Ouyang 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.