I grew up knowing that calligraphy is a sacred art. I knew that the Chinese love their words, their elegant black-inked characters sweeping across silken scrolls with swirling lines. My parents made sure I learned my Chinese poetry and proverbs, dignified little armies of words skinned to the bone but drenched in meaning until one could not add or remove a word without destroying the whole thing.
My great uncle was a famous calligrapher from Taiwan. Long before I was born, he gave my father a scroll with the Chinese character “patience.” As he presented it, he said to my father, “I give you a word.” When I was young, my father told me this story to explain how that great word “patience,” with its black fins of ink on white paper trimmed with gold, ended up in his study. He explained how it serves as a constant reminder to control his temper with its imposing but calming presence. As a child, I marveled at how grave and serious it all sounded - to give people words.
Years later, at a conference for high-school newspapers, I attended a session called “There’s a World in a Word.” As an activity, the speaker asked us to begin with a word, brainstorm words that we first thought of when we heard it, and continue until we had a web of words. We discussed the wealth of implications and possibilities that a single word can embody, almost as if there’s a world in a word.
I returned from this conference thinking deeply about words. I thought about people like my great uncle giving others words and how the Chinese feel that a word is so valuable that you could even give it to someone. I started perceiving words as the Chinese perceive theirs: as little cosmos invested in a few marks on a page, meaningless until they are given meaning. Since then, whenever I have been struck with an incredible burst of inspiration and have sat down to feverishly channel the revelation into a poem, I find myself seeing those worlds in the words I am writing. I have come to think of my poetry as an attempt to give people words, to show and share with them the worlds I see.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.