LINES HAVE LIMITS, POETRY IS BOUNDLESS
Zi Chuan, Profile & Interview
By Rodney Obien, Exhibit Curator ABSTRACT AND CONCRETE,
Atelier Laforest (Dennysville, Maine)
The poet Zi Chuan stands in the middle of a gallery surrounded by forty onlookers who watch intently while the master calligrapher paints bold, elegant characters on a white sheet of paper as the sun sets in the windows of the gallery.
Six hours before, Zi Chuan travelled with three Chinese poets from New Hampshire to Dennysville, Maine, to attend the opening of ABSTRACT AND CONCRETE, an exhibit by the Atelier Laforest featuring calligraphy, poetry, and the art of pop artist Robert Munford.
Zi Chuan’s warm smile masks his exhaustion. He and the poets had just attended Poetry Bridging Continents, a week-long international symposium held at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, and the AMC Highland Center in Bretton Woods. The symposium brought together poets and scholars from New England and China to explore ways to bridge the two cultures.
With an interpreter, Zi Chuan addresses the audience in Mandarin. His speech is smooth and fluid like his brush strokes. Effortlessly, he communicates his mastery of calligraphy with each character he draws.
When not at home writing poetry in Nanjing, Zi Chuan directs the Shaaxi Academy, a school for Chinese calligraphy and classical arts located in the city of Taicang near Shanghai.
“In ancient China, almost all intellectuals could write poetry,” said Yihai Chen, poet and professor at the School of Chinese Language and Literature, Yancheng Teachers University, China. “If a person could not write poetry, he could not be called as an intellectual. In the history, all famous calligraphers were poets, and almost all poets were calligraphers.
“Zi Chuan is one of the few contemporary Chinese poets who can both write poetry and demonstrate calligraphy,” according to Chen. “He can combine poetry, calligraphy and Chinese painting in a body, which used to be a tradition in ancient China but now very few poets can do.”
Zi Chuan’s poetry and writings have been translated into English, French, German, Japanese, and Korean. He is the recipient of the Excellent Editor Award of Jiangsu Province, the Purple Mountain Prize, and the Third Chinese Poetry Biennial Award. He is currently the director of the Poetry Work Committee of Jiangsu Writers Association.
“I think of his poems as quiet images that burrow deep into the reader’s imagination and create a reverie of how the past informs the future,” commented Dr. Maura McNeil, a professor of English at New England College and the organizer of the poetry symposium. “And of his calligraphy, there is an elegance in his work that is quite stunning. There is an intentionality of movement that is quite wonderful to watch when he composes his calligraphy, and that elegance is also translated into the composition of his poems—how his images are placed on the page.”
Rodger Martin, poet and editor emeritus of The Worcester Review, offered his impressions of Zi Chuan: “Zi Chuan in his poetry and by extension his calligraphy represents a new pastoral tradition in China. He infuses this growing sense in China of the value of the land as a place for the pastoral tradition in the modern day.”
Martin, who travelled with the poets, continued, “Zi Chuan’s poems draw from nostalgia, places he knew, lands and lakes, people, and his youth imprinted by the events of the Cultural Revolution. Zi Chuan writes about the pastoral, this new sense and value of rural land. You can sense it when he sings his poetry in the classical way. You can sense it in the Chinese characters he so carefully draws.”
The demonstration ends and Zi Chuan mingles with the visitors. They discuss his calligraphy and poetry with the works of Robert Munford. Poems by Bu Lan Chen, one of the three poets, are also on display paired with works by Munford.
The idea to invite Zi Chuan to exhibit at the atelier came after a visit to China in 2018. Zi Chuan’s marvelous poetry and calligraphy attracted my attention in my role as exhibition curator of the atelier. China has a long tradition and deep respect for poetry, calligraphy, and painting or the Three Perfections as they’re known. How intriguing would it be to see Zi Chuan’s response to Bob Munford’s art – setting the stage for a true East-meets-West conversation.
“How cannot I not be impressed,” said Melinda Munford Jaques, wife of Bob Munford and gallery director. “Zi Chuan brought Bob’s art to life with his poetry and stunning calligraphy. It’s like bringing the world to Dennysville. Bob had a very international approach to his art, and we continue this tradition by opening the Atelier Laforest to artists and poets from around the world. This kind of cultural exchange is very enriching and important as it fosters understanding into other cultures, giving us a new perspective to see our own human experience in a different way.”
The early darkness of November readied Zi Chuan and the three Chinese poets to leave. They needed to find a place for dinner before a poetry reading at the Hansom House, a nearby tavern. The gallery is still full of visitors, all thanked Zi Chuan and his colleagues for making the long journey to Maine.
Joining the group for dinner, something came to mind from an interview I did with Zi Chuan. “There is an idiom in Chinese,” he said, “‘text transmits the Way.’ Personal conduct and writing itself are inseparable. Poetry, calligraphy, and painting, as the fundamental elements of the Chinese literari tradition, are actually the content of life itself.”
In an interview in the summer of 2019, Zi Chuan provided background information for his exhibition ABSTRACT AND CONCRETE. He commented in depth about his thoughts on Chinese calligraphy, poetry, and painting, and his impressions of the artwork of Robert Munford. Mr. Liang Dao-ben provided the English translation of the interview.
Rodney Obien: Can you describe your personal philosophy and approach to calligraphy, poetry, and painting?
Zi Chuan: In the context of the Chinese language, and within the bounds of Chinese culture, although poetry, calligraphy, and painting are three different artistic modes, they actually have a very close relationship to one another, often mutually influencing one another. Individual Chinese characters are the basic elements of Chinese poetry, and are also the contents of calligraphic work; the brushwork and line techniques of calligraphy, on the other hand, are the fundamental necessities of Chinese painting.
Poetry, calligraphy, and painting belong to China’s literati tradition. Historically speaking, many poets are also calligraphers and painters, such as Su Dongpo and Huang Tingjian of the Song Dynasty, or Tang Bohu and Wen Zhengming of the Ming Dynasty.
When I was young, I was educated at home in the old literati style. My father was a poet, calligrapher, painter, and chess player, and taught me at a very young age the fundamental lyrical rules of Classical poetry, as well as the fundaments of calligraphy and chess. Back in 1964 I was the Yangzhou Sectional Youth Chess Champion; in 1979 I won the Jiangsu Province International Chess Championship, and in 2008 won the Jiangsu Provence News and Art Go Championships. My artworks have appeared in more than ten different art shows, notably the China, Japan, and Korea Literati Art Exhibition.
There is an idiom in Chinese that goes, “text transmits the Way.” Personal conduct and writing itself are inseparable. Poetry, calligraphy, and painting, as the fundamental elements of the Chinese literati tradition, are actually the content of life itself. Connecting and intertwining personality, human nature, and individual life with literary, calligraphic, and artistic production is truly the artistic accomplishment of a Chinese literatus.
Certainly, the poetic, calligraphic, or artistic creations of a flesh and blood human will inevitably display their thoughts, feelings, and morals. In all artwork, human nature is connected, and a certain essence resonates.
R.O.: Can you describe how your calligraphy, poetry, and painting reflect the Three Perfections tradition (san-chueh)?
Z.C.: In the context of Chinese culture, there are common phrases such as “Poetic feeling and painted meaning,” “Poetry and calligraphy come from the same house,” “Calligraphy and painting have the same origin,” all of which are an attempt to explain that the three arts are fundamentally connected in expressiveness and in technicality.
My creation process of the three arts (san jue) is often like this: calligraph my own Chinese poetry, and at the same time, create a visual representation based on the poetic nature of the work. Or perhaps, I will first paint, and then based on the painting create a poem, and finally calligraph it upon the painted work.
R.O.: What are your impressions of the art of Robert Munford?
Z.C.: In my limited experience with Robert Munford’s work (which includes both the Munford Lithographs and my own poetry in response to Munford’s art), I believe him to be an abstract and supernatural artist.
Munford used many different expressive techniques, with inks, watercolors, pencils, and it is very difficult to define what is created–it is a free and unrestrained work of art. Just like the poem I wrote to accompany it: “as if to be inverted, those letters and numbers/and incomprehensible symbols,” “Red and black, a blue-to-green caught mid-shift/two kinds of stained bodies, X and Y,” numbers, symbols, colors, gradations, and all manner of elements come together in Munford’s art to create a vast world. And, in this seemingly unrestrained effusion, in this abstract and chaotic arrangement of lines, a personal life philosophy and the brilliance of human nature seeps through: “a person’s face, unclear/as if not just one face/facing different directions.” Lines have a limit, yet imagination is boundless, just as poetics and philosophy are endless; behind the work lies a vast universe worth uncovering, exploring, feeling, and experiencing.
Appreciating Munford’s work is like rushing directly into the plot of a story, but this story is fantastical, ridiculous, dramatic, exaggerated, and fundamentally exceeds what we are able to appreciate with our senses–you must use your soul to go and feel it. I can feel the passion and virility beneath his brush, like a burning sun, like an unrestrained and beautiful horse that has broken free from its bridle, wherein the paper is the battleground he roams through. I can also feel the heavy calm in his heart, for only a heart as still and calm as this could think up this kind of exquisite complexity, one wherein philosophy and thought meld together in artistic form. In other words, his artwork is calm thought and passionate feeling mixed together, a true blend of ice and fire!
R.O.: What was your approach to creating calligraphy and poetry for the artworks of Robert Munford?
Z.C.: As I said before, painting and visual art is inseparably related to poetry and calligraphy. Though different kinds of artistic modes have their own individual expressive methods, but they are essentially communicable. It is similar to how the poetry of different languages is actually expressing the same human voice. Mr. Robert Munford used lines and colors in a “structured” way to express his work, and my re-creation of his work uses “words” and “calligraphy.”
There is an idiomatic expression in Chinese that goes, “emotion produced upon encountering scenery.” When I observe Mr. Robert Munford’s works, I feel overpowered and nearly attacked by the life force and creative force therein, and the poetic creation process flows quite naturally from this. This process is wholly uncontrollable, just like the way we wish to open ourselves and embrace nature while standing in front of Walden Pond. Of course, the creation process itself requires careful consideration. Especially in reference to Munford’s more abstract works, I need to carefully analyze what depths are hidden in the conglomeration of lines and colors, which is something that needs a more rationally based process of thinking and determination.
Of course, our fundamental internal thinking is common (common between arts, commonalities of art and life), one could even say that certain emotions in our road of life will resonate with one another.
R.O.: What are your thoughts on abstract painting as “soundless poems”?
Z.C.: Poetry appears in all forms of art, and one could even say that life is essentially a poetic existence. If one admits that painting is a soundless poem that has physical shape, then music is therefore a sonic yet intangible form of poetry, and more strictly speaking, the essential necessity of all forms of art contain, to some extent, poetry.
Abstract art is a condensation of human brilliance. It uses a special creation process to take numbers, symbols, colors, and all manner of elements to construct its poetic world.
Lines have a limit, yet poetry is boundless, and philosophy too is boundless. A great abstract work of art guides viewers into a labyrinth, into a drama, and produces feelings of impulse and confusion that are much like those felt when decoding poetry. The resonations of thought and feeling in and of themselves are a kind of poetics. Poetry can be read out loud, naturally having a tangible sound to it, yet lines and colorations are soundless – they give viewers a kind of feeling that is not dissimilar to poetry.
Poetry Bridging Continents IV: A Summary
“Rivers were made … in heaven.” Robert Frost
October 27-November 2, 2019
In a 2019 a poetry exchange that has now spanned four years, seven poets and scholars from China visited New England as part of the fourth Poetry Bridging Continents symposium. This is a brief summary of that event.
Day 1, October 26:
After an overnight stay with hosts Carl & Lynda Mabbs-Zeno in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and the New Pastoral Poetry House in Hancock, the group participated in a joint ekphratic exhibit/reading at the Jaffrey Civic Center, Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Artists Susan Wadsworth and poets Susan Roney-O’Brien, Chen Yihai and Zi Chuan who read with poets Kim Peavy, Denni Dickler and Eric Poor as they read their poems in response to Wadsworth art, many in both in English and Mandarin—a fortuitous exchange since Kim Peavy then invited the poets to visit her organic farm and draft horses later in the week.
l-r: poet Si Nan, poet Yu Qui, poet Chen Yihai, poet/calligrapher Zi Chuan, scholar Wang Gugin, poet Rodger Martin, poet Benjamin Landuaer, poet Denni Dickler, poet Maura MacNeil, poet Kim Peavy, poet Bu Lan Chen, poet Eric Poor, husband of Kim Peavy, artist Susan Wadsworth, Jaffrey Civic Center, Oct 27, 2019
Day 2: New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire
The motorized cavalcade then followed the Contoocook River north to New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, where the symposium itself began Monday morning, October 28, with an American renga creation. The American renga is an evolution of Massachusetts poet Steven Ratiner’s renga creation using written language in place of calligraphy. The American renga adds three-brush stroke glyphs to a mathematical call-and-response progression among a group of poets.
l-r: Berwick Academy student, poet Si Nan, Berwick Academy student, Maggie Martin, Claire Golding, Berwick Academy student with their renga, New England College, October 28, 2019
One of the eight finished rengas created that morning.
Following the renga ceremony, held in a tent outside The Simon Center, came the official opening pf the symposium with a welcome by New England College President Michele Perkins and an exchange of gifts, one of which is shown below.
A gift to New England College President Michele Perkins (r) of an original poem, calligraphy and art by noted poet and calligrapher Zi Chuan.
The afternoon was composed of sessions in both languages including a session on Chinese poetry and a Worcester Review panel on how American poets re-purposed the pastoral tradition which permitted them to move into the 20th Century with a strong environmental theme whose impact laid the framework for the 21st Century poets of the Anthropocene such as Gary Snyder.
Poet and Scholar Chen Yihai of Yancheng Teachers University speaks of the pastoral tradition in China.
Day 3: New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire and tours of organic farms in western Cheshire County, New Hampshire
Zi Chuan began October 29 with a panel on archiving poetry in both nations and a morning workshop on calligraphy. This was followed by a visit to Keene State College, sit of the 2017 symposium) and a dedication of a calligraphy in Hale House. The afternoon was a all home-grown lunch at Mark Long’s West Chesterfield followed by a tour of New Dawn Organic Farm and the organic farm of Kim Peavy in Westmoreland where the farming is done the old-fashioned way with draft horses.
The Worcester Review Panel on New Pastoral and Anthropocene poetry. l-r: Poet Susan Roney-O’Brien, poet Claire Golding, Worcester Review editor Kate McIntyre, translator Benjamin Landauer, poet Maura MacNeil, poet Rodger Martin, scholar Mark Long
The poets from China spent their evenings at The Henniker House B&B with a meal at Daniels, both on the banks of the north-flowing Contoocook River where indeed, as Frost put it, the “rivers flow free.”
Day 4: Keene High School, New England College, Franconia, and Crawford Notch, New Hampshire.
This day of transitions as the conference goers spilt into two groups, Zi Chuan and Chen Yihai visited two high school classes at Keene High School; while the others drive north to the White Mountains and The Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire, where they visited Robert Frost’s farm and walked the poetry trial about the grounds before heading over to the Mountain View Grand Hotel and an evening poetry reading at Appalachian Mountain Clubs Highland Center in Crawford Notch. This reading proved eventful because a Halloween severe storm caused us to close the reading just after it had begun because of wind damage in the region. The poets carefully drove back to their hotel dodging downed trees.
Day 5: November 1, Crawford Notch, New Hampshire
The White Mountain portion of Poetry Bridging Continents closed with a morning session by Inez McDermott on visual art in The White Mountains. In the evening, the poets provided a second dual-language reading to a full house of hikers, and visitors. This time the weather cooperated.
Day 6: November 2, Dennysville, Maine
The poets left the Mountain View Grand Hotel in two cars and headed straight east on a five-hour journey through the forested interior of Maine, including a forced stop while deer crossed the highway somewhere in the vast hinterlands of Western Maine. The destination was a tiny hamlet in Down East, Maine called Dennysville where the group participated in a reading/music/calligraphy event at the Atelier LaForest run by Melinda Jaques. Dennysville has a total population of about 350 and it seemed most of the town had participated. This was followed by an evening reading in a most remarkable lounge in the Benjamin Lincoln (George Washington’s second-in-command) House a short distance away from the gallery.
Zi Chuan creates calligraphy for Melinda Jaques (l) at Atelier LaForest, Dennysville, Maine
Day 7: November 3, Zaijian (Goodbyes)
Goodbyes at the harbor edge in Lubec, Maine. Canada’s Campobello Island is across the inlet. L-r: Bu Lan-chen, Rodger Martin, Zi Chuan, Rodney Obien, Yu Qui. Taking the photo is Si Non.
The Opposites’ Game
During an evening shrouded by the recent polar vortex this week, poet friend John Hodgen and I pondered, while the fireplace chugged its warmth through the living room, whether Hamlet’s welcome offer to his friend Horatio’s return, “We’ll teach you to drink deep ‘ere you depart,” was perhaps also the proper advice to give to an old returning friend in this current world where flat screens have made two-dimensions the pretend replacement of the three-dimensional world and where fake national emergencies are nothing new: Consider the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 which ended up extinguishing the lives of many millions, or four decades later the fake weapons of mass destruction in Iraq which extinguished hundreds of thousands more lives. One might be forgiven for wondering in the current state of public affairs in these United States if our national bird might be better represented with a cuckoo than an eagle.
When the unintended consequences of these thoughts became too depressing a subject we migrated to whether the Islay Bunnahabhain single malt had some Viking blood in its ancestry or whether Macallen has lost some of its Highland cachet. Eventually we could not hide from the current state of affairs and what the young must think.
We came to no conclusions but the thoughts did lead us to poetry as a possible antidote. Hodgen spoke about using Emily Dickinson from Brendan Constantine’s “The Opposites Game” as a writing prompt for young people:
1. Brendan Constantine’s “The Opposites Game,” also included in Scribner’s Best, makes a classroom poetry lesson into a pretty effective poem in and of itself. Start by selecting an actual famous line of poetry (he uses Dickinson’s “My life had stood – a loaded gun”) and write your own choices for the opposite of each word, thusly:
Had Stood Will sit
According to Hodgen, here’s where the fun started. “The class apparently virtually went to war over what word would be the opposite of “gun,” with suggestions and the classroom board filling with possibilities, including: flower, book, pillow, hug, song, prayer, promise, wedding ring, baby, midwife, whisper, star, teddy bear, sword, saying I love you into your hand and then touching someone’s ear, and concluding ultimately with the word poem. (What a class that must have been.)”
And as we kept pondering these words, another line from Emily lit up the room:
“As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind . . .
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind─”
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (#1129) Emily Dickinson
And so it took Emily Dickinson and a gaggle of students to make us understand why sales of poetry books increased 12 percent again last year, why hundreds of thousands of high school students flock to Poetry Out Loud each year and hundreds of thousands of others to the spoken word venues that have sprung everywhere in the nation.
They’ve felt in their bones what I needed a hammer to bang into my skull:
Indeed, the opposite of gun is POEM.
edited for spacing 2-28-19