Excerpted from an excellent interview, follow links to read in full and follow links on original site to enjoy a sampling of works by Amang (阿芒) and Chen Yuhong (陳育虹), contemporary poets of Taiwan.
Amang: Ever since I was young, I knew that boys and girls are treated differently. I was brought up by my grandparents. My parents planted trees on the mountain, and my grandmother, who was over sixty, lived near the base with the four of us kids. Life was hard, and my grandmother had to earn money and make a living. My older brother had his own study room and desk, and was seldom scolded. But we three girls were often scolded. My grandmother was good at using dirty words, which seemed easy for her. Those words were full of images like genitals. Once she chased me to a line of trees near the river, and I ran back and forth between the green and red leaves to avoid her poisonous arrows. I hated my grandmother at that time. Her scolding us with dirty words was our first sex education. We girls knew nothing, and naturally tried to escape and resist. I don’t know if this is a fitting metaphor for relating personal experience to poetry. Later, when I began to write poems, one of the inspirations was the discomfort, doubt, or resistance I felt in my heart.
For instance, if I heard a car hit a little girl, that was a sound I had never heard. I did not dare to watch, but the sound would remain in my mind for months and months, until I made it disappear by writing poems. One summer, a car ran over a snake, and the snake burst into pieces. The sound stayed in my mind like unmelted snow, because I never finished writing “That Poem” (那一首). Also, a movie made me hurt from my throat to my esophagus to stomach. The pain would not go away until I wrote it out. When I was ten years old, I moved from Hualian to Taipei. The sky became narrower, the sea tamer, and people were more cultured… The discomfort because of these changes could sometimes be resolved by climbing mountains, but the deeper discomfort always needed to be resolved through writing. Creation is like deep breath, bringing me oxygen and freedom.
I think that what is going on in poetry right now is getting more and more interesting. At the recent 2011 poetry festival in Taiwan, we had an event called “Singing the Poetry in Women’s Hearts.” The singer Lo Sirong (羅思容) was invited to put to music a few poems written by Taiwanese women poets. Among the poems she chose was my “One Too Many,” which is not easy to be set to music. Lo Sirong said she had to read it many times. She is undauntable! And she figured it out! Listening to her up there on the stage singing, I was lured into a secret fantasy. I imagined that one day I would sing my own poems. I wouldn’t chant them; I’d use the beautiful recitative mode they have in opera.
Chen: ... I definitely started to write because of the inspiration from Chinese classical poetry. My Chinese teacher in middle school was Ms. Guan Rong (關容). Every time she finished teaching a lesson on a work of prose literature, she would write on the blackboard a verse that was connected to the topic of the prose piece we had just studied. She’d read the poetry out loud in her husky Beijing accent and explain it to us. She said the language of poetry is concise but the meaning is expansive; one word of poetry is worth ten of prose, and that’s because in a poem there is not only language but also imagery and music. As an example, Ms. Guan cited the line from Yuan Zhen’s “Elegy” (元稹 / « 遣悲懷 »), “O youngest, best-loved daughter of Xie, / Who unluckily married this penniless scholar” (translated by Witter Bynner). Each line paints a picture, like a story book.
I majored in English at Wenzao Ursaline College of Languages, but half my credits were from classes in Chinese literature (including classes in classical poetry, Zhuangzi, and so on). With Professor Bao Bin (鮑霦) of the Chinese Department, I studied everything from “Guan guan cry the ospreys over the sandbanks of the river” (the first line of the three-thousand-year- old Book of Poetry) to “The moon sets, the crows call, and frost fills the sky” by eighth century poet Zhang Ji (張繼). Professor Bao analyzed the poems, and also had us write poems modeled on them. I indeed wrote some poems in classical four- and eight-line regulated verse patterns, as well Song-dynasty style lyrics to the tunes of Remengling (如夢令) and Pusaman (菩薩蠻). Professor Bao specialized in the poetry of Tao Yuanming (陶淵明) and Wang Wei (王維). Listening to her read the verse “Sound deafens in chaos over the rocks, light deepens in silence in the pines” from “Clear Stream” (« 青谿 »), I was convinced that Wordsworth and Yeats must have read Wang Wei. Didn’t the American modernist poet Ezra Pound say that classical Chinese poetry inspired his Imagism because it embodied his principle that in poetry one was to “use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation” and “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome?”
Professor Bao Bin insisted that poems must be memorized. I remember one year when we had a competition to see who could write the most poems from memory; you received one point for each poem you could reproduce; length didn’t matter... I would not have known how to even begin to write poetry if the rich imagery, beautiful music and breadth of vision of Chinese classical poetry hadn’t been taking root in my heart for so long.
BY Yang Xiaobin, Chen Yuhong & Amang
TRANSLATED BY Yiping Wang & Thomas Moran