Friday, October 28, 2011

Poem: "Fallen Flowers"

James Liu, The Poetry of Li Shang-yin 李商隐: Ninth-Century Baroque Chinese Poet (University of Chicago, 1969)

Fallen Flowers

From the tall pavilion the guests have all departed,
In the little garden flowers helter-skelter fly.
They fall at random on the winding path,
And travel far, sending off the setting sun.
Heartbroken, I cannot bear to sweep them away;
Gazing hard, I watch them till few are left.
Their fragrant heart, following spring, dies;
What they have earned are tears that wet one's clothes.



...As the poet watches the fallen flowers, he identifies himself completely with them, so that the heart that dies and the tears that wet his clothes belong as much to the flowers as to the poet. The poem is thus a remarkable example of empathy. (136-7)

Also see a Chinese reader wrestle with the poem. This Chinese recitation has nice slow pacing

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Not dead yet

Syllabus idea: Chinese Modern: Lu Xun and His Times
Professor Fang Zhesheng
Fall 2011: Tuesday evenings after beer, unless I don't feel like it, location TBA
Office Hours: Wednesday noon, just come to my hammock out back. Yell if I'm asleep.
Course description: Students will gain a greater appreciation of the innovations in prose and poetry of late 19th and early 20th century China with a focus on the works of Lu Xun (1881-1936). In addition to Lu Xun's classic short fiction, we will also explore his essays, classical Chinese poetry, History of Chinese Fiction, and Old Stories Retold. Our aim is to see both the revolutionary and the conventional in modern Chinese literature. (The allegory of the iron house, for example, is arguably a variation on the parable of the burning house from the Lotus Sutra.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Diary, October 18: Evolutionary Beacons

As we talked, Adam reminded me that he has crack memorization skills. He can recite this entire song:
Running with the wolves.
It's time for us to go.
Left all our clothes.
With the car left by the road.
And we were running.
For a reason.
For the burning, in our veins.
And we were running.
For a reason.
We just need to get away.

Running with the wolves.
We're screaming at the stars.
Left all we own.
In a hole in our backyard.
And we were running.
For a reason.
Left our cubicles in little flaming piles.
And we were running.
For a reason.
I need to feel something different for just a little while.
I'm not coming home.
I'm staying with the wolves.
They can burn all my mail.
And disconnect my phone.
Tell my mom I'm sorry, sorry for leaving.
But I'm staying.

Now we're running to find meaning.
We're gone, and we're never coming back.
 The lines seemed so much more significant since I had heard the line by Joseph Brodsky about poetry: “Poetry is not a form of entertainment, and in a certain sense not even a form of art, but our anthropological, genetic goal, our linguistic, evolutionary beacon.” In Cloud Cult speak: "We're screaming at the stars." Like everything these days, the idea makes me cry!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Lists: Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror

From Kerri Miller's NPR show:

  • "The Wasp Factory" by Iain Banks
  • "Reamde" by Neil Stevenson
  • "The Road" and "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy
  • "1Q84" by Haruki Murakami
  • "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Class: What works

I had a good class, and my recent prep, and conversations with KT on next semester's classes, have re-affirmed one basic wisdom:
Imitate my betters. 
KT lent me a cool powerpoint on Persepolis, which I used yesterday and today to produce a decent lecture taking us from Feng Menglong to Lu Xun. I decided to make some cuts to the reading list, ditch this weekend's homework, and have students focus on Lu Xun stories. More planning on that tomorrow.

I made great use of China in Revolution, segment 1:

Since A is coming into Duluth tomorrow instead of me going back to Minneapolis, I find myself with a tiny amount of relatively....wait for time. All I plan to do with this evening is:

  • Work on my conference paper
  • Revise cover letters and CV
  • Start on postdoc bibliography
  • get some grading done
Why that's practically nothing! One day at a time....

Recipe: Pumpkin Curry

Pumpkin Curry, trial 1

2 lbs butternut squash, peel and chop
salt, sugar, neutral oil.
12 oz package of tofu, drain and cube
Thai Kitchen red curry paste, coconut milk
brown sugar, fish sauce,
cilantro and/or basil

Toss pumpkin in salt, sugar and oil and roast in a 400 deg F oven for 30+ minutes, turning once (best to place on foil, darn it's hard to scrub off otherwise.) Cool and leave to one side.
Whisk curry paste into coconut milk in a crock pot according to package directions. Add sugar, fish sauce (veggie Worcestershire to keep it vegetarian), and tofu, and cook for an hour.
Add roast pumpkin and cook another hour.

Not bad!

Diary: Wednesday, October 12

I spent the entire morning, 8:30-12 noon, in meetings on how to write the cover letter and the CV. I've received much more advice from the mentors here than from my dissertation committee -- thank heavens, and I swear that in the future, if I have PhD students, I will instruct them in the importance of drafting these documents again, again, and again, and starting much earlier in the process.

 In my second work block, I attacked revisions to my statements, a reading of a chapter draft by my classmate JN, class prep for Thursday, and preparing dinner for my fellow dissertation writers. I hoped to get to my Qian Zhongshu poetry conference paper, and to get some grading done, but there was no time for that.

 My pumpkin curry was a success. We discussed JN's dissertation chapter, on the tensions between British India and the smaller territory of Pondicherry controlled by France. Pondicherry became known as a place that tolerated dissidents, as JN showed with portraits of Aurobindo Ghose, Mira "la mere" Alfassa, and Varadarajulu Subbiah -- these last accounts were particularly fascinating, even through the painful "dissertationese" we all must endure together in this period.
I got Wiki'd and Instapapered, yo
GH also gave a practice talk on the work of Paul Beatty, which impressed itself on me slowly, and seems more important the next day. Afterwards I felt much reassured, and cleaned up the kitchen and dining room with great lightness of heart. Even after 11pm, I found the wherewithal to craft a thesis sentence for my conference paper:
There is something thrilling about finding a distinctively modern consciousness that can express itself in classical form — the classical Chinese poems of Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998) are a particularly thorny example which I believe deserve our attention, and call for new thoughts on the staging and presentation of Chinese poetry in translation.
It's always best, I think, to read a little before bed, even if it's only a very little. I've been reading "Dog Run Moon" by Callan Wink for three nights, and still didn't finish the story. (NB: Googling for the title brought up an entry on the story by writer Clifford Garstang)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Three Narrative Poems

Narrative poems have a special power to reverberate, and it occurs to me that they should be used in the classroom to develop terms and issues. Here's three that I heard on the way to work today: "Mrs. Miller" by Charles Douthat takes the form of a memoir in progress ("And to the south lived dear old Mrs. Miller...") and peaks in a sharp connection between the woman of the past and the man of the present:
Saturdays, I'd wash Mrs. Miller's Buick with a bucket, soap and sponge. The fifteen cents she paid was good money in '61. Later, on the lanai, she'd pour my coke, wave away her cigarette smoke, and engage me in grown-up conversation. "Since nothing ever goes according to plan," she'd say, "You'd think we'd figure out the plan." I was at most eleven. She was a drunk, I suppose. Confused, but open-hearted. Lonely, of course. The first person like me I'd known.
The eye of the poem is in the last stanza, but the penultimate stanza is full of narrative details that set up, stage the point to come. "Changing Genres" by Dean Young is a great reflection on story, and what it is to have plot:
I was satisfied with haiku until I met you, jar of octopus, cuckoo's cry, 5-7-5, but now I want a Russian novel, a 50-page description of you sleeping, another 75 of what you think staring out a window. I don't care about the plot
Ahem, excuse the interruption -- this is another poem with good use of enjambment and other rhetoric (come back to this) to keep us interested. The second part of the poem is on plot in the general sense -- metalitureature!
although I suppose there will have to be one, the usual separation of the lovers, turbulent seas, danger of decommission in spite of constant war, time in gulps and glitches passing, squibs of threnody, a fallen nest, speckled eggs somehow uncrushed, the sled outracing the wolves on the steppes, the huge glittering ball where all that matters is a kiss at the end of a dark hall. At dawn the officers ride back to the garrison, one without a glove, the entire last chapter about a necklace that couldn't be worn inherited by a great-niece along with the love letters bound in silk.
Finally, I love the poem "Spilled Milk" by Willa Schneberg, and think it would be useful to open my course unit on senescence with a close look at the poem. I'll read it twice, and we'll close read the ending:
Lovemaking wasn't so easy between us in the early years. We both felt guilty. We thought we weren't supposed to enjoy it and I was always worried about becoming pregnant. Later on we worried the children would hear. But after they grew up and moved out and I couldn't bear anymore we began to have fun. It wasn't always before going to sleep either. Sometimes during breakfast he would say, Let's go and roll his eyes up to the bedroom. Luba, he would say, I'll help you take out the hairpins.
Why end with "lovemaking"? How does this convey the experience of aging in all its ironies, bodily disfunctions, and new freedoms appear in the poem? Students will answer such a question in 10 minutes, then pass the papers in on their way out.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bibliography: Brander Matthews on 3 Kinds of Story

Branders' The Short Story from 1907 must be one of the first anthologies of its kind. In the "Appendix," it says:
THE SHORT-STORY differs essentially from all the longer forms of fiction because its brevity forces the writer to confine himself to a single one of the three elements which the author of a novel may combine at his pleasure. These three elements are the plot, the characters, and the setting. The novelist may pay equal attention to what happens, to the persons to whom these things happen, and to the places where they happen. But the limitations of space forbid this variety to the short-story writer; he has to make his choice among the three. If he centers his efforts on his plot, he has no time to elaborate either character or background; this is what Poe has done in the “Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Matthews in his Wikipedia entry

Bibliography: "The Making of the Pearl-Sewn Shirt and The Courtesan's Jewel Box"

Hanan, Patrick. "The Making of the Pearl-Sewn Shirt and The Courtesan's Jewel Box." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 33 (1973): 124-53. I've already used Hanan's translation of the classical tale upon which "The Pearl-Sewn Shirt" is based to teach the differences between classical tale and vernacular story in my freshman seminar. Today I draw on it again, for the close reading of "Pearl-Sewn Shirt" and its antecedent tale, pp. 134-8, especially the term simulated context:
In all the critical concern with "point of view" in fiction one aspect of narrative method has generally been overlooked, perhaps because it is not very important in modern European fiction. This is the search for a plausible context of situation in which the fiction may be conveyed from author to reader. The series of letters, the diary,the psychiatrist's notes -- these are merely the most glaring examples of contexts which have been used at one time or another in European fiction.The context is, of course, a pretence, but it is a pretence in which both author and readers acquiesce in order that the fiction may be communicated effectively. Let us call it a simulated context and note that it may include not only the identity of the narrator and the identity of his audience, but also the precise situation in which one addresses the other. Thus,if we adopt a common definition of literary style as governed by just such factorsas these,[6] the context will determine the "voice" or style in which the work is couched, and, in a wider sphere,will affect practically all of its technique.
I put the definition in bold. Note six gives as further reading on the "contextual" definition of style,see, for example,Nils Erik Enkvist, John Spencer,and Michael J. Gregory,Linguistics and Style (Oxford,1964). I'm fascinated by the investigation of the simulated context of "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg" and how this makes the story quite different from "The Three Brothers."
Simulated Context of the Chinese Vernacular Story

Story: "The Reservoir" by Janet Frame

Kate Figes’ introduction mentions “The Reservoir” by Janet Frame as a good story about “childhood fears and fantasies,” of the specific sort in which the child decides to transgress. Since I read that, I’ve decided to begin my course on women’s literature on the theme of childhood, which I will say is the story of the person’s first cultural clash: the experience of their own. 

Sadly, “The Reservoir” breaks Elmore Leonard’s summary rule: it sounds like writing. The story evokes the New Zealand of the author’s childhood, an idyllic place with hidden dangers as various as sharks and infantile paralysis. The two aspects of New Zealand life, beauty and danger, are symbolized in the local reservoir, which is a good place for a snog but also a place where several children have drowned. The narrator and her friends visit, and return home. It is not as thrilling as the writing wishes it to be. 
Figes’ taste, for character and plot and issue and interpretive meaning, is on the line here. Why did she not choose something from the more intensely dramatic biography of Frame, as Jane Campion knew to do?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

List: MCL: 1987

Leung, Timothy. Highlights of the San Francisco Symposium on Contemporary Chinese Literature. Translated by John Balcom. Modern Chinese Literature, 3: 1-2, Spring/Fall 1987.
Ma Yuan, who I did not know about

  • "Ku he" (Dry river), Mo Yan
  • "Shanshang de xiaowu" (A small house in the mountains), Can Xue
  • "Xingfu dajie 13 hao" (13 Happiness Street), Bei Dao
  • "Ba ba ba"  ; "Nu nu nu" , Han Shaogong
  • Ma Yuan, "Gangdisi de youhuo" (The seduction at Gangdisi), "Die zhiyao sanzhong fangfa" (Three ways to fold a paper hawk)
  • Zhaxi Duwa, "Xi zai pisheng koushang de hun" (Souls tied to the knots on a leather cord)
  • Wang Zengqi
  • Ah Cheng
  • Liu Suola, "Xunzao gewang"
  • Gao Xingjian, "Yeren"

Weekend of Work

"Don't dissimulate!" I've been told many times at the "Secrets to Success" fellowship-writing workshop. Which means it was a joy to watch the story of a pro dissimulator last night.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Book: The Penguin Book of International Women's Stories

Kate Figes, editor, The Penguin Book of International Women's Stories (1996).

 Figes' short introduction helps me see how a reading list at the intersection of women's writing and world literature would probably proceed by theme, beginning with childhood experiences (read "THe Reservoir" and "Games at Twilight" next, and return to Jamaica Kincaid), through adolescence and motherhood, widening in political and social content along the way. Class, war, and gender oppression need to be negotiated as personal expressions of artistic minds, and placed under a general rubric of seeking agency -- one that I'm not convinced is female uniquely, though there is probably such a thing as uniquely female experience. A recurring, or even constant, motif will be that of the culture class, as in Alison Lurie's "Fat People" (a related title might be "Out on Main Street" by Shani Mootoo, mentioned by Sucheta Choudhuri at SWCAS last weekend).
Kate, exhibiting her own signs of nation, class and ideology
I didn't see any reviews of this collection, but it's clear from Kate Figes' web site and new blog that she is a British woman spending a lot of time intellectualizing her experiences of coupledom and motherhood. One wishes to bring up the term "navel-gazing" with the kids, and explore along with them what distinguishes the helpful from the selfish.

UPDATE: I did find a notice for the book in the Times Educational Supplement:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Brainstorm: Women's Literature

I read a teacher's statement regarding the purpose and function of women's literature; I'll summarize it and break it down later.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Film and Book: Che Guavara

The Motorcycle Diaries narrates Che Guavara's crucial coming of age experience: a trip around South America, including visits with unfortunates such as the inhabitants of an Amazon leper colony. The movie didn't quite work for us, but suggests some of the problems with Che's biography: he is both an ordinary adolescent male with a conscience and an idealized portrait of social conscience. Because his story is intended to introduce adolescents to social and political awareness, there is always the problem of how to balance biographical, social and political content. The film if anything errs on the side of leaving things out -- there is nothing on his actual career as a revolutionary, and only the briefest of glances at his experience of authoritarianism or the corruption of multinationals in South America. Mostly we get surreal shots of poor people, which I suppose is meant to hit on a deeper emotional level. Unfortunately, the beautiful Gael Garcia Bernal lacks the skill to affect us (me at least) on a deep level.

Completely by chance, I came across a manga biography of Che in eBook form from the Hennepin Public Library. The work is partly based on The Motorcycle Diaries, but many other books as well, and so takes us through Che's entire life. More than Motorcycle Diaries, Che comes across as a idealistic hero, the man who exemplifies the duty to:
...try always to be able to feel deeply any injustice committed against any person in any part of the world
There is more of the political here -- most revelatory to me was the state of American corporations in South America in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Before Castro, the manga says, 2/3 of arable land in Cuba was owned by foreign companies, mostly from the United States. I hope to follow up on this -- I suppose it means that the number and level of injustices in the name of commerce perpetrated by and for US interests is far greater than I was ever taught. Surprise, surprise.

SWCAS 1: William J. Cunningham on Ping Pong Diplomacy

This weekend I was at the Southwest Conference on Asian Studies (SWCAS), where one of the most colorful figures in the crowd was a retired foreign service officer named William J. Cunningham. Cunningham and his wife were often together in the conference rooms at Trinity and Friday evening at the San Antonio Museum of Art, where they were a perfect portrait of old-school diplomatic grace and gentility, he with his memories, she with her lovely hats.

Cunningham supplied many memories of the founding of SWCAS 40 years ago, and various Chinese diplomats he knew or knew of, like V. K. Wellington Koo and Yang Hsi-kun. But his paper was on the biggest event of his career: the 1971 invitation of the US Table Tennis team to China. This event was a prelude to President Nixon's 1972 visit, and so all parties involved must have known it was much more important than a simple game of table tennis.

Cunningham conveys the story with the eye of the professional diplomat, which at its best surveys the dynamics of multiple actors on the world stage, as in this passage about the ominous climate in Asia in 1971:
Internationally there were ominous signs also. Only ten months previously Mao had issued a furious, personal manifesto denouncing the United States' "treachery" for the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk and the April invasion of Cambodia. After having earlier agreed to resumption of the Warsaw talks, China broke them off again and attacked U.S. policy on Taiwan. Although border talks with the Soviets continued, the Chinese observed Lenin's centenary by accusing Moscow of betraying his legacy, and the Soviets responded in kind, attacking China and Mao for "imperialism's malicious anti-Soviet, anti-Communist campaign." Concurrently, China was energetically orchestrating a vocal anti-militarism campaign against Japan.
Given the environment, it's easier to see that China's participation the table tennis in Japan was the result of hard work by many diplomats. Japan, for one, was in 1970 on track to re-emerge into the world community, and so very much wanted China to be there to make them look good. Even more interesting, the International Table Tennis Federation Congress had some notion of the high-stakes diplomatic work they were doing, whether they liked it or not, at their own planning meetings.

The story of the US visit involves both Mao Zedong, who as the supreme leader of his nation knew that every decision he made was tremendously risky, and so stayed up late smoking the night of April 6, 1971, worried about whether to invite some table tennis players to his country. But another character was Glenn Cowan, a 19-year old from California in "corduroy bell bottoms, long hair topped with a floppy yellow hat") who blundered aboard the Chinese bus in Nagoya on April 4, and so helped precipitate Mao's April 6th crisis evening. International relations events can involve such disparate individuals!

Cunningham is now an old man, with a paper that relies on other personal accounts, biographies, and also emails, letters and telephone calls to the generation that lived through the great thaw in US-China relations in the early 1970s. Among the many worthwhile sources he cites are:

  • Crossing the Divide, 1997, by John Holdridge, the memoirs of another foreign service officer
  • War and Peace with China: First Hand Experiences in the Foreign Service of the United States (1994), by Holdridge and others
  • Image, Perception, and the Making of US-China Relations, ed. Li Hong (1998)
  • The Private Life of Chairman Mao, Li Zhisui (1994) -- been meaning to read this one a long time
  • Henry Kissinger, White House Years (1979)
  • Kissinger: A Biography (1992)