Translated and presented by Maghiel van Crevel
Published by the MCLC Resource Center, Copyright 2003.
THREE-DIMENSIONAL POETRY PERFORMANCE
by Maghiel van Crevel
[Originally posted on MCLC LIST; May 15, 2003] Peking University (PKU) is one of a number of schools that have left their mark on contemporary Chinese poetry, through the voices of poets as well as scholars and critics. Late last year, Huang Yibing 黄亦兵, also known as Maimang 麦芒, offered lively reminiscences on poetry at PKU in the 1980s and the early 1990s, in an informal seminar at the University’s Department of Chinese. A few months on, it was time for the PKU May Fourth Literary Society [五四文学社] 21st annual Lake with No Name Poetry Reading, participants including Liang Xiaoming 梁晓明, Che Qianzi 车前子, Song Lin 宋琳, Sun Wenbo 孙文波 and others. Since the 1990s, the Reading’s date has been fixed in commemoration of famed poet and PKU graduate Haizi 海子, who ended his life on 26 March 1989.
As in the past couple of years, the Reading marked the beginning of a poetry festival, including a series of events for the month of April. For this year’s motto, si 思 (think) had been replaced by shi 诗 (poetry) in the Chinese edition of Descartes’ most famous words: “wo shi, gu wo zai” (我诗，故我在), or something like “I [engage in] poetry, therefore I am.” The program included a women’s poetry recital in the Sculpting in Time cafe [雕刻时光]. The cafe used to be located outside the University’s small East Gate. But the remaining few blocks of hutong architecture there have long since been torn down to make room for the PKU Science Park, and Sculpting in Time has moved to Weigongcun. The recital took place in the garden of its beautiful second outlet, at the foot of the Fragrant Hills. Different generations were represented by authors such as Xiaoxiao 潇潇, Tong Wei 童蔚, Yin Lichuan 尹丽川, Cao Shuying曹疏影 and others including Zhou Zan 周瓒, editor of Wings [翼]. In the first half of April, the program also featured lectures by Zhou Zan, with special attention to the work of Mu Qing 穆青, and by Yang Xiaobin 杨小滨, on narrativity in present-day poetry. Presentations planned for the following weeks, by Zang Di 臧棣 and Tang Xiaodu 唐晓渡, were canceled because of the SARS crisis, along with just about all other events in the city. On 8 April, a little over a week before the true proportions—well, the beginnings of the approximate proportions—of SARS in Beijing were made known to the public, a third poetry recital had still slipped through. It was well worth it.
Poetry in the time of SARS: let’s hope the virus is contained soon enough, and funding for medical facilities beyond China’s privileged coastal cities is increased sufficiently to invalidate the association with love in the time of cholera. By early April, rumors about the spread of SARS in the capital had been persistent enough to put one on the alert and create the sort of collective consciousness that will make one try harder than usual to suppress the urge to cough or sneeze. Yet, the atmosphere was not nearly as tense as it has since become, and if the technician-artists accompanying Yan Jun’s poetry reading had donned mouth masks, that was theatrical behavior as much as anything else (fig. 1).
Yan Jun 顏峻 (1973) lived in Lanzhou, where he studied Chinese at the Northwest Normal University and worked as an editor, until he moved to Beijing in 1999. He has since become a central figure in the underground [地下] or unofficial [非官方] music scene: as critic, publisher and artist. He has also made himself heard in poetry, as contributing editor of the unofficial journal Writing [書], with three issues since 2001, and as author of Infrasonic Sound [次声波], a selection of his poetry from 1991 to 2000.
Yan’s performance on 8 April took place in the Thinker cafe. Its English name is probably the original rather than a transl(iter)ation. In Chinese, the cafe is called Xingke (醒客), meaning something like ‘Aware Guest’ or ‘Aware Traveler,’ through association with words like xiake (侠客) ‘knight’: a neologism of clear phonetic inspiration. The Thinker cafe is part of the wonderful All Sages bookstore [万圣书园] on Chengfu Road, between PKU and Tsinghua University. All Sages was once based in a couple of rooms along the same alley as the original Sculpting in Time, and likewise shifted its location to rise from the rubble once the demolition crew had moved in to pave the way for Science.
If Yan Jun is a young voice on the poetry scene, he is well known for the spectacular acoustics of his readings—and a good crowd had assembled when the lights in the cafe went out. Yan has a deep, powerful voice and is not shy about using it to the full to roar and sing, such as when he partook in the Guangzhou Poet’s Voice [诗人发声] recital in November 2002, to an audience of about 500. What is more, he is in the habit of reading his poetry to musical and soundscape accompaniment. When he appeared, in December, as a brief support act for one of Hei Dachun’s 黑大春 Beijing recitals with the rock band Vision [目光], he operated the sound equipment himself (fig. 2). It was a good reading, but nothing like that of last month. Then, the said technicians-artists provided the visual-acoustic surroundings for Yan’s poetry, allowing him to concentrate entirely on the quality of his recital.
The overall effect was, in a manner of speaking, three-dimensional. In the first dimension, using computers and a beamer, the technicians projected a continuing and sometimes repetitive collage of documentary images on a large screen facing the audience. They included newsreel-type footage on the American-British invasion of Iraq, both of operations on the ground and of political leaders orchestrating the events, such as Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein. This was alternated with glimpses at other worlds. One was that found inside hospitals, with a double focus on the helplessness of patient-victims and the power, both comforting and macabre, of the ‘army clad in white’ hailed in the Chinese press as the vanguard in the fight against SARS, i.e. medical personnel. Another recurring image was that of a child learning to read, implying a vision of education as yet another System held together by relationships of power. The audience also got a good look at Chinese residential areas with the character chai 拆 ‘disassemble’ slapped onto the walls of houses that are to be torn down, an eye-catching bit of couleur locale in contemporary Chinese cities, and the sort of thing typically appropriated by the Hip & Disenfranchised for decorating T-shirts. If the collage’s general political engagement needed any elucidation, unmistakable signals were delivered by the famous, long shots of a giant Lenin statue somewhere in the former Soviet bloc being decapitated.
But while many of the images had clear ideological themes, they also included pensive, stationary shots of a bird, of the stern of a boat traveling through the waves, of the mechanical choreography of traffic on an intersection. Moreover, the collage was visually manipulated throughout, by adjusting color and contrast settings and by double, overlapping projection of different images. While it displayed obvious socio-political engagement, that did not get in the way of its aesthetic qualities. The overall mood was one of alienation, oppression and bleakness—but also one of bitter-sweet melancholy, nostalgia and compassion, leading to association with Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi.
One reason for such association is that in Yan Jun’s collage, as in Reggio’s cinematic masterpiece, the images are not accompanied by their own sound. In Koyaanisqatsi, astonishing views of natural and man-made environments lie amid music by Philip Glass, now majestic and then maniacal. This method is essentially one of defamiliarization. It intensifies both the visual and the acoustic experience in themselves—and yet, paradoxically, relativizes them too, becasue they can to some degree be separated by an act of will on the part of the audience. Similarly, the images in Yan Jun’s collage acquired new meanings, because they were accompanied—in a second dimension to the performance—through a public address system by semi-musical, computer-generated soundscapes, as well as by Yan’s recital of his poetry.
A third dimension was constituted by projection on the same screen of fragments of that poetry in its written form. But crucially, these “subtitles” rarely if ever coincided with the texts that Yan Jun was reading out loud at the same time. Thus, (1) tanks and soldiers, Rumsfeld or Hussein or Lenin, medical doctors and nurses, pupils and teachers, anonymous townsfolk and other living and lifeless matter would be (2) accompanied by Yan Jun’s voice from amid an eerie soundscape, saying things like “abolish mental slavery” or “against ourselves, against everything we are against”, and (3) simultaneously subtitled—and, as it were, translated—in lines such as “imprisoned in song, catching fire, like a dream vanished in valleys of art, forever….” or “welcome underground!” The effect was electrifying.
Yan Jun’s poetry is perhaps, quite simply, best realized and experienced in settings like that of his recital at the Thinker cafe, but considered in isolation on the page, it is also definitely worthwhile. His prose poem “Against All Organized Deception” [反对一切有组织的欺骗], the source of the above quotations and of the performance subtitles, brings to mind an unlikely combination of intertexts: works by Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, as well as by Xi Chuan 西川, specifically his “Salute” [致敬]. “Against….,” and “Salute” are similar in stanza structure, sentence-level devices like parallelism, and occasionally even in particular imagery. The associative leaps in <Against….> are another feature that Yan Jun shares with Xi Chuan—and, in different fashion, with the novels of William Burroughs, especially in his negotiation of fragmented historical, fictional and dreamlike or intoxicated experience. Intertextuality with Ginsberg is clearest in Yan’s dogged socio-political and ethical commitment, and his anarchist streak.
The literary-sociological context of Yan Jun’s writing and its performance is constituted by other trends in poetry of recent years: socially engaged—be it decadent and arrogant or idealist—down to earth, direct, unruly and unassuming. Beijing-based “Lower Body” [下半身] poets Yin Lichuan (1973) and Shen Haobo 沈浩波 (1976) are prime examples, each in their own inimitable way. So is a poet pen-named Wenmang (1977), ‘text-blind’, that is ‘illiterate’, originally from Chongqing and now, after years in north and northeast China, living in Guangzhou. Wenmang’s 文盲 work, while occasionally self-indulgent, features aggressive indictments of social problems and is riddled with expletives and profanities. He has published in unofficial journals like Original Writing [原创性写作] and put a number of his poems to music, for unofficial circulation of a CD called Our People Are Everywhere [到处都是我们的人] (2003). The music is extremely unconstrained, which is both its charm and its curse.
Yan Jun’s April performance, too, was recorded in full. He plans to issue a 50-minute audio track followed by additional video + audio tracks on CD-rom, through his unofficial record label called SUBJAM or Iron Henchman Workshop [铁托工作室]. Below is a translation of “Against All Organized Deception”, which occupied a central, overarching position in his recital. The poem is all over the place, but in a strangely energizing manner. There is much China in here, most of it anchored in a rough-edged present. There is self-mockery and humor, there is anger and a vicious obscenity, there are (semi-) allusions to divergent sources: Yu Hua 余华, Li Bai 李白, Maxim Gorky, the May 1968 Paris riots, the Book of Jin, Mao Zedong 毛泽东, “The Internationale,” John Lennon, and more. There is playful and serious contemplation, there is cosmopolitan rebellion and courage and style—and there is a relaxed self-consciousness of all that. Yan Jun makes things happen.
AGAINST ALL ORGANIZED DECEPTION
last night, i dreamed of soy sauce—last night, i began to germinate—last night, the vast desert moved far away, like a sigh. i heard the sounds of dark clouds, while under the eaves, the last of the young ones who had to move when their houses were torn down finished his cigarette. last night, for lack of a woman’s tears, shanghai turned into a city of wooden stallions—last night, for lack of thin mist crossing the bridge, guangzhou turned into pill heaven…. and in xining, the streetlights went out, while a fellow hiding a knife in his clothes ran through the alley splattered with sheep oil—last night, the beijing god went out the door.
against all organized deception!
against meetings at dusk, stars twinkling. against yelling my name from a tree-top, against yelling in a drizzle. against capitalist contemplation. against those who are two-faced and triple-knived. against dead souls re-incarnating in another corpse. against your lowering of my IQ. against a movie interrupted halfway through—when the light rips through our overcoats, the nightmare fairy stops in mid-air, she’s got not love and no future, and her loneliness is our loneliness…. against power.
to the flea market, imperishable and immortal!
yesterday you were a scholar, today you’re a thug, tomorrow you’ll be talking in your sleep and turn into a philosopher. could that really be what life is all about? could it really be that cell phones won’t come through but airplanes can just strut about in public, scratching brittle skies? go out, together with the ox, prince of demons, go see that god—a year should be enough for you to learn to be silent, observe, go live in iron-n-clay caves and sob. winter is coming to an end, you must believe your memories.
sex is a cure-all!
against advertisement, against forgetfulness. against tearing up anyone’s ID and ugly face. against coming through meteoric showers clad in a golden cape but forgetting your daughter’s name. against carnivores dancing. against computers dying. against living like a sickle. against night fragrance dying at night. against faddish magazines and dotcoms. against day-dreaming, see-through garments, the heart exploding like goose feathers…. booze killing a man from ten steps away…. idiot cunts ruling the world…. porn magazines for exam papers…. against fear.
let the storm rage with greater force and fury!
against qigong masters, against rock stars. against electricity destroying earth’s beautiful atmosphere. against closing bars where wandering spirits go. against a god gone around the bend. against breast worship. against selling flowers, against selling out nether world flowers with seven stars roaming above, against flowers for valentine’s day and for mother’s day, against eating flowers. against skin. against azure conspiracies.
free the grasslands from the artist’s hands!
doubts come from blood pressure stimulating the brain, but could worship really come from hunger? hence, against the mantis’ speech, against the mysophobic scientist—she has hurt me! and moreover, also against intellectuals disguised as thugs. likewise, against forests disguised as wooden homes to foreign birds, finally carried off by street acrobats selling their art, imprisoned in song, catching fire, like a dream vanished in valleys of art, forever….
free the computer’s body!
one hears it said that sound going around can wake up night shift workers, that blood falling can hit black people born in the 50s. your casual drawings of air and wooden sandals will make the afternoon grow longer, until the thief comes down from the slopes and blankly stares into the sunset. and those fellows holding meetings in the sky, they’ll dance and tumble down. people are gathering too, it’s time to get going.
there is no such thing as punk theory, only punk action.
if dead then bury me.
believe in the infinity of love and other articles for daily use.
the world is yours.
against entertainment journalists and their twisted grins.
sing a song on rusty nails.
leave a little happier.
noise can improve your life, but please don’t perform inside a study filled with smoke—he says, with dark clouds packed overhead, science is but superstition. then he says, cigarettes give the angry a headache, snacks make hippies ponder, smoke will change the life of one’s iron henchman. as for human life, a human being’s full life, a human being’s full life…. his territory is clean, the neighbors howling every day, he says, no savior from on high delivers.
gay love—so what.
learn from comrade li bai—
change the world, change ourselves.
do you believe in re-incarnation now?
cattle in the distance and their staring eyes: against matrimony.
abolish mental slavery.
one who has money needs a moneybag.
spring’s every detail resembles a coastline.
into the trees! like a bird looking down on the struggle.
into the trees! and welcome the foxy women.
into the trees! disband america.
whoever can fly is a magician.
except mosquitoes, of course.
against. against everything.
against ourselves. against everything we are against.
against everything we are not against.
against everything about ourselves.
against everything we must not be against and cannot be against.
5 december 2000
我捏着 我分解 我起立 像微弱的呼吸
欲望的结构 在花下 水声之前
然后落下 让我去 并因此昏睡
我下陷 爱所爱 哭所哭 胖所胖
运行 我搅拌 点着骨的头致敬
要么来 要么做梦 要回答吗
我不知道 我再次不知道 你的意识
会中途转折 抖动 因此潮湿
我被打 也被探索 美好的一天啊
如此 好 我扩散 冰了吧
你将回来 门将属于时间 有轴
拎着酒 微笑的你也是你 来 喝
再集中一些吧 集中是苦闷 是鸟叫
我谁也不原谅 咆哮 傻笑 跟石头说起你
脚下是水 是永不发生的幸福 我诅咒
我提到了三条路 还有很多 越来越多
我在比喻你 夜莺 星星 夏粮 空心人
但不敢肯定你 旧巷 剃刀 心肝 花或泥石流
你的每一次呼吸 都通过我 轻轻爆炸
春风不过是一阵烟 而你 你是我的燃烧瓶
而我噼啪地 流银色的汗 喝墨绿色香水
像一群鲸鱼 失望地 坠毁在车站
阿童木 吹着革命的灰 吹着坏血的颤音
当我吹起破小号 红色风筝 当我吹起风
纠缠起你的微粒 向另一些角落 眺望
我们的日记啊 一些放纵的脚印 汗啊
向银项链蒸发 未来 应该是柔软的