Lyrical Mystery of Time and Space: Conversing with Contemporary Chinese Poet Bai Hua

Bai Hua
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

Considered the central literary figure of the post-Obscure (post-“Misty”) poetry movement during the 1980s, BAI HUA ( 柏桦 ) is next to Bei Dao and the “Misty” poets, the most influential poet in contemporary China.

Born in 1956 in Chongqing, he studied English literature at Guangzhou Foreign Language Institute before graduating with a Master’s degree in Western Literary History from Sichuan University. His first collection of poems, Expression (1988), found immediate critical acclaim.

A highly demanding writer, Bai Hua’s poetic output is relatively modest yet selective: he wrote about ninety poems in the past thirty years, many of which command a vast readership. After a silence of more than a decade, Bai Hua began writing poetry again in 2007. That same year, his work garnered the prestigious Rougang Poetry Award.

A prolific writer of critical prose and hybrid texts, he is also a recipient of the Anne Kao Poetry Prize. Currently living in Chengdu, Sichuan, he teaches at Southwest Jiaotong University. His first bilingual poetry collection, Wind Says, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain, is forthcoming from Zephyr Press as part of the “Jintian” series in 2012.

Places and seasons play an integral role in your poetry, both lyrically and theatrically. I think of Nanjing, Chongqing, and summer, for example. How do you reconcile, revisit and reinvigorate time and space as compositional elements in your poetic creation?

Time has always been the greatest wonder for me. Why is it now, but not then? Why did he die, while she was born? “And those weeping,” and “a sound from moving water”… I had poured out all of these in “Expression,” a poem I wrote in October 1981 in Guangzhou. Why would I suddenly stop my pen (and stop writing poetry) for fifteen years, and then suddenly begin to write anew in 2007? This mystery is closely associated with time: it makes me ponder, but without explanation. Yet it is often the miracle of time that summons me, luring me closely behind it. I write, I stop, I write again…

This mystery is closely associated with time: it makes me ponder, but without explanation. Yet it is often the miracle of time that summons me…

What trembles me most in terms of time is summer. Yes, once I open my mouth and say “summer,” no matter when and where, my voice will enter an inexplicable lyricism. Those destined places — Chongqing, my place of birth (the most unique city in China, which I evoke in an essay from my book of nonfiction, On the Left: A Lyrical Poet from the Mao Era); Nanjing, my place of wanderings; Guangzhou, where I studied; Chengdu, my place of residence — the fact that they have crossed paths with different years of my life transforms itself into an unfathomable yet inexhaustible source of theatricality. I constantly strive to do my very best in poetry — an art of memory — so that it can shine in my life, and console the fading past, and retain what is about to fade away.

You know, every place I visit, every repetitive detail in each season is always so significant, that I must do my utmost to speak of its various mysteries and beauty. I also possess a kind of foresight. For example, when I visit a certain site, I immediately get a sense if it would one day become an unforgettable poem of memory.

How has your relationship with poetry evolved since your poetic silence of over a decade?

I have become much more broad-minded. My ways of entering poetry have diversified; they are richer, I am more self-confident and poised. I have finally understood: other than in my young but nervous imagination, poetry can be found in the market, factory, toilets or by the bedside. This is why I am now writing the series “Historical Annals,” and do not care about the hatred, rage, criticism and mockery some young people have shown toward such a writing style.


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