Tracy Smith on Chinese poetry and China

At SupChina Anthony Tao interviews US poet laureate Tracy Smith on her recent visit to Beijing, where she traveled to translate Yi Lei 伊蕾 with Changtai Bi.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

AT: And what is your relationship with Chinese poetry?

TKS: I know a little bit about the history, but it’s very patchy. I’ve read some poems of [ancient poets] Li Po (李白) and Du Fu (杜甫), and then leap forward to [the 1970s/1980s “Misty Poet”] Bei Dao (北岛)… and now, some of the more recent translations [of Chinese poets] that have come out in the States. So it’s a really incomplete body of knowledge so far. But it’s still growing, a growing region of my consciousness.


AT: You recently took part in a translation workshop as part of your trip [organized by Ming Di (明迪), along with renowned poets such as John Yau, Kevin Young, Mario Bojórquez, Xi Chuan (西川), Ouyang Jianghe (欧阳江河), etc.]. What was it like to see your poems in Chinese?

TKS: I wish I could speak the language so I could really hear what it became in this other language, which I can’t. I love the sound. I’m mystified, I’m fascinated by the characters. Even though I know what the poem said, I don’t know what they say. But I think it’s exciting to know that there’s a version of my poems now that can be touched on for readers in a different language, and I’m curious to know how the references live on the other side. I know there’s a lot of choices. Ming Di translated a poem [of mine] called “Ash,” and she said, “Okay, is it this kind of ash, is it this kind of ash?”

So just thinking about the possibilities. And then having to make that affirm certain meanings or implications also makes me have to listen to my poems differently. And some of the things that happened unconsciously, I’m urged to reflect upon them more consciously now because I have to say, “Is it that or that? Well, actually, it’s more this thing than the other, and this is why.”

For the full interview, along with a clip of Smith’s reading, click the image above.