The lush, carefully catalogued worlds of Shangyang Fang’s poems abound with objects, real and imagined, that are always on the cusp of pushing beyond their own properties: a “cloud of hydrangeas” is a “hydrogen bomb”; the “carcass of a pickup” returns from the grocery “with carnivals.” Fang lashes images to his lines, pulling objects out of their own negative space. In doing so, these poems stake out a presence for absence, proven just as crucial as what is there. “Not to pretend / in hand there is a blossom,” chastens Fang, “but to forget there isn’t one.” Fang grew up in Chengdu, China, and is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Following his editorial exchange with Jacqueline Kari and Ben Rutherfurd, he reflects on his poems published in The Georgia Review’s Summer 2021 issue, which will appear in his first collection, Burying the Mountain, forthcoming from Copper Canyon in October 2021.
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Jacqueline Kari and Ben Rutherfurd (JK/BR): First, congratulations on your forthcoming collection. Can you speak to the connection between these poems and the book in its entirety? When you look at the poems that appeared in The Georgia Review, do they seem representative of the whole?
Shangyang Fang (SF): Thank you! Representative in terms of the modes these poems maneuver, then yes. “Chronicles on Disappearance” and “It Is Sad to See a Horse Sleeping” are shorter lyrical pieces, though the former is more imagistically associative, or disjunctive, and the latter more consistent with a narrative vignette. But in their core, there is a sense of brokenness. The longish two poems, “Phantom Limb” and “Displaced Distance as a Red Berry,” operate in a more meditative mode. “Phantom Limb” is representative for its discursiveness, constant interruptions. It’s like arriving at a place through a misleading way, or as Lorca puts it, “To take the wrong road / is to arrive at the snow.”
In the book there will be poems that combine this meditative mode with a cohesive, fictional narrative like in “It Is Sad to See a Horse Sleeping.” And they are horrendously long—I recommend not to read them. There will also be poems that are much shorter and more enigmatic than these. The Red Berry one, which I chose to end the book with (maybe I shouldn’t spoil it?), is perhaps the only poem that uses epistrophe. But there will be three poems of the same cataloguing structure in consecutive order at the end of the book. I hope it’s like a crescendo, or perhaps a catastrophe. Red Berry is quieter than the other two, so I decided to put it last, like a fermata. There will be other poems that are stylistically pulling the spectrum of these four to different extremes.
(JK/BR): The allusions in these poems are many, including both literary and fictional figures. What is the importance of reading to these poems? Have you always involved this sort of direct, literary engagement in your writing process?
SF: O dear, I didn’t realize that I used all these allusions until I received the supplement sheet from the copyeditor of my book. It shocked me. How pretentious, I said to myself, looking at the two-page list. But when I was writing, it felt natural to me. I wouldn’t justify myself with what Joseph Brodsky said: “Poetry is, above all, the art of associations, allusions, linguistic and metaphorical parallels.” Though I just quoted him. I hope that these selected allusions in poems stand closer to symbolism than tribalism.
On one hand, they are private experiences, are the very objective details that form this consciousness representing them—the name Gustave Mahler perhaps could be the same as a hyacinth shaking outside my window. I know that’s not true. But maybe there’s a certain affinity between Mahler’s music and the hyacinths, and then that echoes with the girl whose arms are full of hyacinths in Wasteland, singing Oed’ und leer das Meer. The tragic core that connects all three of them. Sometimes, the referential world seems more real and resilient to me than this rigid reality. It is a world consisted of dream, abstraction, consciousness. On the other hand, despite their encoded privacy, I do hope that these allusions serve as the portal, behind which there’s a vast constellation of art, music, and literary texts. And my poems are no more than a doorknob. There is a kind of intimacy in sharing these distant, unfamiliar things.
Also, I was influenced by ancient Chinese poetry, in which allusion is indispensable, particularly in works by my favorite ones—Southern Song dynasty poet Xin Qiji, Tang dynasty poets Li Shangyin and Li He. The last line of the famous poem “Untitled” by Li Shangyin, which I think most Chinese can quote from memory—
This feeling might have become a thing to be remembered
Only, at the time you were already bewildered and lost
When I first read this line as a young child (there is a framed calligraphy of this poem hanging on the wall of my father’s library, and I grew up with it), it hit me like lightning. But not until many years later, the second line of this poem, which I often overlooked, filled quietly inside me like a bucket in light rain—
Master Zhuang was confused by his morning dream of the butterfly
Emperor Wang’s amorous heart in spring is entrusted to the cuckoo
The lines use two allusions, one from the philosophical text of Zhuang Zi, the other from the legend of Emperor Wang, who died and transformed into a cuckoo. The lines are so textural, condensed, and multi-dimensional. It takes time, experience, and knowledge for me to fully unknot such thickness, meaning to understand and to penetrate the cultural, literary, and historical perspectives like sedimentary rocks. And once the riddle is unknotted, the power it releases is more glorious than the rhetorical statement in the last line. The obliqueness has certain dignity.
(JK/BR): Generally speaking, lyric address uses language and names to call forth or invoke other presences into the poem. But in your poems, these gestures are couched in “soft focus” terms like “perhaps,” “seem,” or “look,” that second-guess or self-distance from what’s been stated, as in “Phantom Limb”:
in springtime when the absent space is replaced with azaleas
tossing their enormous, ropy genitals—that the concept of being
soft in this world of firmness is at last possible.
How do you negotiate the calling forth of invocation and the receding that occurs in the telling? Is this the “softness” you describe?
SF: Thank you for this very difficult question. I am not sure I know the answer. I know that I often use “perhaps” even in my daily conversations. I think, perhaps (here it is again), I don’t have that kind of assertiveness in my personality—you should see me trying to pick a flavor for ice cream, perhaps vanilla, perhaps mint, perhaps. Utter torment.
Honestly, I am not an expert of my own work, but I must pretend that I am. These words, as you mentioned, are not only to invoke other presences, the external objects, but also to reflect and question the position of the speaker among these objects, and the relationship between them. In these poems, I feel, the speaker is often put in doubt, in a vulnerable position. The speaker doesn’t completely trust what he observes, feels, and thinks. Still, the speaker continues traversing among things without being sure how much he understands these things and gives us his limited and maybe warped perception on them.
I think the word “perhaps” presents a doubleness, as much as the word “seem.” They direct our attention to the “untrusted perception.” Brigit Pegeen Kelly explored this in depth in her genius poems, especially in her masterpiece, “The Dragon.” The word doubt means “two, double,” and the word distazo, with the root stásis, means “stance, standing,” but it is a double stance that goes two ways, vacillates. If there is, unfortunately, a stance in my poems that’s been expressed by words like “perhaps” or “seem,” then it is a stance of “against,” against the definite. It is a stance that hinges on oscillation. I think it is also related to the political environment that I was brought up in. I have been squelched by the autocratic ideology growing up. That is why my work refuses to reach a static, didactic conclusion, or to take positions. Instead, I search for an argumentative evolvement, an oscillation between paradoxical ideas. And the word perhaps, with the beautiful “p”s and an “h” that thaws the vowels, has a tenderness in it.
(JK/BR): There is a discordant moment in “Displaced Distance as Red Berry” where the poem glosses itself, explaining the cultural significance of one of its images: why this one moment? Are there more/similar in the book project? This points to a larger question: what expectations do you have as an author from your audience? What cultural fluency do you expect, and how do you manage or negotiate those expectations?
SF: This is a beautiful question. Back to what we have discussed about allusion, the red berry (in fact, red bean) is synonymous with “lovesickness” in Chinese. When someone mails you a bracelet strung with red beans, you know that they miss you deeply. There is a line by late Tang dynasty poet Wen Tingyun, which is popular even among young Chinese nowadays; they quote it in their social media posts on Valentine’s Day—
A red bean embedded in the ivory dice
Lovesickness deep inside my bones
At that time, most dice were made of animal bones. It is difficult to connect that deep cultural sentiment with an object in a different language. While that object, the red berry, has been transformed by other discourses of yearning in the poem, I felt compelled to be faithful to its origin. And that reference appears after all the discursiveness and disarrays of other objects and events, and once it appears, the poem seems to know how to look into things, like through the eye of a cyclone.
There are a few poems in the book with similar moments, not many. There is a poem that briefly explains the philosophical Buddhistic notion of “emptiness” and “nothingness.” I hope that these are in no way representing exoticism. Western gaze tends to view things with hierarchy, and to digest other cultures and ideologies within its own systematic and structural ways of understanding. And this is one reason that the border between “this” and “other” appears. Reading is one method of empathizing, and I hope that by imagination and empathy this border will be erased. I don’t expect much from the audience; I don’t write for a specific group. I just hope that this very object, red berry, would take on a new meaning after one reads this poem. We can give an object layers of meanings, just as the rose of Shakespeare is different from that of Rilke, or Marianne Moore. And by doing this, our perception of this world is expanded.
(JK/BR): Wallace Stevens only appears once in this handful of poems, and even then only slightly––“perhaps this poem should have started with Stevens”––yet we can’t help but see him as an influential presence. We’re thinking about the sense of place filtered through the poet’s imagination, the attention to seasonality, and the epistemological concerns. Gertrude Stein, also, seems to haunt the horse poem: the geometry of her logic echoes throughout the poem, which functions like a broken––or maybe transcendent?––hypothetical syllogism, a string of “if” statements that crescendo with the horse becoming joined to the speaker. Would you have named any of the modernists as models for your own poetic imagination?
SF: This is a very sharp, insightful observation. Something I could not have thought of. Yes, I am interested in epistemological and phenomenological concerns, because I just still don’t know how to cope with this reality, my life. Daily, everything seems strange. That watercress beside my kitchen sink still wowed me this morning.
I wasn’t particularly having Stein or Stevens on my mind when writing these poems. Stein was an early love. There were times I would just plunge myself into her flux of words without trying to understand them. When I was writing that horse poem, I had in mind my friend Yuki Tanaka. Stevens remains a significant influence. There was a time, when I was in college I believe, I’d travel with his collected everywhere, along with the Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (how sentimental). And I would memorize his poems. Recently I had a phone call with a friend in China, and we talked about the “Emperor of Ice Cream” for three hours. It was a good time, and the poem remains a mystery. Other modernists . . . Eliot and Moore for sure, but also Cavafy, Vallejo, Césaire, Lorca, Trakl, and Mallarmé. There were more, but few stay with me today.
(JK/BR): Speaking of philosophical poets––and clearly you are one yourself––can you talk about your relationship to philosophy: namely, does poetry have a responsibility to be philosophical? And what can poetry achieve that philosophy can’t?
SF: This is too grand. I have to quote Szymborska: “My apologies to great questions for small answers.” And am I anyway a philosophical poet? I don’t know, but at least I hope my poems are not pop-philosophy—that’d be detrimental. I am not trained in philosophy, just as I am not trained in poetry. The only degree I have is in civil engineering, so I guess I am more fluent in talking about a steel beam, instead of philosophy. If philosophy could be a steel beam. I mean, does poetry have a responsibility to be ethical, political, social, aesthetical, sensual, sorrowful, or delightful? I hope that I am not dodging your question. I mean, I like poems that investigate philosophy and metaphysics, because I think that is essential to our existence as a group and as individuals, but I also like poems that do something else. “Autumn evening— / it’s no light thing / being born a man.” This haiku by Issa could be read in so many ways and is stingingly philosophical to me. Can philosophy do this? I like poems that think, poems that meander to seek answers to a question, or even better, raise a question.
And what can poetry achieve that philosophy can’t? That’s a considerable question. Should I quote Stevens from The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet as my subterfuge, all the Plato and Aristotle and stuff, that gorgeous nonsense? But that’s Stevens’ answer. I think I will spend my lifetime to find my own. But right now, poetry to me is a lived experience—an alternative existence apart from this body in this reality. Unlike most philosophy which could be approached through pure reasoning, poetry is corporeal; it is important to the mind as much as it is to the body. It must carry the whole world with it—every droplet, leaf, a can of coke—and sometimes many worlds within. That is imagination, which I don’t think philosophy is famous for. And to read a poem, one’s entire existence, mind and body, must be displaced and ported to that different realm. And that is empathy. One cannot just stand beyond the page to reason and to judge—there is no outsider in a poem, one must step inside the bruise of words to feel the real pain and pleasure. And that is intimacy—a private, lived experience becomes the shared experience—which I think most philosophy somehow lacks. Poetry extracts the universal from the particular without necessarily providing an axiom, therefore acknowledging both. “The poem is the cry of its occasion.”
(JK/BR): How has an education in civil engineering shaped you as a writer? Perhaps it’s trite to assume engineering is fundamentally opposed to poetry, but can you speak at all to the influence of your formal education upon your craft?
SF: I think it gives me the freedom to always consider myself not a writer, and it’s okay if, as a writer, I fail. I think of the Robert Frost line, “to unite my avocation with my vocation, / As my two eyes make one in sight.”
I had not taken any formal literature classes until MFA, which I don’t think is formal enough. I remember when I was in college, I’d skip the engineering classes and hide in the library to memorize poems. Also, I’d read, for example, John Ashbery out loud and give myself assignments to imitate his syntax—I made notes of where he uses verbs, nouns, adjectives, clauses in a sentence, then I tried to replace them with my own words in the same structure. Because my English was so terrible, this silliest way of practicing was also the only way.
There really wasn’t anything particularly formal. I read a lot, memorized, and tried to write. And I had the luck to work with so many phenomenal teachers and friends; they taught me immensely.
(JK/BR): Another intriguing moment: toward the end of “It Is Sad to See a Horse Sleeping,” the horse seems to transition from something fantastical into a living, breathing body. The sudden physicality conveyed by the diction––we’re thinking of the words “neck” and “belly”––is startling in the middle of such a dreamlike poem. Can you speak to the way your work negotiates the space between the real and the surreal, the abstract and the concrete? Do these categories matter?
SF: “Neck” and “belly” for sure are more familiar and more real to us; they secure the potent power that drags us back to this corporeal world. Because when imagination is too indulged, referring back to only itself, the unreal, it loses its vigor. But then think about it, the “neck” and “belly” are, too, no more real than unreal. They are real for their interminable appearances in life. We accept them to be real out of habit. Poetry, as a form of inquiry, puts any habit in doubt. Surrealism, I think, is no more than a facet and an expression of this reality, as much as realism. I remember once I asked Brigit Pegeen Kelly about the surreality in her works, and she said, “I am not a poet with great imagination. I just write down what has happened and what I’ve seen.” And that was incredible to me. If what she said is true, then her poems are in the periphery of realism about a reality, to which we have no access but through her “surrealistic” poetry. And I thought the world she lived in must be so different from mine.
I am not sure my poems are, so to speak “surreal,” but I think they have elements that are “unlikely to be real.” A boy carrying a horse—the conventional position been reversed, the form and function been questioned—is possible, but I highly doubt that would happen everywhere and daily. I think abstractly and daydream a lot, which is very unfortunate, and often fail to bring the abstraction alive, so I always admire poets with observative eyes. What interests me isn’t the dichotomies, but the void in between, where things blur. I don’t negotiate the space; I plunge into that space, where I stumble a lot. The space!—my teacher Jane Miller once said, “Poetry lies in the wounded openness of the speaker.” I was hypnotized by the word “openness,” which is an invitation, a terribly vulnerable one, to the private garden of hearts, where strange things happen. And only in that garden, all sources from this world reveal their truer forms. Wait, which garden? “The imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
(JK/BR): Many of your poems deal with the dialectics of t/here, presence and absence. How do you negotiate the voids? If they become presences when named––is anything ever truly absent? Can loss be realized?
SF: Yes, and also these poems deal with the idea of “the other.” And in relation to that, where is the speaker, and in this threaded connection with “the other,” does it prove that the speaker is indisputably here? Is the speaker present or absent, especially to those objects being invoked? Can naming make things present again, and even if they approach you with their most physical forms, their exquisite machine grating against yours, does it mean they are present? I don’t know answers to these questions, but it’s just fun to ask. And the tender “voids” in between, the haunting echoes, I don’t think that is so complicated a notion, but rather a simple feeling—solitude. The body speaks more than the mind. Solitude acts as both the linking and dividing force between self and the other, here and there. Wherever the self is, whether the other is present or absent, the self is alone. And the self is lost, and in this loss, this self is realized and can speak.
(JK/BR): In the context of this interview and your current collection, which are so much about presentness, it feels a bit discordant to look forward. But if you’ll indulge us: What are you working on now? What’s next?
SF: Hahaha, I have no idea. It’s the question I constantly ask myself and have no answer to offer, even before this collection. Every empty page is a mystery. I try to write something new and fail, as always, but most importantly, I try to improve my soul. I love the notion that writing every new poem feels like the first time writing a poem. I still feel I don’t know how to write a poem at all. For me, it’s impossible to master and it doesn’t get easier. But I always look forward to the next deadlock between the mind and a piece of blank paper.