Third Culture x Peel Street Poetry: Adam Stengel

American Wedding
Adam Stengel Peel Street Poetry

The U.S. elections are drawing dangerously close, and migration is one of the decisive issues of this cycle. Third Culture spoke with several Americans who moved away from the land of the free. Meet Adam Stengel, a poet from Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. Stengel just returned from an American wedding, on which he wrote us a poem.

This is the second collaboration with Peel Street Poetry. Check out our interview with poet Akin Jeje here.


How did you end up in Hong Kong?

I always wanted to travel. In grad school I came up with this plan to get a TEFL certificate [Teaching English as a Foreign Language – ed.]. I’d never even set foot outside of the U.S. until then. I thought about going to Thailand, but then a friend told me about this Australian woman who ran a school in Peru. That just sounded so right, so I went for it.

After that I worked in a primary school in Istanbul, but that was an awful experience. Not only were the kids really hard to handle, my commute took 2.5 hours, because the company that hired me put me in a village on the other side of town. I was literally in Asia while my work was in Europe. I went back to the U.S. after that, but soon enough I wanted to go abroad again. I found a job listing at a learning centre here in Wan Chai, and now I teach poetry and history.

Must be a big change from the rural South!

Absolutely! I grew up in such a different environment than these busy Wan Chai market streets. I’m from a suburban town called Conway. It’s about 50km from the state capital Little Rock. Arkansas is a weird place, man. Did you know it’s the largest producer of rice in the U.S.? Also, did you know Little Rock is one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S.? In the ‘90s we had lots of gang violence, and it’s been really bad again lately. That’s one of the reasons why my hometown grew from 20,000 people to over 60,000 since the ‘80s. People kept moving out of Little Rock to the suburbs.

Arkansas is pretty weird

Arkansas is also pretty weird when it comes to politics. Even though they voted for Reagan, down the ballot it was still the old school Democrats that got the most votes. You know, the pre-Kennedy, conservative Democrats, from before the time the Conservative party changed its strategy in the South. And now, my state is voting for Trump! I just don’t get it. We’re supposed to be the Bible belt, so what are evangelicals doing, voting for Trump? The guy is a walking contradiction. All that ranting against globalization, but I remember we had a Trump Tower next to our flat in Istanbul.

Arkansas Suburbs
Arkansas Suburbs

Does the election cause any trouble within your family or friend circle?

My parents are very liberal, but the rest of the street isn’t. So there’s a bit of a sign war going on. The neighbours even have a pro-life sign in their garden. But it’s in Spanish. What’s that all about?

I don’t think any of my close friends vote for Trump. Most of my friends I know from studying in Florida, and the university environment is very different there. There’s a lot of immigration from the north and the south. Very different from my hometown, which is like 80% White. So I decided to vote in Florida, at least that’s a swing state.

I do think Hillary will win in the end. I even made a bet on the outcome with some French friends. That was right after Brexit, when everybody was so baffled by the result and thought that meant Trump would win. He can, but I don’t think he will. [Knocks on wood.]

Tell us about your poem.

Well, I was in the U.S. for a friend’s wedding. That was the first time I’d been in the U.S. since moving to Hong Kong last January. I can’t say my poem is a very realistic representation of the wedding, but I definitely got a lot of details and inspiration from that experience. And then when I went to your website, I liked the word ‘whitewashing’. It can mean so many things. I ended up describing the deck at the wedding as whitewashed – and that wasn’t even true, I think it was plain wood.

to me, poetry is not about what the writer intended

That’s kinda how I like to write poetry. I don’t really care if something really happened. I might put words in someone’s mouth, when they were actually said in a completely different situation. The truth of it isn’t the point. Many students of poetry get asked by their teacher to solve a poem, almost like an equation. ‘What is the theme of this poem?’ And then they get confused. They should just be allowed to make up their own idea of what this is about. The meaning of a poem is just as much what the reader makes of it.

Adam at Peel Street Poetry night in Orange Peel
Adam at Peel Street Poetry night in Orange Peel

Your closing line, about the vanilla glazed bacon. Is that a metaphor?

Do you want it to be? I’m serious. To me it’s not that important what the writer tells you it means. There was actually a bacon buffet at the wedding. And I’m pretty sure part of the bacon was vanilla glazed. It was pretty decadent, quite American. There were regular veggies and meat, but then part of the buffet was just bacon. I guess it was de hors d’oeuvre or something. A whole bar of bacon. Fancy hipster bacon. And there was definitely bacon that was white glazed. And yes, I think that sentence could be a joke about the wedding being all White. I’ll allow you to read it that way. [laughs]

American Wedding – by Adam Stengel

What was once a unique garden spot is now the set
Of a spoof, coproduced by the dead homie’s ghost
Who couldn’t haunt the pew. Though the wolf pack’s here,
Posing for a meme-able portrait, a few from down
The mountain, others from Mizzou. Without ado, the service
Is short and sweet, “I Choose You” plus a quick French kiss,
And then the hours to eat all you can eat. My life I overshare
With dudes who don’t care, talking my shitty Turkish

To prove a failed extended stay, sipping an IPA.
But Hong Kong’s safe, I say, a maid of honor can walk back
Tipsy from the club at 2 without worry that a thug
Will snatch her bag, that a politico will grab her vag.
Damn, replies the best man, sounds like a good place to see
But a bad place to lay. Possibly, I’d never say, instead
I scan the reception deck, whitewashed and daisy-chained,
Even the brown sugar bacon is served vanilla-glazed.

Cover image ©cc by-nc 2.0 Thomas Hawk


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