Fang Xin 方莘 was born in Chengdu, China, in 1939. Ten years later he settled with his family in Taipei, Taiwan. As a teenager he joined an established group of poets known as the Blue Star Poetry Society 藍星詩社. His first poetry book, Mo Bai 膜拜 / In Prostration (1963), received great acclaim in Taiwanese literary circles.
Fang is currently finishing a collection of poems and translations titled Night falls so impatiently 夜的變奏. He has lived with his family in the Bay Area since 1982. The Summer 2023 issue of The Georgia Review features Fang’s English translations of four poems from his early career.
David Roderick (DR): Congratulations! It’s fantastic to see this work in print, finally. All of these poems were published in Chinese when you were a young man, and now you’ve translated them into English for an American audience. You’ve waited a long time for this moment. Can you describe how that feels?
Fang Xin (FX): To be honest with you, I have been thinking that by translating, or rather re-creating in English the creations of my formative years as a thinking poet, I have now managed to resurrect a dream that has been dormant in me for so long.
DR: Perhaps a good way to contextualize your writing life is to go back to its origins in Taiwan. When did you first begin pursuing poetry as a vocation? Can you share any memories that illustrate your early development as a poet?
FX: As I recall, as a quiet and pensive child, early on, I was drawn to evocative, creative things such as art, music, poetry, and dreams. As a young teenager, I think I became conscious of my love for poetry and started trying my hand writing it. I was fortunate to be publishing some of my early works in magazines and newspapers of the time, and was then invited to join the Blue Star Poetry Society, becoming one of the youngest members of that group of poets.
DR: How old were you when you were invited to join Blue Star? And how did that invitation come about?
FX: I think I was fourteen when I published my first poem in The World Today [今日世界], a popular magazine published in Hong Kong, in 1953. The poem was titled “A clear stream [清流].” It was a poem rather conventional in subject, style, and form.
Maybe two or three years later, I attended a series of poetry gatherings in Taipei and met some up and coming poets a few years older than me who encouraged me to continue in poetry. Meanwhile I got to publish a number of rather pastoral-themed poems in a popular poetry magazine, New Poetry Today [今日新詩], published locally in Taipei. At the same time I think I was invited to join the Blue Star Poetry Society [藍星詩社], a poetry group formed by Chin Tze-Hao [覃子豪], Yu Kwang-Chung [余光中], Hsia Ching [夏菁], and a few other poets of the time.
DR: I’m curious to hear more about Blue Star. How were they organized? What was their aesthetic?
FX: The group was rather informally organized. Through the years, their poetry journals, in different formats—from newspaper supplements, folded pamphlets, to monthly and quarterly periodicals—have been the longest existing poetry publication in Taiwan. The Blue Star Poetry Society stands as one of the three most influential poetry groups that helped to start a wave of “new poetry movement” in postwar Taiwan. The groups were, in order of appearance: Modern Poetry Society [現代詩社] (February 1953), Blue Star Poetry Society [藍星詩社] (March 1954), and Epoch Poetry Society [創世紀詩社] (October 1954).
During my high school years, out of my love for art and my intellectual curiosity, I also befriended a few young artists who were academically trained in both the traditions of classical Chinese art as well as classical and traditional Western art. They tuned into the spirit and style of the new waves of Western abstract art, especially abstract expressionism. In that, they found their true inspiration, joining the aesthetics of the new sensibility of the postwar Western intellect with the ancient art of Chinese calligraphy and shan-sui painting [山水畫].
My association with these art pioneers bolstered my urge for innovation in whatever I want to create. I remained life-long friends with some of these outstanding artists of international renown, among them HN Han [韓湘寧], Fong Chong-Ray [馮鍾睿], Chuang Che [莊喆], Liu Guo-Song [劉國松], and Peng Wants [彭萬墀]. Our association bolstered my urge for exploration and innovation, my desire to create new modern poetry.
DR: Tell us more about the cultural atmosphere in which Blue Star emerged.
FX: As I understand, unlike the other two major poetry societies that I mentioned, Blue Star [藍星] was founded on a spirit of tolerance and openness. No ideology of poetry was ever declared, thus the group remained democratically inclusive in its members’ various personal styles, inclinations, and mind-sets in poetry writing. Though a few of its major members, myself included, were more “avant-garde” in spirit and style, the society as a whole has been viewed by other poets and critics as rather on the conservative side among the three major poetry societies of Taiwan.
DR: Your first collection of poems, Mo Bai 膜拜 (In Prostration), was published in 1963. Can you share how the book was received? I understand that it earned some critical acclaim.
FX: Mo Bai: selected poetry of Fang Xin [膜拜:方莘詩選集] was published in the spring of 1963, the year when I was going to turn twenty-four, in my third year of college majoring in English at Tamkang University in Tamsui, Taiwan. For this collection, I spent nearly a year gathering, selecting, and editing my works up to then. Most of them had been published in various journals in Taiwan. The whole raw collection totaled about two hundred poems, I believe. I picked out twenty-four poems for my final collection. These I believed to be most representative of my creative efforts in poetry up to that time.
In order to truly present my style and sensibility, I chose to design the book, its cover, its organization, and its page layout myself. My close friend, artist HN Han, who was my high school classmate, with whom we planted and cultivated our beliefs and tastes in artistic things, offered one of his abstract paintings, a canvas also titled Mo Bai, for its cover.
Before the book came out, I visited and asked two well-known writers and editors of Modern Literature [現代文學] a pioneering literature magazine of the time, Wang Wen-Xing [王文興] and Bai Xian-Yung [白先勇], for their permission to list the book as number two in a series they were publishing. They gladly agreed and offered me some encouragement, for which I was really grateful.
When the book came out, its unique style in design and the special quality of the poetry grabbed the attention of many poetry and art lovers. So this slim, privately published book accrued considerable acclaim from literary critics, as well as other poets, and was sold out within a year. Years later, copies of it from some private collections even became a rare commodity among poetry- and book-lovers in Taiwan.
DR: Of the four poems published and translated in The Georgia Review, three (“Moonrise,” “Rain,” and “Night falls so impatiently”) appeared in Mo Bai. What prompted you to try your hand at translating your own work?
FX: Since my college years I have translated many English literary works into Chinese: writings by D. H. Lawrence, Archibald MacLeish, Denise Levertov, and Leonard Cohen among them. I have also translated and published my own poetry into English more than once. For example, my poems appeared in the Chinese-English bilingual collection An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Literature Taiwan: 1949–1974, [中國現代文學選集: 1949–1974], published in Taiwan by the National Institute for Compilation and Translation of the Republic of China [中華民國國立編譯館] in 1975. It was a comprehensive presentation of the literature produced by writers in post-war Taiwan up to that time. Of the nine poems of mine included, I did the translation myself, except for one, “Variation on Night, No.2,” which the noted late poet and scholar Yu Kwang-chung (1928–2017) chose to translate. Professor Yu was my teacher in English Literature and English Poetry at the time when I was an English major in Tamkang University.
Five years after my book came out, when I was studying English literature at Montreal University in Quebec, Professor Yu wrote an article in Taiwan about Mo Bai, giving rather positive critiques about my poetry. He wrote that my poetry has a strong affinity with modern art and modern music. At the end of the piece, he intimated that five years before, in one of his classes that I happened to be absent from, he declared to the class that the name Fang Xin was sure to be present in the history of Chinese literature in the future.
DR: How did that make you feel?
FX: Reading this remark I was rather shocked, and not in a pleasant sense. A heavy weight fell on me. This kind of prophecy from a serious literary critic is not really well-advised for a dedicated and still evolving young poet’s creative pursuit. I believe that good literary criticism should be focused on objective observation, analysis, and discussion of the matter in question, not generalized judgments or predictions.
DR: Literary translation is a reflective, critical practice. Since those poems were written in Chinese when you were a very young man, I imagine you encountered some unforeseen challenges or obstacles. Can you talk about what it felt like to engage with your own poems in this way?
FX: Yes, most of the works in this collection were written in my twenties and thirties when I enjoyed lots of freedom. The poet in me has always been a wandering loner in search of epiphanies, big and small, even today. Revisiting and translating my poetry from that time allowed me to reconnect with the wandering self that I once was and perhaps still am.
As I reflect on it now, my translation of each poem in this collection, as it were, came rather spontaneously, as if I was writing it from scratch in English. The really hard work only came after the first draft was done. All the challenges were essentially technical and linguistic. There were not many cultural or historical stumbling blocks.
I would say, of the process of and the final product of my translation of these poems, the substance of each one of them, present in their originals, has always been there, passing through the creative process of my translation, beyond language, culture, and thinking. What I needed to do was to be the midwife to the child, for a second time, so to say. To rebirth the child. To give it another presence, another life.
DR: When you read your poems in English, do they feel different at all to you? It’s important to ask this question, I think, since poets rarely translate their own poems from one language to another.
FX: In the practical sense, yes, I am speaking a different language when I read through my translated poetry from their source language versions. The sound, the syntax, are all necessarily different from the original written in my mother tongue. The job of poetry translation for me, at least when translating my own work, is to strive to preserve, to absorb, and then to transmute the essence of the work by emulating its rhythm, its cadence, and its mood into another language. I believe it’s the same for all poetry translations.
DR: You and I have already had many fascinating conversations about your poetic influences. Can you talk more about which works of art, film, music, and literature inspired the poems in Mo Bai?
FX: I don’t think I can honestly point to a certain piece of artwork, poetry, or musical composition or even film that had a direct influence on a particular poem I ever wrote. But I do have to say that my sensibility in these realms has always been related to either art or music. Once a friend said to me that my poem “Moonrise” reminded her of a certain painting by Paul Klee. Later I found it true to me too.
You may have noticed in the second-to-last stanza of the “Night falls . . .” poem, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s name is invoked. This is an indirect allusion to the most popular piece of music he composed, his Piano Concerto no. 2.
It was this piece of music that I heard on the radio by accident in Taiwan one day when I was a high school graduate preparing for my college entrance exam. It evoked an ethereal, cosmic melancholy in me that prodded me to produce this poem.
I think I owe Rachmaninoff a lot. When I heard his famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, I was gladly surprised to learn that, in its eighteenth variation, Rachmaninoff actually inverted the five notes of Paganini’s original theme to form the base of his best known, most beautiful and touching melody.
This discussion leads to my point that, in writing my poem “Night falls . . .”, nearing the end, the opening theme of Fang Si was turned upside down, that is, to reply to this theme, which is an imperative statement, i.e.
night falls so impatiently
do not sing a mournful song
it is echoed in a plaintive and extended reply:
I even dare not expect anything
dare not in the moment before dawn
sing escape from this spiral universe
wanting to say something but dare not
lest even this little poverty
ah night shall be lost
This discovery of mine became one of my epiphanies in my pilgrim’s progress in poetry as a craft and an art.
DR: The twentieth-century space race between the U.S.S.R. and U.S.A. also inspired you as a young poet. Readers can trace your interest in celestial things (moon, planets, stars, galaxies) all the way back to your earliest works, like “Moonrise” and “Night falls so impatiently.” Here are a few whimsical (and ultimately tragic) lines from the latter poem:
Night multiplies in darkness
piling up multi-angular bubbles
I curl up under an overturned nest
the slumbering Cosmos broods me with a cool drowsiness
and caresses me with Ursa Major’s velvety touch
Rachmaninoff swings by on a tailless comet
I smell the magnetic music of Octopus Galaxy
through transistor channels come nonchalant sneers
sneering at my self-concocted joys
and yet I have none
Share more about how space and technology factor into your writing.
FX: Since my childhood, I have been fascinated by technological things. Airplanes, battleships, locomotives, radio, telephone, camera, clocks, etc. Mechanical toys intrigued me, though I was never good at taking them apart and putting them back together. As I grew older, I started to realize the important roles science, mathematics, and technology play in our life, in our history, and in our civilization.
Unfortunately, as a student, I fared miserably in math in school, failing exam after exam every time. Because of this, I had to repeat my first year of high school. That would be a major setback to most other young men my age. Surprisingly, I took my failure gracefully and nevertheless admired the indescribable beauty and power of science and mathematics, no matter how unreachable they seemed to me. By trying to grasp the conceptual essence of science and its history, by striving to express it in my poetry, I was able to circumvent this intellectual handicap of mine.
Another intersection between science and poetry can be found in “Night falls so impatiently”:
and the markings on the luminescent clock face
but there is a continuous knocking
starting since Galileo’s prayers
they abscond with those numbers
that were never mine
but keep on leaving their stains
on my overcoat
This is a reference to Galileo Galilei’s discovery of the pendulum principle, which led to the invention later of the pendulum clock, which in turn enabled, in part, the birth of the industrial revolution.
By the way, David, the lines you quoted in your question opening this section were not meant to be either “whimsical” or “tragic.” The image of an “overturned nest” where I “curl up under” is to suggest the imagined canopy of the sky which covers our lives and our dreams. The “self-concocted joys” that “I have none” at the end may well be considered the speaker’s interpretation of life’s many bittersweet ironies.
DR: Thank you for the correction! Now that you have finished translating your collected poetry into English, are there other creative projects you’re working on or thinking about?
FX: Yes, I do have other writing projects on hand. I have an unfinished series of prose poetry narratives conceived as a play, which I have also translated recently. It is missing its final segments. I plan to write these in English as soon as I can. Beside this I also have plans to write some new and important poems in English, most likely with astronomical themes. These are my dreams waiting to be made real, hopefully soon!