NYTimes Interviews Willis Barnstone on Chinese Poetry

The New York Times features an interview with poet and translator Willis Barnstone about his translations of Chinese poetry and his time in China. Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve always been interested in poetry, and I make no distinction of language or time. I’ve translated Sappho and, with the help of a professor at Yale, Sumerian poetry. But I was equally interested in Chinese poetry … I asked people who were the great contemporary poets, and they said none. It turns out that Mao was the only poet. The only permitted poet!
… So I translated it with the help of a colleague. I sent it in and received a letter saying, “We’re glad to have it and will get back to you.” It sat there for nine months until word came out that Nixon was going to China. In 11 pre-computer days, Harper & Row put it out in a magnificent edition. It became Book-of-the-Month, a New York Times feature review, the whole works.
Then Nixon did fly to Beijing for a summit with Mao, Zhou and Henry Kissinger. Nixon recited two of Mao’s poems in my translation.

He also talks about Wang Wei 王維 and meeting young poets (including Xi Chuan) with his son Tony at the Friendship Hotel in 1984.

Click on the image above for the full transcript.

Even more Mo Yan

Translators need to strike a balance“An Epic Tale of Comic Realism”: a reader’s words on Life & Death are Wearing Me Out.

Peter Tieryas Liu on Sandalwood Death:
The best of Chinese literature doesn’t just give insight into the Chinese condition, but that of all humanity. Mo Yan’s specialty is the uniquely local spectrum through which he plays out the tragicomedy of life as in this case with a rebellion in a small town and its cast of eclectic characters.

And Mo Yan on translation in conversation with Adonis:

“From the perspective of literature and art, it’s undoubtedly a huge loss. My attitude is, forget the translators when you write. Care not about whether they feel happy to translate. The real talented translators aren’t afraid of difficulties,” he says.

[not that I know who translated that passage]

In “White Happy Doves,” Nikil Saval reviews Change, Pow, and Sandalwood Death for the London Review of Books:

When the English translation of Mo Yan’s novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996) was published in 2004, it was seen by some critics as his bid for global literary prestige. It hit all the right notes: it was a historical saga of modern China featuring a proliferation of stories, it was unceasingly violent and nasty, and it came near to puncturing Party myths … the Washington Post praised Mo Yan for having ‘spoken out courageously for freedom and individualism’. Here was a liberal voice in repressive China. ‘The Swedish Academy, which leaps at any chance to mix literature with politics,’ he concluded, ‘might well find in Mo Yan just the right writer through whom to send a message to the Chinese Communist leadership.’

Last year the Academy did indeed give Mo Yan the prize. But this time the Nobel’s literature-politics mix came out all wrong. Rather than taking it as a targeted affront, as it had with the Peace Prize awarded to Liu Xiaobo two years earlier, the Chinese Communist Party was ecstatic. Li Changchun, minister of propaganda, wrote to congratulate Mo Yan on a victory that ‘reflects the prosperity and progress of Chinese literature, as well as the increasing national strength and influence of China’. Mo Yan’s dissident reputation in the West, it turned out, was false. He was an established figure in Chinese literary officialdom. He had been a member of the Communist Party since 1979. He was vice chairman of the China Writers’ Association. He had participated in a public ceremony in which he copied out several Chinese characters from Mao’s Zhdanovite ‘Talk at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art’, a text which declared the subservience of literature to the class struggle. And in Stockholm before receiving the prize, Mo Yan spoke up in favour of censorship: it was, he said, a bit like airport security. The cadres were already moving swiftly to turn his ancestral village into a literary theme park.

Brendan O’Kane, interviewed by Jeffrey Wasserstrom for LA Review of Books:

Mo Yan didn’t send Liu Xiaobo to jail, and there is absolutely nothing he could say or do, up to and including getting the words “FREE LIU XIAOBO” tattooed on his bald pate, that would do one bit of good for Liu Xiaobo or anyone else in China. (This is especially clear given the Chinese government’s continued persecution of Liu’s brother in law Liu Hui, and the ongoing extrajudicial house arrest of Liu’s wife Liu Xia: the authorities are impervious to moral argument, and they have no shame.) Mo is a deputy chairman of the China Writers’ Association, which is to say that he has slightly less power, in actual terms, than your average deputy chairman at the National Endowment for the Arts in the US. Meanwhile, as much as we might wish otherwise, moral/political courage and literary merit are not the same thing — if writing bad poetry were a criminal offense, Liu Xiaobo would never see daylight again. So I wrote that post on Rectified.name in hopes of getting people to disentangle the two. Once you do that, and once you actually read Mo Yan’s books, I think you find that he’s a much sharper writer than he’s been given credit for. His books don’t make any kind of overt criticisms of the system — perhaps because he’s overly cautious; perhaps because he’s just not much interested in lifting his gaze from the village level — but they are all, in one way or another, about the human suffering created, perpetuated, and intensified by that system.

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.

Eric Abrahamsen on Chinese Writers Remembering Yan’an

Over at the NYTimes blog Eric Abrahamsen of Paper Republic has, with characteristic sarcasm, written about the recent edition of One Hundred Writers’ and Artists’ Hand-Copied Commemorative Edition of the “Yan’an Talks.” So what were the “Yan’an Talks” 在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话? Eric describes:

The Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art, delivered in 1942 by Mao Zedong, laid out his plan for the role of art in Chinese society. Seven years before the establishment of the People’s Republic, Mao was essentially telling artists that in a future Communist paradise they could expect to work solely in the service of the political aims of the party.

Well! And?

This year is the 70th anniversary of the talks, and there’s nothing unusual about state-owned publishers bringing out commemorative editions of political texts. This one would include facsimiles of several historical publications of the talks, as well as a new version pieced together from hand-copied passages by one hundred contemporary Chinese writers. And it was likely to go nowhere but warehouse shelves, next to thousands of commemorative books like it.

But the hand-copied feature caught the notice of online commentators. Among the hundred calligraphers were most of China’s best-known and respected authors, including Mo Yan, Su Tong, Jia Pingwa and Han Shaogong.

Interestingly, some of the writers who wanted to have nothing to do with this project–I’m thinking of Yan Lianke 阎连科–are the writers I consider most interested in “serving the people” 为人民服务, though perhaps not in the way everyone wants the people to be served. No word on whether Xi Chuan took part in this commemoration.

Read the whole piece here.