Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Chinese poet Zhou Zan

Zhou Zan. Photo by Katie Schulze

"though shaped like banners, the women/never indulge in dancing in the wind --- from "Wings" by Zhou Zan

Zhou Zan, a native of China's Jiangsu Province, is a poet, translator, and scholar. She edits the journal Wings, which is devoted to women's poetry, and has also published a collection of poetry and two volumes of literary criticism. Zhou Zan is one of the 49 contemporary Chinese poets published in the new bilingual anthology Push Open the Window.

Published by Copper Canyon Press, the volume 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 Zhou Zan via e-mail during her visit to the U.S. with fellow poet Xi Chuan as part of the book tour for Push Open the Window.

NEA: What is your version of the artist's life?

ZHOU ZAN: Virginia Woolf said that if a woman wants to be a writer, she must have enough money and a room of her own. I think one doesn't need too much money, however, because art is a separate part of one's life. Art is enough. In China, for me, I think that even more than money, what I really need is free time because I am too busy sometimes. So, my version of the artist’s life involves having enough free time to allow me to explore my imagination as long as I need to.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience in or engagement with the arts?

ZHOU ZAN: When I was a child, maybe 4-5 years old, I was playing with my friends. For some reason, we argued, and then I discovered that I could talk in the manner in which one composes a poem: a sequence of very short sentences. I was able to talk a lot in this way, using metaphor and images. I surprised both the other kids and myself. Afterwards, I realized that I had an ability in the creative arts.

NEA: What has been your most significant/transformative arts experience to date?

ZHOU ZAN: I must say it’s when I learned about feminism as a graduate student at Peking University, back in 1993. The professor, Dai Jinhua, taught a class about modern Chinese women writers during my first semester. In the first class she taught on feminism, and it deeply impressed me. I had read about it in the past, but when she used it to discuss women’s writing, it was very transformative for me. I wrote a series of poems called “Close Reading on Movies” to show my appreciation to her. After that, I took many classes with her. She was very influential in my writing.

NEA: What decision has had the most impact on your arts career?

ZHOU ZAN: I gave up my job as a high school teacher.

NEA: Why do you think the general public needs the art of poetry? Why do you need the art of poetry?

ZHOU ZAN: Whoever needs an inner life also needs poetry. I have to find a way to release my creativity, because I know I have the ability, so I must demonstrate it and improve it.

NEA: You edit a magazine entitled Wings that is dedicated to women's poetry. Please tell us about the magazine and what role it serves in China.

ZHOU ZAN: I founded [Wings] in 1998 with two friends of mine. They always supported and encouraged me. They are both women poets: Zhai Yongming and Mu Qin. Also, it is the only poetry magazine for women poets in China now. It provides encouragement to Chinese women poets, focusing on gender problems and introducing poetry by foreign women into Chinese. We also include critical essays. We fight against the patriarchy in the writing regime. We fight for women’s rights in contemporary Chinese society, especially in literature. We also explore feminism in China and work to spread it throughout China.

NEA: You've translated many women poets into Chinese, such as Denise Levertov and Margaret Atwood. What attracted you to these poets and what did you learn during the process of translation?

ZHOU ZAN: I am interested in all kinds of poetry (worldwide). I do focus on women’s poetry. I am interested in Denise Levertov’s explorations of political concerns. Sylvia Plath has taught me strength in my poetry. Her determination with words is powerful. Marianne Moore’s works are extremely profound in thought. Margaret Atwood’s writing is diverse---her subject matter varies greatly. Her concern about gender is interesting for me. When I translated her Eating Fire: Selected Poems 1965-1995, I found so many themes, including how her work has changed over time. Also, she rewrites classic literary works. I also appreciate Elizabeth Bishop and am inspired by her writing. I have also translated some other American women poets, such as Rita Dove, Adrienne Rich, Louise Glück, Joy Harjo, and Brenda Hillman.

NEA: You have a Ph.D. and work as a scholar.What projects are you currently working on??

ZHOU ZAN: I currently work on 20th-century Chinese literary history. I am also studying Chinese women poets from the 20th century---both are big topics. I have worked on these projects for the last eight years.

NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community?

ZHOU ZAN: An artist must be the kind of person that can change the world by way of transforming him or herself.

NEA: What do you think is the responsibility of the community to the artist?

ZHOU ZAN: The artist is part of the community. The general public no longer reads that much poetry in China. Most people are focused on money and business. They are guided by the mainstream media such as television and the Internet for obtaining information, and poetry is no longer important in their minds. Also, poems can be hard for many to understand. China, and perhaps the world, takes a passive approach to poetry. In other instances, people treat literature and culture as articles of consumption.

The community must change their idea of the consumption of art, literature, and cultural works. If they are able to change their attitude, they would be able to contribute more. The community should engage more with art and the reasons it exists.

Want to hear more from Zhou Zan? Join us for the free reading by Zhou Zan and Xi Chuan tonight at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. You can find details of the reading and the NEA's literary exchange projects here.

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