How “International” is Poetry?

At the English Pen site, Michele Hutchison has posted an article titled “How international is poetry?” that looks at the kind of poetry included in international literary festivals like Rotterdam. Here’s a bit of what she says:

If international is taken to mean universal and accessible to all, there are a few stumbling blocks. A haiku is not the same as a sonnet is not the same as badi, but cultural context is just as complex as form. [...] The reader/listener’s knowledge or ignorance of a foreign culture is just as limiting to the transmission of literature as a translator’s inability to pick up and carry across all of the layers of meaning, without footnotes.

During the course of the symposium, I learn that K. Satchidanandan has translated his own work into beautiful English and in doing so, he has opted to cut out cultural references which might disturb the Western reading process, for example, ‘rain from the Hindu Treta Yuga period’ has become ‘rain from a bygone age’. Is this globalisation that Tim Parks keeps writing about on the NYR blog at work? Have the poets been invited precisely because they write the kind of neutral, non-culturally specific poetry that translates and travels easily?

In addition to what Tim Parks has written w/r/t fiction, this is also close to what Stephen Owen wrote in a review of Bei Dao‘s 北岛 poetry in 1990: a certain kind of “international” or “world poetry” crops up that translates well, but which gives undue weight to the cultural expectations of readers in Europe and North America at the expense of literary traditions in other parts of the world. Hutchison takes this even further, noting that poetry from other parts of the world may still come up short when judged against writing from the center of the current world system, which will find ways of reiterating its own centrality:

Headliner Ron Silliman, one of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, reads work that is playful and incomprehensible. Does he get away with this because he writes in English and refers to the dominant culture? [...] Are the most complex and impenetrable poets here the ones who write in English?

While this is an interesting argument to pursue, and important for understanding what’s been happening, and what continues to happen, in literary history around the world, the way the argument slides over too easily into value judgment bothers me. Certainly it’s a problem that local traditions are being sacrificed at the altar of international exchange, but a poem is not necessarily good or bad because it embodies or rejects cultural specificity (to be fair, this is the point Hutchison makes at the conclusion of her post).

Moreover, just as translation can be a vehicle for the global propagation of an American Standard poetry (and we should remember that American Standard usually refers to a toilet), translation can also work against that standardization and remind readers in a new language that writing from around the world can be at least as complex and rewarding as what they’re used to. Hutchison quotes Poetry International magazine’s Correen Dekker, who explains that “translators are more willing to work on texts which allow for a successful end product”; this is true, but for me translating Xi Chuan, I do not judge the success of the end product based on how much it adheres to an ethnocentric vision of poetry cleansed of foreign reference points, but rather on how it expresses an aesthetic experience that can include the complex fullness of what both poetry and Chinese culture can entail.

43rd Poetry International Festival Rotterdam

The 43rd Poetry International Festival Rotterdam has begun. I wonder why there are no Chinese poets participating this year.

More on the India-China Writers Dialogues

While I expect it will be some time until the participants of the India-China Writers Dialogues publish anything about the event–these writers want to be thorough and accurate to both reality and emotion–I did come across another press report, from Express India. It begins discussing the germ of the idea with Sharmistha Mohanty and Bei Dao, and moving on toward the following detail:

Since the beginning of the dialogue two years ago, the participants have been the same group of writers, and Mohanty believes this has been a very important aspect. “With the same group of writers meeting each time, we have become good friends and learnt a lot from each other,” she says. Besides the speakers for the panel discussion, the participants include Allan Sealy, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Adil Jussawalla, Vivek Narayanan and K Satchidanandan from India and Ge Fei, Xi Chuan, Zhai Yongming and Ouyang Jianghe from China.

These discussions are not limited to analysing writing styles and such. In the course of these two years, the participants have exchanged a great deal about their histories and cultures, too. “We talk about a variety of things,” says Mohanty. “For instance, what does tradition mean to us? How is it represented in our lives and works? Or how a writer wrestles with his past when he is writing. We discuss whether he rejects that long past or embraces it, and so on.”

Hindustan Times on India-China Writers Dialogues

The Hindustan Times has a report on the India-China Writers Dialogues, in which Xi Chuan is participating. I like the quick contextualization by Lydia Liu 刘禾:

This year, Indian writers such as I Allan Sealy, Adil Jussawalla and Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan are interacting with poets such as Han Shaogong, Xi Chuan and exiled dissident poet Bei Dao over three days in Mumbai, which began on Monday.

While the dialogues are closed-door events, the writers will give a public reading of their works on December 20 and will hold a shorter public dialogue on December 21.

“All we see in the media is hype about the economic rivalry between India and China, which is a limited view,” said Chinese critic and academician Lydia Liu. “Our cultures have thousands of years of association and many things in common, which writers are more sensitive to.”

India-China Writers Dialogues

Xi Chuan will be traveling to Mumbai soon for the India-China Writers Dialogues. Here is a press release along with a schedule of speakers:

The online literature journal Almost Island, founded and edited by novelist Sharmistha Mohanty along with poet Vivek Narayanan, has begun a dialogue with mainland Chinese writers. The first such dialogue, led on the Chinese side by the great contemporary poet Bei Dao and the seminal journal Jintian (Today), was held in 2009 in New Delhi. This was possibly the first unofficial dialogue between Indian and Chinese writers in recent times. The second was held in China, in Beijing and Shanghai. This Mumbai meet is the third chapter of the dialogues. It brings together some of China’s and India’s leading writers. Ashis Nandy who has been part of these dialogues, has called it “historical”. He has said, “This is not a meeting between two countries, but an encounter between two civilisations.” The two evenings of readings will be rich with poets and novelists from both countries reading from their exceptional works.

Dec 19:
Zhai Yongming 翟永明
Allan Sealy
Xi Chuan 西川
Rukmini Bhaya Nair
Ge Fei 格非
K.Satchidanandan

Dec 20:
Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河
Sharmistha Mohanty
Adil Jussawalla
Han Shanogong 韩少功
Vivek Narayanan
Bei Dao 北岛