Dong Li is the recipient of a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of The Gleaner Song, by Chinese poet Song Lin. Read an excerpt of the translation here.

I got to know Song Lin well while at Ledig House for the Translation Lab residency. On a long walk in the countryside of Upstate New York, I saw his eyes light up as a deer leapt from the wild into a wide-open field. As the evening hues shifted farther into the forest, his line of sight followed the deer until it vanished into the night. We talked about the deer, and later he asked me to translate a poem that he had written to record the occasion. This is a curious poet that opens himself to the world around him and gives back with his songs that migrate from one word to another, from one language to another. The landscape of his travels becomes a map of his poetry, which, in turn, amounts to a sensitive anthropology of our migratory world.

Not unlike his predecessor Bei Dao, whose candid declarations of resistance marked the tenor of the time, themes of politics and exile also permeate Song’s poetic output. When the Tiananmen event exploded in Beijing, Song led student demonstrations in Shanghai and was imprisoned for almost a year. But unlike many self-claimed “exiled poets,” Song has never used imprisonment to his advantage. Instead, what has interested Song is the joy of making art out of words and how poetry can group words and form company. The joy in poetic expression led to his lengthy wanderings in France, Singapore, and Argentina, which heightened his sense of language and its central role in his literary pursuits.

Song has been somewhat neglected in his native language. The political pressure was the unspoken background. During those wandering years, his two formidable titles Fragments et chants d’adieu (Fragments and Farewell Songs) and Murailles et couchants (City Walls and Sunset) appeared in French bilingual editions. He was unable to publish in China then, so he used his editorship with the eminent journal Jintian to scout and publish poets under strenuous circumstances. Upon his return to China, he continued to support young poets and championed translation. Unlike many poets who were eager to please Western ears, Song advocated for the classics and a thorough study of the Chinese language. When dividing lines between different camps of poetry and poets widened, Song was the glue, not to force cohesion, but to promote tolerance and understanding.

Song’s faith in poetry and his generosity towards poets across aesthetic, generational, and national boundaries make him one of the most unusual poets to have emerged in recent Chinese history. His poetry weaves through American, classical Chinese, French, and Latin-American traditions. His influences are the modernists, the surrealists, the romantics, the deep imagists and the objectivists—but what distinguishes Song is his ability to take them all, and make them his own, and make them new. Here is a lyric that holds up the open. 

Dong Li was born and raised in P.R. China. He is German Chancellor Fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 2015-2016 as well as Literature Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude 2015-2017. He was Colgate University’s Olive B. O’Connor Poet-in-Residence 2013-2014. His honors include fellowships from Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, Millay Colony and elsewhere. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, Barrow Street, Guernica, Cincinnati Review, manuskripte (Austria, in German translation), and others.

Song Lin, born in Xiamen, holds a literature degree from East China Normal University. He has published five collections of poetry (two of which were translated into French and published in France), two books of prose, and has co-edited a contemporary poetry anthology. He is the poetry editor of the journal Jintian (Today). Among his honors are Rotterdam and Romanian International Poetry Fellowships and the Shanghai Literature Prize.

This piece is part of PEN’s 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.

This translation is available for publication. Publishers and editors who wish to express interest in this project are invited to contact PEN Literary Awards Coordinator Arielle Anema ([email protected]) or Translation Fund Advisory Board Chair Michael F. Moore ([email protected]) for the translator’s contact information.