Chen-ou Liu's Translation Project: First English-Chinese Haiku and Tanka Blog

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Journey Itself Is Home

(The following is my "Poet and Tanka" essay, which was first published in Ribbons, 12:2, Spring/Summer 2016)

The Journey Itself Is Home

After more than ten years of struggling towards a new life vision and preparing for a major change in my field of study (computer science to cultural studies), in the summer of 2002 I emigrated to Canada to pursue a PhD and settled in Ajax, a suburb of Toronto.

flying above
the light and murmur
of Formosa
the airplane carries
my immigrant dream

Haiku Canada Review, 9:1, February 2015
(In 1544, a Portuguese ship sighted the main island of Taiwan and named it "Ilha Formosa," which means “Beautiful Island")

Toronto settles
into a nocturnal rhythm ...
face to face
in the attic room
with my Chinese self

Haiku Canada Review, 9:1, February 2015

After arriving in Canada, I was frustrated by the lack of in-depth and wide-ranging classroom discussions and, most importantly, I was stressed by the financial burden. I quit my studies and started to write essays in an adopted language, English. After two years of striving, I published three essays but got little attention from the scholars in those fields. Furthermore, I was disappointed by my inability to master English quickly. My pent-up emotions began spilling over onto pieces of scrap paper in the form of free verse. The more I wrote, the more I thought about becoming a poet.

I try out
the English word writer
in my Chinese mouth
several times ...
this bittersweet taste

Whispers, October 11, 2014

After a year of striving to write free verse poetry without much success, I came across three books of tanka poetry by Takuboku: Poems to Eat, A Handful of Sand, and Romaji Diary and Sad Toys. The emotional strength, socio-political sensibilities, and colloquial language of Takuboku’s tanka, a kind of poetry in the moment, appealed to me. For Takuboku, writing tanka was more like the emotional outburst of a mind agonized by the inner struggle and external events that shaped his life and identity. In some aspects, Takuboku’s conception of “poems to eat” is similar to that of Dionne Brand: “Poetry is here, just here. Something wrestling with how we live, something dangerous, something honest” (Bread Out of Stone, p. 113). Since encountering Takuboku’s heartfelt and poignant work, I came to view tanka as a poetic diary that could be employed to record the changes in my immigrant life, a newly-racialized life of struggle with transition and translation.

bare maple tree
standing on the front lawn…
with no one around
I speak to it
in my mother tongue

2011 Best of the Best Poetry Award (Tanka Category), Lyrical Passion Poetry

I used to be...
from an immigrant's mouth
stretches his story --
the pin-drop silence
fills an ESL classroom

Gusts, 16, Fall/Winter 2012
(ESL stands for English as a Second Language)

old-age home
in winter twilight
I listen
to his Hockey Night stories
for minimum wage

Atlas Poetica, 15, 2013

behind my back
they whisper slanted eyes ...
in a dream
I unzip my skin,
put on another

Highly Commended, 2014 Kokako Tanka Competition

when being shouted at
go back where you came from
the gray wings
of the Canada goose
skim my heart

Atlas Poetica, 5, Spring 2010

mid-autumn night…
the wind whispers to me
Chinese words
that offer me a home
in the shape of a moon

Tanka First Place, 2011 San Francisco International Competition Haiku, Senryu, Tanka, and Rengay

Tanka is a short form poetry, and it requires the poet to have acute observation skills and a set of literary techniques to distill his/her feeling, thought, or experience to its essence. In his study of Masaoka Shiki's life and work, The Winter Sun Shines In, Donald Keene makes a similar point: “A haiku or a tanka without rhetoric was likely to be no more than a brief observation without poetic tension or illumination" (p. 57).

In my early days of writing tanka as an English learner, I put more effort into choosing the right words/phrases to depict a scene or an experience in concrete imagery and to structure it into two parts that formed a resonant relationship to spark the reader’s emotions and reflection.

after surgery
both of us said nothing...
her red bra
in the corner of my mind
begins to change color

Second Place, the 60th Pennsylvania Poetry Society Annual Contest

A year later, when I felt more confident in writing tanka, I started applying some literary techniques to the poem in order to expand or deepen its meaning:

Punctuation marks to thematically and emotionally highlight the two contrasting parts (outer world versus inner thought) of the poem to offer more dreaming room for the reader’s imagination.

I open windows
(another day no poem
written down,
only blocks of dead words)
and let the spring breeze in

Gusts, 20, Fall/Winter 2014

Wordplay to bring together the two disparate images to evoke racial-cultural associations that have sociopolitical impacts.

white flight, white fright ...
my Chinese roommate
practices "l" and "r"
before the window
as the moonlight slips in

VerseWrights, March, 2014
(Chinese-English learners, especially adult learners, have great difficulty pronouncing “l” and “r” clearly and distinctly; “white flight” is a term that originated in the United States and starting in the mid-20th century)

The rhetorical device of defamiliarization to effectively convey the speaker's sense of estrangement or displacement.

black coffee
and Chinese fried dough ...
in my mouth
a foreign tongue
licking these lips

NeverEnding Story, February 1, 2015
(For most Chinese people, this food combination of "black coffee/and Chinese fried dough" is weird/westernized; usually, a typical Chinese breakfast includes soybean milk or a bowl of congee and Chinese fried dough)

Syntactic parallelism to reinforce the poem's message by setting up patterns and adding balance and rhythm to the lines to give the poem a smoother flow.

we were all
someone and something once ...
this migrant
sees himself in me
seeing myself in him

VerseWrights, March, 2014

Symbols to open up a different cultural and mental space and transport the reader’s imagination.

the muse rising
from a sea of words
covers her breasts ...
I am pregnant
with verses of longing

Atlas Poetica, 18, 2014

Classical allusion to create novel contrasts that layer the poem with multiple meanings

putting the corpse
of loneliness around my neck
I jump
into the darkness
of a spring day

Back Cover Tanka, Ribbons, 6:3, Fall 2010
(“… In a vivid flash of five lines, Liu’s poem brings the famous Coleridge work ["The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"] immediately to mind. In the tanka, the concrete is replaced with the abstract… Loneliness, is an abstraction given power and life by use of the corpse metaphor... Spring, typically associated with rebirth, sunlight, and joy, here takes on the opposite qualities with the simple alliterative combination of “darkness” and “spring day.” Dave Bacharach, “The Back Cover,” p.1)

As one who has long been interested in cinema, Kaleidoscope: Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayam, greatly appealed to me because Terayama’s cinematic fiction tanka not only dismantled my hard-learned ideas about what the tanka is, but also interwove the narrative threads of personal mythology, trauma, cultural memories, socio-political events and surreal imagination.

a child of O'Keeffe
I've made words my ladder
to the moon --
critics cannot stop
cracking their knuckles

A Hundred Gourds, 3:2, March 2014

wolf moon
standing high in the sky
I hear it
howl in my blood ...
eyes upon the dripping

Opening Tanka, "Ein Fremdes Land," a tanka sequence for Georg Trakl
Lynx, 25:2, June, 2010

In a 2010 prose poem, titled “Why believe you can write verse in English?,” I wrote of my faltering confidence in writing:

“To write verse in English is not like growing ideograms inside your heart, reaping the sentences matured by the muse of desire, taking your clothes off with words, and exposing yourself in the rhythm of the stanzas so that you can hold your passport and cross the borders of linguistic solitudes, emigrating from the ideographic to the alphabetic..."

in English
I try to delineate
the contours
of my Chinese longing ...
this misty winter morning

Bright Stars, VI, 2014

I’ve been writing tanka for almost seven years. It has been and still is a wrenching process of heart and mind. For me to write tanka in English now is to make a run at something without knowing whether I am going to succeed. It points a way for me to function with relative freedom in an unfamiliar world of the alphabet, and to make myself up from moment to moment. On this tanka journey, I sometimes feel at home with myself when using exact English words to depict my Chinese feeling, thought, or experience in evocative imagery.

I skip
a stone of words
across the lake
of another time
another place

Lynx, 26:2, June 2011