An interview with Jonathan Stalling by Li Qian (Issue #6: June 2012)
LQ: So you are a scholar, translator, editor, and poet. Which one of these roles is most important to you and how do they relate to one another in your work?
JS: I don't usually think of the title "poet" "scholar" "translator" "editor" as mutually exclusive, but porous in nature. So I cannot say if one is more important than another as they all come together into the basic components of my life along with being a father, husband, brother, son, friend, teacher etc. These are all just parts of the aggregate. But I think one can see how all of these elements come to fuse in my "work" more generally. For instance, I think of all of my work engaging in linguistic and cultural crossing and mixing. As a scholar I explore the historical crossings between American poets and Chinese philosophy and poetics; as an editor, I work with others to make a space for contemporary Chinese writers and critics to be heard in English; as a translator, I try to make available voices (like the poet Shi Zhi, who we featured in issue #2 of CLT magazine and a book of my translations will come out from Oklahoma University Press early 2012) that have not been heard in English, or to create new poetic techniques to reveal the sound of different languages within our own by bending and fusing languages together, and as a poet, finally, I write poetry in the hopes that I can find a music that enacts new forms of philosophical inquiry and ethics so that we might better attend to otherness without mastering or trying to control it with knowledge, and to re-examine the lyrical voice, the subjective voice, as ultimately arising from a plural being rather than singular one. In this way, one can think of my poetry as drawing heavily on both Neo-Daoism’s anti-ocularcentric epistemology (Guo Xiang) and various Confucian and Neo-Confucian notions of “love” and “self” (single-plural). As a literary scholar of East-West poetics, I try to understand all of the transpacific influences of China on American poetry, but this also allows me to see what has not been done, what influences have not become fully formed, and much of my work seeks to manifest poetry from the here-to-fore unexplored areas of the "transpacific mind." The next book I am presently working on “Evolving from Embryo/Changing the Bones: English as a Medium for Classical Chinese Poetry is perhaps the most direct attempt in this regard.
LQ: In your new book/opera Yingelishi, you've give the reader a single line of sounds which signify in two totally different ways (one in Chinese and one in English). What inspired you to do that?
JS: Right, so my first book of poetry Grotto Heaven primarily deals with these Daoist and Neo-Confucian notions, while Yingelishi seeks out a different unexplored territory of East-West poetry: sound. As you may know American poets have been greatly inspired by Chinese imagery, but there has not been very much if any attention to sound, so this book seeks to change that. I call this fusion of Chinese and English “Sinophonic English,” or, in the Sinophonic spelling: Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗. This word is more than the title of the book/opera; it is a poem that enacts the theory it names. If you turn your head toward English, you hear the word “English” spoken with a Chinese accent, but if you can understand Chinese, you hear “chanted/sung songs, beautiful poetry,” four words that together form the strongest possible valuation of the sounds being heard as an aurally beautiful poetic idiom fully capable of song. The most famous example of Sinophonic English is Coca-Cola’s Chinese name “可口 可乐”kekou kele or “to allow the mouth to rejoice.” While occasionally accepted as name brands, these accented phonemes have not been explored in terms of their poetic possibilities. The task of this work is to undermine the psychological baggage of yellow-face minstrelsy to find a new structure of feeling and episteme to encounter the fusion of English and Chinese on new terms. This is why the piece must be read along side the sung opera version of the work. I believe sound has near magical perhaps we can shift to that word to spiritual/sacred/mystical quality with the power to affect us in unexpected ways (the mock-Chinese of minstrelsy clearly has had a very powerful negative effect on how we come to hear certain sound waves which in and of themselves are often stunningly beautiful), so this book as an opera (a prototype of the opera was first performed at Yunnan University in 2010 with multiple vocalists and instrumentalists, and this version is available online in its entirety here) which releases its full dimensionality. I am not too humble to say that since the sung version, with the accompanying instrumentation (guqin and guzhengs) indeed has become a powerful de-centering force to the vexed social receptors of English pronounced in Chinese phonemes...It is my hope that it has become a house of being big enough for two languages to fit beneath its roof.
LQ: Next year you will publish a book of translations of poetry by the poet Shi Zhi. Can you tell me about how you became Shi Zhi’s translator, and a little bit about the process of translating his work into English?
JS: Shi Zhi and I met on June 21, 2007, though I had already translated several poems of his for World Literature Today the year before. I gave a paper that night on his shift toward themes of classical Chinese philosophy and poetics in his post 2005 work. In particular I was hoping to honor his turn toward more ancient poetic sensibilities in a poem like "Spring Snow." At any rate, afterward he asked me if I would translate his poems (which I had expressed an interest in doing before hand), and I was deeply honored to accept this role. I think the role of the translator is one of a student in both the scholarly and spiritual sense. For the next three years I worked on these poems and drew on help from numerous other translators and native speakers, as I believe it is my duty to try to best represent the work in English, which I think cannot be done without sending the work out to many readers. As for the sound of Shi Zhi's poetry, that was a real challenge, and one that I cannot say I have successfully overcome. When I first began translating him I used a loose rhyme and meter as he does, but the problem with doing this comes down to different cultural expectations and experiences. In short, Shi Zhi's formal qualities draw upon folk idioms popularized in earlier periods of Chinese poetry (and from mentors like He Qifang), and thus these sounds carry with them definitive cultural feelings, feelings that rhyme and meter do not connote in English. The results were simply not working for me, so I shifted to what I hope is a lyrically intense free-verse that holds to a firm line, a line that gives the work the solid feel it has in Chinese without the formal aural qualities. I think the translations will open American readers to one of the great, mythic voices in modern world poetry and in a few years, I am quite certain that his work will be widely known among American poetry circles and beyond.
LQ: What are you working on now?
JS: Well, I am still looking forward to doing more with the Opera aspect of Yingelishi here in the States, but that is a longer term project. I just finished the final proofs of Shi Zhi's translations, and am working on a new exciting issue of CLT (featuring work by novelists Li Ang, Mo Yan, and poetry by Che Qianzi and Wang Jiaxin among others. www.chineseliteraturetoday.com I’m always working on the CLT book series which will follow the Shi Zhi book with 9 more volumes (not translated by me of course) of novels, short fiction, drama, and poetry, and the new book I briefly mentioned earlier (Evolving from Embryo) which teaches and explores how one can write classical Chinese poetic forms in English. This is something I have been doing with students since 1997, so I am compiling my teaching notes to create a book that I hope will introduce forms like jueju, qiyanshi, wuyanshi, yuan qu, and ci, into English poetry like the Haiku and Tanka from Japan, Sonnet from Italy etc. The book is actually a book on classical Chinese poetics, but it goes about this through experiential rather than purely descriptive/declarative didacticism as does most scholarly work. In other words it uses the act of composing as the aperture into a radically different poetics. Like usual, it is also an experiment in bending English into Chinese, so can be considered both conservative/traditional/formal and experimental/procedural. I'm not sure how quickly this book will get finished though as I am always trying to improve my examples and refine the overall approach. Finally, and very exciting for me is that my book "空虚诗学" “Poetics of Emptiness” will be published in Chinese in a few months from China's Academy of Social Sciences Press. Like all works, it was impossible to translate exactly, but the Chinese version of the text will open up many areas of cultural communication between Chinese and American poetry. The work took about a year to translate and I am really humbled by the commitment of its translator Yao Benbiao who slugged it out daily for months on end. Its funny translating that work into Chinese because the translator, who is a Professor of American poetry and poetics like me, had to try to discover the existing philosophical vocabulary to discuss many points, and this was not easy. Still, translation is always more transformation than transfer right? Thanks for the questions Liu Qian!
This interview was originally published in Chinese in Chuxiong shifan xueyuan xuebao, Journal of Chuxiong Normal University, 2011 (10),楚雄师范学院学报，2011年第10期, pp.46-48. The interview was translated by Liu Qian.