We’re excited to present, below, two new poems by Beijing poet Anthony Tao. His poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Cha, Blue Fifth, Eunoia Review, and more. An interview follows the work.
Amazing the Ways We Hurt
I’m amazed the ways we hurt,
blade across the wrist, rocks at the noggin,
a message ignored, a well-placed silence.
Sometimes it is intended, and sometimes
how can we not say what we don’t mean?
We hurt each other so that we have company.
We hurt with grace, with ferocity, and something like
– oh what the hell,
which is like fear, fear of abandonment, of numbness;
we dig into ourselves until we are filled with hurt
and then grasp at anchors in the sky.
We gave ourselves no choice but to turn toward the sun
where the rays, strong as threat, seared our nerves.
And even then we looked, because it was the sun.
After the Dust
We told jokes when the dust cloud swept in,
nodding at the punch lines. Little was left
to do: the silverware was cleaned, the furniture arranged,
our appetites excised from our bodies.
Ladies continued to dance in the slackened lampglow,
their silhouettes plaiting a scene from a lost libretto,
and the older amongst us, who had stories,
told them like parables.
The next morning, after a night of wind,
the lid was lifted off Beijing.
Emerging unwrapped we noticed the blue
as if the gods of heaven and earth exchanged places.
We looked at our feet and wished upon them.
We walked forward with our reward, a bundle
of glory, for our faith. Our part is done.
Shall our children be as bountiful?
MB: There's an evenness to the weight of a Tao stanza and even a Tao line, but content wise your published work stretches from Chinese mythology to quiet yearning to tongue-firmly-in-cheek. I don't really catch you doing the same thing twice, or even writing in the same voice twice. Comments? Do you think you have a clear style and can you say what it is or is not?
AT: Thank you, that's nice to hear. I don't always succeed, but I aim to say something with my writing, or make an impression, upset a cliche, or challenge a convention. The slight mischievousness or slyness that occasionally creeps in comes from... I don't know, my personality? And there are two ways to interpret not doing the same thing twice: one doesn't want to bore readers / listeners, or one hasn't found the voice that most resonates. You decide.
MB: As a form, poetry is clearly inferior to fiction, and your fiction is great. Can we convert you to the fiction side of the force full-time?
AT: I put aside poetry every 18 months or so, inevitably turning to fiction. But I get pulled back because a flash of inspiration, maybe just a line or image, will strike me at odd times -- often when I'm standing on an escalator -- and it'll bother me until I craft a poem around it.
Let me just say this as a defense of poetry: it's open to everyone, from the perfectly boring to the bipolar, and encourages you to bring all your scars or none at all. You can share your personal life a la Sharon Olds or create some mellow daydreaming alter ego like Billy Collins, it's all okay. Forget how a critic or teacher would define poetry, just understand that it's a personal art form, it's great, it actually is ubiquitous, and it's completely accepting.
MB: What do you think of punctuation?
AT: I'm a fan, and I think one's decision to not punctuate or deliberately mis-punctuate poetry should be a calculated decision that serves a purpose.
MB: Have you heard about Ben Lerner's new book about the disdain for poetry being in some way intrinsic to the medium, and maybe about our high expectations for the work that poetry should be doing? Thoughts?
AT: I admit a fascination with poets writing about poetry. I also recommend Tony Hoagland's essay in Harper's, "Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America".
I generally agree with Lerner's main point that poetry, for the very fact of its existence as poetry, will fail our expectations. But if we go too deep into this subject -- what is poetry, who is poetry for, doesn't hip-hop's popularity testify to the power of poetry, who gets to determine what is poetic, etc. -- we'll end up asking, "What's the upshot of all these questions?" and the answer will be a shrug. Just let it be, and if you like something, seek out more of it.
MB: Is Writers in Beijing a broadside? Why you h8n?
AT: It's a poem that, far from firing from all sides at a target, speaks from all sides, with multiple intents, voices, and tones to get at what it means to write in a minority language in China. It also tries to examine what it means to be an expat -- don't many of us justify renewing our visas specifically because this is a place worth writing home about?
MB: How's writing in Beijing right now?
AT: There's never been a bad time to write in Beijing.
MB: To what extent is English-language writing in Beijing (or China at large) a cohesive thing/scene/animal/vibe/style in your mind? Do you see expatriate writing as a thing? Is it sick and perverted right now or a healthy, living corpus?
AT: I'd be careful not to over-classify ... "expat writing" is fin de siècle Paris Bohemia or Hemingway in Spain, and I don't think anyone thinks the community here is quite that. Yet we are an interesting bunch, I must say. Not sure how cohesive exactly, but it's absolutely incredible that there are so many regular poetry (and related arts) events in Beijing. For that we have to thank the likes of Matthew Byrne, Shannon Lethbridge, Liz Richards, organizers of Scratching Beijing, and more. They do such a service to the community here, and they're bolstered by websites such as Loreli and any number of WeChat groups.
MB: Do your approaches to fiction and poetry differ or are they fundamentally similar? What's picking up the thread like on a poem verses a short story?
AT: I think it's harder putting aside a short story and coming back to it. With both, there's constant rewriting. I consider a piece done when it's been accepted for publication, but until then it'll be in flux.
MB: What's your approach to rewriting a poem? Is that different than the way you approach cleaning up prose?
AT: I do it unflinchingly and often. Unfinished prose is harder to return to because it takes longer to recapture the narrative voice.
MB: Reading anything good?
AT: I'm on a major Stephen Dunn binge -- just finished The Insistence of Beauty, which was so good, and halfway through one of his earlier collections, Local Visitations (start with his latest stuff, or New and Selected Poems). For prose, I can't recommend Jim Shepard highly enough -- start with Love and Hydrogen.Steven Millhauser is another of my favorites -- try the short story collection Dangerous Laughter and the novel Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright (yes, that is the full title, and it'll absolutely make sense why it's that long when you read it). And if you haven't read TC Boyle, do it now.
MB: Actually while we're on reading, you read your work (out loud) a lot around Beijing. How's that? Is reading to an audience its own reward, or part of the process? (Allows you to look at your work differently, etc.)
AT: I think anyone serious about writing poetry should be equally serious about reading it out loud, since poetry is traditionally an oral art form. Reading is a skill that can be honed, and very helpful for editing and rewriting.
MB: I know this is semi-ancient but huge fan of Mayonnaise right here. How did the Mayo/Red Bean thing come about?
AT: Alec Ash and I joint-hosted a flash fiction reading event, so we both wrote flash fiction and posted it on each other's sites (Beijing Cream and the Anthill).
MB: One interpretation of those stories, taken together, is an assertion of equivalence. I think if we make that explicit, we actually wind up with a pretty controversial statement: the Chinese experience of encountering foreign-ness is in some way identical to the experience of a foreigner encountering Chinese-ness, so much so that describing it can read as a kind of joke. What are your thoughts on writing across nationalities? (White people in China writing Chinese characters, vice versa (although it would be interesting to talk about the extent to which the opposite is actually a bonafide "thing").)
AT: In an ideal world, the ethnicity of the author would never be questioned, and writers would be judged on the merit of their work -- are the characters believable? do their actions make sense? are their motivations relatable? etc. These are the much more important questions when it comes to fiction, and they deserve serious attention no matter where you're from. I think there's a threshold between good and bad writing: a lot of work needs to be put in to get over that threshold, and then doubly more work to go from good to great.
MB: Shout out to Beijing Cream. What are your hopes/dreams for that?
AT: None at the moment, but it was a big project that gained a fairly significant following, so it's not going anywhere at the moment.
MB: Fiction that imitates reality: overrated or underrated?
AT: Rated just right, wouldn't you agree