On the Aesthetics of Empathy
Maryanne Hannan waters the moon with Fiona Sze-Lorrain
By Maryanne Hannan
Fiona Sze-Lorrain is the author of a book of poetry, Water the Moon (Marick Press, 2010). She writes and translates in English, French and Chinese. Born in Singapore, she grew up in a hybrid of cultures, and graduated from Columbia and New York Universities before pursuing a Ph.D at Paris IV-Sorbonne. A guzheng (ancient Chinese harp) concertist, she has performed worldwide. She serves as one of the editors at Cerise Press, and has recently authored a book of critical prose and photography with Gao Xingjian (2000 Nobel Prize in Literature), Silhouette/Shadow: The Cinematic Art of Gao Xingjian (Contours, 2007). Her CD (with erhu performer Guo Gan), In One Take is forthcoming in Spring 2010. Currently, she lives in Paris and New York City. She speaks with Maryanne Hannan.
MH: Let's begin with your intriguing title, Water the Moon. The image of moon and moonlight and mooncakes occur in several poems, some of your most powerful. In the second poem of your middle section ("Dear Paris,"), you or your narrator assert that Moon:
Does the moon, as a symbol, change during the book? Or does it linger throughout as defined in your poem, "Moon"?
FSL: The moon in my book is not just an icon, nor a mere symbol. I perceive it as a synergy. It is literally a cosmic force. And like in our cosmic world, this moon is communicative, transformative, emotional and real. Naturally, it is ever-changing and constantly alert. At some point when working on the manuscript, I actually even told myself that I must give this moon flesh and bones.
On the other hand, because the moon cannot exist without the sun, it is always seeking light (and water) for nourishment. Water is a vital stream of life. So I bring alive the moon with water. Only with water — also a symbol of time — can this moon grow and transform into something else. In one of his writings, Watermark (1989), Joseph Brodsky offered a curious and quirky enthrallment by water, which serves as an useful point of departure for me: "Water equals time and provides beauty with its double. Part water, we serve beauty in the same fashion. By rubbing water, this city improves time's looks, beautifies the future."
In the second and third parts of my poetry collection, rhythm picks up fast and the voice assumes elements of masculinity. Poetical textures get denser when it comes to more narrative writings, and their outlook or voice grows somewhat more outwards than as in typically "inward-looking" lyrical poems. This is because the moon is becoming muscular, and at the same time, unpredictable.
While the moon is a recurring principal image throughout this collection, I don't just want the poetic feel of the entire book to be lunar, sombre, floating, flecky, delicate, Venetian… or "banally beautiful" in the picturesque sense. Ultimately, I want confidence, boldness, strong light, robustness, speed and rootedness. So in a way, you can say that there is some kind of strong relationship with the moon and its cyclical lunar vibrations as far as constructing the imagery landscape is concerned, but that's because ultimately, it's the sun and its dynamic forces that "pumps up the pen," rendering layered density and rigor to form and structure.
MH: Can you comment on the poem from which the title is drawn, "My Grandmother Waters the Moon," in the light of these synergies?
FSL: Bob Dylan's idiosyncractic remark comes to my mind immediately, "If I wasn't Bob Dylan, I'd probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of answers myself." Well, upon first instincts, this is probably also my answer to your question!
In retrospect, "My Grandmother Waters the Moon" being the title poem isn't an intellectual decision on my end. Not at all. It is purely instinctive, and seems to be a sound move: it contains a transcendental dimension of timelessness (i.e. reminiscence or retelling versus past and present), encompassing historical details that embed a lyrical narrative, and of course, the distinctive sensual appeal of food!
It also appears to me as a poem at the crossroads of many themes that help shape the arc of the whole book: food and culture, autobiography and history, diasporic memory, intercultural heritages and nuances of generation gaps... I don't like to define this collection by such loosely termed categories, since they only generalize, dilute and compartmentalize its poetic spirits, though some of these threads did weave their way unconsciously into this poem. I grew up with mooncakes. My grandmother, who is very much a remarkable artist herself, always believes in cuisine as a form of spiritual fulfillment and inspiration. When writing this poem, I just wanted every verse to be as delicious as possible, and the portrait of my grandmother as intimate as it could be. That's how it all began.
MH: How does your experience as a musician inform your poetry?
FSL: Many people are often curious about this aspect of my work. I have my reservations to respond, because its intention assumes that one artistic expression must or must not inform the other. The magic of it all does not evolve around how or if the practice of music and the writing of poetry overlap, but what that can possibly happen after the overlap.
I began my study of the ancient Chinese zither (guzheng) at the same time I learnt how to play classical piano. I was four. My guzheng master used to make me recite Tang, Ming and Song poems and practice different styles of calligraphy, according to the repertoire I would work upon. To her, there was no difference between literature, music, chess, painting or… So I grew up transiting from one discipline to another without much psychological obstacle.
These few years, my piano repertoire consists mainly of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Debussy. Once off the keyboard, I occasionally find myself toying with possibilities of rhapsodic meter in a sentence, or creating an obstinato effect in a poem. But I don't think that these are deliberate approaches on my end; I am usually aware of it only when I reach the stage of revising my writings.
My ear picks up what my eyes see as colours when it comes to musical notes. In a way, because I am used to memorizing music scores fast and efficient in order to meet concertizing demands, I am quite at ease to learning verses by heart. Yes! I like to learn favorite poems by heart. Even though these are just part of my short-term memory, they help my creative juices stay vibrant.
MH: This is a good point to clarify the question implicit in the awkward phrasing of my first question above, "you or your narrator"? To what extent do you identify with the narrator of these poems? Also, you have an interesting background. How important is it for the reader to understand your personal biography?
FSL: Was it Octavio Paz who once said, "Poets do not have biography since it's their work that is their biography"?
I am not interested in the question of autobiographical authenticity when working on creative projects, be it music, theatre or writing. In large part, I thus disagree with the Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini who asserts that "All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography." In writing poems, there is something else more at stake for me, like emotional honesty, constant expansion of images and oblique narratives, rather than truth with the capital letter "T." Art is not journalism. So I don't know how to answer your question as regards the importance of a reader's identification with the narrator, or his/her need to understand the author's biography. That seems more of a reader's space, choice and liberty. Instead of attaching the poems to the person who penned them, why not recognize in them something that also belongs to the stranger you, the reader?
Autobiographical disclosures aren't the same thing as biographical facts. What does it change, really, this arduous adherence to facts and chronology, except for fear itself? The clearer facts insist to be, the more they become muddy as a proposition. If a work needs its author's biographical facts to validate its aesthetics, it will cease to be a work of art. It is probably not as strong as one imagines in terms of a soul of its own. It'd be simply a documentary, a diary, or even some sort of socialist realism. At best, it shares something about the writer's life to a larger community; at worst, it is just narcissistic and individualist. (I almost wanted to say "capitalist" too.) In the long run, it just isn't humbling… it's shallow.
For some reason, I don't quite believe in literature being a cathartic healing wellspring; the raw process of writing, yes. To write well is one thing; to be an artist, a human being, is another. That is something about writing (or any artistic expression) that one can never be able to "learn" or "earn" through diplomas — because that is all about life experiences, time, and taking risks. If a piece of writing seeks to be a literature that is timeless and universal, it does need to work hard at transcending beyond the recognition of an author, and reaching out towards a larger humanity, contextually and aesthetically. This is what I hope to be able to offer to others when I write. For a work to stand on its own, its author must be able to erase him/herself off. Isn't Kafka the best mirror?
Of course, most if not all of these poems here do come into being because of certain direct life episodes and experiences. Otherwise, they'd be fake, totally imaginary, pretentious, and risk losing the fundamental touch of reality. I've led many lives insofar, and still on the move for new adventures. I don't wish to be a poet; I wish to be many poets. In Water the Moon, there are many different voices and different "selves." Self-mythology is a strong source of inspiration for me. So there isn't a concern of identification since the voice — be it narrative or lyrical — evolves just as life itself... This "self" is an organic composite, not a identity label. It is in constant flux; it's fluid, not rigid.
MH: According to William Carlos Williams, "what makes a writer worth heeding: that somehow or other, whatever the source may be, he (sic) has gone to the base of the matter to lay it bare before us in terms which, try as we may, we cannot in the end escape." Where is the firm "base of the matter" in your work? I am trying to understand more fully what you mean by saying the "self" is fluid, in constant flux.
FSL: Empathy. This is the "base" that doesn't change whenever I embark upon writing a poem, a short story, or a play, performing a new piece of music. The aesthetics of a work — the building blocks, that is — can evolve, with subjects and voices differing from one project to another, but this "base" is pretty much fundamental and uncompromised. Empathy necessitates certain ethical choices of a word, sentence, note or tempo... choices that ultimately color or even determine poetic meter, form or spirits. William Stafford instructs, "Think of something you said. Now write what you wish you had said." I carry his wisdom with me whenever I open a blank page, and realise that thinking is not empathy, neither is the act of writing down what one thinks. It is writing down what that opens up feelings for others, "befriending" strangers through the material of the work that defines the essence of empathy. Is this poem more concerned about being "finished" instead of offering asymmetrical details that mysteriously resonate with others' memories? — such is a central question I confront myself when self-interrogating about the spirits of a piece of writing. Ultimately, it is the sense of "empathy" that grounds me, compelling me at times to pare down style to meaning. With age, this seems to resonate more in me as an urgency.
MH: When you say empathy, I can tell you that as a reader, I was drawn most powerfully into your exquisite sensual details of hunger and satiety. So many poems, especially in the second section, take food as their starting points; I'm thinking of "Privileged," "China," and "Eating Grilled Langoustines." To what extent does a "biography of hunger" inform (or "haunt") your book?
FSL: Your question is so timely! "Biography of Hunger" was one of my initial draft titles for the book. Food is indeed one of the themes in this collection. However, I wasn't merely interested in writing about food and appetites; I was on the lookout for food as specific memories or pivotal moments and a stream that rejuvenates life.
As I mentioned, food informs one's interior world in all aspects. A bowl of soup tastes differently if a cook brews it with anger instead of compassion — even if ingredients and cooking techniques stay completely identical. Even the slightest touch of a cook marks a difference. It is an art, and also a practice, like meditation — this certainly relates directly to my French cultural upbringing in which food is not the equivalence of survival. Think of Babette's Feast. Though hunger stemmed much of my adolescent life, cooking has become a major part of my present life, and I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, deciphering recipes across all cultures. Once I discover how each recipe reads as a cultural statement or memory tunnel, I start to view food differently. How exhilarating it is to eat not just because of hunger! Poetry in itself slows us down, writing poems that concern food intensifies further the process of cherishing tiny details, tastes and memories one might otherwise have thought long lost.
MH: "Breakfast, Rue Sainte-Anne" certainly does that — slows us down with luscious detail, all the while expanding the scene over two continents. Can I ask how a poem begins for you? An idea, or words, image, or form?
FSL: All of the above, and none of the above.
A poem must begin as a specific energy for me. It is like a living beast. I try to make it as alive as possible. It is about tapping that particular energy it is exhibiting, and creating something meaningful out of it. A poem can also begin as a precise emotion for me. This is profound, as pinning that particular emotion down becomes a real journey inwards before it start expanding outwards. Can you see how such an approach can help strengthen one's self-esteem and emotional clarity?
Ideas, words, image or form are all the different physical forms of this living breast, and they come into being only when I am determined to gain access into its inner world. Because empathy is something that interests me enormously when it comes to poetry, this energy and emotion aspect that I evoke must be present, "charged" and "recharged." Words help, of course, in physicalizing them, by shaping them into an architecture on the page. But the poem's flesh is still about an emotion or energy.
Obviously, such a working process demands a lot of me — or any writer, I believe — because it does not just involve intelligence and sensibility. At some level, it becomes physical. I write with pen and paper. So the carnal touch is always there. Mind, on the other hand, stays clear, sharp, quick and contemplative all at once. Yet the struggle of it is thrilling. It transcends limits, and also often tells something about our own emotional growth. All these appeal to me.
Such a heightened state of creativity cannot happen all the time, certainly. When it cannot "work out," I try to respect my current "mode"/moods and simply let go. I will just cook, bake, play the guzheng, read (everything — even advertisements and slogans), look at paintings, daydream, or simply travel. I am constantly on the move when I need to give concerts. Otherwise, I teach and translate during the week. Often, I help out my husband at his French publishing press, doing manual work.
For me, a poem needs to be natural, vibrant and accessible. It shouldn't be a poem that fits the image of what one thinks a poem should be. If a poem begins quickly for me as a concrete idea, word image or form, I could "run into trouble" at some point. Not necessarily always, of course, since writing surprises grace me once in a while! But to be honest, if I'd to go by the route of seeking a specific image, and then following it up with an associative idea, words, or form, writing poetry will just turn out to be another intellectual exercise and mental conception for me. It could be sophisticated, clever and at times, multi-textured. But it also risks being "still."
MH: How do you recognize a poem is working?
FSL: I don't like to seduce or charm a reader. At best, I like to engage a reader, simple as that — from one line to another, without leaking any hole for the reader to "escape" and let go so-called. If not, to offer something completely intangible yet palpable to a reader so that he/she can't help but consider returning to the poem later down the road. This "extra" must be something out of this world and time, I guess. It can be frightening, comforting, or... just metaphorized by the enormous question word, "What?" I think of Anna Akhmatova's writings, for example, as their "extra" touch of majesty and mysticism attracts me enormously.
Once something clicks inside me intuitively that "this is going to be a poem," I will just go all the way out to grab and pin this poem down. These days, I happen to be revisiting Warren Beatty's film, Reds (1981). Interestingly during an interview, as if following the footsteps of Leonardo Da Vinci or Paul Valéry, Beatty noted, "The picture is never ready to be done. It is like a poem. A poem is never finished. It is abandoned." So in a way, to prepare a poem is like an act that just never finishes. It needs to be abandoned at the right decisive moment. And once abandoned, I put everything at stake to work at the real, organic form of the poem itself, so that its style, voice, imagery etc. are all compatible with the demands of its emotional needs at that point in time.
MH: Finally, I'd like to take up what you said earlier, that you wish to be many poets, to represent many "selves!" Aesthetically, in terms of reading Water the Moon, I think I understand — but I am fascinated by the underlying worldview. Can you explain your metaphysical starting points further? Or does this run counter to your artistic impulses?
FSL: Let me revisit Dylan who once rebuked at journalists in his skilfully convincing "moon-like" mood, "I don't call myself a poet because I don't like the word. I'm a trapeze artist." To confess, I do share this slight disdain for the word "poet" as well; if I'd call myself a poet, then what should we call Rimbaud or Mandelstam? The word "poet" is a label that is way too idealized. After all, there can only that many genuises who can (and have) change(d) the world without asking for something in return from mankind, n'est-ce pas?
In this vein, by saying that I wish to be many "poets" is more about embracing different voices in order to authenticize an unchanging yet evolving poetic voice, one that is ready to confront conflicting situations or contextual identities. Can a voice not change yet evolves? Of course. "I'm both a poet and one of the 'everybodies' of my country," says Adrienne Rich in a public discourse, "I live, in poetry and daily experience, with manipulated ear, ignorance, cultural confusion, and social antagonism huddling together on the fault line of an empire." — I also found this strong statement of Rich a useful and resonant reminder.
When I started to see some glimpse of an arc for Water the Moon, I told myself that I definitely would not wish it to be a "poetry book" read by "elitist" and intelligent "poets" from the "poetry world"; I wanted it to be read — as a meaningful piece of art — by everyone and anyone! People of all cultures and walks of life... I strive for an accessible work, with an immediate allure, and being accessible certainly does not imply being casual, unprofound or lacking in rigor. All I ask for is that each poem offers a moment or a thing. If it can bring some liberating moments of exhilaration for a neutral reader, for example, that's quite a good start, I thought — the rest is merely a question of critical perspective. I don't know if I have succeeded, but at least I feel humbled at all times by thinking along such lines.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 2 Apr 2010