Wang Ping is an author, poet, and educator who was born in Shanghai, China during the cultural revolution. She is the author of two collections of poetry The Magic Whip and Of Flesh and Spirit. She also authored the cultural study Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China. She is also a photographer, with an exhibit on the impact of the Three Gorges Dam called Behind the Gate. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University, and M.A. in English Literature from Long Island University and a B.A. in English Literature from Beijing University. She spoke with Now host David Byrd ahead of the Split This Rock poetry festival in Washington.
BYRD: You have a unique experience. You were raised on an island off the coast of Shanghai, you got a degree in English and then you came to the United States, and you’re a poet. How did you choose that particular field and what got you into creative writing to begin with?
That’s a very good question (laughs). So, I grew up in ... actually I was born in Shanghai, and my father was a Navy officer and after a few years the Navy base moved to the island near Shanghai and my whole family moved over there. So I grew up, but all my relatives still live in Shanghai so I actually lived between Shanghai and the island.
And when I was in elementary school, all the schools were closed and the books were banned. My college dream actually started at that time and but everything was closed so the only way I could get books or study was through radio. And actually the funny thing is I learned English through listening to Voice of America illegally. And the first story was Tom Sawyer.
BYRD: So that must have been our Special English or Learning English division.
WANG: I don’t know what is that? It was not very easy to get, but I did manage to get some and you had wonderful actors and actresses, reading – you know performing – Tom Sawyer. And I just remember it was such a delight to listen to it and learn English, you know? And uh, so that’s really the only way for me to learn anything and also learn from banned books which I got from the underground book club. And that’s the only way I could actually (be) self-taught, I taught myself. And when the college finally reopened, I was able to get into Beijing University through my English. So I actually studied English and American Literature at Beijing University. It was my choice, but also it was chosen for me, because of the Voice of America and I could listen to English and learn that from the radio.
And then I came to the United States to do my graduate work in British and American Literature. And I came to Long Island University. And then one day I just walked into a classroom and it turned out to be the wrong classroom – it was supposed to be a lit class, but it turned out to be a creating writing class. And I was curious so I just sat; I didn’t leave right away. And I wrote my first story and everyone just loved it. So I said I’ll give it another try before I leave, so I wrote my second story. And the professor wrote ‘you should start writing a novel.’ That was when I felt like I was hit by lightning. I said ‘this is what I‘ve been wanting to do all my life.’
And so, pretty soon the professor introduced me to Allen Ginsburg, who was looking for Chinese people who speak both Chinese and English to translate for his first American-Chinese culture festival. That was, I think 1988 or 89. And so I worked very closely with Allen Ginsberg, and also Gary Snyder and John Ashbury – all these great American poets – and Bob Creeley, and then I also got to work with great Chinese poets, Beidao, Jiang He and Gu Chen, those people. It was just really full exposure to the great poetry from both cultures. And it was through this festival that I started writing my own poetry.
So basically I started writing poetry, stories, and novels all at the same time. So they say there’s never like a real accident. I think it’s just like…. I don’t know, it’s just like one thing after another. You know, by finding Voice of America to learn English. By accident by walking into the wrong classroom, being introduced to work with Allen Ginsberg and you know until I am teaching creative writing, poetry, how to write poetry to college students. And I look back, right, and I look forward I just thought ‘this is what I am meant to do’, you know? Even though the path is never easy, has never been easy, I feel very, very lucky, very fortunate to be able to walk on this path.
BYRD: How do you find inspiration? What subject matter do you choose? Is the purpose of poetry to declare truth to the world?
WANG: I find my inspiration in everything – in life, you know? Nature, the sunlight, the first buds, the birds singing and also with people like my friends, people who don’t like me, people who hate me, and also the news, all the injustice and also the kindness, right? People that come through all the violence and injustice.
I think to be a poet one has to be full of awareness; one has to be very mindful. And I also have to be very fearless because to be mindful is to be able to face truth no matter how terrible it is, right? And also to deal with that, you know, and bring it out at any cost and consequence. And believe me I have run into a lot of big troubles because of this, but I do not have regrets. And I could not choose – I could not have chosen any other path.
But now my real focus is really about the environment and the political implications that’s involved because I have two sons and I want to … I am truly worried about their future. So my poetry … um ... I have been writing more and more about environment issues. And my approach is through politics, through policy but also through nature. It’s just so beautiful, there’s just so much beauty in it – and wonder. And I want to bring it out and let other people see this beauty and interconnectedness, you know? We are nature, you know? We can’t get away from that; we must never forget that. To know who we are, to know our relationship within this environment, within our surrounding is part of being human: it’s part of being with nature and also being with culture. And we can’t really separate them anymore. So, that’s why I started the Kinship of Rivers project in 2011.
BYRD: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that.
WANG: Right and so should I say something about that?
BYRD: Yeah that’s between the Mississippi and the Yangtze Rivers. Tell me a little bit about that. You were getting …the last information I could find you were going to try to go to China and deliver several flags to the Yangtze. Did that happen?
WANG: Yes. It’s not just several; it’s about over 2,000 flags made by the people along the Mississippi River. This project is basically to bring the Yangtze River and Mississippi River together through poetry, stories, art, music, dance, and also appreciation of all the beauty of the rivers. The rivers’ beauty and their ecosystem.
So, I have been travelling along the Mississippi River in all manners like hiking, driving, paddling, rowing, skiing, skating, and paddling of course. And I paddled the entire St. Cloud River and the entire Minnesota River and many, many, many, miles along the Mississippi River. And I’ve met so many wonderful people along the journey. And we made … I’ve met thousands of people and they made such beautiful, beautiful prayer flags for the rivers. With their poetry, their wishes, their art, their imagination and 2013 last year I brought a group of people from the Mississippi River and we brought all the flags to Yangtze River. We traveled from the mouth of the Yangtze River – Shanghai – all the way to Tibet to the source of the Yangtze River.
And along the way we brought, we exchanged with Chinese people, um you know we sang Mississippi Blues, and folk songs, and made new flags, and we recited poetry, we danced, and the Chinese people really loved it. They just sent so many wishes to American people, you know, to the Mississippi River, and they said ‘this is exactly what we Chinese people want to do but can’t do. Thank you so much.’
And so we brought all the flags and installed them in Tibet, you know the Roof of the World, and the prayer flag concept was borrowed actually from Tibetan prayer flags. And Tibetans believe that all the water and mountains are sacred, so at the strategic places near water, over water, across water, across mountains, on the mountains they will hang those prayer flags. And so every time the wind flutters the flags, a sutra or mantra and good wishes and blessing is released.
So we hang those flags in Tibet and all the good energy and best wishes from the Mississippi River have been released from Tibet and also we reached all the way to Mt. Everest base camp, 5,400 meters high – it’s really thin air.
But it was very difficult to get there and the authorities didn’t allow me to enter, so I had to sneak through three checkpoints under the gun and I still wonder and marveled at how I got through. There was no way under any normal circumstances that I could get through because there are so many soldiers watching like hawks with their guns, you know? And I just walked under their nose. And I was the only person walking and nobody stopped me.
But the last one some soldier did stop me, but I chatted with him and it turned out we became friends – in the end we became friends and he told me some really funny stories.
So I really believe that this is blessed, this project is blessed by the Rivers, by the land, and by the people. And because no matter – you know this project is very costly, it involves a lot of travel, a lot of like buying materials, because every flag, you know, I had to buy the fabric, and cut it and iron it and then travel to places and to give workshops, and have people make the flags. And then I have to bring it home, and iron it again, scan it, upload it to the website and then I sew them all together into banners, right? So it’s a lot of process and I spend many, many, many hours – not just alone but with other volunteers and paid artists. And I try to pay them as much as I can. And I did get a few public grants and I try to pay the interns and other artists as much as I could.
But when I started this project, my first wish was ‘I would like this project to be blessed by the Dalai Lama.’ It’s just a thought passing me and a dream. And I thought ‘how could it be fulfilled?’ Right? This dream is so difficult. But, last week, last Monday (March 17, 2014) my dream came true. Dalai Lama came to Macalister and the next day after his public speaking – after his speech at Macalister – he and I met privately with my sons and he blessed all the flags. I brought all the flags to him and he blessed. He just took my hands into his palms and this moment was unbelievable.
BYRD: That is amazing; that must have been quite moving.
WANG: So, (laughs) Oh my God, yeah. Every time I talk about it, every time I’ve told people about it, we just start crying, you know? Yeah. He heard about this project and he met me privately to bless this project and to bless all the flags. So now they are truly blessed (laughs).
BYRD: Well that’s extraordinary. You know this year’s Split This Rock theme talks about poems of provocation and witness: how is poetry the best art form to communicate that kind of message, that kind of provocation or witness, the truth telling we talked about earlier?
WANG: Yeah. To write poetry you have to be, as I said, aware of who you are and also how you are situated: what’s your relationship with other people and the world, right, before you can actually start writing poetry. Moving words is a serious thing; it’s not just scratching the surface. It has to go in and come out and has to move mountains and river, right? And so in order to write this kind of poetry with weight, heavyweight poetry, you have to go to the heart of matters, where the truth is. You cannot pretend; you cannot mask things; you cannot just say ‘oh everything is okay.’ You have to be fearless; you have to be fierce. And also the most difficult thing is to be honest really. And the most difficult thing is to be honest with yourself. So that’s what I have been trying to do: to be honest with myself, to be honest with the world. And then I believe the words that come out of my mouth and hands will caryy that weight, will carry that truth, you know?
BYRD: Professor Wang, thank you very much.
For more on Wang Ping, please visit her website, http://www.wangping.com/
You can also find more about the Kinship of Rivers here: http://www.kinshipofrivers.org/