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.

And

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.

 

Klein’s Ouyang Jianghe in Almost Island

The tenth anniversary issue of Almost Island 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 Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, John Robert Lee, Régis Bonvicino, and Valerie Mejer Caso. The editors write:

“Taj Mahal Tears” was produced from a visit by Chinese poets to India for the Almost Island Dialogues in 2009. The singular poet Ouyang Jianghe composes this poem from a confluence of streams – those of history, geography, primal emotion, and over all this the almost aerial gaze of a poet-philosopher.

Here is an excerpt:

The tears of 1632 still flow in 2009.
From a pillar of tears a Mughal prince
stands up, the form of a woman appearing in stone.
Tears flow into stone, chiseling through, reticulating,
…….flow stopped,
still flowing. The mutable master of rivers and mountains, tears flow state coffers
empty, flow time itself to its terminus.
Weapons flow past with no sight of warriors.
Sitars flow past without sound of strings.
Dāru in hand, yet drunkenness flows away from the body of the drinker.
Gold, utensils, a dance of arsenic and antimony, flowing away all the same.
And memory and amnesia, and the body’s mixed emotions, nothing can suffer their flowing.

1632年的泪水,2009年还在流。
一个莫卧儿君王从泪水的柱子
起身站立,石头里出现了一个女人的形象。
泪水流入石头,被穿凿,被镂空,
        完全流不动了,
还在流。这些江山易主的泪水,国库
被它流空了,时间本身被它流尽了。
武器流得不见了武士。
琴弦流得不发出一丝声音。
酒拿在手中,但醉已流去,不在饮者身上。
黄金,器物,舞蹈的砷和锑,流得一样不剩。
还有记忆和失忆,还有肉身的百感交集,全都经不起它流。

Click the image above to read the selection.

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.

Eleanor Goodman on Contemporary Chinese Poetry from Zephyr

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As part of Paper Republic‘s series of blogs for Global Literature in Libraries throughout February, Eleanor Goodman writes on Zephyr Press, which she says “has done more to raise the profile of contemporary Chinese poetry in English translation than any other press today”:

Their books are carefully curated, well edited, and beautifully produced. Above all, their translators (here I must profess that I am one of them) tend to be at the top of the field, which is of course essential to the making of a good book in English.

Alongside mentions of their publications of Han Dong 韩冬, Bai Hua 柏桦, Lan Lan 蓝蓝, and Yu Xiang 宇向, Goodman specifically writes about her translation of Wang Xiaoni 王小妮, about Andrea Lingenfelter’s translation of Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Austin Woerner’s translations of Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, Jennifer Feeley’s translation of Hong Kong poet Xi Xi 西西, Steve Bradbury’s translation of Taiwanese poet Hsia Yü 夏宇, and my own forthcoming translations of Mang Ke 芒克.

With with “deep resources of scholarship and natural talent to draw upon,” she writes, it is

this mix of qualities—the best of the contemporary Chinese poetry world combined with translators who are also careful readers and appreciators of poetry—that makes the Zephyr collection so unique and valuable. These books are a labor of love from start to finish, and it shows in the final products. There is simply no better introduction to the contemporary Chinese poetry scene available today.

Click the image above for the full article.

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.

Klein on Krasznahorkai on Chinese Poets in Cha

ImageThe new Cha also features my review of László Krasznahorkai’s Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens, translated from Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Semi-fictional reportage about Krasznahorkai’s travels through China, it features transcripts of discussions with Chinese poets–which I elaborate on in my review:

My own reading experience was one of being amazed at the representative resonances with those whom I know among the book’s characters—critic Tang Xiaodu and poets Yang Lian and Ouyang Jianghe as well as Xi Chuan—while also being enwrapped in the dramatic tension of its various frustrations.

I also take a look at whether the book is fictional, and how Krasznahorkai plays with central questions in Chinese literary studies to

While those trained in European literature are equipped to believe that writing is in itself a fictional act, others have argued, “In the Chinese literary tradition, a poem is usually presumed to be nonfictional: its statements are taken as strictly true.” But this statement is itself at the core of further debates in Chinese literary studies, such as about Orientalism and the mental sequestering of China as an object of study that comprises much scholarship in Chinese literature.

These debates play out implicitly in the pages of the book, I say:

This is the game Krasznahorkai plays. His self-aware presentation of his Westerner’s vision is embodied and embedded in his structure. In Hungarian, Stein’s name is Dante. Changing it to Stein invokes Aurel Stein (1862–1943), the Hungarian-British archaeologist who discovered the grottoes at Dunhuang and removed four cases of relics and paintings and twenty-four cases of medieval manuscripts to the British Museum in London, where they are preserved, or to which they were stolen. But the moniker Dante also implies Destruction and Sorrow‘s knowing Eurocentrism: the book’s three-part structure proceeds through the hell of the narrator’s exasperation to the utopia of the Suzhou gardens … By positing his China as a passage through the hereafter, Krasznahorkai acknowledges his enclosure within the Western tradition. Not that all narratives in Western literature are fulfilled: from Exodus to Ulysses, heroes have failed in their journeys, too. Or that unfulfilled narratives are the only Chinese authentic: don’t the pilgrims in Journey to the West reach Buddha’s Western Heaven?

Click the image above for the full review.

Lantz on Phoenix

41ngjbO5jzL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Tim Lantz at the LA Review reviews Phoenix 凤凰, by Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 as translated by Austin Woerner:

It’s not hard to see why Ouyang Jianghe considers Phoenix his magnum opus. The book-length poem, at once difficult and exciting, feels like somehow watching the brain and musculature of an in-motion animal. Juxtapositions, short narratives, and allusions to the Chinese literary tradition—these disparate parts are surprising with their motion. With this combination, Ouyang critiques the constant ad hoc of globalization, especially as it speeds China through demolition to buildup. “The forest is gone now; a cement world looms. / Flightless, we build homes in the sky, / adding brick and tile to the ecology of the birds.” Even one’s speech and writing require pieces from the other side of the world, Ouyang points out.

For the full review, click the image above.

Haysom’s Hermits and butterflies: nature writing in China

article imagePathlight managing editor Dave Haysom’s “Hermits and butterflies: the resurgence of nature writing in China” has been published on China Dialogue, covering the range of contemporary Chinese literature–and even mentioning Xi Chuan:

Their rural existence was no idyll, and it ended in tragedy: in 1993 Gu Cheng killed Xie Ye with an axe before hanging himself. By that point Hai Zi and Luo Yihe were also dead: Hai Zi committed suicide in 1989 by throwing himself under a train (leaving his copy of Walden in his bag alongside the tracks); Luo Yihe died from a brain haemorrhage just a few months later, apparently from the strain of his editorial efforts to secure Hai Zi’s poetic legacy. Wei An died from liver cancer in 1999.

Their untimely deaths seem to have sealed these poets behind the curtain of history – but many of their contemporaries are still with us, and still producing poetry that engages with the same themes. Last year Ouyang Jianghe (欧阳江河) published Phoenix, a 400-line mini-epic in which the spiritual and environmental strains of China’s feverish development are embodied in the vast avian sculpture of artist Xu Bing (徐冰). The polymath writer, artist, editor and filmmaker Ou Ning (欧宁) is perhaps the closest thing contemporary China has to a Thoreau figure, having founded his own rural commune in Bishan, Anhui, as part of the New Rural Reconstruction Movement. Xi Chuan (西川) was a classmate of Hai Zi and Luo Yihe, and after the deaths of his friends he switched from lyric poetry to a looser, prose-poem style, in which nature is seldom idealised.

Trees eavesdrop on trees, birds eavesdrop on birds; when a viper stiffens and attacks a passing human it becomes human … The truth cannot be public, echoless thoughts are hard to sing.

— from “Exhor[ta]tions” by Xi Chuan – translated by Lucas Klein

As Jennifer Kronovet observes: “This is not nature poetry and yet it is.”

Click the image for the piece in full.

Poetry in the New Pathlight

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The new issue of Pathlight is available, featuring translations of poetry by Hai Zi 海子 (translated by Eleanor Goodman), Cai Shiping 蔡世平 (translated by Canaan Morse), and Luo Yihe 骆一禾 (translated by Karmia Olutade), plus an interview with Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 by Shu Jinyu 舒晋瑜 (translated by Eleanor Goodman).

Click the image for the full table of contents and free download link.

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