The River in Our Blood


The story started with Allen Ginsberg in1987. We were in his apartment at the Lower East Side, celebrating the end of the first American and Chinese Poetry Festival. I was their translator. Poet Beidao saw the Tangka above Allen’s bed and asked him how long he’d been practicing Tibetan Buddhism. Allen started talking about Tibet and became very agitated. The Chinese poets assured him that things were getting much better now. Suddenly Allen yelled: “What the F-do you know?” I looked at him, said “Allen, I’m just translating for you.” His assistant Bob Rosenthal took him away. Five minutes later, he came back with a pile of his poetry collections, some of them limited editions and rare prints, and he drew Buddha and lotus on each book. “My apology for yelling about Buddha. AAAAH!” The next year, I made a trip to Tibet, and I understood why Allen practiced Buddhism and why he yelled.  And I’ve been back to that land almost every year since then. Thanks, Allen, for pointing my way to my spiritual home. Thanks, New York, for birthing me as a poet and writer.

In 2004, a poet sent me a photo that showed a man plummeting from a 60 feet high billboard in Hangzhou and people watching and cheering for his fall. The man was a peasant who traveled thousands of miles into the city to seek his wife who worked as a foot masseuse, only to be robbed. The tragedy turned my eyes to the Yangtze delta where I was born and grew up. The delta was becoming the engine of China’s booming economy, made possible by 25 million peasants who left their villages to seek work in the cities along the coast. Men worked in factories, constructions, building roads and railways, women in service industries and assembly lines. They worked long hours in unprotected conditions, making extremely low wages, all for the single reason: to support the old and raise the young. I traveled along the Yangtze to interview those migrant workers and take photographs. We cried and laughed and shared stories. So thank you all, my laoxiang, my fellow country people, for opening your hearts and showing your beautiful smiles even though you were tired and hungry and homesick.

In 2006, I traveled to the Three Gorges area to interview the people displaced by the dam with my colleague Jim Von Gelden. We saw the massive destructions of many homes, heard many petitioners who wanted their stories to be told, and traveled down the breath taking gorges that are submerged under 175 meters water. There I felt the pulse of the gorgeous river and the people who have been living on the shores for thousand of years.  The exhibition “Behind the Gate: after the Flooding of the Three Gorges” tried to bring out that river pulse and people’s voice through photos, videos, poetry and stories. So many thanks to Freeman Foundation, for your support for my travel and exhibition; to Jim, for enduring much hardship and many surprises during our travel; to Tom, for putting a camera in my hand and telling me to shoot, just shoot; to all the people from the Three Gorges who were not afraid of telling me your stories.

In 2007 and 2008, I traveled to the Yangtze again, from Shanghai to the Three Gorges, from Three Gorges to the upper reach of the Yangtze, the Golden Sand River where the Chinese sturgeon used to spawn and raise the young, from the Golden Sand River to the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, where the mighty Yangtze originated. I traveled along the railroad by train, by cars, on foot, talked to the nomads and migrant workers who came from far away to mine, build roads, railways, and high rises. Each of them said they left home to make money so that their children could go to college and no longer need to do what they do.  The photos, film and texts from those trips were exhibited, thanks to Banfille-lock Cultural Center, which provided a beautiful space, to the Freeman grant that allowed me to travel to the river, to my friends from the plateau who provided me with guides, vehicles, train tickets, and to all the people who opened their beautiful souls and shared their hearts.

From 2005 to 2010, I started to bring my research into teaching. With the Synergy grant, I taught a hybrid course on Immigrants and American Myth, which explored the migrant workers and immigration law and literature in USA. After the Three Gorges trip, I got the Mellon Grant to teach a interdisciplinary course “Where the Water Gathers and Rivers Meet,” using the three rivers that converge around the twin cities area as the materials, field, and inspiration for creative writing. The class paddled the Minnesota River from the Upper Sioux to the Lower Sioux, guided by Dakota people. The students learned the living history along the river that changed their lives and perspectives forever. In 2009, I co-taught the river class with Martin Gunderson, “Rivers, Humans and Environmental Justice, and again, we did the four-day canoe trip that allowed the students to experience things they’d never have experienced in the classroom. In 2010, I taught another new course “Pain and Healing through the River and Words.” Again, I took my two classes to the Mississippi. We paddled from Minneapolis to the Raspberry Island, going through three dam locks and the beautiful Mississippi gorge, seeing the cities for the first time from the river’s eye.

In 2010, I went to Shanghai for the premier opening of “Ten Thousand Waves,” a film installation by Isaac Julien about the Chinese immigrants who drowned in London, for which I wrote the poems as the script. Before my departure, Sean Smuda asked me to install his Blown Derivatives project, a banner that included the works of five artists (myself included) on the Great Wall. I told him I wasn’t planning to go there, but I could install them in Shanghai and Tibet, thus covering the whole Yangtze. He agreed. In Shanghai, I visited a fishing village, and paid a large sum to a fisherman to install the banner on the island where the Yangtze meets the East China Sea, then I took the second banner to Tibet, and installed it on a sacred mountain over 5000 meters high. As I gasped for air, watching the flags flutter in the wind and snow among thousands of the Tibetan prayer flags, all the people I’d met along the Yangtze and Mississippi Rivers came to me, telling me I must wait no longer, must spread their stories to the world through the wind. At that moment, I knew what I must do.

I want to build bridges to connect the world’s great rivers, starting with the Mississippi and Yangtze, then all rivers, with poetry, stories, art, music, dance, and food, not just my words and sounds, but all the people and living species who depend on and live with the river in harmony.

Thus Kinship of Rivers was born.

It started small, as small as a mustard seed, yet it quickly took roots in the rich soil of the people. When the college I served for 12 years refused to sponsor me as my fiscal agent, and ordered the grant officers to block every possibility for grants, I posted a small note for help on the facebook. Within a day, responses from friends and strangers poured in. People pointed me to the Springboard for the Arts, who agreed to sponsor Kinship of Rivers right away and offered invaluable guidance to seek funding. Ruthanne Godley showed me how to make prints in her workshop. Will Steger offered his homestead to install the very first river flags. Adam Stoltman gave me detailed advices on photography and documentary film. Andrea Codrescu sent me his artwork from the Mississippi Delta. Samuel Bjorgum did intensive research on Chinese batik dying techniques for the river flags. Fritz Vandover and Alison Sommer offered their IT and Photoshop expertise. Betsy Heist introduced me to a group of young artists who rafted down the Mississippi, who shared their amazing stories with us. Sean Smuda connected me to North Light for our first public installation. Ted Gephart brought his sailing expertise. Dan Hornbach, Jim Dawes and Martin Gunderson wrote support letters to plead to the stubborn administrators to allow the grant officer to help me with the funding, to no avail. Dan McGuiness came to me with a Mississippi river map and his contact with Nature Conservancy. Ann Waltner from U of Minnesota invited me to attend a river conference at the St Anthony Lab in October. I gave a 3-minute presentation on the project, and was surrounded by the supporters afterwards. There, I met the national park ranger Randy Thoreson, who introduced me to another park ranger David Wiggins, then led me to Margaret Smith at the Great River Road Center at Prescott, where the St. Croix met with the Mississippi. With the spectacular view of the rivers, we talked and laughed and set up a writing workshop with the seniors to gather river stories, an art workshop to make flags with the families from the communities, a 252 river-mile paddle and flag installations along the entire St. Croix River with the most amazing people, and a grand celebration with flags, music, and dumplings at Prescott, where the blue St. Croix meets the muddy Mississippi, to celebrate the 100 anniversary of the St. Croix River Association. David introduced me to the Wildness Inquiry, who took my Mind and Matter class paddling down Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi. Prudence Johnson joined in the force. Our collaboration on Women from the Yangtze was exhibited and performed in the Open Eye Theatre. Ariel, my 13-year-old son, wrote a terrific poem about the Mississippi earthquake. Composer Carleton Macy came with his wind chimes and recorder that plays the tunes from both rivers. Bruce Bolon set music to “Ten Thousand Waves,” and we performed the haunting ensemble at the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi, and Hamline University, and the Soap Factory, a gallery with great visions and sense of play on the bank of the Mississippi, the No. 1 Lock and Dam, and the historic Stone Arch Bridge, where we just had a collaboration with the Solstice River on the longest day of the year, to dance and make flags on the bridge that was wrapped with the thousand flags made by the people along the Mississippi, from Itasca all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

I pondered a long time on the flags. I wanted 1000 -2000 flags, but who should make them, and how? I made the first three banners with my own photos, stories and poems printed on silk, including five other artists’ work. They are beautiful, and the first installation at Will Steger’s castle was a great hit. But I still felt it needed the hands and hearts and visions from the people along the shore, and the blessings from the rivers and trees and fish.  So we decided to go to schools: elementary, junior high, high schools, and colleges, and the communities such as senior centers, ethnic centers, galleries, museums, parks, lock and dams.

The first one was St. Anthony Park Elementary, where Lisa’s son went as a six grader. It was March, 2011, and Japan was suffering from the great tsunami. Children wrote haikus in their honor, and Lisa designed the art lesson. The flags were highly colorful, and the children had fun. I wanted to combine both poetry and art in the flag. So I visited my son’s class at Ramsey Junior High. Within two hours, the children, some of them spoke no English, and some had never written a poem, made the most amazing flags. When the bell rang, they didn’t want to stop: their words and images just kept flowing. Their teacher John said: “How did you do this? Some of the kids haven’t written a single word for me. All they want is to run outside. All I can do is to guard the door.” “It’s the river,” I said.

And it’s true. The river spirit has brought out so much magic out of every student, every institute: Horrace Mann Elementary, Dowling Elementary for the disabled children, Anishinabe Academy, L’Etoile du Nord, Minhua Summer School, Yinhua Academy, Macalester College, Hamline University, Naropa University, Emily Carlson University…from third graders who never wrote poetry to college students who are a little shy being children again, from children who hardly speak English to children who speak with aids and interpreters, from classroom teachers to science and art teachers…their hearts opened for the river, and flowed with the river.

When our website was launched, together with our facebook group, it caused great ripple effects. One of them came from Heid Erdrich, a friend and Ojibwe poet from Minneapolis. She invited Kinship of Rivers to do our first installation at All My Relations Art Gallery at the Phillips Town. We installed our flags in and outside the gallery. Poets and artists from different tribes gathered and read poems about the rivers, children and their parents gathered to make flags. The youngest was a one-year-old boy from the Leach lake, and the farthest girl came from Nepal…It was a magical place, a magical gathering, and flags were just stunningly beautiful and moving.

Magic happens wherever we install the flags. Eyes brighten, hearts pump, and hands open. People feel the power and beauty of the flags, and want to join in. We often just walk into galleries, museums, and army corps of engineers, and as soon as we talk about our project and show them the flags, they jump up and invite us to install the flags at their sites. That is how we traveled, paddled, installed and made the flags, bringing joy to people along the way, bringing people together from all races, ages, and professions, transforming them into artists, poets and river’s friends.

From then on, we have been flowing in the river, with the river, paddling, swimming, singing, dancing, connecting, cleaning, eating, harmonizing. We’ve made and installed the river flags at the headwaters: Itasca, Solon Spring, Big Stone Lake, Tibet; at the major confluences: Fort Snelling (the Mississippi and Minnesota), Prescott (the Mississippi and St. Croix), St. Louis, MO, and Alton, IL (the Mississippi and Missouri), Cairo (the Mississippi and Ohio), Choctaw, Island (the Arkansas and Mississippi), Sorrel (the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya Basin), and at the mouths where the rivers meet the sea: Venice, LA (where the Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico), and Shanghai (where the Yangtze flows into the East China Sea), and many tributaries such as the Platte River in Nebraska, the Missouri, the Namekagen, the St. Croix, the Ohio, the Arkansas, the Golden Sand River and the Tuotuo River (source of the Yangtze), the Congming Island (mouth of the Yangtze). Our river flags have traveled along the entire Mississippi River and many of its tributaries, soaking up the air, the wind, the water and soil from each place, blessing and blessed by each river and hand that created the wonder, gathering more flags along the way. In 2013, we’ll bring the 2000 flags, hearts from the people and all sentient beings from the Mississippi, as gifts to the Yangtze River.

We did all these with our personal money, which is little considering what we’ve made in a short period, but our passion, vision and kindness are limitless. I want to thank all the people and organizations who helped with the planning, website building, designing, promoting, and installations: Lisa Steinmann, Lucy Steinmann, Ruthanne Godollei, Carleton Macy, Allison Hedge Coke, Sean Smuda, Lisa and Signe Erickson, Samuel Bjorgum, Tressa Veersteeg, Craig, Scott Gannis, Scott Madson, Scott Jensen, Adam Stoltman, Paul Portuge, Garret, Ann Waltner, David Wiggins, Margaret Smith, Debbie Ryun, Elly Grace Dayton, Will Steger, Larry Lamb, Bruce Bolon, Ben Heywood, Ann Waldman, Lisa Bergman, Sherwin Bitsui, Vincent Katz, Jack Colum, Patricia Smith; all the students who paddled down the rivers with me, who made the flags; all the great river peoples who guided us down the river and told us river stories: Jon Lurie, Le Moines, David Wiggins, Big Muddy Mike, Driftwood John, Knotty Churchill, Mark River, Ellen, Dave and Megan Brinks, Mike Waddle, Lily Liang, Mike and Adelia Castro, Quincy Troupe…all the wonderful teachers who let us into their classrooms: Ms. Susan, Ms. Debbie and Ms. Colleen, Ms. Campbell, Ms. Tammy, Ms. Sage, Ms. Tracy, Ms. Stacy, Ms. Angela, Mr. John; all the great institutions that facilitated Kinship of Rivers events: St. Croix River Association, Great River Road Freedom Park at Prescott, ACTC, ACM, Hamline University, University of Minnesota, St. Anthony Park Elementary, Ramsey Junior High, Dowling Elementary, Yinhua Academy, L’Etoile du Nord Academy, Minghau Summer School, National Park Service Minnesota and Wisconsin, All My Relationship Gallery, Mill City Museum, Ramsey Waterfest, White Night Northern Spark, Open Eye Theatre, Solstice River, Hamline University, University of California Santa Barbara, Emily Carr University,  Vancouver, Pace Foundation, TX, San Antonio River Foundation, EcoArts for Children,  Army Corps of Engineer, National Great River Museum at Alton, IL, Wildness Inquiry, Red Wing Gallery, Mississippi Watershed Management, Firecrackers Print shop and Gitana in St. Louis, Quapaw Canoe Company, MI,  Gold Mine Salon, New Orleans, Solstice River Global Dance, St. Paul, Franconia Sculpture Park, MN, and finally, to my colleagues at Macalester College who believe in me and fight hard to give me the funding for my classes to paddle the Minnesota, the Mississippi and Itasca headwaters, and travel the entire Mississippi. Thank you all, my friends, your generosity, enthusiasm and imaginations are streams that have become the larger family of the river system. Each of your dream and action creates a ripple, a wave, and together, we become a big long river that flows mightily to the sea, and nothing can stop us.

Finally, I want to thank the rivers. You give us life, you sustain our spirits without asking for anything back. The Kinship of Rivers is my gift, our gift, back to you.

I’ve cried many a night from exhaustion, cutting, dying, and ironing flags in the basement, writing posts for the facebook, selecting photos, scanning... Each flag takes 4-5 ironings before they can be sewed into banners. But when I scan, photoshop and upload the beautiful images and words into the website, when people from all over the world keep joining in Kinship of Rivers facebook, when scientists and artists, teachers and students play again like children, painting the flags with passion and splashing my hair with rainbows, when the river flags flutter along the shores, releasing all the beauty, passion and harmony into the wind into the world, my heart is full with joy and contentment. At those moments, I know I’m no longer alone, but fully connected with the rivers and mountains, with all the sentient beings between the earth and the sky. At those moments, I understand why Faust shouts “Stay, thou art so beautiful!" at the cost of losing his soul. No fame, money, power, mischief, or lust can make him content. Only when he joins in with the great humanity and nature does he reach the zenith of happiness.


And Allen, your poetry will guide us, along with the cranes.

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