I love your poem, “Albania
.” I think it's one of the most engaging depictions of adolescent psychology i've read in Chinese, but what really fascinates me is the effect it creates of being utterly effortless, as if it had poured out of you like a sudden recollection. Which begs the question: Do you revise your poems very much?
Some poems are so good the first take that I don't touch them, but I usually have to revise them. I do strive rather hard to create that artless impression.
What prompted you to write a poem about this subject?
Well, when we were little, during the Cultural Revolution, Albania
was about the only country that was on friendly terms with China. It's just a “tiny little pellet of a country,” as we say in Chinese—I mean, it's so small it couldn't get much smaller. Yet in our hearts and minds, it was huge, for it was the one bright light in a very dark world. I don't recall exactly what inspired me to write the poem—I'm not even sure I want to know. I could have been that I suddenly thought about the past and realized it was gone forever, or that I got one of those baffling flashbacks from my childhood. Yes, that must have been it: it was the image of a partisan playing a mournful harmonica to the tune of “To the Hills, Brave Men!” 趕快上山吧勇士們!—that's still my favorite song.
You're talking about the theme song from “Clear Horizons”
[Horizonte Të Hapura], the 1968 film directed by Viktor Gjika, about partisans during WWII. That's one of the classics of second-generation Italian-style neo-realism.
I don't know what you call it in English, but in Chinese we know it as Ningsi buqu 宁死不屈 [Rather Death Than Surrender!]. It was an incredibly popular film in the '60s and '70s. I saw it many, many times, and that song followed me all through my childhood and adolescence and even into middle age. I've heard much better songs since, but there's something very special about the music that seizes you in your youth. But I'm not sure if that answers your question or not.
It helps to flesh out and humanize the period. All we ever hear about the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the West is the violence of the Red Guards and grim stories about State-sponsored famine and intellectuals being “sent down” to the countryside. It's nice to know that not everyone recalls the ‘60s and ‘70s with bitterness. Did you read much classical verse when you were growing up?
Of course, but before 1976, you had to do it on the sly because it was all banned. Reading poetry was a bit like fooling around with someone's old lady—very risky, but intensely stimulating! For example, I had a school-buddy whose dad ran a warehouse for the local court. One day my friend had to go there to talk him about something and dragged me along. When we were inside I chanced to see a big pile of old books lying in the corner. They looked like something the Red Guards would have confiscated but hadn't had time to dispose of, so when nobody was looking, this wicked urge came over me and I filched one of the books. Of course, as soon as we got out of there, I rushed off to some secluded place to see what it was I'd stolen and saw it was a copy of the Chu Ci 楚辭 [Elegies of the Chu]. I almost died with joy!
You quote Tang poetry quite a bit in your verse. Did you steal a volume of that as well?
No, but when I was around fifteen this neighbor of mine who was about ten years older than me used to recite poems from the Tangshi Sanbaisho [300 poems from the Tang Dynasty]. I never actually saw the book because his folks always kept it locked it away. You've got to realize that even though the Cultural Revolution was beginning to wind down by 1976 or'77, which is the time I'm talking about, books were still being seized from private homes and often destroyed on the spot. So though he didn't have the nerve to show me the book, he would recite the poems to me until I had them memorized. It took me more than a year but I pretty much memorized the whole book, and I can still recite quite a few poems from memory. A few years later I started writing my own poems and a few years after that I co-founded Xiandaizhuyi Tongmeng 現代主義同盟 [Modernist Alliance] with Wan Xia 萬夏, and the following year founded Feifei [The "Not-Not" Movement"] with Zhuo Lunyou 周倫佑, Lan Ma 蘭馬, He Xiaozhu 何小竹 and Jimu Langge 吉木狼格. But I've talked about these movements and initiatives so many times I'm getting kind of sick of the subject.
Well, here's a subject I suspect you've not yet grown tired of talking about: sex. That plays a big role in your writing, and many of your most famous poems are on such topics as masturbation, oral sex and other practices that were, and still are, I would imagine, rather frowned on in the People's Republic of China. Do you take much heat for writing about sex?
Let me tell you two stories: After I wrote “Fire in the Hole,” I took the manuscript to a printer down the street to have it typed up and printed—this was before I learned how to use a computer or publish my own books. They took the manuscript and gave me a date to pick it up. Now this was a printer I had done business with several times before and had never had a problem, but when I came back at the agreed time, the boss-lady told me that they were terribly sorry but were so swamped with orders that they hadn't had a chance to get around to mine and don't know when they would and thought it best if I went somewhere else. I was furious, of course, but the real reason didn't occur to me even after the same thing happened to me at the next printer I went to. It wasn't until I took it to a third printer that the boss-man chanced to browse through the work and then took me aside and said, “This is gonna cost you extra, you know.” I thought he was trying to fleece me and said, “What are you talking about?” He shrugged and said, “Look, fella, publishing pornography could get us into a lot of trouble. You want us to take the extra risk, you're gonna have to pay the extra money.”
I can see the appeal of publishing online and of self-publication.
You're not kidding. I don't know where I would be without it. Even today, I could never interest a major publisher into picking up my verse. It's just too controversial; it would never pass muster with the State censors. Which is why I'm self-published. I was one of the first poets to look to independent or underground publishers as a way of getting around State censorship. This began in 1980, when I published Shouyi 鼠疫 [Bubonic Plague]. That's the publication that made me a familiar face with the Chengdu Municipal Public Security Bureau. After someone posted “Fire in the Hole” on the Internet, that work got uploaded to a lot of porn sites, which got me into hot water for awhile. The authorities are always taking my stuff down, but people keep putting it back up.
So do the authorities still harrass you about your work?
Yes, they do. I try to be polite, but they can be awfully annoying. In fact, they came around the other day and scared the hell out of my new girlfriend. She's never going to let me hear the end of it.
So what was the second story you were going to tell me?
I was at some banquet in Beijing and there was this very intellectual-looking woman who kept staring at me with these big, glittering eyes that shined between her glasses, but I couldn't figure out why until, sometime later in the evening, she plopped down beside me and suddenly said, “I read your ‘Big Cannon'—read it several times in fact—but I want you to know that it did not provoke the slightest physiological reaction in me.” I didn't know what to say to her, but I'll tell you this: her saying that she'd read it several times definitely provoked a physiological reaction in me!
You lived in Beijing for many years. What took you to there and why did you leave?
It was love of a woman that took me there and love of another woman, my mom, that brought me back. My mom's been getting on in years, but I couldn't talk her into coming to Beijing; she's one of those women who just won't budge from home even if you could threaten to beat her with a stick. So I decided I had to come back to Chengdu to help take care of her. She's getting pretty frail.
That's very touching. So who was the woman that took you to Beijing? By any chance was it Ms. “Chrysanthemum” Wang, the woman you mention in “Spring Days.” The one who shared her condo with you and used to rag you about your personal habits?
Chrysanthemum Wang wasn't a real person. She's just a figment of my imagination, a poetic invention I concocted for a bunch of poems I wrote five or six years ago. The woman who took me to Beijing was the one I discuss in “Nan Nan Dreams of Chairman Mao
.” She's a novelist and playwright.
So if you weren't sponging off Ms. Chrysanthemum Wang, as “Spring Days” suggests, how did you make ends meet in an expensive city like Beijing?
I never went to college but I worked in a bank in Chengdu for a couple years before I moved to Beijing, and I used what I had learned there to "go to sea," as we say. Which is to say, to do a little business on the side. But I eventually got tired of that and wanted to devote more time to writing. For awhile I lived off my parents and my wife's income and the generosity of friends, but after I moved back to Chengdu, I started self-publishing my work, which I sell online or at the poetry readings I give.
I love the cover design to Canlan [Glorious], your memoire of the '80s and '90s.
That's a serious chronicle of the "Third-generation Poets". You ought to translate it into English.
I'd have to give up my day job for years, Yang Li—it's 1200 pages long!
Suit yourself. Someday, someone is going translate it and you'll wish it was you.
One last question: I'm intrigued by the author of the poem you allude to in "from the "Talking to Myself" series". I found the poem online but I couldn't find the author, who used to maintain a blog but hasn't added an entry since 2007. Do you know her or how she might be located? I ask because I would like to include a translation of the poem you mention so readers will know what inspired you to write your take on it.
No, I never met the lady and have no idea idea who or where she is.
Here last entry was "Lately, I've been incredibly bored." That was more than three years ago.
That's the way it is with blog poets. They come and they go. Lately, they mostly go.