God Loves A Liar

“I think if you write poetry in different languages, then you are a liar.”
– Bei Dao

We drove into SF Chinatown’s Chinese Cultural Center to hear Bei Dao read in what was being billed as his last reading poetry reading “while in exile.”

Much props to the Chinese Cultural Center for turning this reading into a truly historic event with at least eight media photographers taking various pictures, a digital recorder capturing everything for posterity and effortless translation for Mandarin and English speakers. Mind you, none of this ever detracted from the fact that it was a literary event and that poetics was the main focus of Mr Dao’s work.

Speaking of which, Dao’s work was delivered with a pointed grace as he highlighted the temporal past for reasons of historic importance (as opposed to simple nostalgia) and returned to markers of permanence (the changing of season, the cycle of the sky) as true landmarks in his poetic cartography. I remember hearing his work two years ago at St Mark’s Church and left impressed by his ability to blend the natural world with the human experience (a task this city boy still struggles with) but I walked out of yesterday’s reading with a different appreciation for how these poems speak on a different political level, one that is often tossed to the side as tree poems that don’t talk about anything real. Dao’s poems have me thinking about Neruda’s “Ode to Common Things” and how this group of poems worked on one level as political survival and on another level as a touchstone for overlooked humanistic elements our society (read: current political power) may be trying to strip from us. Barb also brought to my attention the Misty Poets and their work.

I was most touched by Dao’s new poems (new shit!) and how he spoke of the death of his father (To My Father), losing the way home (Black Map) and his ghazal like poem (The Rose of Time). This is a good time to also speak of Lillian Howan and how well she read the English translations (Dao made note as to the writers who translated his work for the page, as well) especially the newer poems that she was not as familiar with.

Now where the Amiri Baraka reading went south a few months ago, with a Q&A that spoke of all things but the literary, this Q&A was a real high point with various community members asking Dao
about his poetics and how they affect his politics. Some people said they couldn’t see the political in his poems, bemoaned his attention to suffering and even asked for a happy poem. Dao answered all the questions with direct, polite responses and even went as far as to answer back questions in the language they were initially presented and then we get to the question as to whether he writes poems in Chinese or English and his response.

Personally, I agree whole-heartedly with his statement and look at my pure Spanish work as a deception and even my pure English work isn’t 100% honest. Spanish is my birth language but the truth is I grew up in a very code-switching environment that is a balance of school grade academic English, street slang and at least three distinct Spanish dialects (Ecuadorian, Puerto Rican and Dominican) which when all blended together is the actual language I speak (you can add a bit of Chicano, a West Coast ‘Hella’ & an ever growing poetic verbiage in there now for good measure) and this mixto is my one real language.

Many thanks to Mr Dao for highlighting this fact and stating it as directly as possible. Word.

More good reading-
Barb’s take on Bei Dao’s reading
Marianne Villanueva talks about the reading
The Misty Poets on Wikipedia
Bei Dao on poets.org

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