Turner on Ouyang Jianghe

image3Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 gave a reading at the China Institute on May 7th, moderated by Yibing Huang (poet Mai Mang 麦芒). Here’s Matt Turner’s write-up of the event:


Poet Ouyang Jianghe gave a poetry reading at the China Institute in New York, followed by a discussion with poet and professor Yibing Huang, as part of a delegation of writers from mainland China brought to the US by the Beijing Contemporary Art Foundation. The event was in Chinese and English, with the help of a very skilled interpreter.

Around 20 people came to see the reading in a small lecture hall, and all could probably speak at least some Chinese. Notably, I didn’t recognize anyone from the local poetry scene there. For the US, it was an audience of outsiders: ethnically, linguistically, and also outside of the New York literary world.

Ouyang Jianghe began his reading with a long poem from his collection Doubled Shadows, followed by several sections of his serial poem “Phoenix.” After each poem, the interpreter would read from the English translation. Despite some problems with the microphone, Ouyang Jianghe captured the attention of the audience with his distinct style of dramatic reading.

The discussion included questions from Yibing Huang about the manner in which Ouyang Jianghe wrote, about his sources of inspiration, about his poetics, and about the relationship of contemporary Chinese poetry to Classical poetry. Audience members also asked about the relationship of his poetry to current economics, and about his language use. I will try to summarize a few of Ouyang Jianghe’s points below.

  • Poetry in China has lately been suffering a regression: in addition to avoiding content which engages with the present moment, the language is often a repetition of what you would only see in the present: in conversation, in advertising, and so on.
  • He is trying to draw on a Chinese history of poetry while also not pigeonholing it as a genre limited to a particular geography, content, or even language. The combination of vernacular Chinese with its written roots, as well as an awareness of foreign languages, allows him to write to the present moment in a way that any “pure” poetry would not.
  • His recent poetry, as can be seen in the Chinese text of “Phoenix,” is written less for sound than to convey the materiality of language. This materiality is conveyed in a rough, even clunky, “built” language that mimics that material reality around him: constant urban construction and the shifting populations, and the assembling of new realities out of pre-existing materials, almost like collage.
  • The existing English translations of his work smooth-over this materiality, and focus on sound and an established idea of “poetic” language which is not there in the original.
  • Traditionally in China, the poem is associated with breath (qi, 气): to a certain degree the line is an allegory of the biological process of inhalation and exhalation. His poetry is interested in the moment in-between breaths, that moment of anxiety.
  • Stock subjects are of little interest to him. If he were to write about the natural world, he is interested in transformational moments. For example, instead of observing the movements of a fish in the water, he is interested in the moment at which that fish is removed from the water and its existence is transformed. It could be when it is taken from the water and placed on a piece of paper, or something along those lines.

Yibing Huang ended the discussion by noting that the bi-lingual forum in which this event took place was a good analog for Ouyang Jianghe’s work: impure, always shifting, and seeking to engage in different modes of discourse.

As for me, I left the reading thinking to myself that I had just seen a reading and talk by a significant poet and very imaginative theorist of contemporary poetry, but also shaking my head over the fact that so few people had been there to hear it. Part of the blame for that lies with China Institute—rarely have they been able to attract the attention of the literary world, with their often stereotypically “Chinesey” events. On the other hand, significant blame can definitely be assigned to a literary world so self-confident that it forgets the rest of the world exists, and is significant. As Ouyang Jianghe receives more publications in English, it’s my hope that the society of small presses and innovative poets in the US will begin to take notice.

Admussen on Mang Ke & Ashbery

At the Boston Review, Nick Admussen writes about the language of John Ashbery and Mang Ke 芒克–especially in “Sunflower in the Sun” 阳光中的向日葵 as translated by Jonathan Stalling and Huang Yibing (and forthcoming in my October Dedications from Zephyr and Chinese University Press)–in light of recent political protests.

Admussen writes:

One cannot always feel the mark of past violence in poems written later, during a time of relative peace, but such feeling is evident in the work of the poet Mang Ke, who lived and wrote through that intense moment of transition when the organized and disorganized political violence of Maoist China gave way to the uncertain openness of the early Deng era … It is possible to read this complex tableau through familiar psychological categories: PTSD, the epidemiology of violence, the mirror neuron. But I prefer to understand the poem as an aesthetic rather than deterministic reaction: we make decisions about how to construct our lives around the violence in our history. The stories we tell and the relationships we draw are like works of art, escapist, realist, obscure, lyrical, or haunted, all tethered to but not defined by the experience of the creation of pain in others.

And on Ashbery, he sees “some small proportion of Ashbery’s late poems as having a thereness-but-not-presence, an abstract understanding of a distant and unsensual truth.”

Click the image above for the full essay.

A New Golden Age for Chinese Poetry?

PRI has published an article on the thriving contemporary Chinese poetry scene. Here’s a taste:

As in other spheres, the Internet has proven a huge democratizing force in the world of Chinese poetry, leveling the playing field for migrant workers and millionaires alike. But love of verse was already there. Chinese poetry has 2,000 years of tradition at its back. Parents read it to their babies. Kids study it in school. But the thing is, most Chinese believe poetry peaked in the Tang Dynasty.  That ended more than 1100 years ago. So for today’s poets, their chosen art form’s exalted status can feel like a double-edged sword.

The article quotes Heather Inwood, Huang Yibing 黄亦兵 (Mai Mang 麦芒), Mindy Zhang 明迪, and Jonathan Stalling. Click here for the full article.

Ancestral Intelligence

In Ancestral Intelligence, Vera Schwarcz has added a forceful and fascinating work to her ever-growing list of publications depicting the cultural landscape of contemporary China. Here, she has created stunning “renditions” of poems by a mid-20th Century dissident poet, Chen Yinke 陳寅恪 (1890 – 1969), and has added a group of her own poems in harmony with Chen Yinke’s. Like his, her poems show a degradation of culture and humanity, in this case through comparison of classic and modern Chinese logographs. Early readers of the book have been universally enthusiastic. Sam Hamill writes, “This deeply engaging celebration of the life and work of Chen Yinke is masterful in its blending of biography, history, linguistics, and poetic adaptation. If the scholarship is vast, the presentation is elegantly swift and insightful. And the poetry (not only Chen Yinke’s but also the author’s own collection of ‘logograph poems’) speaks clearly, powerfully, and passionately. Ancestral Intelligence is a magnificent accomplishment.” Mai Mang (Yibing Huang) adds this: “Through Ancestral Intelligence, Vera Schwarcz proves that a poet and a historian are one and the same: both must work against the flow of time and revive buried voices. That’s why we continue to read and listen.” And this praise from Eleanor Goodman: “The language of these poems lives in two worlds, gleaming across boundaries, thanks to the skill and insight of poet and historian Vera Schwarcz. In the tragic yet inspiring story of Chen Yinke, Schwarcz finds her own powerful way of articulating the horrors of political oppression, and also the smaller but no less difficult personal afflictions of growing old, seeing loved ones suffer, and witnessing the degradation of one’s culture and language. Along with their illuminating exploration of the loss of traditional Chinese ideograms on the mainland, these poems are a kind of primer in empathy, as Schwarcz opens a window onto twentieth-century China and one brave man who, with his intellectual courage and creative output, stood in the way of a dubious ‘progress.’”

Click the image above for more information & sample poems.

Duo Duo at the Prague Writers’ Festival

Duo Duo by Petr MachanThe Chinese poet Duo Duo 多多 attended the Prague Writers’ Festival last month, and they have put up a page of his interviews, readings, prose as translated by John Crespi, and poetry translated by Mai Mang 麦芒. Also included is Duo Duo’s acceptance speech for 2010’s Neustadt Prize, also translated by Mai Mang as “This Is the Reason We Persevere,” which seems to voice the starting point of China’s Obscure Poetry 朦胧诗 poetics:

Even as I speak, remnants of the 1970s still resound, and contain every echo of the reshaping of one’s character. One country, one voice–the poet expels himself from all that. Thus begins writing, thus begins exile. A position approaches me on its own. I am only one man; I establish myself on that. I am only a man.

Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture on Xi Chuan

A couple months ago I linked to the Xi Chuan Wikipedia page in German, and mentioned that no one had written a Wikipedia entry for him in English. I also linked to the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture entry on him, written by poet / translator / scholar Huang Yibing 黃亦兵 (a/k/a Mai Mang 麦芒), but I’ll take the opportunity now to quote it: mentioning the difference between Xi Chuan’s styles before and after 1989, Huang writes that since the ’90s he has

experiment[ed] with various hybrid forms of prose and poetry to convey what he now calls a ‘pseudo-philosophy’ (wei zhexue), inquiring into the absurdities and previously overlooked dark shadows of history, human consciousness and reason.

This is right, but the passage also stands as a testament to how quickly things change in the life of a living poet. Huang’s entry was only written a few years ago, but since I’ve known Xi Chuan (we first met in the spring of 2006), I can’t think of a single time he’s mentioned the phrase “pseudo-philosophy” 为哲学. At the public discussion at the MLA (see Rachel Blau DuPlessis‘s great write-up here) he mentioned that he was no longer interested in writing normatively “good” poems, and I’ve often heard him speak about the oxymoron and its potential and importance for Chinese poetry today (see versions of this discussion in English here and here), but “pseudo-philosophy” is a trope I think he’s left behind. Actually, looking at his most recent work, I get the sense that he’s more interested in producing texts with real, not pseudo-, philosophical value. I hope you see what I mean when Notes on the Mosquito is published in April.

more Xi Chuan in German

The next–and perhaps final–installment of news on Xi Chuan in German is the Xi Chuan German Wikipedia page. It’s rather spare, but it’s the only entry in a Western language, and it’s longer than the Chinese listing. For an online encyclopedia entry on Xi Chuan in English, try the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture entry written by Huang Yibing. Unfortunately, it’s a bit out of date. Someone should work on an entry for Xi Chuan in the English Wikipedia. Who might that be?