A Long, Shining River of Verse, Flowing From a Rower and Writer

A Long, Shining River of Verse, Flowing From a Rower and Writer

The heart beats alone, keeping its own pace

Fear, rage, sorrow — storms beyond our range

The river bows and bends, birthing new space

To die and live again — this constant change

— Wang Ping, “The River in Our Blood”

Wang Ping is a poet by profession and a rower by routine.

She sees a deep connection in these things. Flow. Rhythm. Cadence.

“Life begins with cadence, the heartbeat,” she said.

Tick, tick, tick. Row, row, row.

Repetition is rhythm, but it does not tell the story.

“Every blade entering the water is different, because the water keeps moving,” she said.

Each moment is different from the last. And the next.

“That’s the beauty of living, isn’t it?” she said. Everyone calls her Ping.

“In Chinese philosophy, change is the foundation of life,” Ping said. “But at the same time, we are so afraid of changing. Fear really comes from wanting to hold on. But we can’t really, right? It’s like water. You can never step into the same river.”

Her 14th book, most of them poetry, will be published this fall. Later this month, she will compete at the United States Rowing Masters National Championships in Indianapolis. Last year, she won six medals — two each of gold, silver and bronze.

The rowing poet, at 65, sees symmetry and balance, yin and yang, in her passions. Some days the paddling comes easy. There is connection, flow. Same with writing.

“You have to feel through the handle what the river is doing, how the river is running, what mood the river is in,” she said. “I really enjoy that. I started rowing when my mind was just entangled, just spinning with all kinds of troubles. But the river just — shh — calms me down.”

Which is why, at the break of most mornings, from spring to fall, on the glassy water of a three-mile dammed section of the Mississippi River that connects Minneapolis and St. Paul, Ping is rowing.

She is a member of the Minneapolis Rowing Club, with origins to 1877. She practices with men and women, in pairs, fours, eights. They work together, like cogs in a timepiece.

“It forces me to focus,” she said. “Because my mind is like a monkey, going everywhere.”

She rows a single scull, too, stored at the boathouse. Time alone on the river is for her mind, her imagination. She can notice the ripples, the birds, the sounds. It is where much of her writing begins.

“The river allows me to dream,” she said.

“When the spring breaks the ice in the Mississippi River, I get up at 5:00 a.m. to row. The river is veiled with mist, and the water foams and whirls with driftwoods after a heavy rain. I sit in my red single, spine straight, shoulders relaxed. I raise my oars, drop them in the water. Woosh, the boat dashes like a long-legged insect, cutting the water in a straight line. I breathe, knees up and down, arms in and out, chest open and close, open and close.”

— Life of Miracles Along the Yangtze and Mississippi

Wang Ping was born in Shanghai, at the mouth of the Yangtze River. She was the daughter of a navy officer and a music teacher, a child of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Her grandmother used to sing to her: “Life is a river running to the sea, taking in every stream and every drop of rain along its way. A river never picks or judges. It just receives until it becomes the sea.”

The family lived on an island in the archipelago of the East China Sea. Ping’s father was exiled during the crackdown. Her mother was placed on house arrest for teaching Western music.

Schools and libraries closed. Books were banned. Ping’s formal education ended after second grade. But a neighborhood friend had an illicit copy of “The Little Mermaid.” Ping was smitten.

Soon, she and the friend began a secret book-trading club: The Mermaid Club. They plucked books from piles left to be burned.

Then Ping discovered a stash her mother had buried in a box behind the family’s chicken coop. “The Book of Songs.” “Journey to the West.” A collection of Shakespeare. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” “Hans Christian Andersen’s Complete Fairy Tales.”

“To my stubborn Ping,” her mother wrote on a note inside the buried treasure. “May you be as courageous as the mermaid.”

Literature was a gateway. As a teen, she left the family to work for years as a farmer in the country, hoping to squeeze through one small portal to college for peasants, soldiers and factory workers. It eventually worked. She found her way into a language school to learn and teach English, and then to Peking University.

She graduated in 1986 and headed to New York. She arrived the night that the Mets won the World Series.

“We crossed the East River,” she wrote in her memoir. “I had never seen so many bridges sparkling like jewels hanging from the sky.”

She taught English and earned a master’s degree from Long Island University, then a Ph.D. in comparative literature from New York University. She taught college courses around New York. A fledgling writer and trusty translator, she fell into the company of poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and John Ashbery.

She followed her now-ex husband to the Twin Cities in 1998. They settled into a loft apartment in St. Paul that overlooked the Mississippi River.

“At night, I fall asleep to her sound, accentuated by the distant rumbling of freight trains,” she wrote. “At sunrise, I watch the mist galloping like wild horses along the frozen mirror of the Mississippi.”

She taught creative writing at Macalester College for 20 years before conflicts with the administration led to her departure in 2020. She has worked as a multimedia artist, her projects often highlighting immigrants, Indigenous people and the environment.

She wanted to connect the Mississippi to the Yangtze, her present and her past. Her most ambitious installation, Kinship of Rivers, was an idea born from prayer flags she saw in Tibet. She solicited artists and volunteers from schools, senior centers, galleries and museums to draw and paint flags. She strung them at key points along the Mississippi, then the Yangtze.

One stop was in Cairo, Ill., part of her childhood mind’s eye from Huck Finn’s adventures, now sinking into a ghost town because of its flooded place at the confluence with the Ohio River. Where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet, she learned that water frequently swamps the commemorative flagpole there.

“The river overwrites everything mankind tries to do,” she wrote.

She now lives in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul, a short walk to the banks of the Mississippi.

To get even closer to the river, about 12 years ago, she began rowing.

“Our body flows like a river. Where there’s stagnation, there’s trouble. Where the blood is blocked like a dammed river, cancer grows. Movement is key. Movement with awareness is another key. Movement with discipline and devotion is the final key. When we have all three keys in hand, we step into the river, into the way, free, fearless, fun.”

— Life of Miracles Along the Yangtze and Mississippi

The sun has not cracked the horizon. The colorless water is still. Ping scrambles down a trail through the thick trees and brambles below West River Parkway, just north of the Lake Street-Marshall Bridge.

Soon she is on the river, with a team, building a sweat, keeping a beat.

Tick, tick, tick. Row, row, row.

Let’s keep a steady state, Peter Morgan, the club’s head coach, says through his bullhorn. That’s 20 strokes per minute.

Like any good story, like any good river, the workout ebbs and flows. Push the pace to 32. Adjust it to 33. Feel the difference, like a rising heartbeat. Now reach into the 40s, a full sprint toward the finish.

Slow again. Take three strokes, then a fourth motion without dipping the oar. Feel the balance in the narrow boat, shaped like a needle. Feel it glide. When it goes just right, feel the tiny bubbles that tickle the bottom of the boat, like the tingle from a perfect sentence that slips across the page.

The words flow. That is what they say when it feels easy, as if alphabets could be turned to water.

Rowing, like writing, can come easily, or not at all.

The muscles ache; the words don’t come. The water is choppy; the day gets interrupted. The team is out of sync; the sentences grow disjointed.

Michael Nicholls, one of the club’s coaches, said that the connection between rowing and writing, strokes and words, is obvious to him.

“Anyone can put words on a page, but it’s what you do with them,” he said, following Ping and her teammates up the river in a launch boat. “She finds meaning in every stroke she takes.”

There are stronger rowers, even among the senior women at the Minneapolis Rowing Club. There are few members as dedicated.

In one session, Ping and her crewmates pull through the water. They are in sync, but their movement feels flat, uninspired. In another session, the places on the boat are changed. Ping and her teammates find a perfect cadence, a sustainable urgency, and the boat seems to dash, like the long-legged insect Ping described.

“Like words, you put people in different places, everything works,” she said.

Every day is different. Every row is different. Every stroke is different.

Nothing stays the same. Every day, the Mississippi. Every day, a different river.

Adam Stoltman contributed reporting from Minneapolis.

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