We published some poems from this project in Transom 1
At the time, you characterized your writing process as not translation,
but as “messing with” Lu Yu’s poems. Are you still finding liberty in
messing around, or has something more methodical emerged as you’ve
written into this project?
The method remains the same. 1) Read old Chinese poems in translation.
2) Find one that is magnetic and mysterious but also marked by a
certain fuzziness or imbalance, a shape on the page I don’t like,
stultifying syntax or lineation, maybe a big whiff of chinoiserie. 3)
Write the poem out then rewrite it differently and rewrite it
differently again and keep rewriting until it looks and sounds almost
like an original poem by me – i.e., “right.” 4) Consider the
possibility that there is something compromised about this, like, Oh no
I am totally recapitulating a whole terrible history by appropriating
these poems and trying to make them resemble me rather than resemble
more fully themselves. 5) Change my mind and decide that what I’m doing
is bringing about a (planned) chance encounter between a sewing machine
(me) and an umbrella (the poems), or maybe I’m draping the original
Chinese in the Benjaminian royal robe of the translation and finding my
own poem in those ample folds, but either way I’m honoring the poems
more fully by trying to imagine them anew and uncover their secret
breathing crystalline heart, and am I mixing metaphors?, and, you know,
my God, just calm down already. 6) Begin again.
You made a point in our conversation for
Transom 1 of saying that you only created these pseudo-translations of
Lu Yu’s work, because of “how he in particular gets translated,” but
here we have poems after Yang-Ti and Wang Anshi. Has your focus
remained on how other people have translated these poets, or are you
finding entrance into these poems in other ways?
I suppose part of what’s happened is that I’ve just read more widely in
classical Chinese poetry since I said that. But there’s also something
I’m looking for, some ineffable combination of the qualities described
above (I want to say something like “I need to feel that I am getting
glimpses of some bright shiny spirit behind a screen of dusty leaves”)
that lends itself to the process, and Lu Yu in translation does this
more consistently than most anyone else. Having said that, I’m an
equal-opportunity appropriationist! If you’ve got some kind of
bright-shiny-spirit/dusty-leaves thing going on, far be it from me to
turn my nose up at destiny, you know?