Simon Shieh, ISB’s Writer in Residence
Simon Shieh, poet, alumni (2010), and this school year’s International School of Beijing (ISB) Writer in Residence, hopes to encourage student writing among ISB’s middle and high school students with his poetry and fiction ASAs. ASA participants can look forward to learning writing techniques, producing film and art collaborations, publishing a booklet of their writing, and a taking part in an open mic night and panel talk by student writers at the Beijing Bookworm. The ISB community can visit Mr. Shieh in the MS/HS Library anytime on Tuesdays and Wednesdays or send him an email. Mr. Shieh provided us with the following tips to unleash poetic creativity.
1. Inspiration comes more like sweat than a lightning bolt; you have to work to bring it out of yourself. Inspiration is often thought of as something that is out of your control – something that hits you as if from the heavens. Thinking about inspiration as working up a sweat can be daunting because it means it’s your responsibility. I practice inspiring myself in different ways, from going on a walk to listening to poetry podcasts to talking to friends and students about writing.
2. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. I actually stole that line from T.S. Eliot, who in turn was rumored to have stolen it from someone else. “Imitating” is part of the learning process for writers. I still feel like I’m imitating my favorite writers. But that means you have to find your favorite writers, which means reading more of the kind of work you want to write, and that is really important.
3. “I’ll eat you to live: that’s poetry.” Terrance Hayes. Poetry is an obsession, a fire. It consumes you if you let it: poetry is urgent, it’s life or death, and if it doesn’t feel that way to you, then spend more time with it. But not every poem has to impress you, and not every poem will. As much as I appreciate Emily Dickinson’s poetry, for example, it rarely dazzles me as much as some contemporary poets, like Eduardo Corral, do.
4. Most of the poetry I write is terrible. When I’d ask older writers for advice about writing, they’d always say “just keep writing,” and I never quite knew what they meant. Now I understand: you have to practice writing as often as you can, and you have to write a lot of garbage, in order to write something good. Revision is a really important part of turning the bad writing into good writing.
5. Lie, and tell no one. Another way of saying this is, don’t get too attached to your preconceived notions of truth. What we immediately think is self-evident usually turns out to be quite boring and, ultimately, not unconditionally true. Lies can often lead the way to a more profound honesty. I might write, for example, “I was never a citizen of my own country”, and I think many international students in China can find truth in that lie.
6. You have to be the first person to take your writing seriously. This was a revelatory piece of advice from my first poetry teacher. Find a physical space that works to write – be it a café, your room, or a bench in a park – go there, turn off your phone, and dedicate some time to your writing. Don’t expect to write the next Paradise Lost every time you sit down; just be proud of yourself for practicing and taking your craft seriously. Eventually, a literary agent will take your writing seriously too.
7. Good poetry makes the familiar unfamiliar. “Angels fly overhead like Spring / pollen.” I wrote that in an attempt to make pollen – something that is all too familiar to us in Beijing – seem unfamiliar. Everything is strange if you think about it enough. If you were in a white walled room with nothing but a ball of pollen for an hour, that ball of pollen would begin to seem very strange to you. Look at things differently; see how you can make the familiar seem strange.
8. Never say “deep,” and never tell me that you don’t understand a poem. Poetry is neither deep nor understandable. We understand how to use a coffeemaker by digging through layers of instructions. When we run, we just run. Poetry is running; whatever you feel immediately, during, and after reading a poem is the truth of that poem for you. Listen to what pops into your head, don’t go digging for meaning. In this way, learning how to use a coffeemaker is much “deeper” than appreciating a poem.
9. You don’t need to know what you’re writing about when you sit down to write. Robert Frost said, “I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.” Start writing and see where it takes you. Poetry is special in this way. It’s like photography – sometimes you just have to go out with your camera and see what pops into your lens.
10. Whatever you’re most afraid of writing about is probably the richest source of inspiration that you can draw from. This is definitely true for me. There were subjects I avoided which, when I finally did write about them, flooded out of me and onto the page like heavy rain. Be brave when you write – you’ll surprise yourself. And if you’re wondering what those things were for me, keep an eye out for the poetry I’ll be posting around the school and you’ll find out, or come talk to me about it in the library on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.