Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

Chinese Poetry from Center to Periphery: A Conversation with Michelle Yeh

Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

Chinese Poetry from Center to Periphery: A Conversation with Michelle Yeh

Article excerpt

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Jonathan Stalling: Tell me about your educational background before you completed your PhD at the University of Southern California. I am curious about how you became interested in poetry and why. Since your first degree is in English, were you first interested in English or Chinese poetry?

Michelle Yeh: My interest in poetry started quite early. English was my favorite subject in high school, and the first book of poems I bought with my allowance was a slim volume of Shelley (in English only), edited by the Harvard-educated prominent scholar and translator Liang Shih-ch'iu. I confess the reason I got the book was not that I had any knowledge of or interest in the poet, but because of his name-it was such a beautiful name, in Chinese as well as in English. That's how I started reading English poetry. Mostly romantic and Victorian short poems with rhymes, such as A. E. Housman and Ernest Dowson. I thought the music was beautiful. When it came time to take the college entrance exam, it was an easy decision for me to major in English literature, and I then studied a wide range of English poetry in literary survey courses at National Taiwan University. I also had my first venture into modernism. As an undergrad, I audited the graduate seminar on American modernist poetry taught by Wai-lim Yip (Ye Weilian ...), who was a visiting professor in my department one year. With my best friends in the department, I coedited an English-language newspaper in which we published a few English poems of mine and a Chinese translation of Shelley.

I should mention that American and British pop music was closely related to my interest in poetry. I started listening to it in junior high-oldies from the 1950s and everything from the 1960s: country music, rock and roll, folk rock, and so on. To this day, I recommend pop songs to my students as probably the best-and certainly the most enjoyable-way to learn a foreign language. In my senior year in high school, I started working every Sunday afternoon as a DJ for a radio station in Taipei, playing pop music in English. I didn't quit till I graduated from college and was getting ready to come to the US for graduate school.

My early readings were almost exclusively English poetry. I didn't read classical Chinese poetry on my own because it was part of the standard curriculum in Taiwan; from elementary through high school, we had to memorize and recite not only classical poetry but classical prose as well. As to modern Chinese poetry, I read minimally in high school and college. I read a little bit of the leading poets at the time, such as Yu Guangzhong ... and Zheng Chouyu ... Yu was very popular because he was an excellent reader. I remember going to his packed living room to listen to him read. It was so crowded I couldn't hear very well and wasn't impressed at all. Once I did pick up a book of Yang Mu ... but found it too hard to understand. It wasn't till years later that I came to love his work. Yang Mu was a visiting professor in my department in my senior year, but I never studied with him. I visited him once at his house in Taipei with a group of his students. Two things I remember him doing during that visit: he showed us a work of calligraphy (whose, I don't remember), and he took all of us to a small eatery nearby for gyoza ... (boiled dumplings).

JS: With your undergraduate degree in English coupled with your early and sustained interest in English poetry and popular music, I am curious how you became interested in Chinese poetry, and modern and contemporary Chinese poetry in particular. It sounds like your early encounters with poets like Yu Guangzhong and Zheng Chouyu were not responsible for this shift of interest. Clearly Wai-lim Yip is an important bridge between American modernism and modern Chinese poetry, but I wonder if his unique transpacific modernist poetics pointed you in the direction of Chinese poetry, or did the shift take place later in graduate school in the States? …

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