In the late 90s and early years of the new millennium, a polemical battle between “intellectual writing” and “populist writing” unfolded on Chinese websites such as PoemLife. Members of the populist writing camp rallied around Yi Sha, who reveled in the rich materials of everyday life and eschewed the stylistic influence of translated Western works.
The intellectual writing camp spearheaded by poets such as Zang Di and Xi Chuan proudly acknowledged the importance of the Western canon for jump-starting modern poetic practice in China. The populist camp was interested in developing China’s own native modernism; the intellectual writing camp seemed committed to working through Western modernist currents that had been interrupted during China’s period of leftist isolationism.
In the 2000s decade, it became clear that the two camps were not diametrically opposed. For a while, the two camps had served as straw men for attacks against each other, but then their proponents got their fill of polemics, like getting over a bout of flu, and the conflict faded away.
Even so, we can hear reverberations of that clash in this concise anthology ably edited and translated by Liang Yujing. This svelte volume indeed gives English readers “a glimpse of what is being written in China now.” However, a random sampling would be confusing in a country where “good poetry can be found anytime anywhere…and good unknown poets can be seen at every corner of the land.”
This collection hangs together because the translator mines an authentic vein of native modernism. It also earns the title Zero Distance by affording glimpses into the life-experience of inquiring young minds since the new millennium. The voices in the poems belong to the witty, earthy vernacular that emerged from Yi Sha’s populist writing camp.
Several of the poets selected for this volume (Yi Sha, Huang Haixi, Xidu Heshang) are founding members of the “Chang’an Poetry Festival.” This rolling festival is really a reading series held in Xi’an (originally called Chang’an). The word “Festival” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the prevalence of large poetry events sponsored by government organizations. The Chang’an “Festival” is nothing like that: it is a self-initiated event among poets and is not connected with the national or provincial Writers Association. (As a personal disclaimer, I should note that in 2013 I was a guest of the Chang’an Poetry Festival along with the Seattle poet Paul E. Nelson.)
The poems in this collection employ wonderful metaphors, but they also play with suggestive resonances of actual things. The emphasis is on direct experience rather than engagement with an intertextual “universe.”
The poems are short (30 lines or less). Many of the poems represent epiphanies in which metaphors come alive. A mental image is offered as a convenient way of summing things up, but then it opens onto a deeper, perhaps more unsettling view into one’s situation.
One example is “Scene” by the Tibetan woman poet Xi Wa. The poem describes a newspaper lying on the grass in a park: the pages of the newspaper – holding a jumble of reports that touch all facets of our lives – “…rest quietly on the same level// A young mother puts her sleeping baby/ at the center of the newspaper.”
The poem “Lover” by the Uyghur poet Song Yu, describes a woman at breakfast. All the details are suited to a fastidious temperament: before her eyes is a sterilizer that keeps dust off bowls and spoons. She drinks “milk tea from a blue-rimmed porcelain bowl” and orders small dishes. But before her eyes a different kind of image also appears: “…Among the strong horses on the grassland/ one belongs to me.” Her mind registers the disparity: “…A sensitive nose like mine,/ steep shoulder blades like mine – / how can they stand/ heat, sweat and stench?// Nothing more deadly than encounter/ in a hoof print.”
Many images used by these poets are playful, ranging in emotional tone from mordant wit to intimate vulnerability. One example of the former is “Bellboy” by Ba Ling, which describes small coffins for children at a coffin store: they stand on end near the doorway, reminding him of bellboys who are waiting to be adopted into a “world filled with carnal pleasures.” An example of the latter is “She Grinds Her Teeth” by Xidu Heshang. He describes a woman who grinds her teeth in dreams, making him think of her as a beaver and himself as a poplar tree. Soon the metaphor runs away with him: “As I love you,/ I’m willing to let you/ gnaw at my root,/ even though it takes you/ only fifteen minutes/ to bite it off.”
As a generational elder to the other poets herein, and as master of approachable poetry, Yi Sha is given pride of place at the very end of the anthology. His poem “Associations at Genting Casino, Kuala Lumpur” harkens back to his fiery days as a champion of the commonsensical, level-headed everyman. As a critique of the direction of modern economic development, his poem is rooted deeply in traditional values, but it makes its point through dark whimsy.
“The earth’s meeting its doom/ Human beings move to another planet./ Luckily enough,/ I’m among the last batch to leave./ When we reach there,/ we find those who arrived earlier/ live in a super casino./ They shoot globes/ at the hoops./ As I tell them the news/ about the earth’s death,/ they laugh/ and celebrate./ It turns out that all the people/ have put a bet/ on the destruction of the earth,/ their home./ Now they win.”