Wang Wei in the Workshop

by Wendy Barker

Twelve hundred years
since the eighth century.
Of nineteen translations,
we’ve looked at five.
Lily is crying after
reading her poem
about her home city
of Hong Kong, where,
in a building designed
for ten dozen stories,
six men hauling waste
died when the elevator
shaft collapsed and
plunged twenty floors.
From that roof, no one
sees the house
of a small family
eating from porcelain
bowls on a wooden
table balanced
on level ground.
How can a moon
slip so far down
those concrete walls?

Wendy Barker’s fifth book of poetry is Nothing Between Us, a novel in prose poems that was runner-up for the Del Sol Prize and was published by Del Sol Press in 2009. Her third chapbook, Things of the Weather, was also published in 2009, by Pudding House Press. Her poems and translations have appeared in many magazines, including Poetry, Georgia Review, Southern Review, and Gettysburg Review. She has received NEA and Rockefeller fellowships, and is Poet-in-Residence and a professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she has taught since 1982.

Please, if you’d be so kind, describe Wendy Barker in the Workshop, with “compression” being the thing that she is working on. The incident described in the beginning of “Wang Wei in the Workshop” actually happened in a graduate workshop, when, after focusing on translations for about a month, we discussed 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, a fascinating collection edited by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz. Later in the evening during our workshop session, one of the students, a brilliant woman from Hong Kong, began to sob while reading her own poem aloud. Her poem dealt with the recent collapse of a towering building under construction in Hong Kong, causing the deaths of six workers. Across the seminar table from the student, I wanted to stand up and walk around the room to give her a hug, but instead, I kept on talking in my usual teacherly workshop fashion, all the while feeling woefully inadequate as she continued to weep. The student sitting beside her reached over and held her for a little while. I was able to muster some comments about how deeply moving the student’s poem was, and gradually she rejoined our workshop discussion.

My poem is an attempt, first, to apologize to the student from Hong Kong for my inability to express my sympathy at the right moment, and, second, to make a comment about how much cultural and familial richness may have been lost with our drive to corporatize the world, with the building of taller and yet taller concrete towers. In attempting to convey something of what I feel has been lost in our global rush to “development,” I wanted to use imagery reminiscent of 8th Century Chinese poetry and to approximate the economy and vividness of a classical Chinese poem.

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