A Note on hearing Xi Chuan for the First Time
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
The poet Xi Chuan appeared at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association in Seattle in January 2012, in a question and answer session curated by Professor Christopher Lupke of Washington State University, interspersed with a reading by the poet (in Chinese) and by his translator Lucas Klein (in English). The event was very striking to me. There are various “paths” one can pick at this bazaar-like humanities conference, but as part of the “county fair” or “state fair” array, the path that leads the attendee to new information certainly counts for something. The session on Xi Chuan, in a solemn hall, was attended by a number of scholars and teachers with an interest in Asian literature, and of these, there were many Chinese speakers. There were also a few spare poets and folks committed to poetic culture. Among those, me.
The most interesting phenomenon of the occasion, at least to this particular “spare poet,” was the very polite and quiet resistance of some members of the audience to what they saw in Xi Chuan’s work as—here’s what I would call it—non-poetic (or anti-poetic, or un-poetic). That is, people challenged his lexicon (range of words, some quite colloquial) as brought forward by the translator; they challenged why this material is classified as poetry; they wanted (politely, etc.) to suggest that perhaps the poet had missed that he was writing in prose, or making short fiction, or working in a hybrid genre, but that he wasn’t really writing what they would call (in somewhat hushed tones), “poetry.” Or perhaps with a capital “P”: “Poetry.” “Why,” one person asked, “is poetry the most appropriate mode in which to articulate your cultural critique?”
This was (and remains) a very good question, but I suspected it was motivated by the questioner’s resistance to the fusion of poetry and critique rather than, as I’d think, an interest in how one can, may, and even should be able to propose and carry out this goal for poetry as a mode of practice. (By the way, I’d define poetry as a mode of writing in chosen rhythmic segments that are culturally read as poetry. Clearly, the issue of “cultural reading” was precisely at stake for some of the people hearing Xi Chuan.) Such a question also shows that a whole range of world poetries and poetics of the 20th and early 21st century were not being credited. In short, some of the members of the audience had a strong case of what I’d call “poetry ideology.” They not only preferred the focused lyric, the misty, “pure poetry,” and the “poetic” on principle, but they seemed to find this the only kind of writing worthy of the honorific “poetry.” Some silvery aura of specialness shimmered around “poetry”; some sense that it should stay untainted by… well, by what? by words like “shithole” (country colloquialism for latrine) or by noticing some kids (“delinquents”) in a country town, acting up by dying their black hair yellow. Or by the general air of realist disjunction so well-honed that it passes into almost-surrealism. Or by a meta-commentary or sense of allegory that infuses some of the work. Or by the desire to record everyday life seen in such a light as it is both comic, observationally accurate, and endowed with a humane generosity and ethical melancholy within that notional intensity. “Dignity and shithole together” is how Xi Chuan characterized this move.
In short, the reading offered evidence of a cultural clash around issues fundamental to modern and contemporary poetry. Xi Chuan fed this clash and teased about it, stating that he did know how to write “good poems”—I assume this means poems conventional in this milieu, using or alluding to the appropriate formal and imagistic conventions of Chinese poetry, including stanza and rhyme. He said that he even had written such “good poems,” and that every once in a while he still did. He has loved the work of both Yeats and Valéry. But generally, “I am trying to be a person writing texts.” That is, he has been touched by certain rhetorics and forms with which I am familiar from Western cultural traditions and would refer to via these names and practices—by the term “writing” for William Carlos Williams (see Spring and All), by the urban, suspicious and sometimes “crashed out” sensibility of Charles Baudelaire, by the prose poem tradition of, say, Robert Bly (whose work he read in his student days courtesy of a Peking University professor of English named Herbert Stone).
Xi Chuan’s personal/social history as it bears on his poems was quickly sketched in. The years around Tiannamen Square (when he was in his mid-twenties) were exciting and difficult; a friend died, another committed suicide; he was “lonely” and felt “crashed out.” (Xi Chuan’s English is excellent, and this verb—slightly unidiomatic—is notably expressive. All apparent citations here are what I heard.) He could not write poetry for a couple of years; he wrote notes only, and then discovered that these fragments were the germ for a new kind of text. “History and reality gave me the way of writing.” The fusion of aesthetic and ethical concerns in his work is serious and generative.
Xi Chuan’s work in the English translation of Lucas Klein will be published by New Directions in April 2012 under the title Notes on the Mosquito.