Yang Lian in Conversation with Adonis

From 2 to 14 August 2003 I was guest at the 1st International Poetry Festival in Jordan. It was the first time I had set foot anywhere in the turbulent Middle East and I found that I had very mixed feelings. I was astonished by the beauty of this ancient culture and yet profoundly saddened by its present state. This was why I wanted to make arrangements for a conversation with Adonis, the best known Arabic poet of today. On the morning of 6 August, in the breakfast dining room of the Meridien Hotel where they were staying, two poets drinking strong Arabian coffee, both speaking broken “international second language” (English), began to discuss far-reaching topics. Adonis, who is seventy-seven, was born in Syria, migrated to Lebanon, then subsequently settled in France where he lives in exile. Dressed casually but stylishly, witty and recondite, he had an aura of authority. The Middle Eastern sunlight shimmered sluggishly outside the window, and the old poet seated in front of me seemed to be the very embodiment of Arab literary tradition that has encountered so many vicissitudes over time. Probably this image is far richer than the words I have recorded below.

Yang Lian

YANG: When we were talking yesterday you raised the interesting point that while it’s comfortable living in the West our actual poetic experiences are from elsewhere else. Could I ask you to elaborate on this?

ADONIS: I must first apologize for my broken English. It’s hard to make myself clear in English.

YANG: Don’t worry, I’m also using this “international second language”.

ADONIS: To begin with, the relationship between language and things in Western languages are quite different from those in our language, so there are differences in how things are observed. To give an example, in Arabic you can’t talk directly about this cup, you have to talk about the things around it and the things related to it, and in this way make indirect reference to it. We need a huge number of words to talk about anything, and the words themselves are a mystery. This is quite different from Western languages and their inherent relationships.

YANG: Are you saying that Arabic implies through the power of image and metaphor rather than using language to talk directly about things?

ADONIS: Precisely. It then follows that you can’t use language to directly talk about or change reality. This is because reality doesn’t exist. The only “reality” is your relationship with things. YANG: This is intriguing. Then, how does this understanding between words and things in the Arabic language come about?

ADONIS: As one’s perspective changes many realities are produced.

YANG: You’ve probably heard of the philosopher Lao Tzu from ancient China. In the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, that work for which he is famous, are the words: “Dao ke dao fei chang dao.” This sentence connotes two things. Firstly, that limitations inherent in language prevent us from discussing the true Way; and secondly, sadder still, we ourselves are limited by language. If the true Way did exist, it would be impossible for us to know it because the limitations of language limit us.

ADONIS: That’s exactly how it is! Do we actually see anything? No!

YANG: We don’t know. We are so limited that all we see are our own eyes.

ADONIS: So, humans are limited, and both reality and language are limited.

YANG: But poetry has its own existence. This is because language is used to construct reality; this is a “reality” that does not simply speak of what is external.

ADONIS: But we can’t say to what extent poetry is superior to other modes of expression, such as philosophy, the social sciences etc., because the basic situation of humankind is identical.

YANG: Different understandings of language in Arabic and Western languages must naturally affect the understanding of your writings by Western readers. Do you have any views on this?

ADONIS: Because of the untranslatable nature of poetry, the translations of my poems in other languages are no longer my poetry. Translation can refract certain elements of poetry, but essentially destroys it. However, I must make it clear that I do not oppose this form of destruction. The translation is nothing like the original text. It is in a cultural context where it is impossible to translate the relationships between words and things or the meanings behind images and metaphors. Nevertheless, the price of this destruction is necessary so that some things can be transmitted to others.

YANG: It’s like the metaphor of scenery and eyes that we have used. The eyes aren’t dependent on the scenery but the scenery is dependent on the eyes. You call it a blue sky but another person might insist that it is brown. When read in a different cultural context, what is implied in a poem is different. People only select those things that they can understand.

ADONIS: Quite right. So I always feel that my poetry is diminished, diminished in different eyes. YANG: Maybe it is like last night when we stood on the terrace of Poetry House looking onto the city of Amman. What we saw were the many fault lines of the past. The ancient Syrian, Roman and Byzantine empires, the Arab and Ottoman empires, the British colonial period and, after independence, also the Palestinian refugees have all constructed a history. They do not simply exist in the past but also exist in the present and function in the present, in both one’s self and language in this instant. Our writing is founded on a history intersected by such riches and, with it, transforms endlessly. It’s hard for me to imagine a Western reader being able to feel this kind of cultural content in your poetry. When confronted with Arabic poetry, what first springs to mind for the Western reader are the political and territorial conflicts between Israel and Palestine, the Arabs and America: this is a gross simplification! And while unconsciously trying to identify your political stance, they overlook the cultural content of your work. This must of course sadden you?

ADONIS: Naturally. Yet at the same time, poets such as Novalis and Rimbaud did not simplify us. For me they were not Westerners. They were like Easterners: they resisted the West.

YANG: You probably know about Pound’s special reading of the imagery of classical Chinese poetry. Academics may view that he is misreading, but for me it is “great misreading”. Pound read the Chinese from the perspective of a poet, and was able to see what was of poetic interest. He was absorbing inspiration for his poetry, and was not playing a political game. So, perhaps one should one instead say that it’s unnecessary to separate the people of the East or the West. The visual sensitivity of the poet that can enrich scenery, but any politicization serves only to simplify scenery. ADONIS: Quite right. At present the attitude towards poetry in the West is both anti-Novalis and anti-Rimbaud. Today in America and in the West generally, whenever Yang Lian and Adonis are present they are labeled “dissident” poets.

YANG: I hate it when they say that.

ADONIS: I hate it, too. Poetry is turned into something else.

YANG: “Difference” or distance in fact exists between word and thing, and in people’s awareness of this difference. The question should be how a poet consciously seeks to create that distance instead of seeking to diminish it. Distance is inherently present as a characteristic of language. The poetic mode consciously seeks to break through this inherent something. For me this is most import.

ADONIS: Poetry sees nothing else apart from language itself.

YANG: I’ve thought something else. Euro-American history and cultural traditions have had a lengthy period of uninterrupted development, like a straight line. The uniformity of its way of thinking even has similarities with China’s cultural traditions that had endured for around two thousand years. However after the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, the experience of a series of military failures caused the Chinese to seriously doubt their own traditions. Some even proposed totally abolishing Chinese culture and replacing it with Western culture. It is only now, looking back, that we can see the tragic outcome of this self contradictory and complex psychology! But, as a poet, I must say that this situation was also a sort of dynamic energy that has served to deepen one’s understanding. Political, historical and cultural problems are all a part of the self of the poet. I think this is the authentic poetic experience that you have spoken about.

ADONIS: There are many problems in our traditions: the value of the individual is not recognized and there is a lack of democratic traditions.

YANG: The value of the individual has never been emphasized in Chinese tradition. I call contemporary Chinese poetry “nightmare-inspired,” because it comes from interrogating the disasters of the Cultural Revolution. Why was an ancient nation with five thousand years of civilization reduced to a land devoid of common knowledge? What caused this disaster? To begin with we blamed a particular political leader, but why did he have so many successors? Maybe it was the political system, but then how can the awful similarities between the past and the present be explained? Then there is what is known as “the people.” Does this mean that a few persecutors can create 1 billion victims? What propped up a way of thinking that would induce children to denounce their parents, a wife to expose her husband, students to victimize their teachers? And how did this way of thinking take root in the Chinese language? Each disaster is a layer of questions, and the significance of poetry derives from this. Are these processes also evident in contemporary Arabic poetry?

ADONIS: Very much so. The liberation of the individual leads one to oppose ideology and the spread of politicization and Islamic teachings in social life. In poetry it releases creativity that will oppose all forms of simplification.

YANG: Maybe it is our situation that forces us want more to remake our own culture.

ADONIS: To reinvigorate it. Your ancient culture did not come under the control of Western ideology and religion, so it is freer. While maintaining a critical stance you must open yourselves out in all directions. I think that there is now some interesting Chinese poetry….

YANG: But it’s very confused. Many Chinese poets are beset with contradictions. They want to maintain the uniqueness of their own language and poetry, yet they lust after success¬–especially in the major world market, in the West. So, targeting translation, they make it their task to write in a way that facilitates translation and hence acceptance by foreign publishers. Afterward, they write following the same procedure, believing that they have found a short cut to success.

ADONIS: It’s exactly the same with poets writing in Arabic. This is because the West has become our critic. You can’t turn into a Westerner, so instead you turn into one who imitates Western writings while “representing” another culture.

YANG: It is only when you are famous in the West that you realize how empty that fame is.

ADONIS: What is actually translated is not poetry itself, but the relationship between poetry and something else, such as the nation, its politics and its ideology. In the end the poet is turned into a piece of material evidence.

YANG: People discuss the darkness of my poetry but confine themselves to the surface layer of politics. They don’t talk about how that darkness manifests itself or how it is created, nor do they talk about the creative energy of the language. When reference is made to Chinese poetry there are inevitably the words “underground” if in China, and “exile” if it is elsewhere in the world. However these words are as futile as other political teachings and have nothing to do with whether a poem is good or bad.

ADONIS: That’s why I don’t like your poet whose name is something Dao. (YANG: Bei Dao?) Yes, I don’t like poets who come to the West and say, “Look, I oppose communism, support me….”

YANG: Everything is parceled and labeled. The situation is actually worse: when poets realize why they are famous they make use of it as a trademark, like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. However what they are selling are counterfeit experiences of suffering and their Western literary agents are arranging these transactions. Sometimes you get the feeling that Western literary agents are placing orders for the sufferings of China. What is absurd is that the real victims of this farce are the suffering Chinese, Arabs and people from other countries who don’t have a voice. Amazingly, their sufferings have already been sold!

ADONIS: I always attack this tendency in Arab poetry. I also attack the one-sidedness of the West. I don’t stand on either simplified side but oppose both! This is important.

YANG: Then you must feel very isolated.

ADONIS: People who consider matters from a political angle can’t accept my way of thinking. I’ll give you an example. I have always opposed Saddam Hussein but I also oppose how the American military forces have attacked and occupied Iraq. I oppose both of them. Many people can’t understand my attitude. For them you must take sides, say “yes” or “no.” Most “political dissidents” are like this. None-the-less we must persevere.

YANG: Viewed from the angle of cultural reconstruction, to persevere in independent thinking is the root of all living traditions: it’s the same wherever it is and whatever the objectives. The “governments” of the East are reprehensible, but if they simply follow the West they don’t therefore become any more honorable.

ADONIS: Compared with the several hundred years of China’s history and culture what does today’s ideology signify? Absolutely nothing!

YANG: I think there is another reason for the West’s narrow understanding: anything outside its own traditions is not worthy of “study”. They can only discuss what has been written into their textbooks. This is “Chinese poetry” and that is “Arabic poetry.” There are ingrained notions about classical poetry of the past and about the political content of the present. But our poetry is much more than that. For example, the relationship between words and things that you mentioned earlier is quite different from what people discuss in the West. Moreover, our poetry neither follows tradition nor duplicates the West. This is a completely new understanding that needs to be examined.

ADONIS: At the beginning you asked why I live in Europe. I think that I don’t treat Europe merely as Europe. Concepts that are valued in European culture have their counterparts in Arabic, Chinese or other cultures. Europe is a “structure” acting as a carrier of these concepts. That structure belongs both to Europeans and me. European culture, its philosophy, social sciences and ideologies are one thing, and its democratic system another. I can oppose Europe’s politics but at the same time I can also oppose my own country’s politics.

YANG: I have to say that being far away has led me to a deeper understanding of both China and the Chinese language. When I left China at the age of thirty-three I couldn’t speak a sentence of English. My understanding of English in the intervening years allowed me to compare the two languages, and I became aware of the special properties of the Chinese language, its unique limitations and potentialities. This has helped me in my new writings and even allowed me to understand my earlier writings. For example, the cycle of poems, “In Symmetry with Death”, —contained in the long poem Yi that I wrote before leaving China—may be regarded as my rewriting of Chinese history. In this cycle of poems I placed alongside one another the accounts of historical characters, contemporary lyrical poetry, and quotations from classical poetry. These three levels of language formed an integral whole. I was able to do this because Chinese verbs do not indicate tense. A verb that is not tense-specific can be “attached” to the past, present or future and transform a line of poetry into the one single “situation”. I can’t imagine how it would have turned out if I were writing with tenses in English. Would the use of three levels of language be confusing? But it was only after leaving China that I became aware of this.

ADONIS: I can appreciate what you feel. For me too, it was only after I came to the West that I came to understand more clearly my own situation, the situation of Arab culture, and almost everything else. Internally, what you see are other people and another place; and externally, what you see is your own inner mind.

YANG: There is an ancient Chinese way of putting this: you can’t see the mountain, “because you are on the mountain”.

ADONIS: That’s beautiful, very beautiful. But it’s not the same for everyone, and there are many poets who can’t see things any differently. For example, there are some Iraqi poets living in exile who write no differently from when they were in Iraq. When you are living in England, America or Europe why do you write in exactly the same way as you did in Baghdad? Why? When you are writing can’t you feel the distance? I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s because of ideology. Ideology in London is much the same as it is in Baghdad.

YANG: Ideology blocks off any new experiences of existence.

ADONIS: Exactly. So we see much “exile poetry” that seem to be written in Baghdad.

YANG: For me, it’s most important for a poet to transform experience into creative potential. It’s not just a matter of “why transform”—after you have relocated a few times— it’s more “how to transform”. Do you have the capacity to create new forms of writing from your changed environment? That’s right, form. It’s not a matter of writing the same poem and just changing the topic. That is to say, do you have the capacity for transforming yourself? One of the criteria for evaluating the substance of a writer is to see whether he or she is able to create several different stages of writing. If the poetry a poet now writes is the same as what he or she wrote twenty or thirty years earlier, why keep writing? You finished writing a long time ago! I always maintain that our writings must each constitute small traditions that will together constitute the roots of our whole cultural tradition.

ADONIS: I left Syria for Lebanon almost fifty years ago. When civil war broke out in Lebanon twenty-five years ago, water and electricity were cut off and it was impossible to do anything, so I eventually went to Paris. The Arab world has been influenced by the cultures of the French and English, so although I’d never studied it at school I could speak a little French. Today I can write essays and speeches in French, but I always write poetry in Arabic. Language is my mother, and it’s not possible for a person to have two mothers.

YANG: We can have two wives, but we definitely can’t have two mothers!

ADONIS: And of course we can have lots of fathers, but we can only have one mother (laughs). Quite a few poets try writing poems in a foreign language, but they are just awful.

YANG: In one’s own language between normal and speech poetry there is quite a distance, and in a foreign language there’s also quite a distance. One has to remember this. If one doesn’t just want to write rubbish like “We’re sitting in a café watching a woman walk by”, but wants to write good poetry using language charged with energy this distance has to be preserved.

ADONIS: You’ve raised the matter of distance in language. In Arabic we have at least three types of spoken language. For example the spoken Iraqi language has been so affected by the influence of national minority languages that I can’t understand a thing when people are speaking it. The language situation in Morocco and Algiers is also like that. But other countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Tunisia have the same spoken language, and this language has barely changed for two thousand years from before the time of the Roman Empire.

YANG: Is that so? Then how do you deal with modern concepts?

ADONIS: The Islamic religion has one and a half thousand years of history, but the Arabic language far predates the establishment of Islam. Of course, over time many words have become obsolete and many words have been born. Many modes of expression have changed but the grammar and the structure of the language has not changed. Arabic has the biggest lexicon capacity in the world.

YANG: So Arabic poets have the special duty of modifying the lexicon?

ADONIS: Society, schools, universities and politics modify the lexicon. One can’t set out to modify the language divorced from the total reality in which one is located. In our country things are always very complicated, probably much more complicated than in China. You have ideology but you don’t have religious control.

YANG: How do you see your poetry in relation to religion.

ADONIS: I oppose them, I oppose those Islamic attitudes that have created so many enemies for us. I am well known for this. I go right to the heart of the matter and don’t just confront a single regional politics.

YANG: The Koran was written more than one thousand five hundred years ago.

ADONIS: The situation is very difficult. The control of Islam is omniscient: in the schools, the homes, and in the legal and academic organizations…. The situation is terrifying! What’s the population of China? 1.3billion? There are also 1.3billion Muslims in the world, the same as the total population of China! So what can one do under the circumstances?

YANG: That’s a massive enemy army!

ADONIS: It’s ghastly! If you think differently, you are banned—banned by your own people. This is much worse than political censorship.

YANG: Communist ideology in fact died at the end of the Cold War. Everyone knows that it wasn’t a good thing, and even the party leaders are ashamed of the positions they hold. The system will off course come to an end. It’s only a matter of time. With religions it’s a different situation.

ADONIS: Islam is also finished. As a civilization, as a creation, it is already finished.

YANG: That’s what you think, but it’s not what 1.3 billion Muslims think.

ADONIS: But there are also many people who agree with me. Just like communist ideology, Islam has now concerned itself with politics as well as economics. And just as in the Chinese reality, power and ideology are in fact more important than Marxism. With us you can’t talk about Islam without talking about our dictators. Islamic dictators and political dictators think the same. You can almost see the end of your ideology but when will we see the end of ours?

YANG: It’s because I can see the end that I can talk about reconstructing Chinese culture. But perhaps with you it’s different.

ADONIS: I really don’t know. It’s too hard.

YANG: Your must be really strong, otherwise weariness, fatigue and despair would have crushed you.

ADONIS: It is only in poetry that I can find solace.

YANG: Is poetry your salvation?

ADONIS: Absolutely. Who can convey this feeling in translation?

YANG: I have always believed that poetry functioned differently in the West. For us all the historical, cultural, social and political complexities have been internalized, they are a part of our individual fates. It’s not possible to separate oneself from them. When the psychological burden becomes too great the only way to return to a realm of freedom is to sit down and write a line of poetry. It is only through poetry that we can maintain equilibrium. This meaning of poetry is hard to understand, even for my closest European and American friends. For them poetry is the product of a free life. You must first obtain freedom in life before you can write poetry. But my only freedom is poetry. Poetry is the only thing that can begin from the impossible, where everything else is in ruins.

ADONIS: In the West poetry is a cultural issue. In China and the Arab world, poetry is existence itself.

YANG: In the West poetry is the perfume on the bodies of beautiful women. Here, poetry is the choice between life and death. It definitely isn’t just games of the intellect and styles. This is why our poetry is intense, profound, and maybe also lonely.

ADONIS: Western poetry has already ended. You don’t have to go on reading it.

YANG: The desire to read it is lost because you have already seen it all.

ADONIS: Poetry—not propaganda—is still welcomed. That’s not the problem. For example in the poem I read yesterday I wrote about love using a form that was different from the classical form yet people were able to respond to it. This is because love is basic to human beings. YANG: People say that love is the only way to make time stand still. It leaves behind some specific moments, but what can you do with those moments? Treat them as truth, fantasy, or treat fantasy as something more authentic than reality? What sort of beauty can transcend the limitations of life itself? Love perpetually creates more problems so this is why there are more tragedies than comedies. ADONIS: Indeed.

YANG: Lastly, do you think there is only the one time in the world? Westerners will look upon China from an evolutionary perspective and say that we are their past; from another perspective, one with an exotic flavor, they will say that we are postmodern. Does this also occur between the West and Arab culture?

ADONIS: It’s very similar, but perhaps to a different extent. Apart from the religious part, the rest is much the same.

YANG: For religion, time is abstract. However, dictators and power belong to the present.

ADONIS: It is dictatorship politics making use of religion. It is the present making use of “eternity”. Religions and political systems are the same: both are our enemies.

YANG: Then what can the poet do?

ADONIS: Only continue writing poetry.

YANG: Can poetry save us?

ADONIS: Definitely, but it won’t be easy, in fact it will be very difficult. We have many responsibilities and we must undertake them.

YANG: Poetry contains all of these layers: religion, politics, individuality, and our understanding of language and culture… Poetry is a universe in which we exist.

ADONIS: I fully agree.

Translation from the Chinese by Mabel Lee
19 October 2003, Sydney, Australia