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Splitting Rocks in China & Writing in the Dark

Is the gathering called Split This Rock a poetry festival, a literary conference, or political rally calling for social action on such issues as bringing our soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan or nailing down nationwide rights for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community? The Dresser brings this question up because of an anecdote told by Philip Metres in the session entitled "The Peace Shelves: Essential Books and Poems for the 21st Century." Metres said he spoke to his young daughter (the Dresser thinks she heard Ms. Metres is nine years old) on the phone and she wanted to know something about the "conference" her father was participating in. He told her he was at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival. At the word "festival" she laughed and asked if there would be cake and a parade.

IMG_0435Friends.jpgWhile the Dresser takes note of the rally (entitled "Poetry in the Streets" in which participants were invited to contribute to a long poem envisioning the future of country and planet) that took place on March 11 at the upper Senate Park and the closing dance party March 13 (possibly these are the stand-ins for parade and cake), it is still hard to say what the Split This Rock offerings add up to. In part, it does have a party feel where good friends and new meet up on the sidewalks of the U Street corridor. Leading Split This Rock producer Sarah Browning made good choices when she landed venues in this section of Washington, DC. In part, Split This Rock can seem like a place where politicos and academics converge to read their cant. However, the part the Dresser likes the best is when she learns something new.


John Rosenwald and Arthur Sze in their session "Poetry in China: A Force for Change" provided a tutorial on Chinese poetry since the Cultural Revolution. In an intimate conference room in the Thurgood Marshall Center, a group of twenty or more attentive listeners heard about Rosenwald and Sze's acquaintanceship with members of the Misty Poets: Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Duo Duo, Yang Lian, Mang Ke, and Shu Ting. These poets write or wrote in the Romantic tradition and address or addressed human emotions, which is something few Chinese people do. Shu Ting is the only woman in the group of Misty Poets.

In 1978, Bei Dao and Mang Ke founded a literary magazine called 今天 Jīntiān (Today) where the poems of the Misty Poets were published. Bei Dao's poem "Huida" ("The Answer") was written during the 1976 Tiananmen Square demonstrations and carried on posters during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Although Bei Dao was in Berlin during the 1989 protests, the People's Republic of China government refused to allow him back in the PRC.

CIMG0383Rosenwald.jpgIn the late 1980s, Rosenwald who was teaching in a university in China found out about the Misty Poets in a roundabout way. He asked the head of his department about contemporary Chinese poets. The man said there were none, but he went home and asked his teenage daughter who said, "Father, I have been waiting for you to ask." She produced a booklet of poems by some of the Misty Poets. CIMG0385Journal.jpg

Rosenwald talked about the practice among the young Chinese intellectuals of running books. This entailed receiving an unsanctioned book for a period of 24 hours that the recipient would read and then pass to another person. Those involved with book running hoped to avoid discovery by government officials. This discussion reminded the Dresser of Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a short novel loosely based on Dai Sijie's life where two friends sent into the countryside of China for re-education steal a suitcase of Western books and then set about to educate a local seamstress with these writings.


Rosenwald also told the story about Bei Dao who was sent to a reeducation camp where he continued to write at the risk of bringing down the entire group with whom he was working. (And by the way, what was Bei Dao's job? Breaking rocks!) Because his work team understood Bei Dao would not stop writing, one of them decreed that they must have a group photographer and assigned that job to the poet. Therefore Bei Dao could lock himself into the dark room and write.

CIMG0379Sze.jpgArthur Sze provided a glimpse into the writings of contemporary Chinese women. He read from a manifesto style document in his new book called Chinese Writers on Writing. "Black Night Consciousness" by Zhai Yongming was a very potent essay, particularly after John Rosenwald's wife told a story about a group of male Chinese poets being asked specifically to bring three female Chinese poets to a dinner she was making for the men. The men showed up without any women poets and then confessed that they didn't want the women competing with them for the possibility of getting published by her husband.

Invoked during this Split This Rock session was the name of Wang Ping who read the first night of this Festival but left soon thereafter for Scotland. Rosenwald said Wang Ping often talks about the "zigzag way" in China, which means to get something done, a person cannot proceed straight ahead because there are always barriers thrown up, forcing one to find another route to the destination. The Dresser who just finished reading Wang Ping's dark poetry collection Of Flesh & Spirit thinks this poet has much in common with Chai and her "Black Night Consciousness."

John Rosenwald and Arthur Sze whetted the Dresser's appetite for contemporary Chinese writings, particularly the work by Chinese writers who are women. If there is a parade for the Chinese women writers, the Dresser who dislikes big crowds will attend. She knows the Chinese have no appetite for cake.

In this poem, Shu Ting explores human emotions through the natural world. "To the Oak" was a shocking poem to the Chinese when it was published in Jīntiān in 1978.


If I love you - 

I'll never be a clinging campsis flower

Resplendent in borrowed glory on your high boughs; 

If I love you -- 

I'll never mimic the silly infatuated birds 

Repeating the same monotonous song for green shade; 

Or be like a spring 

Offering cool comfort all year long;

Or a lofty peak

Enhancing your stature, your eminence. 

Even the sunlight, 

Even spring rain, 

None of the these suffice!

I must be a kapok, the image of 

A tree standing together with you;

Our roots closely intertwined beneath the earth, 

Our leaves touching in the clouds. 

With every whiff of wind

We greet each other 

But no one can 

Understand our words. 

You'll have bronze limbs and iron trunk,

Like knives, swords

And halberds. 

I'll have my crimson flowers

Like sighs, heavy and deep, 

Like heroic torches, 

Together we'll share

The cold tidal waves, storms, and thunderbolts; 

Together we'll share

The light mist, the colored rainbows; 

We shall always depend on each other. 

Only this can be called great love.

Wherein lies the faith, true and deep. 

I love not only your stateliness

But also your firm stand, the earth beneath you.

Shu Ting
Copyright © 1978 Shu Ting


Comments (2)

Gray Jacobik:

Great to hear about this Karren . . . thank you for finding the flowers amid the rant, and for discovering the roles Rosenwald and Sze are playing in bringing some of this work to English readers (and advocating for it).

My daughter Adele liked reading that her words continue to spread--she's seven, but honored to be considered nine years old. It was indeed a festive gathering!! Thanks for your post. Philip Metres.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 14, 2010 1:13 PM.

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