January 3, 1998
THE OTHER DAY, at the used book store Book Nook, I picked up a volume of poetry, A Peculiar Time, by Dabney Stockwell. Having read it through, I feel it’s a remarkable book: fresh, elegant, intimate, and full of mysterious lines. But there’s no way to find more information on this poet, who should be in his seventies if he’s still alive. Neither Barnes amp; Noble nor Borders carries his books. This saddens me, because it shows how fragile and ephemeral a poet’s reputation can be. In the acknowledgments, Stockwell listed the magazines in which most of the poems had originally appeared. Obviously he was known, if not famous, when the book was published in 1969. No matter how good one’s poetry is, its survival seems to depend on chance. Therefore, one shouldn’t expect any success. In the end there may be only failure.
January 30, 1998
I have found that the addressee, the “you,” in lyrical poems is vital in shaping the poetic voice. It functions like a sounding board that helps determine the level of diction and the volume and tone of the speech. Generally speaking, it’s more effective to identify the addressee in a poem so that the readers can be clear who is speaking to whom.
March 9, 1998
Good news. Yellow Leaves accepted two poems, “Pomegranates” and “The Drake.” Though it returned my other three pieces, this is my first acceptance, which I hope portends an auspicious beginning. The editor suggested only one minor revision-deleting a comma. I revised four other poems slightly and sent them out to Still Water Review.
April 7, 1998
For a long time I couldn’t decide in what kind of English I should write. I used to avoid using American English because some of my poems were set in China. These days I feel I must depend on the American idiom and stop confining myself to the neutral English like that used in the Holy Bible, NIV My subject matter would eventually be American, so I should get myself ready for the task of speaking in the American idiom. I mustn’t live in the past and must focus on the present and the future.
May 4, 1998
Heard from Arrows today. Its editor, Gail Upchurch, urges me to quit writing poetry. She wrote, “I admire your courage, but I should let you know you are wasting your time. English is too hard for you. You may be able to write prose in English eventually, but poetry is impossible. So don’t waste your time anymore. Do something you can do. For instance, write a memoir about the Cultural Revolution, which I’m sure will be marketable. Or write some personal essays. In brief, the way you use the language is too clumsy. For a native speaker like myself, it almost amounts to an insult.”
Screw the memoir! It’s a kiddie form. I don’t mind insulting someone by my writing. A poet is supposed to outrage people. Gail Upchurch spoke as if I hadn’t known I was waging a losing battle, and she didn’t know I already accepted myself as a loser who has nothing to lose anymore. To write poetry is to exist.
June 13, 1998
Chinese poetry does not have the concept of the Muse. As a result, the poetic speech can originate only from the human domain.
This is an interesting phenomenon, which marks the fundamental difference between Chinese poetry and English poetry. Perhaps this can explain why Chinese poetry is more earthy and bound to the affairs of this world. Should I believe in the Muse? I don’t know, but I can see that such a belief may empower a poet. Still, how can we be sure what work has divine sponsorship and what does not? Even if we are sure, can’t our convictions be but illusions? In other words, how can we trust our own visions? Probably to stay within the human domain is a better way to go.
July 6, 1998
Tu Fu wrote, “Writing is a matter of a thousand years; / My heart knows the gain and the loss.” It seems he was quite certain that some of his poems would last a millennium. Although he is a great poet, if not the greatest in Chinese, his confidence verges on megalomania. The mortality of one’s poetry is contingent on many factors mostly beyond the poet’s control. By contrast, Horace said he hoped his work would survive himself by a century. This is more human, aware of his finitude.
July 20, 1998
Talked with Dick last night. He is bored in Iowa and said he’d try to see if he could work out a deal with his university so that he could teach only one semester a year. He misses New York, especially the nightlife. He is opposed to the idea of self-publishing, because a vanity press book is looked down upon by professional poets. Screw the professionals! William Blake published Songs of Innocence and of Experience at his own expense; so did A. E. Housman with A Shropshire Lad. I should not exclude self-publishing once I have enough poems for a book.
August 22, 1998
Fives poems were rejected by Poetry, but the editor wrote an encouraging note, saying he saw “a glimmer of talent in every poem.” He seemed to address me as a young woman. I’ve been revising the poems and will send them elsewhere soon.
September 6, 1998
Too many people call themselves poets in the U.S., just as too many people call themselves artists-here even a con man is called con artist. I don’t believe in the “art” of poetry. For me it’s just a craft, not very much different from carpentry or masonry. It’s a kind of work that can keep me emotionally balanced and functioning better as a human being. So I write only because I have to.
September 27, 1998
Gail Upchurch wrote again and said she still couldn’t see any progress in my poetry. She quoted Yeats, who in a letter declares that no poet who doesn’t write in his mother tongue can write with music and strength. I was disheartened by the quotation, as I do love some of Yeats’s poems. I felt as if a brick had hit me in the face. On second thought, I believe Yeats’s statement might be true only of his time. Nowadays TV and radio are everywhere, and you can hear native English speakers talk every day, so it may be less difficult for a writer to choose to write in his adopted tongue.
On the other hand, Gail Upchurch did raise a serious question. She wrote: “The reason I have advised you to write prose is that the main function of prose is to tell a story. But poets should have a different kind of ambition, i.e., to enter into the language they use. Can you imagine your work becoming part of our language?”
I have no answer to that xenophobic question, which ignores the fact that the vitality of English has partly resulted from its ability to assimilate all kinds of alien energies. From now on, I won’t send my work to Arrows again and will avoid Gail Upchurch, that killjoy. She even said, “So don’t continue until you learn how to rhyme ‘orange.’ “
October 2, 1998
Today I heard on NPR that Linda Dewit had passed away two weeks ago. At the news I wasn’t sad somehow, probably because I felt her poetry became more precious to me. I went to Borders and bought two of her books, though I already had her Collected Poems. I’m glad that her death in a way consecrated her, and now to me she exists solely as a genuine spirit embodied in her work. Had I met her in person, I might have been disappointed, just as I was by Edward Neary. It’s better this way, letting Linda Dewit’s poetry shape her image and keep it intact in my mind. A poet’s work should always be better than the poet. That’s why one writes-to make something better than oneself.
October 30, 1998
Sent out five poems to the Kenyon Review this morning.
These days I have tried to memorize a few lines by Auden every day. Sadly, my memory is no longer as strong as ten years ago. Today I can hardly recall what I learned yesterday. Probably my creative powers have passed the peak and I started too late. Yet for me there is only trying, and I will be happy if I can work this motel job for many years.