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 It’s from “Of Those Who Can Afford to be Gentle,” previously unpublished in English, but translated into Portuguese by Cláudia Roquette-Pinto for Revista Confraria: Arte e literatura (and Ron Slate writes a little about it here).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.

Review of Words & the World

Kevin Carollo’s review of Words & the World, the publication from the 2011 International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong, has just appeared at Rain Taxi online. Carollo writes:

Enter Words & the World, the material result of 2011’s International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong. A white box roughly 7 x 11 x 2.5 inches in dimension houses a collection of twenty chapbooks, black ink on white paper, with at least two languages guaranteed in each chapbook (Chinese and English). The collection “begins” with the younger generation Mexican poet María Baranda (b. 1962), and “ends” with Chinese writer Yu Xiang (b. 1970), integrating them with better-known or longer-standing international versifiers, including Irish trickster Paul Muldoon, American spiritualist C.D Wright, Japanese lyric master Shuntaro Tanikawa, and Slovenian dynamo Tomaz Salamun. The box-set effect encourages reading at cross-cultural purposes, to be sure, and a nice leveling effect emerges between poets, poems, and languages. The work inside is generally stunning, strange, and vibrant, in no small part due to having crossed so many borders to appear before your very eyes.

Today’s English speaker is more than likely aware of the myriad forms of English informing the polyphonic Anglo poetry world, and the inclusion of such diverse poets as Muldoon, Wright, and Indian Vivek Narayanan intimates as much. Perhaps because the “West” often conveniently forgets that a billion people speak the language, Words & The World importantly underscores the heterogeneous nature of living and writing in Chinese by showcasing writers from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. All of them seem engaged in some form of epic conversation with a “West” that is far from predictable or uniform in its concerns or manifestations. The addition of poets like Brazilian Régis Bonvicino (writing in Portuguese, despite his French-Italian name) and German-born Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko further reinforces the sense of a grandiloquent, irreverent dialogue occurring across the seven seas. Bonvicino’s chapbook includes an untitled poem dedicated to Dragomoshchencko, which begins: “Almost no one sees / what I see in the words / byzantine iconoclasm / the clock reads midnight or mid-day?” (56). Indeed, the byzantine iconoclasm of this box set is what astonishes most of all, the overriding and often overwhelming sense that, night or day, it is high time for all of us to wake up.

Click on the image above for the full review.

Back Cover Blurbs

Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito intercepts the traditional loveliness of the pastoral lyric with the close inspection of city eyes. This remarkable book traces the evolution of a poet who is simultaneously contemplative and social, a world-wanderer firmly rooted in his native Beijing. After the quashing of the student movement in 1989 and several years of self-imposed silence, Xi Chuan resumed writing at a point between two ends—between poetry and history, between poetry and philosophy, poetry and religion. He writes with a calm, ever-curious, and questioning intellect—a poet supremely interested in “now” and firmly resistant to either nostalgia for, or amnesia of, “then.” This welcome, bilingual selection by one of China’s preeminent contemporary poets opens more long-sealed doors to the complexity of his homeland.

C. D. Wright

Eleanor Goodman on Poetry Translation & the AWP

Poet and translator from the Chinese Eleanor Goodman attended the AWP in Chicago last week. The following is her report on the state of translation and poetry on display.


It’s fair to say that translation was not completely absent at AWP. Buried in an overwhelming heap of events were a few related to translation, bilingual literature, or teaching bilingual / multilingual students. The most attended translation event I saw was a reading put on by Poets House, headlining Bei Dao, Eliot Weinberger, Forrest Gander, and C. D. Wright. It was held in one of the ballrooms at the Chicago Hilton and attracted a nice crowd that nevertheless looked a bit sparse in the oversized room. The hour consisted mainly of Bei Dao and Eliot Weinberger reading from The Rose of Time 时间的玫瑰, Bei Dao’s “new & selected” of 2010 from New Directions, edited and in part translated by Weinberger. The fun of the event was to see the interactions between Bei Dao and Weinberger, who are old friends and quite comfortable with each other.

 It was also amusing to be in a fancy ballroom with a respectfully silent and literary audience after having heard a nearly identical performance the night before, when Bei Dao and Weinberger gave an off-site reading at a Barnes and Noble attached to DePaul University. At that reading, which about fifteen people attended in a cramped space between shelves of romance books and a display of graphic novels, the two had had to compete with rowdy students and a few confused shoppers who stumbled in looking for the latest Danielle Steele novel. In the end, though, the intimacy of that gathering appealed more to me than the larger more formal reading the next day. Also attending both events was Jeffery Yang, who is the New Directions editor for Lucas Klein’s translations of Xi Chuan. Chinese poetry is indeed a small world. So small that on the way out, I ran into Jonathan Stalling and had a lively conversation with him about his fascinating experimental poetry book Yingelishi.

 From there, I went to a reading held by Poetry International, which I hoped would involve a lot of translation but didn’t. Perhaps editors think that poets reading their own work is more of a draw than translators reading the work of other poets; perhaps they’re right. There was another disappointment in the form of a panel titled “War is Not Lost in Translation.” The panel itself was pretty interesting, and the translations read aloud were, to my ear, quite good. But it’s a problem at these conferences that much is promised and then not much can be delivered in the time allotted. The panel members were all smart, engaged translators—working from Hebrew, Urdu, Icelandic; I just wished someone there actually translated writing from a current conflict zone.

 Downstairs in the belly of the Hilton, which is amazingly dark and warren-like, was the bookfair. It was impossible to locate anything, and if you happened upon what you wanted accidently, there was no way you’d find it again if you turned your back. Wandering the aisles, I did find some presses and journals focusing on translation, though they were fairly few and far between. New Directions had a nice simple setup, manned by Jeffrey Yang when I dropped by. He pointed me a few aisles over to the Dalkey Archives, whose table was crammed with books of translation, although very few from Asian languages. There were also displays from the PEN Center, Poetry International, The Center for the Art of Translation, and Zephyr Press. Most of these were to be found in the low-ceilinged, overcrowded quarters of the Table section of the bookfair. The fancier presses were on the Booth side. Booths, apparently, cost about twice as much as Tables, and afford about twice as much space per outfit. From this I conclude that translation, while acknowledged by everyone I met as very important, vital even (this always said in an earnest tone), is still stuck living in one of the low-rent ghettos of the literary realm.

Probably my favorite of the panels I attended was called “Translation as the Actualization of Poetry and the Blurring of Literary Histories, Nations, and Borders.” The panelists mainly wrote in or translate from Spanish, which is pretty far from my own forte. But they were a lively bunch, and gave spirited presentations to a large room of perhaps a hundred and fifty chairs, eleven of which were occupied. (Yes, I counted.) This meant that the ratio of panelists to audience was almost 1:2. Granted, it was 9 a.m. on the last day of the conference. And none of the presenters were superstars. Nevertheless, I found it discomfiting that in a conference of more than ten thousand participants, only eleven of us had found the translation of poetry interesting enough to attend. I mean, where was everybody?

 The panelists were so engaged in their conversation that they went a bit over time, and toward the end, I noticed people trickling in from the back. Could it be that they were translation fanatics who had just overslept? Were all these latecomers kicking themselves from missing the panel they’d been waiting for the whole conference? The panel ended and we all got up to leave, and suddenly we bedraggled, sleep-deprived eleven had to fight our way through the human flood that gushed into the room to fill those one hundred and fifty seats. What were all these enthusiastic, almost frantic, people coming to hear—a poetry panel? a discussion of contemporary fiction? a reading by someone famous? I felt warmed. Perhaps I had misjudged the bulk of the attendees of AWP. They really were interested in something literary, something having to do with art, with creativity, with the beautiful and profound. Then I made the mistake of looking at the schedule: “Agents & Editors: Partners in Publishing. An inside look at the manuscript acquisition process.”

New Directions at AWP 2012 in Chicago

The AWP is about to begin in Chicago, so if you’re there, be sure to check out the New Directions events, such as the following poetry & translation-focused panel:

Poets House Presents Bei Dao
Friday March 2, 1:30-2:45pm
(Bei Dao, Eliot Weinberger, Forrest Gander, C.D. Wright)
International Ballroom North, Hilton Chicago, 2nd Floor

For more, see the New Directions calendar for March. And stay tuned for an update on the state of poetry and translation as seen from the AWP from Eleanor Goodman. Maybe one day Xi Chuan and I will present a panel at the AWP…

Ron Silliman & Chinese Poetry

Still one of the best go-to spots on the internet for poetry-related news, Ron Silliman’s blog has posted a couple of Chinese-poetry related items in the last couple days. Yesterday on his list of “books received,” he featured–by which I mean of all the books he received, these were two of the three books whose cover images he posted–Red Pine‘s re-release of his Sung Po-jen 宋伯仁 translations (Copper Canyon Press) and a new book titled Chinoiserie by Karen Rigby. I don’t know if Ron’s torqued juxtaposition was intentional or just the product of happenstance simultaneity overdetermined by language (the other book with a pictured cover is Basil Bunting‘s collected translations from the Persian, so it’s hard to think the assertion of “orientalism” is an accident… but at any event, the relationship between title and content in Rigby’s book seems indirect–I haven’t read more than one sample piece, but it’s not about the nineteenth-century representation of Chinese aesthetics; I do note, however, that her bio states that she was born in Panama “to a Chinese mother and a Panamanian-American father”), but it did ring oddly against what Ron posted in his list of Coming Events, pictured above (we all make typos and other mistakes). As you probably know, the poet’s name is Bei Dao 北島, not “Bao Dei.” What you may not know is that this event with Gander, Wright, and Weinberger is at the Poet’s House event at the AWP in Chicago, not in New York.

International Poetry Nights

The “Masters & (M)other Tongues” discussion at CUHK yesterday was fascinating, though not in the ways I had expected. I had thought that it would be a discussion about the tension between the two sides of the parenthesis around “(m)other tongues,” and about the models the poets use for their own work from traditions either native or foreign to them. But now that I look at the schedule online again I see that it’s simply “Masters & Mother Tongues,” which creates a different kind of tension; perhaps this accounts for the difference, since all the participants—Liu Wenfei 劉文飛 (the Chinese translator of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, unable to attend due to  illness), Silke Scheuermann, Vivek Narayanan, and Xi Chuan—ended up discussing “mother tongues” amidst the troubling connotations of the word “master.” And they all ended up talking about their own sense of awkwardness and embarrassment. Xi Chuan, for instance, said that while people from other parts of China used to have to apologize for not speaking Mandarin well, he feels embarrassed about only speaking Mandarin, and only rarely speaking the related, but distinct, Beijing dialect.

The evening’s reading was excellent. Liu Wenfei read Dragomoschenko’s poems in Russian, followed by Ling Yu 零雨 (some of whose pieces I also translated), then C. D. Wright, and then Xi Chuan—with excellent zither 古琴 performances by Yao Gongbai 姚公白 interspersed. During Ling Yu’s reading she was mysteriously moved to tears by the memories her poems called up, which was stunning to witness, not least because my experience translating her work was to be filled with a very different sense of mystery. And Xi Chuan, always gracious, was the only of the poets reading to thank his translator—to which I can only say, my pleasure!

Above and below are two shots I took of Xi Chuan’s reading.

This afternoon at 3:30 at City University (Connie Fan Multi-media Conference Room, 4/F Cheng Yick Chi Building) I’ll be leading a discussion on “Writing Across Languages” with Bejan Matur (Turkey), Tomaž Šalamun (Slovenia), Tian Yuan 田原(China / Japan), and Yao Feng 姚風 (China / Macau). The readers this evening at 7:00 at the Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity (Multi-Media Theatre, 135 Junction Road, Kowloon) are Régis Bonvicino (Brazil), Lo Chih Cheng 羅智成 (Taiwan), Bejan Matur, and Yu Xiang 宇向 (China).

Xi Chuan in Hongkong

Last night the International Poetry Nights hosted a banquet dinner at the China Club, at the top of the old Bank of China building. Here’s a picture of me and Xi Chuan, with the new Bank of China Tower in the background:

Xi Chuan will be part of the panel discussion “Masters and (M)other Tongues,” moderated by Prof. Leo Ou-fan Lee, this afternoon at 3:30 at Chinese University of Hong Kong (Cho Yiu Conference Hall, G/F Administration Building), and reading tonight at 7:00 at the Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity (Multi-Media Theatre, 135 Junction Road, Kowloon) with Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Ling Yu 零雨, and CD Wright.

Words & the World Anthology

In addition to the twenty-volume box set I wrote about Friday, the International Poetry Nights (taking place this week from Thursday to Sunday) has also published the Words & the World anthology, which is now back from the printers’:

The anthology features the work of all twenty participating poets, a sampling of what appears in the individual booklets. The Xi Chuan poems included are “I Bury My Tail” 我藏着我的尾巴, “A Song of No Matter” 無關緊要之歌, “A Song of the Corner” 牆角之歌, “Friends” 熟人, “Manes of Yellow” 黃毛, “A Sanskrit Brick from Nanzhao (738 – 937): after a Vietnamese poet” 南詔國梵文磚:仿一位越南詩人, and “Falcons, Swans, and Pearls” 獵鷹、天鵝與珍珠.

The list price is HK$160, but will be sold at half off during the festival.