By Brian Haman
Eleanor Goodman is the author of the poetry collection Nine Dragon Island (2016), and the translator of Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni (2014), Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Workers Poetry (2017), and The Roots of Wisdom: Poems by Zang Di (2017). She is a Research Associate at the Harvard University Fairbank Center. In February 2018, she spoke with Brian Haman of The Shanghai Literary Review about translating Chinese literature, gender dynamics within contemporary Chinese poetry, linguistic and geographical liminality, and the meaning of home.
Brian Haman: Could you talk a bit about your background and how you came to Chinese literature and translating Chinese literature?
Eleanor Goodman: I came to translation through the English-language literary side. I have a degree in creative writing (poetry) and it was during that program that I started translating. It hadn’t occurred to me to translate. Although I was very interested in Chinese literature, at that point I didn’t know anything about the contemporary scene at all. I took a translation workshop and, as it turns out, translated some poems by Wang Wei (王维) really badly, but I managed somehow to get them published in a literary journal and I thought, “You know, this is a racket, people are going to publish my translations,” and kept going from there. And initially a lot of the appeal for me was that it was practice – I could practice my Chinese, I could improve my Chinese, and I find that today it’s exactly the same. Every time that I translate a poem or anything else I learn something, and so that’s still one of the exciting things for me about translation – you’re diving into this well with no bottom.
BH: To my mind this brings up Wang Xiaoni’s Something Crosses My Mind and the idea of liminality. She often writes about in-between places and what you are describing is being in-between cultures – someone moving back and forth through translation or being physically between Western culture and Chinese culture.
Goodman: I guess that in-betweenness or liminality is a very important idea and concept and feeling. I live my whole life in between worlds, and my professional life and creative work are very much in between worlds. I am constantly negotiating between these two worlds, which in fact are not very well defined and not completely distinct from one another and yet are very different at the same time. I feel extraordinarily lucky to be able to do what I am doing. I figure at some point somebody is going to realize that I am having way too much fun. But for the moment, it’s wonderful. Although one of the disadvantages of that kind of intellectual or creative life is that you’re constantly racked with this anxiety that you don’t know enough about either side. I feel like my knowledge of Chinese literature is miniscule, kind of like this really thin, diaphanous layer of what is actually an ocean, and, similarly, I can’t read everything that comes out in English every year. I don’t know all of the things happening or that have happened in American poetry. And that’s setting aside all of the other genres, and so it’s a constant negotiation, but it’s also tremendously enriching. I really do find that my work with translation enriches my poetry and my poetic practice enriches my translation.
BH: Do you think that there’s a cross-pollination between the translation work and your work as a poet? Is there a continuity of images, themes, or ideas? And how do you choose the works that you translate?
Goodman: In terms of the relationship between my work and translations, first of all I just write a lot about China. You’re there and you go out of your door and you see something weird or you discover something new or you hear something interesting. On a linguistic level, I’m very interested in the plasticity of Chinese, the way that the different grammatical elements can be put together in more configurations than can generally be done naturally in English. For a while I was very interested in this technique that some Chinese poets use where you have what seems to be an integral line of poetry and then the next line casts a different meaning on it. Ambiguous subject or ambiguous nouns, leaving out “he” or “she” or “it,” the lack of certain things like noun markers – there’s a kind of ambiguity that Chinese poets manipulate beautifully and to great effect and I sometimes try to play with that in my own work.
In terms of choosing projects, I’ve been very lucky in my career up to this point. I’ve had some fantastic projects come my way, such as the Iron Moon anthology and a translation of the Hong Kong poet Lok Fung (洛枫), which is just about to come out. The Wang Xiaoni [Something Crosses My Mind] was of course my first book. I wanted to translate a book and had done a lot of piecemeal work, and at that time I had worked largely with Wang Ao, who is himself a Chinese poet. He came to the States for graduate school, and I met him during this time and we started collaborating on translating some contemporary poetry, which was like an apprenticeship for me. He taught me how to read Chinese poetry, for which I am deeply grateful. And he also introduced me to a number of writers. So much in China is wang xie (网协) [networking] and jieshao (介绍) [introductions] and he was able to put me in touch with these circles of poets.
I had translated piecemeal and I felt that I was ready to spread my wings, and it was very important for me to do a project on my own that I believed in. I was looking for an under-translated poet, one whose poetry I could really relate to both on a stylistic level and in terms of topics. I also wanted to translate a woman because women are woefully underrepresented in the literature that gets translated into English, and so I asked my Chinese friends and someone recommended Wang Xiaoni. Wang Ao and I had actually done a poem or two of hers and I liked them so I looked at her work and said to myself, “This is really great – I can relate to this.” I was about twenty-nine or thirty years old and I wrote her an e-mail and she wrote back and said yes. And years later – just last summer actually – I was in Shenzhen and I finally had a chance to ask her, “Why did you say ‘yes’ to me?” And she said, “You sent that e-mail and I just thought you seemed so earnest,” which is true, and then she said, “and you seemed very young and I wanted to encourage you.”
I translate lots of things – fiction, articles, academic pieces. I really enjoy it and I learn a lot, but it’s for money. I’m doing it because people pay me to do it. But poetry is obviously not for money. It’s a labor of love, and so I can choose the projects. I’m constantly reading, constantly listening to what my friends are talking about, what the other poets are talking about. When I’m in China, I travel to poetry festivals, go to dinners, and just listen to what’s happening – who’s writing what and who’s interested in what – and then these things just kind of appear.
BH: You mentioned having to learn how to read Chinese poetry. What are the differences between reading Chinese poetry and reading, say, in English
Goodman: I think that the differences can be overstated. Poets are poets and poetry is poetry, and I really believe that. Having said that, though, I do think that there are two important differences in terms of poetry in China. One is that Chinese poetry has this very long, very beautiful, very well-established, very well-developed tradition, which – and here’s the key – is still taught. It’s still venerated. School kids can still recite Wang Wei (王維) and Li Bai ( 李白) and Du Fu (杜甫) and they know who these poets were and they have them and their poetry at their fingertips. Memorizing poetry gets it into your psyche and into your conscious and unconscious brain. It brings those rhythms down to a very deep level so that you have that resource to draw on when you are writing your own work. You find that Chinese poets just have this amazing range of references and cadences and connections that they utilize to really impressive effect, which can be very frustrating for a translator because they’ve read much more than you have.
Now the second thing that is or was a difference – and I want to be very delicate here – is that Chinese poets are working under constraints of various kinds and in a certain kind of atmosphere that does not necessarily encourage them to express themselves freely. The stakes are really high in China, and so there is a kind of intensity – there’s a sense that writing poetry is really serious business. Not all poets have this intensity, but the good poets do.
BH: This reminds me of Wang Xiaoni’s collection in which politics isn’t made explicit. It’s rather something implicit, an undertone or undercurrent within her poetry that surfaces from time to time. For example, in “Moonlight No. 3” she writes that “Wealth grinds equality to a powder,” and in “Going Out to Plant Sunflowers” she writes, “we open new territory / and plant sunflowers of freedom for the people to see.” It seems that Chinese poets have to navigate a different set of circumstances than, for example, American poets. What is the role of politics in Wang’s poetry, and even the role of politics within contemporary Chinese poetry?
Goodman: Absolutely, I think Wang Xiaoni is a great example. She’s a really interesting person in addition to being a really interesting poet. I think she’s very genuine – and I don’t think this is a put-on – when she says she is a jiating funü (家庭妇女) [housewife]. She’s just an ordinary housewife: she cooks dinner every night; she has a garden; she raised her son. She’s an ordinary woman. And you often see that in her verse. She writes from that perspective – there’s a lot of buying fruits and vegetables, etc. However, I think underneath all of that is an intense political awareness. She’s really interested in what is happening to China as a country and what is happening to Chinese people as China undergoes this breakneck development. And she is ideally situated to observe that particular angle because she has lived in Shenzhen for many years, and so she has seen it transform from a fishing village into a major city.
She’s also an acute observer. She notices these incredible, descriptive details. And her technique or tactic, I should say, is not to be explicit. She very rarely addresses an issue directly in her poetry. You see that much more in her prose where she is very direct, but in her poetry it’s almost always concrete experience, something that she has witnessed or passed by frequently. And I don’t know if she would say this, but she often acts as a witness to what is happening on the ground. She’s very concerned about environmental degradation, wealth inequality, localized corruption. And those are pressing concerns not just for Chinese people but for everybody around the world. I think if you wanted to read her as “women’s poetry” you could go very far just with that surface level reading and I think that some people in China do. She’s really read that way, but I think that is just one thin layer of it.
BH: The objective world, which is to say the world of objects such as watermelons and cicadas and freshly-dug peanuts caked in mud, seem to be an important feature of her work. There is an earthiness to her imagery. Perhaps you could say a bit more about this aspect of her poetry.
Goodman: I really love that you use the word “earthy” because there is an earthiness to her poetry. She is earthy in the sense that she’s interested in the earth, soil, plants (she’s a wonderful gardener – she has a beautiful garden in Shenzhen). And she’s interested in interactions between humans and the natural world, both positive and negative ones – she sees both sides. And, yes, you are absolutely right that she is fascinated by objects. In her poems the objects are real objects but they are frequently operating on a metaphorical or allegorical level. And that’s one of the things that really drew me to her work because in my own poetry I am very interested in objects, in tangible things, the tactile sense of the world. She is also very interested in place, as am I, and so when you discover a poet whose work is intuitively familiar on some of those levels then you think, “This is a poet that I might see if I can translate.”
BH: I think this raises a number of interesting things. One issue, for example, relates to female poets, female translations, and the gender politics involved in the reception of writing by women and translations by women both inter-generationally but also internationally. And another issue might be – and here transitioning into your own poetry – your own interest in objects and places, which struck me when reading your collection Nine Dragon Island.
Goodman: Well, let me start with women in poetry and gender politics, which is something that I think about obsessively (I really hate it and would like not to think about it). In Chinese poetry there are shiren (诗人) [poet] and nü shiren (女诗人) [female poet]. Poetry is still considered a male game: men write about the important topics; they have an expansive, outward looking view; they’re philosophical; they have deep thoughts. Women, in stark contrast, write about jiating shiqing (家庭事情) [the household]: they write about domestic things such as children and making dinner. They’re inward looking rather than outward looking. And those kinds of attitudes are deeply entrenched in the Chinese poetry world, and not just among male poets but also to some degree among a minority set of women poets, who have internalized this and who do write about flowers in springtime – not that there’s anything wrong with that (after all, Wordsworth wrote about such things). But the majority of female poets that I come into contact with are infuriated by this assumed hierarchy and the limitations that they constantly come up against. The poetry prizes are awarded to men. The big publishing contracts are awarded to men. Men are invited to the big conferences. They are invited to go abroad and speak.
I’ll just tell you a very brief anecdote. I was in Beijing from 2013-2014 doing a research project in which I was looking at younger poets (poets of my generation and slightly younger). The first tactic that I took to find these poets, who can be difficult to find since they’re not part of the canon yet, was to ask my poet contacts, and very quickly I noticed a pattern. If I asked a male poet for recommendations, then all of their recommendations were other male poets. During that entire year, it was very rare to find a male poet who suggested that I look at a female poet. Now part of that is just familiarity, but part of that is really an ingrained prejudice towards poetry written by women, and that then reverberates into the translation world – the “big famous poets,” the poets that everybody has heard of, the prestige poets, are all male. And the prestige translators want the prestige poets so that they can reinforce their own standing, and that thinking really perpetuates itself into the English-language context. Having said that, I should say that my publisher Zephyr Press (one of my wonderful publishers) has done a really tremendous job with their Jintian Series, which publishes translations of contemporary Chinese poetry (and the Wang Xiaoni book is part of this series).
Strategically, in terms of my own translation career, I want to translate as many women poets as I can. However, I also don’t want to get pigeonholed as a translator of women’s literature. In terms of my Zang Di book, I would have translated him anyway, but he is a male poet, one who awrites in certain ways very “masculine” poetry, and so it’s a plus that I can translate him and not be put in this very limited, very particular position as a translator. But I also feel quite righteous and indignant that the idea that these women poets in China today are still facing these absolutely explicit and openly articulated prejudices.
BH: Are there any female Chinese writers that you are translating at the moment or that people should be aware of?
Goodman: There are many, but most of them have not been translated. I think Zhai Yongming (翟永明) is a wonderful poet with a wonderful translator, Andrea Lingenfelter, who has done a beautiful job with her work. I’m not a fan of the translations, but Lan Lan (蓝蓝) is just a superb poet, every bit as good as any of the men writing today and should be just as acknowledged. There’s a raft of younger poets born in the 1970s, 1980s, and now 1990s who are really terrific. Actually, one of my current projects is working on translating some of those younger women poets into English because that is an especially underrepresented group. It’s very difficult to be a young female poet. And to be fair, it’s very difficult to be a young poet in China today – financial pressures, family pressures, societal pressures. You have every reason to give up poetry and go work in a bank. And in some circles poetry is thought of as a waste of time or it’s a hobby – you can do that once you’re fifty. What I really admire is these younger people who are not established and they’re just sticking to it as artists have done throughout the ages, and they’re really dedicated to their craft.
BH: Is there an infrastructure of poetry in China? Are poets today congregating in cities or is it a bit more dispersed?
Goodman: That is a great question because it’s impossible to answer. It’s very complicated. There are well established poetry circles in certain cities – all the usual suspects such as Beijing, Shanghai, and now Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Chengdu. All of these places have an established infrastructure either through universities or through poetry societies and clubs, but, as I discovered while doing the Iron Moon anthology, I was surprised by how rich the poetry is outside of those circles. The Iron Moon poets come from very underprivileged backgrounds. Many of them have not finished high school. Many of them have a middle school or elementary education and they come mostly from these very far-flung villages all across China and yet somehow they are managing to write this incredibly powerful work. And for me that was revelatory because there was no way for me to meet them prior to the anthology project – they weren’t visible to me or introduced to me or invited to the poetry conferences. And, back at that time in 2015, most of my friends who were established poets in China just didn’t know about these poets, and so they were really like this hidden group of people – not even group but hidden individuals – but now that’s starting to change.
BH: Given the fact that they have limited education, how do they come to write poetry?
Goodman: It really is phenomenal. The answer that I frequently give goes back to what I was saying about the Chinese educational system. If you go through the first couple of years of the Chinese educational system you can recite chuang qian mingyue guang [from “Thoughts on a Still Night” by Li Bai 床前明月光]. And I think that for these poets something connects and they continue to read and are very much self-taught. Poetry in China is still this really venerated tradition. It’s thought of as this very important, very beautiful form of human expression and I wonder if part of the dynamic with some of these poets is a desire to tap into that tradition, not just a source of self-expression but in order to be part of something bigger and more important. I also think, in terms of genre, poetry really lends itself to the working man’s or woman’s life. There are a couple of poems in that anthology where a poet describes scribbling something on the back of an order form or writing a poem in the ten minutes before they fall asleep at night. There’s an immediacy to their expression and also a freedom to say things that they couldn’t otherwise say out loud – complaining about their boss or talking about their children or who they miss back in the countryside or the violence they experience. These poets are confronting emotionally and psychologically intense experiences and poetry is their way of expressing those experiences.
BH: I’m reminded of the Jonathan Rose’s book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes in which Rose demonstrates that the working classes were actually reading classic works of literature, which upends the usual assumptions about non-literate or semi-literate workers. Similarly, the Iron Moon anthology expands our notion of poetry and poets and the subjects of poetry that are possible and important.
Goodman: Absolutely, and I think that is such an important point. In many ways it’s similar to the idea that women’s poetry is not as important as “real” poetry – the idea that workers’ poetry is not as important as “real” poetry because they’re writing about standing on an assembly line as opposed to Hegel. Why have (or why do we have) these hierarchies of topics? As a writer and translator, that’s never made sense to me. And part of the reason why I wanted to do the anthology was because the poetry can’t be divorced from the subject matter. I will never work in a coal mine or a factory – these are lives that I am not going to live and these poets are giving us this incredible window into their inner experience of what their lives are like. And that is one of the profoundly important functions of art – to facilitate empathy.
BH: Well, in thinking about the broad spectrum of personal experiences, I was wondering if you could perhaps talk about your own poetry and the importance of family relationships, especially between daughter, mother, and grandmother. Also, what is the connection between memory and places in your poetry? Here I’m thinking about references to Berlin, German words, Iceland, the Alps, China, and Hong Kong.
Goodman: The first thing to say is that Nine Dragon Island was not written as a book. These poems were written as individual poems and there’s about a decade of work there. In some ways the structure, i.e. breaking it into sections, was very artificial and I imposed it onto the work to make a book. But there are themes that run through it. I hate writing about my family and because of that I forced myself to write a lot about my family, and so a lot of those poems are, as you say, explorations of generational relationships, ancestry, how things are transmitted, and how we grapple with those things, which are never simple. My mother’s side is old American, but my dad was born in Berlin during the Second World War and so there’s a whole European side to my family that I’m interested in from afar. But I’ve never felt particularly rooted anywhere, which is part of my fascination with place and the idea of home. “Home” as a straightforward, uncomplicated concept is totally alien to me. And I’m very stimulated by this idea of place – how different places feel and smell and operate differently and how I move in different ways in different spaces.
And it’s great that you started the conversation with this idea of liminality because the title of the book and its poems are for me addressing that idea of liminality and liminal spaces. For example, Hong Kong is this really fascinating liminal space. There are all of these Western elements, there are all of these Chinese elements, there are mountains, and there’s this hyper cityscape. For me as a writer and a person, all of these challenges to one’s assumptions, comforts, and routine behaviours and responses, which one can experience in a place like Hong Kong, are profoundly important.
BH: Turning to your translation of Zang Di’s Roots of Wisdom, one thing that immediately jumps out while scanning the poem titles is that Zang uses the word “Series” quite a bit. You touch on it in the foreword, but could you say a little bit about his understanding of “Series” and how that functions in his poetry.
Goodman: I read that as an attempt to build a sense of a larger cohesive project. Zang Di writes every day. He writes a poem every day and his poetry comes from his daily experience in which he’s responding to his environmental stimuli as well as to what he’s experiencing internally. I think of “Series” as markers of where he was in his life – the kinds of things he was experiencing. In his earlier years, he wrote some longer poems but later on in life (at least for the last thirty years) he’s typically written shorter, one-page poems and I think that’s a gesture at a sort of larger project. There’s a sense that he is not going to write an epic, which was quite popular at one point among Chinese poets, but I do feel that he wants his poetry somehow to fit into this epic framework.
BH: Zang Di is a bit more inaccessible in the sense that he is more difficult to get. Do you have any ideas or advice for readers unfamiliar with his writing on how to understand or make sense of his poems?
Goodman: The comment that I get more than any other when I tell a Chinese person that I’m translating Zang Di is, “How can you translate him when nobody can even read him?” My suggestion is to relax – you’re not going to get every reference because not every reference is pointing at something that you have a reference to. Some of it is deeply personal. He’s very allusive. Some of those allusions are to Wang Wei and some of them are to Gabriel García Márquez, but some of them are to a letter that was written to him or something his mother or son or wife said. So, relax – you don’t have to get it all. You don’t even have to get most of it. What I think is the most important thing in Zang Di’s poetry is those moments of just absolutely exquisite realization when there is something that he just breaks open for you. And for me something like that occurs in every poem. That’s not going to be true for everybody, but one of the ways that you can get yourself in trouble with Zang Di is if you tie his poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it – his poems will never talk [here quoting Billy Collins’s poem “Introduction to Poetry”].
BH: You mention García Márquez, and Zang Di dedicates a poem to Seamus Heaney. How influential is Western poetry for his work?
Goodman: He is extremely well read and, more importantly, he’s curious about the world (and the natural world in particular) and you really see it in his poetry. He has these wonderfully rich and evocative plant names and an almost childlike gleefulness for learning about the names of things. Zang Di really wants to know what that flower is and what it implies about the season and the location. He loves to go deeper and deeper and deeper, and I think that is one thing that he shares with Heaney, who uses unfamiliar names and expressions.
BH: Well, I’ve taken up far too much of your time and so perhaps we could conclude with some books that you are reading now. Are there any authors that you find to be underrepresented or under-read?
Goodman: Do you have another hour for recommendations? Let me think: there’s a poet and thinker, Zhou Zan (周瓒), who has been under-translated (she has yet to have a single-authored book out in English). She’s a really interesting thinker and critic and I’ve been reading some of her essays about contemporary Chinese poetry and translation. I’m also reading Joshua Jelly-Shapiro’s Island People: The Caribbean and the World, which is this wonderful political/social history combined with a travelogue. In terms of poetry, I am reading a lot of American poetry such as Philip Levine, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Adrienne Rich. In terms of Chinese poetry, I am constantly reading everything I can get my hands on. One poet, who is also a friend, is Li Hao (李浩) from Beijing. He’s also one of the poets in the Iron Moon anthology and he now works for Shi Yue (十月), which is a major literary magazine in Beijing, and so he’s an example of someone who has “made it.” He just put out a book that is called Ni he wo (你和我) [You and I] a single-authored collection which is really good. He is young and still developing but definitely one to watch.
Eleanor Goodman is the author of the poetry collection Nine Dragon Island (2016), and the translator of Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni (2014), Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Workers Poetry (2017), and The Roots of Wisdom: Poems by Zang Di (2017). She is a Research Associate at the Harvard University Fairbank Center.