Spring is the time for poetry conferences in the PRC. Throughout April and May as fields of yellow mustard flowers are blooming and even in the city you can find walls lined with lilacs and roses, there is a profusion of poetry festivals and academic conferences and social gatherings for the literary bigwigs. I attended a lot of these events this year, and man, were they a revelation.
I admit, I had some preconceived notions about what a poetry conference is and isn’t. I expected a bunch of people sitting around in casual wear discussing poetic diction and the latest trends in form. Perhaps, once a day, there would be a polite titter at a sober pun someone might make during a presentation. What I did not anticipate was evenings (and occasional afternoons) spent around the banquet table, drinking baijiu and belting out old Beatles tunes.
A word about Chinese banquets. Picture this: a twelve- to twenty-person table with an enormous lazy-Susan covered by so much food that plates must be balanced on top of each other. Often a roast duck is involved, and nearly always a steamed fish (complete with head and eyeballs, a delicacy), along with myriad stir-fried and beautifully arranged color-coordinated vegetables. Add to that an infinite supply of Qingdao beer and baijiu 白酒 (literally ‘white alcohol’, a strong, I mean rubbing alcohol strong, spirit), obligatory toasts at five minute intervals, and six hour long (really) meals. Now add a collection of old friends and old enemies in the form of forty or fifty hotshot literary egos.
Let’s put it this way. There were some heated moments. Take from that what you will.
But these conferences are also an opportunity to learn who is writing what, and how the factional lines in contemporary poetry break down. I mean ‘break down’ both in the sense of ‘are defined’ and ‘dissolve’. Although there are and have been serious divisions in the contemporary poetry scene in China – most importantly between the so-called ‘intellectual’ or ‘library’ poets, and those poets who write more from experience than book learning (and whom some claim are less skilled for that) – many of these divisions are permeable. Friendships turn into enmities on the basis of perceived slights. Alliances are formed and fall apart.
The precedence for these literary alliances goes way back. In the Tang dynasty, many poems were inspired by friendships between poets, and were written in letters or in messages inscribed on the walls of public buildings. Often these poets belonged to the same school (or faction) 派, or to literary societies 文社 of likeminded writers. Poets’ names have became linked together forever through these correspondences, and new connections are still being discovered. Wang Ao, my translating partner, has done fascinating new scholarship on these relationships, and has written his dissertation on the wide-reaching literary consequences. This tendency, which of course isn’t limited to Chinese poetry – witness Coleridge and Wordsworth tromping the woods (along with Dorothy Wordsworth, who always gets short shrift) – continues today, producing many fruitful literary friendships, and, I dare say, fruitful disagreements. Literature, of course, is a conversation. I happen to think the more pointed and full of conviction the voices are, the better.
The conversation about contemporary Chinese literature and its translation has been unfortunately lacking in the States, which is one reason I’m assisting Afaa Michael Weaver, a poet, Sinophile, and translator himself, to organize a poetry conference at Simmons College in Boston this coming October. Many poets will be in attendance (not just from the mainland, but from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore as well), along with critics, scholars, and translators from both sides of the ocean. The conference is open to the public (you can find details at http://poetryconference.com), and will be an opportunity for communication and cooperation across linguistic barriers. It will also be a chance to have fun. Particularly if there’s some baijiu involved.
Tomorrow: yeah, but what do Chinese literary types think of us? --EG (顾爱玲)