Tag Archives: Poetry

Is China in the midst of a second golden age of poetry?

Poets Mo Mo and Yu Jian reveal a commemorative plaque at the the First Lushan New Century Famous Poets Summit.  (Photo: Heather Inwood)

Poets Mo Mo and Yu Jian reveal a commemorative plaque at the the First Lushan New Century Famous Poets Summit. (Photo: Heather Inwood)


Read this post from Alina Simone. Or listen to the podcast above.

A few weeks ago in Beijing, a dozen well-known poets got together.

Among them was an IT guy who wanted their help testing out a new app for a social network — not based on sharing friends, photos or business contacts, but about sharing poetry. He convinced them to each recite some of their work.

Yibing Huang recorded his poem, “Shoulder to Shoulder We…” into an app called “Poem For You.” According to Yibing, the poets were skeptical. They weren’t “app” kind of guys. Was this really a good venue for poetry, they wondered? But, within minutes of the poets uploading their poems, he says, “there were hundreds of people ‘liking’ them and writing comments.”

Poets Gao Xing, Xiao Xiao and Yibing Huang at the "Poem For You" recording session in Beijing. (Courtesy Yibing Huang)

Poets Gao Xing, Xiao Xiao and Yibing Huang at the “Poem For You” recording session in Beijing. (Courtesy Yibing Huang)

Hundreds of ‘likes’ within minutes. In the US, where poetry can feel like the exclusive domain of MFA grads and disaffected teens, I would never say to someone, “If you really want to understand America, read some modern poetry.” But in today’s China, where it seems like everyone is writing poetry, that might be just the thing to do.

“Maybe you hear a poet like Zheng Xiaoqiong, who’s going to read a poem she wrote when she was a migrant worker in Southern China,” says Jonathan Stalling, editor of Chinese Literature Today, of the scene at a typical reading. “She’ll be talking about the vulnerable bodies of her co-workers, dancing like dust in the afternoon sun, reflecting off the machinery on the factory floor. The next poet could be Luo Ying, the pen name of Huang Nubo, who’s one of the most wealthy men in China and writes poetry from the point of view of a capitalist.”

As in other spheres, the Internet has proven a huge democratizing force in the world of Chinese poetry, leveling the playing field for migrant workers and millionaires alike. But love of verse was already there. Chinese poetry has 2,000 years of tradition at its back. Parents read it to their babies. Kids study it in school. But the thing is, most Chinese believe poetry peaked in the Tang Dynasty. That ended more than 1100 years ago. So for today’s poets, their chosen art form’s exalted status can feel like a double-edged sword.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, new poetry is dead in China,’” poet Ming Di says. She loves the ancient poets, but feels the strict classical forms they pioneered tended to dead end after, you know, a few hundred years.

“Poets in the Tang Dynasty already did their best. And we in 21st Century have to do something new — either we bring something new to the old form or go our own way.”

And they are. Modern Chinese poets are exploring radical new terrain when it comes to form, sentence structure, and perhaps most importantly, subject matter. At the far end of this spectrum, according to professor Heather Inwood, is the “School of Rubbish.” (Although, she says, “you can also translate it as the ‘Trash School,’ or something like that.”)

vvvInwood teaches Chinese cultural studies at the University of Manchester in England and is the author of “Verse Going Viral,” a book about China’s new media scenes. “The ‘School of Rubbish’ became famous for writing poems about, basically, bodily excretions,” she explains. “Their goal was to go one meter lower than the ‘lower body’ — that was the name of an earlier poetry group around the turn of the millennium that wrote about sex. So they were thinking, ‘If we can’t write about sex because that’s already been done, what can we write about that will open people’s eyes to new ways of thinking about poetry?’”

And the answer was: Poems with a toilet theme. Of course, not everyone is convinced this is a hallmark of literary progress.

“People have argued … modern or contemporary Chinese poetry has not completely found its own legitimacy,” says Yibing Huang. “Some people say, ‘Is this a poem?’ You know, ‘This morning, I woke up. I drank a cup of coffee… Life sucks.’ People say that’s not a poem because it doesn’t rhyme. It doesn’t fit a certain expectation.”

Yet, social media may be turning the tide. This past January, WeChat, a messaging and social networking app, produced an unlikely media darling whose poems don’t rhyme and don’t avoid the fact that, yeah, sometimes life sucks. Yu Xiuhua had two books come out in one week and sell out overnight — 15,000 copies.

In addition to being a poet, Yu is also a farmer from a rural village who was born with cerebral palsy. As Ming Di points out, “Some people even consider her [to be the] Emily Dickinson in China.’”

Ming has translated some of Yu Xiuhua’s poetry, including her most famous poem, “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You.”

    To spend or to be spent, what’s the difference if there is any?

    Two bodies collide — the force, the flower opened by the force,

    and the virtual Spring brought by the flower — nothing more than this,

    and this we mistake as life restarting.

    In half of China, things are happening: volcanoes

    erupt, rivers run dry,

    political prisoners and displaced workers are abandoned,

    elk deer and red-crowned cranes get shot.

    I cross the hail of bullets to sleep with you.

    I press many nights into one morning to sleep with you.

    I run across many of me and many of me run into one to sleep with you.

    Of course I can be misguided by butterflies

    and mistake praise as Spring,

    and a village similar to Hengdian as home.

    But all these are absolute

    reasons that I spend a night with you.

Shi Zhongren recites his poetry at the Zhu Gangzi peach blossom poetry meeting in a Beijing suburb. (Photo: Heather Inwood)

Shi Zhongren recites his poetry at the Zhu Gangzi peach blossom poetry meeting in a Beijing suburb. (Photo: Heather Inwood)

It’s hard not to feel good about social networks like WeChat if they can launch a woman like Yu Xiuhua into literary celebrity. And WeChat recently debuted a new program where every evening at 10pm it publishes a poem read by a “daily guest,” including luminaries like China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan. WeChat’s goal for the project is to help people “develop a deeper understanding of life.” Hard to imagine Twitter doing that.

Recently a popular Beijing anchor read “Shoulder to Shoulder We…” one of Yibing Huang’s poems on WeChat. Yibing is thrilled about the exposure the Internet brings him. But what is this all this doing to Chinese poetry?

“In a way I would say there is a danger in contemporary Chinese poetry,” Yibing says. “There is a kind of intellectual laziness. Taking poetry more for its entertainment value or eyeball effect.”

Social media has ensured there’s a lot more poetry out there, but Yibing argues it also makes the good stuff harder to find. How many microblog posts do you really want to scroll through to get your poetic fix? True that, but I wonder if purists are also miffed because they believe poetry is supposed be difficult — and a little out of reach. For this crowd, clickability has taken away some of poetry’s luster, and that’s unlikely to change. But as a vehicle for enjoyment, poetry has always been more unicycle than bullet train. Even the simplest poem requires a lot more of us than settling back to watch a movie.

The Internet isn’t going to kill poetry, people deciding it’s not worth that effort will. And that doesn’t seem likely to happen in China anytime soon.


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The man who claimed to be a whaler, and other online dating adventures of Anya Ulinich

Photo: Mike Licht via Flickr

Photo: Mike Licht via Flickr


Here’s a post from New York-based writer Alina Simone.

Never has the art of finding love been more entwined with the art of writing. And the potentially life-changing issue of who you attract and how you attract them comes down to one key document: your profile.

Writing, dating and love are central themes in Anya Ulinich’s funny and raw new novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, which follows a Russian-American divorcee’s descent down the rabbit-hole of online dating.

Like her protagonist, Ulinich was also born in Russia, and also discovered online dating after her marriage ended. I caught up with Anya at her apartment in Brooklyn to discuss the art of profile writing and how being foreign-born can unexpectedly complicate things. Even when it comes to answering simple questions, like “what’s the first thing people notice about you?”

Anya Ulinich (Photo: Alina Simone)

Anya Ulinich (Photo: Alina Simone)

“If I say, ‘I speak with an accent,’” Ulinich explains, “then when we meet, I will get these boring, boring questions, like ‘Where are you from? How long have you lived in America? How do you like the USA?’ It’s a real non-starter. I just want to run away.”

But if she doesn’t mention she’s an immigrant?

“Then there is this shock when I meet someone,” says Ulinich. “Like they have to adjust to the way I talk. You can see them recalculating what they expected versus what they see in front of them — and that’s unpleasant too.”

In other words, if Ulinich doesn’t want to be cast in the unsexy role of all-immigrant, all the time, she has to be strategic with her reveals, navigating sure giveaways like the ubiquitous list of music preferences.

“My music preferences are just bizarre,” Ulinich tells me. “They’re just very, very strange. I listened to things that my grandmas loved from 1950s Soviet movies and I have a soft spot for really corny Soviet rock music from the 80s. I absolutely did not say the truth in that section. I just put down Radiohead and some things that I knew was OK to like in order to not just be outright rejected by men in New York.”

It’s depressing to think we must all circle the musical drain of Radiohead in order to find love. I mean, if everyone is out there lying about their adorable quirks then how will we ever get to know one another? According to Ulinich, it’s less about hiding things and more a matter of calibration. “I think you experiment in your profile with sort of the shades of truth. It’s not really lying — because I do love Radiohead — it’s just — it’s a mission. You omit the guilty pleasures, you omit things that make you seem too much of a foreigner.”

A page from Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel, a graphic novel by Anya Ulinich (Courtesy Penguin Books)

A page from Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a graphic novel by Anya Ulinich (Courtesy Penguin Books)

However being foreign-born not only colors how Ulinich is perceived, but how she judges potential suitors. Take the question: “Would you date someone who lives with their parents?”

“As an American, in my mind, what that implies is someone who’s, like, a total loser,” Anya admits. “But there are all these other scenarios. For example if you’re making a living here and then you bring in your parents from another country and you’re supporting them.”

Actually, Ulinich did go out on a date with a guy who lived with his mother — but for a different reason. As a writer, she cares a lot more about creativity than whether someone is a hottie. And this guy claimed to be … a “whaler,” as in harpoons and blubber.

“He was genuinely crazy. But I like crazy on paper. With crazy-on-paper it’s like this: sometimes you meet them and it’s 50-50. There’s a 50 percent chance that this person’s really funny and messing with the format. And 50 percent chance that they’re genuinely, like, an insane man. So you take those chances.”

Taking those chances turned actually finding a boyfriend into something of a whale-hunt itself. But Ulinich still had her deal-breakers: Anyone professing a love of fantasy novels was automatically out. I mention that I’m in the middle of Clash of Kings, and even though Ulinich wouldn’t date me, I’m not offended. Let’s face it, when you’re trying to squeeze the entirety of your human essence into one literary bullion cube: Every. Word. Counts. Even your username, which in Anya’s case was “Victory Day.”

Russians immediately recognize “Victory Day” as a reference to May 9th — the day the Nazis capitulated to the Russians during World War II. But Ulinich wasn’t trying to attract flag-waving patriots from the Motherland or anything — May 9th also happened to be the day Anya had her first kiss back in Russia, more of a personal Victory Day.

American guys had their own interpretations though. “I dated two guys who were still obsessed with their ex who was named Victoria,” Ulinich told me. “Or they would say it sounds like a porno-name.”

Then last November she received a message from a potential suitor which began, “if this were back in May, I would congratulate you with the Nazi capitulation.” And Ulinich thought, “Well that’s cool!”

It turned out the guy was an art-historian with an apartment full of books about Socialist Realism — think idealized paintings of tractors and people picking wheat — which Ulinich ranked just below fantasy novels. But by then, they’d taken their relationship offline, where there’s no limit to the length of your answers. Or the depth of your questions. They met the week Ulinich handed in the final draft of her novel — and they’re still together.


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How English nearly got a language academy

Tim Hankins helps maintain All Saints Church in Aldwincle, England. Poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and baptized in the church. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Tim Hankins helps maintain All Saints Church in Aldwincle, England. Poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and baptized in the church. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

In the tiny village of Aldwincle in the flat center of England, farmer Tim Hankins helps look after the village’s most famous building.

Today, he’s showing me around All Saints Church. Strictly speaking, it’s no longer a place of worship; it’s overseen by an organization known as the Redundant Churches Commission.

It’s a shell inside, almost empty. But on the wall, there’s a plaque that explains the significance of All Saints: this was the place where John Dryden, former poet laureate of England, was baptized.

Dryden was born 1631, 15 years after Shakespeare died. Tough act to follow.

Dryden’s poems and plays were nothing like Shakespeare’s. Where Shakespeare was evocative and inventive, Dryden was precise and refined.

Portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert, circa 1695 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert, circa 1695 (via Wikimedia Commons)

John Dryden was a man of many opinions. Foremost among them was that English — like a naughty schoolboy — was behaving badly. He thought that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were not — as we think now — the leading lights in a golden age of English literature, but a bunch of punks who reveled in showy, linguistic chaos.

English was crying out for rules, Dryden thought. And if English didn’t possess those rules, it should import them. From Latin.

“He held Latin to be the superior language, the language par excellence,” says David Crystal, who has co-authored a book about places of significance to the evolution of English.

“The best thing English could do,” he said, “is to follow the elegance, the clarity, the diction, the style of the great Latin authors.”

Here’s one Latin-inspired idea: You should never end a sentence with a preposition. “It’s Dryden who thinks up this rule,” says Crystal.

It is a rule that, even today, some people insist on. Dryden thought that most of his rules, though, wouldn’t stick unless they could be enforced.

The best thing to do, thought Dryden, was to follow the example of the French and institute a language academy.

The Académie française had just come into being, on order from King Louis XIII, to “give exact rules to our language.”

A committee chaired by Dryden got together and started to plan for an English academy that would try to control the language, in the way that the French had tried to control theirs.

David Crystal, for one, thinks it’s just as well that Dryden failed. For one thing, he says, academies tend to create a kind of linguistic snobbery.

“If you have an academy, you have a centralizing force and a single variety of the language is held up as being the one that everybody should use,” says Crystal. “This means that if you speak or write the language differently, according to that view, there’s something a bit inferior about that — and you certainly don’t like it if some other part of the world takes your language and tries to change it some way.”

Of course, you don’t need a language academy for that — people all by themselves will decide that they speak the Queen’s whatever, and others don’t. But an academy can intensify snobbish attitudes. It can also alienate those don’t speak the “right” way, making the language potentially less popular over time.

Academies can do good, too, says Crystal. Some produce dictionaries and fund research. But for those academies, whose main goal is to control language, well, Crystal thinks they’re doomed to failure. He says Dryden’s conception of an English academy was misguided then, and were it to exist today, it would be ignored.

“In Britain, for the most part, people say if the Americans want to talk like that, let them talk like that — anyway what could we do about it?” says Crystal. “When you think of English as a global language spoken in every country in the world either as a first or second language, or a privileged foreign language, what chance would there be of the entire population of the United States respecting the views of that academy? Or the other two billion people in the world who speak English as a global language?”

That linguistic cat is indeed out of the bag. And frankly, it was never really in the bag. English has been unruly and full of dialects from its beginnings.

So why did John Dryden’s English language academy never come into being?

As it turned out, his timing was terrible. Just when he was trying to hold meetings and drum up support for his idea, the Great Plague struck London, followed a year later by the Great Fire. There was a mass exodus from the capital. And that was that.

Today, Dryden is remembered mainly for his creative writing. And the church that baptized him has been transformed into a sort of village cultural center.

“It’s open to the public to use,” says Tim Hankins. “We’ve had people come and do art exhibitions in here. And we’d had plays down here.”

Hankins tells me of another activity at the church: champing.

I ask him what that is; I’ve never heard of champing.

Hankins says that is staying overnight in the church. A combination of church and camping.

“It’s a new thing,” he says. “I hadn’t heard of it until yesterday.”

A new thing, and a new word. John Dryden might not have approved. But people use the word, and that’s enough to call it English.


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How Seamus Heaney Dug into Language

Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin,  2009 (Photo: Sean O'Connor)

Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin, 2009 (Photo: Sean O’Connor)

Irish poet Seamus Heaney passed away Friday. He was 74-years-old. The poet won numerous writing awards, including the Nobel Prize.

“I met him when I was a teenager,” says another Irish poet Paul Muldoon, about his friend. “I was about 16 at the time and he was 28 and already a very famous poet.”

Muldoon talks about how violence during The Troubles in Northern Ireland affected Heaney’s work. Indeed the Troubles seeped into many of the poems that Heaney wrote throughout his life.

But Muldoon says Heaney, “Refused, despite a certain amount of pressure, to come out on one side or the other. There were moments where he was more decisively asserting his more nationalist background when he describes how, ‘No glass has ever been raised to toast the queen of England.'”

Muldoon says it’s very difficult to for people in the US to understand what an extraordinary role Seamus Heaney as a poet had in Irish life.

Listen below to Paul Muldoon reading Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, “Digging.”



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Supermarket French, Chanson French, and Arabic in repose

The French of Anna Sam and that of Juliette Gréco could hardly be more different.

The French of Gréco (pictured) is moody and melodramatic, as befits this veteran chanteuse. Her pitch swoops to low octave depths and her Rs rrrrroll,  as she sings of love, betrayal and Paris. The songs sound like personal confessions, but most are not:  she became famous by singing the poems and lyrics of Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert and others. Now in her 80s, Gréco is bringing her über-Frenchness to a London stage.

Anna Sam records the mendacious and the mundane that she overhears at the supermarket checkout.

Sam recently retired after eight years working as a hôtesse de caisse (cash till hostess) — that was her official title. Less officially, she was a beepeuse (a woman who beeps).  She was doing it to bankroll her university degree in French literature — not that the customers knew, or would have cared.

Anna Sam overhead humanity at its meanest and most idiotic. Couples surreptitiously kissing in the frozen food section, or having sex next to the detergents. People so umbilically attached to their mobile phones that that they didn’t stop to say “please” or “thank you.” Mothers telling their children: “If you don’t work hard at school, you’ll end up a like that lady behind the counter.” And when she clocked off and went home, Sam couldn’t stop hearing the beep…beep…beep of the scanner. She recorded her observations in a blog, which became a book, Les Tribulations d’une Caissière (translated into several languages including English).  Her fame may yet spread, with talk of a movie.

Also in the pod, the UN Security Council resolution that got lost in translation. Resolution 242. is one of the Security Council’s most famous documents, the so-called land-for-peace concept in the Middle East. The French and English versions don’t quite say the same thing. The result? Confusion and conflict, with no end in sight. Not a good advertisement for translation or multilingualism.

And to round things off, we hear from the founders of Meena, an Arabic-English bilingual poetry journal, out of the U.S. port of New Orleans and the Egyptian port of Alexandria. (Meena means port of entry). Arabic never did sound so sweet.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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Words your grandmother taught you in Chinese, Dutch and Yiddish

Did Barack Obama learn a word or two from his grandmother? Well, maybe not — he didn’t grow up with the gran pictured here (it’s his Kenyan stepmother). But many people did learn their very  first foreign words from their grandmothers. The Big Show’s Marco Werman learned a Dutch curse. Nina Porzucki learned a Yiddish word that speaks to a existential Jewish mindset: dafka. Nina’s grandmother didn’t think she was conveying such a Big Idea. She was just describing the stubborn behavior of her granddaughter.

Marilyn Chin learned insults, puns and tongue twisters, many of which later found their way into her poetry. Chin has published three volumes of poems. Many of her poems are linguistic investigations of her own Chinese-Americanism.  Now she’s published her first novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. It’s the story of two Chinese-American twins, Moonie and Mei Ling Wong,  and their search for double happiness. Or maybe single happiness. Double Happiness is just the name of their family restaurant (wordplay and irony abounds). Between episodes of Chinese food delivery gone hilariously wrong — thanks to Mei Ling’s souped-up American need for sex and drugs — the twins enter a mythological world of Chinese fable. From profane to sacred, and back to profane again. In the pod, I interview Marilyn Chin, who like the twins in her novel, had an overly protective Old World grandmother raising her. Chin can still recite her grandmother’s curses and sayings, delivered in the Toisan sub-dialect of Cantonese. She also recites a super-punning poem from her 2002 collection, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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