Interview with Ye Chun — October 11, 2015

Ye Chun/叶春 is the author of two books of poetry, Lantern Puzzle (Tupelo Press, 2015) and Travel over Water (Bitter Oleander Press, 2005), a novel in Chinese,《海上的桃树》(Peach Tree in the Sea, People’s Literature Publishing House, 2011), and a book of translations, Ripened Wheat: Selected Poems of Hai Zi (Bitter Oleander Press, 2015). A recipient of an NEA fellowship, she is the poetry editor of The Missouri Review and currently teaches at the University of Missouri.

Christopher Nelson: The first section of Lantern Puzzle takes us on a journey from China to America then back to China. It seems a reconciliation—or an attempt to reconcile—place and identity. 

Ye Chun: That sounds right. Mapping can be seen as a gesture of self-orientation, but when you map past experiences, it becomes an attempt to understand, to make better sense of those experiences. It’s like a process of defragmentation, even though you’re made more aware of how fragmented your identity is. So, to reconcile is not just to do so with one particular identity, but with the various fragments of the self, each shaped or inflected by specific geographic locations.

Nelson: Is poetry, for you, a kind of healing then?

Ye: I haven’t quite thought of poetry in terms of “healing,” at least not in recent years. But when I think about it, the many things that poetry does, such as bearing witness, resisting erasure, and generating new meanings, can all be considered a kind of healing. After all, as we give an experience—be it personal or collective or both—a textual reality, we need to look at it directly in the eyes even if it is unsettling to do so. And that sustained eye contact can lead to a restoration or remaking of that experience, which in turn can give us a sense of peace.

Nelson: You called this process of defragmentation “mapping.”  The first section of Lantern Puzzle is titled “Map, ” and it is comprised of nine pairs of poems, each pair having a poem titled with a geographical place name and an untitled poem perhaps more psychological. How do you see the two poems in relationship?

Ye: The initial idea of the poem sequence came from an art project. I was making a map of my hometown Luoyang and thought about what it would be like to make maps with words instead of pencil and gouache. I wanted the two stanzas in each of the poems to have different textures and to somehow complement each other. What gradually came into being are these pairs of stanzas: the ones on the left are more linear and with lines that extend horizontally, while the ones on the right are more fragmented and with short lines that create a vertical momentum. The ones on the left pocket traces of experiences, while the ones on the right—more psychological like you said—serve as annotations on the experiences. Together they work like lines of latitude and longitude to locate the experiences.

Nelson: The evocative histories recalled in your poems include war and exile, but the lives of parents and ancestors loom most largely—Father’s tall bicycle, a peach tree growing in the ocean to mark the land of the dead. Tell us about the importance of these subjects.

Ye: Personal, familial, and public histories are all interlinked. It’s impossible to look deeply into one without seeing implications of the others. One image bleeds into another, lets surface a third, fourth. They coexist and collage into something new. For me, that may be the ultimate pleasure of writing poetry, or writing in general—it invites me to tune in and see the connections between seemingly disparate things.

Nelson: That’s well said. I marvel at that “tuning in” as well. For me, the tuning in is a turning inward—paradoxically, by directing my attention away from the external world I see it more clearly.

Ye: I think our mind retains lots of information, much more than we consciously know. The bits and pieces of data, images, sounds, and memories scatter around there not unlike stars in a night sky. To tune in, then, is like pointing a telescope at a particular area in the sky. As we focus and see more clearly, we’re also more ready to discern patterns and draw connections.

Nelson: In addition to being a poet, you are also a novelist. Are you equally drawn to each mode?

Ye: Yes, I’m equally drawn to fiction, and want to borrow elements from both modes to create something that blends narrative and lyricism—that tells interesting stories in interesting language. The book I’m working on is cross-genre like that. It incorporates prose, verse, paintings, etymological entries, and bilingual signs.

Nelson: You wrote your novel Peach Tree in the Sea in Chinese. How do you choose what language to write in?            

Ye: It was a hard choice to make. Before I started the novel, I had been writing poetry mostly and had worked out a system that allowed my writing to benefit from my bilingualism. Rather than letting the two languages constantly rub against each other, I would consciously suppress one when I was using the other. With poetry, I would write the first draft only in Chinese and then translate it into English. Seen through a new linguistic lens, problems in the draft such as underdevelopment and cliché are usually amplified. I would revise the English version and then translate it back into Chinese, and so forth. When I started the novel in 2006, I initially thought I could do the same—write the first draft in Chinese and then translate it into English. But it was labor-intensive and not much fun. Though I did come up with an English draft, I didn’t like it and ended up abandoning it and working on the Chinese version only. Later, when the book was accepted by People’s Literature Publishing House, I realized that I could actually be a Chinese-American writer who writes and publishes in both Chinese and English.

But the fact is that the Broca’s area in our brain does not sustain two languages equally. Now that I’ve lived in America for fifteen years, English has become my dominant language and Chinese has withdrawn into the creases of my brain. But I do hope to write in Chinese again and want to think that one day if I re-immerse myself in the language I’ll get it all back.

Nelson: Do you find that Chinese and English each have unique strengths and challenges? Is, for example, one more lyrical or richly metaphoric?

Ye: They have different features. A large number of Chinese characters are pictographic or ideographic—the signs were originally made to physically resemble or indicate their referents. But over the millennia, they have been simplified and stylized, and if you just look at the signs themselves without knowing the language, you probably won’t discern what they signify—much unlike Ezra Pound’s claim. Still, if we compare the two languages, we can say that Chinese words are more visual, while English, as an alphabetic language, is perhaps more auditory. But despite the linguistic differences, both are living, evolving languages that have their limitations and at the same time, allow people to write profound things in them.

Nelson: Thank you, Chun, for talking with me. Maybe we could close with some of your recent work?

Ye: Sure. This is an excerpt from “A Drawer,” a short story set in mid-20th century China.   

       She is seventeen and is going to be a mother. She doesn’t know what it means and how she feels as a mother-to-be, except that her stomach is fuzzy and her body feels weighed down by its unnamable nausea. After dinner, she hears her ten-year-old brother-in-law recite the classic: “At the beginning of human life, its nature is kind.” She wants to draw wavy lines, rippling lines. Her fingers want to move on a surface to create image. But her mother-in-law has been watching her, warily, as though afraid she might be conspiring something. She goes to her room and scribbles lines on her thighs with her fingertip. She opens the drawer that holds her husband’s ink, brush, and rice paper, but knows better than to use them.

       When her morning sickness lessens and her belly expands more and more, she wants to draw circles and spirals. She wants to draw out this kindness supposedly buried in the beginning of life. What does it look like? A baby’s unfocused eyes? Its little fingers moving like soft river plants? Its little mouth suckling? Where does this kindness lie? In its hard, oversized, lopsided head? Its faint but fast-beating heart the size of a walnut? She wants to draw to see it, but as her finger moves on her skin, all she can see is its erasure, a small piece forming as other pieces disappear. Nothing whole for her to see. She draws in her head, imagining a scroll unroll into a piece of white paper on which she will use her husband’s ink and brush to draw, to paint, from left to right, and even when she reaches the very end at the right, she will still be able to step back and see the whole picture. The whole piece. She will see the images travel and arrive from somewhere to somewhere. She will just sit there, stay perfectly still, except for her hand moving the brush. She’ll continue to draw until she can see the image of the beginning of life and its nature of kindness.