Another kickass poem by Kassy Lee, followed by the second half of our conversation about her new chapbook. (PART 1 can be found here).
WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF CONQUERING THE WHOLE WORLD?
The blood’s become sweet as a Saltine
left on the tongue. Blood as lip
balm, blood as sleeping
pill, lozenge. Love is
work. I’m so tired after
work. In the exhausted
sky of Beijing, I choose
to die. What are you
counting on your fingers?
The bad men are in jail.
The good men are in charge.
It’s a time when all is well
and we live in harmony
at a global level. Each
grain of rice is a bead
of sweat from the brow
of a farmer. Each TV
ad helps to fund an African
woman’s need for water.
We go on, we love to go on.
DE: Is it fair to say that you’re rather cynical about China and the USA?
DE: I kind of got that sense from the chapbook.
KL: Cynical? Could you define cynical?
DE: I don’t know if cynical is the right word. Okay, I have a poem to refer to. From “What Is the Significance of Conquering the Whole World?” The bad men are in jail, the good men are in charge, It’s a time when all is well, and we live in harmony at a global level...
KL: Well when you read it like that.
DE: You’ve got this harmony that conjures CCP propaganda and then the stereotypically starving African is like a Christian Aid commercial—
KL: Yeah, click this and you’ll fund a well in Africa, quote unquote.
DE: Maybe it’s my tone of voice. Maybe I’m cynical.
KL: A lot of things in this chapbook are the influence of all the signage in Beijing. The title “What Is the Significance of Conquering the Whole World?” is from a sign for a spa.
DE: A spa? Well, it’s China so of course…
KL: The whole phrase was ‘What is the significance of conquering the whole world if you don’t have your health.’ I thought it was so funny. The same with phrases like ‘harmony’, ‘win-win thinking’ and ‘global prosperity.’ They’re all over town, these signs.
DE: I’m cynical about all that. But maybe the cynicism is in my own heart.
KL: No, it’s dark. Those signs are like Newspeak basically.
DE: There was a poem I saw before and the name had changed. Thesaurus.com changed to “With a New Word For Blood a Flower May Bloom Again.” Why the change?
KL: That poem has changed names so many times. At first most of the titles in the chapbook were taken from signs I’d seen around Beijing. So one of the working titles for that poem was ‘A Poem is like a vine in your house, family is like a flower blooming.’ They had this sign on the wall around the construction site for an apartment building. These what I would call dystopian signs are all around town. While I was near the end of college, I did a series of dotcom poems where I wrote about different websites. So that’s why I started this out as a dotcom poem. The beginning of the poem came from when I was looking in Thesaurus.com for another word to describe blood because I wanted to write a poem about the Michael Brown shooting. I wanted it to be “poetic” so I had to find a better way of saying ‘blood on the concrete’. Then when I was looking on Thesaurus.com I realized how messed up it was to be looking for a poetic way to say blood. Should I say claret or kool-aid rued hue? So I wanted to critique my own impulse to find this overly poetic way of describing something terrible and blunt.
DE: Like a Chinese billboard.
KL: Exactly, so I changed it because I wanted the titles to echo those weird newspeak posters. For people who don’t live in Beijing there are a lot of sloganeering posters, billboards, and general signage for companies and the local government. They’ll say something like “One Country, One Way, One Harmony” in large print, and this is pretty common around town.
DE: There’s also a section of this poem I really like where you talk about God. “God can make a military grade tank on a sunflower hugged highway. That’s within his means. God can make pies as wide as July, a silver token for the misappreciationof your body. He can do whatever he likes except prove that all of us are made in his image.” Anyway, so that’s really awesome.
DE: I’d planned to ask your thoughts on God and religion, but then I noticed you were already asked that in your previous Loreli interview. So have your thoughts on religion changed?
KL: What did I say in the last interview? I want to know if I’ve grown at all in the last 18 months. Anyway, I don’t remember exactly what I said in the previous one, but I’ll say what I think now. I remember when I read the Quran in college, there was some saying like “Allah is the light and the wind moving the leaves in the tree.” And to me God is just—it sounds so cheesy—the beauty of life and also the bad. When you’re quiet and you’re meditating and praying, you can connect with that pure being. While you’re dancing or swimming or writing a poem, it’s there. I like how Mother Theresa said “I am God’s pencil.” I like the idea that you’re enacting the will of God.
DE: In the section of this poem it seems like either God has failed or humans have failed.
KL: Yeah, I think humans have failed. I kind of wanted to be sarcastic in that part, like God can’t do the math. Which means more like, I think if God could do the math he would. He’s not powerful enough almost to stop these murders from happening. The terrible things. That gap in agency is due to human failure. God plays a big role in my life in terms of how I feel in my heart, but I don’t think of God in terms of G-O-D, the patriarchal God in the sky sending people to hell. It’s more like a flow. There’s definitely a self beyond what you think you are, beyond your body and your thoughts. People are so tied up in their identity, but there’s very clearly a world beyond that. And that, to me, is where God resides. And in my poetry…I have this weird relationship with God. I had some poems I cut out because I was dating God, basically.
KL: In those poems, I wrote about God like he was a very inattentive boyfriend. God didn’t care that much about my thoughts or feelings. God was just watching Game of Thrones, and I would say things like, “God, come on man, talk to me.” And he would ignore what I was saying and say, “Find the remote for the TV.” I thought that was a funny way to explore my relationship with God. In general, my relationship with God is something I hope to explore more in the future. That’s a big question, and I think most people spend their whole lives trying to figure that one out.
DE: Oh, tell me about the cover.
KL: There's a man reading a newspaper while walking through the hutongs, surrounded by a lot of pigeons and three creepy surveillance cameras on a pole. The surveillance cameras look like those ones that can control their own movements like you’ll sometimes see in cartoons. On the cover of the paper, there’s an article about Ohio losing a battle to Indiana. This goes back to the idea of warring states that I was trying to play with. The states start fighting against each other, and this newspaper article is showing that. A good amount of people are dead from fighting in this fictional battle. On the cover of the paper, there’s also a replica of the 1865 photo of Robert E Lee surrendering to Ulysses Grant Appomattox Court House, officially ending the U.S. Civil War. So that’s an homage to the theme of civil war. In terms of the design, I sent the editor of Another New Calligraphy a mood board of pictures and he created the cover from it. I actually really love the cover. The cover was designed by the press that published it, Another New Calligraphy, and I sent the editor a bunch of photos. I was really influenced by Liuba Draws. She’s this amazing illustrator who lives here, and you may have seen her work at the Bookworm, Pop-Up Beijing, or various markets here. I think her stuff is so cool and so Beijing. It epitomizes Beijing because her drawings are really crowded, but also with a weird innocence or childishness. But her work also shows the humor of living in Beijing. There’s one drawing she’s done of a freeway that shows someone with a dog in the basket of her bike, someone going way too fast in a Porsche, some people on MoBikes, and some people in one of those bubble cars. All this stuff you see on the street in Beijing. So I sent some of Liuba’s work to the press, and I sent some work by Qiu Anxiong. He does these amazing charcoal drawings where he drew surveillance cameras looking like they were one-eyed aliens. And he’s a Chinese artist. I was also really influenced by pigeons so I thought there should be a lot of pigeons on the cover. Anyway, so that’s why there are a lot of pigeons on the cover.
DE: There are pigeons in your poetry.
KL: I used to live by one of these huge home aviaries for pigeons in the hutongs. In the morning they let the pigeons go on a few laps and come back. It’s just like a huge room full of pigeons! Its’ so weird! It’s so Beijing! But at the same time they have to be caged because you can’t have pigeons flying around. You’re going to have avian flu, you’re going to die. Those pigeon aviaries are somehow very evocative of Beijing for me. Just one of those weird idiosyncrasies of life here.
DE: Those are all the questions I have scribbled down. Is there anything else you want to say about the chapbook or other projects?
KL: If you’re an expat in Beijing, the chapbook would be something worth reading, no matter where you’re from. The expats I’ve shown it to here have said that it did really speak to their experience. If you’re one of those people I think you’d like to read it and I’d love to share it with you.
DE: I think it would be interesting to a wider audience as well.
KL: Yeah, the publisher is in the US.
DE: I think that is a danger in some expat writing though, that it’s very particular to a certain narrow experience.
KL: That was a problem I had too. In the beginning, the poems were just very “I love Beijing.” But I’m glad to hear you think I’ve gone beyond that. I hope it’ll reach people’s hearts and minds. As for what I’m working on now. I’m working on individual poems and right now I’m influenced by the idea of the Black International. So I’d like to write about black people living abroad, like the Langston Hughes in Shanghai tidbit that I mentioned before. I want to look at the black international throughout history, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, all these people lived abroad. It’s not just in the past 10 years you have black people living abroad. I’ve also been interested in sirens and mermaids. I like the Greek concept of the sirens - the idea of a woman who sings you a song and lures you to your death, almost hypnotic. Also I’ve really been interested in sex work and female agency.
DE: Is that all going to congeal into one?
KL: Hopefully. But I just finished this chapbook and it took me two years. I hope my book will take me five years or so. It’s the bead of sweat in the farmer’s brow.
KL: Yes. I’ve written one short story in my whole life. Fiction intimidates me because it has to have a plot.
DE: I’m the opposite, poetry intimidates me.
KL: Because it doesn’t have a plot?
DE: Because it’s supposed to be beautiful and there are spaces in between the lines and I don’t know why or what they mean.
KL: That’s so you can just write three words and start the next line. It’s just how your mind works and what you feel comfortable in.
Kassy Lee is a poet living in Beijing. Her most recent chapbook, The Period of Warring States was published by Another New Calligraphy press in 2017, and her first chapbook zombia, was published by dancing girl press in 2014. Her poems have been featured in Perigee, Spittoon Literary Magazine, and the Columbia Review.