A traveling poem
This is a poem that travels across four countries, between four poets, and gets completed in four languages.
I met Yasuhiro Yotsumoto at the Poetry International web editors’ meeting in Rotterdam, 2013, and again at the Cordoba festival in Spain, 2014. It’s amazing that he is a poet from Wharton, the top business school in the US (that’s another story). In March of this year, he said to me, from Munich, Germany, that he would like to run a trilingual renshi as a poetic counter-action on the anniversary of the ending of the World War II.
I was in the Vermont Studio Center/USA, across the Atlantic Ocean from him. It was snowing, but I was delighted by his idea. By the time the chained-poetry started, I was back in the sunny California and he, after throwing the opening poem to us, flew to Japan, across the Pacific Ocean from me. Poetry circled in the air. As facilitator or moderator he reminded us to push the renshi forward, forward, and forward.
It wasn’t the marathon that I expected and was a little worried about. 36 poems were completed in about a month. 36 x 4 languages. Yasuhiro and I self-translated our poems into English, he also translated Shuntaro’s poems, I translated them into Chinese, so on and so forth. Without the trips between the poems, we would have finished it even sooner. The whole month of April was email, email, email, from four directions. Yotsumoto means “four dollars” in Chinese, and in the old days Chinese dollars used to have a square in the middle with four corners. The fourth month of the year brought four moons above me each night, it was really crazy that I was doing four things at the same time: writing my own sequences (titled “Four Moons”), doing this four-person renshi, translating Duo Duo from China, and collaborating with two young poets from San Diego in transforming Chinese visual poems into English. The renshi ended so quickly that I now miss Hyesoon’s deep agony and passion from Korea (through Don Mee Choi’s beautiful translation), Shuntaro’s humor from Japan and Yasuhiro’s constantly changing personas.
The hardest part of doing this was moving “forward”. A renshi is a poem of poems created by different authors, one after another, linked together. You are part of it. You daydream you wrote everything. But you are only bits of it. Each one writes in his or her native language and you are so attempted to respond to everything but you have limited space and you have to move on. I always wanted to go back to Yasuhiro’s initial poem to explore what’s inside those suitcases and I had to imagine Piazza San Marco as other part of the world and other body of water and move on and on until I reached my homeland China and my home by the Yangtze River where Qu Yuan jumped in for all of us poets two thousand years ago and because I was physically in America I let Stevens play my “uncle” chasing the jar that my “great grandpa” Qu Yuan used to drink wine from but was somehow moved to Tennessee by some sort of guy like Pound. I’m not sure what I was doing in this Renshi. I was rambling around, picking up a grain from the previous poem and throwing a tamale to the next person, sometimes completely confused about the order. I traveled “forward” to the ancient time, “forward” to the outer space, and “forward” to my left atrium.
P.S. Japanese poetry was introduced to China in 1916 but soon overshadowed by the influence of the Western Modernism. It’s a great pity that we didn’t learn enough from Japan. Ezra Pound learned from Haiku and became a better poet. China had 联句 (linking poetry) since Han dynasty, and Tang poets made it very popular, but since the New Cultural Movement in 1919 promoted “Overall Westernization” and “Down with the Old Traditions” we lost many interesting things including the fun of developing a possible new form of linking poetry. The most fascinating feature of Japanese poetry, to me, is 错落有致—irregularity in a patterned form, or freedom in a controlled way—from its ancient 5-7-5-7-7 metrical pattern to the contemporary free verse of 5-3-5-3 stanzas. Too bad that I forgot all about haiku while doing this renshi. 3-line always made me depressed while 5-line was always a paradise as I could put almost all the garbage in it. What I found most difficult was translating condensed lines. In #6, “Republic” was a verb in Chinese: sailing to a sun that can “republicize” each of us. I was taking the deconstructive meanings of the compound word 共和in Chinese: sharing the sun in harmony as individuals not as countries. I translated it as “Sun Republic” knowing that something got lost. But I enjoyed translating others into Chinese. I will tell Comrade Li Bai that it’s been so much fun to write and translate at the same time.
This essay appears in the book, Trilingual Renshi, available from Vagabond Press.