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Friday, October 28, 2011
92Y Guest Blog: Idra Novey On US/Chinese Poetry Exchange

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Photo of Li-Young Lee, Xi Chuan, Marilyn Chin, Forrest Gander, and Zhou Zahn by Nancy Crampton

Today’s guest blog on poetry evenings at 92nd Street Y is by poet Idra Novey (The Next Country and Exit, Civilian). Camille Rankine kicked off the guest blog series with her post on Seamus Heaney.

Novey visited the Unterberg Poetry Center on Monday, October 10th, for our US/Chinese Poetry Exchange. Her piece begins below. As an added bonus, visit Xi Chuan’s website for the text of Forrest Gander’s introduction.

John Felsteiner says that translation is like an opened window: it lets some fresh air in and some stale air get out. The new anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry from Copper Canyon, Push Open the Window, does just that. And the fresh air it brings to American poetry is exhilarating.  At the 92nd Street Y’s event on October 10th to celebrate the anthology, audience members got to hear the poetry being written in China now, in Chinese, by two of China’s premier living poets, Xi Chuan and Zhou Zan.

Forrest Gander opened the event by reading from his superb introduction to the anthology. He offered a fascinating quote from Ha Jin, who said that if he were still writing in Chinese he would write poetry now because—and this is the line I underlined—poetry is more promising. It can do more for the language. Implicit in Gander’s inclusion of this quote was the promise of what that poetry can do not just for the language in which it was written but for the languages it enters via translation—in the English versions we would hear that evening.

As Zhou Zan began to read her poem “Jay” in the original Chinese, I could hear the driving rhythm in her lines, the conviction in her voice, and Marilyn Chin did an excellent job delivering that same rhythm and conviction as she read from somebody’s translation. The translators’ names weren’t on the program or announced before the translations were read, an omission that was perhaps just as well since at one point Li-Young Lee looked up at the audience and asked if any of the translators were present. When no one responded he told the audience he thought the translation he was about to read didn’t capture any of the nuance or depth in Zhou Zan’s poem.

After the event, I approached Li-Young Lee and asked him, given that his knowledge of Chinese was good enough to grasp the nuances and depth of Zhou Zan’s poem in a way the translator had failed to do, if he might re-translate her work. He said he had too many commitments as a writer at the moment to do that, but that he has worked on some translations of Chinese poetry. It will certainly be interesting to see those translations when he publishes them.

My favorite poem of the evening was the last one by Xi Chuan, ad whose title would be perfect for a book about the history of poetry translation: “On False Causality and True Chance in a Dark Room.”

Idra Novey is author of The Next Country and Exit, Civilian; chosen by Patricia Smith for the 2011 National Poetry Series. Her translations include Viscount Lascano Tegui’s novel On Elegance While Sleeping; shortlisted for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award, and collections of poems by Manoel de Barros and Paulo Henriques Britto.

Next up in the Main Reading Series: Four Irish Poets: Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Leontia Flynn, Rita Ann Higgins and Caitriona O’Reilly (Oct 31); Nuruddin Farah and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Nov 3); Jeffrey Eugenides and Jennifer Egan (Nov 14); Sapphire and Sherman Alexie (Nov 21)

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