On Poetry and Politics: Me as an example
Speech at the 53th Struga International Poetry Festival
When I first heard the topic “Poetry and Politics” of our symposium from Mr. Stefoski, I hesitated and wanted to make a step backward in mind, “Why the topic?” Then I realized, this step backward revealed something. It reveals that I am a poet from China, who almost instinctively try to evade from “Politics”.
I don’t know when a Chinese poet, writer began to have this evading instinct. Maybe it is even before “Wutai Poem Case” —Su Dongpo convicted for poems in Song Dynasty around 1079; maybe it is the fact that literary inquisition upsurged in Qing Dynasty lasted for more than 140 years, which forced writers to find shelter in traditional Chinese Philology, Phonology and Exegetics research that foster our politicalphobia gene; or maybe the endless “good for you” preaching from the superiors along with our growing-up eventually has woven such evading into our security instinct.
Now, this topic finally granted me a chance to examine this thing that had long been safely caged inwards. I can feel its sparkling tiger eyes fixing on me behind the iron bar. Fine, let me try to stare it back bravely.
Gradually I can see clearly that I have not any personal experience to talk about the political oppression imposed on poetry writing. You see, I was born in 1972, 4 years prior to the end of Cultural Revolution in China; 6 years prior to literary Sturm und Drang(Storm and Stress) in China; 14 years to go for the summit of the Sturm und Drang and 17 years for its collapse. But I have not been there. Not only because of the one or two puberty summer memories at most for a 17-year-old girl, but also because Tomas Transtromer-like late enlightenment in poetry. Before my 19 and his 12, we were both among those disgusted with poetry. For also the similar reasons, weak, feeble and wet lyrics are unfit for our strong stomach. Chinese poetry in Sturm und Drang period is spiritual, mental, introspective, far-reaching, also, blood-thirsty, rebellious, even punk aesthetic. In this period, there is political-resistance factor in some introspective, exposed work; an all-around upgrade for contemporary Chinese poetry ranging from poetic spirit to composing skills and techniques; and a generation of excellent poets such as Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Hai Zi, Chang Yao…who surpass their predecessors even dating back to 6 decades ago. Some even claimed that until then, modern Chinese poetry had been fully invented. Great Masters have yet not born, still, good poets are many. What a regret it is that I was too late for this period!
I wrote my first poem in 1993, and published my first poetry book in 2005. Between them, I either worked or studied until I got my PhD in 2006. My poetry career in this stage was spontaneous rather than conscious while Chinese poetry met its bottleneck. Among those once wholly poetry-indulged poets, some committed suicides, some ventured into business, and some immerged themselves into increasingly bureaucratized colleges. It is a period that capital politics raised its razor and castrated the spiritual attribution of Chinese poetry. Most avant-garde poets fled into book market, becoming the « third hand » manipulate book industry. Besides, a little late yet almost synchronous revelry of web poetry accelerated the degradation of Chinese poetry to its bottom with low techniques of anti-sublime, antipoèmes, colloquialism, poetic language sense writing, which sadly took the negative side of these words. I feel not a bit regret for staying out of poetry circles, just spontaneously composing my own poems with very rare submissions (I only started from 2004 submitting some poems buried in my drawer for many years). Such a spontaneous isolation provides me shelter from those degrading poems and I, read only great poems at all times.
During this period, I personally felt the influence of politics, if public social life atmosphere is counted into the general definition beyond the party governing policies. The first shock was from the response to the publishing of my poetry book. It was in 2005, the 2nd year toward my PhD degree, when most schoolmates beyond Literature Major in CASS(Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) accepted the book and wowed “My! You are writing poems! And a published poetry book! In this age! How persistent you are! » Until then, I realized most people, or I should say most intellectuals beyond poets in China had already viewed poetry writing as some unearthed cultural relics. It only took 20 years to turn a once nationwide revel of Misty Poetry into fossils in the eyes of those who had a dim memory of Misty Poetry age. What an appalling rapidity that our nation, society changes! When I say most intellectuals, there is exception. A male schoolmate from Department of Economics moved me. He earnestly told me that he had read the whole book carefully and recognized some very good poems and encouraged me to insist on. Then I knew that whatever the case, some real poetry readers are always there outside the narrow poetry circles.
Then, I was shocked that the theoretical study of poetry which has not been fully explored is actually pushed aside by the literary academic research system. A different world from classical Chinese poetry and born as imported forms from modern western poetry modern Chinese poetry, I think, should be distinguished by the revolutionary change between poetry after Baudelaire, —or indeed after Rimbaud—and poetry before them. This change should be the beginning of modern poetry theoretic study, i.e. modern poems are fabrications of the writing processes while the classical ones are idea expressions in appropriate words, thanks to the fact that the modern thinking mode has changed into a Becoming one. In China, I am the only one to do such western modern poetic research, others, only study the actually unsystematic modern Chinese poetry theories or individual western poets, theorists. And thus no one can see the values of my study other than me. Or precisely, no other one is willing to see what it is. Some experts appraised highly my doctorate dissertation, but they are not in power and unable to offer me a post in a good university or research institution. In fact, it also happened in the context of the falling tide of social interest on poetry. This is my first time to encounter politics directly—at a time when new academic interest group in China formed up. When I was young, I believed that one is definitely distinguished by being creative and insightful enough. But at that time, I have had to confront the law of Chinese adults: a good relationship with those in power is the priority. Fortunately, I am also a poet. Maybe to be a poet is better for me than to be a researcher.
Then I got a chance to work in an unofficial institution led by a very good poetry critic, which mainly engaged in international poetry communications so as to begin my translation career, and got a postdoctoral research position in Beijing Normal University meanwhile. Directly facing good poets and various texts of poetry, I was intrigued to make some outbreaks of the bottleneck of my poetry writing. Then I was shocked again. When I wanted to find some examples to help with building my own poet-artist’s will, not a Chinese poet, could be found. The poems written by those so-called good poets are currently unconcerned, cold and detached, lacking of mental, spiritual strength, psychic energy which should be demonstrated in the tension between words and words, and weak in thinking and art modeling ability, mostly explanatory. No one has a will to be a creator, but a moved and understanding onlooker. I would adore them if they could descend into the poetic depth of understanding some fundamental elements of being or becoming. But they gave me no chance. So much the « poetry » realm has limited and trapped that I almost turned away, were it not for my age for a new career. I self-examined later that I myself also has an attitude of indifference at the beginning of my poetry writing. I still remember my first poetic imagination on which an ironic poet emerges its tiny bud tip. It was a stick-shape shit, then I suddenly saw « rumor »—a banana of truth, after chewing and digesting, emerges again, the same shape, but a dung. After the political disaster of Cultural Revolution, it seems that all Chinese people no longer believe in or trust anything. Accepting puncturing views toward all and doubting all in a rebellious,
irrational way even below the bottom line almost become their instinct, except for some superstitions. Those lyrics of simply flattened subnormal crying of emotions that fit official taste in modern Chinese poetry also put passion and enthusiasm to a miserable position tied with stupidity and flattery. Poets are born striving for excellence and loving sublime, although maybe there is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous. Anyway, if a poet, especially in nowadays China, desires to live up to such nature he/she needs to be reborn through conscious efforts, as what happens in a religious context. It’s not a religious belief, but believing in good humanity, honesty, innocence, fairness and justice is building a soul. The world in this soul, not the world in itself, is the poet’s world. Please allow me to cite a line from an old friend of Struga, Tomaz Salamun, « Whoever doesn’t have that mounted in his heart will freeze. » I remember it, because I just finished the translation of his book. I think many Chinese poets need to unfreeze their souls.
To retrospect, it was my luck to start my poetry translation career since 2006. Because of the job requirement, I translated various poets when we invited them to China to participate some poetry festivals and forums. I benefited so much from translations at a right time to be a true poet! Sometimes, what you need is only a match, and it is enough to ignite the poet in you. So please allow me again to cite my match, a very short poem with a title « Mystery ». « i want to tell you/ about my thirst// but i was afraid/ it would fade away/ with you », written by Polish poet Dariusz Thomas Lebioda. A mysterious impulse matching the word « mystery » flashes instantly, a rippling moment of the soul. An inside-pointed mystic match lights my innermost poet. From then on, I know what I would write.
After post doctorate period, the formal job position I could get is to be an editor in the top official poetry magazine in China—Poetry Periodical, in which I am mainly a translation editor and thus feel less restriction compared with other editors. Now what I face is pure poetry writing circle. Then I was shocked once again by its boisterousness and encapsulating. Seen from within, it is getting clamorous with manifold official and unofficial magazines, various poets circles, a variety of activities, multiple prizes… but generally lack broad visions, accurate judgment, and thus difficult in getting public trust. Poets are conceited but hopeless also. Almost no Chinese poet can be found among public intellectuals, nor their voices heard in social cultural life. In the public eye they are those who play with themselves. It seems that poets themselves are accustomed to staying on the edge of cultures, cherishing a dim rosy dream still: in Misty Poetry age, they were incredibly, irrationally at the core of then social cultures life. Can you imagine that Poetry Periodical has a record of one million sales one issue? Nevertheless, modern Chinese poetry is still a somewhat symbol. Actually, it has never ascended into the real high level culture but the classical Chinese poetry is. This, I think, is the greatest tragedy of modern Chinese poetry. It even results in some demonized image of anti-intellectualism, immorality, mental deficiency intentionally given by the entertainment cultural atmosphere in nowadays Chinese commercialized society. In contrast, modern English poetry, French poetry, in the hands of the generation of T.S. Eliot, Paul Valery, has become a part of the high level culture thanks to their practice and theoretical construction. Possessing a position in this pole, modern poetry, vulnerable as it is, can stand fearlessly against the other demonized pole. Then how to be ascended into the high level culture? The key, I believe, lies in poets themselves. Chinese poets need to be better human beings in cultural level by building modernized personality and promoting spirituality training. What a poet is, what his poems will be. Besides, it is essential to cultivate a healthy and rational poetry environment and system beneficial for real good poets to stand out, instead of the present one that the good are mingled with the bad and the good are easily buried.
Set in official magazine, one feels the political influence more directly. The old forces in the Writers Association, a ministerial level government institution, still exert some blocking effects, but not a fully-controlling one anymore. This, however, leads to somewhat loss of control, caused by the chaos that the canon of « Political Priority » failed, while the one based on real aesthetics hasn’t been established successfully. Personally I agree that such a new canon is a must, which will bring forth abundant variants in the future, the true exuberance of Chinese poetry, not the present superficial one. And, as I grow older, I see more split personalities. The generation before me, who lived their teen times during the Cultural Revolution are today’s authorities of China. From my observation, many of them unavoidably have personality disorders. As for poets of the same age, they ought to be at their most creative times and I expect their outstanding performances. But sometimes I’d rather hope for the future. I think at least till my or the next generation, this problem could hopefully be solved: being a human with spiritual unity and relatively free soul and a poet based on it.
Translated from Chinese by Xuan Yuan and the author
Poet, essayist, translator, poetics scholar, editor, Dr. Zhao Si (1972—), original name, Zhao Zhifang is the author of 3 books: White Crow (poems, 2005), Gold-in-sand Picker (essays, 2005), Disappearing, Recalling: 2009-2013 Selected Poems (2014, forthcoming). As a strictly self-critical poet, she has published not extensively but drawn some focus attentions. Some of her poems has translated into English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic, Polish, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Armenian, Macedonian and published on literature magazines in different countries. As a translator, she has translated 2 comprehensive poetry anthologies Light-blue-pillow Tower: Selected Poems of Tomaž Šalamun (2014), The Enormous Boiling Mouths of the Sun: Selected Poems of Tomaž Šalamun (2014) and selected poems and essays, theses by Hart Crane (US), Harold Broom (US), Ted Hughes (UK), Vladimir Holan (Cezch), Tim Lilburn (Canada), Dariusz Tomasz Lebioda (Poland), Robert Hass (US), Jon Cook (UK), Mikhail N. Epstein (Russia-US), etc. As a poetry theory scholar, she has published more than 30 theses and reviews, including some published on the best Foreign Literature Study Journals in China, such as: Contemporary Foreign Literature, Foreign Literature Bi-Monthly, Foreign Literatures Quarterly, Theoretical Studies In Literature and Art. She also writes Wallace Stevens’ section for college textbooks: An Introduction to Masterpiece of World Literature (2012), Western Modernist Literature (2014). She is currently the translation poetry editor in Poetry Periodical, which is the primary poetry journal of the Chinese Writers’ Association and the editorial director of the prestigious poetry translation series Contemporary International Poetry. She has been invited to participate the 2ed Qinghai Lake International Poetry Festival (China, 2009), the 35th November International Poetry Festival (Poznan, Poland, 2012), the 28th Vilenica International Literature Festival (Slovenia, 2013), the 53th Struga International Poetry Evenings (Macedonia, 2014) . She was awarded Marii Konopnickiej Prize for translating and publishing Polish poetry in 2012. She lives in Beijing.