Hello all! I’ll be blogging for the next few days about contemporary Chinese poetry, translation, and the literary scene in China. I’m posting this week from Boston. Unfortunately.
Not that I don’t love Boston – I do. But after living in Beijing, Boston manages to feel like something of a sensory deprivation chamber. (If Boston is a big city, Beijing is a megatropolis on a par with the moon colony we’ll need once our Hummers and air-conditioners turn the earth into a putrefied double-boiler.) Here in my residential neighborhood near Cambridge, I’m no longer woken up at 7:30 each morning by bombastic Sousa-like marches blaring from the elementary school across from my apartment. I no longer hop out of bed to judge the day’s pollution level by seeing how many folds of buildings I can count in the distance...one...two...two and a smudge.... After the Beijing air, Boston’s moderate smog smells sweet, like roses and grass and dryer sheets. (Needless to say, holding a marathon in Beijing in August is like asking athletes to run through an enormous sauna filled with chain-smoking men riding diesel-powered lawnmowers. One’s lungs clench at the thought.) Breakfast is no longer fresh doujiang, the fragrant soymilk dipped out of huge vats on the street, a drink that bears little resemblance to the overly sweetened stuff that comes out of a carton, and tang huoshao, a traditional Beijing sweet roll made with sorghum molasses and sesame seed paste. Somehow, shredded wheat is a bit of a letdown now.
Still, I’m sure I’ll become reacquainted with my erstwhile friend the fork at some point. And I’ll get used to no longer speaking and thinking in Chinese. What I won’t get used to is being seven thousand miles removed from the Beijing poetry scene. After years of state-sponsored censorship and the fear-based self-censorship that followed, there is now a veritable embarrassment of literary riches in the capital city. With the internet, underground magazines, and a rapidly expanding economic and cultural openness, the arts are coming back into their own, and in the frenzy is a palpable sense of making up for lost time. There’s been much buzz about the visual arts in the PRC, with paintings of bobble-headed Maos and emaciated blue-jacketed peasants fetching millions of dollars at Christie’s auctions. Perhaps because in no part of the world, no matter how enlightened, will a poem fetch a high price (come on, it won’t even pay the grocery bills), people in the States don’t seem to know much about contemporary Chinese poetry. Who’s heard of Zang Di, Zhou Zan, Duo Duo, Xi Chuan, Lang Lang, Hu Xudong, Wang Ao, or Xiao Xiao? Who can even pronounce their names?
Hate to break it to you, but more than 1.3 billion people can. In the next week, I’m going to introduce some of the hottest poets in the PRC, and discuss the agonies and pleasures of translating their poetry. Hang on to your hats.
Tomorrow – translation and its discontents.