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:


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


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.


China Daily Reports on Death of Wang Guozhen

Beloved poet hits the road again, this time never to returnWang Guozhen 汪国真 has passed away. China Daily reports:

Chinese poet Wang Guozhen, who was quoted by President Xi Jinping in his public speech, passed away in Beijing on Sunday.

Wang, whose poems became a sensation in the 1990s, died of liver cancer at the age of 59.

His passing has brought him back into focus across the country’s traditional and social media, with people mourning and also debating his place among China’s contemporary poets.

“There’s no mountain higher than a man, and no road longer than his feet,” Xi had quoted from one of Wang’s poems during a speech at the 2013 APEC CEOs’ summit in Indonesia, to emphasize China’s determination on economic reform.

“Wang’s writing had an impeding effect on Chinese poetry,” Ouyang Jianghe [欧阳江河], a renowned poet of the school of “misty poetry” that flourished in the 1980s, says.

“If we judge the quality of a poem only by its number of readers, then it is a shame for poetry. What represents Wang’s poems? The spirit of the time and motivational aphorisms … These are what I think makes a poem fake.”

Click on the image for the full write-up.

Sound & Image: Chinese Poets in Conversation

IMGP0652As part of the “Birds of Metal in Flight” event, Columbia University hosted a panel discussion with Bei Dao 北岛, Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, Xi Chuan 西川, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Zhou Zan 周瓒, and Xu Bing 徐冰, as moderated by Lydia Liu 刘禾 and John Rajchman and introduced by Eugenia Lean, titled “Sound and Image: Chinese Poets in Conversation with Artist Xu Bing.” Click the image above for more information & photos, or here to stream the discussion via iTunes.

Video of Birds of Metal in Flight Readings

collage by Tara Coleman

Readings by Marilyn Nelson, Bei Dao 北岛, Afaa Weaver, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Pierre Joris, Xi Chuan 西川, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Zhou Zan 周瓒, Charles Bernstein, and Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, followed by remarks from Xu Bing 徐冰, introduced by Lydia Liu 刘禾.


For Xi Chuan reading my translation of “Bloom” 开花, jump to 49:21.

For pictures and more information on the reading, click here. For recordings of the readings, visit PennSound.

Birds of Metal in Flight

Birds of Metal in Flight: An Evening of Poetry with 5+5

Readings by

Bei Dao 北岛 • Charles Bernstein • Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
Pierre Joris • Marilyn Nelson • Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河
Afaa Weaver • Xi Chuan 西川 • Zhai Yongming 翟永明 • Zhou Zan 周瓒

with remarks from
Xu Bing 徐冰

Wednesday, February 25, 2015
7:00 PM – 9:00 PM

Reception to follow

Cathedral of St. John the Divine
1047 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10025

This event is free and open to the public.
Registration Required