Interview with Poet Ye Lijun

Source: Kenyon Review (12/3/19)
Living and Writing in Lishui: Interview with Contemporary Chinese Poet Ye Lijun
Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Cover of My Mountain CountryBorn in 1972 in Lishui, Zhejiang Province to an impoverished family, Ye Lijun [叶丽隽] worked as a junior high art teacher and arts administrator for intangible cultural heritage. The author of three poetry titles, she has received several literary honors in China. Currently, she resides in her native city Lishui where she works as an editor. Her first bilingual volume of poetry My Mountain Country, in Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s translation, is published by World Poetry Books.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain: My Mountain Country is a collection that believes in nature first and foremost. Do you consider yourself a nature poet, if not a contemporary Chinese pastoral poet?

Ye Lijun: I feel and think of myself as a nature poet, not a contemporary Chinese pastoral poet.

Sze-Lorrain: In several instances, your poems hint at our failure to honor nature, or give ourselves up (and in) to it, as we ought to. In “Chronicle of Mount White Cloud,” for example,

Two young clouds leaning close
stir a puddle with naked toes. A mountain breeze
Pine needles feel too soft under my feet
My heart throbs
I don’t know how to walk
to place myself safely in this mountain

Do you think poetry can function as an effective vehicle that raises awareness of our climate changes and problems?

Ye: As long as the poem is well-written and gets to the point, it can indeed raise public awareness of our climate changes and environmental concerns. But there is a caveat: the work must meet a fitting readership and find a broad audience. At least in the present-day China, this is still very much lacking . . .

Sze-Lorrain: How so, and why?

Ye: This is because China is currently in the phase of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Economic “construction” is the main national task at hand. In recent years, the main contradiction of the Chinese society has transformed into the incongruity between people’s growing needs for a better life and the disequilibrium of development policies. Many inequalities still exist between the urban and rural, between regions, between the peasants (the majority of the population) and civil servants, etc. Ordinary folks are more willing to pursue a material life as their reality. The need for a spiritual life and environmental consciousness pales in comparison. Given the country’s progress and global exposure, the Chinese are more educated now about environmental protection and climate changes. They are aware of the grave problems and participate in concrete ways. But poetry as a niche has its limits when it comes to communication: with just a handful of audience, it can’t educate the masses about climate problems efficiently. Of course, if good poems and a matching platform exist, poetry can indeed reach the people’s hearts and effectively promote environmental awareness. Perhaps our era is calling for good poets.

Sze-Lorrain: In your experience, how challenging has it been to write about nature or the environment without over-aestheticizing or politicizing it?

Ye: In the context of the existing political system or the complex and laborious rhetoric in vogue, writing about nature and the environment isn’t all that easy for me. My style of expression is too self-conscious and can seem marginal. Sometimes, it might even bring forth the effect of missing the argument or failing to get to the heart of a matter. This inadvertently restricts my own inner and poetic growth.

Sze-Lorrain: Your poems contain a strong presence of Lishui in southwest Zhejiang Province, among other places. Can you comment about your relationship with your hometown, and your artistic impulse to “immortalize” it via writing?

Ye: Lishui is where I was born and grew up. I am related to her by blood. We are linked to each other in intimate ways. When I was young, I stayed in Hangzhou and Beijing for my studies. But I would always return to Lishui; once back, I felt at peace and grounded. Lishui is my most beloved place, even though she is poor, remote, and locked by mountains.

No joy, no sorrow
in the valley where I lived secluded

I hung around the canyon nearby
Quiet all around, summits green and bright, I sat on a stream rock
listened to grass and trees endure the jointing stage in silence and indifference

—from “My Mountain Country”

Sze-Lorrain: How has Lishui changed in recent years? Have you been able to write about these changes without nostalgia for the past?

Ye: In recent years, Lishui has experienced major changes, the most significant being the shifting values of her people. As the most impoverished prefectural city in Zhejiang Province, Lishui is in good ecological health, but its mountaineous setting and shortage of arable land restrict its economic growth. Over the past decade, Lishui has taken the green path by committing itself to environmental preservation and sustainability. At the same time, it implemented policies to turn its ecological advantages into economic ones. With economic progress come changes in people’s value system. I suppose these changes are part of our ongoing human adjustment and response to nature, a process that seeks harmony. I write these from an objective point of view, as a local of Lishui who works at a government agency. Obviously, there is another “me,” the writer “self” hidden beneath her quotidian “me”—she remains lost and despondent. Childhood and time have left such an ineradicable impression on her, yet the world right before her is so realistic. As a poet she feels pain, yet can’t find words for it.

Sze-Lorrain: And how has your privileged relationship with Lishui changed over the years in your writing? Has your sense of intimacy with your hometown evolved, too? If so, in what ways?

Ye: When I was young, I kept thinking of leaving this small place, and worked hard at going “outside” for studies and career growth. Now, I no longer like to be elsewhere. I suppose I love only my hometown Lishui. She gave birth to me and brought me up. This is the case in my writing, too. In my early poems, Lishui was a place that confused and exhausted me. It was where I looked back. Later on, no matter where I went, I would return to Lishui, like a stubborn, naughty child who obediently returned to her mother after roaming wildly outside. Here, I feel rooted. Although I’m far from being done with my quest for the world and self, I feel quietly at one with my hometown. I stick to this place with my ordinary life, and have joyfully accepted my fate.

Sze-Lorrain: So would you consider your poems autobiographical?

Ye: To a great extent, yes.

Sze-Lorrain: In one of my favorite poems “Delirium,” you write:

I disapprove of the so-called earthly
truth and supreme authority—if you
find it a pity, then just
whisk me away. Like wiping off
my last illusion

I like the line “wiping off / my last illusion,” a rather philosophical erasure. May I ask by extension, how do you revise your poems?

Ye: I don’t revise a lot. Before a poem appears in publication, I do what I can to improve or perfect it as best as possible. This working process is gradual and slow. But once a piece is done, I almost never modify it.

Sze-Lorrain: Do you wish to address through poetry the mounting environmental issues in our world?

Ye: Yes, I do. That’s one of my hopes for writing poetry.

Sze-Lorrain: Do you consider yourself an optimist?

Ye: Hmm, I think I’m still an optimist.

Adapted and translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. She is the author of three poetry collections, most recently The Ruined Elegance (Princeton, 2016), and multiple books of translation of contemporary Chinese, French, and American poets. She lives in France.

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