The Bookworm–half library, half cafe, half cultural hub and all better at maths than I am–is the heart of literary happenings in Beijing. It’s home to the Bookworm International Literary Festival, regular booktalks and film events, and my friend Hannah’s Story Time sessions for children. (One day I will show up in pigtails and scare the crap out of her.) But last Thursday, it was home to something particularly special: a reading of Chinese poet Xi Chuan’s work with the man himself and his translator, Lucas Klein.
Xi Chuan is one of contemporary China’s most celebrated poets, a recipient of the prestigious Lu Xun Prize for Literature and the Zhuang Zhongwen Prize, a professor at the Central Academy for Fine Arts in Beijing, and an all-round cool dude. A new collection of his work, NOTES ON THE MOSQUITO, has just been released by New Directions, and Thursday’s event was as much a celebration of this fact as anything else. It was an intimate gathering; most of the audience knew each other, and many knew Xi Chuan or Lucas personally. It felt less like a formal event and more like a group of people sitting together in someone’s living room sharing something they love. The atmosphere suited the writing perfectly.
Xi Chuan began the reading by thanking Lucas Klein, who translated all the poems that appear in NOTES ON THE MOSQUITO. He said that all the times he’d thanked Lucas before via email didn’t count, because they were secret. (Lucas’ response was: “Should I not have told people about all those times, then?”) I mention all this because it was disgustingly heartwarming–as both a poet and a translator who hopes to translate poets, their close working relationship was a wonderful thing to see.
“Autumn, always autumn
those who throw themselves into the flames leave all sorts of questions
when the majority have stepped from autumn into winter
some old lady will still be wearing a flower in her hair
we live together on this planet of deserts and seas”
“This Minute”, Xi Chuan
The reading began with “This Minute”, an early work with a haunting refrain: the line “we live together on this planet of deserts and seas” is repeated, with a growing momentum, throughout the piece. Xi Chuan kicked things off with the Chinese, and then Lucas read the English translation. Most people in the room were bilingual, and could appreciate the poem both ways; my listening skills are still not at the stage where I can understand a poem delivered aloud, but nevertheless I caught enough tantalising glimpses of meaning to make the English reading, when it came, even more fulfilling. It was rather like looking at the sky through a thin headscarf, or a thick cloud of Beijing pollution, understanding just enough of what I saw out there to know that it was a sky and that when the moment came for me to see it clearly, it would be beautiful.
Nowhere was this truer than the opening two lines of “Discoveries”, one of my favourite poems of the night. I only picked up a few fragments of the opening when it was read in Chinese, and wasn’t sure what I’d heard–but then Lucas read the opening in English, and I swooned. “even ants are afraid of the dark / even stones suffer from insomnia”. There’s some deliciously off-kilter in those lines, a willingness to tip the world up forty-five degrees and see what you can make out from that angle. Personification, when done right, is one of my favourite poetic devices. It’s done right there.
The reading continued with “Answering Venus”, a collection of poems which are ‘like haiku but not haiku’, in Xi Chuan’s words, and “Plains”, a stark, poignant piece which practically has the wind running through it. Particularly striking was the book’s titular poem, “Notes on the Mosquito”:
Yet the lifespan of a mosquito is fixed somewhere between sunup and
sundown, or between two sunups and sundowns, and thus its whole
life a mosquito might only meet an average of four or five people, or
twenty or thirty pigs, or one horse. This suggests that mosquitoes have
established no views on good and evil.
“Notes on the Mosquito”, Xi Chuan
The reading wound up with “On Wang Ximeng’s Blue-green Landscape Scroll, A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains”. Xi Chuan told us, straightfaced, that many people complain he doesn’t write poetry like the great poets of China’s past–Li Bai, Du Fu and so on–and that this poem was written to prove he too can write something beautiful. Strangely, although the poem is indeed beautiful, the lines rolling over each other like the rivers and mountains they describe, it didn’t suck at me as powerfully as the others had. I think I like Xi Chuan best when he’s being his own beautiful, not someone else’s.
This question came up again during the discussion after the reading, with translator Canaan Morse asking Xi Chuan how he feels when people expect him, as a Chinese writer, to be writing the same sorts of things the Tang poets were writing a thousand years ago. His answer was short and to the point: “I hate it!” Another memorable moment came when he was asked if he thought one had to get angry or upset to write good poetry: he replied to the effect that it’s hard work that creates good poetry, not emotion, and at that point I’m sure I heard millions of emo voices cry out in terror, and be suddenly silenced.
Lucas also discussed at some length the processes that went into creating the book, his own attitudes to translation, and translating Xi Chuan in particular. Once again I was struck by the sheer amount of time and love which had gone into these poems, both in their original language and in their English form. The role of the translator is so often relegated to that of mouthpiece, a faceless channel for the poet’s vision, but in good translation–and in good literature–there is always a sense of partnership. After the talk, I asked both poet and translator to sign my book, and Lucas’ signature sitting neatly below Xi Chuan’s on the title page seems to me a perfect symbol of everything they’re doing right.
Lucas Klein maintains a blog about Xi Chuan’s poetry, which you can find at xichuanpoetry.com. There are a number of links on the right hand side to Xi Chuan’s work in various magazines, but for the full experience I do recommend purchasing NOTES ON THE MOSQUITO. Neither of them have asked me to do this. I’m doing it all on my own.