Contemporary Chinese Poetry – by Eleanor Goodman

Today’s post is about contemporary Chinese poetry, and is written by Eleanor Goodman, poet and award-winning translator – her translation of Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems by Wang Xiaoni published by Zephyr Press in 2014, won the Lucien Stryk Translation Prize and was shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Zephyr Press, based in the United States and Hong Kong, has done more to raise the
profile of contemporary Chinese poetry in English translation than any other press
today. Their books are carefully curated, well edited, and beautifully produced. Above
all, their translators (here I must profess that I am one of them) tend to be at the top of
the field, which is of course essential to the making of a good book in English.

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Beginning in 2011 with Andrea Lingenfelter’s gorgeous translation of the preeminent poet Zhai Yongming’s The Changing Room, Zephyr has been publishing single author collections of some of the most important writers in contemporary China, including Han Dong, Bai Hua, Lan Lan, and Yu Xiang. Zhai was one of the first women to break into the poetry scene that blossomed in the 1980s during the period of cultural opening up and enthusiasm for new and previously banned literature among the general public. Her largely confessional, feminist writing came as an exciting fresh voice and a challenge to the old (largely male) guard. Lingenfelter’s deft touch throughout captures that sense of newness, daring, emotional adroitness, and steely femininity:

A woman dressed in black arrives in the dead of night
Just one secretive glance leaves me spent
I realize with a start: this is the season when all fish die
And every road is criss-crossed with traces of birds in flight

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An exact contemporary of Zhai, Wang Xiaoni took a largely separate tack, and appeared on the literary radar somewhat later. Rather than looking inward, her poetry—
translated by yours truly in the 2014 collection Something Crosses My Mind—addresses interiority via the outside world; that is, what interests Wang most is her observations of the people, animals, and political realities around her, and her voice as a poet and intellect are expressed through external things. She is a poet of slowness, always ready to stop and look. Through tight metaphor and precise language, she produces startlingly keen observations about the way the world operates behind the curtain, as in these lines about the province of Guizhou:

Twig-frail Guizhou is timid and nervous
the older the longer it sits there, dug in deeper and deeper
like a cemetery where a black goat’s corpse has just been unearthed in a
windstorm.

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Ouyang Jianghe was also first active in the 1980s and has continued his distinctive style up to today. His translator, Austin Woerner, does a brilliant service capturing Ouyang’s discursive, philosophical, now-humorous/now-dark style in his collection Doubled Shadows (2012). You can imagine the task facing the translator of lines like these from the poem “Handgun”:

a handgun can be disassembled 
into unrelated things:
a hand, a gun
a hand plus its opposite equals a weapon
a gun plus its opposite equals itself

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With his own inventiveness and mastery of the idioms of English-language poetry, Woerner manages to bring Ouyang’s most obscure lines over into an entirely different linguistic context. Zephyr has recently published a second volume of Ouyang’s work in a book-length poem title Phoenix (2014), also translated by Woerner.

 

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While most of the books in the Zephyr Press contemporary Chinese poetry catalogue  come from mainland China, a few come from other parts of the sinophone world. Jennifer Feeley’s remarkable translation of the Hong Kong poet Xi Xi’s work is one book particularly worth noting. Xi Xi is one of the grande dames of the Hong Kong poetry scene, although she rarely herself appears in public, preferring to let her poetry speak for her. In Not Written Words, Feeley captures Xi Xi’s intense soundplay and acrobatic virtuosity. Here is the poem “The Blue-eyed Tapir,” in its entirety:

The blue-eyed tapir
is charcoal gray in front, sandy yellow in back

It gives birth to a little tapir
striped in white from head to tail, an amazing black

Technicolor dreamcoat
a marvelous fact

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Feeley’s energetic half-rhymes and lilting rhythms here as elsewhere perfectly capture Xi Xi’s intent, no small feat given the verbal and imagistic playfulness of the original. East across the South China Sea from Hong Kong is Taiwan, which despite its status as a small island has its own distinct literary culture. At the forefront of the literary scene is the poet Hsia Yü, whose inventive avant garde poetry is happily served by translator Steve Bradbury, who meets every challenge with a creative answer.

/m/ she says
but then she doesn’t move at all
doesn’t even want to move

meanwhile that phoneme barely moves a ripple
‘cross the glaucous mossglutted
lake
/m/ she says
then /n/ she says
in other words unmoved

These lines near the beginning of the poem “Passivity” demonstrate an ingenuity of
poet matched by a resourcefulness of translator. Bradbury achieves this throughout,
never resorting to easy ways out of the linguistic mazes into which Hsia Yü drops her
readers.

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Over the past several years Zephyr has published an impressive number of translations, and the press shows no signs of slowing down. Several more collections are slated for 2017, including a book by the preeminent Beijing poet Zang Di (translated by yours truly), who is known for his powerful language, unique philosophical turns, and whimsical romanticism. Also slated to appear soon is a selected poetry of Mang Ke, one of the most important writers of the Obscure Poetry school prominent in the 1980s and 1990s. October Dedications is translated by Lucas Klein, whose earlier translation of the work of Xi Chuan went on to win the premier Lucien Stryk Prize for Translation. Klein captures Mang Ke’s mix of seriousness and straightforwardness, even innocence, brought forth beautifully in poems like the first in the collection, “The Vineyard”:

the dog that usually hangs around
has gone off who knows where

a brood of red chickens tramples through the yard
with their endless clucking

I see grapes on the ground
blood flowing on fallen leaves

this is a day that cannot find peace
the day sunlight was lost from my home

These are the lines of a seasoned translator who is also an acute reader and writer, with
deep resources of scholarship and natural talent to draw upon. It is this mix of
qualities—the best of the contemporary Chinese poetry world combined with
translators who are also careful readers and appreciators of poetry—that makes the
Zephyr collection so unique and valuable. These books are a labor of love from start to
finish, and it shows in the final products. There is simply no better introduction to the
contemporary Chinese poetry scene available today.

[Written for the GLLI – Paper Republic collaboration, Feb 2017]

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