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


Chinese Names in Push Open the Window

When I first wrote about the Copper Canyon anthology Push Open the Window, I said, “My only quibble with the book so far is that, while everything is printed with Chinese and English en face, for some reason the Chinese characters of none of the poets’ names made it into the book.” Co-translation editor Sylvia Lin has worked to address this, writing in a recent post to the Modern Chinese Literature & Culture email list:

List members may be interested in a new bilingual anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry, Push Open the Window, the third volume in a larger project of bilingual anthologies of contemporary poetry funded by the NEA. The poems were selected by the Chinese editor, Qingping Wang, with Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt as translation editors.

Despite our objections, the publisher, Copper Canyon Press, chose not to include the poets’ names in Chinese. We are making them available here; feel free to share the list with other users of the anthology.

Shi Zhi 食指
Mang Ke 芒克
Shu Ting 舒婷
Yu Jian 于坚
Zhai Yongming 翟永明
Wang Xiaoni 王小妮
Sun Wenbo 孙文波
Gu Cheng 顾城
Bai Hua 柏桦
Zhang Shuguang 张曙光
Wang Jiaxin 王家新
Song Lin 宋琳
Xiao Kaiyu 肖开愚
Han Dong 韩东
Chen Dongdong 陈东东
Zhang Zao 张枣
Qing Ping 清平
Sen Zi 森子
Huang Canran 黄灿然
Xi Chuan 西川
Huang Fan 黄梵
Cai Tianxin 蔡天新
Zang Di 臧棣
Hai Zi 海子
Ye Hui 叶辉
Ma Yongbo 马永波
Shu Cai 树才
Yi Sha 伊沙
Yu Nu 余怒
Ge Mai 戈麦
Lan Lan 蓝蓝
Xi Du 西渡
Yang Jian 杨键
Sang Ke 桑克
Chen Xianfa 陈先发
Lin Mu 林木
Zhou Zan 周瓒
Zhu Zhu 朱朱
Jiang Tao 姜涛
Yan Wo 燕窝
Jiang Hao 蒋浩
Ma Hua 马骅
Han Bo 韩博
Leng Shuang 冷霜
Duo Yu 朵渔
Hu Xudong 胡续冬
Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇
Shen Muqin 沈木槿*
Wang Ao 王敖

* The book prints this name as Shen Mujin; the character can be pronounced either jǐn or qín.

BBC: When borrowing from China makes the US richer

When Xi Chuan and Zhou Zan were on their reading tour of the US promoting the Copper Canyon anthology Push Open the Window, the BBC caught up with them and interviewed them about Chinese poetry. On the 3rd of November they posted the article and video, titled “When borrowing from China makes the US richer.”

While I’m all for contextualizing poetry in terms of international politics and economics–writing, after all, is about something, and it often refers, in its oblique ways, to current global realities–I have to say I found the BBC report pretty lame. The article’s brushstrokes are obstinately broad, saying nothing more nuanced than “China holds trillions of dollars in US debt and the eurozone countries are looking to Beijing for bailout cash, but not all international transactions come at a price. A cultural exchange is also under way between east and west.”

Meanwhile, the accompanying video–which, unfortunately, I cannot embed into this post–hits the only two notes about China the BBC expects will resonate with English-speakers: it starts out talking about censorship, and ends up talking about classical Chinese poetry as calligraphy pans by and a reed flute lulls in the background. To be clear, Xi Chuan’s writing engages with the classics of Chinese poetry in fascinating and unexpected ways, and as a teacher of ancient Chinese literature and former calligrapher, Xi Chuan enjoyed the chance to get a private tour of the Freer Gallery and some of the pieces not normally on display. But rather than exhibit how Xi Chuan draws on the Chinese tradition, the BBC video suggests he’s an Ancient Poet (albeit one who has to deal with Maoist censorship)! When Xi Chuan reads from my translation of “Exercises in Thought” 思想练习 (a poem that opens with a demand that we reevaluate Nietzsche) Chinese chamber music kicks in and the accompanying image is a scroll of calligraphy–as if that were the text of the poem!

Interview with Zhou Zan

On October 12, the day of her Library of Congress reading with Xi Chuan to promote Push Open the Window, the NEA blog Art Works posted an interview with Chinese poet Zhou Zan 周瓒. Read the whole interview here; the following is a particularly interesting detail:

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience in or engagement with the arts?

ZHOU ZAN: When I was a child, maybe 4-5 years old, I was playing with my friends. For some reason, we argued, and then I discovered that I could talk in the manner in which one composes a poem: a sequence of very short sentences. I was able to talk a lot in this way, using metaphor and images. I surprised both the other kids and myself. Afterwards, I realized that I had an ability in the creative arts.

Forrest Gander’s Introduction of Xi Chuan & Zhou Zan

The night of October 10 (the hundred-year anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution 辛亥革命 that ended the Qing Dynasty 清朝), Forrest Gander introduced Xi Chuan, Zhou Zan, Marilyn Chin, and Li-young Lee at Manhattan’s 92nd St. Y. Here’s the text of his introduction:

This occasion is as much a celebration of poetry as it is a celebration of translation, that art that plucks from our black hats and blank looks the passport permitting us to cross borders of culture, language and imagination.

But what if the translations are bad?  Picasso claimed, “You don’t need the masterpiece to get the idea,” but is this true of translations?

Historically, mistranslations have contributed in signal ways to literary movements. The supposedly newly discovered poems of third-century warrior-poet Ossian—in translations forged by Scot prankster-poet James MacPherson and then really translated into German—fueled Johann von Herder’s Romantic re-conception of German poetics in the 18th century.

And like von Herder, American poet Ezra Pound helped launch a literary movement stimulated, in part, by translations based on a mistaken interpretation of the nature of the Chinese writing system. Ernst Fenollosa, Pound’s source, was studying Chinese grammar in Japan with Japanese linguistic scholars.

Many of the Chinese poets included in Push Open the Window, the new anthology from Copper Canyon, cut their teeth on bad translations of American poetry. Somehow, they were sufficient for them to get “the idea.”  Or, more importantly for their own work, not necessarily “the” idea but “an” idea.  In the 1980’s and 1990’s in China, better translations– Yunte Huang’s version of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos, for instance, Zheng Min’s pioneering Contemporary American Poetry, and Zhao Yiheng’s Modern American Poetry anthology– began to appear. But poets like Bei Dao, who says he looked abroad for models, and Yang Lian, whose book Concentric Circles is strongly influenced by Pound’s Cantos, had already forged their signature styles. A somewhat younger poet, Yu Jian, discovered translations of Whitman while working in a factory and went on to write poems that reference important but less celebrated American poets like Ron Padgett. Xi Chuan, who straddles two named factions of poets (the Misty and the New Generation Poets), studied English Romantic poetry and wrote a dissertation on Ezra Pound. The post-Mao-generation poets Hu Xudong, who cites Mark Strand and Robert Hass as influences, and Zhou Zan, who translates from English and cites among her influences Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich, came of age as internet translations of American poetry exploded in China. Both Zhou Zan and Hu Xudong came to study in America, Hu Xudong at the International Writing Program in Iowa and Zhou Zan at Columbia University. Zhai Yongming, also included in Push Open the Window, speaks little English but wrote a whole book documenting her road trips through the deserts and mountains of the American west.

Just this year, at a literary conference in Wuhan, Chinese scholars offered papers on Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Rita Dove, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, and ecopoetry, all that remarkable variety squeezed between twenty panels devoted to the work of Charles Bernstein.

My colleague at Brown University, John Cayley, himself a translator and a publisher of Chinese poetry in translation, notes that historically, English-language translations of Chinese poetry offered to American readers a literature that was “culturally distinct from the poetry of its host language” however much it might be read with “intense pleasure….”

But that, too, has begun to change and more culturally contextualized poetics and better English translations are revising America’s engagement with Chinese poetry. In the United States, the mid-1980s saw the publication of Eliot Weinberger’s essay “A Few Don’ts for Chinese Poets” and his classic translation study 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. More recently, several major anthologies, Michelle Yeh’s Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry, Zhang Er’s Another Kind of Nation: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Writing, Arthur Sze’s Chinese Writers on Writing,  Qingping Wang’s Push Open the Window, and The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry have indeed unlatched the shutters and pushed open the window.

The China-born Ha Jin, mostly known in the United States as a fiction writer who writes in English, says that if he wrote in Chinese now, he would write poetry, not fiction, because “at this moment, poetry is more promising. It can do more for the language.”

Given the explosive richness of contemporary poetry in America now, I would suggest that here too, in this historical moment, poetry offers the most to literature in English.  The early 21st century is one of the most turbulent and critical times for poetry in the cultures of both countries.

Just as American poet Marilyn Chin shuffles fragments, for example, from John Berryman with her own nervy colloquial precision, and unsplices the resonant emotional and political implications of immigrant narratives within American mythologies and vice versa, the Chinese poet Xi Chuan considers China’s past through the lens of a modernized West; he shuffles antique dictions with colloquial ones; he braids the analytical essay with the ode to things. But though he wrote a dissertation on Pound’s Chinese cantos, his work seems most influenced by European philosophy and literature, Kafka, I’d guess, and Nietszche. Chinese poet Zhou Zan, whose poetry often focuses on the process of creation, sometimes writes in short parabolic descriptive sentences and at other times juxtaposes paratactic clauses in stanzas that incorporate multiple voices and windmilling social and personal observations. Well-known American poet Li-young Lee animates his own family memories with a famously sensual palette.

In the writing of Marilyn Chin and Li-young Lee, the entanglement of cultures and languages collaborates with theme and style. Other American poets, notably Charles Wright, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Jeffrey Yang, have found in Chinese poetry a renewable source of inspiration. But with regard to the influence of American poetry on contemporary Chinese poetry, the connections may be hard to specify.  European and Hollywood films, French literary theory, Continental philosophy and increasing opportunities for travel abroad have thoroughly affected contemporary Chinese poetry. As you listen tonight to poems by American poets and translations into English of recent Chinese poems, you may hear indications of influence. But be wary. As Xi Chuan writes in Lucas Klein’s translation of Notes on the Mosquito, coming out next year from New Directions, “No one can tell the difference between the place where a mosquito has landed and a place where a mosquito has not landed…”

Poet in New York

From 8:15 on the evening of Monday, October 10, Forrest Gander will be introducing a night of Chinese and Chinese-American poetry at the 92nd St. Why in Manhattan, featuring Marilyn Chin and Li-young Lee 李立揚 with Xi Chuan and Zhou Zan. If you’re in New York, take a break from occupying Wall Street and head uptown for the reading. Click on the image below for more, including ticketing information.