My father, Ai Qing, was an early influence of mine. He was a true poet, viewing all subjects through an innocent and honest lens. For this, he suffered greatly. Exiled to the remote desert region of Xinjiang, he was forbidden to write. During the Cultural Revolution, he was made to clean the public toilets. At the time, those rural toilets were beyond one’s imagination, neglected by the entire village. This was as low as one’s condition could go. And yet, as a child I saw him making the greatest effort to keep each toilet as clean and as pleasant as possible, taking care of the waste with complete sincerity. To me, this is the best poetic act, and one that I will never forget.
My father was punished for being a poet, and I grew up in its consequences. But even when things were at their most difficult, I saw his heart protected by an innocent understanding of the world. For poetry is against gravity. Reading Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, and Vladimir Mayakovsky at a young age, I discovered that all poetry has the same quality. It transports us to another place, away from the moment, away from our circumstances.
In my own work, the process of creation always requires the understanding of aesthetics in relation to morality, to the pureness of a form, or to a personal language, one which extends us clearly to another. Many of my projects have poetic elements. In 2007, I brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, for documenta 12. For many, it was their first time traveling outside of China. This was Fairytale. In 2008, we researched, under extremely harsh and restrictive conditions, the aftermath of the Great Sichuan Earthquake and unearthed the names and birth dates of 5,196 student victims, otherwise buried forever.
I used to say that Twitter is the perfect form for poetry. It is the poetry of society in the modern age. In engaging social media and the forms of communication it makes possible, again and again we find ourselves deeply moved with emotion. By anger, joy, even feelings that are new and indescribable. This is poetic. It makes today a unique time.
To experience poetry is to see over and above reality. It is to discover that which is beyond the physical, to experience another life and another level of feeling. It is to wonder about the world, to understand the nature of people and, most importantly, to be shared with another, old or young, known or unknown.