Writing Across Languages: English and Chinese Poetry

Chinese and English are very different languages. But the forms and structures of English poetry provided a fertile ground for Chutian Xiao, a Durham PhD student researching English poetry who recently published his first collection of poems in China. READ held a conversation with him about crossing cultures in verse.

Readers in English might not be familiar with your work, so can you start by giving us an idea of what your book is like? Are there any underlying themes or forms that you explore in it?

It has five major sections. The first section is ‘Sonnets’, including 34 short poems experimenting on the English sonnet form in Chinese. The second is ‘Anecdotes’, which mainly deals with how form twists content and generates subtle indications. The third is ‘Impromptus’, comprising shorter pieces which resemble haiku. The fourth is ‘Solos’, by which I mean poems not confined to any grand scheme. The next section is ‘Ensembles’, and the poems in it are longer, with a manifold voice in each. The book deals with my experience of living with two different cultures, the English and the Chinese.

Could we have a sample in translation?

Yes, of course. I chose this because I think it combines a sense of lyrical folklore and Buddhist meditation.

Empty Town

Watching whoever was salvaging the earth buried the ruins
into her, like wiping away a name
making the salvage of the menial
menial, before I want to salvage myself
I have nothing but history
outdated before felt.

Still, there are some days left
like morning mist wandering on the road
of early joggers. Sitting on a lonely rock,
I faced a yellow poppy, as if facing the key
to that which I should have wanted to open.

But that kind of spring you wish to return to
is autumnal. You retreat back inside the window
like a slice of the empty town.
Each year, the dying die onto the same soul
The thrush pauses where spring couldn’t be deeper
and the old good time
begins to ferment in its own uselessness.

The futile garden has a futile man
when he sees me he becomes who I am.

You have written a collection of poems in Chinese, yet you are studying English poetry here in Durham. In what ways has your writing been influenced by English-language poetry and poets?

I think it is a tricky thing to learn poetry and write poems in different languages. The most obvious borrowing from English poetry in my book is the use of the sonnet form. Besides techniques and forms, I also try to transform the nuances and rich expressions I feel in English poetry into the Chinese language. My PhD study is focused on T. S. Eliot, and my understanding of poetry and my style are deeply influenced by his work. The critical tradition, from Matthew Arnold to F. R. Leavis, also proves to be very beneficial to me.

You’ve mentioned that you experimented with Chinese sonnets based on English sonnets. Many people think of the sonnet as a quintessentially European, and especially – through Shakespeare – an English form. How did you set about transferring the English sonnet into Chinese? Was it a difficult thing to do?

First I tried with the structure, which was easier. Then I started experimenting with the rhyming scheme, which was the most challenging, as the rhythm of the Chinese language is fundamentally different from English. I had to make adjustments, such as adding internal rhymes and the number of stresses in each line, fiddling to tune the whole poem. Another interesting phenomenon I have discovered is that the heroic couple in Chinese runs more smoothly without any rhyming!

If readers are interested in exploring the links between English and Chinese poetry further, beyond your book, are there any other poets who have made similar connections across cultures and languages as you?

Yes, as far as I know, two prominent Chinese poets once lived in Durham, Bei Dao and Gu Cheng. They seemed to have been invited by the Chinese Department then. Bei Dao used to teach Chinese in Durham and later wrote a memoir on his life here. Besides, the winner of T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry in 2015, Sarah Howe, is very conscious of exploring her share of the Chinese cultural heritage, being herself half-Chinese and half-British. And of course there was Ezra Pound, a major figure in bringing Chinese elements into English poetry.

With your first book of poems now published, what are you working on next?

Besides poetry writing, which fructifies very slowly for me, I’m also trying to write short stories, showing my life experience here in a more direct way.

Chutian’s collection, 青鸟 (Blue Bird), is available now in China. It is not yet available in the UK. Chutian’s most recent academic paper was on “Survival beyond Life and Death: The Buddhist Transcendence of Dichotomy in The Waste Land.”

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