Draft article for Lion's Roar
For months in residence at a Soto Zen temple, I woke before dawn to meditate, observing the sunrise in shadows migrating on white walls. Some days, I would drift in and out of sleep, only to awaken at the final sounds of the bell. On occasion, without any expectation, grief or wonder or insight would emerge and all I could do was be explicitly present, meeting myself with compassion in the moment.
This is poetry. It cannot be rushed. It arises without warning and requires loving attention to be sustained. As a poet, I do my best to cultivate good conditions – ample space, clear routines and discipline, avid reading – but I do not choose if and when poems arise.
Poetry has no form I can point to with any certainty. Any attempts at definition are akin to the Buddhist teaching of a finger pointing to the moon, never quite capturing its essence. And yet, when I hear a poem spoken aloud by one who knows the rhythm of words and silence, I experience the moon directly, without obstruction. Poetry is this direct experience of the moon.
As a poet, my calling is to be present with what is, not to embellish but to name. To call into being by the very act of naming. In the Plum Village tradition, the fourth mindfulness training is Deep Listening and Loving Speech. When I create the space for poetry to arise, I am first listening with the intention to understand what is there. The very act of listening can be all that is required for healing. Other times, listening gives rise to words that I put down on paper to memorialize and to share. When this happens, I do my best to choose good words.
I consider the words I write (and the silences in between) as sounds that will one day land in a body. As a Buddhist, I take great care to choose sounds that do not extend harm, that allow for healing and release. Each word has its own rhythm, each piece forms a unique song. Sharp, quick words can energize or activate the body. Some words play: “galloping” mimics a horse’s gait, “potato” the jumble of an unwieldy form. In the softness of “settling” and “release”, I hear the emptiness of the body after exhale. Mostly, I aspire to kind and gentle language that evokes ease.
When I speak of suffering, I do so from my own positionality and voice, allowing space for others to have different experiences. When I write poems in anger or grief, I consider the purpose of publishing them for others to view. Sometimes, the process of writing itself is catharsis, and there is no need for me to transmit that energy to the bodies of others.
Other times, poems written in anger can express solidarity and inspire further engagement. After the shootings of six Asian women at three Atlanta spas by a white man carrying his anger as ammunition, I wrote a poem of grief and sorrow, naming my own experiences as a person of Chinese and Japanese descent, learning the anger and violence of white men. This poem was dormant in me until that day and emerged unbidden. At a public protest in San Francisco, this poem spoken aloud became a direct transmission of grief and rage, merging individual experience with the collective memory.
Rarely if ever do poems tumble from the consciousness ready for sharing. The same conditions that spark a poem support the tedium of its revision: discipline, space, letting go. When I return to a poem after time away, there is a fresh and curious mind. I listen to the rhythms I’ve crafted, reworking and sequencing. Some poems are still works in progress, waiting for clarity. I know others are complete by the deep resonance in my body.
In writing, I bow to the ferocity of my emotions – beauty and resilience, rage and sorrow – sometimes in the same poem. I learn to accept the fleeting nature of this body and mind, recognizing through my poetry that I am changing in each moment. I see that there is no version of self to cling to, just words on a page that denote a past place and time. Poetry is thus not separate from my Buddhist practice. It is a pathway in.