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.

C D Wright on Xi Chuan

I’ve had a hard time processing C.D. Wright’s unexpected death since January 12, when she passed away as a result of a clot on a flight home from Chile. Death of an admired figure is always hard, and though I didn’t know C.D. well, I’ve long felt a personal resonance and connection. Unlike many American poets, contemporary Chinese poetry was not a stranger to her: she accompanied Bei Dao onstage for his honorary PhD at Brown in 2011. And she blurbed the back cover of Notes on the Mosquito.

In The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All (Copper Canyon), a selection of snippets from her prose writings about poetry, there’s more. Though he’s not mentioned by name, pages 82 – 85 are about Xi Chuan. It’s from “Of Those Who Can Afford to be Gentle,” previously unpublished in English, but translated into Portuguese by Cláudia Roquette-Pinto for Revista Confraria: Arte e literatura (and Ron Slate writes a little about it here). She writes:

The poets who became important symbols of the June 4 events are either those who were not in the country at the time, and could not return, or those who left he country, some at risk of arrest and some not. And inside, since Tiananmen, many began to enjoy, within limits, the autonomy of international urban life. The visiting writer, the poet who stayed with his face, stayed silent, and began again, reconnecting with his language one word at a time–bird, bicycle, city, fire, peony–in a series of prose poems that commence with literal and naive elaborations on the simple nouns and turn toward skeptical, if not wryly antagonistic, investigations of naming and meaning-making. All of this, to what end, what end. “Only when a nail pierced through my hand did my hand reveal the truth; only when black smoke choked me to tears could I feel my existence. Riding sidesaddle on a white horse ten fairies tore up my heart.” Zigzag. Learn to love the enigma, learn to love the paradox. Speak again.

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.

John Kinsella on Xi Chuan: How Many ‘I’s?

Last week Xi Chuan and I flew to Perth, Australia, to take part in the launch conference in Margaret River for their joint China-Australia Writing Centre. West Australian poet John Kinsella was in attendance, and afterword he wrote a wonderful blog post titled “How Many I-s in the Hotel of Xi Chuan?” Here’s a bit from the beginning:

A few days ago I had the privilege of hearing the Chinese poet from Beijing, Xi Chuan, reading from his work and discussing it, along with his English-language translator Lucas Klein. What grabbed me even before the reading began was Xi Chuan’s statement that his poetry was not of a single ‘I’, but rather a cluster of I-s. I don’t think any poet is a single I, and I have often over the years argued against denoting a unified self …

What Xi Chuan outlined as his reason for stating this, his need for such a declaration, struck me as deeply relevant and vital. He discussed having a ‘hotel in [his] head’ which is inhabited or co-inhabited by a number of other voices which are not his own. This is not so much a conceptual statement of artistic practice as one of deep necessity. In that hotel, or maybe boarding house, are those who have been lost or extinguished, those whose voices were taken from them, who were forced into silence …

It was clearly painful for Xi Chuan to discuss this, and what began as a kind of ironising (of all notions of innovation, of himself, of us all) quickly became a deeply-felt ‘confession’ of obligation and respect, of necessity. It was witness carried to the extent of giving away one’s sense of unified self (should even the idea exist) to a polyvalent (my interpolation) self. Not many selves, but many other selves.

Click on the image for the full piece.

Two Xi Chuan poems in new Paris Review

The Paris Review has published my translations of two new Xi Chuan poems, “Mourning Problems” 悼念之问题 and “Awake in Nanjing” 醒在南京, the former of which is available online for free (“Awake in Nanjing” is available in print and online for subscribers). Here’s how it begins:
an ant dies, and no one mourns
a bird dies, and no one mourns if it isn’t a crested ibis
a monkey dies, and monkeys mourn
a monkey dies, and people pry open its skull
a shark dies, and another shark keeps swimming
Click on the image to link to the poem. (Also check out the interviews with poet and translator Peter Cole, and Russian translator duo Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

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.

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.