A Conversation with Shangyang Fang by Victoria Chang
BY VICTORIA CHANG
Shangyang Fang grew up in Chengdu, China, and composes poems both in English and Chinese. After completing his degree in civil engineering at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, he became a poetry fellow at Michener Center for Writers. A recipient of the Joy Harjo Poetry Award and Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize, his debut collection of poems is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press. His name, Shangyang, originating from Chinese mythology, was a one-legged bird whose dance brought forth flood and rain.
Victoria Chang: Since this interview series that David Roderick asked me to participate in for Adroit Journal is about dialogue across generations of poets, maybe we should start with this question. What’s it like to be a young poet today? I don’t know how old you are, but I imagine you to be in your twenties? You’re a Stegner Fellow at Stanford—what’s that like?
Shangyang Fang: Thank you, Victoria. The word “poet” is too laden to me. I think it was Szymborska who said that contemporary poets publicly confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it. Then she added that Joseph Brodsky was the only one who enjoyed calling himself a poet. I have a friend like that, Daniel, who would always proudly pronounce that word. I envy that defiance. Whenever an Uber driver asks me what I do, I make up an occupation on the spot. I consider myself always an apprentice of poetry; in this case, it is probably appropriate to have the word “young” beside it. I feel lucky to be a student of poetry today. I have the fortune to learn from many phenomenal teachers and to make friends with like-minded people. And the books are no longer written on slips of bamboo as in ancient China. So, that’s a plus.
Yes, I am twenty-six. It is a privilege to be a Stegner Fellow, just because of the drafts of poems I get to read from other fellows in our weekly workshop. Each of their poems is like a kaleidoscopic lens, a medium that reveals a world fantastical and different from mine. It drags me out of my confined room of banalities and loneliness. Other times, I read and write, get drunk, talk to friends about poetry and life.
VC: Not to fixate on age, but since this is the premise of this interview, I love what you’re saying here because it took me decades, literally, to feel comfortable referring to myself as a “poet” versus someone who just writes poems. Even “writer” was a hard thing to say. But now I just call myself a poet and a writer but mostly I just like making things.
We are pressmates at Copper Canyon Press. I’m always amazed at new poets who start off writing so strongly and also publishing at such great presses like CCP right out of the gate. My own experience was very much the opposite—it took me a long time to find my way to poetry fully and publishing itself was an entirely different beast when I was younger. I’d love to hear your story.
SF: Yes, pressmate! I feel lucky to be at the press that publishes many of my literary heroes. I doubt if I have found my way to poetry. That’d be a lifelong process. I feel that I am still on the doorstep of poetry, sweeping the leaves and dusting off the banister and staircase. In fact, I am at the foot of the mountain, where poetry is a shrine on the summit. There have been glimpses of vision at sunrises and sunsets when I can see myself knocking on its door in future.
I didn’t want a book so early, for I thought I was not prepared. I had the chance to meet my current editor Michael Wiegers at the Michener Center for Writers. Michael was kind enough to take a bunch of my poems for publication. But that’s that. Then a year later, I was finishing my MFA and was lost. My visa was about to expire, and I hadn’t landed on anything, so I was about to pack my stuff and go back to China, to find a normal job and live a normal life as my parents have long requested. Then in December I received an email from Forrest Gander, titled “the time has come the walrus said.” He said that he is in a Jeep with Robert Hass and Michael in Maui for a W.S. Merwin memorial reading. He and Hass, who was my thesis advisor, recommended my work to Michael. In the afternoon, I received a warm email from Michael, and I sent him my manuscript. A few weeks later, I was at the Canyonland National Park in Utah with a friend (we almost had a car accident the night before, almost fell off an escarpment, for it was snowing hard in the mountains), celebrating our survival. I received a phone call from Michael, saying Copper Canyon would like to publish my book. It was so cold in the national park and the signal was terrible. I stood in the snow for half an hour talking on the phone, my fingers numb and red. I hung up the phone and cupped a handful of fresh snow, throwing it to the sky.
VC: Oh wow, I just love this story with all the twists and turns! It’s incredible how we all remember where we were and what we were doing when we receive life-changing calls like the one that you received. I still remember my call from the late Jon Tribble when I received the Crab Orchard Review Open Book Award. I remember I was sitting on a futon in my apartment and it was hot and I was sweating a lot. It will always be one of my fondest memories.
I’d love to shift a bit and talk about some of your poems in your new book. In “If You Talk about Sadness, a Fugue,” you write: “My aunt said, We are still in a communist country.”—and then “I told her, I am already exiled by my family.” And then: “I stopped writing poems, as my aunt had pleaded. I took the book back.” This poem moved me in the way it so artfully and painfully mapped the uphill battle for so many artists and poets. I was thinking about the word “Fugue” in the title, both in music (a contrapuntal composition) but also a fugue state of flight from one’s home. Thinking about that word in the title and then re-reading the poem, opened up all kinds of possibilities for the poem. Can you talk about how you composed this poem?
SF: Isn’t the word “fugue” so beautiful? Fugue, from fuga, means “a running away, act of fleeing” and the root “-fuge” means “that which drives away or out,” which very much explains the situation of exile. I often wonder whether it is true that through Hölderlin’s poetry one realizes that “coming to be at home is…a passage through the foreign?” For me, the expression “poet in exile” is synonymous with “poet returning home.”
I often return to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier performed by the Soviet pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, for inspiration. The form of fugue, as you mentioned, is a contrapuntal composition—there are two or more melodic lines, or voices singing simultaneously, imitating, chasing, and fighting against each other. In this structure of counterpoint, each individual line or voice is independent from each other, but also interdependent. In this entanglement of melodic lines, the music proceeds, grows, repeats, and varies. In such music structure, the act of “fleeing” is being repeated; the repetition itself, the condition and motivation of escaping become the very labyrinth of this action; there is no exit. It evolves but cannot elude. The only and final escape is the silence after the last note. In life, since the self also seems inescapable, so are the elements that shaped and formed this notion of self. Consequently, my poems try not to escape from the notion of exile and home, but to interrogate and animate this dialectical space. In return, the self in the poems, through figurative language and metamorphosis, reassembles the space of confinement to create an alternative existence.
I wrote this poem on a summer afternoon in Illinois, perhaps six years ago. I was a sophomore in college, studying civil engineering. I just came back to the States after visiting my family in China, who strongly opposed my pursuit of poetry. Outside, the sunlight was filtering through leaves, making marks like silver coins on the concrete pavement. I threw my structural engineering book on the floor, put on Bach, took a piece of paper out and started writing the poem.
VC: I love this and the physical act of throwing a structural engineering book on the floor, as well as the act of writing a poem. It’s really a powerful story, memory, and imagery.
In the bio on the back of the book, it says you grew up in Chengdu, China. What age were you when you came here? And what do you miss most about Chengdu? Do you speak Sichuanese? Can you speak Mandarin? Is your family still there? And related to this, are your parents still in Chengdu? Do they read your poems? I’m also curious about this “aunt” as a ghostly figure throughout your poems.
SF: I came to the States by myself at the age of seventeen, with two bags, and landed at a small airport in Kansas. It was not the America I had imagined. And I could barely understand English, let alone speaking and writing. But somehow it all worked out. I miss the food in Chengdu, the hot pot and skewers at night markets, the scent of osmanthus blossoms crowding the half-lit alleys, and the quiet temples in heavy rain, where I’d go and have tea with friends. The raindrops hitting the glazed roof tiles and the bluestone alley make a sound like a thousand tiny tambourines. I miss that. And, yes, I speak Sichuan dialect, which, I think, sounds flatter than Mandarin, but more elegant. I also speak Mandarin, but I always prefer to talk in dialect. My family is still in Chengdu. I’ve been away from them for ten years now and haven’t seen them for three years.
No, they do not and cannot read my poems. They don’t speak English, thank God! I would never want them to read my work—writing poetry is my last privacy. A few months ago, there was a Chinese publisher optioning my book to be translated and published in China. I was hesitant and eventually declined. I think my mom would break my neck if she read my poems. Till today, she disapproves of my pursuit, telling me writing and publishing a book is a grave mistake. To quote her directly, my son, you are on an incorrect path. Whatever that means.
I had a complicated upbringing. My grandparents raised me, and I had a stable home until they passed away when I was thirteen. After that, I was dividing my time, shifting between different places and families. So early on, the sense of exile was instilled in me. I had places to return to, but not home. My aunt’s family was one of those places I stayed. I was raised in families where men have much inferior status. I was raised by women. I think that also has an effect on my writing.
VC: My own parents came to America when they were a few years older than you and my father was a mechanical engineer. I feel so many things when I hear your story, as some of it feels familiar to me too. My mother encouraged the arts and was always taking me to drawing classes and encouraging me to write poems, etc. We were always folding paper and making things with our hands. I’m not sure she would have been happy if I had wanted to be a writer when I was in college though, but I never really thought about it back then so I suppose I avoided the whole thing!
You dedicate this book to your grandparents and Brigit Pegeen Kelly. You also quote a line from her poem, “Song” in your poem, “Nude Descending a Staircase” where you write: “As if she were trying hard / to decode her body. It was harder work than she had imagined.” You also thank her in “Acknowledgment: Erato.” I’ve met Brigit before at the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference and I love her poems. How did Brigit influence you as a poet? And what role did your grandparents play in your development as a poet and person?
SF: Oh, Brigit, she changed my life. And my grandparents, I wish they could read my book. Chinese people believe that burning things in front of the graves, the ashes and smoke will take them to heaven, to the dead. I am not sure if I want to burn my book, and anyway it’s not environmentally friendly.
My grandfather was an agricultural scientist, also secretly a poet. My grandmother was the headmaster of a school, she taught Chinese and played piano. At the time I could not even read, my grandfather would ask me to memorize ancient Chinese poetry. He would recite a line and I would repeat after him. I couldn’t understand those poems at all. To me it was all sound, no meaning. But the exquisite patterns of the intonation were so musical they left a dent inside me. He also had a lot of old books—the pages were yellowish, and the covers torn—including the early Chinese translations of Byron, Shelley, and Keats. They were my early love. And in school, from elementary school to high school, each morning students are asked to memorize and recite poems out loud together, because the exams have a considerable portion that asks to dictate poems from memory. At that time, I started imitating and writing poems in Chinese classical forms and meters. And it was not until in middle school, I read an anthology of poets like Lorca, Celan, Tsvetaeva, Rimbaud, etc, I felt blown away, and started writing poems in modern Chinese.
I came to the U.S. with my broken English and applied to universities in hopes of continuing writing. I was rejected by all the English majors I applied to but was accepted by most engineering schools. I thought I’d just give up writing and become an engineer, until I met Brigit. I’ve never been in any of her classes, but I heard there’s a poet in the English department—a real poet!—so I went knocking on her office door. I showed her my poems, so blatantly. I just started writing in English at the time, and those poems were unimaginably horrendous, none of the sentences was grammatically correct. But she was so kind, she invited me to meet again. Then we started to meet almost weekly. For two years, she was one of the few readers of my poems. She saw the process of a foreign writer who struggled to stitch his broken English together into something barely presentable. I remember one autumn afternoon she asked me what I am going to do after graduation, I said likely find an engineering job or grad school. She said, “Promise me one thing, otherwise I won’t let you out of this office. That you will always keep writing no matter what you do in future.” I promised her. She taught me humility, and said, “Be humble. Be the servant of poetry, not the master.”
VC: What a beautiful story about Brigit! So many of us are such fans of her work and of her personhood.
I understand that you also write poems in Chinese. How do you compose those poems? How do you compose your English poems? Do you think in Chinese first and then translate or do you think in English? I’m very interested in how languages intersect to become something more interesting, something larger (as a mediocre Mandarin speaker myself).
SF: I rarely write poems in Chinese anymore. I write reviews and essays in Chinese, texts, and social media posts. For me, it’s difficult to traverse between two languages, particularly with poetry. I don’t know how to bring reconciliation between the dissonances of two very different musical and rhythmic flows—one is a syllable-timed language, the other, stress-timed.
There was only one poem in the book that’s been translated from my Chinese poem, Utterance of a Folding Fan. I wrote the poem first in traditionally tonal meters in Chinese and then translated it into English. And another experiment in the book that attempts to unite the musicality of two languages is 轰隆隆 Is the Sound of Thunder. I was fascinated by the idea of onomatopoeia then, that the sound is the meaning, and the meaning, sound. I felt there was always a void of message in an onomatopoeia for us to fill. That the word, operating entirely on its sound, is so wholly itself, and wholly not itself. In that poem, there are onomatopoeic references both from colloquial speech and literary allusions from ancient Chinese poetry—I tried to interweave the playfulness of sound with a stately, classical cadence. And I did not realize that with all the definitive “is”s, the sounds in the poem are not only metaphorically taking on transformations, but are also metonymically renamed and re-identified. Metonym, especially, is a large part of ancient Chinese poetry. For example, the word “cardamom” is a metonym of “a girl at thirteen or fourteen years old,” the “red bean” is synonymous to “lovesickness,” and the symbolic gesture of “willow” often appears in poems about departure, because it is phonetically similar to the word “stay.” And the word “moon” has more than thirty metonyms, behind each a specific allusion or legend about the moon. These are of course all lost in translation.
From my early experience of poetry, both in English and in Chinese, music always precedes the meaning. Mystery precedes understanding. So even when I write now—and because I love to memorize and recite poems—I’d often have the cadence in my body before the text comes to my mind.
VC: Fascinating—it actually sounds like you put a lot of thought into your poetry and writing. I love hearing these intricate creative processes. Related to this, I’m curious to know what Chinese poets you enjoy reading, especially contemporary Chinese poets. I’d also love to hear your perceptions of poetry in America and poetry in China, the communities, how they are similar and/or different.
SF: I am not familiar with contemporary Chinese poets and with the writing communities in China, or any communities. I think I am always an outcast. I have friends, whom I admire and love.
VC: I think a lot of poets might feel like outcasts. I know I have felt this many times in my life too! In your poem, “It is Sad to See a Horse Sleeping,” the last few lines read: “…carry the horse till my spine aches when a stem of aster breaks. Ten thousand miles away.” In “Almost Hour,” the last line reads: “I stand the correct distance from the present.” In these poems and these lines, there’s a space and time continuum that severs. Can you talk about the time/space continuum in your poems?
SF: While the body of the speaker is fixated in one time-space continuum, the mind could be elsewhere. I think this is one pleasure of literature, the discordance of time-space allows things to be perceived non-linearly. While I’m reading Doctor Zhivago in the twilight of California, I am also with Lara in a mean town of Galicia, where the snow is cold and palpable as the “real toads in the imaginary garden.” The body is safe, while the mind is in danger—the mind leaps, experiments, delights, and regrets—the strong disagreement between the two cannot be redeemed. The last poem of the book, “Displaced Distance as a Red Berry,” also discusses this incongruity of time-space around the notion of “the other.” This discrepancy of time-space creates a dissonance inside the speaker. The speaker, severed from his beloved, is lost in solitude and imagination, and from that loss he starts speaking. I think Eliot puts it beautifully in his “Four Quartets,” “Down the passage which we did not take / Towards the door we never opened / Into the rose-garden. My words echo / Thus, in your mind.”
VC: I always love food references in poems and there are a few in yours as well, specifically in the poem, “Fish” which I loved. What’s your relationship to food and the relationship of food to your poems? And related to what you just talked about, I was also going to ask you about your use of Chinese language characters in your poems. I was happy to see these things in your poems but then I began to wonder how non-Chinese people might oversimplify food and language through their gaze, particularly the white gaze. Do you have any thoughts about this?
SF: This is a beautiful question, also very difficult. I eat very little, but I love food and love cooking. It’s one of the few things that makes me feel that I am still attached to this world. My father is a fabulous cook, and I learned from him. Much different from writing, cooking is actual physical labor. One must feel the textures and temperatures of different materials. And because it is so physical, the food functions as a sensorial portal to nostalgia. There is no better example than the famous madeleine of Marcel Proust. This sensation triggers meditation on the past, the time, and sometimes, to that end, mortality. This sensual pleasure accompanied by the shadow of death reminds me of the Japanese writers’ obsession with sakura, the cherry blossom, as a metaphor for ephemeral beauty. The mind that receives the enchantment of flowers has something much darker, sadder to say than this bright pinkish color. I love this breathtaking haiku by Issa, “What a strange thing! / to be alive / beneath cherry blossoms.”
There are three poems in the book that have Chinese characters in them, one is 轰隆隆 Is the Sound of Thunder, which we have talked about. An established white editor told me that he thought that poem, with ideograms, was imitating Ezra Pound. And I was too young, naive, too fresh-off-the-boat at the time to realize how abhorrent that comment was. Anyway, using Chinese characters, or any other languages, isn’t considered experimental anymore, but rather a cliché. I mean “experimental poetry” is sort of cliché; there are patterns to follow, it becomes an institutionalized, tamed product. Sometimes, I wonder whether that effort of bringing in diversity of languages becomes performative and an exotic showcase in some way? Is it, too, an unfortunate product of colonialism? Western gaze tends to view things with hierarchy, and to digest other cultures and ideologies within its own systematic and structural ways of understanding. And this is one reason that the border between “this” and “other” appears. Reading is one method of empathizing, and I hope that by imagination and empathy this border will be erased.
I remember my teacher Roger Reeves once told us, “When you write experimentally, it shouldn’t just be because you can do it. You write in that way because it is inevitable.” I think, and I hope, whenever I bring in the Chinese characters, it is because in that specific instance it is a necessity to expand ways of expression, that their existence in the English context is irreplaceable. Not just for showcase, not to please the Western gaze. I hope that these particular decisions are in service of the poem, whether it is sonic, visual, textual, etc, but not in service of a specific demographic group of audience. I believe in a singular reader, not an audience. Also, I trust the readers; I think we have come to a time when our readers have become more diverse and more international, that they read in more than one language and think across cultures, and a certain pleasure of poetry comes from this, from shattering the borders.
VC: I love your response and I also appreciate what Roger Reeves said to you. It sometimes feels impossible to avoid the white gaze in this country. I’ve had some pretty abhorrent things said to me too over the years and what that white editor said to you is pretty awful. I’m sorry you had to endure that.
There’s a lot of variety in this book, especially in terms of poem length. You are comfortable with long poems, especially, I noticed. There’s a long poem called “A Difficult Apple” in the middle of the book and “Nude Descending a Staircase” is also on the longer side, as well as “Meditation on an Authentic China.” There are also some really short poems in this book too. Some of my favorite poems in the book are short lyrics with strange imagery such as “Chronicles on Disappearance” and “Tether” which has a series of great lines: “The tea is turning cold. / It holds a winter in its mind” or “I write to make myself un- / recognized.” And “Training”:
A psychologist told me
we can train our dreams
I practice each night
recite my father’s name
and he is a dog
running in and out
of a field of grass
and I the loosened chain
stained with the sweat of his neck
Do you enjoy writing these shorter, more ascetic, lyrically strange poems? I also like the longer poems like “Nude Descending a Staircase” that are more narrative and also longer poems that feel more discursive. I also find long poems hard to write myself. How do you sustain a long poem? How do you write them? On the other hand, I’ve written a whole book of short poems and those are hard too!
SF: I am grateful and sorry that you have to read all of them. I wouldn’t want to read them again! I like to shift gears from page to page and have those poems as diverse in lengths, styles, subjects, and lexicons as possible. I get exhausted by my own writing easily and I like to be surprised by my work. I love short lyrical poems, their time-resistant nature, and as you mentioned, it’s exceptionally hard to make them happen, perhaps most difficult of all. Especially lyrical poems like those of Tomas Tranströmer and Georg Trakl, without much aid of narratives and rhetorical statements, they are arresting just by the evocative imagery, sound, and voice, like a crystallized segment of time.
My love for long poems perhaps comes from my love for prose writers like Proust, Mann, Dostoevsky, etc, in my teenage years. I love the meditative quality of expansive lines and convoluted syntax. As strange and distant as it may seem, I think there is a sense of intimacy in sharing how a mind unfolds its process of thinking. There is a vulnerability and tenderness in this. It’s true that it is difficult to maintain the momentum in a long poem. Bringing in narratives might help, or the discursiveness of the mind meandering, like Ashbery, who is masterful in displaying the growth and leaps of a mind within the spans of a poem. Sections could also be a strategy. Though I have poems in sections in the book, I sometimes find this strategy sly and gimmicky. I often force myself to just keep a poem moving without breaks, to see how far I can reach or fail, as a test. The poem, “Meditation on an Authentic China,” for example, I have revised and rewritten for three years. At first it was just an abstract discussion and almost unreadable. Later I deleted some of the nonsensical discourses and added a fictional narrative in between. And a few weeks before submitting the final draft to my press, I wrote a whole new page as the ending. I like to be kept accompanied by long poems—they are difficult, faithful friends; I feel that as I am solving their issues, they are solving mine. And I try not to allow myself to cheat my way through them. So, often it takes years to finish, sometimes it is just buried in me silently, stagnantly. I like the feeling that these poems don’t abandon me, or let me go so easily.
VC: I admire the ambition in your longer poems. I am currently struggling with writing tiny poems and they are so challenging to write. They sometimes want to snap shut like a box and the question is how do you open a tiny poem up in interesting ways? Or if it wants to snap shut, how do you snap it shut in an interesting way? Both have their incredibly fun challenges.
You mention communism a bit in this book such as in the poem, “Meditation on an Authentic China,” also in “A Difficult Apple” with the communist apple, and “If You Talk About Sadness Fugue” and also your aunt is a recurring figure in these poems too. Can you talk more about these recurring words, images, and people?
There are references to paintings in this book—Vermeer, “Nude Descending a Staircase” (Duchamp), Chagall, music like Schubert, Mahler, Beethoven, Chopin, and other poets such as Cavafy, Celan, Lorca, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and more. Can you talk about all of your influences as a writer? The whole time I was thinking, what a renaissance poet/person you are!
SF: Communism as a symbol, not as an ideology or social structure. I mean, in our daily life, both in America and in China, the word, like many other words, is hollowed like a chrysalis by medias and propagandas (how oddly, I think of the ironic title of Stéphane Mallarmé’s collection, To Purify the Language of the Tribe). The word suggests something, but the something is so vague, ambiguous and consists only of stereotypes and imaginations.
The word “politics” has a very different connotation in China than in the U.S. Since elementary school, all students in China are subjected to taking a course called “Moral Education,” but the literal translation is “Ideology and Morality.” It teaches you that “loving the party is loving the country.” One time, I think I was in third grade, I went home telling my father about this, and he told me that “party” and “country” are not the same. I was so confused, because that was not what I was taught in school. In middle school and high school, the name of this course morphed, so blatantly, into “Politics,” where we studied Marxist economics, Marxist philosophy, Dialectical materialism, Historical materialism, etc. All students have to study it for six more years and it is a subject for the college entrance exam. Honestly, despite the propaganda side, it was moderately interesting and informative. But I want to say that the word “politics” is something I grew up with but had no idea what it meant. Politics is considered “dirty,” something we consciously avoid. Politics, in certain aspects, has to do with conflict, but there was no “conflict” in a “harmonic” society. Politics brings little change, especially ideological change, but rather perpetuates.
This, I think, has influenced my writing. If there is, unfortunately, a stance in my poems, then it is a stance of “against,” against the definite. It is a stance that hinges on oscillation. I think it is also related to the political environment that I was brought up in. I have been squelched by the autocratic ideology growing up. That is why my work refuses to reach a static, didactic conclusion, or to take positions. Instead, I search for an argumentative evolvement, an oscillation between paradoxical ideas. The third section of the book focuses on this in relation to inanimate objects, an apple, a bulldozer, a vase, a naked mannequin in the shop window, whom the speaker sillily called “comrade,” etc. And the section deals with absurdity and mockery, and, in fact, is in dissent with the rest of the book, tonally and subject-wise. It was intended and I have faced much criticism because of it.
I don’t think my writing has a strong autobiographical interest; these recurring figures, the “aunt,” the “father,” etc., are paradigmatic and symbolic, like characters from a childhood fairy tale. The way I view them, including my own life story, seems parabolic and mythologic—they are no more than the disfigured statues of gods and goddesses, who, hopefully, exert no power on me anymore.
I am always interested in going beyond the terrain of literature to examine how thought, emotion, and form manifest in different modes of art. I love classical music, it saved my life, and I studied art history and remain an ardent fan. I spent most of my teenage years indulging in reciting poems, collecting classical albums, going to concerts, and visiting museums. I was alone, but accompanied by art. At first, I was moved by the artworks, and then I was moved by the tragic stories of the artists—well, Bach’s life was as boring as Immanuel Kant—Brahms and his unattainable Clara, Schubert’s delicate queerness, the forever awkward Shostakovich with glasses of Harry Potter, and the lives of the tortured performers, the tragic du Pré, the enigmatic Richter, and the magnanimous Oistrakh, etc. I don’t think this is necessarily renaissance, but rather personal and private interest. This interest formed my early consciousness of perceiving the world, and has transformed me, has broken my heart and stitched it back together. Art has been the only exit from my suffocating upbringing, therefore sometimes it seems, in my work, more pertinent than the reality. For me, art is the alternative reality that doesn’t hurt as much. My teacher Jane Miller once said that she believes the primary function of art is “the transformation of consciousness.” And that is the reason I want to be a part of it, to be a writer, to touch the distant souls that I will likely never meet, for I was touched and saved by the light of others.
VC: Your responses are so rich and absorbing and I’m constantly amazed at how much you read! I also love your use of the word, “oscillation,” that’s really beautiful. Now that I’ve read your book, I sense that hovering, but never landing feeling of your poems.
Your book also explores queer desire and love. In “In the Movie Theater,” you write: “The movie is about / eros, about two men in love, then failing to love. / The kind that is banished in China, where they are, / in this impoverished town of a province in the west…” In “Nude Descending a Staircase,” you write: “Perhaps she saw that day, by the rosemary alley, / a boy kissing my lips. He tasted like blueberries” which is a refrain that is repeated at the end of the poem as well. Can you talk about the role of desire in your poems?
SF: Desire might be the motivation, the engine, but never the target. Desire, or de sidere, means “from the star,” which is very beautiful and tragic. I like that desire is able to drag me beyond this petite self toward the realm of others. I do think that American poetry puts an unreasonable amount of stress on the “speaker,” the ubiquitous and omnipresent “I,” whoever that is. And I must confess that I’ve been infected. Desire is not necessarily about the speaker, but about “the other” who’s been addressed to, about the “stars,” which in itself is a form of imagination. And there’s a resistance in that “other,” who refuses to be symbolized, to become a sign, but a whole other reality grating against yours. It’s overwhelming; there’s a sense of conflict, of opposing interests, therefore, one could say it’s essentially political. I like the kind of poetry where the self, the speaker is momentarily erased, and I think that signifies another state of mind, not communism, but love.
My friend Yuki Tanaka, an extraordinary Japanese poet, once said that one of his favorite words in English is “insatiable.” What is seductive about desire is that insatiability, not its fulfillment—few of us get to be on the “stars,” not realizing we are already on one. In my poems, I think, desire is always contracted with failure, with incurable loneliness, and sometimes, with regret. For some, desire suggests a good thing—desiring to land on the moon, therefore landing on the moon. For me, landing on the moon means losing the moon. In my poems, desire almost always forebodes tragedy. Like the Greeks, but then the explanation doesn’t come from the gods, but from ourselves—we are the very gods that fail us.
To me, the opposite of desire is not desireless, but grief, which appears in the book frequently. These two emotions have an antithetical but also symbiotic property. When we read a love poem, the underpainting is often mourning, vice versa. Look at Neruda’s love poems, some lyrical objects are fictive, insubstantial (even they require a physical form), the sensual depictions have an elegiac undertone. In the end, it is essentially about the notion of absence—grief is about what has been lost, while desire is about what has not been gained. Their core is lack, which is what Lacan called “manque.” Love poems and elegies are the perfect alibis for the existence of “the other.”
VC: Some of what you are saying here reminds me of Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, a book I love and return to often. I really appreciate what your friend says about desire and insatiability. I often think about desire and sometimes write around desire and the space of insatiability—it’s a beautiful vantage point to look out into the world from.
Tell me about how you organized this book? I liked the book a lot, but really loved sections I and IV while reading, and then I went back to read III and II backwards and found them compelling in different ways as well. Sometimes I think about a book and/or a writer, teaching us/readers how to read the book and I very much felt this way while reading your book. By the end of the book, I felt like I had learned how to read your work, if that makes sense (specifically, the movements and turns from line to line).
SF: The book is organized according to a poem by Du Fu. Each line begins a section, and each section is thematically different, which I will let the readers discover. I love that Du Fu poem so much (in the heart of my hometown, Chengdu, there’s a museum called Du Fu Thatched Cottage, where he lived and wrote most of his famous works 1,300 years ago. And his poetic lines are everywhere in the city, even in the subway, or a noodle shop) and I couldn’t find a satisfying translation anywhere, so I decided to translate the lines character by character into English. Though that is also limiting the profoundness of the original text, I had no other choice.
VC: I’d love to visit that museum sometime. And finally, that proverbial interview question—what are you working on now? I always hear from poets between their first and second books that they find that time period challenging.
SF: If you visit, I’d love to be your guide! And all the restaurants I will take you to, the food—trust me, the food is everything. Well, I try to write new poems and fail, like I was before. So that isn’t new. I am following Louise Glück’s advice, who asked me to take a break and live my life, which I am doing, enjoying food, visiting friends. Though I still have to figure out my visa issue. I start returning to poets who were my early love; I try to get back to where I started, that suffocating darkness in which a heart is burning for no one but with passion for poetry. It was beautiful then, like dancing on a stage with lights off and no one’s watching. I want to return to that unbreachable chasm between the paper and the mind.
I am also reading beyond the dictatorial notion of American literature—the institutionalized standard of what is a good poem, what is bad. I am reading When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry and works from the Estonian poet Doris Kareva, the Belgian poet Hugo Claus, the Macedonian poet Nikola Madžirov, returning to Adélia Prado, Gennadiy Aygi, Zbigniew Herbert, Yehuda Amichai, and poets from Africa and Southeast Asia. I want to keep finding diverse expressions for art and poetry, I want to keep erasing the borders of understanding, and ultimately, I want to keep singing.
VC: Well, you sound like me—a voracious reader! And I really appreciate Louise’s advice, particularly as someone who actually doesn’t write very often. My own default is “living my life.” I hope you resolve your visa issues too. It’s been such a pleasure to chat with you!