Roberts & Chen on Li Shangyin

Li_Chao-tao_001Chloe Garcia Roberts and Guangchen Chen 陳廣琛 talk about Li Shangyin 李商隱 at The Critical Flame. Roberts says:

The poem opens with the sounds of imminence, the Eastern Wind, and with these rustlings of the approaching rain the rain arrives. Where? To the subject. Who is not there, to the reader who is not named, to the I. Here. By not giving you a subject, the I is fractured, you are there, he is there, the I is there. In the next line the focus moves back out, beyond () to another sound which calls our/the I’s attention, out on the horizon, the edge of hearing/awareness, the thunder, and just like that in the first pair of couplets, Li Shangyin has succeeded in pulling us forcefully into this poem along the path of sound and then repelled us back out also following sound at an incredible, almost breakneck speed. We are stunned, disoriented, and thus in the perfect state to descend further into his world.

She’s talking about this poem, and her translation:

Untitled

Rush, rustling of the East Wind, a fine rain arrives
Beyond the Lotus Pool, is a delicate thunder

Golden Toad bites the lock, burning perfume enters
Jade Tiger weights the cord above the water well, circling

Young Secretary Han: glimpsed by Lady Jia though curtains, briefly
Talented King Wei: bequeathed Princess Fu’s pillow, only afterward

Spring Heart, refrain from competing with flowers in effusion
One measure of longing, one measure of ash

無題
颯颯東風細雨來,芙蓉塘外有輕雷。
金蟾嚙鎖燒香入,玉虎牽絲汲井回。
賈氏窺簾韓掾少,宓妃留枕魏王才。
春心莫共花爭發,一寸相思一寸灰。

Click the image above for the dialogue in full.

Morse Reviews Balcom’s Xiang Yang

Canaan Morse reviews John Balcom’s translation of Grass Roots: Selected Poems by Xiang Yang 向陽 (Zephyr) for World Literature Today:

Balcom’s ubiquitous preference for merging verbs into adjectival phrases or deleting them entirely strengthens static image and removes dynamic energies that might be considered noisier in English than in Chinese.

And yet the poems are not quiet. They are vividly aware of the aporias and ambiguities inherent in the classical Chinese narrative that iterates time through space, and they speak to them … Balcom’s flexible English represents some of these differences with facility; lines like “A bloody rain falls on fields plowed by bullets” stand apart from lines like “The surprise encounter of the fish and the leaves,” which are brilliant for entirely different reasons. Yet many of his decisions, especially his frequent deletions, seem hard to justify … Balcom’s introduction makes no mention of his process. Translation is frequently maligned as either a derivative act or a violent, domineering one. Perhaps greater transparency could prevent it from being either.

Click on the image for the full review.

Heather Inwood on Chinese Poetry in the Age of the Internet

World Map in GreenThe newest issue of Chinese Literature Today features Heather Inwood on “Poetry for the People? Modern Chinese Poetry in the Age of the Internet.” Here’s a pull quote:

In China, existing discussions of media gatekeeping focus overwhelmingly on questions related to free speech and government censorship. It is important to note that although state-led surveillance and control of the media are inevitable in China (as they are in many countries around the world), these government-led measures are far from being the most important motivation for the gatekeeping of online literature. Just as gatekeepers of the media select and shape the messages that reach the public, gatekeepers of modern Chinese literature decide the social reality and public face of literature as it is seen by the world. Gatekeepers of literature are those with an inordinate amount of power over the publication and evaluation of literary texts, and include publishers, editors, critics, translators, academic researchers, and poets themselves. For readers of Chinese literature who are not part of the country’s lively literary scenes, it is especially easy to take the choices and standards of China’s literary gatekeepers for granted, and to assume that the writers they include in prominent literary anthologies or award with high-profile literary prizes represent, by virtue of their selection, the very best of China’s literary scenes. I would argue, thus, that any questions of quality and representativeness should be accompanied by efforts to think critically about the mechanisms used to determine literary standards and put certain writings on public display.

Click the image for the full article.

Chinese Poetry in End-of-Year Lists

If the end of the year is a time for lists, the beginning of a year is the time for taking stock of the Chinese poetry titles that appeared in last year’s “best of” lists. Here are three:

The PEN Award for Poetry in Translation is a $3,000 prize for a book-length translation of poetry into English. The 2015 includes David Hinton’s translation of The Late Poems of Wang An-Shih 王安石 (New Directions). Wang was an economist, statesman, chancellor and poet of the Song Dynasty; he became prime minister, the publisher writes, “and in this position he instituted a controversial system of radically egalitarian social reforms to improve the lives of China’s peasants … It was after his retirement, practicing Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and wandering the mountains around his home, that Wang An-shih wrote the poems that made his reputation. Short and plainspoken, these late poems contain profound multitudes the passing of time, rivers and mountains, silence and Buddhist emptiness.”

Not a prize-granting organization, The Washington Post nevertheless also came up with a list of “The best poetry books for December.” Included was Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia 刘霞, (Graywolf),translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern. The collection draws from thirty years of Liu’s poetry, including what she’s written after she was placed under house following the imprisonment of her husband, Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, who was sentenced for eleven years in 2009 (he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010). “In several of her chiseled poems,” the Post writes, “Liu uses dolls to convey what she cannot—and yet her voice still asserts itself, coming through bold and vital.” Empty Chairs is also the only translation from Chinese to make it onto World Literature Today‘s list of “75 Notable Translations of 2015.”

Finally, at Three Percent non-poetry reader Chad Post has come up with his list of “poetry collections I would’ve read and loved, if I read poetry. Based on my general knowledge of publishers, translators, and titles, I’m pretty much positivie that these are the best collections I should’ve read this year.” In this list he includes my translation October Dedications by Mang Ke 芒克 (Zephyr / Chinese University Press). The book isn’t actually out yet, but I can’t resist including it here because Chad writes, “Lucas Klein is a really stand-up guy who does a lot to promote Chinese poetry. He’s also been a judge for the PEN Translation Prize, and been mistaken for me at several ALTA conferences … He also likes to get all up in my shit about mis-alphabetizing Chinese authors in my various lists and posts. This is totally my fault, although it’s not always that easy to figure out …The beauty of this list that I’ve put together though is that, even if “Ke” is his surname, this book is STILL properly alphabetized. I CAN NOT BE BEATEN TODAY.” Congratulations, Chad. Mang Ke is a pseudonym, but yes, it should be alphabetized under M. And since the book won’t be out until sometime later in 2016, you still have time to read it and put it on this year’s list again.

Haysom’s Hermits and butterflies: nature writing in China

article imagePathlight managing editor Dave Haysom’s “Hermits and butterflies: the resurgence of nature writing in China” has been published on China Dialogue, covering the range of contemporary Chinese literature–and even mentioning Xi Chuan:

Their rural existence was no idyll, and it ended in tragedy: in 1993 Gu Cheng killed Xie Ye with an axe before hanging himself. By that point Hai Zi and Luo Yihe were also dead: Hai Zi committed suicide in 1989 by throwing himself under a train (leaving his copy of Walden in his bag alongside the tracks); Luo Yihe died from a brain haemorrhage just a few months later, apparently from the strain of his editorial efforts to secure Hai Zi’s poetic legacy. Wei An died from liver cancer in 1999.

Their untimely deaths seem to have sealed these poets behind the curtain of history – but many of their contemporaries are still with us, and still producing poetry that engages with the same themes. Last year Ouyang Jianghe (欧阳江河) published Phoenix, a 400-line mini-epic in which the spiritual and environmental strains of China’s feverish development are embodied in the vast avian sculpture of artist Xu Bing (徐冰). The polymath writer, artist, editor and filmmaker Ou Ning (欧宁) is perhaps the closest thing contemporary China has to a Thoreau figure, having founded his own rural commune in Bishan, Anhui, as part of the New Rural Reconstruction Movement. Xi Chuan (西川) was a classmate of Hai Zi and Luo Yihe, and after the deaths of his friends he switched from lyric poetry to a looser, prose-poem style, in which nature is seldom idealised.

Trees eavesdrop on trees, birds eavesdrop on birds; when a viper stiffens and attacks a passing human it becomes human … The truth cannot be public, echoless thoughts are hard to sing.

— from “Exhor[ta]tions” by Xi Chuan – translated by Lucas Klein

As Jennifer Kronovet observes: “This is not nature poetry and yet it is.”

Click the image for the piece in full.

Yi-Fen Chou, the Welfare Queen of American Poetry

reganBecause it’s broadly related to Chinese poetry as understood in English, I wrote something about the recent Best American Poetry controversy, published at Drunken Boat, titled “Yi-Fen Chou: Michael Derrick Hudson and/or Ronald Reagan.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Ezra Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is a translation of a poem by medieval Chinese poet Li Bai 李白, and was part of the redefinition of Chinese poetry and Chinese culture in English in the early twentieth century. The Love Poems of Marichiko, presented as translations of young Japanese woman’s poetry but which Rexroth admitted to writing after he was nominated for a translation prize, were an attempt at an imagined empathy with a cultural other, the poems narrating a passion with an unknown lover that dissolves boundaries as the passion dissolves as well. And the Araki Yasusada phenomenon undermined our prevailing notions of authorship to expose and critique the cultural double standards at work in the American poetry industry. Yi-Fen Chou, on the other hand, looks motivated by a desire to take advantage of the prevailing notions of authorship and our double standards in the American poetry industry. And this is why I’m thinking of Ronald Reagan.

The Reagan era was when American poetry of all stripes turned inward, as if mirroring not only the government’s xenophobia, but its configuring of trade into a neo-liberal assertion of American dominance, now called globalization. Not that American foreign policy before Reagan had been anything to be proud of, but poets had responded to the Vietnam War by translating more (as they would in the Bush II era, reacting against war by increasing their curiosity about the outside world); in the years afterward the Me Decade took over American poetry, as well, and American poets wrote best about their own personal me. Hudson says “he did briefly consider trying to make Yi-Fen into a ‘persona’ or ‘heteronym’ à la Fernando Pessoa, but nothing ever came of it.” That, at least, would have been interesting, and related his pseudonym to his poetry. As is, both his lack of interest in engaging with the culture he names and his use of a minority name to get published make him the poetic equivalent of the domestic and international policies of the Reagan presidency.

Click the image above for the full piece.

John Kinsella on Xi Chuan: How Many ‘I’s?

Last week Xi Chuan and I flew to Perth, Australia, to take part in the launch conference in Margaret River for their joint China-Australia Writing Centre. West Australian poet John Kinsella was in attendance, and afterword he wrote a wonderful blog post titled “How Many I-s in the Hotel of Xi Chuan?” Here’s a bit from the beginning:

A few days ago I had the privilege of hearing the Chinese poet from Beijing, Xi Chuan, reading from his work and discussing it, along with his English-language translator Lucas Klein. What grabbed me even before the reading began was Xi Chuan’s statement that his poetry was not of a single ‘I’, but rather a cluster of I-s. I don’t think any poet is a single I, and I have often over the years argued against denoting a unified self …

What Xi Chuan outlined as his reason for stating this, his need for such a declaration, struck me as deeply relevant and vital. He discussed having a ‘hotel in [his] head’ which is inhabited or co-inhabited by a number of other voices which are not his own. This is not so much a conceptual statement of artistic practice as one of deep necessity. In that hotel, or maybe boarding house, are those who have been lost or extinguished, those whose voices were taken from them, who were forced into silence …

It was clearly painful for Xi Chuan to discuss this, and what began as a kind of ironising (of all notions of innovation, of himself, of us all) quickly became a deeply-felt ‘confession’ of obligation and respect, of necessity. It was witness carried to the extent of giving away one’s sense of unified self (should even the idea exist) to a polyvalent (my interpolation) self. Not many selves, but many other selves.

Click on the image for the full piece.