I’d like to ask you a question about your poem, “The You of China.” The poem moved me; it made me feel nostalgic for my life back in Sichuan. I thought you brought to life the sights, the sounds, the smells, the emotions of rural China, and it made me curious about how you write. Using the backdrop of this poem as an example, what is your writing process?
—Rob Schmitz, Shanghai, China
I have to start with a caveat, Rob. I’m not really a poet. While I’m very drawn to the evocative power of poetry and its compression and unique patterns of sound, to be a poet is to grasp great subjects with the skilled brush of a miniaturist. It requires an intense perfection and ability to work finely in the smallest of spaces. A single errant syllable or line break can mar the structure and entire effect. To me, being a poet is something like being a fighter pilot. The high stakes and intensity of the moment have to be present yet subject to absolute precision and awareness. Creativity is crucial but both the poet and the pilot have to recognize the gravitational strictures on what they’re doing. Not to make too much of this, but basically writing poetry intimidates me.
In spite of that, I have written some poems, among them “The You of China” and the other poems of The China Album. They are the exception in my writing and so are not very reflective of my writing process as a whole. I have occasionally been seized up with the idea of a poem. I’ll suddenly have this concept, often an image, that seems too specific to spark a story but is still insistent. Usually I find it a bit disheartening. I love poems, but I rarely feel at ease when I’m trying to write them. They trigger the perfectionist in me that is never entirely happy with the result, and I suspect that means I’m simply not good enough at that kind of writing to do it with any consistency.
Aside from the China poems, I have a handful of poems that may just sneak under the bar of poetry. But the poems I wrote as a result of my trip to Sichuan in 1998 are unique. There were several factors at play. One was that central China was such an extraordinary experience for me. After the trip, I was talking about it to a friend from India and told her that everything I’d encountered felt absolutely new, and she stopped me, waving her hands in the air, and said no, no, this is the aberration. America. What’s normal for most of the world is what you encountered in China.
I realized immediately she was right. Yet that didn’t change my sense of having encountered something that, for me, was deeply novel. I can hardly overstate the emotional power of those two weeks. There was a sensory bombardment of every kind. For a writer who walks in the door as an observer and is compelled to describe things, it was actually sensory overload. I had a notebook, and I was constantly jotting down images and impressions, trying to capture them before they disappeared, even scribbling things down when I awoke from an often unsettled sleep. In that sense, there was a similarity in the early writing process for these poems, and my usual writing process with fiction. When ideas arrive, I always write them down before they evaporate and usually that generates more ideas until there’s sometimes almost a fever of them.
It was also true that, with these poems, I had a very strong sense that, in spite of what I’d observed, I knew so very little about China and the Chinese people and the real conditions of their lives that there were no actual stories for me to tell. I simply couldn’t imagine myself having the authority to write fiction with a Chinese setting. Yet I was still beset by all those remarkable images, some of them stunning, some of them disturbing, some bewildering. I felt they gave me a glimmer of the deeper life I was merely brushing against and guessing about, and I really wanted to do something with them. There was also the fact that poetry is so much a part of Chinese culture that it was almost in the air.
After I received your question, I happened across the small notebook I used in China. It surprised me. I hadn’t remembered that I’d actually begun drafting poems while I was still in Sichuan, but I had. Many of the poems were already sketched out with lots of cross-throughs and substitutions of words and phrasing, which suggests to me that the images often arrived with a glimpse of scene but one that was very truncated, cut off by the fact I had no idea of a back story or where a story could go with any chance of authenticity. It felt as if the images had a certain intensity in the moment, and that was perhaps pumped up because there was no chance for them to expand. I’m not really sure. But the fact is I found the interior of China and its people remarkable and something I felt I absolutely needed to translate into words. Given both the brevity and vividness of my visit there, poetry seemed the only possible vehicle.
When I got back from China, I worked with the images and beginnings of poems I had for about two months and wrote twenty poems in all. I later linked a number of them together as “The You of China.” The twenty included one poem I had actually started before I’d ever set foot in China, and it’s one I’ve never felt was really finished though I’ve gone back to it on numerous occasions, trying to make the concept and words match. But many of the poems are not ones I did a lot of tinkering with, instead letting the images and the moments or feelings they represent work at the simplest level I could. As a series, I feel good about them because they closely match my experience of being in China, which felt so revelatory. And it moves me that you’re moved by them. It makes me feel that perhaps something in the language caught what had such resonance for us both.