Dai “Debby” Shi is currently a junior at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Massachusetts. She studies film, writing, and media arts. She was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary to Chinese parents. She spends her free time reading, watching movies, and studying for the SAT.
God called me one day through a hole in the moon, said
this is your last chance for never-ending life.
He showed me his dark-ringed moon, its nimbus
burning the hole in the night sky.
I can’t tell you much about Him, I can’t remember well
but his space was meticulously cut into grids
Dusty but incandescently glowing, made of tungsten
and crossbeams of light.
He touched me and my body was rendered glass-like,
the little roots of my body went ribboning down.
The trees were all planted in the same month
In this place He showed me.
Planted after the same fire that burned the hole
In the moon.
The same fire that will purify me forever, burning
still, fusing like the electric currents in a dragonfly’s wings in late July.
He promises me I’ll burn in concentric circles,
slashed by the same crossbeams, the same light, the same grids.
My skin will oxidize to a pretty, burnished hue
opaque like glazed pottery, like a placid
Lake that never blinks.
Dark rimmed, 500 feet deep, solid like my mother’s gaze.
Specks of sediment swim by in formation, minnows drifting
on the surface, drowned.
My forearm enters into the water, half-concealed
by still algae-stained water.
We stand face to face, neither embracing nor touching,
lake-slick hair flat against bare shoulders.
His eyes are closed. And when He opens one
what spills from them coats the lake.
Winter colors, mountains arranged like a semicircle around us.
Then I open my eye and what spills from them is
a dim blue, orange, gold nothingness.
The promise of a new purified body is not enough, promises
are gone the next day, easily launched into the gray sky,
only the swirling galaxies and my trackless body.
It’s Too Early
I was born between clefts of glacier ice and numbers
on checks, scrawled in Chinese penmanship—between cucumber
slices, laid flat on white bread or against bloodshot eyes, aflame
with tiny dragons. The skin under the eye is the most delicate, better
when firm—shows your age when loose. Eye cream with a thousand
ingredients for firm under-eyes that glow at night, delicate sarcoma
or milky cataracts in my grandma’s eyes. Green tea with a splash of milk.
If I pull hard enough at thin strings of beauty, her ghost floats through
my lap, a cold breeze in humid Shanghai air. The premature spring
wind will slip through my hair, the trees pink with cherry blossoms,
bouncy locks will fly into the sky, hang off walls—release the aroma of
roses and fertility. They’ll land the way they do in the salon, a cat
from a windowsill. Preferably it’ll happen in public. Validation
at the shaking of dice. Then I’ll see him. He’ll be abnormally tall,
ironing board-esque. He’ll be impressed by my tight
under-eyes. He’ll ask. I’ll be the cool girl. I avoided
the overwhelming allure of under-eye injections. My grandma
had the best genetics. Cyborg like me. I’ll kneel
before him when he asks, knees on hard ground while he reclines
on the bed that I fluffed. He’ll push my head down, hand in my hair,
it’ll hurt—but he must think that it’s soft. When I go home, my mom
will remark how pretty and flushed I look. I’ll smile in the effortless
cool, dismissive way that I do. Today, I don’t imagine I will be able to
look her in the eye. She paid so much for my wisdom—
and look at all of this, this is everything I have to show for it.
One could stand here in the wind forever, watching
your shadow stretch until it morphs; until it
slinks away. Garden shears in one hand,
lacerated tree trunk in front. The skin
is clear now that it’s peeled back, an onion
tossed into the erratic oil like a child drowning
in the ocean, under a layer of mist and gold
light spilling from your mother’s bathroom.
her eyes are shiny like small origami swans folded from tinfoil, crinkled
little sparkling streams, little rivulets of tears, little necklace
of diamonds, tweezed, then held up against the light and swallowed.
A Conversation between Dai “Debby” Shi and Lily Bechtold
1. Hi, Debby, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today! There’s something incredibly striking about how these poems all have very active, immediate beginnings, setting up a scene and pulling the reader into it within the first couple lines. How do you create such distinct and realized worlds in each of your pieces?
Hi, and thank you for having me! I think the surreal worlds shown throughout my pieces demonstrate my view of the real world. I think the world today is cluttered with so many ideas and opinions, and therefore I wanted my poetry to be an escape. I aimed to create ethereal places that feel both otherworldly and familiar at the same time. I wanted my poetry to reflect this indescribable feeling I’ve always had inside of me, of both existing and not existing at the same time. So to answer your question, I mainly try to navigate the feelings that exist inside of me. I turn these feelings into locations, people, ideas, whatever feels right.
2. Although each of these poems deals with a different subject, there’s a unique narrative voice present in each of them. How did you develop your voice as a writer? How do you think it comes through in your work?
I developed my voice in poetry through lots of experimentation. Though I am still young, I’ve been writing and attempting to write poetry since I was in elementary school. I spent a lot of time writing for fun and experimenting with ideas and images in poetry. And, I think that my experience writing poetry changed as I grew older, along with my worldview. The more I practiced writing, writing anything I wanted, I learned what worked and what didn’t work for me. Furthermore, I wrote these three poems in a span of a few months, where I kept the same voice. I like to change it up frequently, and as I get older, my poetic voice continues to shift. I don’t think I’m even close to being done developing it yet, but this is where I am at currently. I think that a poet’s voice often makes the poem what it is, and my narrative voice shines through very strongly because the poems are based in the aforementioned feeling that I constantly have, and therefore no other poet could replicate it. The poems are also based in my past experiences, which is why my voice comes through with it.
3. In “Lidded Eye,” there’s so much natural imagery, from “a dragonfly’s wings in late July,” to “minnows drifting on the surface, drowned,” to the lake that the speaker stands in. How do you think using nature and the environment impacts this piece?
I think that this goes back to what I said earlier, with the world being over-cluttered, with both people and ideas. To escape all of this noise, even for a short time, I wanted to go deeper into what the world actually is. Truthfully, I think nature and the environment are truly what the world is. The real world is quiet, reflective, and peaceful. I think the use of nature is really what makes the poem what it is, along with the questioning of the existence of God or higher powers. To me, “Lidded Eye” is the type of poem you’d read or think about in the middle of the night, where the outside world is finally quiet.
4. “Smoke Sick” is also very focused on imagery and description. How do the scenes and objects described in this poem work together to build its world?
I really enjoyed writing this poem because of the interconnectedness of objects that seemingly should have no connection. I personally really enjoy the way one image leads directly to another unrelated one, yet creates an ambiance nevertheless. It is this connectedness and disconnectedness that builds an eerie, disjointed world, the one I mentioned before, of eerie familiarity. The images feel both far-fetched and familiar, as if the reader has experienced these images too. When I imagine “Smoke Sick,” I imagine the warm bathroom mentioned in the poem, with golden light spilling from a mirror.
5. Something in “It’s Too Early” that really drew me in was the through line of female family members and their relationships—how the speaker, her mother, and her grandmother interact with one another in the context of what society expects of them. How did this idea of generational womanhood play into the poem?
I think beauty standards don’t exist from birth, but are learned. Women are constantly subject to pressures, beauty standards, and ideals that are often contradicting and confusing, yet women are forced to be beautiful in order to be respected, or worthy of love. A woman’s self-worth is often tied to the way others perceive her, and therefore women put in the bodily-oriented work of self-maintenance and visual bettering. Personally, I think beauty standards were invented by self-serving men, but that is a discussion for another day. This bodily maintenance that I’m talking about is often learned, passed down between the women of families, yet exists to serve and please the men. I think this intergenerational passing of beauty regimens is a way for the women to connect, and this has happened with my own mother, teaching me about skincare. It is quite bittersweet to me, like if we keep passing on ways to feel beautiful and loved, one day it will stop hurting. The generational womanhood and passing of beauty standards and regimes reflect the way that women have been hurt for generations, that this feeling of worthlessness didn’t start today or yesterday. I think the inclusion of the mother and grandmother makes the state of the speaker in the poem even clearer, of the world she lives in and the pressures she feels, knowing her mother and grandmother must have felt it, too.
6. Another question about womanhood: The repeated idea of being a “cool girl” was also so interesting. Amy Dunne’s monologue in Gone Girl is one of the most famous iterations of the idea of a cool girl. How does this poem contend with the cultural image of the “cool girl”? Who is she to you?
As I mentioned in my answer to the question before this, women are subject to contradicting and confusing standards. They have to be virginal, domestic, docile, and sweet, yet sexually experienced, independent, and confident. They have to be extremely beautiful yet not wear makeup or have plastic surgery. They have to be stick-thin yet have a large appetite. They are not allowed to have friends that are male, yet are expected to be okay with their partners having female friends. A woman that has sex with many people is a slut; a woman that has sex with none is a prude. Bringing me to my next point, I think that the cool girl was born between these two standards. Women have been stereotyped as insane and overwhelming, and “crazy girlfriend” is a mainstream and commonly-used term. The crazy girlfriend counts calories and doesn’t leave the house without looking her best. The crazy girlfriend does “girly” things like post Instagram pictures on the beach. Cool girls are girls that are seemingly the opposite of this. The cool girlfriend lets her boyfriend go out with his friends every day of the week, the cool girlfriend is easygoing and low-maintenance and doesn’t like to dress up, the cool girlfriend eats junk food and enjoys watching sports, and the cool girlfriend is “one of the boys.” Cool girls look down on crazy girls. Cool girls are girls that try their best to be distanced from one stereotype, yet fall into another. They think they’re free and different, but truthfully they are bending to another societal pressure. They think they are free of standards, yet I feel as though they care even more about male perception of them. They think to be loved, they have to be easygoing and have no rules or expectations in their relationships. To me, the cool girl is nothing special. She puts down other women in order to please men. I think “It’s Too Early” is a powerful poem because of the use of the phrase “cool girl.” Everyone instantly knows who she is, what ideals she tries to embody. The speaker in the poem does what the man wants because she’s afraid of speaking up, which a cool, easygoing girl would never do. I think the cool girl is a new, different kind of pressure that hurts women just the same in the end. I think what “It’s Too Early” really shows is that as a woman, in this world, you can never win. In the end, it is always the same story. Whether you are the crazy or cool girlfriend, in the end, you are always hurt, you are always lacking, you will never be good enough.
7. You vary line length, poem length, and indentation, throughout these three pieces, playing with the words on the page. How do you think the physical shapes of these poems affect what they mean and how the reader interacts with them?
The three poems all have different physical shapes because of their different subject matters and use of language. “Lidded Eye” is long, whimsical, and has no real format or rules it has to follow, to reflect its themes. “It’s Too Early” is broken into stanzas of two lines each that are similar in length, which creates an overall organized and formal feeling. “Smoke Sick” is slightly less organized, reflecting the disoriented vibe of the images throughout the poem. I think that formatting is very important in the way a poem comes across. A misshapen and disorienting format will create the same atmosphere in the poem. I wouldn’t say that the formatting of “Lidded Eye” is hard to read, but it descends in a way that makes the reader themselves feel like falling.
8. In your bio, you talk about being born and raised in Budapest, Hungary to Chinese parents and now studying in Natick, Massachusetts. How do you think this idea of being “born between,” or “between” in general, shapes these works, and your work as a whole?
I think growing up between cultures has given me a unique worldview and personal experiences, some good, some bad. I think the idea of feeling excluded and different is very present in these poems, stemming from the way that I grew up as a minority in a foreign country. Though these poems don’t deal with racism, I think the imprint of feeling numb and empty vibrates throughout these poems. The experiences that I have had while growing up, or even the current days that I spend in Budapest, have made me who I am. The poems feel empty, disorienting, and cynical at times because of my voice being projected.
9. What creative plans do you have for the future? How can we stay up-to-date on your writing?
Right now, I’m taking a bit of a break from producing poetry, partly because I have no inspiration, and partly because of navigating COVID-19 and my future plans. I’m plan to attend college, majoring in East Asian Studies and Philosophy. I plan to continue trying to get my work published, as well as honing my writing skills. I think that poetry is a skill that can’t really be taught, because it is so personal and individual. So basically, I’m going to live life and continue experiencing the world and reflecting on myself. Currently, I don’t have any platforms for my own writing, mainly because I feel as though it is not good enough (a struggle every writer and poet has). Thank you for publishing my work!