“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

International Poetry Nights Hong Kong, Day 1: Notes

By Canaan Morse, published

Sacrifice everything to express our loyalty to Mao Zedong thought! The Proletarian just spent three days in Hong Kong, that lair of capitalist excess, attending a poetry festival organized by Bei Dao through the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Starting last Thursday (11/10) and only finishing Sunday afternoon (11/13), "International Poetry Nights Hong Kong" featured nightly readings by guest poets from around the world and moderated panels during the day. Something like twenty poets were invited, while a number of writers and translators came out of their own interest. Unfortunately, the various events were held separately in four different university venues around Kowloon, so not even this determined student could make it to all of them. Bad notes and not enough coffee make holes in my record inevitable, but if we’re lucky, IPNHK board member and PR contributor Lucas Klein will appear in time and italics to correct me. If you would like to read his perspective on the events in another format, visit his blog, Notes on the Mosquito.

Opening Lecture: Masters and Mother Tongues
Moderated by Dr. Leo Ou-fan Lee (李欧梵)
Panelists Xi Chuan, Silke Scheuermann, Vivek Narayanan, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko (in absentia; AD was represented by his Chinese translator, Liu Wenfei 劉文飛)

An amphitheater conference room in the Administrative Building at CUHK—well-lit, heavy on the hardwood paneling. Sixty or so listeners present, including a cohort of local students behind several new names in Chinese literature and translation. Immediately got the feeling this was an audience that cared.

LK: I agree. I recognized a number of faces in the audience, but I was impressed with how many faces I did not recognize. Petals on a wet, black bough.

Dr. Lee stated in the beginning he wasn’t qualified to lead a discussion on poetry, though a later run-down of his publications—a list as long as my arm—suggests otherwise. His ability to ask questions and maintain balance between his panelists was enough at any rate. Deep education and practiced restraint form a favorable demeanor.

The title of the panel was “Masters and Mother Tongues,” and discussion ranged between conflicting definitions of “mother tongue” to the poets’ relationships with symbols of what we might call native tradition in poetry. Vivek, whose native language is Tamil but who writes in English, spoke of the inspiration he found in the rhythms of what Dr. Lee suggested was a disappearing language. No poet saw any necessity in placing him- or herself within the context of a larger tradition upheld by past writers, though Silke did suggest that the best poems she ever read “echoed” within her head and into her own poetry. My notes here are sparse:

--What the hell is “language poetry,” other than an academic affectation? To what is it opposed? LK: "Language Poetry" is a terribly misleading name (what kind of poetry doesn't involve language?), but it isn't an academic affectation. It is a poetic movement that started in the US in the '70s with journals titled L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Tottel's, and This, and associated with names like Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and others. Critical theory is important to Language Writing, which applies Marxist and structuralist / post-structuralist linguistics to poetic creation, writing as part of the avant-garde tradition but against more individualist and expressivist uses of language that you might see in Beat writing or Black Mountain School poetry. Its practitioners have been especially critical of what they call "School of Quietude" poetry (Silliman) or "Official Verse Culture" (Bernstein), though now that the movement has been around for almost forty years, much of it has entered the official verse cultures of the US: Hejinian teaches at UC Berkeley, Bernstein at UPenn, and Armantrout at UCSD with publications in The New Yorker and Poetry and last year won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pullitzer Prize. Interestingly, whereas Language Poetry started out being resolutely American, and the first literary avant-garde not associated with translation, over time its ethic and aesthetic has spread, which is why we have the Chinese translator of a Russian poet talking about LangPo in a coference in Hongkong. Obviously translation will be a thorny issue, since they want to attack the instrumentalization of language by trying to exploit the materiality of the signifier and draw attention to the surfaces of language itself, which may mean that translation and its necessary transmission of content will be anathema. Nevertheless, while I got the impression that Leo Lee wasn't very well versed in what LangPo is really all about, his starting question about the notion of "tongue" in "Mother Tongue," and whether poetry is primarily the use of written or of spoken language, fits in quite well.

--Must get ahold of Brodsky’s “Great Elegy for John Donne”

--Vivek: The English language still regulated, its rules still dictated by linguistic centers in Europe and America. To what extend does the OED truly helm the English language?

--Found in the printed version of Vivek’s poem “Short Prayer to the Economy,” original line: “where will we put it who can I finger how will they take it…” Chinese translation: “我们把它放哪儿我的手指可以触碰谁他们如何处置….” Does one mean to say they don’t have a colloquial expression for “to finger” in Hong Kong? That poem’s depiction of confusion is both coherent and pertinent. LK: Vivek's translator is Cao Shuying 曹疏影, who was born in Harbin and got her PhD in comp. lit. from Beijing University. Most of the translators into Chinese are from the mainland. Anyway, no translation is perfect, and a lot involve misunderstandings: in Paul Muldoon's "Anseo," the translator turned "Its twist of red and yellow lacquers" into 它紅色的彎扭和黃色的樹脂.

--Xi Chuan: Translation of the works of Marx and Lenin had an incredible impact on China’s written language, lengthening its sentences, fattening its statements, imposing on it a foreign (and, I’d say, bureaucratic) type of symmetry. This observation should, perhaps, be fairly obvious, yet only after I heard it did I suddenly recognize the style I’d heard in so much formal Chinese prose over the years. It would only make sense if those interminable multi-clause attributive + statements that fill Chinese newspapers were all Marx’s fault. LK: It's obviously more than Marx. Actually, Marx's German is famously clear, and even Lenin's could rally a crowd without much obfuscation. It's what happens to language and thought when it's put in the charge of the people whose job is not to understand and elucidate but to convince you they understand. It would be more precise to say that it was the works of Marxism-Leninism than the works of Marx and Lenin (which is, by the way, what Xi Chuan said: 馬列, not 馬克思和列寧), though of course it's also all the other knotty continental philosophers and their less-than-stellar translations. And of course, that's only one part of the story. Nevertheless, if you've wondered why the written language of the mainland is so different from the written language of Taiwan or Hongkong, now you know.

--Here comes the printed material! A sturdy white box filled with twenty pocket chapbooks, neatly organized, along with a pencil and a bookmark. That last item came in handy. Then a multicolor, coffee-table version of the exact same content plus an introduction by Bei Dao and lots of neon-colored inserts. I expect the latter is expected to be the moneymaker; still, it’s something of a monstrosity to hold and nowhere near as useful to a committed reader as the single editions. Translators credited at the end of every piece they did. Our man advancing the cause. LK: None of this is aimed at making money; the book prices are too low, but the translators are still getting paid. But the pocket-sized volumes are indeed aimed at being useful to readers: Bei Dao's vision is to see the people of Hongkong reading poetry on the subway rather than playing games on their phones. For an image of the books, click here. Also, it's not "the exact same content"; the individual books present about 300 lines of poetry from each poet, while the anthology presents a selection of a third of that.

7:00 p.m. Opening Ceremony and Reading

Couldn’t go to this. Damn. LK: This was certainly my favorite session of the readings, because I got to hear C. D. Wright and Xi Chuan one after the other. Unfortunately technical difficulties in the control booth kept the overhead text from matching Liu's reading of Dragomoschenko, but that's why we printed the books. For a fuller rundown, read here.

Read ten or so poems that day and found two I would read again: “Short Prayer to the Economy,” by Vivek Narayanan, because it questions my standards while presenting something new; and “Lacquer,” by TomaŽ Šalamun, which is intense and fresh in the way only humble writing can be.

Day Two tomorrow.
The Proletarian


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