6.我最喜欢的您的两首诗是 《德格》 和《前定的念珠》，这两首诗是献给或是关于您父亲的。他的离世对您的写作产生了什么样的影响？他生前是否也同样喜欢文学？他是否支持你选择作家作为自己的职业？
BY Dechen Pemba & Woeser
You studied literature and first worked as a journalist before becoming an editor for a literary journal in Lhasa. When did you discover a love for poetry as well as your own voice as a poet?
Thinking back, I have loved stories since I was a child. My earliest memory is narrating the story of the times before leaving Lhasa to a bunch of children in Tawo County, Sichuan. At that time, I was four or five. When evoking Lhasa I often invented some intrigue to attract friends. After my story-telling, I started to yearn for Lhasa.
Alas, I can now no longer locate the first poem I wrote. I remembered it was written in Tawo County. At that time, I was studying in the first year of middle school. The news broadcast the death of a famous Chinese poet one day. I felt a little sad, so wrote a few lines that resembled the arrangement of a poem. To me, that felt like a poem.
However, among the poems I now preserve, the earliest one was written in 1984. I was then already studying at the faculty of Chinese language at the Southwest University for Nationalities. I was a first-year college student. Among my classmates were students from more than ten “minority” groups and those of the Han Chinese, who were the majority. This poem is entitled “Print — For Certain Prejudices.” I vaguely remember at that time, I argued with a few Han Chinese classmates, and wrote this poem on the spot, then copied it painstakingly on the blackboard. They were shocked.
Now, revisiting this tender poem, I’m surprised that I already had a national consciousness at eighteen. Also, clearly, when I wish to express my voice, my way of expression is through writing poetry.
Print — For Certain Prejudices
Never again let
muddy water of disdain
flow from your young eyes
The print that exudes
the scent of butter tsampa
is engraved on my heart
I do not despair
even refuse your cold
a natural sense of superiority
bloats your life
But I won’t
offer a complying smile
shines on you, shines on me
On a blue planet
we are equal!
In truth, during my college years, I had started writing poetry seriously, and organized a poetry club with classmates (from all majors, and of different ethnic groups) who were passionate about poetry. We used typewriters and letterprint machines to print poetry journals and publications. I remember Southwestern Colorful Rain and Mountain Eagle Soul as two of the more influential journals. I can say I was the most active campus poet in Sichuan during the mid-late eighties. During my graduation in 1988, I organized a poetry exhibition with two poet classmates.
Yes, at that time we had already defined ourselves as poets. I even had my first poetry collection. It contains poems I wrote during my university years, hand-typeset by my father. In reality I’d already become, or rather was very willing to become a poet who lives and writes by her dreams.
Which poets have influenced you the most? Are they Chinese or Tibetan poets or others?
I should say that during the early years of my poetry writing, the Chinese poetry scene was experiencing revolutionary changes. In my short story, “My Twin Sister [Budan],” I described the impact of this huge influence on me:
Considering external unrest, a huge flag soars in that stormy era, while tides surge under the flag, and the experiences and wanderings all over the world, writings or debates day and night, a strangely nervous rebel, a frightening feeling, and passion, passion, the silently vanishing, like 40 degree feverish passion, how promising! Almost overnight, Budan’s sentiments that were unconsciously gathered through years, that bag of explosives in her little chest, is suddenly lit up by poetry’s fatal matchstick, it explodes, exploding her into pieces, shattered, and can no longer be pieced back together.
To clarify, what most influenced the Chinese young, rebellious poets at that time were European, American and South American contemporary poets, as well as the Russian modern poets. This was also the case for me. Rebellious, unorthodox poets were my idols. I accepted mainly a few non-Chinese contemporary poets as influence, for example Yeats from Ireland, Ginsberg and the Beat poets from the States, as well as Plath and the Confessional poets, Mandelstram, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva from Russia, etc. The list was endless. After my university graduation, I basically read mostly their work.
Also around the same time, I read poems by the 6th Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso and Milarepa. But I read their Chinese translations, the earliest Chinese version, which are classically very elegant in terms of text.
Themes such as travel, Lhasa, memory and loss recur in your poems. Would you say that these subjects inspire you? Where or how do you seek inspiration?
In fact, writing poetry is to me like in search of memory of a past life. In the epilogue for my collection of poetry, The Whiteness of the Snowland (Tangshan Publishing House, 2009), I wrote:
I have always wanted to be a poet. This is the karmic force from a previous life, as well as a continuation of cause and effect. That spring, I finally returned to the Lhasa I left twenty years ago. I told myself, it was not for any reason other than to listen to that voice. For a while, I was very superstitious, thinking that some verses might contain words that are secret codes, like Ali Baba’s “Open Sesame,” and if I’d keep on writing, a hidden door would suddenly open, and another truly kind world would belong to us.
I returned to Lhasa when I was twenty-four. The biggest problem I faced was discovering the “Sinicized” me being a stranger in her own hometown. This led me into a profound identity crisis. At one point, I thought I had resolved this problem; a poet friend of mine said, “Actually we are of no nationality. Our identity is poet.” His words relieved me, to the extent that during the first few years of my stay in Lhasa, I shut myself up in the “ivory tower” of poetry. The poems I wrote became more individualized, with a highly individualized feel, imagination and language. And I thought that poets or artists tower above all, or surpass all, and that the attribute of nationality could be overlooked. But writing such poetry couldn’t alleviate inner turmoil. I can’t say that I was suffering terribly. To be more precise, it was probably a feeling of emptiness. Thus, I couldn’t even go on writing this kind of poetry.
When did I start walking out of this “ivory tower”? Travel experiences in vast Tibet changed me gradually. During these travels, I slowly became intimate with Buddhism, and realized clearly how my inner world enriched itself day by day. Amdo, Ü-Tsang, Kham… I visited many places. Both as a voyager, and as a pilgrim — because in my heart, I saw the vast snowy land as a gigantic monastery of nature! Of course this was my earliest motivation for the journey. As I walked further in the vast snowy land, and paused longer, those literary sentiments were gradually replaced by a sense of history and a vocation. In other words, I, who used to only see my hometown from an aesthetics point of view, gradually began to see people and events on this land with an eye from history and reality.
In “My Poetry Aesthetics” published in The Whiteness of the Snowland, I once wrote:
Living in a Tibet that has lived through many changes, basking in her sunlight that is especially brilliant in the midst of unfathomable transformations, I slowly feel and realize the benevolence and wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism, slowly see and hear the glory and suffering in Tibetan history and reality… all these profer me a mission: to tell the world about the secret of Tibet.
Clearly, “December,” “Panchen Lama” and “Secret Tibet” are three political poems about Tibet. More recently, you also wrote “The Fear in Lhasa” and “Only This Useless Poem, Dedicated to Lobsang Tsepak.”How much does the political inform your poetry and has this changed since you first started writing? Is it something you are even aware of when you think about what to write?
I believe “December” is a turning point to me. Before this poem, my poetry was creation from the Ivory Tower. As I said, at that time I was evolving.
In my book of prose, Notes on Tibet, I wrote, “… but being part of the Tibetans, my spine feels the oppression of a rock-like silhouette of the vast yet suffering Tibet. Between ‘glory’ and ‘helpless,’ I can only choose one of them, it’s an ‘either-or’ case! And what I view as glory, is not merely the ‘glory’ of a poet, but the glory of conscience.”
A man of conscience needs to face reality and history. Yet reality and history are very harsh. As a poet, I could feel at every instant in Tibet the tension between reality and history. In the end this tension shattered the ivory tower that sheltered me. Thus, on that day in December 1995, I couldn’t help but wriote “December” on the spot. (It is interesting that this poem was subsequently featured in several official publications, as if no one had understood):
“Hear ye!” The big lie shall blot the sky,
Two sparrows in the wood shall fall.
“Tibet,” he says, “Tibet is fine and flourishing!”
The furious girl will not bite her tongue.
Everywhere the monastic robe has lost its color.
They say: It’s to save our skin.
But that one, oh,
The steaming blood poured out, the hot blood!
In the next life, who will grieve for him?
Storm clouds! Doom!
In my mind’s eye I see.
I know if I don’t speak now
I’ll be silent forever.
Lift up your hearts.
He was sacrificed once,
That man of deep red hue.
But as the tree of life is evergreen,
A soul is always a soul.
A worse defeat!
Thouands of trees, blighted as never before.
The little folk are quiet as a cricket in the cold.
The pair of praying hands
Was chopped off
To cram the bellies of kites and curs.
Oh, that rosary unseen,
Who is worthy with a firm hand
To pick it up from the slime of this world?
December 1995, Lhasa
— FROM Tibet’s True Heart (Ragged Banner Press, 2008)
Actually, after writing this poem, my poetry started to touch on reality and history, and began to engage in a narrative style. In my essay, I wrote: “I finally see clear the direction of my writing thereafter, which is to be a witness, to see, to discover, to reveal, and to spread the secret — the shocking, touching yet impersonal secret. Let me also tell stories. Let me use the most commonly seen language — a language that can yet renew definitions, purify and even make new discoveries — to tell stories: the story of Tibet.”
What were your feelings when Notes on Tibet was banned by the Chinese government? Did it come as a surprise or were you expecting it? Did that particular experience affect your approach to poetry?
The ban on Notes on Tibet, and the subsequent ban on Map of Maroon Red published in Beijing the year after, are important turning points in my writing and my life. This also means that I turn from the unconscious realist writing from the past to conscious realist writing. But what remains unchanged is the beauty of language as my pursuit in writing.
Two of my favourite poems of yours are “Derge” and “A Mala That Was Meant to Be,” which are dedicated to or about your father. How did his death impact your writings? Did he share your love of literature and was he supportive of your chosen career as a writer?
Although my father did not quite understand my poetry at the beginning, he was very encouraging.
In 1999, my first book of poetry, Tibet Above, was published by Qinghai People’s Publishing Press. I burnt every page of the book before my father’s tomb. Flames rapidly swept away each and every black character, as if each poem composed by these words were carried off to another world. I knew he’d be relieved, comforted by the fact that I’ve become an acknowledged poet, even if he couldn’t understand the poeticism.
But the poems I now write, especially “Tibet’s Secret,” my father would understand them right away. What would he say? Would he still let me continue writing poems? After all, I took a different road.
In fact, later on, perhaps my father had already foreseen that writing poetry would change his daughter into someone else, into the kind of person he worried about, so he did not quite wish to let me continue writing poetry. He’d rather I become a journalist, a photojournalist, a news journalist… To be a poet is too dangerous. But I didn’t heed his words. He’d often warn me to “walk with two legs,” meaning I could walk the path I’ve chosen, but must also walk the path designated by society and environment. One leg to walk one’s road, the other to walk the road that most take. I asked in return, “If we walk with two legs, will one of them break eventually?” He didn’t answer.
Perhaps, it could be as what poet Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize Laureate in 1992, who grew up during the British colonial years, had written:
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?
I wasn’t sure if I could already express myself lucidly. Anyway, I had too many dreams. The most compelling dream was to write a book. In the book, I’d always be a daughter, a daughter who loves deeply her father. I would have many questions to ask him. The most urgent question: Has the road I’m now taking betrayed him? Should he be alive, would he be angry with me today? On the other hand, I stubbornly believe who knows, he might be secretly happy that I’d fulfilled a secret and unrevealed wish of his.
How do you think your poetry style has changed over the years?
This question brings into my mind an email my husband Wang Lixong wrote me when we first met. His words had a huge impact on me, enough to upheave my “art-for-art-sake” writing. He said, “Tibet’s present plight is sorrowful, but to a writer who documents, it is the perfect timing. So many legends, bravery, betrayals, falls, longing, separation as well as the mournings and hopes of an ancient people survive around you… you can write poetry and novels, but don’t forget to turn more of your attention to non-fictional work. That would be even more meaningful for your people.”
Also, for me, in terms of my present-day form and writing style, I’m slowly actualizing the self-expression of a “Tibetan identity.” This identity is closely interlinked with Tibetan geography, history and culture, as well as countless Tibetans’ life stories and fate.
Yes, identity and autobiography, biography as well as the biography of an entire nationality is closely connected, otherwise where should we begin as far as the question of identity? In terms of individual narration or re-narration of others’ life experiences, it is in fact also a way of regaining individual and collective memories. Memory is most important — because memory is the survival basis for an individual or a collective. When we insist in continuously remembering with all our efforts, our old anxieties will truly falter. You can say that re-narrating life experiences is also a form of therapy. At least this is the case for me.
It looks as though you write less poetry these days and more articles and essays for your blog and books. Why? Do you miss writing poetry?
In writing, inspiration or talent is the same thing, whereas a professionalized working method is a way of normalizing one’s working situation. Today, I don’t rely merely on the occasional flashes of inspiration. Of course, poets have different aesthesis in response to beauty, and through writing, they weave it into words. So I believe I’m always writing poetry, and have never missed out on writing poetry.
Deep down in my heart, I also have a personal reason. As I wrote in an epilogue for my collection, The Whiteness of The Snowland:
A poem comes to my mind, not one of mine but one written by Tibet’s greatest poet, the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso. I really love this poem:
Small black letters, written,
Vanish with water drop.
Mind pictures, unwritten,
Though effaced, will not fade.
—FROM Songs of Love, Poems of Sadness: The Erotic Verse of the Sixth Dalai Lama
BY Dalai Lama VI, TRANSLATED BY Paul Williams
Dear father Tsering Dorje, the poem I want to dedicate to you is still being written. Because the voice I am longing to hear is in the air, about to land. In the end you will be relieved to know – when that voice finally lands in the heart, only then is the true poet formed like the dousing of the fire phoenix!
— ORIGINALLY CONDUCTED IN CHINESE, THIS INTERVIEW IS TRANSLATED BY GRETA AART AND DECHEN PEMBA