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Interview with Chen Li

Shin Yu Pai(白欣玉)



1. Where did you grow up? Was poetry and writing part of that experience?


I was born and brought up in Hualien, a small city in the eastern coast of Taiwan. There was a temple in front of where I lived, and my first book of poetry was entitled In Front of the Temple (published in 1975). When one of my foreign professors in university heard the title of my book, he said to me, “That’s profane!” What he said interested me. Indeed, the word “profane” (meaning showing disrespect for God and deity), a combination of two Latin roots: “pro-” (meaning “before”) and “-fane” (meaning “temple”), points out part of the themes in my first book. In the postscript of my second book of poems Animal Lullaby, I wrote, “Isn’t the mundane world the greatest theme of my poetry? I can never forget the humble and vulgar residence on earth.”

   Considered by many the most beautiful place in Taiwan, Hualien is bounded to the east by the Pacific Ocean, and to the west by a prodigious mountain range. Living between the vast ocean and the huge mountains which look quite the same and yet so different every day, I locate the position of my poetry. The mountains and the sea, the scenery of my hometown, undoubtedly inspire me to write some of my poems. Through words, I transform my impressions of them into poetic images. A poem which I wrote at the age of 20 may serve as an example. It is entitled “An Impression of the Sea”:


Entwining herself about a shameful giant bed,

that debauched woman lies the whole day

with her wild lover,

pushing a huge white-laced water-blue quilt






In the last four lines, I tried to present the motion and visual effect of the tumbling and surging of the sea waves. This may be seen as my first attempt to embody the impression of the ocean with the “pictures” of words.


2. Who are your literary influences?


I think it is hard for anyone to describe his literary influences since most of the influences come unconsciously. I like many poets, both Chinese and foreign, both ancient and contemporary. I read Chinese classics, such as poems in the ancient Shi Jing (詩經, Book of Songs) or the Yuefu Poetry (樂府詩, a form of Chinese poetry from the Han Dynasty derived from the folk-ballad tradition, taking its name from the Yuefu, or “Music Bureau”, created for the purpose of collecting songs). These are poems of anonymous writers written over 2,000 years ago. I also read works of many ancient Chinese poets ranging from Li Po (李白, 701-762) and Du Fu (杜甫, 712-770) to Li Ho (李賀, 791-817), Li Shang-yin (李商隱, 813?-858), and Huang Ting-Jian (黃庭堅, 1045-1105). In my university days, I read poems of foreign poets in the original and in translation, such as those of Yeats, Eliot, Rilke, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and some Japanese haiku poets. Since my graduation from university, I have read and translated works of many foreign poets— Larkin, Hughes, Plath, Heaney, Sachs, Paz, Vallejo, Neruda, and Szymborska, for example. They all exert certain influence on my writing, and Neruda’s influence was once obvious, since I translated no less than three volumes of his poetry into Chinese in collaboration with my wife Chang Fen-ling.


3. When did you first identify with being a poet? When did poetry become part of your everyday life?


I started to write poetry in 1970s, when I studying at the university. Since then, poetry has become part of my everyday life, although after I became a junior high teacher, I wrote less than 10 poems between 1981 and 1987. To date, I have finished writing nine books of poetry. I simply enjoy working on an idea, seeking the proper form to express it. I am fascinated with the process of writing a poem.


4. Where were you educated? Was this important to your aesthetic development?


I studied in Hualien High School for six years. The school was bounded by the Pacific Ocean, so sitting in the classroom, I could hear the sounds of the waves. After senior high school, I was admitted to the English Department of the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, where I received my literary education more systematically. It was then that I started to read literary works of foreign writers abundantly and acquired a better understanding of literature. Since my high school days, I have enjoyed listening to music (ranging from classical music to jazz to folk songs). Composers, like Bartok and Debussy, influenced and inspired me when I was very young. Later, Webern, Janáček, Messiaen, and Berio…also became favorites. After attending university, I started reading books on painting and got to know many Cubist, Surrealist and Expressionist painters— Picasso, Braque, Dali, Magritte, Ensor, and Kokoschka, for instance. They too play a part in my aesthetic development.


5. Do you write in English or Chinese? Do you translate your own work into English either by yourself or collaboratively?


As a native speaker of Chinese, I write in Chinese. But some of my works are translated into English. In 1997, Intimate Letters: Selected Poems of Chen Li was published. The poems in the book were translated by Chang Fen-ling, some of them in collaboration with me. And she is now working on another English translation of my selected poems (1994-2004).


6. Where do you write?


At the desk, on the train, on my computer, on the bike, in bed, in the teashop, or on my way to tea shops.


7. How did your interest in visual poetry develop? Are there many other poets in Taiwan experimenting in this particular genre?


My interest in visual poetry began in my university days (1972-76). I chanced to read an issue of Chicago Review published in 1967, which was an anthology of concretism. Before that, I had read some visual poems written by poets such as George Hebert or Apollinaire, yet this issue of Chicago Review left quite a deep impression on me. Now I am still unsure of what influence those visual poems I encountered those days has had on my later writing of visual poetry. Just as I said earlier, “most of the influences come unconsciously.”

   Although readers may find my attempt or tendency to apply some techniques of visual poetry in my early poems, it was not until 1994 that I became more conscious and more consistent in my writing of visual or concrete poems.

   My interest in writing visual poetry derives not so much from my interest in visual art as from my interest in words. And I think it is also an exhibition of my inborn personality traits: naughtiness, wittiness, and curiosity. Since my childhood, I have taken great interest in flipping through dictionaries and encyclopedias, or guessing riddles which involve word games. Chinese characters can be said to be “picture words.” Every Chinese character is a picture, or a combination of several smaller pictures. By taking apart or putting together these smaller elements, we can create many new characters which mean differently. Such is the game of poetry. Take the Chinese character “” (“poetry”) for example. It is composed of “” (“words”) and “” (“temple”); in this sense, maybe we can interpret poetry as “words in front of the temple.” If this is truly what “poetry” is, then it was indeed an unconscious and mysterious act for me to entitle my first book of poetry as In Front of the Temple. I spoke in front of the temple, and my words in front of the temple became my poetry.

   Readers of my visual poems might find some of them untranslatable. Take the poem “A War Symphony” for example, much of its charm will definitely be lost in the process of translation. The Chinese characters (, , , ) in the poem and the verse form with special visual effects speak for themselves. It is a picture-poem with sound and sense. In the first “movement” of the poem, 16 perfect ranks of the Chinese character for “soldier” (, pronounced “bing”) are presented as if in battle array. In the second movement, the soldiers are progressively decimated, first by eliminating their right or left “foot” to produce the two onomatopoeic characters that make up the Chinese word for “Ping-Pong” (乒乓, pronounced the same as in English), then by eliminating the soldiers themselves. In the third and final movement, the soldiers are presented with both “feet” removed to form 16 perfect ranks of the Chinese character for “mound” or “hill” (, pronounced “chiu”), which is where the Chinese bury their dead. This poem is a silent protest against war, a compassionate elegy for the sufferers, and a tribute to the Chinese language.

   Quite a few poets in Taiwan experiment in visual (concrete) poetry. Two forerunners of it are worth mentioning here: Zang Bing (詹冰, 1921-2004) and Ling Heng-tai (林亨泰, 1924- ), each of whom composed about a dozen or more poems which might be regarded as visual poetry, or poems with some features of visual poetry. 

   Among the 500 poems I have written so far, over 20 of them can be called visual poems or concrete poems. And I intersperse more than a dozen poems with some techniques of visual poetry or picture games of concrete poetry, as I did in the poem “An Impression of the Sea.” In talking about my eighth book of poems, The Well-Tempered Clavier of Agony and Freedom (published in November 2005), a critic said, “Up to now, of all the poets in Taiwan attempting visual poetry, Chen Li has written the largest number of poems in this area with the greatest changes and the fewest repetitions.”

   If this is true, I hope I can write much more “concrete poems” or poems which are not lacking in imagination and novelty.


8. Do you work on more than one project at a time (or using multiple styles) or do you tend to work in a series as with the Microcosmos sequence?


I usually work on one project at a time. The 100 “modern haikus” in my book Microcosmos (1993) were completed within five months after I finished writing my fourth book of poems Traveling in the Family (1989-93). Likewise, after the publication of my latest book of poems The Well-Tempered Clavier of Agony and Freedom, I spent five months writing another 100 “modern haikus,” which will be published later this year (2006) as Microcosmos II.


9. Please talk about how you address the issue of identity in your work. 


In the postscript of my book of poems The Edge of the Island (published in 1995), I said, “To me, someone who lives in Hualien (the edge of the island, the last and the latest developed area of Taiwan), Taiwan is an island full of vitality on which there exists a combination of different ethnic groups and different cultural elements. Inhabited by more than the so-called ‘four major ethnic groups’— indigenous tribes, Hokkien, Hakka, and mainlanders, Taiwan was already a global stage in as early as the 17th century. The Spanish came, the Portuguese passed through, the Dutch colonized it, the Japanese ruled it…all these combined have formed the uniqueness of Taiwan: a vitality spurred and stimulated by continuous blending and mutual tolerance. Of course, there are some pains or conflicts, but ultimately it is magnificent and touching.

   In some of my poems, I talk affectionately about my Taiwan experience, but express my view of the issue of identity quite implicitly. In “Green Onions,” I use the green onion as a symbol of the native culture of Taiwan, willing to start all over again to get acquainted with and cherish his living environment— its culture, art, literature, history, and everything about it; in “Buffalo” I try to represent the suffering and tough images of the Taiwanese people, to protest implicitly the injustice of the society, and to go deep into the secret dream of this island; in “A Prayer for My Daughter” I look forward to a better future, hoping the coming generations will appreciate the value of tradition as well as the land, and live in a world of freedom and justice where different voices and concepts are highly respected and tolerated. In “Taroko Gorge, 1989” I describe the various and changeable scenic features of Taroko Gorge (a world-famous scenic spot in my hometown Hualien) to suggest the complexity of the fate of Taiwan. I intend to lead the readers to review Taiwan’s suffering, to look back on its lost culture, and to realize the fact that it has become a melting pot of different races, different ways of life, and different cultures. With time passing, Taroko may never recover its original and genuine features, but new life brings new warmth, vitality, harmony, and sweetness. I think that when the human heart is as vast and grand as the natural scenery of Taroko Gorge, all hatred, sorrow, frustration, and bitterness can be precipitated, tolerated, or even soothed, just as the inhabitants of Taroko Gorge have assimilated to one another, accepting racial differences and the sweets and bitters of life.


10. In the introduction of your Selected Poems (Bookman Books LTD, 1997), it was mentioned at the time of that writing that you had not yet traveled abroad. It would even seem that the longing to see the external world is a remarkably absent desire in your nature. I am curious to know if since the publication of that book, you have traveled abroad, introducing your work to new audiences?


Since the publication of Intimate Letters: Selected Poems of Chen Li, I have traveled abroad twice. In 1999, I was invited to Rotterdam Poetry International Festival in Holland, and in 2004, to the Salon du livre de Paris in France. A selection of my poems was translated into Dutch and published in Holland in 2001. During my stay in Holland, they told me that one of the reasons they invited me was that they were eager to know whether I would break my rule of not going abroad. And they succeeded in finding out the answer.

   I don’t think that the longing to see the external world is an absent desire in my nature. I have bought lots and lots of foreign books, CDs, DVDs, and so on. There is a Chinese saying, “Traveling 10,000 miles is better than reading 10,000 books.” As far as I am concerned, reading (or buying) 10,000 books may be much easier than traveling 10,000 miles; therefore, as a man who is lazy yet in pursuit of efficiency, I prefer Art or the artificial to Nature or the natural things. In a sense, I’m like the composer Ravel, who is said to have loved fakes better than the original.

   In an essay entitled “The Traveler” I wrote, “As long as I conceive longing for the world, I’m on the road. I know the 50 students in my classroom are 50 different guidebooks, leading me to fifty different cities; I know that the people I meet every day on the street or by the market place have hearts as colorful as all the scenic spots in the world. I...duplicate all the cities in the city where I live, and I travel all over the world in my world.” Writing poetry to me is a way to communicate with the world, and each poem an “intimate letter” to the world.

   In the poem “Reading Book of Mountains And Seas,” (讀山海經) the Chinese poet Tao Chien (陶潛, 365-427) said, “By browsing the book, I see the whole universe while bowing my head and looking up. How can I not be happy?” How can I not be happy, staying on the edge of the island reading and writing? The edge of the island can also be the center of the world or of poetry, can’t it?


—— Fascicle, Issue 3: Poets of Taiwan, Winter '06-'07 (edited by Shin Yu Pai




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