Ye Chun on Mapping Images, Word and Landscapes

Ye Chun
BY Shawn Flanagan

Born in Luoyang, China, YE CHUN is a poet, fiction writer, literary translator, and visual artist. She writes and translates in both English and Chinese. After graduating from the Luoyang Foreign Languages University in 1994, with a BA in English, she worked in cultural journalism, as a journalist, translator and editor.

Ye moved to the United States in 1999, earning an MA in English/ Writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Virginia. In addition to publishing a book of original poetry in English, Travel Over Water (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2005), her work has appeared in American journals such as The American Poetry Review, The Bitter Oleander, Indiana Review, Mid-American Poetry Review, New Letters, Poetry International, and Salamander, as well as in Chinese publications such as Shi Xuan Kan (诗选刊), Shi Chao(诗潮), and Mang Yuan (莽原). Her second manuscript, Lantern Puzzle, was a finalist for the 2009 Dorset Prize.

As a literary translator since 2001, Ye Chun has recently completed a book of translations of Hai Zi, Wheat Has Ripened with Fiona Sze-Lorrain, forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2012. With Melissa Tuckey and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, she has also translated the Chinese poet, Yang Zi. In collaboration with Fiona Sze-Lorrain and Paul Roth, she translates the award-winning Chinese poet, Yang Jian. Currently, she is also working with Sze-Lorrain on the translations of Lan Lan and Yi Lu, two major contemporary Chinese female poetic voices. Other completed translation work includes The Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinnell, and selected writings by Duo Duo, Charles Simic and Duane Locke.

As a fiction writer, Ye Chun has just completed a novel and a novella in Chinese. Her paintings include mostly oil charcoal on canvas or mixed media. Recent awards and fellowships include the Poe-Faulkner Fellowship, Friends of Literature Fellowship, and others. She lives in Virginia with her husband, writer Shawn Flanagan, and their daughter.

You work in more than one art form, expressing imagination through both visual and written methods. How is it different to render similar topics or idea in both forms? Which creative process feels the most conducive or accessible to you?

Several years ago, I took a drawing class with Elizabeth Schoyer. One of the assignments was to make a map of the place we grew up. At that time, I’d just written a poem about my hometown Luoyang, so when I pictured the city I saw the images that appear in my poem — bicycles, smokestacks, ancient tombs, peach flowers, Chairman Mao statue, sunset — they hung at various degrees of latitude and longitude, connected by roads like strands of a spider web. And each time I thought of Luoyang, I saw the color gray, and then a reddish purple slowly emerge. So gray and purple became the background of the map.

After I finished the assignment, I thought of other places I’d lived. What if I made a map for each of them, with words instead of pencil and paint? I started to write a poem sequence titled “Map,” in which each poem is a place and consists of two stanzas — the one on the left pockets traces of experience; the one on the right serves as notes on the experience. Together they work like lines of latitude and longitude to locate the experience…

Luoyang Map, 2005
(Gouache pencil, 24 x 30 in)
BY Ye Chun

But to answer your question, I feel when I paint, I try to visualize the intangible connections between things, and when I write, I try to connect seemingly disparate images. Images and words alternately build upon each other for my perception to climb along.

Writing is more conducive to me if I compare the two, mostly because it’s more flexible and portable.

Having worked in charcoal as well as mixed media, do you find that the subject of a work determines the choice of materials?

It depends. Sometimes I get an idea first and then pick the materials. Sometimes there are materials I want to experiment with or make use of. I’ll play with them for a while before any clear subject comes to mind. For example, once I had a piece of vellum paper left from a previous project. I wanted to do something with it. I traced my feet on it, then colored them with a blue highlighter, cut some thin wires and glued them on top of the feet. While doing these, I started to wonder what my feet meant to me. They bear the weight of my body and at times have to step on rough ground. The next day, I bought more vellum to continue my wondering about “this lowliest of tongues,” as Galway Kinnell calls it in The Book of Nightmares.

There’re also times when an idea and a material seem to run into each other. Once, I saved some small chocolate boxes, at a time when I also wanted to paint birds. It then occurred to me it would be nice to paint them on those boxes (the size of a little bird), so that I could hold them entirely in my hand as I painted.

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