Wang Ping A Chinese Immigrant in America Seeks to ‘Create a Wave’ and, Ultimately, a Tsunami
Wang Ping, 47, is the author of several books of fiction, non –fiction, and poetry. Her writing has won the Eugene Kaden Award, the Asian –American Studies Award, and the Minnesota Book Award. Born in Shanghai, she earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Beijing University, her master’s degree in English literature from Long Island University, and her doctorate in comparative literature from New York University. The recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bush Foundation, the New York State Council for the Arts, and the Minnesota State Arts Board, among others, Ping is also a translator, photographer, and teacher. She is a professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The following telephone interview was conducted, in English, by Timothy Gillis on March 13, 2014.
TG: You’ve been in the United States since 1986, when you came to New York to get your master’s degree from Long Island University at age 19. Tell us about those early days in that new setting.
WP: The first year was really hard. I spoke English, but the cultural shock was tremendous. Having only $22 in my pocket didn’t help. People said “UPS” and I said, “I have no idea. What is that?” And the next day, I was working there. So I started working right away and was fired three days later because I didn’t really know anything. I had grown up in the late Cultural Revolution. I was a farmer. Then I went to college. Then I taught. Then I came to the United States. It was basically [during] the Communism regime. Material-wise, I basically had one of everything — one pen, one jacket, one shirt. I did speak some English, but it was a total transformation.
TG: Talk about your literary influences. Who were the writers that moved you toward writing and writing poetry?
WP: I grew up in China, and classic Chinese poetry is in my blood — poets like Li Po, Du Pu. We didn’t really have that much Western culture or poetry because it was forbidden, until I came to the United States. The second year [here], I came to Long Island University and I studied American and English literature. What really impacted me first was the day I walked into the wrong classroom. I thought it was literary criticism, but it was a writing workshop. Lewis Warsh was the professor. [ED. NOTE: Warsh was co-founder with Anne Waldman of Angel Hair magazine and books.] It was pretty funny. When I discovered it was the wrong classroom, it was already too late. One assignment was to write about my first [political] experience. I wrote about the Cultural Revolution. This was what I’d wanted to do all my life.
TG: What was your next poetic step?
WP: Lewis introduced me to Allen Ginsberg, who was organizing the first American-Chinese cultural festival, and he was bringing all these people to New York, and they were going to travel across America to give poetry readings, and Allen Ginsberg needed a translator. Lewis asked me if I was willing to do that and I said, “Of course!” That’s how I started working with Allen Ginsberg, and we traveled all over the country with John Ashberry, Gary Snyder, Bob Creeley. That’s how I became friends with all those people. We became quite close. Pretty soon after that, I met Xue Di in New York. Actually before I met him, Keith Waldrup wrote to me asking me if I would collaborate with him on a translation. And I said yes. After translating all these poets, through this process I started writing poetry. It’s a natural process. After that poetry festival, I started doing more translations which resulted in the book, New Generations: Poems from China Today, a very cool and intimate collaboration with poets like Anne Waldman and Ron Padgett.
TG: I see you have a new work out that’s fiction. And in your previous work, 10,000 Waves, there are poems with dialogues from workers. In the title piece, you take on the voices of 18 of the 21 people who died at Morecambe Bay, England, on February 5, 2004. The Chinese laborers were collecting cockles late in the evening when they were caught by an incoming tide. You did some journalistic research for that, correct? It reads like Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, your own watery epitaphs to the dead. You also tried to give a voice to the three unidentified people who died.
WP: At that time, there were three missing people. It seemed somewhat symbolic to have the chorus in the poem perhaps stand for those missing voices. As I did my research and travel, I heard all the stories, all the voices. From the very beginning, as a writer and a poet, I always questioned myself. After writing about myself and my own position in the world — which is one of your duties as a writer — I ask: Do I only talk about myself or do I have this ability to speak for others? And if I do, what gives me the authority and the right? That’s the true question.
TG: How does one acquire that authority, that right to create a poetic voice for others?
WP: It started with an earlier poem. I was living in New York at the time, hanging out with Ai Wei Wei and others. I wanted to write a poem for this big reading at the Poetry Project. I was scheduled to read with Allen Ginsberg, who was going to read from “Howl.” And I thought, “How can anyone perform with Ginsberg’s “Howl” and not be completely faded?” At that time, the Golden Venture ship was very much on our minds. [ED. NOTE: The Golden Venture was a cargo ship that ran aground at Rockaway Beach in Queens. The ship held 286 undocumented workers, ten of whom drowned trying to flee the stranded ship.] I decided to write a poem about the accident. I researched it.I tried to visit the cemetery in New Jersey. I spent a lot of time learning about what happened. Adrienne Rich later selected it for The Best American Poetry collection. “10,000 Waves” was a continuation of that [type of] poem, and also my interest in answering the questions about whom I write for and what gives me the authenticity. My experience in China and my experience as an immigrant in America allow me to build that bridge.
TG: Tell us about your writing process. Do you typically pursue a topic by researching it, as you did with “10,000 Waves,” or do you let the muse come to you?
WP: I do not have the luxury of not having to work. I’ve always worked, several jobs at the same time. So writing for me is more of a discipline. Every day I must put in some time and energy, either to sit down and write, or think about it — when I walk, or work in the garden, or while cooking. Not while teaching. That takes too much energy. It takes discipline to be ready to write, to remain vulnerable and open, instead of building a wall. In terms of craft, my first two books of poetry were more intuitive. 10,000 Waves is much more conscious. Some of my poems are more narrative because the content requires me to use the story-telling form, and I always try to make sure the music and cadence is there. I believe I have internal music. Music is everywhere. Music is about rhythm, the consonance and dissonance. I’m a dancer — modern dance and the flamenco. I’m a martial artist. I do fencing and yoga. I’m a big mover. I teach full time. I write. I travel. And I sing. I’m a single mother with two children. So how do I do all these things? There are only 24 hours in a day. It’s the rhythm. I’m tapped into my inner rhythm. I synch my internal rhythm with the universal rhythm. So I get rest and am revitalized through doing different things that feed me. I create a wave, and wave after wave creates a tsunami.