A Poet's Path of Mastery

Written by Audrey Mei Yi Brown; Illustrations by Tinnei Pang

When Clara Hsu reads her poetry, every word is round. Un-rushed, each syllable expands to its entirety. The ripe words arrive rhythmically, rising and falling in musical cadence as her body moves with her music— it’s unmistakably a performance. She’s telling a story, albeit a nonlinear one.

Reading poetry to a room of people draws Clara fully into the present moment, whether she reads in a cafe or her living room. She explains, “Those are very, very exciting moments. They don’t come too often, but when they do, you just know it because suddenly the espresso machine is not making any sound. The door’s not creaking. Nobody’s dropped the dishes and nobody coughs. There are these people and they are totally tuned in. How did that happen?” Although Clara has worked tirelessly to hone her craft, these magical moments ultimately arrive seemingly of their own accord— they are a gift. Ironically enough, mastery’s ultimate reward, this bliss, blooms on its own time.

Seeing a master experience their bliss is unmistakable in any profession, be it in science, art, music, trading, or athletics. A master flowing in their element, their bliss, wholly absorbs both the master and the audience.

At first, the ever-transforming environment of our times might seem incompatible with developing mastery. If mastery is comprehensive knowledge and skill in a subject, its prospects in any profession (let alone as a poet) may seem dubious amidst the frenetic hustle of our lives. After all, today is the age of rapid ascension in the tech world, of overnight cryptocurrency booms and busts, of a snap-together workforce ready to change jobs or career paths without skipping a beat. By comparison, mastery is a long-term process of continual evolution. It reaches deep, and there are no shortcuts.

Though it might seem counterintuitive, this is the age of mastery. Given that the world is smaller, more complex, more competitive than ever, and rapidly changing, in order to thrive in this world, we need to be our most brilliant selves, regardless of what we do. As you will see in Clara’s path, this happens when we find our purpose or our calling, and pursue mastery in that subject. Then our lives change as we incorporate the seven component elements of developing mastery into our lives: love, skill, knowledge, ecosystem, feedback, routine, and bliss. The first six elements set the conditions for the seventh, bliss, to arise. Consider Clara, a poet on the path of mastery.

Writing poems is not about making money for Clara. At first, poetry was about surviving, swimming instead of drowning. She assumed she could not make a living from writing poems, money was not the point.

Writing poetry fundamentally changed the way she saw the world, sparking a “tremendous eagerness to keep exploring and keep going.” As she recalls, she felt “a hunger” that made “the world become so interesting.” Like a collage artist collecting unlikely odds and ends off the street, she saw new material all around her— an image, a phrase, a feeling.

Poem lines came to her in “bursts of energy”— sudden inspiration that could arrive anytime, anywhere. She explains, “I’d be driving and would have a burst of energy. I’d have to pull over and write the words down… I have to capture it at that moment. If you don’t, it leaves you. It’s gone.” When inspiration struck, she urgently seized the moment.  

“It’s like a door that suddenly opens, and you walk right through it.” This happened when she wrote The First to Escape, a book of experimental poetry that pushed boundaries of form and voice. Even as she wrote it, she sensed that "stuff like this, it's not going to happen again." In a rush of creativity, she wrote poems in this collection that are truly one of a kind.

A Pinhole of Light by Tinnei, 2018

A Pinhole of Light by Tinnei, 2018

When poetry first entered Clara’s life, “it was a gift, it just showed up,” she says. At the time, she was living a life that she didn’t love and she didn’t know where to go. Writing poetry started in “a place of darkness and desperation” she recalls, and writing every day offered her “a pinhole of light, something worth living for.” Poetry tore through her life like wildfire; it changed everything.

Her first poem came in the middle of a sleepless night, as she scribbled lines on a scrap of paper in her kitchen. In the morning, she realized she had a poem on her hands. She found that to write was to swim to salvation inside herself. “It was all about pain,” she says of her early work. Back then the aperture of her focus was tight— poetry was a “pinhole of light” in the darkness. She threw herself into it, writing every day, producing at minimum a poem a day.

With time, she began to look outside herself for inspiration. She joined an internet community of poets, surveying shyly from the background and reading rather than posting. She knew she wanted to find a community in the flesh, but it wasn’t until she stumbled into Sacred Grounds Cafe in San Francisco that she found what would become her circle.

The ecosystem of poets that Clara joined was a small, eclectic family. As she recalls of cafe readings, “it was friends reading to friends.” For her, the full acceptance of the poet community was new and welcome. It was the supportive nesting ground that she needed to find her voice.

Clara at Sacred Grounds Cafe by Tinnei, 2018

Clara at Sacred Grounds Cafe by Tinnei, 2018

As a lifelong musician, music has fundamentally shaped Clara’s ear. Her background playing the organ and piano informs her point of view on both how poetry can exist on the page and how it ought to be performed live. In her ideal vision, she pictures how “You can hear the different voices coming in and contradicting each other, not truly harmonizing, but giving different dimensions.” Ultimately, she wants the listener’s experience to be less like listening to a lyrical audiobook and more like hearing a record. Clara explains:

“Just like you’re walking down the street and you hear the cars, you hear the people talking, the birds singing, all that. Can you not think about ‘what do they mean?’ and just enjoy it? We have the skill to do that when we listen to music. We listen to an orchestra: all these instruments playing at the same time, playing different notes at the same time. We can do that. Why can’t we do it in poetry?”

When it comes to reading, Clara yearns for performance that goes beyond rote recitation (which she’s heard way too much of over the years). These days, she dedicates most of her time and energy to running Clarion Performing Arts Center, a non-profit performance space in Chinatown. Through Clarion, she hopes to “expose the element of theater to poets” and get them to “think more about performance”— what new possibilities open up with a quiet space, intentional lighting, a stage? Clara knows well from her own experience that poets reading at cafe open mics are “fighting with dishes and the espresso machine, so we just have to shout.” Subtleties like rhythm and cadence tend to fall at the wayside.

Clara argues that a sense of rhythm is essential for any poet— one has to “feel what’s flowing versus not flowing.” She recalls listening to a Polish poetry reading in Warsaw. She didn’t know the language, but found herself transfixed by the beautiful reading. Afterwards, she discovered that the performers were not in fact the poets themselves, but actors hired to perform the poems. The poets were listening with her in the audience. For Clara, not knowing Polish was irrelevant because the expressive flow of the actors’ performance drew her in regardless.

Talking with Clara in person can at times feel reminiscent of her multi-voice poems; it’s an experience both multi-dimensional and fluid. In conversation, she smoothly shifts amongst subjects, from the abstracted big picture to minute details of interest. Rumination on life purpose downshifts into intimate, room-quieting metaphor.

Clara leaps across distance brazenly, in lunchtime talk and in her life as a whole. As a young woman, Clara transplanted herself from Hong Kong to the United States, and that cultural double vision shaped her worldview. This perspective implicitly arises in her poetry work, quite evidently in her translations of classic Chinese poems and perhaps more subtly in her experimental work.

Clara’s Chinese American identity asserts itself without becoming a confine. More of a lens than a mooring post, her experience as a Chinese American woman is a point of departure from which her poetic innovation rushes forth.

A Phrase In Her Pocket by Tinnei, 2018

A Phrase In Her Pocket by Tinnei, 2018

An avid traveler, Clara visits other countries to deepen the well she draws from when she writes. Her poetry emerges as a process of collage, a re-harmonizing of details she has noticed and collected— sensory inputs. Ultimately, “life and living is the material,” she says. “If I’m not writing, I don’t stop thinking about poetry or materials that I might use— I would say, ‘oh, this is a really nice phrase,’ and put it in my pocket.” When writing, she draws from her pool of materials and then transforms them so that “it’s not a straight telling.” “I can play with it,” she says.  

Just as her poet’s eye never stops seeing new material, she also continues to incorporate poetry into her everyday work, even as her circumstances and goals change. While she once wrote for personal survival, she now brings poetry to other people. Through Clarion Performing Arts Center in San Francisco Chinatown, Clara brings poetry out of its closed loop of “friends reading to friends.” She introduces poetry to a wider audience by incorporating poetry into theater performances. Ultimately, all of her creative and community work connects back to poetry, and for her, poetry always comes back to connecting with others.  

These days, Clara is primarily interested in cultivating connection to people, whether in San Francisco or abroad. Across geography, she seeks connection and through it, a sense of home. The revelatory “bursts of energy” that fuel her creatively now often arrive in moments of connection.

She recounts a trip to Cuba with her theater group, the Grant Avenue Follies. When she met her hosts, the small population of Chinese Cubans who live in Havana’s Chinatown, Clara was shocked to discover they spoke the same Cantonese that she spoke in Hong Kong as a little girl. Though she had never met them before, she says “it felt like coming home” to the Hong Kong she knew as a child. That Hong Kong no longer exists— the streets, people, and language have all changed. But in Havana, it unexpectedly became real again. “Language is so important because it’s how people connect,” Clara reflects, and this capacity of language is what continually brings her back to poetry. Ultimately, “the connection is in the art,” she says.

A Door that Opens by Tinnei, 2018

A Door that Opens by Tinnei, 2018

Over time, her relationship with poetry has mellowed. It’s no longer the insatiable, fiery love affair of the early days, but rather a tempered and sustainable commitment. The love remains, but poetry now coexists with and feeds other creative community-building endeavors.

Undoubtedly, passion rather than profit has motivated her. As she happily acknowledges, reading poems to a community of friends is enriching, but not financially so. Even for the nonprofit community theater she says, “the priority is happiness.”

The path of mastery never ends; there is no finite destination. When we pursue our purpose and seek mastery in what we love, we set out on a lifelong journey. We can begin this journey at any point in our lives and in any discipline or profession. In fact, loving what we do allows us to savor the process and dive into it fully, without attachment to an end result. When we love what we do, we don’t seek an end.

Seeing the world through a Master’s lens changes everything. Our environment transforms because we see with new eyes. With this consciousness, our materials and inspiration reveal themselves. This framework, the Mastery Wireframe, emerges naturally when we set out on the path of mastery and dive into work we love--like a door that opens of its own accord, we need only walk through it.

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The basis of this article was a 2015 interview by Stephen Graziani, founder of Mastery Studio, with subsequent interviews by Audrey Brown exploring how the seven elements of the Mastery Wireframe are woven into Clara’s life. All illustrations were created specifically for this article by Tinnei Pang.

All Rights Reserved, 2019