On Salt & Kitchen Poems
I got back into writing poetry by writing about food. I hadn’t written anything in months so I decided to start keeping a food diary of everything I love to eat in Shanghai, where I currently live. Eventually the diary became a blog. I don’t do it for any of the reasons people usually keep track of what they eat. I do it in order to remember, to record and recreate the things that bring me comfort and joy.
Silken tofu cut into the shape of a flower floating in soup, tiny dried shrimps and pickled vegetables sprinkled on top, caramelised spring onions tossed with noodles in a sweet and salty black bean sauce.
When I started writing bits and pieces that resembled poems again, I couldn’t get away from salt and sugar and teeth and skin. I keep coming back to the many food memories that map out my childhood spent partly in New Zealand, in the United States, in Malaysia and in China.
Maybe writing a poem is like preserving something in salt. Like putting a memory or a sensation in a sealed jar and letting a chemical change take place.
A few weeks ago I attended a haiku writing workshop in Shanghai run by the Japanese-American poet Miho Kinnas. I’d never written a haiku before and didn’t know much about them. Miho explained that the form was especially popular with women poets in ancient Japan. The tradition of women writing haiku has continued into contemporary Japan but some of these poems have been scornfully labelled “kitchen haiku”, devalued by literary critics because of their domestic subject matter.
So I decided to try and write some kitchen haiku.
I unwrap lotus leaves
with my teeth
a steamed heart inside
spread salt into
the cracks and crush until
our skins break
girl sits alone
with pink fingers
As part of my mission to read more poetry by women of colour from all over the world, I recently discovered the work of Safia Elhillo, a young Sudanese-American poet whose first book The January Children was published this year by the University of Nebraska Press. Her poems often take us deep into the minute details that make up the landscape of her origins, both real and imaginary.
Her work makes me think a lot about tracing my own history—both the things I remember and the things I’m told I should remember—through kitchens, childhood haunts, living rooms, & conversations between grandmothers, mothers, aunts, meals made by hand, spices and seasonings, words I hear passed between them at the kitchen table. Below is an excerpt from Safia Elhillo’s poem “Old Wives’ Tales”:
© Nina Powles 2017
Nina Powles is a poet and writer from Wellington, currently living in China. She is the author of the chapbook Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press, 2014) and several poetry zines. Her poems and essays have recently appeared in The Sapling, Mimicry, Shabby Doll House and Sport. Check out her blog for more.
Listen to Nina in conversation with Lynda Chanwai-Earle on National Radio as she makes dumplings. It is terrific.