In an interview with Daniel Kane about poems, poetics, and how to teach poetry to students in grades K-12, Wang Ping presented her poem "Syntax" and discussed how speakers of English as a second language can write good poems in English without worrying too much about grammar and syntax.
She walks to a table
She walk to table
She is walking to a table
She walk to table now
What difference does it make
What difference it make
In Nature, no completeness
No sentence really complete thought
Language, like woman,
Look best when free, undressed.
Daniel Kane interviews the poet Wang Ping
DK: As a speaker of English as a Second Language, how did you begin thinking about writing poetry in English?
WP: It came to me naturally. I never wrote poetry when I was living in China. Poetry in Chinese culture is so mysterious and so highly regarded, it's almost sacred. I'm sure I wanted to write poetry, but I never dared think of writing it. I came to the United States with a lot of hope, but the reality was very different from all the dreams I had about America when I was in China. I was searching for what I should do, for what would make me happy. Almost by accident, I walked into a creative writing class that the writer Lewis Warsh was teaching at Long Island University. I discovered I could write in that class. Lewis was very encouraging, and he told me I should start writing novels. In 1989 Allen Ginsberg organized a Chinese poetry festival - he was bringing a group of Chinese Misty School poets to the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in New York. Through Lewis Warsh, Ginsberg contacted me, because the Chinese poets were looking for an interpreter and translator. Through that, I really got into poetry. At the same time, I was teaching poetry to children in the public school system, and I came across Kenneth Koch's Wishes, Lies, and Dreams. That was also very important for me in terms of learning how to read, write, and teach poetry. When I started reading, I started writing in both Chinese and English. After I began writing for awhile, though, I realized that my style writing in Chinese was very conservative, whereas my English-language poetry was much looser and freer. I felt I had much more freedom in English - my way of thinking in poetic images was somehow quite natural.
DK: What was your introduction to American poetry?
WP: Because of Lewis Warsh I went to a lot of poetry readings at the Poetry Project. I also started giving readings there. I was also published in the Poetry Project magazine The World. That was my poetry community. Because of the environment I was in at the Poetry Project, I was exposed to a lot of New York School poets - writers like Frank O'Hara, Ted Berrigan. I also read a lot of Allen Ginsberg, and also earlier work like William Carlos Williams.
DK: Was your poem "Syntax" an attempt at validating "incorrect" usage of the English language, usage that somehow positively alters the way we speak?
WP: Yes. This poem came out of a conversation I had with a poet named Leonard Schwartz. I was talking to him and I made a grammatical mistake. He was correcting me and I said "What difference does it make?" I suddenly realized I could write a poem out of that. I wanted to explore the relationship between language and nature, language and the body, language and culture.
DK: In the first couplet, would the line "She walk to table" be a literal translation of what a Chinese person would say?
WP: Yes. In Chinese we have almost no grammar. We don't have third person singular - you don't need to put an s after a verb. We don't really have past tense, or verb changes according to the rule of tenses. Occasionally we add one word to indicate the past. Mostly, though, the way we indicate time depends on a context that we're in.
DK: If that's the case, what's the tension here between the correct grammar line and the literal translation line?
WP: Well, I'm not so sure about this specific case, but I know that I have to think about English in an entirely different way than I think about Chinese. I don't think about Chinese - its roots, where it came from - because it's my mother tongue. When I write in English, though, I have to think about the root of the word - I have to go to the root a lot of times. I have to check things all the time - in this way I find a lot of things that a native speaker might not notice. I like this, because I like the feeling of getting at the roots of language, the origins of language.
DK: What do you think the relationship of your line "No sentence really complete thought" is to your own poetics?
WP: That line is a direct influence from Ezra Pound. Ernest Fenollosa's book The Chinese Written Character As a Medium for Poetry, which has an introduction by Ezra Pound, was very important for me. This taught me that the Chinese language is a kind of natural bridge between language and poetry. That book really started me thinking about the basic elements of language - how we should go back to the roots and come out with a fresh angle. Also, it made me think about how grammar and language without syntax affect the way we see things. Chinese bears an internal logic even though there's hardly any grammar - I believe it's close to nature, to cycles of movement. A sentence is very forced, in a way, especially the way it ends with a period. The natural way of how things move tends to be more continuous than a grammatically correct line allows for, which is how I tend to write. I encourage my students to rethink how the human mind works, especially in terms of language. After all, the way we think is not limited to grammatically correct ways of speaking and writing. Instead, we think more continously. When my students "get" this, it frees them up to write in more experimental, fragmentary, and natural ways. Lots of fragments, juxtapositions.
DK: What advice would you give a student who is a speaker of English as a second language if that student is, like you were, determined to write English-language poetry?
WP: Try to take advantage of your purported shortcomings. Treat each word as if it was a toy. Imagine that you're in a huge playground of language, and have fun with the words. At the same time, introduce your own culture into the poem, bring in your mother-tongue language into it. Do a lot of literal translations, even transcriptions with the sound of a foreign word in your poem.
DK: How would you say you've incorporated your Chinese culture into your poetry?
WP: I spell out Chinese words phonetically when I want to go into old Chinese sayings and proverbs. These things are so coated with years and years of wisdom and cultural dust. I try to go in and bring out what was originally there. I also look at Chinese language and culture via the English language - it's fun to do that.
DK: Is there anything you'd like to add in terms of how you might teach "Syntax" to writing students?
WP: This poem is playful with language and grammar. I also want to link language with body. In many cases, much women's clothing is too important - some clothing hides or alters women's natural form, it makes them into an adornment. I like to have students think of how language might be used to challenge that kind of thing, which is why I write in such a spare way in "Syntax". That's why I write "Language, like woman, / Look best when free, undressed".
DK: So your poem is, in a sense, a metaphor for - and almost a critique of - "woman" as ornament, woman as fully-clothed, painted. It reveals your poetics, too. One can determine that you don't go for either ornament or rhetorical excess in poetry.
WP: Yes, I would say so. The more I write, the more I realize how alive and violent language can be, and how influential language has been in playing a role in our minds and unconscious. We have to be careful, because a lot of times we think we are masters of language, but most of the time we are not. That's the danger of being a poet, but also the fun and challenge of being a poet.