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PN Review 273: Editorial
by Michael Schmidt
Now that our PN Review 50th anniversary campaign has drawn to a close, we’re changing the way that we run our Substack. Each week we’ll share fresh new content from the latest issue of the magazine - including poems, reports, features and editorials - along with the occasional highlight from the archive.
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Over the years PN Review has featured ancient and modern poetry emerging from unfamiliar traditions and offered fresh takes on familiar ones. We are lucky to have readers with wide curiosity and with language skills to translate, interpret and advocate. Some of our favourite poets come from unusual traditions. In PNR 247 Maitreyabandhu recalls Jane Yeh’s ‘A Short History of Migration’ where
pain is communal and historical. Yeh is the daughter of Taiwanese migrants, so the subject has personal significance too. But she will not indulge. The deadpan humour is used to devastating effect: ‘We ate the same meal seventeen days in a row (pancakes).’ Then later, ‘We hindered our children with violins, bad haircuts, and diplomas.’
In this issue of PNR we approach, tentatively, a tradition we have not properly focused on before, the Taiwanese. Taiwan first appeared in our pages in 1990. We reported, ‘Taiwan has a News Bureau Code stipulating that publications which “offend or instigate other people, and violate or blaspheme sacrificial rites” shall be prohibited from importation, translation and publication. By such criteria, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has been found wanting and is now prohibited. Meanwhile Venezuela has become the first Western country in which The Satanic Verses has been actually banned.’
Taiwan appears again three years later in a poem by D.J. Enright. And in 2017 we reported on a Taiwanese poetic scandal:
Controversy flared in Taiwan (reported in The China Post, 1 February) when President Tsai Ing-wen’s contribution to the annual spring couplet ceremony was criticized for being ‘incorrect’. Her defenders preferred to call her structuring ‘unusual’. The head of the National Museum of Taiwanese Literature applauded the President’s attempt, increasing awareness of Taiwan’s literary culture, but it wouldn’t quite do as a spring couplet: ‘The president’s spring couplets could probably count as two lines of new year greetings, but couplets? Not so much.’ A number of rules constrain the spring couplet in terms of number of characters per line, the lexical category of each character in relation to their corresponding characters, and the tone patterns: one line must reverse the tone pattern of the other. The President rooted her couplet in one by Lai He, the ‘father of modern Taiwanese literature’. Her office expressed its respect for diverse opinions and wished everyone a happy spring.
Clearly neither poetics nor politics is an easy discipline. Up until a few decades ago, if we are to believe Shengchi-Hsu in this issue of PNR, even a well-educated citizen of Taiwan might have been hard-pressed to name key poets in a specifically Taiwanese tradition of poetry, much less engage in sophisticated discussion of poetic traditions and forms. They would of course have known the major Chinese poets of the past, but awareness of a distinct or distinctive Taiwanese tradition was rare.
In the 1950s poets vied with one another, advocating a range of schools and issuing manifestos. Among the most eloquent polemicists was Chi Hsien (紀弦) who, in rejecting the Chinese tradition and wedding contemporary Taiwanese poetry to Western poetic radicalisms, coined the phrase ‘horizontal transplantation’ – (橫的移植, hengde yizhi) – which he contrasted with a ‘vertical inheritance’. Rejecting the Chinese traditions was for him an overdue declaration of independence. But the Western modernisms to which it aligned itself were already being dismantled in the West. To his foes, ‘horizontal transplantation’ and the attempt to join a universal rather than pursue a national or traditionalist course felt like willing subjugation to another kind of colonial pressure. Taiwan had already chalked up a number of colonial legacies, including far-off Dutch and more recent Japanese.
The inspired and inspiring task of the Museum of Taiwan Literature, established two decades ago and housed in a handsome colonial building from the Japanese period, has been one of reclamation, to quote its own statement of purpose, ‘from indigenous Malayo-Polynesian, the Dutch, Koxinga, Qing, and Japanese ruling periods through modern times’. Unlike Chi Hsien, part of whose task was a deliberate erasure of some elements in the past, the Museum’s mission is to preserve, restore and even revive. Its motto is ‘Locally rooted – globally connected’, and the local rootedness distinguishes it from Chi Hsien’s programmatic internationalism. The connections the Museum seems to pursue begin in a restored self-knowledge and a consciousness of the wealth entailed in the discontinuities that constitute its tradition. It insists on its cultural difference from the poetry of the Chinese mainland. PNR features in this issue examples of the poetry in question, translated collaboratively between a Taiwanese writer with excellent English and a Canadian poet of Greek antecedents, a major translator of Cavafy, here fishing, to use C.H. Sisson’s phrase, in other men’s waters.
This August the team from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre in Glasgow that conducted the bleak 2022 survey of authors’ incomes, issued a list of implausible recommendations on how to make the UK ‘an attractive haven for writers’. The recommendations would certainly revolutionise, and destroy, the contemporary poetry world.
Publishers should declare a commitment to a minimum wage for commissioned authors and parity of treatment for all demographic groups
Publishers should circulate educational resources to ensure writers understand copyright and contractual law
Publishers should accept mandatory, time-limited reversion rights
Publishers should accept transparency and reporting obligations
The team also urges changes in tax and social insurance treatment – ‘for instance state support insurance schemes for writers that level the conditions between employed and self-employed workers’.
The head of policy at the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre said: ‘It’s important to note that the challenges facing authors and publishers in the UK are far from unique; the deteriorating financial situation appears to be part of a global trend. This is worrying of course, but it also presents UK policymakers with an opportunity. Corrective action could help the UK be a flourishing centre for creative talent if more generous working conditions for authors were considered. Contrary to some fears, the advancement of AI and the ever-growing digital entertainment industry could lead to a higher demand for the authentic, creative voices of a diverse pool of writers.’ The problem is, policymakers are not the writers who risk writing or the publishers who take them to market. Perhaps the experiment can be trialled in Scotland.