Just put together this video of Xi Chuan reading “The Neighbors” at PLU in January：
Below are notes from my introduction to Xi Chuan’s poetry reading at Seattle Public Library:
Xi Chuan is an important poet, influential in a way that defies understanding by people who have not lived in a place like China. I don’t mean to suggest China is really such an exceptional country/culture (although some may argue this). I refer instead to the emergence of China on the contemporary world stage, at once construction site and laboratory for experimenting with massive socio/economic and yes even political change over the past three decades. These are the same three decades, roughly speaking, during which Xi Chuan has been active as a poet.
To be influential in this context means more than finding a way to cause other poets to follow one’s example in style or substance. It is a matter of literally finding a viable language in which to speak. Viability in terms of poetry relates to some form of authenticity, which means some form of” truth,” a fact which separates literature generally but poetry in particular from other realms of linguistic experience. Think politics, where the opposite is the case—Chinese politics in particular (though recent debates in the United States makes one think of this country as well): here we experience language not as something predicated on viability (it needs no such bolstering) or authenticity. Political language in China is not truth to power, it is power to truth.
Journalism, regrettably, is similarly ensconced in something un-viable, at least in terms of what is printed (virtually and non) in China. And this corruption of language is not restricted to Chinese case, as in outside journalism (by which I mean that written by authors in sites beyond China’s borders) we find the same problem. In Western-press writing about China we find language suffering less from calculated or otherwise strategized intent to mislead, and more from the unwitting and unfortunate failure to grasp what is really happening.
Finally we have what we might conveniently call “Market Language,” one predicated on advertisement, and one obviously not concerned with the “viable” per se (though “authentic,” however phony, is a typical rhetorical thrust).
If we try to understand these three examples in concert, we could do worse than turn to the political slogan, popular in China during the past few decades, meaning simply “Look to the future”
This, in an almost Rick Perry-esque “oops” comes out perfectly homophonously as “Look to money”.
Both have been true of China in the last 30 years, and both are bad news for poetic language.
Thus, appreciating the word “important” where Xi Chuan is concerned should follow from a more general appreciation of the importance of poetry itself. For this we can return to something pithy, Ezra Poundian:
“poetry is news that stays news”
and amend it to simply:
[Xi Chuan’s] poetry is news [about China] that stays news
Of course, we should be careful not to make Xi Chuan into mere news reporter for Chinese realities. He is more than that. He is a poet.
Co-presented with the WASHINGTON CENTER FOR THE BOOK AT THE SEATTLE PUBLIC LIBRARY. A welcome Seattle return is made this evening by one of the foremost poets at work in China today, Xi Chuan. He read with Zhou Zan this past September at the Seattle Asian Art Museum as part of a U.S. tour for an anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry, Push Open the Window (Copper Canyon Press). Later in spring 2012, New Directions will publish the first major collection of his to appear in English, Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems, translated by Lucas Klein. A chapbook which would include some of this work, Yours Truly & Other Poems (Tinfish), may be on hand for this evening. “In 1988, when he was twenty-five, Xi Chuan and some friends launched an unofficial literary journal, Tendency. At the time he was translating Ezra Pound and Tomas Tranströmer, Czeslaw Milosz and Jorge Luise Borges, and his own writing suggests a corresponding sophistication and aesthetic range.” – Robert Hass, The Believer. Xi Chuan lives in Beijing, where he teaches classical Chinese literature at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. His awards include the Modern Chinese Poetry Award, the Lu Xun Prize, and the Zhuang Zhongwen Prize for Literature. With Xi Chuan this evening will be Pacific Lutheran University professor Paul Manfredi. This should be thoroughly engaging, as those who attended his September reading can attest. Free admission is on a first-come, first-serve basis. The Seattle Public Central Library is at 1000 Fourth Avenue (between Madison and Spring). For more information, please call Elliott Bay at (206) 624-6600, The Seattle Public Library at (206) 386-4636, or see www.spl.org.
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Copper Canyon Press, 8/2011
, Washington98104United States
Poets Xi Chuan and Zhou Zan were in Seattle on September 29. They were reading at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, first iteration of a multi-city tour including Chicago, New York, Washington. Prior to these major cities, though, they will visit Port Townsend, a small town near Seattle that is also home of the Copper Canyon Press, publisher of the anthology Push Open the Window which Xi and Zhou will be promoting.
Below, Xi Chuan outside the Monsoon Cafe, Seattle. I told him I wanted a shot of him smoking in Seattle, something increasingly subversive on the West Coast of the United States. He opted to hide the cigarette. 入境随俗，I guess.
Late September I was in China for the second annual PoeticChina, a reading and roundtable conference of contemporary poets held in conjunction with Fall, 2010 Mid-Autumn Festival. The event was held by the China Millennium Monument in Beijing 北京世纪坛. I was reading poems written by my colleague, Rick Barot, and translated by myself. The link to these in Chinese is here.
I also attended a number of events and met many contemporary Chinese poets engaged with contemporary art. More on these elewhere.