Kingston seeks peace in poetry

by Kay Fukunaga | 5/2/03 5:00am

Having long heard of three ancient books of peace in China, yet unable to unearth a single trace of them, 12 years ago Maxine Hong Kingston began writing her own book of peace.

However, after two years and many painstaking hours of work, Kingston's book of peace was destroyed in a fire, and she was forced to begin anew.

Last night, speaking before an audience of students and fellow academics in Cook Auditorium, it was Kingston, author of the highly acclaimed "Woman Warrior," who was described as "a living book of peace" by poet Meena Alexander.

With a silver feather holding back her long, flowing hair, Kingston, who stands five feet tall, brought the audience to its feet with her speech, which encompassed both the lighthearted and the somber.

In it she managed to include everything from hilarious episodes of escaping from agitated mating elephant seals to more serious personal experiences such as being arrested for demonstrating for peace in Washington, D.C. last May.

Even when speaking of such experiences, Kingston's voice resonates a calm.

"The police were very gentle. They tied our handcuffs very loose."

There seems to be no doubt that Kingston is a crusader, having traveled all across the country to speak out for peace despite her own admitted fear of how others would react to her anti-war sentiments.

Despite this fear, Kingston prevailed, and it is for this reason that she is perhaps best described as Provost Barry Scherr referred to her in his introduction as a "woman warrior."

It appears, however, that even women warriors periodically need respites from their work.

Kingston, who has dedicated herself to her writing for the last four decades, including the last 10 years on her book of peace, recently decided that she would try a season of poetry.

"I am 60 years old. I want to be happy. Poets are all happy. I want to be a happy poet," Kingston said.

Kingston chuckled when she recalled her friends' initial reactions when she told them that she wanted to be a poet.

Despite the fact that they were not very encouraging of her new aspirations, she decided to try her hand at it.

"Being so discouraged among the human beings, I thought I would go out among the animals, be a nature poet," Kingston said.

It was such a decision which led her to her first exposure in observing the elephant seal mating ritual, with male seals "galumphing forward and plopping on top of females. It would be hell to be reincarnated as a female elephant seal," Kingston cracked, leading the audience to burst into boisterous laughter and hoots.

Undeterred by her first attempt at capturing nature in poetry, Kingston decided to try again, but this time in her own backyard.

There she planted some broccoli seeds and watched them grow.

"I could feel the broccoli gazing at me," Kingston said.

"The thing that I dislike about American culture is that it is so exciting. I write about how I live my life every day. But I want my life to be ordinary," Kingston said.

While some such backyard sketches paint Kingston's life as the epitome of calm, she certainly seems to have her fair share of extraordinary moments.

On International Peace Day, Kingston joined 25 other women, clad in pink to symbolize their solidarity, in standing outside of the White House to demonstrate for peace.

Even after being handcuffed and arrested by police, Kingston looks back on the experience as one in which there was such a palpable sense of love.

"We were trying to project all these balls of love to Iraq, but President Bush was closer than we were," Kingston said.

Ultimately, however, Kingston also cites the incident as one which made her painfully aware of "just how vulnerable we are."

Because all of the journalists were arrested first, the event remains unrecorded, and "if an event was never witnessed and recorded by the media, then it never happened," Kingston said.

After all that she's said and done, Kingston cites the people who she comes into contact with as her continual source of inspiration.

"I go everywhere and after I've talked to them about peace, they do what you do," said Kingston of the standing ovation. "That gives me incredible hope that peace lives, that we're going to be alright."