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.
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.
Some of you following this blog may have been wondering about my brief hiatus. Well, those who have followed me longer know that sometimes I just kind of disappear like this, but this time, it’s not because of faulty internet connections, or from being extremely productive (if it ever is).
This time, it’s because I’m participating in a 30-day poetry challenge!
As I’ve mentioned before, we in Hangzhou have started our own poetry society, (check out our website here) and over the past year, it’s grown by leaps and bounds. From more active members, to a greater desire to write poetry, we’ve been able to build a creative community to enjoy.
For summer fun (and to beef up content cough cough) one of our newest members suggested we do a 30-day challenge.
Well, we’re about halfway through already, and I can tell you that it’s harder than I thought. In the beginning, ideas were exploding all over the place and it would take me about 10 minutes to write a draft of something. Cut to several weeks later, and I’m staring at my notebook, wondering if I could get away with writing another nonsensical haiku to meet the deadline. True, we have no way of making sure that people aren’t just recycling already-written work, but there’s no point of doing the challenge if you’re just going to cheat.
So anyway, this has been occupying my brainspace for a while (along with reading articles/books for my thesis, translating a knock-off Transformers script for work, and watching an ungodly amount of Game of Thrones). I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote about one of the magical forces that’s keeping me going: coffee.
Sweet poison of mine
who breathes life with every kiss
and death once away
strangle my insides
set fire to my mind and fly
phoenix-winged as dawn —
strike fast the heavens
curl up like the smoke-tails
that rise from my tongue,
your inferno and rebirth —
my teeth, but your bite.
All across the United States, people looked through comically-shaped paper glasses to the skies, where the heavens were on display. My Facebook feed exploded with friends who had traveled all the way to Portland, Oregon to join the eclipse-watching party, as well as those who stayed closer to home and saw what they could. (And also pictures of overcast skies and comments like “So glad I could see the eclipse.”)
Here in Hangzhou, the skies have been a brilliant blue, with fluffy white clouds rarely seen this side of the Pearl Delta. Rainstorms have come and go, and in the evenings after the sun finally goes down (along with the temperature), the streets take on an orange-ish glow from the street lamps. There’s not much sky to be seen from the ground view, and much of the heavens get overtaken by the lights and buildings surrounding me like cornrows. Now that it’s extra hot outside, I stay in more.
Yet, I never fail to look up anyway.
Most of the time, I can only see a handful of stars, if even that. Sometimes I see silvered clouds and the moon dancing along them like a gypsy. On the rare occasion I see a full constellation, I usually message a friend and tell them to look outside before it goes away.
To some, this probably sounds sad. That’s just the way it is in urban China, and it makes us city-dwellers appreciate the skies all the more, and all-out rejoice when there are blue skies. And whenever I go back to the US, I’m always floored by the brilliant skies and colors that abound.
So now in the hazy summer days of Hangzhou, I instead look up from the reading nook in my bedroom. From this vantage point, I’m looking up through the Tibetan prayer flags I’ve put in the window, and into the sky beyond. Some nights, I see nothing but the faint press of stars behind haze. Others, a silent lightning storm stuck in the clouds, its white cracks splitting the sky in half.
Most of the time, I see a moment that hasn’t gotten devoured by other lights and other deadlines, and that in itself is worth looking up into.
Unlike in Tibet, you notice it almost right away: the thick squeeze of air all around you, the sauna-like soup of atmosphere condensing into your lungs. You exert yourself but a little bit, and you’re drenched in sweat, panting from the exertion. But this time, it’s not because of high altitude, it’s because of heat.
I’ve already been back in Hangzhou for over a week, and though it’s a wildly different place from Lhasa, I find myself still breathless. The quickened pace along the streets to get groceries and settle back into researching my thesis, the sense of sluggishness when I actually try to accomplish these things. Heat makes me turn into molasses.
Lhasa already feels as far away as the sun. My coffee packets that expanded to their breaking points due to altitude in Tibet have now shrunk back to normal size. My heart beats, sated, at a slower pace.
And yet, I breathe short breaths on opposite sides of China. It’s as though my lungs still remember Tibet, and that the thick heat of Hangzhou functions as a foil for my time on the road.
And late at night, as I lay in bed before my giant fan, I now watch prayer flags flutter in my window, neatly silhouetted by street lights outside. Yes, Lhasa is far away now, but in my room, I’m surrounded by it on all sides, and as I’m breathless once more, it feels closer than ever.
In the grand tradition of freebies, I agreed to volunteer for Hangzhou’s International Qipao Exhibition in exchange for a free custom-made qipao dress. I’ve done a lot of events and things for Hangzhou’s tourism bureau (some of which include: helping to choose the slogan “Living poetry,” being in a couple G20 promotional videos, and even editing the city brochure.) This time, I went in with absolutely no idea of what I was supposed to do.
I mentioned the etiquette class I took in another post (link here), remembering that we learned not only how to walk, but also the proper ways to pose. They were described as “pains.” Headache: hand on head. Toothache: hand near chin. Backache: hand on waist.
‘Ah, so we’re going to be models,’ I thought.
The day began at 6:30 am at the umbrella museum by the Grand Canal, where hordes of high-schoolers were waiting to do our hair and make-up. I asked, and it turns out that they had been studying cosmetology for the past 2 years, and so were brought in to help us get ready. I’m pleased to say that I’ve reached the level of adulthood where I can handle eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick, but was grateful to have someone do it for me nonetheless. When it came to hair however…
“Yeah, it’s naturally curly, so it might be different,” I said.
“This is NATURAL????” the high-schooler said. “Holy shit!”
I watched her freak out as her teacher came over to calmly tell her to just put it up in some way. When it was all done, she nudged me with her cell phone for a couple pictures.
But lest we forget…the qipao!
I was part of the Zhejiang University group, and we had been told that we could not choose our designs (which was fair, considering they were FREE). So we just went to the area to grab the ones with our names on it. I mean literally. My name is on the tag. I am my own brand. My qipao’s design was an artistic rendition of Hangzhou’s Baochu Pagoda (which incidentally is my favorite spot), which had been especially designed for this qipao exhibition. It was smooth. It was silk. It was as fancy as I’d hoped it would be.
But what, pray tell, was I supposed to DO in it?
As it turned out, just be in group shots, do interviews with TV stations, and generally be a pretty extra in a film advertising the qipao exhibition. The director apparently wanted 1,000 foreign women to sign up so he could get a shot of qipao-laden crowds. We didn’t quite have 1,000, but we did get enough to fill both sides of the bridge for a shot welcoming others to the Grand Canal.
I was approached by a reporter near the beginning, and I’ll admit that I was a little dazzled by all of the qipao. She asked me how qipao reflected the cultural landscape of Hangzhou, and I just dumbly pointed to my own qipao and said, “Look! It’s Hangzhou. It’s literally on my dress. My qipao literally IS the landscape of Hangzhou!” I do kind of hope she uses that in her report.
We posed on the bridge, and then went to West Lake for more video shots. By this point, many of the other girls were eying my low-heeled sensible shoes with envy. We had to walk along a crooked bridge (which apparently were made crooked in ancient times to slow down ghosts, since ghosts can’t make sharp turns. The more you know!) I was part of the group that held up the sign, which was all well and fine until we had to walk along the bridge. We fumbled over the inclines, slowed down the line, and were generally cussing along in a very unladylike way.
Film it again? Naw.
In terms of duties, that was about it. We had to pose for group shots for a video I hope I can see at some point. The other girls crowded around me to ask what happened next, assuming that since I was the translator from the lesson, I knew what was going on. (Also, years of being a teacher have taught me how to say absolutely nothing with absolute authority.) In the end, we just took a bunch of pictures by the lake.
And, of course, we remembered to pose with the “pains.”
True, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and freebies usually come with strings attached, but this time, I got a fancy dress out of it. Freebies have never done me wrong! (knock on wood…)
So, I’ve already written about the little poetry group that could in Hangzhou (now complete with a fancy name: The Hangzhou Writer’s Association, with our own website here!). Usually we just do open mics/slams (and occasional nature walks). This month, we did something a little different: we got the chance to welcome local poet Huang Yazhou for a seminar on his poetry.
How do you possibly make such connections, you might ask? Well, one of our friends who regularly attends open mics, Helen, is his good friend/student, and basically told us she could make it happen.
In the weeks leading up to the seminar, we got our hands on copies of his bilingual collections of poetry. Helen asked us to take pictures with them, and so on the night of the seminar, she had a nifty power-point with our pictures as background. She made a lot happen: free copies of his books, gifts, free drinks, and even some press to come and cover the event. (And all I can say is daaaaaamn Helen!)
The evening itself was centered around Huang Yazhou’s poetry. To be honest, though I’ve attended seminars before, I’d never planned one. Helen suggested an open mic reading of his poems followed by some time for Q&A. So shall it be written, so shall it be done.
Turns out that Huang Yazhou is super nice and has a good sense of humor! I asked him about a line in his preface that said, “Poetry is a dance for the young.” His response? A quote from writer Borges “If one is still writing poetry at 70, then he is a true poet,” and his observation: “I’m not quite 70 yet, so I don’t think I can truly call myself a poet. Almost, though!” Other questions included what Huang Yazhou would say to his younger self, to which he said, “I wish I could be like all of you, who come here to enjoy poetry not because it’s your job, but because you really do love it. That, to me, is a wonderful thing.”
I guess I sometimes do take it for granted to be in a collection of people who like poetry not because it’s expected of them, but because they actually factually just like poetry. It’s not as common as you’d think, and when we can get together to welcome a new voice, it’s indeed a wonderful thing.
Of course, the event itself took a lot of planning and effort (and that’s outside of all that Helen did). People approached me to ask when the next one would be, and not gonna lie, a tired “beer me now” voice in my head thought “Not for a long time!” But in the end it’s worth it. We’ll do it again, and hopefully we’ll do other wonderful things in our group. And as long as we keep truckin’ all the way until we’re 70, then maybe we’ll be true poets, too.