Interview with Xue Di on the poetry of revolution, life in the United States, and the precise word

The following phone and email interview with Xue Di was

conducted by Timothy Gillis in February 2014.  Xue Di was born in Beijing.  He is the author of three volumes of collected works and one book of criticism on contemporary Chinese poetry in Chinese.  In English translation, he has published four full-length books, Across Borders, Another Kind of Tenderness, An Ordinary Day, and Heart into Soil, and four chapbooks, Forgive, Cat’s Eye in a Splintered Mirror, Circumstances, and Flames.  His work has appeared in numerous American journals and anthologies and has been translated into several languages.  Xue Di is a two-time recipient of the Hellman / Hammett Award and a recipient of the Lannan Foundation Fellowship.

TG:  When did you begin writing poetry and who or what was your earliest muse?

XD:  I was born in China in 1957.  Right about when I was six years old, my parents got divorced.  In 1966, the Chinese Cultural Revolution started.  The whole country was in chaos.  The living conditions and my personal life were in miserable circumstances. Back then, China did not allow people to divorce.  My parents were punished by the government and the working unit.

I have tried many different things to see in my younger years. I could not find happiness.  One day when I was 12 years old (I lived in a dormitory where my father worked), I found an abandoned collection of poems written by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.  That was the first time — we had Chinese classical poetry, but this was the first poet — I read it, and it touched my heart and shaped my whole being.

I did not feel love from society, from my family — there was so much nature, and the beauty and the love was there — it was the first time I felt that wonderful thing in my life.  That was the first time I tried to write some poems.

Xue Di, as an active member of the Beijing branch of the Chinese Writer’s Association, began to organize resident writers and poets into support groups for the Tian’anmen students’ hunger strike. The Chinese Writer’s Association and an adhoc group calling themselves the “Beijing Poets” marched in support May 1719, 1989, immediately before the declaration of martial law.  Xue Di was in the front ranks during these days.  In blood, he wrote the word “Save” on the front of his shirt and “Revolt” on the shirt’s back, making clear his political commitment to the democratic movement.  He continued to march and wear his shirt in support of the movement until the crackdown on June 4.

TG:  How did your poetry change or develop during the Tian’anmen Square period?

XD:  At that time, I was not working.  Somehow I got early retirement in my working unit.  When I graduated from the middle school, all the colleges and universities shut down.  That was a part of the Cultural Revolution.  Chairman Mao believed that real knowledge is not from the professors, not from the teachers.  It’s from the workers, from societies, from farmers, so the university was shut off.  Lots of the professors were sent to the camp.  So I could not go to the university.  I went into the institute to study film for two years.  So I started working there. That’s not what I wanted to do, but I had no choice.  Whatever was assigned to you, you had to go or you had no work.

Xue Di’s work involved researching how to make a brighter light bulb that would also burn longer.  He was able to gain early retirement.

XD:  During the 1989 Tian’anmen Square democracy movement, I was able to participate a lot because I was not in the working unit.  In China, a lot of people went to support the students’ movement in groups from the working units.  That’s why, when the movement was crashed on by the army, a lot of people got in trouble because there was proof who went there.  I was in my retirement so I was able to go.  I did organize the writers in Beijing to march in support of the student movement.

When I came to the United States, I wrote a poem to dedicate to the 1989 events.  I don’t write a lot of poems like that.  The poems have really changed a lot since I came to the United States.

At Tian’anmen Square, everyone was so angry.  The poem was an open heart, emotional.  While I was in China, a lot of poems I wrote, during the Cultural Revolution, — we felt we were part of the younger generation, we felt our work was oppressed by the government.  A lot of my writing back then was emotional, was letting things go out, outwards.  Imagine living in a room all closed, no door, no windows.  You don’t see anything.  You don’t see the sunlight; you don’t see the birds.  All of my life was to try to chisel on the wall, try to make a crack, so I can see something, hear something from nature.  When you do that you put all your strength and emotion into chiseling the wall.

TG:  Art has been a major influence on your writing.  Can you discuss its impact on you?

XD:  Van Gogh loves nature.  In Beijing, there was no nature. Society was very closed.  Van Gogh’s paintings really touched my heart so deeply.  I felt like Van Gogh’s painting was close to his heart.  He did not really care about other people’s judgments of his work, and he madly loved nature.  For me, I feel like I was very close with his art work.  My living was closed and oppressed. There was no nature.  I was crying for all the beauty in life and nature.  That’s why I wrote poems dedicated to Van Gogh’s paintings.

TG:  Discuss how you write your poems.

XD:  I write my poems in Chinese.  Before 1990, I did not know English at all.  I learned everything after I came to the United States.  Poetry is so precise, so subtle.  Even with my native language, I work so hard to pull out one precise word.

I speak English every day at work.  Somehow I have to find a way to maintain the Chinese culture, to stay close to the fruit of my culture.  This is one thing I feel great about, to write my work in Chinese.  At least, I’m still in my culture.

I write my work in Chinese, and then I have a group of people who help translate my work into English.  My English is okay.

I’ve found once in a while, I can translate my work on my own, but this is only the first step.  (The translators) are really loyal to the original meaning.

The first step is literally from Chinese to English.  When I worked with Keith Waldrop, a wonderful American poet who is passionate about translation — he would work on the English translation to bring it to a fine poem in English.  It’s really hard to find someone who knows Chinese very well and in English, their original language, they are also a poet.  I would read the first draft and put in my notes on what I wanted to say.  Then, when Keith would work on the final draft, he knew my exact meaning and would work further on it.

TG:  What is lost (if anything) in translation?  What is gained?

XD:  Poetry is very hard to translate.  It’s not like a novel or a short story.  For a poem, the word has its own culture and so much history behind the words.

So when you translate from Chinese to English, the beauty of the language, the rhythm of the original language, the culture of the language; these things get lost in the translation: the root of the language, the history, and the beauty of the language, itself.  But if the translator does a really good job, the translator actually can catch up the rhythm of the language and put it into the English language.  It can flow really well and also can obtain the subtleness, the history, and the meaning of the words into English.

TG:  I noticed that you use a poem’s line end as a period or comma at times (without an actual period or comma).  It’s very effective in English.  How is punctuation handled in Chinese?  Do your translators account for this?

XD:  For me, I do not want to use them.  I feel like when you don’t have the mark at the end of the line, it looks better.  The word Xue in Chinese looks like a snowflake falling to the ground. My original name was Bing Li.  That was one of the most popular names in China, like John in this country.  If I walked along the street, and someone called Bing Li, I would turn around and see another ten people turn around.  A good friend came to my house and said you published a poem that was really lousy.  He showed me the paper with a poem by someone called “Bing Li” — it was really bad.  That’s the reason I gave myself a pen name.  When I put the two words together, it was a very unique combination.  No one had this name, but unfortunately now, if I did a web search in Chinese, I would see Xue Di as it’s a popular name — a beer factory, a sock factory, even a hotel in Italy, using exactly my name.

TG:  Discuss your writing routine: where and when do you write? What is the medium (i.e. pencil and paper, computer?)  Do you listen to music?  How many drafts does a typical poem go through? How do you know when a poem is finished?

XD:  When I write, I usually write in the later morning or early afternoon.  When I get up in the morning, I like to not talk to anyone, no TV or anything, and go to writing.  My general time to write is about three hours.  After three hours, you could keep writing, but a lot of what you write is not high quality, to focus on the poem.  If I still have a feeling, I hold the feeling, let it stew.

A lot of writers like to write down whatever is in their minds, then they rewrite, time after time.  This is not the way I write. When I write a poem, I need to make the poem pretty much precise in my mind.  When I write the first line, it’s pretty much what I’d like to write.  I work pretty hard for the first draft, and when I’m finished, it’s pretty much finished.  I do rewrite, but that’s not the way that I do my work.  I like to write poems not more than 20 lines.  They are short, but they are strong.  There is more power than if it’s spread out.  I write all my work with my hand in ink pen.  If I need to cross (out), I cross.  When I type them, I polish.  When I write, I have all the meaning and feeling and emotion in my head.  When I type it on the computer, I see the work.  Sometimes it does not look like I like it, so I do change it.

I don’t listen to music when I write.  I need no sound at all.

I follow my mind, carefully, closely, and intensely, and also sensitively, so I need no sound.  I used to train myself.  In China, wherever you go, there is noise.  So I would intentionally go to a very noisy place and read a book, just to train my mind.  So when I write, I could have less bother.

TG:  I’d like to discuss the poems that are in this edition of The Café Review, especially their origins, themes, and literary devices. “New Year” is a poem set in New England.  Compare and contrast the holiday as it’s experienced in the U.S. and China.  Is the line “The trumpet blows the lips” an intentional inversion? Discuss your family and friends still living in China.  Who are they?  What are their lives like?  Has your poetic success affected them?

XD:  China and the United States are both countries that celebrate the New Year with passion.  I have more friends in China to celebrate this holiday with than in the U.S.  Yes, it’s intentional.  To write this way is to also indicate my unusual situation far away from my homeland’s circumstances.

My both parents are still living in Beijing, China, and my younger sister lives in New York City.  My parents are getting old and have some health issues.  My sister is doing fine in the city.  They are all very pleased with my literary achievements.  I hope I can go back to China to visit my parents, and spend some time with them.

My last visit was in 1997.

TG:  In “Seven Years,” you write about “living / in a city whose dialect I don’t speak.”  Discuss your life in Providence, R.I.  You also write “Loneliness, then a precise / word.”  Can you talk about the loneliness that is assuaged when a writer finds the precise word?  What is the “precise word?”

XD:  I am a foreigner living in this country.  My spirit fits into this land, but my emotions and language are still difficult to mix in. This poem was written seven years after I came to the U.S.  Seven years in a foreign land, there are so many things that I could write and express, but I decided to compress all those feelings onto a short poem. To do so, it required very precise words / lines to be created and chosen, and many more things are hidden between the lines, to give the readers a lot of spaces in which to feel the poem.  It was challenging, but it came out as I expected.  Ten lines for seven years, and as many experiences as possible to be included in this short poem.

To describe loneliness, there are already millions of ways to say, to write about it.  How can I create a very unique and fresh

way / imagery to describe it?   This must be my feeling and my skill to write about loneliness.  So, “Loneliness, then a precise / word.”

A precise word is solid, reaches to the core of things, and exists somewhere alone — my feeling of loneliness, even stronger and more alone than that solid and individual word.

A precise word should be one word containing multiple meanings, and when this word connects with another precise word, it would depict so much of life’s experiences.  The more precise the words, the lines would be short, but the information and experiences would be richer within the lines.

TG:  In “First Love,” you write, “Pain contains me,” “Nightmare clutches me,” and “Love leads me by the nose” — three great examples of personification.  What is your favorite poetic device?

XD:  Personification is one way to write poems, and those feelings become images.  It makes poems sounds poetic.  I like to try different ways to write poems and keep myself feeling fresh, not repeating the techniques of other writers, and also challenging my writing and thinking.

TG:  Who was your first love?

XD:  A girl in China.