China Connection


Dissident poet Yi Ping becomes the first resident writer in Ithaca City of Asylum -- with some IC help.

by Christi Cox

Jerry Mirskin and Yi Ping
Yi Ping (right) with writing professor Jerry Mirskin
Photo by Christi Cox

When Liz Bishop '04 first read the phrases "Baby grass lead along sunlight" and "Times step in pace of wedding," she was baffled. She was expected to take these words --- loose translations from a Chinese poem --- and turn them into poetry that accurately conveys the poet's intent.

Bishop's writing professor Jerry Mirskin had arranged for her poetry class to help translate several poems written by Chinese writer Yi Ping, who is living in exile in Ithaca.

A playwright, essayist, fiction writer, and poet, Yi Ping taught for years at a Beijing university. Because of his pro-democracy activism he was "relieved" of his job soon after the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Forbidden to teach or publish, and with his previously published books slated for purging, he went into exile.

After a few difficult years, at first in Poland and then in the United States, he was invited to Ithaca through the auspices of the Paris-based International Parliament of Writers, which finds communities that offer asylum and sponsorship to writers needing protection and help; in return, the writers are available for various activities. The city of Ithaca is the second such community in this country. Cornell University, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ithaca College all contribute to --- and benefit from --- the Ithaca City of Asylum Project.

Poet Bridget Meeds '91, writing professor Barbara Adams, retired professors Harvey Fireside and Miriam Brody, and Paul Hamill, Ithaca's director of academic funding and special programs, serve on the project's board. With other board members they found housing and made arrangements for Yi Ping --- with his teenage son, Mao, and wife, Lin Zhou --- to take an early-morning bus, two years ago, from New York to Ithaca. It turned out to be a good time to leave Manhattan. It was September 11, 2001.

Hamill, currently chair of the Ithaca City of Asylum Project, is delighted with Ithaca College's participation. "This is a unique opportunity for students to have a close connection with an internationally known poet and to learn to deal with translation issues," he says. "They learn an enormous amount about language and culture as well as about poetry."

After the 20 class members received bare-bones translations of one or another of Yi Ping's poems, they met individually with the poet to try to flesh out his intent and meaning. Some asked about the cultural context in which the poems were written; others listened to the poet read his work in its original Chinese to get a sense of its cadence and rhythm. All were charmed by Yi Ping and fascinated by his experiences during the Chinese cultural revolution. Maria Cataldo '03 notes that an important part of the process for her was discovering the roots of Yi Ping's poetry, "where he gets his energy and motivation."

For Bishop, it was more than an exciting experience. As a poet herself (she's part of a winning slam poetry team that competes nationally), she was concerned about meshing her own very Western poetic sensibility with that of Yi Ping. "I wanted to be respectful and do justice to his poetry," she says. What surprised her was that the Chinese poet told her to make the poem her own --- in other words, he was encouraging a true collaboration.

Such generosity of spirit, unusual in most writers, is typical of Yi Ping. "He's a person of great stature and quality," notes Hamill. Mirskin concurs. "He has not only shared his work, he has shared his humanity," he says.

This humanity --- as well as the brilliance of his poetry --- was recently on display at a public reading by dissident writers of worldwide stature. Yi Ping, one of three featured writers, graciously asked several of his Ithaca students to join him at the podium to read their versions of his poems.

Yi Ping's book The Speech of Pebbles, with translations by Ithaca College students, was published in October by Ithaca publisher Vista Peridista.

Yi Ping is pleased with the results of the students' work. "I'm very impressed," he says of how the students managed to invoke the spirit of his original work while pushing the imagery beyond its original classical Chinese form. "Some used very vivid language," he observes, adding that he may integrate into his own work some of the more emotion-laden Western approaches to poetry.

As for Bishop, she's forged a transformation. After considering Yi Ping's explanations of the phrases, she has enfolded the meaning in new linguistic and cultural wrappings: "pushing his imagery in a contemporary direction," she says. "I never would have imagined myself participating in a translation project; now I know that the potential is there to share this way as poets. It's been a fantastic experience."

And what of the "baby grass" and "pace of wedding"? Now, as part of a longer poem that Bishop has refashioned, they've become "A wandering union/Where blades of green light shine."


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A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 28 October, 2003