Birgit Linder grew up in Germany and has lived in the United States, Taiwan, China and now Hong Kong. She is professor of Comparative Literary Studies at the City University of Hong Kong where she teaches courses in comparative literature and translation studies. Her research topics and publications include representations of madness in Chinese and other literary tradition, comparative Gothic literature, Medical Humanities in the Chinese context, and the literary relationships between Germany and China. She has previously published poetry in the International Literature Quarterly, Cerebration, Kavya Bharati, Clockwise Cat and Mad Poets Review.
Interview by Jack Little (Mexico/UK) for The Ofi Press issue 48.
1. In your own writing, how much of your poetry comes from passion or reason? Or does it come from somewhere else entirely?
Much of my poetry comes from observation and perception. I look at the world very carefully, try to see the small things, the micro processes of life, to understand how things work, how people feel, and all the ways in which everything is related. There is both passion and reason, it depends on what I feel compelled to write about. But I don’t think that I am always compelled the same way. I might be angry and write a poem about that, or I might see a broken wing of a butterfly and feel compelled to write about that. Perhaps the greatest common denominator of inspiration for me is ‘perception’, whether that is of the outside world or the world inside of me. In so many ways, it has all become related to me, and the wonder and awe of nature and creation and its ‘Zen-full’ expressions never seize to speak to me. I like macro photography very much, and that has trained my eye to see things other people might easily overlook. On the other hand, having lived in various cultures, I have come to look at my own culture, past, and life in general from a panoramic perspective, which has also inspired me. I am always amazed to see that I am part of this world, the very small world of macro photography, as well as of the big world of cultures and places.
In addition, nature really inspires me, especially nature ‘in motion’: storms of all kinds, seasonal changes, snow, rain, weather, rising and setting suns and moons, things growing and withering, etc.
Fighting against discrimination and injustice, too, inspires me, although in this kind of battle, poetry is not the most powerful rock on the sling shot.
2. To what extent do you believe that translation is an act of creation in itself?
From my experience, in order to translate poetry, one has to be able to think oneself into the original poem and into the world of the other language. Although I am a German native speaker, I usually translate into English from various languages. I recently translated Andreas Altmann’s German poetry into English, and with every poem, I felt that I had to enter into his or the poem’s world, because it presents such a unique perspective to the reader. Since this perspective was created by words and sentence structures unique to German, I often had to be inventive when trying to match the purposely ambiguous effects in English. I never felt I was translating mere words, as I often feel with other things I translate. Rather, I felt that I was trying to re-create a certain poet’s world. This process of translation also deeply influenced and inspired my own poetry, and even changed the way I look at things and the world. Here is a poem I wrote recently about translating Mr. Altmann’s poetry. Typically, he turns the dynamic of images around and creates fresh looks at very mundane things. An autumn tree, for example, does not stand bare in the wind. In Altmann’s poetry, its dark fingers sequester the sky.
i got lost in the forest of words.
where trees sigh when clouds
white them out. where twigs push
themselves under birds. where memories
perch in old steps. where leaves
dispatch inscriptions to the earth. where moss
becomes a mirror between crowns and roots.
where rain runs over obstacles, and where worlds
confine themselves in drops. where deer fear
the black antlers of the wintered chestnut tree,
and foxes lend the autumn foliage their color.
echoes swing everywhere, not from the voices of
prophets, but from unknown creeds of nature.
and where the woods border on water,
there bones grow into glassy skin
that in the early morning breathes under
the first ballet of the dancing water bug.
when i look up, i am in a foreign land,
where the clouds white out the trees
until they sigh. in my forest, dervishes dance.
in your forest, a leaf falls onto my shoulder
and slows my gait. i measure my steps
and walk backwards to collect the
breadcrumbs of lost memories.
until in the clearing, the same tree finds me
that always rooted me as a child.
3. Where is 'home' for you? How does this sense of home impact upon your work?
In the past few years, I have felt painfully homeless. Many expats still have a home base, but we always moved with everything, and left everything behind. I feel restless now, wishing to feel at home again, maybe go back to Germany. But there, too, I am not who I was, and I am not so at home in the German language and culture so much. In reality, I am most at home in words, in poetry. That has become my shelter, and I hope it can build a bridge to wherever I go next.
My world is a world of moves from culture to culture, of the loss of homes and of roots, of the comings and goings of friends from all over the world, as well as of new places, new ideas, new challenges, new insights, new impulses, and, it seems, of a constant immersion in change and otherness. As someone who moved around in the world by my own free will, I cannot claim to be an exile in any way. However, it is true that more often than not, living in another culture can create forms of inner exile. In addition, one’s language is in exile. Especially for a writer, it can be frustrating not to belong to a distinctive linguistic group, and living in HK as a non-native speaker of either Cantonese or English, one is almost doomed as a poet.
If I were to write in German, I would not have an audience here. But writing in English also limits me in many ways. How do I define myself: a German person writing poetry in English? An English-language poet with grammar mistakes and occasional excursions into other languages? A multi-cultural poet with German characteristics? A World Englishes poet? I have spent some time pondering this, but I could not come up with a definition. Without a definition of who I am as a poet, how can I define my voice? While I don’t have a catchy name for it, I have a little bit of an explanation:
The title of my collection is Shadows in Deferment. We all bring along shadows from the past, from our own cultures, from the people we have lived with and grown with, and every place throws its shadows on us. We, too, cast our shadows on places and people, and oftentimes we realize their existence much later. In the end, there is a balance between loss and gain, and there are theories and faiths to account for that. I think that most of us here would agree that we are privileged and that this kind of ‘homelessness’ can also be fertile ground for an incredible richness of experience.
Even though I chose to write in English, I find that my writing, intended to overcome my own sense of alienation, often acutely accentuated the gap between my life experiences and the lives lived by people around me. At times, I have successfully inscribed myself into new spaces and cultures and occasionally even identified profoundly with the social contexts in which I lived. Repeatedly having to come to terms with geographic, cultural and linguistic changes and attempting to cope with the corollary sense of homelessness are just some of the issues of living abroad. Much of what we have brought with us is only recognizable over time, and what we experience today, has yet to cast its deferred shadow. I think my poetry aptly reflects the experience of an “unsettled” life. Yet between the cultures, people, places, and experiences, something has come into existence in a language that is not my mother-tongue. Rather than say that I am a poet of this or that style or theme or group, maybe it is just that all these moments and encounters have become a creative trope that forms the backdrop of my poetry.
4. What do you consider to be the strongest marker of your identity?
The strongest marker of my identity are my family background and the fact that I have lived overseas in various places for many years. I am from a large blue-collar family without a lot of guidance or structure. Because of my childhood, I wanted to leave home. I then lived in Taiwan, America, China, and now Hong Kong for many years. I feel that in every place, I have been deeply ‘encultured’, and each place has shaped me differently. I have encountered various religions, people, cultural norms, and a lot of knowledge in these places. Perhaps the strongest marker of my identity is that I have always felt the need to negotiate my identity.
5. How does your academic research and your creative writing overlap?
It overlaps in two ways. Sometimes, when I write a poem about a ‘thing’ or issue, I like to do a lot of research about it. For example, I prefer to know about the habits of the birds or flowers I write about, and I like to research cultural backgrounds. Since I concern myself with various cultural traditions all the time, I get a lot of ideas for poetry and try to read about it as much as possible. Secondly, when I research and teach poetry, I feel inspired by various forms and contents and try to incorporate it into my own writing. Moreover, my own writing helps me to teach poetry better and to encourage students to write more.
6. Can writing and literature 'make a difference'?
Yes, it can make a difference in many ways. Fiction and poetry always reflect our human consciousness, and often before it has developed into societal norms. The distancing effect of writing enables us to think about human conflicts and questions and puts things at issue that we might not easily talk about otherwise. In that way, I think fiction might be more effective than poetry. But poetry also has its place in human consciousness, as does every form of art. More recently, poetry has also come to be recognized pragmatically as a therapeutic form of self-expression. But beyond this, poetry by its metaphorical nature speaks to us powerfully about thoughts and emotions, new ways of looking at the world, at nature, at people, at ourselves. The expressive force of poetry creates a community of understanding. On the other hand, I don’t think a poet should have such performance anxiety and think that each poem should mean something earth-shaking. It is a form or art that means in itself, that practices form (or non-form), that communicates, gives pleasure, etc. The beauty of it speaks for itself already.
On a smaller scale, all of us who read poetry look for lines and words that express what we feel or believe, hopefully with a fresh perspective. On a larger scale, many of us also believe that “the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist,” and that therefore “poetry’s task is to reconcile us to the world.” (Shelley, “Preface”) I am not a Romantic, and I don’t lay claim to my poetry being “deeply interfused” (Wordsworth) or that it could reconcile a reader to this world. I have read poems that had this effect on me, though I did not write anything this significant. However, the act of writing poetry has allowed me to find grace and tenderness myself, and some measure of reconciliation with my own world. That is especially true for poems about my own childhood. It can create an alternative world to the one we supposedly lived, and in can tell stories that lighten the heaviness of the heart.
A Mother-Tongue in Exile
“Why don’t you use your own language
to write?” the poet asks over lunch.
A mother tongue
learned in a fatherland
hurts in this orphan exile.
When I try her words,
they dysfunction and trip.
“Wirklichkeitswund,” I quote Celan.
But you do not understand
(me. Celan you know).
Your raised eyebrows—
the same shape as the stylish silver fork
on your Imari plate—
quickly pick up dismay.
my mother once said,
“must journey far to know themselves.”
language and identity
undress the heart.
language and history,
of a remote overcoat.
Between them a shadow
loafs, a shadow, checkered
like winter soot
behind the spoken gates of home.
I, Too, Sing This Country
It wakes me every hour—
On a strict schedule
That moves to a regular rhythm,
Ca-dence, ca-dence, ca-dence.
It rumbles on until I fall asleep again,
And I dream of meters,
Of dissonances and sudden
Enjambments, and I am
Attacked by iambic feet,
Strangled by trochaic lines,
And sentenced to rattle on and on
In this long-distance train of thought,
And Whitman is the captain....
I toss and turn from grass to stars
And back to myself.
I cannot sleep for all I hear is
Finally, when the sun almost rises
And a nation finds its caesura,
I nod off and I dream
Of raisins, Niemandsrosen, and wild geese
Until the train is once more deferred:
A darkish man pulls the stops and shouts,
“Listen up, folks! I, too, sing this country!”
And he sings a weary blues
That assumes what I assume
And then he moves the train
Into cadences again.
It Was Yellow
It was yellow,
Yellow like poems, like prose.
Yellow like narcissus
Whose petticoats fly
In a zephyr dance.
Yellow like the sunflower,
The banana, the lemon,
Yellow like the school bus,
The German post office,
Dutch cheese, egg yolk, corn,
Yellow like canaries,
Like yellow-breasted chats,
Yellow like yellow ochre,
Yellow like sunsets everywhere
Yellow like the Mayan south.
Yellow like the Chinese Emperor.
Yellow like mourning clothes in ancient Egypt.
Yellow like the tumultuous Turbans.
Yellow like the submarine
That sank deep into my memory.
Yellow like poems, like prose.