Clifton on China in The Irish Times

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Harry Clifton and Bao Huiyi

Here’s a let-down of a travelogue: Irish poet Harry Clifton went to China and wrote about it for The Irish Times. At the invitation of Bao Huyi 包慧怡, and also led around by Zhai Yongming 翟永明, he nevertheless manages not to be able to write anything of particular insight into contemporary Chinese poetry–despite the article’s tag being about how “Harry Clifton was bowled over by nation’s teeming life on trip through its poetic heartland,” despite being in the company of two of China’s most interesting poets.

He writes:

This wonderfully preposterous event, involving Chinese professors, university students, joint-smoking hill-tribe poets and illiterates off the street, left me with an abiding conviction – that there is such a thing as inspired misunderstanding between peoples of goodwill comically ignorant of each other, which creates an energy that never would otherwise have existed. Beneath the flashing lights and projected texts on the walls, with Ms Zhai in her feisty hat puffing away in front of me, I realised something as old as the transfer of Zoroastrian texts up the Silk Road was happening, and with roughly the same level of comprehension.

Yes, there is “inspired misunderstanding,” but there’s also just not really connecting. I hope the next time an English-language newspaper commissions a poet to write something about a trip to China, the paper can be sure that the poet will do the appropriate research to make some sense of what goes on during the trip.

Disappointed with W.H. Auden’s Chinese sonnets, which he calls “all gigantism and moralising abstraction, with the human reality lost in its shadow,” Clifton promises “to write [his] own Chinese sonnets, with the life of the place inside them.” 加油!

Click here for the article.

Xi Chuan wins Sweden’s Cikada Prize

The Cikada Prize 2018 is awarded to the Chinese poet Xi Chuan!

Founded in 2004 to commemorate the 100th birthday of Swedish poet and Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, the Cikada Prize is given to East Asian poets whose work “defend the inviolability of life.” They write:

This year’s winner is Xi Chuan (official name Liu Jun), poet, essayist, translator, born in the city of Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, in 1963. Xi Chuan studied English literature at Beijing University from 1981 to 1985, and was a visiting scholar to the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa in 2002, and Orion Scholar to the University of Victoria, Canada in 2009. He is currently teaching Classical Chinese Literature at the School of Liberal Arts, Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

The prize was handed out during a prize ceremony in Beijing, arranged in close cooperation with the Swedish Embassy.

Click here for more information.

Xi Xi Newman Prize Schedule

Hong Kong writer and poet Xi Xi 西西 will be at the University of Oklahoma (Norman, OK) to receive the 6th Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, on March 7-8, 2019.

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She will be taking part in public events with Ho Fuk Yan 何福仁, Tammy Ho, Jennifer Feeley, Man-fung Yip, Ping Zhu, and Jonathan Stalling. Click here for the full schedule.

Cha Journal Call for Submissions for Tiananmen Square Massacre 30th Anniversary Issue

[Call for Submissions] Special Feature on Tiananmen (June 2019)

4 June 2019 will mark thirty years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, when the Chinese government crushed the nascent democracy movement led by students and workers. The ensuing decades have brought tumultuous changes to the culture, politics, economics of China and the whole world. To honour the struggle of the democracy protesters, mourn their defeat, and take stock of the last three decades, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal is convening a special feature of translations and original English works, to be co-edited by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming and Lucas Klein, for publication in the June 2019 issue of the journal.

June 4th.jpeg

We are looking for high-quality and previously unpublished poems, stories, remembrances, essays, and works of creative nonfiction, either originally written in English or translated from any of China’s languages into English, on the topic of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and its aftermath.

Please email submissions to submissions@asiancha.com. The subject line should read “Tiananmen—[Your name]—Genre”. The deadline for submissions is 31 March 2019. Please follow our guidelines closely.

Elia on Ha Jin’s life of Li Bai

The Banished Immortal Ha Jin

Ha Jin 哈金 has written a biography of Li Bai 李白, The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, newly published by Pantheon–and Gina Elia has reviewed it for SupChina.

At points, her review gets into the intricate issues of what different contexts do to and for our readings of specific texts:

I, for one, feel that this understanding of Li Bai the man, rather than Li Bai the legend, causes the beauty of his poetry to resonate all the more. For example, Ha Jin explains that Li Bai wrote his poem “Please Drink” while in the midst of a lovely moonlit night he spent with two friends drinking, joking, and shouting out improvised lines of original poetry to one another. The scene represents a rare moment of levity and delight for Li Bai in a life largely full of failure and disappointment. My favorite part consists of the last few lines of the poem, which reads, “Let us buy wine and enjoy it at any cost. My dappled horse and gorgeous fur robe, let your boy take both to the shop and exchange them for good wine so we can drown our sorrow of ten thousand years.” Before I read Jin’s book, I read these lines as a pleasantly-worded ode to the delights of drinking. Reading it again in the context of Li Bai’s personal life, it takes on a more nuanced and bittersweet air to me. Now it speaks to me as an observation of the fleeting and transient nature of moments of joy in life, which is otherwise mostly fraught with difficulties.

But for all of Jin’s valiant attempts at excavating the man from the myth under which he’s buried, it is admittedly difficult to separate fact from legend when discussing someone who lived over a millennium ago, and Jin occasionally does fall under the trap of mythologizing his subject. Take the poet’s ethnicity, for instance. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests Li Bai may have been born in Suyab, Kyrgyzstan, and that his family relocated to Sichuan when he was a young child. After explaining this, Jin writes, “The truth is that the poet has long been uprooted from any specific place and belongs to the world,” a lovely turn of phrase implying that this important part of Li Bai’s family history is irrelevant to appreciating him as a poet.

Yet in the next paragraph, Jin insists that it’s fair to consider Li Bai Chinese at least in his heart, since he wrote about China as his home throughout his life. The author says, “For our purposes, it is entirely reasonable to assume that he was an overseas Chinese — a Chinese from a foreign land — if not a half Chinese.” For our purposes? What purposes? The attempt here to urge readers to consider Li Bai Chinese — in essence, if not in reality — perhaps reveals a bias of the author.

Click here for the full review.

Turner on Poets of the Late Tang Dynasty

The Collected Poems of Li He   trans.  J. D. Frodsham   (NYRB, March 2017)

Matt Turner reviews The Collected Poems of Li He 李賀, translated by J.D. Frodsham, and Li Shangyin 李商隱, edited by Chloe Garcia Roberts with translations by Roberts, Lucas Klein, and A.C. Graham, for Music & Literature. His piece begins:

Most American readers of Chinese poetry come to it through classic translations by Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder, Burton Watson, and a few others. With some notable exceptions, those translations have tended to focus on the poetic triumvirate of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE): Li Bai (Li Po), Du Fu (Tu Fu), and Wang Wei. The literary context in which those three Tang poets are placed—in China as well as the U.S.—is part of a long, ascendant tradition in Chinese letters, beginning to certain degree with the early anthology that Confucius assembled … The poems of the Shijing, which often seem little more than folk ditties, span seven centuries during the fabled Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE)—the time, according to Confucius in his Analects, when politics and society were ordered as they should be. In China, the Zhou and Tang periods are acknowledged as two golden ages, exemplars of what is best in the Chinese tradition. A trajectory of one to the other is easily assumed.

But poetry from the period is as little in imitation of the Shijing as the politics of the Tang were a repetition of Zhou politics.

And,

Enter Li Shangyin and Li He … These later-Tang dynasty poets sit even more uncomfortably within the Confucian tradition than Li Bai. Both flaunted their dissipation, and their work calls to mind Ashbery-like discontinuities of image that seem to utterly lack the edifications of orthodox, Confucian letters. If we consider that one of the key Confucian tenets was zhengming, the fixing of qualities or relationships in language in order to demonstrate the Confucian worldview (i.e., a lord has the “lordly” attribute of benevolence, whereas a lord who is malicious cannot be recognized as one; a poem was a means to education, whereas a poetry that disregarded pedagogy could not be called poetry, but only be regarded as nonsense), then Li He and Li Shangyin were then obviously bad guys who disregarded order, proper behavior, and other concerns of literary orthodoxy. Their nonconformism was strong enough for Li He to be omitted from the classic anthology Three Hundred Tang Poems, and for Li Shangyin, though still anthologized, to be classed as only a distant cousin of the three greats: Li Bai, Wang Wei, and Du Fu. Today, their literary legacies are explored primarily by edgy scholars and poets, so the existence of these recent English-language editions is fairly remarkable.

Li Shangyin   trans.  Chloe Garcia Roberts , with additional translations by  A. C. Graham  and  Lucas Klein   (NYRB, July 2018)

Turner pays particular attention to translation:

This collected edition is a necessary addition to the growing body of Chinese poetry in English translation, as well as a corrective to the Poundian tradition of Chinese poetry as plain-spoken and full of imagistic language and tropes. It’s unfortunate that, although a collected edition, it is not dual-language—especially since Frodsham’s translations sometimes seem a bit musty next to the few pieces done by Graham … Nevertheless, Li He was definitely singing a “weird tune,” one which comes through the static of the English.

And in Li Shangyin,

The NYRB Poets edition lets the reader refer to the Chinese-language original as well as compare different English-language versions. This is especially important for a poet like Li Shangyin, where so much of his writing is in soft-focus, even in the Chinese. Multiple translations offer us differing glimpses of the same poem—not only as translations, but also as parts of the kaleidoscopic world the original alludes to. For example, one poem in versions by all three translators lets the reader consider the poem’s world as it is disclosed upon our own, in a cascade of synesthetic appearances.

He ends:

As readers, whether or not we can read Chinese and regardless of our familiarity with that tradition, we might ask ourselves what worlds we want our poetry to invoke or create for us, and what we want from Chinese poetry in particular. These editions of Li He and Li Shangyin will probably thwart those assumptions, evoking worlds we are not entirely familiar with. One reason for that is not the quality of the translations, but our distance from the world of the later Tang. Another reason is that the poetry was, simply, always a bit off. It’s good to know that, sometimes, things don’t change.

Read the full article here.m

Denis Mair on Meng Lang

Three poets come to Bumbershoot

In honor of the passing of Meng Lang 孟浪 (1961 – 2018) on December 12 in Hong Kong, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal has published a commemorative piece by Denis Mair, his friend and translator:

All these details are just the outer lineaments of Meng Lang’s life, but his true story—his true biography–lies in the trajectory of his poems. He was a poet who found his own unique path to write about the social, political realities of his country in the language of modern, avant-garde thought. As a poet he always faced political realities, never going down a rabbit hole of metaphysics or aestheticism, yet each poem demonstrates his powerful artistic sensibility. I reaped tremendous reward by translating over a hundred of his poems, and I am proud that he trusted me with his beautiful creations.

Later this month Cha will publish a feature on Meng Lang and his place in poetry, with poems by Meng translated by Mair, as well as poems by Hong Kong writers Tang Siu Wa 鄧小樺, Jacky Yuen 熒惑, Kwan Tin-Lam 關天林, and Liu Waitong 廖偉棠 remembering Meng–as translated by Jennifer Feeley, Nick Admussen, Eleanor Goodman, and Lucas Klein.

Click here for Mair’s commemoration.

Yang Jian Poetry Now Out from Tinfish

Susan Schultz’s Tinfish Press is now announcing the publication of Long River, poems by Yang Jian 杨键 translated by Ye Chun, Paul B. Roth, and Gillian Parrish.

Longtime factory-worker and Buddhist practitioner, Yang Jian is considered by Chinese poets and public alike to be one of China’s most influential contemporary poets. This sustained recognition reflects his work’s power in communicating the loss and confusion felt by many Chinese living through a time of breakneck change. With haunting, plain-spoken lines and resonant images, Yang Jian’s poems skillfully combine simplicity and fullness—an aesthetic formed by a Taoist-Confucian commitment to balance as well as his Buddhist practices of awareness. This contemplative stance shapes a clear-eyed poetry with the depth of vision needed to articulate the personal suffering implicit in ideas of progress driving immense cultural and ecological devastations.

Click here to see what David Hinton, Steve Bradbury, and David Perry have to say about the book–and to order.