Shi Ke & Yan Jun: Innovative Poets from China

Shi Ke
PHOTO COURTESY OF SHI KE

Yan Jun
PHOTO COURTESY OF YAN JUN

Translator’s Note

To fully inhabit the body of a poem, to apprehend its bones and organs, is the first and most difficult task a translator confronts. Of course, this is also the task that any serious reader takes up, and the rewards are similar. The foreign becomes, if not familiar, at least available, and the confines of our ordinary perception can be expanded, especially when the poet’s sensibility is particularly original or far from our own.

Shi Ke and Yan Jun are two of the most innovative young poets writing in China today, perhaps because both are also highly accomplished in artistic arenas outside of the literary world. Yan Jun is known in Beijing largely as a cutting-edge electronic musician, staging concerts and musical ‘happenings’ that are attended by hundreds of young people and those in the musical know. Yan is also a promoter and underground publisher, operating outside the elaborate maze of government regulations, and thereby avoiding much of the accompanying censorship. In contrast to the complexity of his life and musical tastes, his poetry tends to be understated, using repetition and plain language to explore vital emotional, philosophical, and religious issues. His poems land lightly and proceed to draw themselves out like a series of silk scarves appearing from a magician’s empty palm.

Inside the steamed corn,
a Bodhisattva is only a Bodhisattva

From this simple but richly evocative beginning, the rest of the poem is an unfolding of the Buddhist principle of manasikāra, or paying attention.

Shi Ke also has his hands in a range of artistic endeavors, from playwriting and acting to photography and video art. Far from Yan Jun’s favored plainspoken style, he is a performance artist, in life and in poetry. He loves flashy verbal effects and imagery that sends sparks flying.

This fishsong like a needle feeds me flowers
I plunge into the fire-flowing ice-stars in the blood.

Shi has a rare ingenuity, a talent for turning an unexpected combination of elements into a genuinely new metaphor, that ever-hunted, ever-elusive prize. In translation, the reader misses some of the original intensity of his verbal pyrotechnics, but his effects can still be seen in a phrase like “fire-flowing ice-stars,” which blazes just as brightly as the original Chinese.

— Eleanor Goodman

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