by Debra Kang Dean
When I began writing poetry in earnest, I believed there was nothing writing in lines couldn’t take on and, having gotten a late start, focused on learning my craft. Maybe this was self-defense because I am not a storyteller. I have come to think that my narrative dysfunction is rooted in my being the grandchild of Asian immigrants and the further cultural disruptions that came out of being the child of working-class parents of different ethnicities, moving a lot, and then a string of deaths beginning in 2006.
I was and still am an advocate of the line in poetry, but not exclusively—though I have come to regard the prose poem as a form of last resort. So, feeling the urge to write prose, I enrolled in a microfiction workshop facilitated by a friend who publishes both poetry and fiction, thinking it might be a way to sidestep the prose poem. Microfiction’s brevity and word count seemed open doors to fiction. It didn’t take long, however, to see that unlike the stories others were writing, in my pieces nothing really happened; to my eye, at least, they did what I have often done in poems that straddle the narrative and lyric: used description and voice to carry a false narrative.
I have written exactly one story because I had to—five pages—almost all of it built on biographical details; I’d changed only one thing: the protagonist was a woman, recently divorced, who buys a mobile home and enrolls at a community college. That exercise was enough for me. Many years later, at a writer’s conference I attended after I receiving my MFA, a fiction faculty member casually remarked that most serious writers generally outgrow poetry and take up fiction. James Tate, who led the poetry workshop, was quick to respond: “I guess some of us never grow up.”
I had just come through a pretty awful experience in graduate school, and a classmate and friend insisted and somehow made a space for me to attend the conference. Writing had been difficult, but when Bill Kittredge, who was crossing over to creative nonfiction from fiction, subsequently offered a personal-essay workshop, I knew I needed to be there. After an essay I wrote for that class about my awful experience moved from the pages of a journal to an anthology, I began having dreams of appearing naked in public.
In speaking about Perfect Black, Crystal Wilkinson’s astonishing collection of poetry, she has said that unlike writing fiction, where some part of the self, though always in the work, can be hidden, the work in this book “felt much more intimate.”
“When I look at them,” she said, “it felt like a tree in winter, with no leaves to cover, like it was just sort of there.” No—uh, Yes, my brain said, because engaging with poetry has felt to me like having a podium to stand behind or like a modesty screen on old desks. And yet I also felt the essential truth of what Crystal was saying.
These things were probably swirling around in my head when I saw the title of Crystal’s lecture before the Spring 2021 residency at Spalding: “Still Life in Motion: Creating the Illusion of Movement in the Quiet Story.” It was the word “quiet” as much as the paradoxical title that caught my attention. Crystal, who almost needs no introduction, is Kentucky’s current poet laureate and writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. Among the writers Crystal quoted was Ocean Vuong, a poet whose most recent book is a novel. Commenting on the Chinese narrative structure, Vuong said that “it insists that a narrative structure can survive and thrive on proximity alone. Proximity builds tension.”
Yes, I thought. Already for some time, I had been moving away from the sonnet structure as a model and returning to two non-Western forms I had previously only played with: the renku and the ghazal. Both are polyvocal. Beyond the structures themselves, I wanted to understand the cultural and historical context for these forms whose prescribed beginnings and endings announced themselves and between which leaps and meanders could play out. In non-linear poems, juxtaposition, a variant of proximity, creates tension—and surprises, too. The joy of jux, one of my teachers used to say.
For some time now, I have met weekly, as our schedules allow, with a woman who does a different taiji form than I do. After several false starts, we began working on the fundamentals I had learned from my primary teacher because she could take these principles back to her own form, and, if she wanted to, she could use these fundamentals to create her own short form. In this practice, establishing a North sets the other seven compass points and orients us to fit a space to the form’s shape and for the most favorable view.
Rather than creating her own form, my friend follows me as I move through the form I created. Because we turn in eight directions, I began by saying, This is North. No, my friend said, pointing to true North and saying, That’s North. Of course she was right about that, but if we faced it, in one practice space, we would have to turn our backs on the mirrors that offered us feedback, and in another, we would have to turn away from the view of a stream, on the other side of which is an open field. I was speaking in metaphor, and she was speaking in fact.
For a time, I called out directions as we moved, using the North I had designated as our starting point, but seeing her hesitate, for a while I turned my map 180 degrees to call out directions using true North. When I felt she probably had the pattern, we just did the form together.
Another aspect of my taiji practice involves a symbolic crossing from the mundane world into taiji space and then back through formal opening and closing movements. I think now that designating a North is preparation for moving into a symbolic world that may not necessarily align with true North though the same relationships hold.
My primary taiji teacher died in the fall of 2020. I remember his telling me during a visit not long after I’d left North Carolina that my form was beautiful, by which he meant stylized, which meant I knew the motions to go through, but if I kept practicing that way, all I’d have is “an empty shoebox,” as another taiji teacher put it. During what would be his last year, he began repeating, “Form is important—and it isn’t.” In her lecture, I think Crystal was touching on some of the same things.
Another name for the compass rose, which maps the eight directions, is wind rose. To create a nine-step form as designed by my taiji teacher, one begins by stepping North, moves through the other seven directions, and ends turning back to face North. Though the number of right answers is limited, no one of them is the answer; through trial and error when creating this form, one discovers the many ways to go wrong.
This last gift grew out of his concern that we know the fundamental principles of our art and could “read” any taiji form despite its appearance and our tastes. In practice, our aim is to embody the principles. The inevitable trajectory of a practice like this one is formlessness—laying functions—what the hands do—to lower body movements as the spirit moves. It’s in this context that I can see the prose poem as a form in relation to rather than as a rejection of the line.
It’s hard to talk about what lives between or under words, which is why I value the logic of metaphor’s embrace of seemingly contradictory ideas and things. It’s here in the Tao Te Ching, one of taijiquan’s fundamental texts:
A Way become Way isn’t the perennial Way.
A name become name isn’t the perennial name:
The named is mother to the ten thousand things,
but the unnamed is origin to all heaven and earth.
In perennial nonbeing you see mystery,
and in perennial being you see appearance.
Though the two are one and the same,
once they arise, they differ in name.
We are what we do, and we are who we are. I’m heartened by writers like Crystal, who, in the service of fully expressing the whole of a self, work against the pressures to specialize.
Debra Kang Dean’s Totem: America (Tiger Bark, 2018), her third full-length collection, was shortlisted for the 2020 Indiana Authors Award in Poetry, and “Adam’s Apple,” a poem from Precipitates (BOA, 2003), was reprinted in The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit (Orison, 2020). Earlier this year, Pithead Chapel published “How Not to Make a Scene in a Time of Pandemic,” and her essay review of Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell appeared on the Indiana Authors Award site.