Traveling Poetry and the Presence of Soul: An Interview with Wang Jiaxin

John A. Crespi

Wang Jiaxin

Few Chinese poets who have come to prominence after the Misty Poetry phenomenon of the early to mid 1980s have cast a longer shadow than Wang Jiaxin. Wang, Professor of Literature at Renmin University (one of China's most prestigious), is not only a major poet, but also an important editor and translator, and an influential literary critic. Because he is known for his uniquely cosmopolitan, existential style, many in China associate him with the so-called intellectual school, a term that would likely signal an "academic" flavor to most Western readers—but this simply would not be an accurate assessment of Wang's poetic style. Through this interview with sinologist John A. Crespi, readers will gain a strong sense of Wang's intimately subjective yet radically cosmopolitan poetics as he discusses the work of Western poets from Paul Celan to Emily Dickens, the relationship between writing and translating poetry, and the existential dislocation of physical/external locations and the psychological/interior space of poets, such as himself, who have composed a significant body of work outside their homeland.


When interviewing a Chinese poet the temptation is strong to ask him or her questions that only a Chinese poet could answer. This is especially the case when the interviewee is Wang Jiaxin 王家新, a poet, editor, and critic who has read, written, and published his way through three decades of change in China's poetry scene. Not long ago I was reminded of where those thirty years began when I saw his name on a copy of the old, handwritten subscriber list for the breakthrough magazine Jintian 今天 (Today), the forum for the Misty poets who burst on the scene in the early years of China's post–Cultural Revolution thaw. That was the late 1970s, when he was a student at Wuhan University. Move ahead just seven or eight years and you will see his name again, as editor of Beijing's Shikan 诗刊 (Poetry Monthly), China's leading poetry periodical during the heady years of literary experimentation in the mid and late 1980s. You can also find him as author or editor on the covers of many books, about sixteen at last count, including four collections of his own poetry, several anthologies, numerous collections of his essays, and—not the least, as he relates below—on some very substantial works of poetic translation. As for a volume of his own poetry translated into English, stay tuned. We can look forward to this before long, with poems selected and translated by two very capable wordsmiths, Diana Shi and the American poet George O'Connell.

After considering all of the above as well as his current position as professor of literature at Renmin University in Beijing, it surely wouldn't be wrong to ask Wang Jiaxin what, as a Chinese poet, he has to say about Chinese poetry. But to do so would be to ask for another book, or several. Instead, for this interview, I decided to begin about as far from China as you can go, to Hamilton, New York, the small, rural, upstate town where Wang and his family spent four months in the fall of 2007 at Colgate University as Chinese Poet-in-Residence, a position generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. The poems that follow this interview were written there, and later on were translated there, too, in collaboration with John Cavanagh, a student of mine at that time, and with support from Colgate's Upstate Institute. Such a confluence of effort leaves us with an interesting question: Where does "Chinese" poetry, or indeed any poetry, come from?

The more I live and the more I learn, the more I feel that all poets derive from one soul. If Yeats had been born in the late Tang Dynasty he would probably have been Li Shangyin 李商隐. If I'd been born in nineteenth-century New England and was a solitary woman, who knows but that I would have been another Emily Dickinson? If I didn't become her, well, then who would? The fact is I would want to become Emily Dickinson.

John A. Crespi: You travel quite a bit, and I know from your poems and prose that when you go abroad, visiting the homes of European and American poets of the past is important to you. Can you explain your desire for this kind of poetic pilgrimage? For instance, when you visited Emily Dickinson's home in Amherst, Massachusetts, several years ago, what did that mean to you?

Wang Jiaxin: Traveling abroad gives me the chance to take in some fresh air, to give myself what Paul Celan calls a "breathturn." Everyone needs fresh air now and then, perhaps for the sake of one's writing, or just to breathe anew. While abroad I've visited the former residences of some of my favorite poets, artists, and philosophers. But this is different from the usual touring around, and from what people normally refer to as pilgrimage, because it's tied in with a deeper self-recognition, a kind of dialogue with the self. Why, for instance, did I go out of my way to visit The Homestead, the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst? I did it because her writing, the fineness of it, its originality and depth, is rooted in her individual existence. Her poetry offers a password of sorts into one's own soul, and into my own destiny as a poet. So there was no question that I had to go there. I even have to believe that she was waiting for me. The first thing I saw when I'd arrived was the old oak in the garden, still there, still growing, so many years after the poet herself had died. It had been waiting for me, too, or that's how I felt. Later, in New York City, I made a trip to find "one of the dives / On Fifty-Second Street," like the one W. H. Auden mentions in "September 1, 1939." That was the day Germany invaded Poland, the day World War II broke out, and Auden was in this particular place, and wrote this famous poem. Was it the very same dive? It doesn't really matter. What's important is that the very act of seeking out places like these stimulates me to reflect on larger problems, like the relationship between poetry and its era, and leads me to think that even today we may still be writing to complete poetry left unfinished by those who came before us.

The more I live and the more I learn, the more I feel that all poets derive from one soul. If Yeats had been born in the late Tang Dynasty he would probably have been Li Shangyin 李商隐. If I'd been born in nineteenth-century New England and was a solitary woman, who knows but that I would have been another Emily Dickinson? If I didn't become her, well, then who would? The fact is I would want to become Emily Dickinson. Now, when I tick off the names of these great poets, I don't mean to elevate myself. What I'm getting at is that even though our lives may be divided by language and culture, we're all on the way toward that "one soul." That's been my experience these past several years, especially when translating Paul Celan. With Celan I would start from English translations of his poetry, putting them into Chinese, and later on take time to pore over the original German. Eventually I realized something, something I seemed to know all along: I hadn't been translating Celan from English or German, but from somewhere within myself. If this Celan weren't in there to begin with, it would have been better to give up this approach to translation early on. While we're on the subject, let me add that Celan in fact translated Emily Dickinson. There are so many poets in the English language; why did he choose her? It's a mystery, and for the answer you have to look inward, into the soul. There are poets who keep faith with the knowledge of the soul. When that happens, they create their own family of the spirit.

JC: I'm curious: What precisely do you mean when you say that you translate Celan's poetry not from either English or German, but from within yourself? I imagine that this kind of very personal translation is not possible with just any foreign poet. What is it about Celan's poetry, or other poetry you've translated, that speaks to you in this way? And, are Chinese readers still reading Celan when they read your translations?

WJ: That's just how I like to talk about translating. Of course it's not the same as doing one's own creative writing. You have to keep to the original. But translation as I see it also depends upon discovering and knowing one's self. Here's an example: Not too long ago a poet who had long suffered persecution and hardship left us. His passing affected me deeply, and in his memory I translated Celan's poem "Havdalah." Celan, you might know, was a witness and a mourner of the suffering of the Jewish people. "Havdalah" was his poem of mourning, written in memory of the Holocaust victims. In John Felstiner's translation, the last lines read as follows:

. . . where you set your table for the empty
Chairs and their Sabbath radiance in—–
In honor.1

I take pains to be rigorous when it comes to translating Celan. Faithfulness to the original is what I aim for. But I felt I had to take some liberties when I reached the end of this particular poem. The last line, zu Ehren in the German, would normally be translated as zai zunjing zhi zhong 在尊敬之中 ("with respect") or possibly zai rongyao zhi zhong 在荣耀之中 ("in honor/glory"). I rolled this back and forth in my mind for some time before, out of the blue, or so it seemed, I translated it using the phrase zai qushen zhi zhong 在屈身之中. The word qushen 屈身 means "to bow or stoop," in sorrow as the context of the poem implies, but also in submission and respect to some higher power. At the time, I even took myself by surprise with this rewriting of the line, but I also felt the rightness of it. Would Celan approve?, I thought to myself. I think he would, because I'm being faithful, though in a different way. When I decided to translate the line like this, it wasn't just for the sake of texture or for linguistic tension, or to achieve some effect in the Chinese. What I'm doing is expressing the sense of mourning I find in the original, but find as well in myself. There really is no other way to show proper respect for the souls of those victims than to stoop low, to qushen. Moreover, only from such a position is it possible for poets, as Celan puts it, to "speak from an angle of reflection which is their own existence."

To tell the truth, that poem seemed to be waiting for me. I had already translated two or three hundred of Celan's poems (he wrote about seven hundred in his lifetime), but had never given any thought to that one; that is, not until the seventh day after my friend's passing when I decided to do something in his memory (it's a Chinese custom to carry out mourning on touqi 头七—the seventh day—after someone dies). Then it opened before my eyes. Jorge Luis Borges said when discussing Edward FitzGerald's translation of the The Rubaiyat: "All collaboration is mysterious. That by the Englishman and the Persian was more mysterious than any because the two were very different and perhaps in life they would not have become friends; death and vicissitudes and time caused one to know of the other and made them into a single poet." 2

The most fundamental goal of translating poetry is, I think, to create just such a "single poet." If my translation can achieve this, it's because a certain measure of Celan resides in all of us. Translation is a process, one of discovery and revelation. As Joseph Brodsky once put it, you develop the film, and find that "he" has your own eyes!

As for Chinese readers, there is no question that they are going to experience a Chinese-language Paul Celan rather than the German-language Paul Celan. The way I see it, a qualified translator of Celan can't be a translation machine. He has to communicate his own creative powers, his spiritual character, and his unique imprint, as well as that necessary tension between the original and the translation. Run-of-the-mill linguistic conversion will never satisfy me. It has to be a process of giving birth from my own laborious crafting of language. Put differently, it has to be not just faithful to the original, but must live up to it, and it must, ideally, use the Chinese to illuminate the original.

Thinking about it, my work these past years has not just been about creating a permanent place for Celan in the Chinese language, but to make him a poet of our era. My goal is to resurrect a poetic soul so that it may speak to Chinese readers.

JC: Perhaps it's just me, but what you say about translating Paul Celan seems to resonate at some level with the poems you wrote while visiting the US in 2007. There's an intimation of tragedy buried, denied, or largely forgotten, but still very much present. There's a subtle recognition of some inchoate force that the poet must wrestle with. When I read those 2007 poems, I feel that you are writing in the US, but not about the US, that your abiding concerns as a poet are elsewhere. Does that make sense?

WJ: I think that's right. There is definitely a resonance between my translation and my creative writing. As I've said elsewhere, the significance of my writing resides not just in the literary genre or form I happen to be using, but in my existence. Everything I write—poetry, articles, or translation—is founded on my own existence. Put another way, it all revolves around the same core, giving it all a certain wholeness. This goes as well for the poetry I wrote in the fall of 2007 when I was living in Hamilton as poet-in-residence at your school. During that time I was devastated when a friend and colleague of mine in China, Yu Hong, committed suicide (he jumped from the roof of his apartment building). To borrow Celan's metaphor, for me, milk turned black. I recall that it was early December, in the evening. My family and I had just returned by long-distance bus, plowing through a snowstorm, back to Hamilton from New York City. I switched on the computer to check my email, and was stunned. The sadness was so overwhelming, it was some days before I could even speak. But then I wrote "Mourning the Death of a Friend." At the end of that poem, you'll see that it's not me pulling my suitcase, but it's the suitcase that pulls me "down / this frozen, foreign, December road."

I've encountered too much death and suffering in my life. Confucius said, "At thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven." I don't believe that kind of linear accumulation of wisdom is really available to us. What I'm looking for is poetry equal to the vicissitudes and perplexities of life as I've known it. A lot of my readers have been struck with these concluding lines of my poem "A Drink with My Son":

Then, nothing to say.
When the son stands up to fetch another round,
the father stares blankly as
the foam slides
to the bottom of the glass.

They ask me how I got those lines. All I can say is, they just came to me. You could say I didn't write them at all, but that it was my years of living that spoke through the poet. There's a story in there, as you know, the story of me and my son, who had been away at college in the US. It's as if a person's entire life were summed up in that empty stare, in that moment when the foam slides to the bottom of the empty glass of beer, right? I think that's why you sense a certain presence in my poems. Your intuition is correct. When I write I aim for just this kind of immediacy. The poem "For Emily Dickinson: A Late Dedication" describes the eternal loneliness of a poet, then concludes with the line, "From somewhere in the darkness, the thump of rock and roll." There's ironic contrast with the world of Dickinson, of course, but also my attempt to communicate a certain presence. Poetry probes words and guides the imagination so that it can return to what philosophers have called "a present in which we are absent." This "present" is our foothold on existence. You'll find it again in my poem "In Upstate New York":

In Upstate New York,
in a small town named Hamilton,
on the slush-spattered, ice-choked road outside,
at four in the afternoon, the light brought by
withdraws, in an instant, into darkness.

It's a short poem—only five lines, but each is a wedge into the "present." You might compare it to focusing down on something with a camera lens, but it's more intense than that, in my opinion. What I'm describing here is the blade-like force of the snow and ice, how falling snow makes everything indistinct, the ambiguity involved in truly knowing just where we ever truly are. It's a kind of focus, but on all aspects of felt experience. Toward the end of his "Four Quartets," T. S. Eliot writes: "So, while the light fails / On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel / History is now and England." I wasn't thinking of Eliot when I wrote "In Upstate," but I can say now that my entire personal history, my entire existence, can be found in that kind of final poetic moment in an eternal present.

I think I've answered your last question, about how my poetry, though written in the United States, isn't about the United States, but reflects instead other abiding concerns of mine. You could say the same for many Chinese poets, like when Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 writes that he had to go to Venice for a Chengdu rainstorm. As I see it, poetry is not reportage. (In my long travel essay "'Zhuxiao shiren' zhaji" "驻校诗人"札记 ["Notes of a 'Poet-in-Residence'"] I write quite a lot about the US, including the experience of being at Colgate University.) Poetry is concerned with one's most troubled inner realities. The US might be in the background (like the incessant snowfall, so rare in China; an ancient oak tree; riding a Greyhound bus), or China might be in there, too, but the poems aren't about either the US or China. They are about our existence. The moment poetry finds us, we go to work for her, and if we're fortunate we can enter the depths of our existence. And that's about it. Nowadays I feel freer than before. No longer am I bothered by ideas of nation and nationalism. I don't like to label myself a "Chinese poet," or apply any labels to myself at all, for that matter. Naturally I'm concerned about much of what goes on in the world and in China, but as a poet, there are certain things, certain details that other people wouldn't notice, that put the spark to my poetic instincts. For instance, while straightening up the house on the night before leaving Hamilton to return to China, I paused in front of the fireplace after the fire had gone out (we had burned the firewood you had brought). I sat there alone for a while, before the cold hearth. Was this to be my farewell to the US, to that span of life and time that my family and I had spent in this place? Say what you will, but every fire that is lit will go out. Moments like those are what lead me to the poetry of existence.

Translated by John A. Crespi

1 From Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, trans. John Felstiner (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 181.
2 Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952 (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1964), 78.


From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 2 No.1

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March 2011 Issue

Volume 2, No. 1


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Table of Contents



  • 06 "Beef Noodles" by Li Ang
  • 14 Dark Li Ang vs Bright Li Ang: A Self-Interview by Li Ang
  • 24 The Spirit of Deer Town and the Redemption of Li Ang's Uncanny Literary Home by Darryl Sterk





  • Editor's Note
  • Contributors
  • Chinese Literature in Review
  • Pacific Bridge

ON THE COVER Moon 2 by Chen Nong


  • Qi Bangnuan, The Big Run River, A Memoir
  • Liang Hong, China in the Liang Village
  • Zhang Dachun, The Urban Violent Gang (in two volumes) 
  • Tianxin Zhu, A Song of Clog Throwing
  • Shijiang Li, The Chinese Department
  • Bei Dao, The City Gates Open
  • Yang Jiang, About to Drink Tea
  • Han Han, Chorus of Solos
  • Li Ang, A Romance Across Seven Incarnations

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