The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 26, 2011

Graywolf's Jeffrey Shotts on Publishing Liu Xiaobo

Graywolf Press will publish the poetry of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in April next year. This is the first edition of Liu's poetry translated into English, and for that matter, as a bilingual publication, it is one of the only editions of Liu's poetry available in the original Chinese. Translated by the brilliant Jeffrey Yang—himself a tremendous poet and esteemed editor at New Directions—Liu's poetry is lyrically arresting, accessible, and captures the mind and imagination of the living leader of the fight for democracy in China. To be able to offer this extraordinary work is one of the historic accomplishments of Graywolf Press. 

I suspect most readers, upon hearing this news, are expecting a book of "political witness"—a kind of record keeping of and by the imprisoned dissident. To be sure, the book can and will and should be read in the light of Liu's political activism. The title alone, June Fourth Elegies, suggests this. Liu has written elegies for those who participated in the June 4, 1989, protests at Tiananmen Square. But there is the power of the poetry itself—of its aesthetic rewards, of its powerful emotion, of its surprise and depth. Here's a brief excerpt from "Experiencing Death," written on the first anniversary of Tiananmen Square, and translated by Yang (please note, this is still in draft):


Even if I know

death's a mysterious unknown

being alive, there's no way to experience death

and once dead

cannot experience death again

yet I'm still

hovering within death

a hovering in drowning . . .


I'm struck immediately by Liu's sense of imprisonment, yes—that mind at work attempting to understand his own real and dire situation, somewhere between death and life, a "hovering." But then there's the language of Yang's English translation, which is illuminating and powerful—the sonic repetitions, the parceling out of Liu's thought into these syntactic units mediated by line endings and openings, breaking "yet I'm still" into its own sense system, then falling into that "hovering," repeated in those next two lines. The result here and throughout the collection is not, I hope, a poetry that will be read only through the immediacy of Liu's incarceration. Liu's artistry, his arrangement of sounds and words and images, is perhaps just as much the place where his humanity lives, where his desire to express thought and feeling meets the precision of poetry.


Liu Xiaobo's June Fourth Elegies, translated from the Chinese by Jeffrey Yang, will be published by Graywolf Press in April 2012.


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