“Light and Truth in Common Things”: An Interview with Sun Wei-min
Sun Wei-min (孫維民, 1959–) is a poet from Chiayi, Taiwan. He received his PhD in foreign languages and literature from National Cheng-kung University. Sun has won many literary awards. His publications include five poetry collections, The Tower of Babel (拜波之塔), Alien (異形), Chi-lin(麒麟), Days (日子), and On the Earth’s Surface (地表上), and two prose collections, Solomon and the Field Lilies (所羅門與百合花) and The Box Shop (格子舖). Sun’s poetry often focuses on the everyday, the routines of life: commutes, visits to the hospital, walks in nature. “In common little things,” Sun says, “there are light and truth.” From his vantage point of humdrum, normal life, this remarkable Taiwanese poet draws a portrait of modern urban life to rival that of Philip Larkin. Like Larkin, Sun tends to be pessimistic about human nature: he calls himself a “misanthrope” and derives poetical insights from this philosophical position.
Five of Sun Wei-min’s poems, translated into English by Wen-chi Li and Colin Bramwell, accompany the following interview with the poet, conducted by the translators in the summer of 2019. Additional questions and clarifications were also added to the text by Sun. In the five poems here, one may get a glimpse of Sun’s love of nature, his observations of the human mind and solitude, and his longing for some sort of redemption.
By combining their translations of the poetry with Sun’s own statements on poetics, Li and Bramwell intend to introduce English-speaking readers to the work of one of Taiwan’s most remarkable contemporary poets.
Q: You have translated some contemporary Western poems into Chinese, such as those by W. S. Mervin, Charles Simic, William Stafford, and Sylvia Plath. Why did you want to translate their poems?
A: I translate poems mainly as a form of self-training, aside from my own pleasure. Translation seems a good way to understand better what other poets have done. When translating a poem, from English into Chinese or vice versa, one has to know deeply what the poem says and how the poet says it. Strictly speaking, poems are certainly untranslatable because the essence of poetry, the original language with its sound and sense and everything, can never be regained in another language.
Q: You seem much influenced by Western poets and literary theories. What do you think are the connections between your poetry and Western poetry?
A: It’s true that, before I was twenty-eight or more, Western poets constantly hovered overhead. Before graduating from the M.A. program, we had been taught about modernism; since graduating, I have been trying to find my own way of writing poems. We had a good poetry teacher then, who taught us Eliot, Yeats, Wordsworth, Shelley, etc. Later I wrote my dissertation on T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” Certainly, there are connections between my early poems and some Western poets. They were the literary predecessors whom I could learn from and hopefully overcome someday. In my second poetry collection, Alien, I found out my own voice. Few poets have affected me since then.
Q: Do you prefer to be called a modernist poet?
A: It’s always difficult and problematic to define oneself in this way. When we say “modernist poetry” or “modernism,” what does this actually mean? I can still find in my first collection poems which are somewhat post-modernistic, though I knew little of postmodernism in my twenties. Even Wordsworth and Yeats can be “postmodernist” sometimes, as de Man suggests. I think it’s essentially a matter of perspective. When I learned deconstruction, I found that Milton’s Paradise Lost was very deconstructive. Milton, I assumed, was actually a deconstructionist in the 17th century. In the intense moment of composition, I seldom think of what kind of poet I am. I do believe that some “creeds” of modernism are truly advisable, but I also side with some post-modern viewpoints. I consider ancient poets and critics to be very smart, too, both Western and Eastern.
Q: When you write your poetry, do you have the reader in mind?
A: I sincerely hope that, when I write, I don’t need to consider how the reader will respond. In order to avoid the real reader’s interference, I imagine an “ideal reader,” who is more intelligent and interesting than I (and most real readers): thus, I have to write harder to please her/him. Inventing this “ideal reader” brings certain benefits: s/he is fictitious, so s/he is not physically and spiritually limited, and s/he can never be surpassed. A reader in the real world is always bound to their time and place and thus may have a negative influence on the writer. Beware of your readers if you are, as Ezra Pound says, in “the damn’d profession of writing.”
Q: Is such an attitude towards the reader related to your attitude towards mankind in general? In your poems, we find distrust of or even enmity towards humanity.
A: A quick survey of human history reveals the fact that human beings, after thousands of years of evolution, have not progressed much. The mistakes made by ancient societies are being made by our society currently, and will be made again in the future. Perhaps this is the so-called “human nature,” which is, sadly, almost static. I don’t think genuine salvation will come easily with the flux of time. The modern world already lives under threat of total extinction due to weapons that become even more efficient and destructive as time passes. The world to come may be equally frightening.
I admit that I don’t trust mankind, and that I don’t consider us wise enough to govern this planet. Sometimes I try to imagine the Earth without Homo sapiens, and often I conclude that, without this species, our planet would be incredibly beautiful.
Q: Is this why your poetry often strikes a pessimistic note? How far does such pessimism go? Do you think the world is redeemable?
A: Indeed. I’m not so optimistic about human nature, and yet I am not overwhelmingly pessimistic. I write what appears true to me, and like many others, I await some kind of redemption. A few years ago, a computer program beat all the players of Go in the world. Go has been deemed one of the most complicated chess games, those who play it have been celebrated as brilliant human brains. That a computer could win so comprehensively struck me as good news. I seemed to detect new light in old darkness. Once, a medical doctor told me that soon we would be taken care of by AIs. An AI nurse, I reasonably imagine, must be more competent and considerate than a human one. It thinks and calculates better, and wastes no time making wrong decisions. After medical AIs, I hope, the world will have its first AI president, in some clever nation.
Religions offer a paradise to come, but I do believe that paradise can come only when humanity dies or the world ends. If computer programs are far wiser than our brains, why don’t we follow them for better earthly living? In regard to a world guided by AIs, a new species devoid of human defects, I am quite optimistic.
Q: In your poetry you often use the images of disease, and of hospitals. Is this due to personal experience, or other literary influences?
A: As a child I was physically weak and found myself in the hospital. Growing up, I still get sick easily, more easily than normal people. It must be my fate; my “genes,” to use a more scientific term. Naturally, sickness and the hospital became important subject matter in my poetry, which may be a small compensation for my sufferings. In my M.A. program, I remember reading Eliot’s comparison of the world to a hospital, and later I read The Teaching of Vimalakīrti (維摩詰經), in which illness is everywhere. Earlier than that, I had heard the parables concerning physicians and the sick in the Gospels. Nevertheless, such metaphors in my poems began from my own unpleasant personal experience of sickness.
Q: I’d like to ask you the same question, but about death. Your work is uncommonly concerned with death—why is this?
A: Compared with my parents, I was fortunate to be able to grow up in reasonably safe surroundings. However, my parents suffered a lot in wartime: I could constantly detect a sense of insecurity from them about death, as a result. My first real understanding of death came when I was a junior high student, after a classmate of mine suddenly died. He was not just a classmate but a friend. After school, we rode our bikes home together. At his funeral I saw him lying there, so motionless and silent. His death was a clear proclamation: death exists, and it can take away the ones we love.
Q: Your poems often show the contrast between the city and nature. The city is mostly postlapsarian, and nature is almost the opposite. Can you talk about what nature means to you?
A: I lived in the countryside in my childhood and was very attached to nature. I could spend hours wandering there. To me, nature remains a mysterious and healing site. When seeking consolation, I can usually find it where there are trees, lakes, hills, or just weeds. In my early poems, as some critics have noted, images of nature connote religious conceptions of paradise.
In a highly commercial and technological age, our desire to be close to nature grows stronger. It’s another proof of human folly: only once the environment has been damaged do people begin to notice what the planet has endured from us, and the terrible consequences that may result.
Q: Do you think poets undertake certain responsibilities? What is your mission as a poet?
A: Poets of all times, it seems to me, have at least one mission: to revive words, to make words live again. The words we use in daily routines are mostly meaningless, piles of clichés and habitual responses. Then there’s the crooked language purposefully employed by politicians and the media. In a time of cellphones, Facebook and Instagram, etc., more and more words are wasted. Words have lost their true power: to name, know, and inform. The poet’s work is, as Heidegger says, to find “the appropriate and thus competent word which names a thing as being.” Truly powerful words renew one’s consciousness of the world and make one see.
Q: How do you evaluate modern poetry in Taiwan? Do you have any suggestion for the younger poets there?
A: There have been many good poets, young and old, in Taiwan. I especially enjoy reading Yang Mu (楊牧), Ya Hsien (瘂弦), and Shang Ch’in (商禽). Young poetry readers appear to be increasing, as does the amount of poetry being published these days. I am very happy to see that happen in Taiwan. When I began writing poems, “modern poetry” was excluded from most college curricula, but now poetry courses are common at universities. If I were to create an ideal course for poets, it should include some fundamental dimensions, such as a history of free verse, musicality, language and style, modernism and postmodernism, before students were guided to read specific poems. There are numerous sophisticated techniques that are used to write poems, but the fundamentals are equally important.
The Beginning of a Day
Again the light’s enthusiasm finds the abandoned
wilderness, and heaps praise on it for being peaceful:
the flowers whose names I know
—and those with names unknown to me—
welcome bees and butterflies, wave off the dew,
a family of eagles hovers over the hillside
a leopard snake swims through the April creek…
For a moment, I think about evil—
and then of the enduring world
that will never reduce its beauty for you
Wound of a Day
After dinner, with the winter wind still searching outside the door,
my footprints go backwards, through stairs, alleys, stations, over bridges
returning to a building that is already silent and dark...
The food, ground up, is broken down in the stomach and enters the small and large intestines.
The pain stays somewhere in the body. It’s hard to say exactly where.
Not easily absorbed, hard to excrete.
After a few days, it persists, untouched,
like a piece of steel or a single tooth.
It encounters the air inhaled through the lungs, the liquid passing
down into the oesophagus, and after undergoing chemical decomposition
becomes part of the body—
nesting between its cells, the birds and the beasts
hovering over the blood like a god, like a demon.
Now I water you, fertilize you, remove your diseased leaves,
hoping that, one day—due to a number of human affairs
no one cares to remind me of the road I walk to my destruction—
you reward my care with quiet grace, with the eyes of a child.
When Taking Medicine
Fight to seize this driftwood:
white, oval, 10mg
But Lord, you know
I’d prefer to walk on water.
The pain in my body became so overwhelming that I couldn’t discharge it through my eyes mouth genitals nor kill it with sound or shadow or liquid smoke.
I wrote my name and address on an envelope.
I picked up the phone and dialed a number of numbers.
I walked dark streets until daybreak.
I drove around in my car, ignoring the dashboard’s cry for help.
I opened the door and found the pillow.
Before I lay down, I said my usual
But it was still growing in my body like an alien its knuckles molding over mine like a glove its feet pressing against my feet like a shoe its body finally replacing me within my shell a temporary home a camouflage.
Apart from me,
no one knows.
Apart from it,
no one knows.