Sometimes poet and Macalester College writing instructor Wang Ping takes her writing students paddling on the Mississippi River. That may sound like playing hooky, but she says the experience of immersing oneself in nature unlocks the imagination, because reconnecting with natural processes releases the mind from the stress of human activity and obligation.
“When people paddle the river, it opens them up, creatively,” she says. “Rivers are very powerful, because we are made of water, up to 75 percent of our bodies. And the river structure and ecosystem is so similar to our body — the energy systems, blood systems, are all river-like. We are a part of nature, and when we are physically reminded of that, it immediately opens us up to all kinds of stuff. People say it changes their lives.”
Ping was born in China, moved to the United States in 1986, and has published several books of poetry, short stories, and a novel (“The Last Communist Virgin,” Coffee House Press). Her work explores the differences between Chinese and American cultures, as well as the things they have in common.
One such thing is life built around a powerful river. The Yangtze River has shaped the timeline of human development in China, impacting agriculture, industry, culture and literature — just as the mighty Mississippi has done in the U.S. Upon moving to the Twin Cities, Ping found herself drawn to the river — first for the ways it connected her to her homeland, and next for the ways it influenced her writerly imagination.
“I saw a link between the two cultures in these sister rivers. They each pass through and inspire so much culture — music, art and literature. All kinds of people make a better life because they are near one of these rivers,” she said in an interview. She wanted to pay homage to the rivers, and over the past three years has collected a body of artwork and well-wishes from hundreds of other artists and river admirers in her Kinship of Rivers project.
From headwaters to St. Paul, and on to New Orleans
The project, which Wang intends to document in a book, began in 2011, when she led a voyage of artists and performers down the river, from the headwaters to St. Paul. In 2012, she continued to New Orleans on the second leg of the journey. This summer she’s taking a group of students and artists to China to paddle the Yangtze, with readings and performances scheduled along the way. Her aim is to raise awareness about being good stewards of these rivers through a celebration of art inspired by their waters.
“Both the Mississippi and the Yangtze have endured heartbreaking pollution, damming, and overdevelopment, mining, oil spills, global warming. We depend on rivers for more than we even comprehend and we need to take better care of them,” she said.
But pointing fingers at those who create the problems has had little effect, she says. So she’s trying another way. “Instead of shouting or criticism, I want to use joy, imagination and creativity to remind people and educate them about how much we need our rivers. People have made 2,000 prayer flags for the river, and we will bring them to China, along with beautiful stories and art, gifts from one culture to another.”
‘Native people are the true river people’
The Kinship of Rivers project has attracted artists from every discipline, including composers Bruce Colon, Prudence Johnson and Carlton Macy; printmakers Ruthann Godellei and Gordon Coons; and writers Andrei Codrescu, Quincy Troupe and William Meissner. Other contributors include writers from the native community, including Heid Erdrich, Lise Erdrich, and David Brinks.
“Native people are the true river people. For many hundreds and thousands of years, the river has been their way of life. So on the Misssissippi, the Dakota people were our guides, and along the way a storyteller would tell stories at our campsite. On the Yangtze, I’d like to involve the Tibetan people in this way,” she says. “Our trip down the Yangtze will be full of miracles, I know that. The beauty and the power of the river is still so amazing to people — all that beauty amid so much destructive force. It inspires us.”
To learn more or contribute, visit the Kinship of Rivers website.