A literary editor, a prose writer, and a poet, Sun Tzu-ping (b. 1976) is an important voice in contemporary Taiwanese gay writing. His poems often depart from his perception of the mundane in an urban setting and lure readers with a lyric sense of abandonment and loneliness. The narrative, if present, is absurd and should not be rationalized. Sun’s poems published in the Winter 2020 issue of The Georgia Review come from his collection 《善遞饅頭》 (Sentimentalist), originally published in Taiwan in 2012. In 2018, I had the honor to be the poet in residence at the Taipei Poetry Festival, where I met Sun Tzu-ping. At a dinner gathering, he gave me a copy of his poetry collection 《善遞饅頭》 (which literally means passing buns with kindness). At first, I was not aware that the title was intended to capture its homophonic resonance with the English word “sentimentalist.” I turned to the title page, where he wrote, 「好好生活，就像善遞饅頭。」(“Live well, just like a sentimentalist”). This was how our heart-warming literary exchange began.
Nicholas Wong (NW): Tzu-ping, I’m thrilled that The Georgia Review has published my translation of your poems in its current issue. I hope this short dialogue will allow literary readers in the States, and me, to understand more about your work. Shall we start with your book title? Could you say a few words about its origin and how it highlights the emotions of the poems in it?
Sun Tzu-ping (TP): Translation is an act of inevitable creation. I’m glad that my poems have been translated by you. It’s a blessing to me. Sentimentalist includes poems I have written between 2003 and 2012. Over those ten years, I served in the army, became a student again, graduated again, then started working as an editor. I experimented with different styles, and my writing came slowly. Even though these poems cover a wide range of themes, “time” is the keyword to them all. In Taiwan, all men have to fulfill mandatory military service, during which they are served buns for breakfast, day in and day out. That’s why some people refer to their time in the army as “bun-counting days,” highlighting how we mark the passage of time. To me, the book title is about living each counted day as fully as possible. Of course, “bun-counting days” sounds very similar to the English word “sentimental,” setting the tone for these poems, which are full of malfunctioning sorrow. Loss is an integral part of life; I tend to see losing as an act of kindness.
NW: In his introduction to Sentimentalist, the Taiwanese poet Jing Xiang-hai writes that your poems are relatively “shy and elusive.” I find his description very precise. To me, poems that are explicitly loud and emotional wear readers out rather quickly. On the contrary, your poems are full of undercurrents. They fold inward. How do you usually craft your imagery and symbols?
TP: Chinese characters can be classified in six different ways. For instance, some are pictographs, while others are ideographic or phono-semantic. Every character is therefore charismatic in a way that it lures its readers to imagine its origin. Meanwhile, there are too many great poets writing in Chinese or Taiwanese Mandarin in the last century. I feel compelled to avoid repeating their literary footprints (though it’s very difficult). I’m fascinated by objects around me and imagery that comes from the everyday. I like to be honest with myself through talking about them.
NW: When I was translating your poems, I noticed that there were various “systems of transgression.” First, in “Happiness Is Very Hard (Is it),” the rhetorical questions in parentheses break away from the speaker’s point of view, adding another layer of meaning. It’s simple, but powerful.
TP: As a skeptic, it’s necessary for me to throw a few question marks at myself before I arrive at nothingness. It’s probably why I’m often intrigued by otherness. I know language, upon being used, fails to arrive at meaning. Or like the Japanese sign 「反対側」in a train, which seems to signify objection (反対) but actually means the other side. I constantly remind myself not to forget the other side—the most important part that’s not written in a poem.
NW: The second kind of transgression concerns the loneliness and helplessness of your narrator. “God Knows Our Secrets” is written interestingly with snapshots of different characters’ lives, but saying very, very little about the narrator himself. The poem is very visual and cinematic to me, yet it’s also quite absurd. What do you think is the relationship between loneliness and absurdity in (your own or Taiwanese) poetry?
TP: Oh! You’ve just said something I didn’t really explain very clearly in the previous answer. Yes, the narrator is indeed lonely. I don’t think there’s a poem that can perfectly address everything. On the contrary, it sheds light on a little undiscovered footpath that diverges from the main road. The best poem turns the muted branches on the footpath into music.
Perhaps it’s due to my experience of writing novels, which makes me more aware of characters and structure in my poetry. This explains the cinematic feel, as you have said, of the work. “God Knows Our Secrets” is my attempt to discuss what makes a family. A family seemingly grows on intimacy and bonding, but it also relies on lies and necessary silences in trying times. Maybe, exactly because of the intimacy, we know where the flaws are and cover them with lies. Once they’re covered, we can all safely move on.
NW: The poem portrays God as a search engine. That’s very urban.
TP: The scenarios in the poem are based on what I saw in a rural temple in Southern Taiwan, where worshippers visit to have their fortunes read: “We hand over our names, addresses and dates of birth / To facilitate God’s search in his computer[.]” Sometimes, I think the Taoist Gods are overwhelmed with various wishes made by the worshippers. Yet, nothing can be done about it, because the Taoist religion is rich in human-like deities. This said, in this smartphone era, the Gods, I believe, should have their own cloud drives.
NW: Finally, I want to talk about transgression in language. “Dark Eye Circles” is inspired by Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. The ekphrastic poem transgresses textual boundaries. Besides this, the constant interruption of slashes in the poem also challenges coherence and continuity. I’m interested in knowing how this rupture helped when you were writing.
TP: As a big fan of Tsai’s films, I pay attention to the rupture he intentionally constructs with continuity. We feel suffocated between the compulsion to pause and the films’ reluctance to let it happen. Moments like this, like unlubricated sex, always makes one feel deeply his existence.
NW: Your analogy is certainly intriguing. To wrap up, I know you also like traveling. Is there a place you immediately want to go to after the pandemic is over? How will that place inspire your writing?
TP: My writing has locked down itself. My words are in quarantine. If I may, I miss the room that didn’t belong to me when I visited Hong Kong. When I was washing the dishes at the faucet, I thought about the other ten-ish rooms and their stories. Not long ago, I found a photo taken during my visit to the city. It was August in 1997. My answering machine in Taipei, at that time, played the music of Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together.