You work in several genres and also translate. What inspires you to work with more than one medium and more than one language? Kafka once stated that “all language is but a poor translation”. In light of so many interests that you seem to have, in language–languages!–what is your response?
I suppose the question is: a translation of what? Of course there are thoughts that can’t be satisfyingly expressed in language—I think the attempt to do so is the space in which poetry exists. I find languages fascinating, but I suppose what excites me more is the homologous selves that emerge in different linguistic contexts. A language is a world, and it seems vital to me to be able to move among them. There must be people who don’t want to access other worlds or other selves, but I am not one of them. As far as genre goes, ideas come to me already fixed in a genre, or at least strongly suggesting one. I never have the feeling that I want to say something but don’t know which medium to express it in; for me, the creative impulse and the given genre are inextricably intertwined. I have no idea whether that’s true for others who also move between genres. I think the urge to write in many modes is probably common, but stifled by authors who don’t want to detract from their hard won success in one genre. No one wants to be seen as a dilettante. MFA programs also force their students to pick a genre, and I think that’s kind of a shame. On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that writing in a given form is a craft, and a craft has to be practiced obsessively to be done well. So far be it for me to sniff at anyone who sticks to one genre.
What was your first experience of living in China? Did you know the language? Did you plan on translating poetry? Was there a culture shock? What were its advantages?
I hope you’re asking what the advantages of culture shock were, because it’s a great question. At the time, culture shock in its many forms was very useful to me—an easily startled, naive, overly sensitive, middle class girl from the suburbs of a very American city. I moved to Shanghai just out of college, and nearly everything I found there surprised me, perhaps especially that which struck me as familiar. It’s easy to expect weird food and different traffic patterns and scary local buses. It’s much stranger to discover a strong kinship with the street venders who sell you your vegetables in the morning and whose lives have been in significant ways quite different from yours. Or to hear a language you don’t know well and find it uncannily easy to pick up. It’s like falling down the rabbit hole and finding your own living room. Of course, many of the things I expected to be different were in fact drastically different, and it took time to adjust to a whole range of things, from the pollution to the loudness to the reduced personal space to the pork fat in the ‘vegetarian’ food. But fundamentally, I deeply recognized China and fell in love with it in part because of that. I also fell in love with its strangeness, its sharp corners, its uglinesses, the places that jolted me out of myself. The language was part of that strangeness/familiarity complex. I was fortunate to have a close friend as a child who was from Beijing and who told me stories about living with his grandparents in the Jiangsu countryside. He taught me words and phrases and got the language in my ear. Later I did study Chinese in college, although only desultorily, so when I got to Shanghai I was fine in casual conversation but could barely read or write. That was all complicated by the fact that many people spoke Shanghainese as a first language, rather than Mandarin. I still remember the frustration of not being able to read the signs hung over businesses—only by looking in could I tell if a place sold light bulbs or bicycle parts. It was great motivation to study the language more formally. It was also the reason I started translating after I got back to the States. I was desperate not to lose what I had learned, and I thought a good way of studying would be to read, and the deepest way of reading something is to translate it.
You also have a background in literature from Belgium, correct? Could you tell us more?
Just before I was to leave for Shanghai, I was offered a Fulbright to Belgium. I was interested in the literary interactions between the Flemish and French-speaking populations. I’ve studied French for many years, and love French-language poetry, Rene Char and Édouard Glissant in particular. But I know virtually nothing about poetry in Dutch—part of the reason I wanted to go to Belgium was to learn about it. I also just wanted to get out of my own small circles of influence. In the end, China seemed the greater leap, and so I went there. I occasionally wonder what would have happened if I had made the other decision. I would probably be translating from French, or Dutch even, or be married to a Walloon and living another, probably also happy, life.
Back to your interests in Chinese poetry: how did that come about?
I’m embarrassed to say that when I first lived in China, it was as though Chinese literature didn’t exist. I remember being so starved for something to read that I asked my father to send a box of books, and he mailed by freight a box packed with Gogol, Faulkner, and Dickens. I have no idea how he came up with that list, but it was life-sustaining. At that point, my Chinese wasn’t good enough to read anything but the simplest of texts. But when I got back to the States and started to read as part of my efforts not to forget Chinese, I encountered some wonderful books of poetry. I had brought back a children’s addition of the famous compilation, Three Hundred Tang Poems 唐诗三百首, and I started to go through it systematically. I understood a tiny percentage of the allusions, but I basked in the richness of the imagery and related to the cleverness of language and emotional depth of these little lyrics. I memorized dozens of them and would recite them to myself while taking walks. Then in graduate school at Boston University, I took Rosanna Warren’s amazing translation workshop, and as my final project I translated a selection of Wang Wei poems into English. They were terrible translations, but I didn’t know that at the time. Rosanna encouraged me to send them to the Seneca Review, which published three of them. That was a much nicer welcome than any of my own poems had gotten at that point, so I thought, this is a great racket, I’m going to keep doing this. Several years later, the poet and translator Afaa Michael Weaver asked me to help him put together a contemporary Chinese poetry conference at Simmons College, where he teaches. That was my first introduction to contemporary Chinese poetry and it knocked my socks off. Afaa also put me in touch with Wang Ao, then a graduate student at Yale and now a professor at Wesleyan College, who is an leading young poet and a translator from English into Chinese. We began to collaborate on a compilation of contemporary poetry, a manuscript that is now making the rounds. Slowly, I started to take off on my own and began translating according to my own tastes and interests, although my collaboration with Wang Ao is still very much alive. Working with another translator is an enriching challenge, totally different from working on one’s own.
What are, to your mind, the most important Chinese poets alive today? What translations do you recommend of their work?
So many of wonderful contemporary poets have not been translated, or not adequately translated. My own tastes are quirky and individual and I make no claims to that thorny issue of canon-formation. But here a few suggestions, for what they’re worth. Duo Duo, whose work has been serviceably translated by Geoffrey Lee, won the Neustadt Prize in 2010, and I find his work incredibly emotionally powerful and rich. He also has a sense of humor and a deep sense of humanity. Gu Cheng, who went mad and killed himself and his wife, is plain yet surreal and strange and full of risk. Jonathan Stalling has just come out with a great translation of Shi Zhi, who heavily influenced the Obscure Poetry school (of which Duo Duo and Gu Cheng were members). Moving into the nineties and beyond, I admire the work of Yu Xiang, Lan Lan, Chen Dongdong, Sun Wenbo, Zang Di, Chi Lingyun, Xiao Kaiyu, and many others, none of whom to my knowledge have book-length translations published in the States. Lucas Klein’s recent translation of Xi Chuan, out this fall from New Directions, is wonderful, an example of the work of a mature poet working at the top of his craft. I also love the poetry of Li Li, a translator of Swedish literature into Chinese, and also Wang Xiaoni, a brilliant woman poet whose work I’m translating into a book right now.
What are the most interesting but relatively unknown Chinese poets?
I’m afraid most Chinese poets are relatively unknown outside of China, and worse, inside China itself. When I was in Beijing last fall, I was asked to speak at a conference on the traditional arts, which included experts in calligraphy, painting, opera, poetry, and so on. As is the custom, after the panel the speakers were invited to a banquet. I was seated with the expert in calligraphy on one side of me and the expert in painting on the other side, both well-known professors at top universities in Beijing. Both of them professed wonderment at my speech. I assumed this was because I had given it in (what I hoped was) fairly fluent Chinese. But no, what they were marveling at was that they hadn’t heard of a single poet I’d named in my presentation. I don’t know anything at all about contemporary art, but I’ve certainly heard of Damien Hurst. Of course, Damien Hurst encrusts human skulls with diamonds and puts bloated shark carcasses in water tanks. Poets have less to work with. Having said that, I can name a few poets I think are under-recognized: Zang Di, Wang Xiaoni, Ma Hua, Zhang Zao (Zhang Zao is incredible, and died much too young in 2010), Hu Xudong. But I could go on and on and on.
What do you find most challenging in translation from Chinese? What–if anything–is surprisingly easy in this process? what makes you keep going despite the difficulties of translation between the languages that are so different?
What is surprisingly easy is apprehending the poem as poem. The experiencing of a poem as art is the first and most fundamental step toward translating it, and it is the one step I’ve never had difficulty with, even in those days when my language skills were subpar (alas, one endlessly suspects one’s language skills are subpar). I guess what I find most challenging is the feeling of destroying something with care. The Chinese poem has to be decimated before it can come together again in an English-language poem. I always feel like I’m doing violence to the original. Aside from all the many, many structural differences, Chinese has a kind of musicality that is nonexistent in English. English has its own music, but because it isn’t a tonal language, the kinds of effects that can go on in a line of Chinese verse simply aren’t available in English. The resonances are different, those echoes that go on between lines. It’s very frustrating to lose all that. Still, I love remaking these poems on the page. Sometimes there’s a feeling of communion, not just communication. Sometimes I sense I can touch the poet’s sensibility, the essence of their art. In that way, I can live in their language, that artistic tradition, that way of looking at the world. It’s tremendously pleasurable.
Could you speak in more detail about the intersections between western and contemporary Asian poetics?
In the context of the contemporary literary scene in China, the question itself is fraught. Bloom’s anxiety of influence takes on a new meaning here. Chinese aesthetics is built on the idea not of ingenuity (“Make it new!” enjoined Pound), but rather of emulation. A poet’s job is to build on the long and venerable tradition that came before, occasionally offering small careful enhancements or variations. This held true, more or less, until the fall of the Qing dynasty and then the disruption of the Cultural Revolution, when cultural heritage was discarded in favor of loyalty to the Communist Party. In the early 1980s, after Mao’s death and the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s rule, there was a sudden flood of international literatures into China. I think there was a sense of rain after a terrible long drought. Intellectuals and writers read voraciously, especially literature in English, Spanish, and French. There was a sense of incredible excitement at these treasures of other cultures. Poets began emulating foreign writers, and using Western forms and tropes. This didn’t start in the ‘80s, of course—there was also a huge movement toward “Westernizing” Chinese literature in the late Qing and early Republican period, but I think there was a special sense of urgency after the culturally bereft period of the mid-‘50s through the ‘70s. A truism of any literary scene anywhere is that a strong movement will also produce a countermovement, and that also happened in China with the xungen, or Roots-seeking school, which promoted a return to traditional Chinese literature as a source of inspiration, energy, and useful models. I think in many ways these two opposing ideas of what contemporary Chinese literature “should” be are still very much in dispute. Writers are dismissed as being “not Chinese enough,” or the reverse, too backwater provincial (i.e., overtly indigenously Chinese). And then there are the youngest poets just testing the waters, who are in their twenties and early thirties who were born after Mao’s death and who have absorbed both Chinese and Western literature, and can’t see what the big fuss is about. For them, it’s often a conflict between consumerism (selling one’s book) and purity (sticking to one’s aesthetic or moral principles), which of course connects to the larger society. I should also say, writers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, as well as communities in the US, Africa, Europe, etc., all have their own distinct literatures. The diaspora is very active and culturally rich, and as a whole, the Chinese literary scene is too complex to be grappled with in anything but small handfuls.
Thanks so much!
It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you!
(Interview conducted by Ilya Kaminsky)