Why Notes on the Mosquito Should Win Best Translated Book Award 2013

This week the 3% blog is highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. This review of Notes on the Mosquito is by BTBA poetry judge Jennifer Kronovet. It begins:

When I had the chance to meet the Chinese poet Xi Chuan at a conference on translation in Beijing, I asked him about the choice to write prose poems. Prose poems make up approximately half of Notes on the Mosquito, his selected work translated by Lucas Klein. He responded that years ago, an artist asked if he would write a poem in relation to a photograph of someone washing with a plastic wash basin. He told this artist that he did not know how to write about plastic basins, only wooden ones. Prose was a way for Xi Chuan’s poems to step outside of the imagery and language of traditional Chinese poetry and reenter with a different idiom and perspective. Xi Chuan’s prose poems are nodes of intense and felt thinking in relation to China’s present, expressed in a voice that is starkly contemporary and layered with history. Form and voice in Xi Chuan’s work feel like rooms where impossible thinking explains everything. In one poem he writes:

“In a crowd of people some people are not people, just as in a flock of eagles some eagles are not eagles; some eagles are forced to wander through alleyways, some people are forced to fly in the sky.”

Read the whole review by clicking here or the image above.

Notes on the Mosquito on New Books on East Asian Studies

Carla Nappi of New Books in East Asian Studies spoke with me (yes, me!) about my translation of Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems. Here’s her flattering write-up:

First things first: this is a book of amazing, beautiful poetry, and you should read it.

In translating Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems (New Directions, 2012), Lucas Klein has given readers access to a bilingual journey through more than two decades of Xi Chuan’s evolution as a writer, a person, and a historian. The poems collected and rendered in Notes on the Mosquito range from evocative lyric verse about shepherds and loneliness to historical essays that consider the “New Qing History.” (It is a striking range, and one that was quite unexpected for this reader and historian.) In our conversation, Lucas was generous enough to explain many aspects of his process and approach as a translator, and to read a number of the translated poems collected in the volume. We talked about several aspects of his work, including both practical issues and more conceptual questions about the linking of history and poetry in the writing of a poet and a reader’s approach to the resulting work. It was a pleasure, and I hope you enjoy listening.

Click the image above or listen here:

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Review of Words & the World

Kevin Carollo’s review of Words & the World, the publication from the 2011 International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong, has just appeared at Rain Taxi online. Carollo writes:

Enter Words & the World, the material result of 2011’s International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong. A white box roughly 7 x 11 x 2.5 inches in dimension houses a collection of twenty chapbooks, black ink on white paper, with at least two languages guaranteed in each chapbook (Chinese and English). The collection “begins” with the younger generation Mexican poet María Baranda (b. 1962), and “ends” with Chinese writer Yu Xiang (b. 1970), integrating them with better-known or longer-standing international versifiers, including Irish trickster Paul Muldoon, American spiritualist C.D Wright, Japanese lyric master Shuntaro Tanikawa, and Slovenian dynamo Tomaz Salamun. The box-set effect encourages reading at cross-cultural purposes, to be sure, and a nice leveling effect emerges between poets, poems, and languages. The work inside is generally stunning, strange, and vibrant, in no small part due to having crossed so many borders to appear before your very eyes.

Today’s English speaker is more than likely aware of the myriad forms of English informing the polyphonic Anglo poetry world, and the inclusion of such diverse poets as Muldoon, Wright, and Indian Vivek Narayanan intimates as much. Perhaps because the “West” often conveniently forgets that a billion people speak the language, Words & The World importantly underscores the heterogeneous nature of living and writing in Chinese by showcasing writers from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. All of them seem engaged in some form of epic conversation with a “West” that is far from predictable or uniform in its concerns or manifestations. The addition of poets like Brazilian Régis Bonvicino (writing in Portuguese, despite his French-Italian name) and German-born Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko further reinforces the sense of a grandiloquent, irreverent dialogue occurring across the seven seas. Bonvicino’s chapbook includes an untitled poem dedicated to Dragomoshchencko, which begins: “Almost no one sees / what I see in the words / byzantine iconoclasm / the clock reads midnight or mid-day?” (56). Indeed, the byzantine iconoclasm of this box set is what astonishes most of all, the overriding and often overwhelming sense that, night or day, it is high time for all of us to wake up.

Click on the image above for the full review.

Canaan Morse on Xi Chuan’s new book in Chinese

I'm a picture.In “Say What You Won’t,” Canaan Morse reviews Enough for A Dream 够一梦,  Xi Chuan’s newest collection of poems in Chinese. Morse writes:

Local language allows these poems to represent their respective subjects with painful honesty—not through invective, but rather through a soft, playful sarcasm that appears to be one of the hallmarks of Xi Chuan’s work. Nearly every poetic statement in the first section of Enough is satirical, invented or absurd, yet can provide the reader truly useful information. The mechanism of irony, which is merciless as only humor can be, slips the knife between the ribs and twists it.

In the high-energy environment of the poem, any image when first introduced is made vast by its potential significance. Xi Chuan brings those images in as they are, and then, through a simple repetition or a partial denial, deflates them. The reader becomes spectator to a farcical event, and is tempted to laugh. This ironical disbelief of the narrator’s own discourse appears with variations so often throughout the poems in Enough for a Dream, we should be able to consider it characteristic of Xi Chuan’s poetic voice.

Click the image above to read the whole piece, along with a poem of Morse’s in Chinese in echo of one of Xi Chuan’s.

Notes on the Mosquito Reviewed at Quarterly Conversation

Eleanor Goodman’s excellent review of my translation of Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan is now up at Quarterly Conversation. Here’s how it begins:

In the fourteen-page Author’s Afterward to his Selected Poems, Xi Chuan references or quotes from Tolstoy, Yang Lian, the Zhuangzi, the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy, Eileen Chang, Leo Strauss, C.T. Hsia, Jonathan Spence, Milan Kundera, Li Bai, Czeslaw Milosz, the 20th-century sociologist Fei Xiaotong, ancient philosopher Han Feizi, Mao Zedong, Foucault, Tang dynasty literati Han Yu, and Goethe. This is not a poet who can be accused of parochialism. Yet Xi Chuan wears his erudition lightly, at least in the context of his verse. This is not to say that the poems do not give a sense of a formidable intellect behind them—they do—but what is striking in the poems is less Xi Chuan’s breadth of reference than his sense of humor, his humanity, and his attention to the smallest details of ordinary life, ranging from bodily functions to rats to the way drizzle soaks through socks.

Click the icon above to read the whole review.

Bookslut Reviews Notes on the Mosquito

BookslutThe online literary journal Bookslut has posted Greer Mansfield’s excellent review of my translation of Xi Chuan titled “Notes on Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems.” Here’s an excerpt:

Xi Chuan has translated Borges and even written a poem about him, but these prose poems bring to mind another great Argentine: Julio Cortazar in quizzical sketches like Cronopios and Famas.

His poems also bring to mind the Western modernists: urban surrealism, clear images expressed in laconic language, black humor, and dialogues with the dead. But one also thinks of the classical Chinese poets: atmospheres and experiences captured in a few words, a slight shift in mood (a change in the weather, the sight of an inscription on a tree) evoking entire worlds … One also thinks of a Chinese wisdom writer as great as Zhuangzi. Xi Chuan has a similarly playful and puzzling mind, embracing the bafflement and ambiguity of the world. Zhuangzi himself makes an appearance in these poems, as do other luminaries of Chinese literature, philosophy, and history: the “grand historian” Sima Qian, the satirical poet Sima Xiangru, the poets of the Tang Dynasty, and even Confucius. These presences are as much a part of Xi Chuan’s landscape as Beijing’s streets, the South Xinjiang mountains, or the huge Chinese plains.

Click here for the whole review!

Chris Lupke on Xi Chuan

Today’s Book Review Seminar with Xi Chuan features Chris Lupke’s review of my translations, Notes on the Mosquito. Because it’s still forthcoming in print, I can’t reproduce the entire review, but here’s an excerpt of Lupke’s intricate and sensitive take on Xi Chuan’s poetry and its importance in China and the world:

The density of his poetry aside, the other trial facing me and any reader at this time is that we have no serviceable nomenclature for what Xi Chuan is doing, particularly his work of the past ten years or so. He is engaged in an unprecedented project to recast literary expression in contemporary China. And we do not know, cannot now know, whether the results of his project eventually will be the idiosyncratic work of one man, or whether he is setting a path, one possible path, for other poets to follow. Xi Chuan exists at a special time in Chinese literary history when form has finally matured in modern Chinese poetry, when the anxiety of influence can be tempered by several generations of earlier modern poets who bore the major brunt of being compared with the illustrious tradition of classical Chinese poetry and when experiments with Western poetic structures have by and large been cast aside. The successes of free verse poets from Taiwan such as Yang Mu, Yu Guangzhong, Wai-lim Yip (Cantonese, but educated in Taiwan), and others have established a solid corpus in the vernacular mode. Obscure poets from China have safely neutralized the once suffocating omnipresence of Maospeak. Through the use of internal rhymes, rhythmic repetition, alliteration and assonance, Xi Chuan is able to forge his work in an environment in which the so-called avant-garde (which to date has not been adequately defined in China) is the norm. Liberated from the twin strictures of classical Chinese and Western prosody, Xi Chuan has become a successful bricoleur, a world poet who interacts with the tradition, engages literary giants of China’s past within his work, and also establishes a dialogue with Western greats such as Homer, Petrarch, Baudelaire, Rilke, Pound, Gary Snyder, and others. His work is the product of a creative dialectics that violates Hu Shi’s admonition to eschew literary allusion while embracing his demand to articulate things in the vernacular. The conflicts that Xi Chuan bespeaks in his poetry are not those of a clash of civilizations, of traditional and modernity or East and West. Rather, they are internal conflicts, conflicts of the soul. His work is completely personal and untranslatable to others, not just linguistically but emotionally. But at the same time, his problems are genuine and are no different than those that give pain to each of us: the death of friends and family, frustration over failure, difficulty communicating to others, weakness and ineffectuality, humiliation, fear, lust, and limitation. “The one with the greatest vision is blind” 最具视觉功夫的人竟然是个瞎子, he flatly observers, “if Homer wasn’t blind, then whoever created Homer must have been” 如果荷马不是瞎子,那创作了荷马的人必是瞎子. And he concludes at the end of the same poem: “Nietzsche the last son of Dionysus, never touching a drop, still went crazy in Weimar” 尼采酒神的最后一个儿子,滴酒不沾,却也在魏玛疯疯癫癫 (109). Genius has its consequences. It’s not a game.

Hope you can attend!

Date: 1 November, 2012 (Thursday)
Time: 5:00 – 6:30 p.m.
Venue: G4302, Green Zone, 4/F, Academic 1, City University of Hong Kong.