(Ed note: David and I met Yu Xian and Eleanor Goodman while traveling in China in the spring of 2008. Yu Xian lives in Jinan, Shandong Province. In 2004 she was named "one of the top ten women poets" in China. Yu Xiang's two books are 哈气 (Exhale), and 女巫师 (Sorceress), both published in China. Read two of her poems here and here and return tomorrow and Saturday for more. sdh)
EG: You started writing poetry in your twenties, which is rather late for a poet. What was your attitude toward literature when you were a child? Why did you wait so long to start writing?
YX: I grew up in the countryside with my grandmother, and moved to my parents’ house in the city when it was time to go to school. It was an alien environment with very little interaction; I only had myself to talk to. In school, I liked languages and fine art, and I was good at writing essays, but there was so little available to read (at that time in China, the home environment and the surrounding environment pulled in opposite directions; for example, only if you weren’t a good student would you get to test to get into an arts school, and so on). When I was a little older, a few romance novels were passed back and forth at my school. They were very beautiful and very false, completely irrelevant to real life. I thought literature was a kind of hoax, and I didn’t like it anymore; I gave up my nascent literary dreams. After all, when you’re young, you don’t know that there is a larger universe. In private, I would keep a diary and frantically write down my feelings. Then after a time, I would rip them up or burn them.
After about third grade, there were no more art classes, and painting became a kind of lasting dream, which for all sorts of reasons was never realized. To express what I needed to say without relying on shapes, I started to write poem after poem. After that, I threw myself into poetry, but even more of my energy had to be spent just on subsisting. Of course, the provocations and power of the spirit that arise from the pressures of living one’s life and of experience and so on, will slowly and naturally be reflected in one’s poetry.
I’m certain that some people have a kind of deeply rooted instinct, which even great waves of fate can’t drown. It’s the power of “oppression” seeking “freedom” and the power of “freedom” rescuing “oppression.” It’s the mysterious power of a kind of mutual seeking. I think poetry and I are this way, at those wonderful moments....For me, poetry is very sudden, and inevitable.
EG: Your husband is also a poet and artist. Do you think it’s hard for two people in the arts to live together, or are they better able to support and understand each other?
YX: I don’t know how other artistic couples are, but we’re actually very supportive and understanding of each other. I’m not very social; sometimes I’m not very good at interacting with others, and I don’t enjoy some aspects of ordinary life. But he’s more outspoken. Together, we’re pretty complementary.
EG: Some complain that in contemporary China, people are increasingly concerned with money. What place do you think literature has in China today? Does poetry need a particular kind of environment in order to flourish? Or in difficult times, is poetry more unique and lively?
YX: There is this sort of phenomenon, a widespread lack of a spiritual life, and the most fundamental reason for this is because China is still using an antiquated system. I personally don’t like much of the contemporary literature that is officially published in China. But today, among ordinary people and on the internet, literature has a lot of relevance, which is to say that in an exceedingly absurd situation of resistance and oppression, there still exists a true literariness.
Poetry can flourish in any environment, but in “difficult times” the responsibility of poets and pressure put on poets will both be heavy. Not every serious poet is suited to writing critical poetry. If one writes an inferior poem criticizing reality, that isn’t as a good as using a different method to express one’s point of view. After all, “poet” and “hero” is not the same concept. But at the very least, a poet must posses an essentially critical spirit, and be a person who makes independent judgments.
EG: Chinese literary critics sometimes discuss ‘poets’ and ‘women poets’ separately. Does this way of analyzing have any real usefulness, or is it a holdover from a historical bias against women?
YX: Sometimes the expression is convenient. We also say ‘male poets.’ This is a simple question, and also a very complicated question. It’s hard to explain, and it doesn’t really fall in my field of expertise.
EG: But in the current climate, is there any difference between men and women poets, for example in terms of opportunities to publish, teach, or give readings?
YX: This isn’t an easy question, and the debate about it can get too heated. I see myself as a poet who speaks through her poetry, and I haven’t put any energy into researching issues around “Poetry.” I trust my own way of dealing with poetry. I just write poems, good poems. At the same time, I’m interested in this particular moment in history, and in understanding the depths of human nature.
EG: You’re originally from Shandong Province, in northeastern China. How has place and climate influenced your work?
YX: My sense of regionalism is fairly weak. To write is to choose the standpoint of an individual. It can’t represent a given landscape, and my work even less so. But climate does have an influence—I used to like the things that grow in the north. But now there’s global climate change, and as I get older, my physical requirements have been changing too.
EG: How do you view American readers? Do you hope your work will be translated into English?
YX: There is always a potential readership there, since art doesn’t obey national boundaries. I believe that translation is a good thing, provided that the translator is worth trusting.
EG: What do you mean by ‘worth trusting’? Should a translator prioritize maintaining the meaning of the original poem, or the feeling of it? Or should the translator create the most powerful poem she can in her own language?
YX: Of course it’s great if the translator tries her best to maintain the original meaning and feeling of the poem. That’s just the normal introduction of a poem into a new linguistic environment, although I know even this is difficult. As for the latter suggestion that the translator produce the most powerful poem she can, who could object to that? It’s just that in that case, the translator also becomes an author, and this should be made clear to the reader.
EG: In terms of your own poetry, some of your work is very short and the language is fairly simple (as, for example, in “Low Key”). How do you see the difference between complex and plain language? Is there a difference?
YX: The Chinese in “Low Key” has a particular linguistic feel to it, and the feel of language is definitely very hard to translate. The difficulty or simplicity of language is decided by what a person prefers. Individual poets seek different things in their writing, and their writing will also go through phases. All along, I’ve loved freedom and sudden breakthroughs. I also have long poems, and other forms of poetry, and the language is relatively simple in all of them.
EG: Have you gone through stages as a writer? What sorts of changes have you seen in your own work?
YX: I’ve gone through countless little phases. At the moment, I might be facing a more significant phase, which isn’t limited to my writing; a lot of it has come about because of my personal history, environment, life experiences—for example, in practical terms, my life is very strenuous right now, and that leads to changes.
Eleanor Goodman writes fiction, poetry, and essays, and translates from Chinese. Her work has appeared widely in journals such asPN Review, Los Angeles Review, Fiction, Pleiades, New Delta Review, Perihelion, The Pedestal Magazine, and The Guardian. She is currently working on a novel. Follow this link to read more of Eleanor's blog posts.