To Give or Not to Give?

by Songyi Zhang 

      I went to Radio Shack the other day for a can of dust removal spray. My purchase was smooth until I came to the cashier. The twenty-something-year-old sales guy who spoke nearly indecipherable English asked me, “What’s your last name?”

      What? I couldn’t figure out why my last name had to do with my payment. I looked at him and asked him to repeat the question. He did and I seemed to have no choice but give him the answer. I thought that was it.

      “What’s your first name?” He asked.

      I automatically spelled out my name for him but I still didn’t know why he needed to know my name, my home address, ZIP code, phone number and email address. I’m not used to giving my own personal information out to strangers. It’s not what I grew up with in China. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. As youngsters, we were always reminded that we should not talk to strangers in public; don’t give out any private information to others unless they’re your trustworthy family and friends. So you’ll see it’s difficult for a reporter in China to get sources because normally the interviewees are reluctant to tell you their names, age and other personal details. They’re afraid of reprisals. The approach is genuinely from a sense of self protection.

      Unlike the Chinese belief, Americans are open about themselves. As long as you talk to a stranger long enough, he will introduce himself to you. If he’s interested in talking with you, he may even tell you about his childhood, his family and probably his love affair anecdotes. That seldom happens among city dwellers in China. I’m told most American families list their names and phone numbers in the White Pages. My first reaction to that was—Oh, that’s dangerous! It encourages malicious crime.

      After the sales guy input the information on the computer, he said, “Okay, we’ll email you a ten-dollar discount coupon.”

      I thanked him with a facetious smile and left. My mind couldn’t help thinking of the questions the sales guy had asked me. Just for a ten-dollar discount coupon, I had to release all my personal information to him? Is it worth it?

      Honestly, I do not like this interrogation sales strategy in America. I recall when I came to the country last summer I went to a Verizon store to buy a mobile phone. The first question the sales guy asked me was What’s your Social Security Number?

      Hey I am new to this country. I don’t know what Social Security Number is. Please just sell me a phone and service. I was annoyed and thought to myself. Anyone can get a phone and number easily in China but it’s definitely not so in the U.S.. Because I didn’t have my Social Security Number at that time, I couldn’t apply for a phone plan. At last I got a prepaid phone which isn’t popular in America.

      Now when I check out in a store, I’m apprehensive of the questions I will be asked. In order to save the trouble of identifying who I am, I learned driving in Pittsburgh from scratch just to obtain a legal ID. But at times I’m still wondering, can I keep my personal information safe and sound?  


Jailhouse Journal XI

by Ella Stone

I started my first garden this summer. I finally have the space to grow one. I’ve always wanted to plant, always felt the need to produce. But mostly, I want to learn from the process of gardening. I want to know what needs more water, more sun, what survives cold nights, and what clings tight or loose to the ground. I want to watch my garden grow.

I planted red leaf lettuce in late April. The lettuce started off small, and bushy and round. Unsure of where its roots might settle, it grabbed hold of the earth like a fist, slowly, waiting for the soil to hug its filaments and for its spine of a stalk to brace the ground. Now, as the temperature rises, it grows tall like a tree. Cool season crops like lettuce are coming to the end of their season and the low meandering leaflets that used to hide the soil beneath it, now spread upward and openly like the hands of a dancer, revealing a way to the lettuce’s roots. They call it “bolting,” when a plant is preparing to flower and spread more seed, innately wanting to preserve its line, biologically geared to continue its name. Stalks stand erect like monuments outside my window, pointing towards skies and the song birds that coo.

My inmate students stand tall in red. The classroom we’ve created for writing and sharing nourishes their veins with confidence, affirmation, and the encouragement to produce. When I first arrived at the jail they sat low, hunched over, and they gave off a vibe of fear, uncertain of what I would bring them.  We have a joke in the class now about who is leaving and when. Initially, I’m bummed whenever someone tells me their leaving, disappointed he will no longer be in class, present in the circle, spreading seeds of support. But I’m happy he’s sprouting out of this place, happy he has the chance to go home and be with his family, happy he might choose not to come back.

I snip each lettuce leaf for dinner tonight—the ones that are a deep maroon showing their insides to me—and place them in a large stainless steel bowl. They fall with grace, still holding their form, layering each other with enough air to stay fresh. Their tips curl like coral, like a hand that’s reaching out for something to grab hold of, something to help them leave home.

As I pace behind the inmates in class, their heads still and focused on a computer screen, I bend down a little to read what they’re writing. The smell of hard white soap fills my nostrils, like a surge of fresh herbs picked from my garden before the sun has warmed them. They smell cleaner than clean. I think about how much they must scrub, how much they must lather in order to rid their bodies of the dirt and guilt, to cleanse themselves of the soiled dreams that fall like a layer of dew over the jail grounds.


Denver Impressions

by Songyi Zhang


Coming from China, a nation of 1.3 billion people, to the United States, which has a vast landscape, I’ve had many cultural shocks. Many are not only from the comparison with my homeland but also with the stark contrasts between the American states.

Speaking of Denver, I immediately think of its NBA team, the Nuggets, because NBA games are the only American professional sport televised nationwide in China. However, my spring visit to Denver for the Associated Writing Programs conference tells me Denver is more than the Nuggets.


Denver is flat and sprawling compared to hilly, winding Pittsburgh, where I’ve been studying the past nine months. As the plane descended, I saw that the white land plastered in snow was as level as an endless bedspread. “Wow, snow in Denver?” I exclaimed. While Pittsburgh was celebrating the sunny weather of Fahrenheit 70s in early April, Denver was still hibernating in late winter.

“Denver’s weather is strange this year. Bring all your layers!” That’s what I was told by our Denver hosts, Kathy and Paddy. Wearing a t-shirt and a big khaki coat, I sat in front of the car on the way from the airport to Thornton, watching mile after mile of grassland. The panorama reminded me of my road trip on the Tibetan Plateau. I was stunned by the big blue sky and the emptiness on both sides of the highway. There were neither livestock nor pedestrians outdoors but there were speeding vehicles, including giant pickup trucks. The size of vehicles in America gives you an inkling of the size of the people as well as the space they crave.

Prairie Dogs.

As fascinated as I was when I first saw squirrels and rabbits in Pittsburgh, I was drawn to Denver’s little brown rodents—prairie dogs.

“What? Say that again,” I couldn’t believe what I heard.

“They’re called prairie dogs,” my travel mate Arnold said.

Why dogs? They are too small to be dogs. My bewilderment was cleared up when Paddy told me the animal stood up like a dog, wiggling its tail. Ha! What an imaginative name. Prairie dogs were the first animals I saw in Denver before horses, cows and rabbits.

Colorado Cuisine.

As a Cantonese, I love food and I love exploring food wherever I go. I’m a seafood buff. So when I first heard Kathy say that the most famous item of Denver cuisine is Rocky Mountain Oysters, I was exhilarated. “Oh yeah, I love oysters!”

“They’re not the real oysters. They’re buffalo testicles,” Arnold explained. His words were like a bucket of cold water quenching my flame of hope.

Instead of having Rocket Mountain Oysters, we had a Mexican dinner with margaritas. The lime green margarita must be the Colorado state drink as I often saw the inverted triangle shaped glass on the dining tables in Denver. One of my unforgettable occasions was having a frozen margarita at Pepsi Center for a live Colorado Avalanche game. My hand was numb from holding the freezing plastic cup. The drink crystallized my veins as I slurped too quickly, resulting in a sudden headache.

My food discovery in Denver ended in the historic steakhouse—the Buckhorn Exchange. Exhibiting dozens of huge buck heads mounted on the walls, the restaurant was uncanny in the dim lighting. Thanks to the crowds in the restaurant, I dined amidst boisterous conversation which distracted my attention from the buck heads’ glaring above me. Our evening wasn’t over until we hopped on the light rail train with the help of the manager of the Buckhorn.

“You can take H, F or D line,” he said, skillfully pressing the buttons on the ticket vending machine. “Just remember—Have Fun Downtown.”

He’s surely right. I enjoyed my train ride to downtown with my full belly.


Denver’s downtown is like an oasis in a concrete forest—skyscrapers competing for height—in a boundless sandy land. From one end of the 16th Street Mall, one can see a range of mountains on the other end. The streets are straight, crisscrossing like a grid. Unlike the zigzagging roads in Pittsburgh, Denver has wider streets and fewer traffic lights. If only I could drive in Denver—a country of Go Straight for miles!

Now whenever I think of Denver, my memory lingers over a picture of the modern city against the backdrop of snow-capped Rocky Mountains. Denver is a jewel of Colorado, which I’d like to associate with the pronunciation of a musical tune, Co-lo-ra-do.


Jailhouse Journal X

by Ella Stone


I gave the students a week off to revise their work. It was nice to have a break, but I found myself constantly thinking about the world around me in relation to the inmates at the jail.

I watched Gasland the other night, a documentary about the Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling that’s going on all over the country. The process of drilling is polluting water and sickening families, and the “Halliburton loophole” prevents oil and gas industries from disclosing the chemicals being used. I started thinking about the change that one person can make, started contemplated the saying: You can make a difference. I felt disheartened being reminded that the power lies in congressmen and senators, in rich oil CEO’s and selfish political leaders. I started losing hope in the power of my students at the ACJ.

North Americans function as one big system. We live under one network, and the more we learn the more we begin to understand that certain individuals have the power to make decisions that affect populations at large, a domino effect on people, down to the cleanliness of our drinking water. As I grow older, this system only becomes clearer and more upsetting to me. In Gasland, the filmmaker and narrator travels all over the country talking to families whose wells have been contaminated by the chemicals required for hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which is the process of pushing out natural gas using millions of gallons of water. My heart clenched with each beat as I watched the destruction that humans were doing, the contamination, the pollution, the dishonesty, the stripping of what should be a natural right. My heart hurt and it weakened because I couldn’t deny the little power that I have on the world around me, and the even less power that my inmate students have, and for a moment I wanted to give up, on my students and my way of life, move away from the city to the middle of the woods, away from a system of lies, greed and self-interest.

I want to bring good to the lives of inmates who spend their days locked up, hidden from sunlight, from their families and friends, from the evening skies and Pittsburgh lines, from the rivers that feed this city. I know they’ve made wrong choices or have been circumstantially fated to jail, but I still believe they have the potential to make the right choices and I want to help them realize that.

But there are days when I lose hope in the good of people, days when documentaries like Gasland and responses like BP’s to the oil spill in the gulf force me to recognize reality. People that know me say I’m an idealist, say that I give people too many chances, and try to find good where there isn’t any. I say I’ve seen more good in the men and women at the ACJ discussing writing and how it can help them reach their goals, listening to them talk about their son’s bedroom or their aunt’s cooking, watching them pat each other on the back after sharing a well-written poem than in any group or individual who has the power to control our country. I say those involved in natural gas drilling who are aware of its horrendous effects on humans, those BP exec’s who, although educated and well-traveled, care more about their reputations and money than the health and happiness of humans or an entire ecosystem, are the people who’ve made wrong decisions. Those are the people who are hurting thousands more people than these inmates have harmed, and those are the people who could use a little time behind bars, forced to search for the good within them.


Where Does Poetry Come From? IV

by Michael Simms

Many poets turn to the other arts for inspiration. For painters such as William Blake, Cezanne, and the contemporary Dutch painter Leo Klein, the challenge is to capture the sublime, to visually represent the invisible, so that the painting becomes more than itself, more than an object, more than a picture of what is seen. The painter represents vision rather than sight. Similarly, the poet does not so much hear, as he listens. He does not experience sight, but insight, not landscape but inscape, so the language we use everyday, the language of shopkeepers and college students, transcends itself.

But a young poet may become confused about the source of poetry, thinking that because so many poets have drug and alcohol problems, then this self-abuse goes with the job. Perhaps the young poet even convinces himself that the source of poetry can be coaxed along by artificial means. Many years ago a Nigerian friend remarked that I had a “time-space problem” referring to my habit of mentally drifting off. The absent-mindedness that he saw as a problem I saw as a tool of the trade: poetry resides in the clouds, I reasoned, so I was always ready to let my mind wander. I used drugs and alcohol to disassociate my senses, taking as my models Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas. Self-loathing and an obsession with death called seductively to me as they had for Berryman, Plath, Hart Crane, and so many other poets. Poetry, I thought, was the music created by a tortured soul. I ignored the fact that there are many poets, such as William Stafford and Naomi Shihab Nye, who live sane decent lives with their families, and whose work brings a vision of light and wholeness to the listener. In recent years, these two poets in particular have taught me that poetry springs from a special alertness, a willingness to embrace the present moment.


Lea wants to change her name to Tina.
Her mother says she must think very carefully
     because a name has to fit.
The wrong name can bind like someone else’s shoes.
Who knows where a name has walked,
dust of what roads, uncomfortable creases across the toe,
the heel worn down by someone else’s sorrow?

Her brother says the name Tina fits.
But if she’s Tina, he says, what happened to Lea?
The name turned down the wrong street, got lost,
fell off the edge of the mountain.
The sound of her name fills the river valley.
Everywhere it is nowhere, he says,
her name needs to come home.

Lea doesn’t want to be Tina anymore.
It’s just too much responsibility.


A Day in Lake Placid

                                                             By Songyi Zhang 

We took a day trip to Lake Placid in upstate New York. Whenever we told people we were going to Lake Placid, they would immediately inform us the place was the two-time site of the Winter Olympics, in 1932 and 1980. Yes, I knew that. But really I just wanted to see the lake and the Adirondack Mountains. I was seeking a moment of peace.

Hearing hundreds of Harley motorcycles rumbling around us on the road, I realized we had picked the wrong day. Thanks to the annual Americade motorcycle rally in Lake George, the tranquility of the Olympics village was broken.  Men and women in black garments from head to toe, robust and ruddy, came to Lake Placid to chill out. They drank, they ate, they shopped, they laughed, they photographed. Watching them with their cool bikes enriched our visit in that neck of woods.

Personally, I had never seen such a large scale motorcycle event. The recent one I saw was in New Orleans’ French Quarter but the attendees of the Americade definitely outnumbered those of the motorbike festival in Big Easy. Standing next to a muscular motorcyclist, I felt like an inconspicuous chipmunk facing life-or-death in front of an elephant foot.

I think the denizens of Lake Placid are still proud of their Winter Olympics history as well as their existing winter sports facilities, which serve as a training ground for Olympic athletes. I don’t know if it was the side effect of my recent trip to Southern Louisiana, but suddenly in upstate New York, I was race conscious. The winter sports in America are dominated by white people. I remember the two times I went to see the NHL games, I didn’t  spot a single African-American player. The same situation happened when I was in Pennsylvania’s Seven Springs Ski Resort. As an Asian, I was the only person of color there.

Anyway, sports have no boundary of age, nationality and race. As a Chinese, I think it is more noticeable in America than in China, for example, to observe athletes of different colors.

Speaking of international sports events… sadly, as the World Cup 2010 is going on at the moment, I don’t feel the exhilarating frenzy in America as much as that in the rest of the world. If I were in China now, I would be sleepless to watch our favorite teams and to follow the results with my friends even though China is out of the game.

If only Americans could devote one tenth of their passion for their national sports to the World Cup, we might make a small step toward understanding the rest of the world.

Our day trip ended quickly as we couldn’t get close to Lake Placid due to the million dollar houses around the lake. We stayed most of our time by Mirror Lake, which shares its waterfront with the public. At one point I had an aversion to the upper class for their selfishness of privatizing the lake view. All we could see on the two-mile long lakefront drive were bushes and mega mansions. That’s not what I wanted and expected to see. If a seclusion of the lake for individuals is the only way to make the lake placid, then the lake resort is surely a fiasco.  


Jailhouse Journal IX

by Ella Stone 

A quote opens our lesson for the week: The art of revision is the art of writing: It’s something I’ve heard before, but I don’t know who said it. The men choose a piece of work that they feel good about, one that they put up on the projector and read aloud to the class. We have our first workshop, with revision in mind. I want all the students to think: How can it be better? What images stand out? How strong is voice? Where does the true heart lie?

Only five guys make it to class. At the jail, if you don’t make the first elevator down to the classroom, then you don’t go to class. The correctional officers don’t hold the doors. They don’t wait. They don’t come back for a second run. But it doesn’t matter this class, because these five men are ready to learn, ready to write, and ready to workshop. I watch them compliment each other on language and narrative arc, hear them respond with “Wow, man” and “No for real, this is good.” They get high off the energy that pervades a writing workshop, the same high that I get sitting in a circle, talking about creative writing. I think about how a lot of these guys are in here for getting high off something else, or for letting their anger take control of their reason, or for fighting a system that just wants to keep them down. And I can’t understand how these men, who are respectful, intelligent, funny, humble men in my class truly got to this place in their lives? I want to know what went wrong.

When Carl, the gentle-natured inmate with sweet eyes and a soft voice reads his piece about living in the ghetto, I feel the tingle that crawls through your cheeks right before your eyes well up and a tear or two flows. Carl is new to class. He’s never really written before, he tells me. He doesn’t think he’s a writer, or at least a writer good enough to read. After he reads his piece, we discuss how it works best as a poem. “This is a poem?” he asks. “Really? I wrote a poem? I never knew how to write a poem or what a poem was.”

“Yep, this is your first poem, Carl. And it’s good.”

I’m realizing how much work teaching at the jail entails. It takes up a lot of my time, planning lessons, putting together booklets with craft definitions and building blocks, quotes and excerpts. I feel myself becoming totally absorbed by these classes. I think about the inmates when I’m gone, I wonder what their lives are like outside of jail, I hurt because of what I see every week in their eyes.

 I see pain because they’re longing for their wives or their kids. I see fear because they don’t know what this system will bring them. I see a sense of humor because they like to laugh in class just like the rest of us, passion because some of their words are put together so well and so creatively that I find myself taken aback, and hope, because these inmates have good in them. The kind of good it takes to think about the world around you, to observe the tiny details, to reflect on how these details make you feel and how they can make you better, to construct sentences that convey feeling, and to share this process with someone else, to connect on a human level through this stirring communication we call writing. And they smile through tired eyes the whole time.


Where Does Poetry Come From? III

by Michael Simms

Perhaps the richest source of poetry can be found in the language of children.

When my daughter was four years old, she experienced an airplane as big on the inside and little on the outside — which, incidentally, serves as a description of a lyric poem as well. She also says Ouch is me when she has a minor injury, signifying perhaps how pain (or joy) can become our whole being. Similarly my eight year old son talked about riding a sound to school, capturing in this phrase the experience of the hum and roar of taking the bus through the morning traffic, the noise and excitement of the other children on the bus, the anticipation of the day’s challenges. He synaesthetically folded all these experiences into one phrase.

As poets, we should strive for this total immersion in the moment; it is in the present acceptance of the given that poetry exists, even when we are writing about the past.


I’m short.
You’re fat.
We’re proud of that.

Little deer lost his ear
so he went to bed
and lost his head
and couldn’t find it in the morning.

                           Anneliese Becker, age 8

 My children often make up little songs they sing to themselves. My daughter invented one about our home that begins We live in a stone called River Own. Forgive me for sounding like a doting father bragging about the ordinary achievements of his only daughter, but I think the line is brilliant. Notice how every word in the line does a great deal of work: the active verb, the interior rhyme and assonance, the variation of the iambic rhythm with the anapestic phrase in a stone, how the strongest stresses are in the last five syllables, making the line rise in emphasis. And notice the primal significance of the mixed metaphor: 

We live  
Own   (Home)      Stone

The line circumscribes a relationship between significant experiences, but like all brilliant metaphors the flow of ideas is illogical, or should we say pre-logical, capturing the experience without the obligation to be consistent and orderly. The associations are musical and intuitive because naming the world is an act of magic, not of logic. Each child has to create the world anew, just as Adam did. And just as poets must.


My First American Cold

                                                             By Songyi Zhang 

I have my first cold since my arrival in America ten months ago! I joked with my friends I couldn’t go back to China this summer because if I did, I would be considered a Swine Flu virus carrier.

I remember last summer while H1N1 epidemic ran rampant around the world, the Chinese government authorities announced that passengers from all North American flights were required to have a special medical checkup upon their arrival at all customs entrances. So a number of Chinese students didn’t return home during the summer. I felt lucky for myself that I was going to North America but not returning home. But I was apprehensive of my landing in Chicago. Would it take me a long time to go through the same protocol to go through the flu scan on the US side? Did I bring sufficient medical papers to prove my healthy status? I certainly didn’t want to be the odd one in the line.

Unlike at the China Customs where passengers, foreign visitors and Chinese nationals, wore masks as if they were entering a plague zone, the US Customs was medically undefended. I didn’t see one person who was about to enter the country wearing a mask. I guess if they did, they must be more likely to be thought of a terrorist than a flu patient. I didn’t need to go through any body temperature devices or health questioning. There were not any flyers or brochures at the customs for arriving passengers on how to prevent the H1N1 epidemic. I was surprised at first, thinking of a dozen twelve-ply white masks in my backpack that I was prepared to wear as soon as I landed in America. I didn’t wear any masks as I really didn’t want to be the odd one in the line.

Last year I heard little about the H1N1 news through the American media. I didn’t know if that was the good news or the bad news. In China, there would be a daily or even hourly news update on the epidemic casualty. All of a sudden I felt I was so secure since no news was good news until I called my family in China, one of their many questions was whether the H1N1 flu was serious where I was. As soon as I told them I didn’t keep track with the case number, they would report back to me. Gosh! How much have I missed out? Was this the American style of news censorship?

 At home in China whenever I had a cold I would turn to Tylenol for help. Thank God for this internationally well-known brand. I told a friend and he took me to the drugstore and pointed me to the right shelf where there were a dozen kinds of Tylenol manufactured by various pharmaceutics. Oh, not now, I thought, I can’t make my choice when I was woozy and sniffling and suffering from a skull-rocking headache. My friend helped me to pick up the powerful Sudafed nighttime caplets in lieu of Tylenol. After taking two tablets as the instruction said, I was knocked out faster than if I had consumed a New Orleans’ Hand Grenade.

Fortunately, my sinuses cleared up the next day.  


Aunt Emily

Aunt Emily

Imagining Emily Dickinson in 1852


 She’s thinking of song—

dividing the day into eight

juicy bits,


into sixty little books

of six folded sheets,

“always in ink,”


the worm of oblivion

tucked neatly into one

gnawed corner—


polishing some lapidary

idea of a frayed eternity.


Her hair is red

feathers—a robin’s

breast (wary little bird

binding us to her

paint.) Her


wandering pupil stares

sideways to infinity;

it is morning where she is—


the sun passing

like a swollen eye

across the crowded



Sewing Box


Half-hidden, her thimble,

     little dimpled well.

                 What residue

                 of her salt

     does it contain?


(The chary bird in me

       loves to sip from it.)

                  Measuring tape, scissors…

                  Enough equipment here

     for the tedious Fates.


Yes, here is her favorite

       pincushion, the sharps

                     and darners stuck in it

                     like small, heroic



Sacred Love


The trees practice it

all winter—the honey


locusts, with their spiritual

thorns, their dry pods


of sweetness,

the death pale birches


like bony priestesses

and the deflowered flower


girl plums, naked

and wind-thrashed,


in bruise colors.

But, what ascetic hermit


can resist disporting

when April unbosoms!


one of Vermeer’s women,

dressed up in such lush


tapestries, lavish embroideries,

brazen perfumes—


Waiting for Necessity to Speak V

by Michael Simms

Sometimes we sense that even the dead are connected to the fabric of life. My wife tells me that a graduate student came to her office and told this story, which he claims is true. An old man died at 3:47 AM in Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh. His brother, who had had Alzheimer’s disease for five years, was asleep in a different hospital on the other side of town. The floor nurse recorded in his chart at 3:47 AM that the Alzheimer’s patient said his brother’s name twice. Meanwhile in a different city a thousand miles away, the student was studying for an exam. The young man looked up to see his grandfather, the man who had just died, standing in the middle of the room. The old man looked thin, but he had a gentle smile on his face. “Still studying, little professor?” he asked. The young man nodded, amazed at what he was seeing. “I have to go now,” the old man said and disappeared.