Monday, September 30, 2019

Interview with poet Roger New

My special guest today is Roger New. He’s here to chat about his chapbook, Chinese Poetry for Students of Chinese.

Welcome, Roger. Please tell us a little bit about the book. It is an anthology of Chinese poems, mostly from the Tang Dynasty, chosen to give students an intro into aspects of the culture which influence Chinese society to the present day. The poems are all provided in the original Chinese, but vocabulary and explanations are given so that anybody can decipher the poems, whether they understand Chinese or not. And there are renditions in English at the end if anyone gets stuck.

The book draws the reader on from poem to poem, and by the end they will unconsciously have gained an insight into Chinese religions, education, history, geography and the roles played by women in Chinese society throughout history. That is, if they don’t get distracted by the pictures – mostly Chinese water-colours – there are over sixty in each volume.

The author has lived and worked in China since the early nineteen eighties, spending extensive periods of time in Guangdong and Xinjiang, as well as Beijing and Shanghai. He is an academic, starting out at Oxford and London, with a PhD in immunology in 1975, pursuing a varied career in science, and setting up a biotechnology company in 2000, where he is currently working. In addition to fluent Mandarin, he speaks Russian and Portuguese, and has lectured in all of these. It is the experience of studying these languages which he considers most qualifies him for the writing of this book.

What do you enjoy most about writing?
As an academic, I enjoy explaining things to people, and making the knowledge I have acquired interesting to other readers.

Can you give us a little insight into a few of your poems – perhaps a couple of your favorites?
Every poem in the two volumes has been chosen because there is some special feature which makes it interesting and unusual, and makes the student feel it is worth memorizing.

The two poems below are selected because they remind me of my time living in China in the early 80s, in a university campus in a rural setting.

Having an appointment – Zhao Shi Xiu (Tang)

It’s the season of yellow plums, and rain is everywhere in the village.
Frogs abound in the green grass around the pond.
My visitor has not arrived, and the evening has half gone.
As I idly knock over a chess piece, ash falls from the candle.

Clear Spring – Wang Jia (Tang)

Before the rains come, every detail of the flowers is seen.
After the rains, the leaves are all gone, flowers cover the ground.
Butterflies haphazardly cross over the wall, suspecting
That the Spring has gone into a neighbour’s garden.

What form are you inspired to write in the most? Why?
Anything in Chinese.

What type of project are you working on next?
My latest project is a children’s book, written in Chinese, called The Doctor and the Dragon. The dragon is young and still growing up. He is also a bit deaf, so there is plenty of opportunity for puns and Spoonerisms, which in Chinese is quite a challenge, but great fun. There is also a translation in English, so the two together will hopefully be a good primer for both English and Chinese students to use.

When did you first consider yourself a writer / poet?
I have always written a lot of non-fiction material as part of my academic activities. I started writing fiction in Chinese as a way of practicing and improving my command of Chinese characters, and I was amazed at how things just began to flow.

How do you research markets for your work, perhaps as some advice for not-yet-published poets?
The obvious markets for these books are students learning Chinese, but those non-speakers of Chinese who want to delve more deeply into an important Chinese literary tradition will find them fascinating as well, and those readers are currently an untapped market.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Still developing, but my ultimate aspiration is to be the Chinese Terry Pratchett.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A scientist and inventor, which, in my other life, is what I am.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Don’t be put off if you are not a Chinese speaker. Read the books – there is plenty there for everyone.


Thanks for joining me today!

1 comment:

Roger New (author) said...

One other thing I thought might be interesting for your readers:

While I was bringing together the poems in this anthology, one of the aspects which came out was the number of different guises in which women appear in the poems - more so than men in fact. There are many concubines, whose fortunes wax and wane, with dire consequences depending on the precarious status of their male patrons in society.

Two of the poets are actually women, of very high social standing, and authors of very high-minded verses. In contrast, quite a few of the men (one emperor even) have written about brothels, in rather glowing terms it must be said, and other male poets have written from the point of view of women - namely those involved in the cultivation of silkworms, a hard and seemingly thankless task. During the early Tang dynasty Buddhism flourished, only later to be the subject of severe interdiction, one reason being, apparently, that too many women were going into convents instead of tending to the silkworms.

The poets seem clearly to be on the side of women, expressing their longings, dissatisfaction (in the bedroom even) and their repression in many ways. One particularly poignant poem describes the sorrow of parting, which becomes especially cutting when one realises that the girl who is leaving is being sold off as a child bride.

These are poems that you find when you look a little under the surface, and I found it reassuring that, even in an ancient society full of ritual, protocol and formality, Chinese poets could still use their art to touch on such important subjects.