This Friday, Terror House Press will release its fifth book: With Light and Dust by Xi Nan and Fish Lu, a collection of Chinese minimalist poetry focusing on urban living, modern anomie, and other topics. I recently sat down for an interview with Xi Nan and Fish Lu to discuss their book, their work, their influences, and other topics.
This interview was translated from Chinese into English by Xi Nan.
Matt Forney: In his blurb for With Light and Dust, Manuel Marrero describes With Light and Dust as “a quintessentially Eastern response to American minimalist poetry, something no one else is doing right now, bridging two wildly disparate languages together…” Your work showcases this; it shows awareness of and interest in world literary trends while remaining deeply Chinese. With that in mind, what writers and poets, contemporary or otherwise, have been the biggest influence on you?
Fish Lu and Xi Nan: Thank you, Matt and Manuel! We do have a deep interest in American minimalism, might because of our own characters, might also be a result of self-exploration. When we did not know minimalism too much, we had already begun to make such attempts in writing. At that time, it was mainly due to our wish to try something new rather than rhetoric only. Later, it gradually became a conscious change, thinking that this may be something closer to the true state of existence of things. Everyone has the natural impulse to find the truth. And you mentioned “remaining deeply Chinese,” that was not done by us intentionally. This is more likely to be a mark left in the body by the environment and culture, just like the genes left by the ancestors; whether you like it or not, it cannot be completely removed. But we still believe that human beings have the ability to reshape themselves.
Fish Lu: A writer is bound to be influenced by others, for me, they are Wallace Stevens, Samuel Beckett, Peter Handke, Marcel Proust, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Gerald Brennan, French writers in the New Wave epoch, and so forth. I have learned a lot from these writers, and of course not only from them. There are also many very good Chinese writers, such as He Xiaozhu (何小竹), Wu Qing (乌青), Fa Qing (法清), and so on.
Xi Nan: I personally was influenced a lot by the Chinese novelist Shi Kang (石康) in my early writing days. He is a bit like J.D. Salinger’s writing style or literary works of the Beat Generation. Looking back now, I think Shi Kang is more likely to be an instinctive and emotional writer…currently, I more appreciate writers like the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska or the Chinese poet Fish Lu (鲁鱼, haha!), and so forth, who pay more attention to the benign interactions between writing and life. Both of them have a more peaceful and calmer inner world and are able to manage life in an orderly manner, instead of sacrificing life itself to “achieve” writing. Maybe I’m too old already. 🙂
MF: As mentioned in Marrero’s blurb, With Light and Dust is a minimalist poetry book. Minimalism, to a certain extent, is key to all poetry, since poetry is the art of conveying ideas and images with few words. The poems in With Light and Dust convey maximum impact with a minimum of language, drawing the reader into your worlds without relying on excess. What are your thoughts on minimalist poetry? How did you arrive at your current style of writing?
FL and XN: Very glad to see Manuel’s interpretation and Matt’s questions are both so professional, thank you for understanding our works! First of all, this is a result of a writer’s voluntary choice.
Simple and concise language is indeed very suitable for poetry writing, but from the perspective of the development of poetry and different writers themselves, this is not always the case. The development of poetry has experienced very complex language stages; it once relied too much on rhetoric and is sometimes too obscure to understand. Those writing styles might be born due to the need to express more complicated things and emotions, and might have a certain connection with social status at the time. But later poets found that complex language and excessive rhetoric do not always help expression very much, so people can choose to return to simpler language. We think that simpler language is also in line with the current living state of people, and in some cases, we finally returned from the grand and empty narrative to the focus on reality and small things. The minimalist writing language may be more helpful for approaching and understanding the truth of things.
We two currently host a long-term online course in modern poetry writing in China. Some of our students may be in different writing stages at the moment, but no matter which writing style they choose eventually, we also hope that would be the result of their proactive choices, instead of just following the herd.
MF: A running theme throughout With Light and Dust is the examination of ordinary, everyday things. Fish Lu states in his preface that “Fire Hydrant” was an “experiment” to see if “everyday things like a fire hydrant could have some connection with poetry,” but this motif is also seen in the other parts of the book; many poems in “1303” use descriptions of ordinary things to set the mood. What inspires the particular images you focus on in your poetry and what motivates you to use them versus, say, more “traditional” topics?
FL and XN: Ordinary and everyday things are the main parts of everyone’s life—no matter how great or extraordinary a person thinks he/she is, he/she still needs to breathe, eat and sleep, etc.—but these are usually ignored in literary writings. At the same time, people’s understanding of things being “poetic” is constantly changing. We are always in a process of forming traditions and breaking them. For example, some grand and empty ways of narrative must have been created due to certain reasons and foundations initially, but we believe that right now such foundations and reasons have changed, therefore it is necessary to find new ways of writing, to look for new poetic meanings, so that to better present our current situation, and—most importantly—to be able to form benign interactive relations with life itself. With Light and Dust is such a conscious attempt, which can also be understood as a re-examination and re-discovery of our lives and the world we live in.
MF: An interesting dynamic in With Light and Dust is that “Three Lines,” “The Thing is Like This,” and “Fire Hydrant” are presented as selections and not in their entirety. What was the process by which you selected the poems that ended up in the book?
FL and XN: First of all, the three group poems you mentioned are very long. There are 282 chapters in “Three-lines”, more than 300 chapters in “The Thing is Like This”, and 100 chapters in “Fire Hydrant”. If we don’t go for excerpts, they can all be an independent book respectively. But good publishing opportunities are not so many, and we hope to show the diversity of our works as much as possible, so we had to make some compromises. If Matt and Manuel are willing to publish more works of ours in the future, we will not mind providing the complete versions at all! As for the particular contents we’ve selected in this book, we mainly decided whether the chapters are readable without the complete context; some of the chapters (we didn’t choose) can be more meaningful when placed among the complete context. So the selected parts are basically relatively independent parts. The thing is like this!
MF: You lived in Britain for over a decade. As an expat myself, the places I’ve lived have had a definite impact on my writing; indeed, when I lived in Asia some years ago, it caused me to reevaluate my worldview and what being American meant to me. How did living abroad influence your writing and perspective?
XN: Thank you, Matt! Indeed, when a person is in different places, the different natural and cultural surroundings will have a variety of influences on you.
I went abroad after my second year in high school in China. Until then, I had received more a “passive” kind of education: the teacher taught you things that you passively accepted, remembered, and learned. This was the general situation in the time when I went to school in China (not sure what it’s like now). After going abroad, especially after about five or six years in Britain, the biggest influence from the Western environment for me is that it taught me the ability to think independently and rationally and to respect individual values.
My opinions no longer simply followed the herd and I wasn’t being pushed forward passively by a kind of sentimental emotion or atmosphere, without even knowing the direction I was heading to; instead, I started to learn to observe and understand things as calmly and objectively as possible and then make my own independent decisions. During this process, I have also learned to deeply understand “self-examination,” which I believe is very important for continuously shaping the best self-state. And when I talk about “respecting individual values,” I think one important point is also to constantly shape the best self-state. Everyone is unique. Another point in regard to “respecting individual values” is of course to question and re-evaluate (like you’ve mentioned) the “unified” values; I think it is no longer applicable to the society today, instead we should look into each individual him/herself.
The above changes have influenced not only all aspects of my daily life, but also my writing concepts, of course.
MF: Your work, as well as Fish Lu’s, is primarily written in Chinese, and With Light and Dust is your first book in English. Translation is always a difficult process, particularly when working with two languages that have almost nothing in common. What kinds of issues did you have to overcome when translating With Light and Dust, and what advice (if any) would you have for those translating works from Chinese into English and vice versa?
XN: As early as about ten years ago, I’d already tried to translate Chinese literary works into English for the first time. Although the two poems translated at that time were published on two online magazines, I quickly gave up translation. I thought at the time that it was too difficult. Translating a poem was so difficult to me; for example, the lack of vocabulary would seriously trouble the translator. Then why since last year did I get more involved in Chinese-English translation of literary works (and vice versa)? I think it is firstly related to the Chinese (native language) writing of Fish Lu and me; that is to say, in our native language writings, we’ve found concepts and ways of writing that suit us at this stage, so when translating the works, I feel it is more manageable. You may also say that ten years ago, I had not yet found the most suitable way of writing for myself.
So my advice to translators (in any language), and even for writers is: keep translating/writing, until you find the method that suits you the best (you also need to choose the appropriate works for translation), then you will make your way broader and broader.
MF: Perhaps this is just my interpretation, but one theme I took away from “1303” is the loneliness and alienation that comes with modern urban living, particularly in the descriptions of the tenants in the apartment building. This theme of loneliness and isolation is particularly relevant given the current coronavirus pandemic, with people forced inside their homes and cautioned/barred from physical contact with their loved ones. What are your thoughts on modern urban living? Do you believe that modern cities instill loneliness and alienation in people, and if so, why?
XN: I agree with you, Matt: modern urban life does bring the sense of loneliness and alienation and this is indeed one of the themes presented in “1303.” But I personally like this sense of alienation; to some extent, I myself need a sense of distance. For me, one of the most comfortable moments is sitting at a small table in a coffee shop, drinking coffee, the people around me talking in low voices, and the shop staff occasionally passing by and smiles at me while I am comfortably working on the laptop. Being alienated but not completely lonely, and that I am still a harmonious part of the human society: this is not only one of my favorite living environments, but also one of my favorite interpersonal environments.
In fact, many people may have this similar experience: when we are too close to a person, we are easily disappointed, sad, even disillusioned. So alienation can be a good thing sometimes, and I think it is a fundamental prerequisite for the sustainable development of any interpersonal environment.
In the earlier times, people had to gather, live and cooperate together because of various reasons, such as survival needs. However, with the development of science and technology and the increasing professionalization of all industries, no matter what kind of service or product you need, you can easily get it from the market. People no longer have to gather together. Such alienation could give us the opportunity to show more respect to individual values, care for ourselves and our inner world, and cultivate independent thinking, which I think is very precious. Perhaps one of the unexpected gains that the coronavirus pandemic could bring is that people might gradually realize the benefits of alienation after being initially unused to it. (Although for certain, these benefits don’t compensate for the incalculable losses and grief this global pandemic is throwing at us.)
MF: Finally, what advice, if any, do you have to aspiring poets?
FL: I think one really needs to start writing first, as long as you do like writing! After all, everything is possible only if you start doing it.
XN: My advice would be: keep writing, reflect on your writing, and adjust your writing from time to time. I hope that every aspiring poet will one day find the most suitable way of writing for him/herself.
MF: Thank you for your time.