the museum of americana

a literary review

Interview with Jeffrey Thomas Leong

Poet and Guest Poetry Reviews Editor Karen Llagas interviews Jeffrey Thomas Leong about Wild Geese Sorrow: The Chinese Wall Inscriptions at Angel Island.

I chose this collection for the animal issue of the journal, and while the themes of the poems here are not directly about animals, to me personally, they are very much connected to our animal bodies – how we experience freedom, trauma, survival, and resilience. How do these themes first resonate with you upon exploring the inscribed poems of Chinese immigrant detainees in Angel Island, and how has this resonance changed over time, especially while working on the book?

In writing about their situation at the Angel Island Immigration Station, the Chinese detainees were very aware of traditional literary tropes and metaphors concerning restrictions upon the movement of animals. In Poem 59, the speaker laments the fate of a mythical sea dragon held out of water and a fierce tiger caged and taunted by children, drawing a symbolic parallel to his own confined situation. Other animal references include the noise of crickets in the night, the stoic nature of oxen, and soaring eagles.

And then there are the references to wild geese in Poems 10 and 62, evoking not the bird’s classical representation of marital fidelity, but instead a kind of necessary lonely wandering, traveling great distances to find sustenance and survival. The Chinese of southeastern China, Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, etc. have had a long history of diasporic migration to Southeast Asia, North America, Oceania, the Caribbean, South America, and even South Africa!

In California, after mining the ore of the 1849 Gold Rush and helping to build the western half of the Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese migrant workers sought to make a living in agriculture, shoe-making, shrimp-fishing, etc. in order to continue sending money back home. With financial success after a long journey, they wished to return to their villages in old age to honor and praise and be buried alongside the ancestors. I was struck by the strong sense of family responsibility universally felt by these young Chinese men, and how the immigration story is rarely one of the solitary individual, but often of actions taken by members of a larger whole so that a system may prevail.

Perhaps we, as 21st century American individualists, might think “what a burden” they carried, but these young men could achieve honor within a communal system and thrive. I learned too that these authors saw their deprivation not only from a personal perspective but also as citizens of China, a weak nation subjected to colonial and imperialist domination. To a certain extent, every private act of resistance had a parallel purpose on behalf of the whole. And so there arose the poems of advice and exhortation, encouraging fellows to hang tight and persevere, like members of a modern sports team or soldiers within a military force cheering each other on.

I hope the choices I made in putting together this manuscript reflect that blur between the individual and the communal. This book might be read as if written by a single speaker, but with differing points of view. Yet there were clearly multiple authors based upon distinctive uses of syntax, diction, and image by individual poets. I feel this book works both as anthology and the single voice, a collective cry and the breath’s whisper, and I have grown as a poet in translating and presenting these words.

I admire the care and nuance with which you approached the poems’ translation, and how you’ve negotiated issues of poetic form, tone and content. I especially love what you said in the introduction, that the ‘challenges and pleasures of translating Chinese poetry are the many meanings given to the same word, depending on its location next to other words, its “neighborhood” or context.’  Do you think you had specific advantages or disadvantages translating and curating Wild Geese Sorrow, with the linguistic and cultural background you came with (being a heritage Cantonese and Mandarin learner, but not exactly a native speaker, and/or being a second-generation Chinese-American, for instance)?

I believe that in writing poetry one is always balancing between accuracy and creativity. For the original poet it means the creation of evocative words and images that accurately convey felt emotion. For the translator it means being true to the original poet’s meaning and performance but taken into the translator’s target language to create a new poem that will stand on its own. This is virtually an impossible task and to that extent will always be both lie and the truth.

The advantage I carried with me into this project was my cultural understandings as a 2nd generation son of Exclusion-era Chinese immigrants, so different from today’s post-1965 newcomers. But conversely, that 2nd generation experience included the loss of a childhood language (Cantonese) making it challenging to understand idiom and nuance that every translator should be privy to. I’ve compensated by using other resources, electronic, other translations, etc., to help me overcome linguistic weaknesses.

Another advantage, it can be argued, is that writing the English language poem requires a unique understanding, a poetic understanding, in order to faithfully render poetry from one tongue, in particular Chinese, into a new language. Some translators of Chinese poetry I enjoy are both poets and translators, including: Ezra Pound (imagistic emphasis), Kenneth Rexroth (a sort of ‘50s jazzy sensibility), and Gary Snyder (with his Zen aesthetic). An ideal translator of Chinese poetry would be totally fluent and culturally competent in both languages, and also an expert practitioner of poetry. I am far from being that perfect literary translator but I hope I’ve done an adequate job of presenting the essence of this work.

In the end, the greatest challenge for me felt not so much cultural or linguistic, but how to bring a 100 year old art created by early Chinese immigrants into the 21st century, employing a diction, syntax and form accessible to the contemporary reader. If I’ve erred in literal translation, I hope I’ve been ultimately successful in providing meaning, emotion and artfulness.

I was also reflecting how works in translation are always mediated by the translator and how I enjoy the experience of seeing the Chinese and English poems side by side in your book, and of knowing that neither is fully transparent to me. I believe it teaches tolerance for ambiguity, and thus, empathy. (As a side note, I believe this is another way animals enrich and complicate our human lives – because of our “language” gap). Since its publication in 2018, what surprised you most about the public’s response to Wild Geese Sorrow? How is the book helping to shape our conversations around immigration, race and xenophobia?

The placing of both the original Chinese text and its English translation side by side in some ways graphically reflects that physical space between utterances in which both ambiguity and truth lies. Neither language contains the whole truth of the translated poem because of the accommodations that must be made between languages, particularly the Cantonese dialect of Chinese and contemporary 21st century English.

It should be noted that the Chinese text has been presented in a traditional vertical format to more closely mirror its placement on the Men’s Barracks walls, in homage to the physical artifact. Contained within the story of the carvings is a tale of resistance by detainees to the erasure of their work by immigration station officials. For them, placing poems in public view was as political an act as that of writing the original poem.

When I completed the manuscript in the fall of 2016, I had no idea of the sea change in domestic American politics to come. I thought these poems might be of historic and literary significance, but could not foresee upon its actual publication in 2018, that the book would serve as a reminder of what once was and what could be again. This significance within the historical moment is underscored by the anti-immigrant politics of the Muslim Travel Ban and the “zero tolerance policy” at our southern borders instituted by the current administration.

Yet, what I find most powerful about this book of translations of incarcerated immigrant poetry is that it not only puts a human face upon the “other” but adds the element of artistic sensibility. I’ve been asked at readings where to find the comparable poetry of Arab and Central American immigrants and I know these poems must be out there. For those from the privileged classes who would deny opportunity to ones poorer and of a different skin color, they cannot diminish knowing that the immigrants who passed through Angel Island ably used art and metaphor to describe their plight, as only human beings can.

You described the poems as both “anonymous” and “collective,” and how, taken as a whole, they were a sort of a “group chat board” among the immigrant detainees. I notice that the lexical and imagistic repetitions throughout the book also give a ‘call and response’ quality to the poems. On poem 10, for instance, we have the lines: “In distant memory, an old village, hills obscured by clouds, / On this small island, tiny cries of wild geese sorrow.” Further along in the book, on poem 62, we encounter these lines: “Birds to avoid cold mountain fineries, / Wild geese make no trace.” How much of the book’s curation was influenced by the common elements among the poems? How do you imagine them in dialogue with each other?

Writing in the classical Tang poetry form, the detainee poets were well aware of a wealth of poetic imagery such as historical allusions, nature metaphors, etc. so that in their deployment, the poems would be well understood by their intended readers. Yet this work, for the most part, was meant only for the eyes of those also incarcerated inside the Men’s Barracks, though some poems may eventually have been published in Chinatown newspapers.

In curating these poems I had to eliminate favorites because of repetition of imagery between poems and of the cultural inaccessibility of certain historical allusions. I tried to emphasize the poems with strong individual speakers and distinctive points of view which admittedly self-selected against poems that are more general and perhaps political.

But the purpose of tibishi wall poems in the Men’s Barracks and the translations of these poems presented in a book are different. For the former: private expressed monolingual, physically placed and visual; for the latter: totally public, displayed bilingual, on paper and also visual. Curation implies creating another work of art, an assemblage if you will, out of the original. For me, the alternative would have been to translate every poem and to try and find a logical presentation for them. But of course, that would be a different book.

These poets were very much individual speakers but also often in dialogue with others because of the public nature of the poems, though in a private space. Occasionally that dialogue became direct as when one poet commandeered lines from another poet to make his own poem, or when two poets wrote separate poems commiserating over the death of a mutual friend. This “borrowing” and “conversing” are very much basic to the art of Chinese poetry and to all writing since ancient times, when the narrative-lyric was first expressed in folk song and music.

What are you currently exploring in your own creative work? What lessons from writing and publishing Wild Geese Sorrow would you share with emerging poets/literary translators, especially those writing about and for the marginalized and displaced?

As an Asian Pacific American poet and writer, I’ve learned much from creating this work. First, I began as an older writer working towards his MFA after retiring from full career as an attorney and public health administrator. As such I have enough life experiences and self-confidence to try to pursue what I’m interested in.

I did not plan on doing a book of translations, much less of the Angel Island wall poems, but was drawn into the work through exposure (on a family excursion to Angel Island) and personal history (my family). But once my imagination was aroused I followed that budding passion and tried to tell the Angel Island story as truthfully and artistically as possible. So the bottom line is to follow your creative obsessions even if it leads you to unexpected places. Surprise is great. My most recent book is a chapbook of original poems written about the Angel Island experience while making the translations.

Second, try to take your writing to places you’ve never been before; if you’ve never done translations, experiment. It’s been such a remarkable experience to be inside the thoughts and words of another writer, and then to responsibly bring those words into my own native speak. Also, if you are a prose writer, try your hand at poetry. Or if a poet, attempt crafting a children’s or YA book.

In the recent 50th anniversary celebrations for the Third World Liberation Front student strikes at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley, in which I participated as a 19 year old, I’ve been inspired to the possibility of writing creative non-fiction, perhaps a memoir about that period in my life. This is both scary and challenging for me because I’ve been trained primarily as a poet (and some short fiction), but this leap of faith can be part of my growth as a writer. Many successful poets from Li-Young Lee to Garrett Hongo, and Mark Doty to Mary Karr, have delved into writing personal memories in prose.

And lastly for my writer of color colleagues, do not believe that the public and the personal are somehow different and one is superior to the other. I see them on a continuum where some things are smaller and more private whereas others more political and broad. As a writer I think you must be able to dwell in alternate universes simultaneously, and too, in the ambiguities that lie in between.

Which brings me back to the Angel Island poets who were clearly writing personal utterances but in a public collective form; their individual work taken as a whole speaks with power about racism and political oppression, just as I believe the collected efforts of Asian Pacific American writers do so well today.

 

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Jeffrey Thomas Leong is a poet and writer, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, who worked for three decades as a public health administrator and attorney for the City of San Francisco. He earned his MFA in Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

He is the author of Wild Geese Sorrow: The Chinese Wall Inscriptions at Angel Island, the first new translation of this work in almost 40 years. His new chapbook Writ, consisting of original poems also about Angel Island, was published in March 2019. His writing has focused on the Asian American experience, including adoption, multiracial families, and student activism during the 1960s. In past lives he has been a singer-songwriter, disc jockey, high school teacher, and open mic host. He lives with his wife and daughter in the East Bay.