My Body Still Feels Like a Volcano: Jane Shi on Taking Ourselves Seriously

It’s May and the heat and rain shroud my body in a confused cloud. I’m cat-sitting this beautiful fluffy grey boy and I’m lounging in a big apartment in yet another gentrified Vancouver neighbourhood. Outside, glass condos glow pleasantly over the din of brewery beards, afternoon baby strollers, and barking dogs. Cat-sitting is an excellent time to rest and be alone with myself in a city with limited, frequently unaffordable spaces. I should be happy. I should feel at peace.

Instead, I’m fighting an undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder with what my physiotherapist calls baby-wrists. These small, slightly hypermobile joints are constantly withstanding the full force of strength required of a writer and dumpling-maker; their neglectful mother has never learned to rock them to sleep.

This uneven bodily distribution of labour makes everything around me feel suffocating. The cat is a distraction. He has his own demons (squirrels, birds, hairballs) to fight. 

Oddly, the one thing that makes sense and keeps me grounded is Leah Horlick’s For Your Own Good—a book of poetry dedicated to sexual violence and abuse within a lesbian relationship. 

On my shelf at home are many books about violence. I have a signed copy of Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking that I got from a friend’s grandfather. I have The Revolution Begins at Home. I have Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Care Work and Dirty River. I have Evelyn Lau’s Runaway. While I was a volunteer at Women Against Violence Against Women, a rape crisis centre (that now supports all marginalized genders), reading non-fiction about sexual violence helped to give voice to a range of survivor experiences. 

But reading a full-length poetry book about such a visceral, real, and rarely talked about topic makes me feel seen in a way many non-fiction works don’t. In fact, it’s not just that it’s poetry—For Your Own Good is the kind of poetry book that languages (and languishes in) every part of the page. What is remarkable about Horlick’s work is the care with which her couplets put pressure on the speaker’s moments of reprieve and anguish, the back and forth of trauma and agency. 

“the truth of your body isn’t enough

the softness, their faces a curtain

lifting, they’ve been watching

all along, telling you in their own way

or turning away, one by one, until the truth

of your story is enough.”

(“House of Mirrors,” 47)

I pause over these lines because I’m thinking about my own poetry. I’m thinking about the topics I can’t help but come back to, despite how painful they are to revisit. Didn’t I tell myself I wasn’t going to talk about this anymore? Didn’t I say — after the hell that was the co-opted Hollywood #MeToo movement — no more? But here I am, a pendulum for a body, yoyo-string for hands, swinging back to the things that scare me the most.

For many years, I wasn’t sure I was going to continue writing. It wasn’t just that writing can be financially precarious. It was that I felt like my voice wasn’t needed, didn’t count, and shouldn’t exist. There are days when I don’t look at myself in reflected surfaces, for fear of seeing a body that has no voice, a body that can’t contain everything that it knows.

This sense of shame, that I shouldn’t be allowed to speak, and that there are limits to what I’m allowed to talk about and how, underpins much of my trauma. This silencing goes all the way back to decades of political strife, erupting across history as piercing sharp tentacles splitting up families, and even longer centuries of suppressed matriarchal leadership and voice. I’m much too rebellious (aka, a tad irresponsible) and genderfluid to be a matriarch, but my body still feels like a volcano.

There’s a nagging part of me that doesn’t fully believe in my work. Poetry often feels like bullshit. But despite the deep fear unravelling my body into useless, soggy noodles and despite my frustrations with the Canadian literary community at large, writing continues to be a way for me to exist, to be a self. If I don’t write, I’m hardly alive.

And there’s something so secretive and cheeky about poetry, as though I’m tying my body into a knot, or my insides into a white and fluffy dumpling wrapper, when I etch out stanzas on the word document. Firm, reliable. Tasty. 

For the past few months, I’ve been doing readings. In Vancouver, readings can often be over-crowded, the room loud and bustling, most suitable for extroverts. Most overwhelming of all is the changed look on so many people’s faces when they realize I’m not just a small, inconsequential chink—a quiet, obedient receptacle to a colonial, Western literary canon and education. Some eyes start to twinkle with recognition, as though I’ve suddenly become Someone™.

These moments of validation are sometimes fraught. They can be a high to chase, a distraction from the work itself. After all, wasn’t I a person, worthy of respect and support, before I shared my work? My fear of being misrecognized, fetishized, and put on a pedestal is rooted in a pessimism about the current landscape of Canadian literature. I’m never sure I won’t be swallowed up by tides of whiteness, recruited to build railway tracks of successful Canadian multiculturalism and then disposed.

But this fear also teaches me that I don’t write or perform poetry to be granted humanity. I do it because I know there’s a way out of pain that isn’t drugs, self-destruction, or any other forms of numbing or infliction of pain. And that, despite how alone I often feel, I’m not.

Why should we writers take our work seriously? When I share my work in front of an audience, I learn to trust them to hold my version of language, to ask them to trust me. I learn that what poetry asks of us is to listen to the smallest, most anguished voice within us and to share responsibility in its pain. It asks: What is really going on? 

When I read For Your Own Good, I imagine a conversation with the speaker and with myself that can’t exist in real time. It’s a kind of necromancy with past selves. It’s like adults learning to have imaginary friends again. When I consider the interiority of the speaker, the intimacy with which she speaks to the audience, I realize that the care I put into my own poetry is not just passing fancy. It’s valuable work that produces knowledge about who we are under conditions of violence. Speaking up against and creating space outside of a canon that has determined and even policed what is and isn’t worthy of respect and support is necessary political work.

The speaker-isn’t-the-author rule in creative writing poetry workshop settings is a helpful tool for facilitating feedback, but it doesn’t quite get at the fundamental philosophical notion of what poetry does. When I create an “I” on the page, I create a new space to crawl in, a space that only I know how to build, design, and furnish. That space is me. That space has me in it. That space holds all of me. It is the only me that knows how to exist outside of physical space and linear time. But I write that “I” so that readers can also be let in. I learn with the readers how to exist with all my falsehoods, all my secrets, and all my bullshit. Please take off your shoes; wear these slippers.

When I was about eleven, when I didn’t think I was going to live past fourteen, people around me started to notice I was writing poetry. In many ways, I’m still that eleven-year-old kid. Sometimes, I’m just scared, mistrustful, and unable to see the point in any form of resistance. Writing is a way for me to offer support to that younger self, to be emotionally present and to be a witness to everything that hurt then and is still hurting now. 

Marginalized poets, including those of us who don’t feel like we’re real writers, deserve the space to work hard on our craft. We deserve to get paid a fair wage for doing that work. We deserve the time to language ourselves on the page, like a body that has grown so cramped from living in small quarters and is finally able to languish with a sleepy feline by its side. It’s not because us settlers are entitled to expensive apartments on occupied land. It’s not because there’s something inherently ethical about poetry or writing. It’s because we all deserve to be safe enough not to cause each other violence. We deserve to learn about ourselves and one another through our carefully crafted line breaks. To ease out of mere survival and to learn how to live with one another. For me, writing poetry is the difficult process of relearning how to love. 

It’s, “I don’t know if this is enough, but I’ll try anyway.”

Jane Shi is a queer Chinese settler living on the unceded, traditional, and ancestral territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Her work has appeared in Room magazinePoetry is DeadThirteen: New Collected Poems from LGBTQI2S Writers in Canada, LooseLeaf Magazine, GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine, The China Channel, and others.  She wants to live in a world where love is not a limited resource, land is not mined, hearts are not filched, and bodies are not violated. Find her online @Pipagaopoetry.

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