Art Talk with Chinese poet Xi Chuan
Translation by Xi Chuan and Katie Schulze
Xi Chuan during his visit to the U.S. for the Push Open the Window book tour. Photo by Katie Schulze
"Thought is like flying, though flying gives you vertigo,/ which is why I don't always want to be in thought." --- Xi Chuan, from "Exercises in Thought"
Xi Chuan is one of the 49 contemporary Chinese poets published in the new bilingual anthology Push Open the Window. A professor at the Beijing Central Art Academy, his many award-winning collections of poetry and essays have been widely translated. His poems in the anthology include "Notes on the Mosquito," "Ode to Skin," and "Exercises in Thought"---a meditation on Nietzschean philosophy.
Published by Copper Canyon Press, Push Open the Window is part of an international literary exchange between the National Endowment for the Arts and the General Administration of Press and Publication in the People’s Republic of China. Of this groundbreaking anthology editor Qingping Wang says, “…I can say without fear of contradiction that most of the selected poets and their work, whether viewed in relative or absolute terms, represent the very best that China has to offer.”
We spoke with Xi Chuan via e-mail during his visit to the U.S. with fellow poet Zhou Zan as part of the book tour for the anthology
NEA: What is your version of the artist's life?
XI CHUAN: There are many different ways for artists to live. I have had different ideas about this as a young artist compared to now. As a young artist, I loved the bohemian lifestyle. Now, the most important thing to me is time and space to be creative, to work. Before, I felt high involvement was necessary. Now, a state of working is most important. Sometimes I am a workaholic, sometimes I am the opposite. I think that it is important for an artist to have a sense of freedom in your art and you shouldn’t be limited by a social life or other people’s ideas.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience in or engagement with the arts?
XI CHUAN: When I was a middle school student, I wanted to be a traditional Chinese landscape painter (“Ink and brush.”) I also learned how to do seal carvings as well. Since the Chinese traditional painting requires the painter to write poems on the paintings---this is how I learned poetry initially.
In my twenties, I moved away from traditional Chinese to vernacular Chinese. I felt like I had more freedom as a poet writing vernacular Chinese poems than traditional Chinese poetry.
NEA: What has been your most significant/transformative arts experience to date?
XI CHUAN: Two things: Travel and 1989. I travel a lot. After my graduation from Peking University, I traveled on my own for several months all over China, especially the Yellow River area. It gave me a sense of the nation; I felt a part of it. This was the first important travel for me. I also traveled in India in 1997. I got funding from UNESCO that made it possible for me to travel in India. Indian culture is a very old culture and I could compare Indian and Chinese culture. China had just opened its door---at this time I don't think India had yet embarked on their economic reform. When I saw problems in India---agricultural, cultural, social, political---it reminded me of China. It was an opportunity to inform comparisons.
1989 was an important year for the Chinese and for all ex-socialist countries. The students' movement in Beijing and the changes in the Soviet Union influenced me. I was in Tiananmen Square at the time of the massacre, and I was changed a lot by this. I lost two poet friends that year: one to suicide and one laid down in Tiananmen Square. These deaths changed me a lot.
NEA: What decision most impacted your arts career?
XI CHUAN: I have not made any decisions. I follow the changes. I was a journalist, and I became a teacher. I do not feel as though the decisions were critical. The decision I made was to be a poet, but I do not know when I made that decision. I just followed myself.
I am forced to be myself. When I decided to learn about painting, I fell into the track and I was forced to be the person I am now. I was made by the world---my surroundings and the history.
NEA: Which one of your poems is the most significant to you---in terms of subject, or the evolution or your work, or some other criteria?
XI CHUAN: A series named "Salute," finished in 1992. 1989 abolished my method of writing poetry. Prior to 1989 I had many model poets that I tried to follow. Later, I found that these models were not enough for me to express myself. I almost stopped writing between 1989 and 1992; there was a crash in my heart, so I started writing notes. In 1992, I wrote “Salute” and it started with notes to vomit emotions/experiences about dark things that happened between 1989-1992. After I wrote this poem, I changed absolutely. Before I had an “I” in my heart; later I found [that it was multiple] “I's" and not “we.” I found that all these deceased people live in my heart.
NEA: Why do you think the general public needs the art of poetry? Why do you need the art of poetry?
XI CHUAN: I need poetry to refresh myself all the time. If I don’t do that, I think I am dying. Poetry or a thought or a noise can give me a rebirth, deliver me again and again.
Sometimes you walk a street repetitively and don’t see anything, but if you stop you can find something new there. These things are always there, but you need to discover something. Poetry helps us develop an awareness of more that is around us.
NEA: You've traveled throughout the world reading your poetry at festivals and universities. Do you notice significant differences in poetry audiences from country to country?
XI CHUAN: I travel a lot but let me explain difference between [China and] America. The Chinese poetry audience is young people. It is a Chinese literary superstition that vernacular poetry is for young people only. In America, it is all ages of people. There are fewer vernacular Chinese poets. In the western world, there are also fewer poets. In Latin America and South Asian countries, people are more enthusiastic about poetry. In Pakistan, I was told poets are heroes. In China, in the early 1980s and late 1970s, poets were like heroes. Now, people follow movie stars.
I travel many times in Germany and a poem can decorate a building. I once curated a exhibition on Chinese poetry in Germany and Austria in 2009, and they made so many posters with lines of poems. The exhibition was lines of poetry in the street, in coffee shops, in parks, in markets, in cathedrals.
NEA: Who are some of the American poets who have influenced your work, and in what ways?
XI CHUAN: I think my poet hero from America is Ezra Pound. I got to know him in the 1980s because he translated so much from Chinese into English. He also translated English into Chinese. Pound quoted something from an ancient Chinese book, “Make it new” and it became his core spirit. He helped me connect with ancient Chinese work, including Confucian works. Poetry writing is not just poetry writing itself---it is so many things. I got this connection to ancient Chinese poetry to vernacular poetry from Ezra Pound. It led me away from pure poetry writing. I learned from Pound to embody something bigger.
NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community?
XI CHUAN: Artists have different roles. Some artists choose 50 percent artist and 50 percent intellectual, some 100 percent artist. Some will give their ideas of life to ordinary people. On the one hand, they can set up models for beauty. On the other hand, they destroy models of beauty. Of course, artists can be good and bad: good artists bring new ideas to the community. Their ideas make you feel like this world is creating something for itself.
NEA: What do you think is the responsibility of the community to the artist?
XI CHUAN: Wow. I don’t know. Just give the artist space. This could be a spiritual space or a material space. Art needs its possibilities. To provide this to artists is important.