Turner on Cheng and Métail from Calligrams

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Cha has published Matt Turner’s review of two French studies of Chinese poetry, Michèle Métail’s Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems, translated by Jody Gladding, and the re-release of François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing, translated from by Donald A. Riggs with classical Chinese poems translated by Jerome P. Seaton, released as part of the Calligrams series by New York Review Books and Chinese University Press.

Turner explains:

NYRB’s Calligrams series publishes titles relating to traditional Chinese literature and Euro-American modernism, calling to mind Guillaume Apollinaire’s book of visual poetry, Calligrammes (1918), and Ernest Fenollosa’s essay on the Chinese written language, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” (1919). It should also call to mind Ezra Pound, who saw in Chinese literature the tools to “make it new.”

About the books, he writes that Cheng, “a Chinese-French structuralist who trained with Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan—offers

that the Chinese written language has an emptiness or void at its heart; its written language demonstrates the shifting relationships of person to world, expressing ontological truths … Cheng states that these relationships translate into poetic images … Subject and object become a matter of language, in which the terms serve to reflect each other—not signifying themselves, but projecting outwards as a comprehensive image … Another way of saying this is that the poet and the poem do not unite, but refract each other.

As for Michèle Métail, “French sinologist and OuLiPo member,” her study of “reversible poems,” which “can be written in grids, in which all directions yield different readings or narratives; written in circles that have no discernible starting or ending points or be poems that, although written conventionally, can be read backwards, like palindromes”—reading one poem discussed by Métail, Turner writes:

The message is clear: lust is bad. Yet one has the sense that in a similar poem one could continue the permutations and end up with something very different. Perhaps that’s because of the “void” at the heart of the Chinese written language as much as the form of huiwenshi. The fine line between the “inside” of the poem and the “outside” of the poem functions as an image that refracts the world. So the question this poses is if this theory applies to literature in English today, to Chinese-language literature today, and if the theory can be implemented as a writing method, or only read backwards?

Click on the image above for the full review.

Turner on Bei Dao & Weinberger at Columbia

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To promote City Gate, Open Up, Bei Dao 北岛 appeared with Eliot Weinberger at Columbia University on September 26. Matt Turner was in the audience, and here he gives his report on the evening:

We sat down in a very bright, medium-sized lecture hall that looked like it was modeled after a circa-1985 computer case. It filled up quickly with Chinese students. As much as their elders may complain about the ’90s generation, here they were—listening, taking notes, and asking questions. I looked around and noticed a couple of local poets in the audience. Bei Dao and Eliot Weinberger (along with an interpreter for Bei Dao whose name I didn’t catch) were introduced, read passages from his recent memoir, City Gate, Open Up, and launched into a discussion about the organization of the book (it was written in installments for a financial magazine) and the difficulty remembering the details necessary for its writing (photographs were needed).

Weinberger would ask a question in English, Bei Dao would look at him and say something brief in English—and then look at the interpreter for a translation of Weinberger’s comments. Bei Dao would reply in Chinese, Weinberger would look at the interpreter, and so on… Given that it was not billed as a Chinese-language event, the English was necessary—even if 95% of the audience understood Chinese.

The conversation had a number of moments like this:

Bei Dao (in English): I will tell you how my parents met, and how they made me.

Weinberger: You’ll tell me how they made meat?!?

This lightened the mood of the talk, which focused on Bei Dao’s childhood and youth during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. And Bei Dao made dark jokes about not having enough to eat and about missing exams because the schools were closed. To deflect some of the more pointed questions about Chinese history, he repeatedly insisted that the history of China during the period in question was tai fuza: too complex for easy summary or simple statement of fact. Bei Dao did not discuss the traumas of the Cultural Revolution (he goes into detail in his book), but emphasized the free travel for students unbound by the demands of a structured education. The period opened the door for its survivors to discover and reinvent themselves.

One person asked (paraphrasing): What do you think of the poetry written in China today, and what is your relationship to it.

Bei Dao: Tai fuza! Next!

Another person asked (paraphrasing): When you wrote your book, did you try to reconstruct the city you grew up in, or did you try to make it into a new home?

Bei Dao (paraphrasing): It would be impossible to reconstruct the city, as it’s changed beyond recognition. And whenever I travel through China I notice the cities now all look the same, which is the problem of modernization in China.

He also said: When I’m at home, I feel lonely. When I travel, even back to Beijing, I feel the same. This is the basic contradiction of being a poet…

Afterwards, I was nervous about talking with Bei Dao. When we met, I forgot all the Chinese I had just rehearsed in my mind. I gave him a magazine with my review of him memoir in it. He seemed very happy about this, and signed my book. We stumbled through. Next!

–Matt Turner

Turner on Bei Dao’s City Gate, Open Up

The World of Chinese has run Matt Turner’s informative review of Bei Dao’s City Gate, Open Up, “Goodbye, Beijing.”

Turner begins with pennamed Bei Dao’s birth and name:

Construction worker, underground publisher, and acclaimed poet, Zhao Zhenkai (赵振开) was born, in his own words, in 1949, “as Chairman Mao declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China from the rostrum in Tian’anmen Square…in [a] cradle no more than a thousand yards away.”

In the 1970s, he would accrue near-celebrity status for his pseudonymous poetry, which was wild and defiant—and unlike anything in circulation at the time. His fame brought enemies, however, and attacks by official censors. Zhao’s pen name, Bei Dao (北岛, “Northern Island”), reflected such conflicted feelings: love for his northern home, as well as desire to be free of others’ impositions.

The book is “written in dreamlike vignettes,” Turner says, and “translated with little poetic license by Jeffrey Yang.”

Click on the image above for the review in full.

Klein’s Ouyang Jianghe in Seedings

Issue three of the literary journal Seedings, edited by Jerrold Shiroma, is now out, featuring sections of my translation of “Taj Mahal Tears” 泰姬陵之泪 by Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河–alongside new work by Will Alexander, Marry Oppen, Matt Turner, Elizabeth Willis, Osip Mandelstam, Michael Palmer, and more!

Poetry does not have an identity of its own, its prajñā and insight
are polyphonic, beginning in two, exerted from other objects.
…………….The gods and the departed face off
like the narcissus, intoning the original poem’s splendor
and its fragrance. Tears extract themselves from polysemy,
elapsing and simultaneously creating their boundaries
……………. and plasticity,
because the tears of poetry’s minstrelsy flow from a statue,
within which flow the materials of consciousness,
e.g., the crystals in the nightingale’s throat,
…………….those tiny metals.
But in rural India, why is the peacock’s cry choked up,
why does the history of words again become a history of dust?

诗歌并无自己的身份,它的彻悟和洞见
是复调的,始于二的,是其他事物施加的。
             神与亡灵的对视
水仙般,支吾着一个元诗歌的婀娜
和芬芳。眼泪从词的多义抽身出来,
它一边流逝,一边创造自己的边界
              和可塑性,
因为诗歌的行吟的泪水是雕像流出的,
里面流动着一些知觉的材料,
比如,夜莺深喉里的那些水晶,
               那些小金属。
但在乡村印度,为什么孔雀的叫声如此哽咽,
为什么词的历史会再次成为尘埃的历史?

Click the image above to download the full .pdf of the issue.

Matt Turner on Qin & Goodman’s Iron Moon Anthology

In a piece titled “A Poem of Shame: In the Words of China’s Workers” published at Hyperallergic, Matt Turner gives his take on Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry, edited by Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇 and translated by Eleanor Goodman. He explains,

In 1923, not long after returning from working as a correspondent in Moscow, becoming the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and translating “The Internationale” for the first time into Chinese, Qu Qiubai wrote the poem “Iron Flower” (which I’ve translated below). It was written at an odd moment in CCP history: a literati like Qu could accomplish all he did politically and write modernist poetry, as much about the revolution as about signifying a new kind of beauty.

I’m not of a soft and smooth nature,
I’m not in the midst of glam and grace;
inside this smoke-filled factory,
forging my iron flower, fire surges.
Iron flower not receiving the warmth of sunlight,

iron flower not getting the solace of moonlight;
the unifying gale of fire in the furnace,
it cracks to burst the pistils into flame.
That place’s sound of hammers is dull,
that place’s sound of metal is staccato;
like a copper pine whipping the hard wind,
I’ve fallen in love, and can’t bear desertion.

This isn’t a fan dance, lightly circling across the floor —
but wherever you look are callouses — strong hands.
The inextinguishable flame burns in the factory,
and shines on my resolute and bold chest.

I billow labor’s rage in the iron furnace,
I envision, envision the Great Community,
and drunkenly belt out a song… the masses!
Forging my iron flower, fire surges.

… A volume of similar indictments, Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry, edited by Qin Xiaoyu and translated by Eleanor Goodman, collects work by Xu Lizhi and 30 other worker poets. Their poetry ranges from lyrical, like the above piece, to experimental (exemplified by another of Xu’s poems, a verbatim listing of a peanut butter production slip).

Poems are in verse, prose, and combinations thereof. Some tell stories, some list facts, some offer only fragments. The formal variety is on par with what you would get from any major anthology in the US (excepting spoken-word poetry).

The authors are not members of literary coteries, either. Aside from being poets, all they have in common is that they are migrant laborers.

Click the image for the full review.

Turner on Woerner’s Ouyang Jianghe

Matt Turner writes in Jacket2 about Austin Woerner’s translations of Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, as published in the two Zephyr volumes Doubled Shadows 重影 and Phoenix 凤凰. He lays out the problem:

Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry presents to any translator the difficult decision of whether or not to pursue his work as a language artifact to be translated as close to literally as possible, or whether to amplify its implicit beliefs, and its abstractions — through a historical lens, or otherwise. But since he is said by translator Austin Woerner to be known as the “most hermetic of the Chinese hermetic poets,” we can expect a pronounced “cryptic language” that doesn’t easily yield access to, as Woerner describes it, “the poem’s mystery.” In such a case, translating in a straightforward manner may be an unproductive task.

However, Turner’s

quarrel with Woerner here is not over his translations per se — his Chinese is fantastic, Ouyang Jianghe is a difficult poet, and Woerner’s translation methods are up-front and consistent. My quarrel is with Woerner’s poetics, which relies upon clichés about the mysterious quality of poetry and the imagination in order to, as he ironically says, “reduce poetry to its purest essence” — an essence that apparently resides in readers’ faculties … Such renditions say more about the translator’s ideas of how poetry sounds than they do Ouyang Jianghe’s, and, more importantly, deflate any ambitious poetic work that may be happening in the Chinese. Should the reader, unaware of the details of the Chinese language or its material context, be expected to do any better? Or is the supposed “mystery” of this line the beginning of a rewarding imaginative journey?

For the full critique, click the image above.

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:

BUILDING POETRY WITH MATERIAL

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.

Turner’s Lu Xun in Seedings

seedings1-f-coverIssue 1 of the new journal Seedings is now out, featuring a great collection of work by some of English’s best poets: Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Nathaniel Tarn, Rosmarie Waldrop, Will Alexander… and translators: Keith Waldrop (Paul Verlaine), Cole Swensen (Jaime Montestrela), Johannes Göransson (Sara Tuss Efrik)…

Worth mention on this blog are the three new translations by Matt Turner of prose poems by Lu Xun 魯迅. From “Waking” 一覺:

Planes on a mission to drop bombs, like the start of class at school every morning, fly over Beijing. Everytime I hear the sound of their parts pound the air I repeatedly feel a light tension, as though witnessing a “death” raid. But at the same time intensely feeling the “birth” of existence.

飛機負了擲下炸彈的使命,像學校的上課似的,每日上午在北京城上飛行。每聽得機件搏擊空氣的聲音,我常覺到一種輕微的緊張,宛然目睹了「死」的襲來,但同時也深切地感著「生」的存在。隱約聽到一二爆發聲以後,飛機嗡嗡地叫著,冉冉地飛去了。也許有人死傷了罷,然而天下卻似乎更顯得太平。窗外的白楊的嫩葉,在日光下發烏金光。

Click the image above to access the issue.