An interview with Wang Ping, a poet and activist working to build a sense of kinship between the peoples of the Yangtze and Mississippi River valleys.
Wang Ping is the founder and director of the Kinship of Rivers project, which builds a sense of kinship among the people who live along the Mississippi and Yangtze Rivers through the
exchange of gifts of art, poetry, stories, music, dance, and food. Her publications include short story collections, novels, and the poetry collections Of Flesh and Spirit and The Magic Whip, as well as Flash Cards: Poems by Yu Jian, co-translated with Ron Padgett. Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China won the Eugene Kayden Award for the Best Book in Humanities.
Wang Ping has had many multimedia exhibitions and collaborated with the British filmmaker Isaac Julien on Ten Thousand Waves, a film installation about illegal Chinese immigration in London. She is the recipient of the 2014 Immigrant of Distinction Award for her work in the arts. Her most recent collection of poetry is Ten Thousand Waves, published by Wings Press.
Wang Ping will be participating in two panels at Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington DC: The Environmental Crisis: Poetry & Activism (Thursday, March 27) and Opening Borders: Translating Poetry Across "Enemy Lines"(Friday, March 28). On Saturday, March 29, she will be reading from her collection of poetry. This conversation focuses on her life as a poet and an activist.
Susan Scheid: I would like to start by reading something from your book Of Flesh and Spirit.
Since my birth, silence has been my single weapon. Now it no longer suffices The need to speak leaves me restless like a hunger. My words may not say what I mean, but they're my only means.
I feel this really speaks to all the work you do in the world. What do you think about that?
Wang Ping: I think it was true in the beginning and is still true now. And it is true for all the true poets who really struggle to find, to express their soul and spirits, and to speak through other people and speak for the other people who don't have a voice yet. And also it reflects the general nature of language, of poetry and of our civilization.
Because language can never really truly express. That is the true nature of language - it can only gesture using metaphor, symbols, and that is where poetry comes in. I think poetry is the most effective tool to express our human nature and humanity in this world. If you look at all the conquerors, the very first thing they want to eliminate through cultural genocide is the native language. That is the deepest that they can dig to uproot civilization and conduct cultural genocide. If you look at Native Americans there used to be hundreds of languages. Now there are only three remaining. That is why Natalie Diaz's work is so important and those who are making great efforts in teaching Ojibwa language.
SS: You have been described as a poet activist. How would you describe yourself?
WP: Well, I would definitely describe myself as a big mouth. A big mouth who doesn't know my place as a woman and a minority in this culture. I always speak from my heart and my belief. So the moment I open my mouth, I become a political target or a political activist attracting the attack, the dislikes, and the hatred that I can feel just ripping through the air. But at the same time I also attract so much love and support from like-minded people. That is part of what poetry is for. You stir the most visceral reactions from people.
SS: And some might say that is the point of poetry - to stir those visceral reactions and bring them up to the surface.
WP: Yes. To awaken, to speak, and to heal. The goal is not to hurt but to heal. To make a better world. No matter how difficult it is, we do not really have a choice. The world is really going awry.
SS: Speaking of making a better world, can you tell me about your Kinship of Rivers project?
WP: I started this project based on my many years of research and writing on immigration, migration, and environmental issues. I realized that all my teaching and writing and research had taken place along the Mississippi River and along the Yangtze River. I teach on the banks of the Mississippi River, and I was born and grew up on the banks of the Yangtze River. I thought, "Why don't I connect them together like sisters?" I believe that all the water moves in one direction and that the ocean and all the rivers are all connected just like us. The world is so small, right? Confucius said 3,000 years ago that the world is a commonwealth and the four oceans and the four seas are just one body of water. The world is one. We should all live in this world like a commonwealth. I really believe that.
I thought, "I want to connect the rivers using the Mississippi and Yangtze rivers as symbol and as a physical body that will magnify to all the rivers and all the water on this planet." I did not want to confine myself into one thing like poetry, but to stories, to art, music, dance, food. Food is like water. It equalizes everything, everybody. Everyone has to eat.
I also believed that alone, as a poet, how much power, how much of a message could I send out if I did it alone? Through my many years of teaching, I have come to the conclusion that everyone, as long as he or she can talk, can be a poet deep down in their heart. And everyone, as long as they have hands, can be an artist because that is the very nature of being human - the creation and the expression of our aspirations, seeking meaning for being alive. And anyone who can walk can dance, right? So I had that idea of turning into an artist anyone who could sing, or write poetry or dance but under the water symbol.
I travel to Tibet almost every year because I find that it is like my home. For me it is a spiritual and cultural pilgrimage. I really feel the most comfortable and happy when I am walking the earth and in the water. So when I went to Tibet in 2009 and saw all the flags on top of the mountains, across the water and the valleys and bridges, I thought, "This is the perfect means to unite everyone and transform people and bring out joy and harmony and to bring out the good spirits and the good will of people." Tibetan prayer flags use Buddhist sutras printed on fabric, and then they hang them on the high mountains and over the water so that when the water and the wind blows them the prayers are released.
So I thought that I would like to travel along the rivers, get people together or talk to people to get their stories, and have them print and make art on the fabric. Then I would put them all together and make people's prayer flags for the water and the land.
Now we have almost 3,000 flags all made by the people along the two rivers. They are just so beautiful and joyful. The first few banners were hard. There was a lot of preparation and a lot of failure, a lot of persistence. Once the first banner was made, it just became infectious. People got it right away. The youngest participant was six months old, doing it with his mother's hands. The oldest was 93 years old. We have had superintendents of the park service in Wisconsin and Minnesota, soldiers, policemen, famous artists and poets like Sherwin Bitsui and Anne Waldman. All these great artists and musicians and lay people. People who love water, who genuinely love joy and peace and harmony, they have all contributed their energy and their creation into this project.
SS: Did you travel to China with your flags?
WP: Yes. We brought 2,000 flags to travel the entire Yangtze River. We sang along and danced along and made flags along the way. We made it to the source of the Yangtze River, which is 5,000 meters high. We went to the base camp of Mt Everest, which is 5,400 meters high. Next year, which is 2015, we are going to go to Mt Everest again with all the flags but from the Nepal side because from the Chinese side it is too dangerous and difficult to hang the flags. The Chinese would not allow us to even open the flags. We were stopped constantly. They were suspicious and nervous about everything. But the Chinese people, whenever there was a short period on the train or in a public space, whenever we had a chance to open the flags and asked them to do flags, they loved it. They said, "Oh my god this is like exactly what we Chinese people want to do but cannot do. Thank you so much."
The Kinship of Rivers project's Yangtze River flags. Kinship of Rivers builds a sense of community among the people who live along the Mississippi and Yangtze Rivers through the exchange of gifts of art, poetry, stories, music, dance, and food. (Photo: Fritz Vandover / Picasa)
SS: Was that the kind of experience you were hoping to have when you went to China with your flags?
WP: Yes. People would lean out, they would come from other compartments, and they would start making flags. Our musicians would start singing, and they would attract kids and other people and other musicians. They would converge on our train, and we would start singing and, through the singing, all the goodwill would just spill out of people's hearts. You can't stop that.
It was a really difficult trip, especially in Tibet. In Tibet we were under strict control. We were being watched everywhere. Our Tibetan guide had to turn off his phone to take us where we needed to go. Because I didn't have the permits to enter Mt Everest, he helped me slip through the three checkpoints guarded by machine guns. I am still wondering how I got through. I basically walked through the checkpoint under their noses. Dozens of soldiers were guarding and I just walked under their noses. It was as if angels blinded their eyes. They did not see me, they did not stop me, I just walked through.
SS: You said in another interview that you felt like there are spirits along the river and magic there. Maybe that protected you.
WP: I really felt protected by poetry and by those flags. We encountered so many impossible things like floods, fire, collapse and landslides, checkpoints, and permits, but we just went through everything. The final thing was when we went to Mt Everest. We went there during the rainy season, and usually the sun never comes up. Our guide kept saying, "Don't be disappointed. It is the wrong season." As soon as we arrived the sun came out. Our guide said, "Who are you Ping?" It stayed clear for the whole afternoon and the whole night until the next day. So we have these amazing photos of the peak. Usually it is covered in clouds and you cannot see anything.
The most magical thing is that when I started this project my first thought was that I wanted the Dalai Lama to bless this project. I tried to talk to friends and acquaintances that have connections with him. They all said, "Don't be crazy. It's impossible." But recently, the Dalai Lama came to Macalester to do a speech. He had heard of my Kinship of Rivers project, and he allowed a 15-minute private meeting with me and all the flags. I went to his hotel. As soon as he saw me, he grabbed my hand into his hand, held it to his chest, and we talked like that for 15 minutes. Every time I feel despair I will just think of the Dalai Lama and his warm hand and his heart, and I will think, "OK I can live on." To give me this special meeting is just unbelievable. All the flags have been personally blessed by the Dalai Lama. So I hope that you can feel the magic in those flags.
SS: In the description of your panel for the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington this year it states the need for a paradigm shift in terms of how we view our environment and our world. What does that mean to you?
WP: Oh. It is the ultimate question. I think that the first thing for me is to raise people's awareness through poetry, through art. Poetry and art are not just about beauty. The true poetry for me goes deep to the roots, to the subliminal, to our unconscious, and to our subconscious. This change has to come from our very being. Because we as human species have been programmed and brainwashed about the way things are supposed to be. It absolutely is not sustainable.
That is why I created the Kinship of Rivers project. To raise people's awareness not just through severity or fear, but to get people to see how beautiful our world is, how beautiful our planet is. And through beauty, imagination, joy, and creativity to become aware, to know who we are and to know how we depend and interdepend on the world, on the planet, on the land and the rivers. If we do not start from there, it is easy to get back to the "supposed to be," the comfortable way of living and doing things. I think poetry is a really effective tool to get people there. That is why I said that poetry's first job is to awaken, to raise awareness. Also, as Confucius said, when his son was whining about studying and writing poetry, "Son, without poetry how do we live?"
SS: What is it that keeps you going every day? Where do you find the joy and the hope to continue your work?
WP: That is a good question. Every day, I think that I just can't go on any more. It is too much. It is too heavy. I need a rest. But then as I said before, I have the Dalai Lama and his warm hands and his heartbeat that keeps me going. Also, my kindred spirits, my fellow poets, Split This Rock. The students. Also every time I go outside and I see the rivers and the mountains and the prairies, I tell myself that I have to go on as long as I can. There is just so much joy, so much hope and I can't just give up and let other people destroy it. I have to go on until my last breath. And I know that I am not alone. As long as we are united and we can find the connection with other poets and the people and the beautiful earth, that is what sustains me. It is not easy. It is a daily, sometimes an hourly, struggle, but the work I leave behind and the spirit I leave behind will probably mean something - I hope.
Susan Scheid is the author of After Enchantment (2012). Her poetry has appeared in Tidal Basin Review, Requiem, Rose Red Review, The Unrorean, Bark! and the chapbook, Poetic Art. She sits on the board of directors of Split This Rock and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. You can find out more about the Split This Rock Festival, which will take place March 27-30 in Washington, DC, on its website.