I walked to the supermarket in Nanjing this morning to pick up some groceries.
The supermarket is in a mall about a 30 minute walk away. To get there from my apartment you have to walk along The Street of Food Poisoning (unspecified fried meat on sticks, cheap Sichuan hotpot using recycled gutter oil) and then turn right onto The Street of Spare Parts, where every shop for a mile sells every manner of washing machine gear or engine part you can imagine.
Follow the Street of Spare Parts for half a mile (going past The Nanjing Museum of Tapestries) before getting to a ruined section of the old city wall where old women listen to The Vengaboys and do square dancing. Next, duck under the wall, take the bridge over the river and turn right under the viaduct. Don’t make eye contact with any of the people under the viaduct.
From there it’s simpler: straight for a block or so, then a quick left turn past the old man who lives outside The Bank of China. You know you’re approaching the mall when you see the giant 15 foot penguin with flippers outstretched, the aircon blasting you from 100 yards away.
All the way along your walk hundreds and hundreds of people and in every tree a thousand cicadas belting out the day, battling it out noise-wise with the sound of construction work.
So, when someone back home recently asked me “do you think China has changed your life or writing at all?” I really had to laugh. “Yes” I said. “Yes, I think China has changed a lot of things about me, but especially my writing.” In fact, I’d like to talk a little bit about those changes.
My first collection Self-Portrait with The Happiness was finished way back in 2012, and for me, the difference really shows. All of the poems included in the collection were written before I moved over, and these poems are exactly true to my experience at that time – lyrical love poems touching on nature, family life and the occasional cityscape. I lived in The Lake District and Hebden Bridge while writing most of the collection.
A few of those poems asked for a certain indulgence from the reader, asking them to imagine scenarios or conceits: puppets and puppeteers falling in love, a person editing his life according to how he might edit a poem, a forlorn and lovesick figure sketching a sonnet on the rooftops of some cars.
Looking back on the poems I wouldn’t have them any other way, but they also feel innocent – the kind of poems that I would struggle to write about now.
My reason for this, I think, is an evolution in my own way of thinking about what poetry is for, personally, and also what the role of a poet is. The poet’s preoccupations are key: and I feel as though the times we are living through in China can be very challenging, with people suffering unfairly. While I don’t feel like turning into a didactic protest eco-warrior poet any time soon, I do think it’s important to reflect the world honestly, and ask questions of it, to adapt your poetry to your evolving experience of the world. In short, it’s hard to write a cheery love poem when The AQI (Air Quality Index) is showing as “Hazardous” and you can’t see 50 yards for the smog.
If someone had told me back in 2013 that I was going to write my second collection about life in China, social justice, LGBT rights, censorship and air pollution I would probably have been shocked.
On the bright side – it made the notorious Difficult Second Collection less challenging write.