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Echoes asking Shadows to Dance

The Inaugural EU-China International Literary Festival
Echoes asking Shadows to Dance
Fang Suo Commune , November 26, 4:30pm
Writers: Zhai Yongming(China) , Yu Youyou(China) , Marius Burokas(Lithuania), Guy Helminger (Luxembourg),
Host: Zhou Dong
Article by: Annie Leonard

“Poetry is an echo asking a shadow to dance” – Carl Sandburg, poet (1878-1967)

As the late afternoon shadows grew, Fang Suo Commune’s lecture hall beneath the busy Taikoo Li shopping district filled with the murmurs of an expectant audience. Some came to see renowned Sichuan poet Zhai Yongming or rising Sichuan poet Yu Youyou; others were drawn by the opportunity to hear what European poets Marius Burokas (Lithuania) and Guy Helminger (Luxembourg) had to share. The EU-China International Literary Festival poetry panel “Echoes asking Shadows to Dance” proved to be a fascinating window into the poetry and minds of these four authors.
First, the authors spoke about how they came to write poetry. All of the authors said that they began writing in their early teens. Zhai spoke of her “two levels of influence”: classical and contemporary. She began writing at fourteen by mimicking traditional Chinese poetry and later, after entering the work force, she began to read and experiment with contemporary poetry. She mentioned that in the 1980s, the only translated foreign poetry available was classical, not contemporary. Much has changed since then.
Yu, who fielded the host’s remarks about her “post-90s generation” youth with grace and a grin, has benefited from the wide variety of international contemporary poetry available these days. “By the time I was born it was already the age of the Internet,” she said. With nearly unlimited access to poetry online, Yu said that soaking up as much as possible inspires her to create.
Similarly Burokas spoke of how his was the first generation of Lithuanian poets to access international literature. His influences include the Russian literature popular in Lithuania before its independence, as well as Lithuanian poets of the 1960s who expanded the themes and sounds found in the nation’s poetry. Helminger, who grew up in Luxembourg, said he hated the French, German, English and other classical literature he was forced to read in school. But by chance he came across some poetry and the rest was history. “My first book [of poetry] wasn’t very good,” he said, since it was more copying the poet that had inspired him than anything original.
Noting that the majority of the writers claimed they were influenced by classical poetry, the host asked the European writers if their poetry had ties to opera and theatre, as is true of Chinese poetry. This sparked a stimulating discussion on how poetry tends to reinvent tradition. “Tradition is not a bench you stay on for the rest of your life,” Helminger cut in. “Don’t copy the old masters—move on!” Zhai gladly carried this forward: “They say tradition is a river,” she commented—dynamic, not static. If we stick to traditional methods, she continued, we forgo our modern ways of thinking. The strict rules of Chinese opera and poetry have always gone hand in hand, but “we can’t return to the past…Modern society needs to use language in new ways.” Burokas then chimed in: “I think we forget that most poets want to fight tradition, make something new… We accept our lessons, gain something, then use it in our own poetry.” Isn’t that really what modern art is all about?
The question of where poetry comes from—echoes and shadows?—was intrinsically tied to a previous tangent that the host had introduced—recitation. When given the chance to speak, the authors’ discussion was thought-provoking. “My poems don’t really lend themselves to being read aloud,” said Yu. For this reason, while the other poets recited their own work, Yu read a poem by Korean author Ko Un titled “Tuberculosis.” The poem took scenes from daily life to evoke a deeper emotion. Helminger reacted by noting that poetry comes from the mundane, not some higher plane. “[Poets] go on just a description, then go a step beyond,” he said. “I think Sandburg is wrong: it’s not the echoes but the sound, not the shadows but the things that make them.”
Indeed, both Burokas’ and Helminger’s poems hammered this idea home. In Helminger’s poem “Before the cup” the simple act of making coffee in the morning lead the reader to contemplate philosophy. Burokas read “By Holy Lake,” which uses the real-life image of his daughter breaking the surface of a lake while swimming as a metaphor for her birth.
“I think because of the internal rhythms, it’s better for a poet to read her own work—others won’t understand [how],” said Zhai. This statement was inadvertently proven true during her reading. Zhai went last, reading “Chrysanthemum lanterns float over me.” The reading was profoundly moving—certainly the highlight of the afternoon. Beautiful descriptive images carried something deeper, beyond the surface.
In their final statements, the authors were able to get back at their host:
“There wasn’t enough time for us to exchange with each other,” said Zhai.
“I agree, there wasn’t enough exchange,” said Helminger. “I hope [this festival] can go on for years and years.”
“I would like to hear more [of the others’ work]. The point is to hear each other, know each other,” added Burokas.
On the topic of Sandburg’s echoes and shadows, Yu said that to her, echoes mean the sound of our hearts, the shadows those that dance in our minds. Burokas concluded: “We aren’t literary [critics], we are poets. Maybe we can come up with a better metaphor [than Sandburg], maybe not.”
They may not have given the responses their host was expecting, but the authors’ discussion surely awakened new awareness and appreciation of poetry in the attending audience.