Xi Chuan and Jennifer Lee Tsai at the Manchester Literature Festival

This Saturday at the Anthony Burgess Foundation I had the opportunity to hear the poems of Xi Chuan, who is currently a professor at Beijing Normal University and Jennifer Lee Tsai, a fellow of the national poetry mentoring scheme, The Complete Works III. The event was introduced by John McAuliffe. It was a very refreshing experience to hear the voices of Chinese heritage here in Manchester. Originally Mary Jean Chan was to be one of the poets alongside Chuan and Tsai, but unfortunately she was ill that day and so was not present. The venue was small and compact, so the audience was quite immersed in the readings of the poems

Tsai tells us that she grew up in Liverpool, and she studied in a MA course in Creative Writing in the local University of Manchester. With a soft, soothing voice she reads poems that effortlessly encapsulate her identity as a Chinese woman and Chinese culture. In a poem that was about her first time visiting Hong Kong, where her family was from, she expressed in a brilliant line that ‘I am no different, for once anonymity subdues me’. Even in a poem that was about Northern England, lines such as ‘an aquarium placed for feng shui’ remind the audience of her Chinese identity despite growing up in England. We see more aspects of this in a poem she read called ‘On Ridge Road’, whereby Chinese culture is invoked through the words ‘bamboo plants’, ‘turtles for good luck’ and ‘the banging of an iron wok’.

Xi Chuan read some poems from his interestingly named book ‘Notes on the Mosquito’. With every poem he had something quite humorous to say. For the first poem that he read, ‘My Grandmother’, he expressed that since he never met his grandmother, all elderly women were his grandmother to him. The poem itself was interestingly structured. He describes the lines of the poem as if they were ‘biting the tail of another’, since the last word of every line would be the first of the next. The poem was actually written in Chinese and translated into English. It was enlightening to hear both versions of the poem and to observe how the English version attempts to encapsulate the meaning of the poem.

He also read a poem called ‘I Buried My Tail’ in which he shared an amusing story about how he learnt that to an American audience the word ‘tail’ had other connotations. For the reading of this poem, Xi Chuan read a line in Chinese, and then the same line in English, alternating between the two languages throughout the poem. The captivating engagement of the languages in terms of sound and meaning was a very refreshing experience for the audience.

Xi Chuan also captures aspects of his identity as a Chinese man and Chinese culture in his poems. In his poem ‘Travels in Xi Chuan Province’ he speaks of the ‘erhu’, a Chinese string instrument, and of girls named ‘Jade Orchid’. When he read in Chinese, there was a prominent taut and upbeat rhythm all throughout the poem. However, when read in English, it was striking to note how the translation attempted to mimic the rhythm in the Chinese version, but ultimately it could not be captured completely in translation.

Xi Chuan finishes off the event with a strikingly emphatic poem called ‘Mourning Problems’, in which its concerns ranged from the idea of the mourning of an ant to the mourning of stars. The audience was left in awe when the poem ended powerfully with the line ‘The stars don’t mourn because they’re not made of flesh and blood’.

It was a very enlightening afternoon where the audience was able to observe the effects identity and culture can have on one’s work and translation’s role in allowing poems to reach a larger audience. I thoroughly enjoyed the event.

Weng U Pun

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