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.
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)
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.
An evening of reading and discussion with Xi Chuan and Eliot Weinberger, introduced by their New Directions editor Jeffrey Yang. This event is part of BookExpo America’s Global Market Forum Honoring China.
When: 7 pm, Friday, May 15, 2015
Where: Barnes & Noble Upper West Side
2289 Broadway, New York, NY 10024
As 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.
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.
In the new Chinese Literature Today, editor Jonathan Stalling interviews Wolfgang Kubin about his life and the poets and poetry he’s known.
Zhang Zao and Ouyang Jianghe wanted pure poetry and new vocabulary, whereas the vocabulary of Bei Dao before ’89 is quite conventional and comes close to what the Spanish poets of the ’30s and ’40s made use of. Bei Dao writes short poetry, but the so-called post hermetic poets prefer the longer form and their outlook is quite different. They are not politically naïve anymore; they do know how complicated a society can be. The poetry of Bei Dao or the poetry of the ’80s, however, always believes in a future that will be good and that will be coming tomorrow. You won’t find this kind of naiveté in Ouyang Jianghe … Zhai Yongming’s starting point is so-called hermetic poetry, and her first cycle about women is so complicated that it drives you crazy as a translator. I translated her work into German and published a book of it very early. I translated much more of her poetry, and actually I should have produced another book, but she’s very modest and always asks me to translate others before editing a new volume of her poetry. But before long she left this kind of hermetic poetry. During her second phase, she dealt with a history of women in her mother’s generation in China before and after ’49. She chose a very plain language and she preferred the long poem. The poetry of her second phase is very easy to translate into a foreign language; it’s not complicated at all. During her third phase, when she started criticizing men, when she started making fun of male protagonists, then her language changed again—it was not hermetic, it was not plain, it was something in-between. Nowadays she prefers a very plain language for social critique. This is her fourth phase, so she’s the only Chinese poet about whom we can say that she went through three, no, four phases of different kinds of poetry. Bei Dao has only two phases; Yang Lian, I think you would say he has one phase and has never changed. P. K. Leung the Hong Kong poet—in some respects he’s always good, always the same. Zhang Zao, the same. Ouyang Jianghe has made changes, perhaps with his last long poem. Xi Chuan, he’s riper now, so he’s different, but concerning his form, I do not see much difference. He’s now more philosophical and he’s more sophisticated, he has humor, he makes fun.
I think, to be creative you need to at least be symmetrical to the surroundings. You may get your language from others, from previous writers, but maybe there is another possibility–that is, you can get your language from reality itself, from society itself. And I wrote an essay some years ago in which I talked about the Chinese oxymorons, social oxymorons. So, before, when I wanted to be a new poet, I tried to be a surrealist, or a symbolist, or a futurist, and now I don’t care about all these terms, and I feel that I need to be honest to myself, and I need to be honest to my awkwardness in this society, my embarrassment in this society. And once you admit that you are embarrassed, then maybe, maybe you can go on with your writing.
Click the image above for the full article, which can also be downloaded as a .pdf file.