Narrative Poem, Yang Lian’s most personal work to date, is built around a series of family photographs, the first of which was taken on the day when he was born, on 22 February 1955, and the last of which dates from the time he spent undergoing ‘re-education through labour’ – and digging graves – during the mid-1970s.
The poetry ranges backward and forward in time, covering his childhood and youth, his first period of exile in New Zealand, and his subsequent adventures and travels in and around Europe and elsewhere.
In ‘this unseen structure written by a ghost’ Yang Lian weaves together lived experience with meditations on time, consciousness, history, language, memory and desire, in a search for new/old ways of speaking, thinking and living.
The new Cha also features my review of László Krasznahorkai’sDestruction 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?
A Massively Single Number庞大的单数, now out from Shearsman Press, is an anthology showcasing the work of seven prizewinning poets, chosen from entries to the 2013 Artsbj.com International Chinese Poetry Prize, together with critical essays by prominent Chinese poets, and essays by Baz Kwakman and Antonia Byatt. The book was edited by Yang Lian 杨炼, who was involved in the competition from the very beginning, and was translated by Brian Holton.
The poets–Cao Shu 草树, Liao Hui 廖慧, Zang Di 藏棣, Yu Jian 于坚, Qi Ye 七夜, Zhong Shuo 钟硕, and Guo Jinniu 郭金牛–are mostly new to publication in English, and present a wide range of voices, ranging from the serene and other-worldly voice of the Taoist recluse, to the dispossessed voice of the migrant worker; there is wit, elegance, rough-edged anger, much novelty and startling creativity. The anthology is clear proof that Chinese poetry is alive and well, and going from strength to strength.
Paul Manfredi at China Avantgarde writes about the exhibition of the paintings of the Poetic Survivors. He explains:
This exhibition, title The Poetic Survivors 诗意的幸存者, is on a larger scale than many iterations past, with some new members in the line-up. In particular is the calligraphy of Tang Xiaodu 唐晓渡, long-time critic and cultural figure whose visual art I had never seen before this collection emerged. Also notable is the preface to the exhibition written by Yang Lian, who is not often so closely engaged with goings-on inside China. The funding will carry this exhibition through numerous cities over the next 12 months, among them and besides Shanghai where the operation kicked off in November, will be Beijing, Shenyang, and Dalian.
The seven-person lineup this time rather different from previous “Poets Group” (诗派) of painters, with only Mang Ke 芒克, and Yan Li 严力 the constant members. They are here joined by Tang Xiaodu 唐晓渡, as mentioned, but also You You 友友, Guo Changhong 郭长虹, Li Li 李笠 and Jie Wei 解危.
Click the image above of the painting by Mang Ke for Manfredi’s write-up, and Yang Lian’s intro in Chinese (the English of which I translated for the exhibition brochure).
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.
The New York Times has a write-up on the Arts Beijing International Chinese Poetry Prize , headed by Yang Lian 杨炼, and its 50,000 entries for best poem. (In addition to Yang, Arts Beijing includes in its sphere Chinese poets such as Mang Ke 芒克, as well as W. N. Herbert, Adonis, George Szirtes, Breyten Breytenbach, Joachim Sartorius, Rebecca Horn, and Bas Kwakman) The article offers decent coverage of the breadth, if not the depth, of contemporary Chinese poetry. One point by Yang seems not only well-phrased but insightful:
“We used to say poetry was ‘hot’ because society was so ‘cold,’ ” meaning spare and poor, he said. Poets were speaking out against a highly repressive regime. “Today, they say, poetry is ‘cold’ because society is ‘hot.’ It’s economically developed. What I think they are expressing in poetry today has not been the subject of Chinese poetry before.”
The new Asia Literary Review is hosting a feature on modern (I think they mean contemporary) Chinese poetry. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction by Zheng Danyi 鄭單衣 (translated with Martin Alexander and Shirley Lee):
For us, poetry wasn’t just a social tool or a political weapon. We worked to create an independent literary movement, inspired by T. S. Eliot and other Modernists, and to form a new sense of beauty from Chinese and Western traditions. We wrote in the music of our own southern languages – and edited with an ear for Mandarin. A vernacular approach was therefore also important – what Coleridge called “the language of ordinary men”. This had been a feature of China’s New Culture Movement, which flourished from 1917 to 1919. It aimed, as we did, to build on the literary traditions of the past and to speak directly to a broad audience in its own language.
The feature includes new translations of old poems by Zheng along with Bei Dao 北島, Duo Duo 多多, Shu Ting 舒婷, Yang Lian 楊煉, Gu Cheng 顧城, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Bai Hua 柏樺, Zhang Zao 張棗, and Chen Dongdong 陳東東.
Yang Lian will be introduced by Kelly Askew, Director of the African Studies Center, and moderated by Professor San Duanmu, U-M Dept. of Linguistics.
Yang Lian was born in Bern (Switzerland) in 1955, where his parents were in the diplomatic service, and grew up in Beijing…
A recent passion and project of Yang Lian is to encourage the production and translation of poetry written in dialects of Chinese: Sichuan dialect, Shanghainese and Beijing dialect. There is currently no vehicle for writing poetry in these languages since Chinese orthography supports Mandarin only. Yang has been closely involved with a collective of Slovenian poets who, despite the small population of their country, support poetic production in nine Slovene dialects. He is currently working with Kelly Askew (U-M) and a formerly exiled Kenyan poet, Abdilatif Abdalla, on translating poetry composed in various dialects of Swahili into English and from English into dialect forms of Chinese. The idea is ultimately to produce a volume on ‘dialect poetry’, written in the shadows of dominant, politically powerful, languages (Mandarin and Standardized Swahili being but two examples).
Organized by the African Studies Center and co-sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies, the International Institute, and the Confucius Institute at the University of Michigan.