Poetry Night In Beijing: Stephen Nashef

Beginning today, we’ll be posting, piecemeal, the entirety of our March 16 event Poetry Night in Beijing, co-hosted by Pathlight Magazine for the Bookworm Literary Festival. (A big shout-out to Patrick Lozada for filming.) Up first was physics teacher / poet Stephen Nashef, introduced by Pathlight poetry editor Canaan Morse.

If we had to be technical though, the night began with an introduction by yours truly. I’ve posted the original text of my intro below, which I more or less rushed and muddled through while on stage (nerves, I guess). It begins with a Spencerian sonnet…

Poetry Night in Beijing Intro


Hello and welcome. Glad you all could join.
Why are we here? At Bookworm for poetry,
not binge drinking, Tindering, chasing loins
as if in orbit, mindless of how gravity
is a two-way force? In Beijing one’s free
to act on havoc, frisk at Mix, skiddoo
and drift. Poetry’s no sun, but let’s see
if it lends perspective, maybe acts on you
like water that reflects some face of truth.
It might be yours with its small secrets, hidden
shame and a bit of self-awareness, too.
You could, if you so chose, slip to The Den,
roll with wingnuts and cigarette butts, beer,
bad sex, doughnuts. Maybe this is better.


I won’t go so far as to say
poetry is prayer,
or in the words of Mary Oliver –

Feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with
the fragrance of the fields and the
freshness of the oceans

– but we are all spiritual to the exact point
that we allow ourselves.
Even belief in nothing may cause us to ask
as the blind poet Virginia Hamilton Adair asked:

Did the parturition of nothingness / give birth to all this glory?

One phrase you may have heard is that poetry
defamiliarizes the familiar,

but I prefer it the other way:
it makes us see the familiar,

the way sunlight finds form when it cuts
through a colony of dust
above the mahogany nightstand
on whose corner a pair of underwear,
not yours,
dangles like a modifier,

or the tree rings on the knife-sharpener’s face
as he treadles his cart up a dunghill
called Progress
growing steeper
while his bells toll.

Poetry can be as simple as a rotation of perspective
so that the door it begs you to open

opens into a free-fall.
Poetry’s job is not to catch you,

but those in poems who suffer
suffer for you, because you are
their ideal reader,
so immaculate
as to be transparent –

since happiness
comes with certain burdens.

We know poetry because we know living,
are constantly
engaged in it, pursuing.
Think Wile E. Coyote couriering
a love letter
never received,
addressed to president Xi Jinping
stamped with a five-tipped golden scar.
Poetry is for those too real for labels,
princelings who strive and migrants
down at discos, whether with Zhou Jielun
or t.A.T.u as their soundtrack, well,
that’s really up to you.
Poetry is not disposable in the way
that a neighborhood seems to be,
or a political identity.
When you spend enough time with it
every face you encounter
in the subways is an unspoken hello
and a dispassionate goodbye.
Living ghosts like the Nobel laureate’s wife
begin speaking to you then.

Life is this rush-hour-at-Guomao stream of passersby.
What we occupy, in our present time, is the water’s skip
over a finger that skims the surface.

Eventually we reach the river’s end,
reverse parturition
into nothingness.

Death is antisocial.
This event is not.

It could not have been birthed without the significant effort
of Canaan Morse, who is the poetry editor of Pathlight Magazine,

Helen Wing, the poet-in-residence at Harrow and author of the collection
Archangel, which you can buy just around the corner,

and Eleanor Goodman, poet, translator, and Fulbright Fellow.
You will be hearing from her in the second half of our event.

They read nearly two hundred poems from forty-three writers this past month
and did the wrenching deed of winnowing until we’ve arrived
at the poets with us today. Of course it is not just about them: it’s you, too.
Poetry is a two-way force.

Full playlist:

|Poetry Night in Beijing Archives|

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