This news is a bit outdated now, but it has been a crazy month. And it started with a five-day poetry conference in Kowloon.
It was my first time to Hong Kong. The adrenaline rush of being in a new city – Hong Kong of all places – clashed with my swirling ignorance about the place. The trip started (after 8 hours of travel) with me wandering around Chinese University’s campus, following e-mail directions from a stranger who told me that I had been put up in a dorm at Chinese University by a friend of a friend of a friend. I was carrying the weight of an under-thought Master’s thesis to a conference of literary big-shots. Also, it took me an hour to find a drink of water (can I drink from the faucet? Where is the nearest Seven-Eleven? Which subway stop?).
Being in a new city feels like a constant upstream battle. I had not realized how comfortable I had gotten in my Nanjing water well until I got to Shenzhen and had to follow the funny-looking pinyin to guess where the border-check was. Hey, expats thrive on that stuff.
Leo Ou-fan Lee, Tian Yuan, Xi Chuan, Bei Dao, Liang Wendao. What a line-up. Bei Dao, incase you don’t know, is considered by many to be the most accomplished poet of the Democracy Movement (a Misty poet, but I prefer identifying him with the DM, albeit that is also limiting). He was exiled after the Tiananmen Massacre, not because he was a participant (he was actually lecturing in Europe at the time), but because his poems had appeared on banners and in songs. He has been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is now a professor of Chinese literature at Chinese University in Hong Kong. He is also the focus of my Master’s thesis.
Bei Dao was a gracious host even to the lowly graduate student of shallow poetry appreciation. I approached him at one poetry reading to schedule a meeting, and he patted the seat next to him. We chatted at unpretentious ease up until Regis Bonvicino (Brazil) got onstage, at which point I actually felt no need to give him space. He radiated kindness. You don’t often hear that about people. China lost a great man when they exiled him for, um, inspiring the youth…with his poetry.
Liang Wendao was of course a celebrity appearance among celebrities, and I made sure to attend his panel, “Chinese Poetry: Negotiating Dilemma.” Most of the speakers resisted taking the bait of bemoaning poetry’s relative unpopularity in China. They instead talked about the relative [in-]significance of online-speak (网络语言 – it only involves a certain demographic; which I think means that it will become a classist dialect of sorts), the anxiety of being a colonial subject (that was actually Vivek Narayanan of India), and poetry being a sort of lifestyle. I wasn’t crazy about Kunming poet Yu Jian’s claim that English does not carry the poetic weight that Chinese characters inherently do, especially given that he does not know English (it just smacked a little too much of Chinese exceptionalism. And I let him know.). Mr. Liang finished his panel with “我们不懂诗的时候，我们【这个时代的人】都怪作者。”(“When we don’t understand poetry nowadays, we blame the writer.”) Speaking of charisma, by the way, Mr. Liang is a bubbling charisma fountain. Afterwards, my bus passed him as he was leaving campus for a smoke (in Hong Kong you can’t smoke on campus!). We made eye contact and both burst out laughing. Pretty cute.
I left the conference with a new poet and friend Xi Chuan (link different than previous one). Like Bei Dao, he is completely comfortable being genuinely kind. His poetry stood out among the recitations, his understated attitude all but testifying to the latent passion of his words. You can read a few of his poems here. I have his friend and translator Lucas Klein to thank for having introduced us, and also for having told me about the conference in the first place.
I finished the weekend writing a thesis prospectus in my Chungking Mansion matchbox. It was so wonderfully reminscent of Gordon Matthews.