The China Digital Times interviews Heather Inwood over her new book, Verse Going Viral (University of Washington Press, 2014). Here’s a sample Q & A:
CDT: Your book addresses the question of whether Chinese poetry is a “literature in crisis” in a “poetry country.” Other nations also pride themselves on their poetic traditions but scorn contemporary poetry. Do you see any parallels between the struggles of poetry communities in China and in other countries, such as the UK?
Inwood: The “death of poetry” has been a recurring theme for many years in most parts of the world; China is by no means alone in worrying about the state of the nation of poetry … Equally, in every instance this turns out to be simply not true: people will always write poetry, regardless of who is reading or listening or what other media temptations may exist, and as long as poetry is being written it will be continue to be relevant to lives around the world.
What makes China such an interesting case study is that modern poetry was a part of mainstream culture as recently as the 1980s, when poets like Gu Cheng and Shu Ting were seen as national celebrities–at least among a significant portion of China’s educated population. Up until just over 100 years ago, the importance of poetry was institutionalized through its inclusion in the civil service examinations, meaning that poetry was not just a highly respected art form and way of life, but also a direct channel to employment in the highest levels of the imperial bureaucracy.
This enduring association between poetry and elite society is another reason why poetry’s loss of readership in the last couple of decades has been felt so keenly in China. It also explains the ongoing efforts of writers and critics to expand the social reach of poetry, for example by advocating the poetry of migrant workers (打工诗歌 dagong shige) or championing “popular” (民间 minjian) poetry over “intellectual writing” (知识分子写作 zhishi fenzi xiezuo), as we saw in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Click on the image for the full interview.