Friday, April 15, 2011
I am writing this note from Chongqing, China, where I have a terrific two-bedroom apartment on Chongqing University campus B. I teach two four-hour classes per week on Dickinson and Frost to foreign literature graduate students “fluent” in English. We have also been talking about prosody and form in western poetry, using mainly Frost and Dickinson as examples. On weekends I have been working with Li Yongyi, a young professor and poet who is as well educated as anyone I know. He studies Latin on his own and has published a book of poems by Catullus, translated into Chinese. We spend one day a week working mainly on translations of poems by Yang Jian, a young Buddhist poet from Anhui Province. As usual, when I am in a foreign country I seem to start a lot of poems and finish few of them. It is so fascinating to be here that it is hard to sit indoors staring at a computer when I can actually be out and about, eating in restaurants, riding the busses, visiting museums. I have been keeping a journal and have started to think about some CNF essays.
Maybe the highlight of my trip so far was the night I found my way into a local Chinese bar that brings in live music. I talked to the manager on the phone earlier in the day. He knew enough English only to tell me a famous band from Beijing was playing that night. He couldn’t give me directions. My fledgling Mandarin barely got me there (after a 45 minute cab ride to a street that turned out to be about a mile from my apartment). There was a line going out the door: all tickets were sold out. I pushed my way to the front of the line and started bugging the guy who was holding back the crowd. The backup band had already started to play. I knew the manager’s name: Lao Gwai! I want Lao Gwai! I kept shouting over the noise (about the only thing I knew how to say), and took out 50 yuan, the price of a ticket. The guy at the door kept saying, No, No, No, No! I kept shouting Lao Gwai! Lao Gwaii! Lao Gwai! He wants me to come! or something to that effect, over and over until he finally let the crazy American in.
I was the oldest person in the bar by 25 years or so. Maybe there were 3-4 other westerners in a crowd of 300-400—two French guys and a French woman I met later, and an Iraqi who grew up in Russia who spoke some English. I wasn’t ready for what I was about to hear: Queen Sea Big Shark! The lead singer—Fu Han—looks like a cross between Andy Warhol and Elton John. Her stage presence was incredible. Rock ‘n Roll was a joke when I was in Beijing in 1998. It has grown up—big time. She sounded like a David Bowie-Yoko Ono mix. It felt a bit like the Village in the early 1960s (not that I was there): small bar, passionate crowd, first-rate talent, the young stirring in ways adults seemed to know nothing about, feeling their power. Check out Queen Sea Big Shark MP3s at the following links:
This weekend I will fly to Beijing to give a talk at my old university (Beijing Normal) and to have dinner with some old writer friends, some of whom I first met in 1990: Wang Jiaxin, Duo Duo, Mo Fei and Mang Ke. I hope everyone is well… All Best… Steve Haven
To find out which of the faculty won a Guggenheim Fellowship and who won the Juniper Prize along with other exciting faculty and student announcements, read the MFA program's newsletter for April, available on our website.