International Poetry Nights Hong Kong, Day 2
By Canaan Morse, published
3:00 p.m. @ City University
Panel: Writing Across Languages
Moderator Lucas Klein
Panelists Bejan Matur (Turkey), Tian Yuan (China/Japan), Yao Feng (China), Tomaž Šalamun (Slovenia)
This turned out to be an interesting event, though not quite for the reasons I imagined; though I hoped at first to hear a lot of good debate, I see now my notes all dwell on the statements given by each poet at the panel’s beginning. The poets were very well selected, as each one moving away from his or her native language into another, later having to negotiate the distance between the two (or three). Bejan went from Kurdish to Turkish (get to her in a sec), Tomaž has written in Slovenian, French and English, Yao Feng has tried Portuguese and Tian Yuan, who lives in Japan, writes often in Japanese. Discussion shifted midway through the panel from the limits of certain languages to the translatability of poetry, where both Ezra Pound and Robert Frost raised their fearsome heads.
--Bejan’s early childhood must have been disorienting, to say the least. She went from speaking Kurdish to Turkish, then back to Kurdish and again to Turkish one more time—all before primary school. She remembers being ordered by her teacher to carry a pencil and notebook around town and record the names of anyone she heard speaking Kurdish. Went to college in Ankara and spent one year as a political prisoner. Writes in a Turkish that is forever pregnant with Kurdish. She has a tendency to start off pithy and to-the-point and then spiral into a linguistic tangle. Who was the 13th century Sufi poet she mentioned?
--Tomaž speaks specifically and with examples. Thank God. This is the kind of stuff I can learn something from. He starts with a recollection of hearing Bejan recite a poem in German and, though he understands no German, seeing again in his mind’s eye a tribe of –whom? I forget—riding across the desert. One of the many functions of poetry is to remind us how we are alive.
--Tomaž: Poetry works below other language. That’s as direct a quote as I can make it
--Tomaž: Writing poetry replicates the feeling of awe experienced when in contact with great art
--Wrote poetry in French because, among other things, it was supposed to be cool and civilized, and it all turned out derivative and bad. Copying someone else’s idiom in one’s own language is bad enough, let alone in a foreign tongue.
--It was Tian Yuan who described Chinese and Japanese as his first wife (结发妻子) and lover (情人), respectively, wasn't it? He spoke at length on the limits of Chinese, called it his greatest obstacle to understanding Japanese. He points out that, while Chinese characters were Japan’s first official system of writing, their signifying meanings changed entirely after they were adopted into the Japanese language. This is a fairly obvious statement, yet one that most mainland Chinese (whom I’ve met) either ignore or refuse to recognize because it runs contrary to the popular belief, “everything the Japanese have they got from China.”
--Tian Yuan: I heard,“流亡从码头开始；母语到生命为止”。Not bad
--Translators and translatability. Notes are spotty again but I can say that the poets essentially agreed that poetry was translatable. Did someone say, “Any good poem can be translated,” or am I making that up? It’s in quotes here. But what is good poetry--poetry that can be translated? That would be circular logic, but may I suggest that translation is our tie to the subjective, that internal standard that leads people to talk about “good poetry" even when it's impossible to agree on what that is?
--Poets also agree they want poets to translate poetry. Bejan: “looking for a translator who is not a poet yet, but wants to be.” That’s an original viewpoint. You don't want a machine to translate your work, but you don’t want Gary Snyder or Kenneth Rexroth, either. I hear this and am reminded of the need for all translators to be practicing writers (to keep their style and sensibilities alive) and for all writers to translate (to broaden their idiom and maintain respect for a discipline that’s way the hell harder than they might think).
7:00 p.m. Poetry Recitation
Readers: Régis Bonvicino (Brazil), Lo Chi Cheng (Taiwan), Bejan Matur (Turkey), Yu Xiang (China)
Did I get here that late or did Régis Bonvicino not come? Lo Chi Cheng’s pieces unremarkable.
--Bejan’s reading is an interesting cameo of the Turkish language. It sounds rhyme-rich in the same way Hungarian and Spanish are, a lot of “-da,” “-nda” endings. Add Turkish to the list of European languages with a unique, difficult version of the “r” sound.
--Yu Xiang’s poems are long and not exactly various in tone. Very intentionally poetic.
--The affected delivery of many of these poems brings up something of a problem for me. I am an ardent advocate for poetry recitation in principle, for the same reason I think “performance poetry” to be a silly term: poetry is performance and always has been. Never mind that any poem placed in front of a reader’s eye performs on its own; but poetry began as the public cousin to singing, the two are often intertwined and many of us try to keep our own writing as musical as possible. There was even a day when the audience’s collective ear was considered an important standard for the poet, since it decided whether or not you, the Provençal troubadour, got to eat that night. Yet that balance of power no longer exists for the poet, who has a greater need to interest his colleagues and the Poetry Editor of the New Yorker than he does the illiterate masses. Therefore, I go to readings and much of the poetry washes over my head, since much of it isn’t really written to be spoken, and the sounds pass by without sinking in.