Welcome to “Behind the Byline,” the column in which we share conversations with (and learn so much more about) our current NER writers in all genres.
The conversation below, between NER poetry editor Rick Barot and translator Nick Admussen, has given us all a bigger, deeper context for the Ya Shi poems, “Full Moon Night” and “Entering the Hills,” we’ve published in NER 36.2, the author himself, and the many dimensions and considerations in the role of translator.
RB: What can you tell us about Ya Shi and the two poems printed in our current issue?
NA: Ya Shi is from Sichuan, born in the 1960s, from the first generation that was allowed to go to college after the Cultural Revolution. First I should say he is brilliant and humble: he has a math degree from China’s most elite university, but he lives outside Chengdu, far from the center of the growth economy and the Chinese poetry scene. He teaches math there, writes, and spends a lot of time with his family. He’s also incredibly kind and thoughtful and has been a great friend to me—being able to spend time with him is one of the most pleasurable parts of being a translator. And yet I can sense sometimes how his intellect and the depth of his feeling isolate him. He is so complex that I don’t yet really understand how he operates, and he knows that. I think that the joy in the Qing Mountain poems that you’ve published comes in part from the speaker of the poems encountering a context that is rich enough and soulful enough to merit his complete attention, and the rarity of that. However, describing him like this makes him sound like some kind of wizard, and he’d laugh at me for saying it. He chain-smokes. He likes to eat Sichuan hotpot. Once he described himself in a poem as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster made up of different animal parts—deer eyes, dog’s nose, etc.—giving a math lecture in short pants.
The Qing Mountain poems are a series of thirty modified sonnets that were inspired by a long trip Ya Shi took into the forested hills of Sichuan. They’re a good representation of his work as a whole: they seem to argue that in order to think in a large and difficult way about life and death, creation and destruction, we can start by struggling to foster our own separateness from the rest of the world. Our connection to what’s outside us can then occur to us as a discovery, rather than a requirement or an empty postulate. This matches Ya Shi’s attitude about his career—he stays partially separate from the national poetry scene, and his publications are often brought out by patrons, printed in unofficial magazines, or circulated online. This separation has given him a powerfully independent voice, and is one of the things that makes his poetry unique and special. I’m now revising a book of his poems translated into English that will be called Floral Mutter, and which will include work from all the venues in which he publishes, work that in some cases would be hard to publish formally inside China.
RB: Can you describe the translation process entailed by these poems, and your translation process in general?
NA: With these poems, I drafted the whole series as well as I was able, accumulating a long list of questions from the detailed to the general. Then I went to Sichuan in 2014 and sat down with Ya Shi for a few hours to drink tea and ask all my questions, and the answers shaped the final set of revisions. Meetings like this—this was the third one I’ve done translating Ya Shi poems—are incredibly high pressure for me, even though he’s more than patient with my errors; I’m not just listening for the answers to my questions, but the way in which his responses to my questions indicate whether I’m traveling in the right direction, and have a basic grip on the spirit of the poem. The worst answer an author can give to a translation question is always “why do you care about that?”—to me, such a response means “you do not yet understand this piece. Start again.”
In general I think my translation process requires me to come to a really clear and concrete conclusion about what I’m giving up by putting a poem into English. With Ya Shi, the number one thing that gets lost is his genius for the intercultural. The best example is that when he reads aloud, he chooses to read in rich, musical Sichuan dialect, which is separate from (and superior to, I think) the “standard” dialect that you hear on TV in the PRC. So poems like these have three layers: an inventive adaptation and translation into Chinese of the Italian sonnet form, written in modern Mandarin Chinese, and pronounced in a centuries-old local language. I’m never going to get that same layering effect, that fusion, in an English version, but I need to know it’s there, so that my sensation of its absence can influence the decisions I do get to make.
RB: I’m sure it must be hard to characterize summarily, but how would you describe the contemporary scene in Chinese poetry? Is it anything like the great aesthetic range found in American poetry these days?
The answer to the first question suppresses the answer to the second, actually—I think the scenes in China today are shaped meaningfully by the system of central control. Intensity of censorship increases with audience size—I can say anything I want to one person, but can say practically nothing in a nationally distributed daily newspaper—and so poetic scenes often stay small, with a dozen or two dozen poets holding small-scale events and exchanging publications hand-to-hand. Some of those writers then move up to more official, national-level magazines, or move to Beijing, and their diversity there is partially a function of the place they came from.
What this means in terms of aesthetic range is that I don’t know what the real aesthetic range of Chinese poetry is—I only know about what’s successfully made the jump to official publication, and because I’ve traveled around just a little bit, I know that the official discussion is partial. Even at the national level, though, there’s substantial diversity. There are powerfully intellectual poets who write semantically intricate work (like Xi Chuan); vernacular poets who write in a simple, populist, direct idiom (like Han Dong); feminist poets who work in a kind of Freudian dreamworld (like Zhai Yongming); and most recently, a group of worker-poets who write dark romantic poems about the lives of migrant laborers (like Xu Lizhi). These are cartoon descriptions, but hopefully you get the idea. So I would say poetry in China today is at least as broad as American poetry. Chinese poetry also has the great advantage of being at the heart of a very old cultural tradition: what it means to be Chinese, or even to be alive in China, are questions often answered in and by poetry, and even after all this time, children are still made to memorize and recite classical poems at a very young age. Many people feel like a part of the poetic tradition: it’s therefore a bit less elitist than poetry in the United States tends to be, and that broadens its diversity as well.
RB: Your work as a translator aside, who are the poets whose works you keep returning to?
I am a real fan of Xi Chuan, who I mentioned above—he has a really good new book of translations by Lucas Klein—and Ouyang Jianghe, who’s been translated in excellent fashion by Austin Woerner. I’ve also been fascinated for many years by the prose poems of Lu Xun, who lived in the early twentieth century. I incline generally towards the love of prose poetry, in part because that’s the topic of my first scholarly book, but also because it’s increasingly how I write my own poems (my first chapbook, Movie Plots, was all prose poems, as is my current creative project).
Where American poetry is concerned, I keep Russell Edson on my shelf where I can reach him, as well as Ben Marcus’ Age of Wire and String (which I know was sold as stories, but come on). Philip Larkin and Timothy Donnelly for the interaction between music and concept, Frank Bidart’s Watching the Spring Festival for its intercultural empathy, and lots of Paul Celan, who reminds me that even in its most satisfying moments, poetry is still a struggle to speak and a struggle to listen.
Ya Shi is the author of four collections of poetry and one of prose, including the celebrated collection The Qingcheng Poems, and most recently a special issue of the alternative magazine Blade devoted to his work. He is a winner of the Liu Li’an prize, and has served as the editor of several influential unofficial poetry journals. His work has appeared in English in Poetry International, New Cathay: Contemporary Chinese Poetry, and is forthcoming in Asymptote and Drunken Boat. A graduate of Beijing University, he currently teaches mathematics at a university near the city of Chengdu.
Nick Admussen is an assistant professor of Chinese literature and culture at Cornell University. He has translated the work of Ya Shi, Zang Di, Genzi, and Liu Xiaobo; his original poetry has appeared in Fence, Blackbird, and Sou’wester. He blogs on Chinese poetry in American life for the Boston Review; his first book, on contemporary Chinese prose poetry, will be published with the Hawaii University Press. You can find him on Twitter @nadmussen.