was as though being transported into a different Hangzhou. One that better resembled the one from a year ago, during the G20 International Summit.

Though I don’t know the particulars, some kind of Important Person decided to drive around West Lake, which meant that police had to block it off from regular traffic and stay stationed to make sure no one did anything stupid. At least, that’s what the people puzzling the situation on the sidewalk told me, trying in vain to cross the street to see the lake in this rare calm.

And it is rare, to feel such calm in a big city, or to find a pocket of stillness in a life blaring with all kinds of distractions. I often find myself feeling overwhelmed at the end of a day, not because I’d done a lot per se, but because I’d been immersed in a lot of noise: the Internet bogey, the stream of events happening in Hangzhou. It’s like a quote from a book I read recently (The Circle, by Dave Eggers): “You know when you finish a bag of chips and hate yourself? You know you’ve done nothing good for yourself. That’s the same feeling, and you know it is, after some digital binge. You feel wasted and hollow and diminished.” Harsh words, to be true, but true nonetheless.

And perhaps that’s what made it so marvelous, that summer evening, by a still and eerily quiet road along West Lake. I could hear crickets chirping, and see the street lamps reflected in the dark waters while lotus leaves rose in their majesty to the full, yellowed moon. I could walk along blackened waters with waves ruffling through them, and admire without commentary, which is the most precious thing of all.

I ended up staying in Carbon, although the street blockages meant that no other customers were there, and that I was also hilariously wrong about the tango lessons. I stayed there alone because I could, and I sipped a cool mojito on their rooftop terrace, as if the lake was my own.

And it felt like the perfect song to end a summer, and to transition into a fire-tipped fall.

Circular Motion: Finale

I began this trip in Shanghai for the Shanghai Literary Review launch party, and went on the road with good feelings and a bouquet of flowers. Since then, I’ve left the bouquet of flowers at the base of Mount Everest, and am returning back the way I came to Hangzhou.

Things have gone full circle it would seem, in a trip full of circuits, koras, and circular motion. The spinning prayer wheels, koras around holy places, the mandala that depict the path to immortality, and yes even the Ferris wheel. Here, a circle is a sacred path, and one I was happy to take.

Which is why on my last full day in Lhasa, I decided to make as many circles as possible, starting with the kora around Potala Palace.
WeChat Image_20170724194523
The palace is a very central part of Lhasa, and is completely circumferenced by prayer wheels, save for its front side which faces a public square. I joined in the foot traffic, and spun every prayer wheel as we went around. Some were as large as a room, some big enough to have a railing along the bottom, and most small enough for a deft push to keep it spinning.

Though it sounds easy enough, after a while my arm hurt, and my fingernails caught on the polished wood handle on the bottom, and I felt as though I was actively making callouses. But by the end, I also felt as though I was marching to a new beat than before.
I did this circuit only once, deciding to save a full three circuit trip for Jokhang Temple that evening, when the most people would be walking, and when the believers would prostrate their ways around the temple, bowing all the way to the ground every few steps.

I am a hopeless romantic (in the transcendental sense) and found myself spinning an object in my hand as I walked that holy kora. Those prostrating bent over onto wooden slats on their hands, and it was like wave after wave upon the sand.

In this atmosphere, I decided to take out the white prayer scarf I was greeted with on my first day of the trip. It was a welcoming gesture, and though the scarf was pretty, I also felt it belonged in Tibet. After three circles around the temple, I tied my prayer scarf next to others, and I sat on the warm concrete, watching birds swirl above and listening to passersby muttering their mantras.

Even as I write this, I’m already back in Hangzhou, jumping back into a very different lifestyle — one that probably doesn’t have as much room for romantic wanderings. My phone has gone from the sparse 3G available on the Tibetan Plateau, to a full, nonstop 4G and internet connection. In a series of public transit card switches, I’m back in the groove of Hangzhou, and am unpacking all that I’ve brought back from the road.

But I like to think that the revolutions that were set in motion, the centrifugal force of all these circles will carry their ways into my life and beyond. I like to think that I’ll keep spinning and circling long after this trip and that, like the flowers and the scarf, I won’t need to carry so much with me and can leave it fluttering in the wind, kissing the clouds.

My Kora

In Tibetan culture, believers do what is called a kora, or a circuit, around what is considered a holy site. This can be a temple or even a holy mountain.

In my original plan for this trip, I was going to do a half-kora around the Amnye Machen mountain. But, like that moment in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, many of my plans sank into the swamp when some issues came up, like me getting sick TWICE in a week’s time, and a trekking companion not being able to adjust to the high altitude. (And yes, I had a good facepalm moment when I realized I would probably not use the tent I’d carried for over a week…for now.)

But that’s okay, actually. Because if I had to consider anything “sacred” or precious in all of my travels, I would say it has been the hitchhiking and the people I’ve met along the way. It would have to be that mysterious pulse and momentum that moves me along the road and into new and unforeseen places. Yes, trekking is amazing, but there will be other mountains to climb. A whole lifetime’s worth.

When I had first thought of Qinghai back in 2013, I’d thought of hitchhiking around the famous Qinghai Lake, but ran out of time to visit the province. Now, nearly four years later and just about at the end of my big China travels, it seems only fitting to do just this. Especially given that I don’t plan on hitchhiking anywhere outside of China.

True, Qinghai Lake is not really a holy place, and in fact most people choose to bike around it instead, but I know what stays with me and what doesn’t. This is my not-quite-holy Kora, and it’s my way of getting close to Qinghai, to other people, to the best version of myself.


Year of Poetry

As Facebook so often likes to remind me, “on this day X years ago…” I was doing stuff. (And wow, next year, I will have graduated from high school ten years ago! Facebook is going to have a field day). On April 23, it was to remind me that, one year ago, I’d posted about the very first poetry slam my current roommate Katie and I put together.

Not that I needed Facebook to remind me of the milestone.

On our first poetry night, we’d chosen the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth/deathday, and had poetry lovers assemble at Underline Cafe. For the anniversary, we went to a park along West Lake. A small group of about six people (including myself) tried to find a patch of grass on which to recite spring poetry. I carried an unwieldy box of poetry books (in the hopes of dispensing them like manna), and a friend of mine had two bottles of cooking oil in her backpack. (“It is from my friend’s hometown, which has the best cooking oil,” she said, as if this was reason enough.)


In the end, we found a little pavilion. It overlooked both West Lake and the grass we weren’t sitting in. There was a slight mound in the middle, and an inscription on a small plaque outside the pavilion. We settled down on the concrete benches and chatted about spring. Only when a Chinese friend, Helen, arrived later, did we find out what this place actually was.

“Of all places!” she said, shaking her head. “You had the whole park, and you sit in a tomb?!”

Another Chinese friend, Jennifer, got up to check the inscription. “It’s okay!” she said. “He was a poet, so it’s like we’re keeping him company…right?”

We all nodded, mostly because we didn’t want to keep looking for another place.

I read some Wendel Berry poems, a Thai friend named Dew read her favorites from Instagram, and a Jamaican friend Lori read a poem her mother had written that very morning about a flower bouquet.

Around this tomb for the ancient poet, we faded to a hush as the line “life does not understand life” from a Huang Yazhou poem settled in our bones. It seemed too fitting for our day in the park: where a cavalcade of life walked along the lake, where spring erupted in new life, and where we stood around a memorial for the dead.

Life does not understand life, but even in the time that passes along it, people and words find each other as if on a collision course. Friends come and go, and new life emerges in the spaces where others have left. In the life of this year, I have gained a niece, while people around me have lost loved ones. Faces have left Hangzhou, and new faces have arrived in their stead. Life does not understand life, but it keeps going and tumbling along our spinning globe like clouds dancing in the rain.  And I’m glad not to understand life sometimes, because it’s twisted, like our own Earth on its axis.

It’s fitting in a way that our poetry anniversary falls on both Shakespeare’s birthday and deathday. As if both are intrinsically entwined, and that even as Shakespeare celebrated each passing year, he did not know how it would all end, either. Life does not understand life. Death does not understand death.

And that, of all places, is where poetry comes alive.

Until next year~