Posted January 14, 2016
Simon Shieh (1991) was born in Taiwan and raised in Hyde Park, New York until he turned 15, at which time he moved, with his family, to Beijing, China. Simon began writing poetry in middle school, but did not consider himself a serious writer until college, where he studied literature and creative writing at SUNY New Paltz and San Diego State University. Simon now works in Beijing as an Instructor at China Foreign Affairs University on a Princeton in Asia fellowship.
See Simon's work in Aztec Literary Review.
These poems are part of a larger set that are inspired by my time living and training with the Sanda team at a sports academy in Yizhuang, China. When I was there in 2007, Yizhuang was a budding industrial suburb of Beijing — a city in the awkward throes of development, smelling all the time of coal. Sanda is a form of full-contact Chinese kickboxing that includes kicks, punches, take-downs and “sweeps.” Another boy and I were the youngest in the program at 16 years old. I was the only foreigner for miles, and much more privileged than my teammates, most of whom lived and trained there long-term. I have attributed to my teammates, in these poems, the names of Greek gods. In my young eyes, they very well could have been.
A Myth for Waking
Cellphones sing the sun
up — Apollo swats at his phone
I hear darkness shatter
from my bed and feel sweat
tracing the narratives of my body.
What word do these drowsy beasts have
for daybreak? Say, a fingernail of sunlight
on a god’s sleeping face. Say
the wrong word and a stiff right-
cross will correct you. It’s 5:30 and I
forget how to be badly broken
forget to trade tired
for angry, a dream for the light
that fractures it. I dreamt fear
was a lick of palm salt and opened
to a fist under my cheek. It shakes
at the mention of lightning.
Coil nose, mustache bristle-whipped,
Zeus is at a loss for words this morning.
He rouses us like blood rouses the fur
coats in a crowd.
Six men wail
into flat pillows, bone
dry and dusty as the ginkgoes
guiding coal trucks through town.
Apollo curses the fiery mother
of daybreak and I see where the hoe
used to totter on his shoulder, hoping Zeus
wouldn’t lay hands on him for dreaming.
Ares cocks the phlegm
to his mouth and watches
it slap the floor.
We wait till we are as soft
as our black-blue thighs
before we struggle into our shorts.
I try to grunt but it comes out a whimper.
Nobody looks up from their shoe laces.
Every morning, I read my fate
in a milky way of salt clinging
to my shirt. I read rose
bushes by the door,
frayed bodies wilting
into sunlight, willing
the blood to our fingertips — I — first in fear
pluck thorns from the stalk and run
them under my fingernails.
There is nothing quite
like returning dirt to itself.
As my eye finds itself in a rusty
mirror, I see them almost
clothed, blurry as a backward
question: that is what?
Contact lenses, I reply, without them
you’re all color and no shape.
When we start running, even the track
needs waking up.
First footfalls on concrete echo
through my legs, the rosebushes looking
more like thorns with each lap.
Tell a rosebush its name
and it will weep over lost petals.
Ask why I’m here and I’ll show you
how I box my shadow out of a doubt.
We fool ourselves breathless — gasp
our heads out of water. Does breath
sound like a promise to you?
Origin says and unsays us blind:
six fighting men, thinking
with our bodies, howling
down the line until dawn is shaking
Zeus leads us in circles. A petal
for every breath that doesn’t ask
Breakfast in the Hunchback’s Basement
Fire and oil make the white walls
heavy with morning light. Spice
stings the shadows out of a darkness
as daydreams catch sleep in their feathers.
Before long, I will be panting, slick
with spotlight. My fist, blood-beaten
as the evening cleaver, will be raised
to heaven or hanging from it.
The hunchback answers his angry
flame by flipping the onions
just beyond its reach.
the empty table from his stool.
There is barely color
in his cheeks.
Yes, we have ducks in America and yes,
their love life is a mystery to us as well, I say.
Eggs were as rare as lovemaking
must have been for ducks
that July. Money can't buy
hunger, until you're huddled
in a hunchback's basement.
Fighters make money look like rain
in a drought. That summer, ducks snapped
a gold feather on their wings.
Does it outshine my busted right eye?
You’ll bite your tongue when
you see what kind
of woman will come running
to feed me.
Steamed buns come in large
plastic bags from the boy who sells cigarettes
at the middle school. He’s quiet
until he’s swinging his fists at you — eyes
stale as a summer moon. Prometheus
says some shit about time and hunger then
burns the boy with five fingers.
Zeus rises from his seat.
His thighs tell me how easily
they woo a rib from its cage.
Imagine truth in a mouthful
of cold, hard teeth.
I shrink when Zeus returns
with his eyes on me, holding the first
fried duck egg this week. You
need it, he says, growing boy
like you, he says, home-
sick and always swinging
to please us, he says.
You kicked Prometheus so
hard the power went
out, and that’s why we like you.
You keep your words
A Dance with Weapons
All this toughening and
nobody’s taught me how to love
the fight. When Ares beckons me
to the ring I could vanish
into my name. Could be
a wisp of smoke sighing
from a frail pair of gloves. Can you
hear the doubt in my fists? Hook
to unhinge his whole fury. A snap
in the shoulder roll. Fugue
in dripping body light.
I drove my knee a cool centimeter into
the man’s skull before I touched
my wet cheek to his and
whispered thank you, man
in his ear.
We are thankful
for the damnedest things:
when the man facing me
can finish my
sentence about the way we hurt.
When he can strike me
tenderly because of the look
in my eye.
I’ve held a man’s courage
with two hands — it bled
through my fingers.
That is to say, I’ve loved something
I'm from upstate New York, and moved to Beijing when I was 14 because my mom's a diplomat. That first summer in Beijing I enrolled in a sports academy in a dusty suburb of Beijing, called Yizhuang. You see it come up in my poetry. It was a kickboxing school, and it was thoroughly Chinese. No foreigners, no frills. It was a shocking introduction to China.
I guess I didn't realize that until after I left China. I left to go to college in the US. In the US, it's not so much that I didn't feel at home, it's more that there was a lot I suddenly couldn't do. Like go out to eat and drink, or use public transportation. My college was in a small town. It felt quite foreign. I realized then that China is where I wanted to be. So I applied for Princeton-in-Asia teaching program, and I got it. I was surprised when I came back to realize right away, that despite the pollution and the hard things about here, that I feel just right here. I feel at home in Beijing.
Like many people do, I spent my teenage years writing angsty poems. After taking a course in college, I felt encouraged to take my poetry seriously. I had a shift in mindset from poetry being a therapeutic thing to an actual skill; something I could become good at.
I'm mostly submitting to poetry and literature journals, and also applying for a workshop for Asian-Americans. Whether or not I get any of these, I'm still going to be writing. I wouldn't call it a hobby ... I also don't see myself getting an MFA right now. Poetry is something you can always do, and you don't need a higher education for that.
You know, I do, and that's the bad thing. I like to keep using certain words. One accomplished poet said to me that he recognizes the words he uses a lot and then writes it down. It's not a bad thing to use the same words in a set of poems, but I try to stop myself from letting to words bleed over into other poems.
Something I have to set aside time for. For me there's a time for poetry and a time for essay-writing and research. I can't do both at once; I need to have a month in which I can focus on poetry, only read it, only write it. I need to be somewhere quiet, where I can read other people's poetry out loud and read my own out loud. It's solitary and vocal at the same time.
Yeah, like I mentioned, I spent a month of my teenage years in this industrial city called Yizhuang, doing a kickboxing academy. And the routine was really weird to get used to. There were no TVs or computers or anything, so we'd get up, run, and then nap. We took three naps a day. I mean, they did -- I couldn't sleep. I didn't know what to do with myself. So the worst part of it was the boredom. I read four different books that month. It's hard to talk about the experience in a narrative way, because there's so much happening and it's so hard to put words to it. So I use poetry to talk about it.
I wasn't writing during that time though. I wrote one poem. A poem about the wind going through the window and freeing itself. Needless to say, it wasn't a good poem. I don't tend to write poetry when I'm unhappy. I was mostly just trying to survive.
Yeah, I mean I've always been a serious, determined person. That discipline and routine that you need to be a professional athlete carried over into writing. It's helped me be a better writer.
There was kind of a hierarchy to the group, and there were different personalities. Zeus was the head honcho, the one everyone looked up to, unofficially. Apollo was kind of this very lively and not-so-serious guy. Aires was this huge, hulking man, I'm pretty sure he was gay. I found that out in a strange way. I've got to figure out how to work that into the poems.
The thing about physical pain is it's only possible to write about it in retrospect. For a long time, I didn't know how to write poetry about fighting. For a while, those were my two passions: poetry and fighting. But I didn't know how to write about it.
There's a stress and trauma involved in fighting that's hard to conceptualize and put it into words. I had to distance myself and reflect on it to put it into the poems. I think the physical and emotional pain are working off one another. They're not mutually exclusive by any means. It opened up another way of writing about pain itself.
When I first got there, we were both foreign to each other. I was weird. But that being said, I think that was integral to the camaraderie. They were so hospitable. They were very, very kind to me. They took care of me, and if I were not an outsider, I wouldn't have been received in the same way. So yes, I was a foreigner, but because of that foreign-ness, I was treated a certain way, and our camaraderie was built around that dynamic.
Before I had this experience...I'll put it this way. The experience made me think of hunger and desire in a certain way. I had never been so conscious of wanting something. I was reading Angela's Ashes when I was there, about this family in terrible poverty. I read about them eating strawberry jam, and that really got to me. It sounds so trivial and stupid, but this experience made me aware of these visceral needs we have. And it really amplified my desire, and in a real sense, my hunger.
Fighting is different from other sports wherein in other sports, there's this distance between the abstract concepts of winning and losing. But in fighting, you really feel the win or the loss in a very close way. You feel literally beat up. So because there was so little distance between the sport and what was happening in the sport, and what you were feeling, everything was very literal. Even outside of training, there was always this understanding that although it brought us together, there was always some competitive tension. We knew that the next day we would have to hurt each other in a very real sense. On a whole though, it really brings combat sports athletes together.
This goes back to the last question. For fighters, the respect is always very mutual. Because I know best how he feels, and he knows best how I feel, and there needs to be some element of respect to keep the sport from becoming something much uglier, which it never really is. Respect is necessary in a sport like fighting, because if it's not, neither of the fighters can do their job. They would devolve into an animal's show of aggression and force.
I haven't figured out how, but it does. I've since "retired" from professional fighting, as a career. I teach English now, and focus on writing. Like I said, I didn't know how to write about fighting until recently. I'm still figuring it out.
Hm, hard question. Other poets inspire me ... I don't know why this is so hard to answer. OK, this is going to sound cliche, but the ability to share my experience in a meaningful way is what really inspires me to write. I think there are a lot of experiences that I can only share through poetry.
When I was a young writer, the few poets I know would always tell me to keep writing. I never knew what that meant, so I don't want to say that now. But it is important to not give up. They'd also tell me that, and I didn't know what it meant. Writing is not this magical thing that you're born with. No one is more pre-disposed to it. Just keep reading and writing. That's the only way to improve. To be conscious of the fact that you're always improving. There was one point when I was struggling with the idea that maybe I'm a poet, maybe I'm not. But that's bullshit. No one is a poet or isn't a poet, you just make the decision to improve, or you don't.