Bei Dao Interview by David Huang (Singtao USA)
Q=Question from reporter A=Answer from Bei Dao
Q: You once said this about American poetry: “Poetry has become the middle-class’ dessert, it’s a game of the brain, it has nothing to do with the heart.” However, a lot of contemporary poetry is intergraded into rap music, and has become very popular among the younger generation. What do you think about that phenomenon? With consideration of this trend, where lies “the game of the heart”?
A: I know very little about rap music. Generally speaking, poetry and music are two different things. Occasionally their spheres intersect, as with the case of Bob Dylan, who is both a singer and an important poet.
The main difference between poetry and song is its medium. Poetry is about language, songs are about melody. Rap music is more about language, but this type of language is more outward, spontaneous, current and kind of critical; poetry is completely different, it’s inward, hidden and private, most of time above or outside of reality.
Q. Poet or poetry, which is more interesting?
A:It’s hard to use the word “interesting” about poet or poetry. I am afraid this standard is irrelevant in the examination of something inherently subjective.
Q: Your early poetry seems to be more rebellious and angry, your recent prose and poetry are more vicissitudinous and peaceful. Is creativity something very personal? Is it necessary to communicate?
A: Based on the structure of creative writing, the substance of poetry and prose is different from each other, and is hard to make a comparison. Literature certainly needs communication, and poetry and prose are two different ways to convey an idea. While one may be a bridge, the other could be a road.
Q: You once said, “I drift around with nothing, Chinese is my only luggage”. The Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco strives to explore the issue of cultural assimilation and culture identity under the background of globalization and migration. Having drifted outside of China for many years, what kind of impact does being in exile have on your thinking and writing? Does it change your conception of territory, borders and homeland? And finally, how do you view the “World citizen”generation, which your daughter is a part of?
A: You combined the two sentences I said into one, which is kind of dangerous. In terms of cultural assimilation and identity, it is a constant changing concept following the continual expansion of horizon. We are the generation of exile. We were sent to the countryside as teenagers, went far away and flew high, since then, home is no longer home. Later on we went further, too far to go back home, even no longer wanting to go back home. Incidentally, this coincided with the trend of worldwide migration. After these many years of drifting, I went from homeless to feeling the world is my home. It seems to be some kind of destiny. My daughter inherited my destiny of drifting, crossing through multiple cultures, and thus she has a vision that is different from her peers. I worried about her when she was young, and now I am really proud of her. Because she has grown strong wings, that will enable her to balance the danger in flying.
Q: You mentioned you like the American jazz music, and long for the America in the 30’s. What are you listening to currently? What do you long for now?
A: I still like jazz, but I don’t listen to it as much as I used to. Now I mainly listen to classical music, especially solo. It’s like a dialogue between two hearts.
Q: You mentioned many poets in your new books, and it seems that you have established a friendship that is above language. For an art form like poetry, can we establish a communication above language?
A: Friendship is friendship. Poetry must be translated, this is the dilemma the human being has as described in the collapse of Babel tower in the Bible.
Q: Does China still need poetry? What kind of poetry do we need for China nowadays?
A: As long as there is human being, we need poetry. Poetry is the spirit of a nation (ethnic group). Without it, we became walking soulless corpses. Regretfully, we are failing in our own humanity. I don’t expect everyone to read and understand poetry, but they should at least understand the importance of poetry in the ethnic spirit.
Q: Facing commercialization of everything, what kind of role should the poet play?
A: Poet should always be a poet, this is a life calling and a profession. If you ask poet to be a business man and vice versa, it’s a huge mess.
Q: After 20 year, the readers in China have transformed quite a bit, maybe you can share your views on the matter?
A: Time changes, so do the readers. Sadly, the commercialization and the internet generates a class of predominantly tasteless writers and tasteless readers. A good writer will not follow the readers.
Q: You lived in seven countries in four years, moved 15 times, you said “I am grateful to all the turmoil these years, it takes me away from the center, the turbulence (of China), and lets my life really calm down.” After all these years, what did you gain? What did you lose?
A: Without the turmoil and drifting, it’s hard to imagine that I can still be myself in China’s turbulence. I probably don’t have the composure. Looking at many of my peers in China, I feel really fortunate. I feel like I’ve been to the sky’s edge, and took a very tough road. But I first needed to conquer myself.
Q: If time goes back to 1989, what would be your choice?
A: Of course what happened in 1989 is unfortunate. But in the long run, it was the incident that caused many people to flee their homes, which is not necessarily bad for the Chinese culture. Our ancient nation needs someone to be “away from home”, suffer a little, be punished a little, so that then they can gain some new understanding. I am very lucky to be one of them. To a certain extent, it’s a historical crusade, but the intention of the crusade is not to conquer the enemy, but for the person to conquer him/herself.