“Underground Fire” by Yu Jian

Yu Jian photo AUG 2014

Chinese poet 于坚 Yu Jian

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: During the 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, Yu Jian set his mind on becoming a poet. At a time when both classical Chinese poetry and foreign literature circulated underground, and when it was virtually a crime to sit on a picture of the Great Leader, the task was a daunting one. Here, Yu recounts his struggle in an account that reminds us just how dangerous it can be to devote yourself to poetry. I’d like to thank Martin Alexander, editor of Asia Literary Review, who published an extract from this “Underground Fire” [地火] in the Spring 2017 issue.

In 1969, I was working in a factory in Kunming. Before finishing junior middle school, the State sent me to a factory in the northern suburbs of the city that specialised in making various kinds of machinery used in the mining industry. Here I worked as a riveter in the riveting and welding workshop.

When I wasn’t at work, I wrote poetry. In those early days, I composed a form of classical Chinese poetry known as gutishi, because in my Chinese classes at school only the classical-style poems of Mao Zedong were taught — I studied every single poem Mao wrote and could recite them off by heart. Owing to this influence, my first attempts to write poems was a kind of literary substitution, replacing some of the words in Mao’s poems with my own.

The factory was split in half by a broad aisle with workshops either side, and on both sides of this aisle, at the entrance to each workshop, there was a notice board for putting up dazibao or “big-character posters”. Big-character posters were used during the Cultural Revolution for the public expression of opinions about current issues — a bit like the internet today — and in the main streets and in workplaces there were notice boards everywhere where you could put up a poster. If you had some idea you wanted to get across, you wrote a big-character poster and stuck it on the board, unsigned if you wanted, although you would, of course, have to face the consequences yourself. It was a bogus attempt at freedom of speech: the number of people who actually dared say anything real was extremely small — people who sneaked out at night to put up a poster publicly expressing their pessimism with regard to the status quo were arrested at daybreak. Every month, each of the workshops would have to stick up a few new things on their notice board such as citations from Party leaders, extracts from newspaper editorials, expressions of gratitude written by workers, rhyming ditties of various kinds eulogizing of the Fatherland or singing in praise of scenes of prosperity and the overall excellence of the state of the nation, written in ink with a brush on a big white sheet of paper and accompanied by water-colour illustrations of the sun and floral motifs. The notice board of every workshop had its own name: the one outside the machining workshop was called “Spring Rain”, while that outside the riveting and welding workshop was named “The Red Riveter”. Not surprisingly, the casting workshop’s had been christened “Steel Flowers”. I had only just turned sixteen when I started work at the factory, and had written a poem in praise of International Labour Day based on the form of one of Mao’s; this was my first ever composition, and the propaganda officer published on “The Red Riveter”. But this didn’t spark any particular interest in writing on my part; it was just a one-off thing. Mao Zedong’s verse had led me to the Gate of Poetry, but beyond it was concealed the vast realm of classical Chinese poetry. These Gates of Civilization were as numerous as the Goddess of Mercy Kwan Yin with her thousand arms — there wasn’t one single gate, and you could go through any of them in order to reach a higher level of skill until you reached civilization’s most profound inner chamber. Continue reading ““Underground Fire” by Yu Jian”

《蛙文》/ Frogscript 1 • 郭少鳳 Evette Kwok

Japanese Frog for Frogscript_RESIZED_JAN 2018

Please scroll down for the English translation!








喺月台對面,就係一大遍廣闊嘅稻米田,慢慢行,見到有東西從腳邊跳開,第一時間估係最常見嘅草蜢。但睇真啲,唔對路,形態唔同,原來係一隻細小嘅蛙仔,得手指頭那麼大,棕啡色嘅,滿心歡喜,繼續靜靜地慢慢行。隨著腳步一步一步向前行,一隻一隻嘅小青蛙跟住跳開,這個畫面十分有趣! Continue reading “《蛙文》/ Frogscript 1 • 郭少鳳 Evette Kwok”

Please Don’t WRITE Any More Poems!


It was only last year that I came across the work of the American poet William Stafford for the first time. What I’ve read of him so far has a puzzling, introvert quality that resonates in a quiet way with me. Apparently, after his death he left behind 22,000 poems, of which only 3000 were published during his lifetime. If you set out to carefully read six of those remaining Stafford poems a day, you’d have enough to keep you busy for around 3167 days or more than eight and a half years. Say I started right now: I’d be humming the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-four” by the time I finished . . .

The current world population stands at around 7.6 billion as of January 2018. Many people feel that that’s a major cause for concern. It’s also a bit threatening to one’s sense of personal worth. What possible significance can I have in such an engulfing crowd, and how many people would even notice if I were no longer here? But what about the poetry overpopulation? Not only are there large reserves of unread poetry written by major figures such as Stafford; there’s also all the new poetry that is constantly being written all over the world. Where I live, in Australia, around 80 or so new books of poems are published annually, making a modest contribution of approximately 4800 new pieces, together with the hundreds of other bits that appear in magazines and on-line journals. In a time of a 7.6 billion poems, shouldn’t writers feel a little uneasy about adding to this already vastly inflated storehouse of verse?

But that’s not my main point. My central question concerns the use of the verb “to write” in the context of poetry. It’s one we all use all the time, of course, but how accurate is it, really? Another reason for liking William Stafford is because he called into question this idea of writing. He sketches his view in the following quote from “A Way of Writing”:

They talk about “skills” in writing. Without denying that I do have experience, wide reading, automatic orthodoxies and manoeuvres of various kinds, I still must insist that I am often baffled about what “skill” has to do with the precious little area of confusion when I do not know what I am going to say and then I find out what I am going to say. That precious interval I am unable to bridge by skill. What can I witness about it? It remains mysterious, just as all of us must feel puzzled about how we are so inventive as to be able to talk along through complexities with our friends, not needing to plan what we are going to say, but never stalled for long in our confident forward progress.

At the very least, then, writing in Stafford’s view is more like a writing down. Paradoxically, the “I” that doesn’t know what to say someone becomes, through a receptiveness to that unobtrusive “precious interval”, an “I” that does know. To me, this seems like a very peculiar form of activity, one that is somehow passive and active at the same time. Or possibly it requires a whole new terminology that takes us beyond the usual framework of acting and being acted upon. It reminds of the lines in Alice Oswald’s wonderful, long river-poem Dart that go “The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it? / trying to summon itself by speaking . . .”

13533785_f520.jpg (520×520)

It is for this reason that I feel writers need to start using the word “writing” with a bit more caution. And curiosity about the central role of unknowing at the heart of the creative experience.

Stafford’s comments certainly echo with my own rather subdued practice. I try and sit down for 45 minutes two or three times a week to see what happens. For the most part, very little at all takes place on the page, and as I patiently wait for “inspiration”, my feeling of incompetence gets stronger as the time drags on. Often, all I can manage is a few disconnected lines — usually with some rather obvious punning involved. Here’s a transcription of a recent “writing” session:

walks barefoot across broken grass

primitive, timid, diminutive, scarce

too scared or careless to be who you belonged to

curtain dust

runs rings around confidence when the extinguished wick meets its match


There were a few more things in this vein, but nothing at all connected in any sense, and certainly no poetry as it’s usually practised. But then there are the times when — out the blue, a completely unexpected fluency occurs and you can’t help thinking I didn’t write that, did I? For that reason, it seems downright misguided, not to say fundamentally disrespectful to the whole uncanny process, to write your own name confidently beside this sudden act of art, as if it were solely your own doing. And yet, without one’s own participation in the procedure, there would be nothing to record. And there is no doubt that the process can be enhanced with attentive re-reading and conscientious revision. But all that’s just follow-up and tinkering.

Thanks to Stafford, I now feel more than a bit uncomfortable with the verb “to write”. He himself seems fond of the word “reception”: perhaps “to recept” might be the term we need. I recently bought a book in Hong Kong about a famous traditional Chinese painter by the name of Qi Baishi. In English, the title of the book roughly translates as Cooking Paintings with Stones. There is definitely a cookery element in “recepting”, but in this case the ingredients come from somewhere just out of this world. Actually, I’ve become a bit obsessed with thinking up a better alternative. The best I can manage to date — and it’s certainly not a very succinct formulation! — is:

to backhandedly actively court . . .

Failing that, for the time being I content myself with “poeming” poems, in order not to betray the enigma any more than necessary with inadequate human terms.


He literally never did hurt a fly.
All spiders he removed from the house in plastic jars, gently.

Birds that stunned themselves senseless
against his world wide windows — these he would nurse

in the palm of his hand for fifteen, twenty minutes
till they regained full bird alertness

and flew away.
Not one of them taught him a thing about cruelty.

It was only in the brown eyes of a puppy-terrier
resisting his best efforts simply to groom her

that he saw for the first time his power to harm
and felt an elemental pleasure in alarming

with vivacious athletic terrorism
the living will of this small — emotional — being.

Travis Splatt Turns Six

And it’s a fair bet your name
will never be the name on everyone’s lips,
but how rightly its shape may sit in the curves
of who knows how many authentic smiles
Other names ringed — wrung? — with auras
of fame, of fashion, of magnetism, of prestige
are doomed to excite (like a foregone conclusion)
interest; yours, being “shapeless” in so many ways,
escapes that fate — so become as you please
to the bent of your inspiration.
Perhaps, now, you are raised to the raising of eyebrows,
still too young to get the begetting of your joke,
and so I wish you strength, Travis — how old
you will have to be to know
no snigger can ever remove your right
to laugh in your name at the world.
In the long run, as you crawl past the legs of Notice,
what matters are which stray dreams choose you
as their caretaker. Hopefully (I hope) heartfelt ones,
whose bottomless sun-beaming joy
melts off the plate like butter or chocolate or ice-cream
that never-ending line-up of po-faced boys and girls.