Acceptance into the publishing world might be something writers dream about, but for Shangyang Fang, navigating the perplexing challenges of editing and getting ready for book publication was a little too quick of a process. Shangyang Fang’s new book Burying the Mountain (Copper Canyon Press, 2021), a collection of poems in intimate conversation with ancient paintings, mythologies, and writers from across the world, was accepted for publication just twenty days after sending out his manuscript.
“It was quite overwhelming,” Fang said. “I don’t see myself having a book even after I submitted the final draft and even though the book is now out.” Fang actually thrived through this process, thanks to the support of friends and mentors, and by advocating for what he needed: supportive editors.
Shangyang Fang comes from Chengdu, China. He is the recipient of the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize, as well as a former poetry fellow at the Michener Center for Writers, and is a current Stegner fellow at Stanford University. His first name, Shangyang, comes from a mythological one-legged bird whose dance brought forth rain and flood. Burying the Mountain encompasses wide-ranging styles and forms, and is a lyrical unveiling of personal experiences transformed by art.
I spoke with Fang recently on Zoom where we talked about his influences across time and artistic medium, how to find a poem, and the porous borders between life and death.
The Rumpus: This collection feels like an opera that you have composed and conducted. You bring each poem onto the page like a company of actors and set pieces and an orchestra in this complex yet cohesive creation. How did you weave these poems together?
Fang: When I first started putting the book together, I was worried that it wouldn’t cohere because of the stylistic and thematic variations in my work. I was just writing poems here and there. Then a teacher told me that it coheres because I wrote it. Easy for her to say that, but it gave me enormous freedom.
I had this idea of using Du Fu’s quatrain from “Deep Winter” as the epigraph early on. Each line of that quatrain also opens a chapter of the book. I couldn’t find a good English translation because it’s an obscure poem. I translated it in a way by not completing the meaning of the lines in English syntax, but instead, character by character. I think that is closer to the reading habit of classical Chinese poems. Then I put my poems according to my understanding of that quatrain.
Rumpus: What did you realize about your own poems when placed in their respective chapter that corresponds to the quatrain in Du Fu’s poem?
Fang: The first chapter is called “Blossom/ Leaf/ Abide/ Heaven/ Volition.” To me that has a sense of fatalism. Then the second chapter—“River/ Stream/ Share/ Stone/ Root,”—here, I feel that one of the bedrocks we share as humans is grief. And in the third, “Dawn/ Glow/ Trace/ Existence/ Shadow,” I thought about the shapes of things, their metamorphosis when lights come up and give us information about the objects. Through that information, through light, we perceive them and take them as a part of ourselves, and we are transformed by that process. And the last one is “Cold/ Water/ Each/ Lean/ Wound”—my favorite line. The water flowing in the river seems so deeply knitted and tied to each other yet they are tracing their own different ways. They join and separate. I have had this bizarre understanding of the Du Fu poem since college. I love that poem, and always wanted to make a book out of that.
Rumpus: The book reads like a chorus of characters and voices in conversation. One of the early poems talks about arguing with a painting.
Fang: This reminds me of what Yeats said: “Out of the quarrel with others creates rhetoric, out of the quarrel with self creates poetry.” I think the conversation starts earlier, internally within myself. Writing this book is a conversation. I also hope it is a tribute to those voices that have shaped mine.
Rumpus: Poems such as “Phantom Limb” and “Time the Stone Makes an Effort to Flower” are also in conversation with Paul Celan’s writings. How have he and others shaped your voice?
Fang: I started reading poets like Celan, Lorca, and Mandelstam when I was in middle school. I was reading them from Chinese translations; they just opened a new world to me. Before that I was just reading classical Chinese poetry, and it has rigid patterns, meters, and themes. I loved it, but then seeing these translations, it was just pure madness to me. I couldn’t understand it; I couldn’t figure out what’s going on. And I started imitating their poems and started to have these dialogues within myself through the lines of poetry. What those dialogues were about I can’t remember. But the figures and the surrounding atmosphere of those poems stayed within me. So when I was writing these poems, these figures were like torchlight guiding me to move forward.
Rumpus: In “Time the Stone Makes an Effort to Flower,” also a reference to Celan, the lines “I have no intention to make this / an elegy. Part of me is dead / with you let that be / the elegy. Part of me so alive,” create both a following and a rejection of traditional form.
Fang: Well, the form to me is never a constriction. It is always a path that is forming as I proceed. Something that I would surprise myself with. It can be understood intuitively. And after that line you mentioned, the poem is being guided through the language; I did not do much work. I am just a servant of language, following its lead.
Frankly, often I don’t know what I am doing. The writer should disappear behind the work. I firmly believe that. I think the work should and must speak for itself. I tried to disappear. I think there’s a line in the book saying, “I write to make myself unrecognized.” Well, there’s a double meaning there.
Rumpus: Your bio is a poem of its own, almost disappearing you into mythology.
Fang: It’s my real name in Chinese, and it is from mythology. There was a belief system of the five elements: fire, water, earth, metal, and wood. When I was born, my father met a Taoist priest who said that I lack water in my life. Water is what’s missing in my life. So my father named me after a rainbird that will bring the flood in my life to compensate for the missing puzzle of my existence. I find it funny and endearing. In my poems, a lot of liquid exists, and I find it interesting that what I miss my whole life is in my name and appears in my work.
Rumpus: In “轰隆隆 is the sound of thunder” you are heralding the coming of water, in both English and Chinese. When do you reach for English and when do you reach for Chinese in your writing?
Fang: I don’t write poems in Chinese; I write essays, book reviews, and most frequently, social media posts. I stopped writing poems in Chinese after I had taken English as my major language for writing. I feel poetry in any language is more difficult to fully enter than prose. I still read Chinese fiction, prose. Whenever I feel blocked in one language, I will turn to another to breathe.
Rumpus: Some of the paintings and mythologies that you reference are hundreds of years old. Why do you turn here?
Fang: I guess I’m quite old fashioned. Those paintings and mythologies are materials of the poems, but also some become the forms that give lives to expression. I had the first two lines of the poem “Argument of Situations” long before the poem was written. I tried several drafts and all of them failed. Then, I saw the Song dynasty painter Fan Kuan’s work at a museum in Beijing. All of a sudden, I felt the unwritten poem inside me echoing with this painting in front of me. At that moment, I understood what that poem tried to say to me and what I tried to say through that poem. I found the clarity of my experience and expression in a painting finished a thousand years ago. Isn’t that interesting? That painting, even though it’s as silent as it could be, becomes an incantation that pulls my emotion out to finish this poem. It’s like a spell that sets me free from my own constricted thinking.
Rumpus: The borders between a painting and humans and the borders between life and death, are often explicitly very thin in your work.
Fang: In Buddhism, there is always an expression on this and that, and the yes and no of this and that. For example, the other side of the river is a metaphor of death, in contrast to this life, this side. I hope that poetry is a way to shatter the border. In “Argument of Situations,” for example, I think there are two borders. One is the border of the heart, which is not being able to understand each other’s desire—to basically empathize—and the other is the border of the skin. It is what keeps us together, its ability to touch and be touched. It is also something that keeps us apart from each other. That thin line cannot be erased even when two bodies are performing the utmost intimacy. But poetry isn’t the same. When I was reading Pessoa in college, I felt I wrote his book. What he wrote is what I felt moment to moment, but I couldn’t articulate with clarity and logic and his sumptuous language. I’ve never felt two hearts being so close. One is alive. One has already vanished. The intimacy between the writer and the reader shatters the limit of time and construction of space to arrive at the same moment.
Rumpus: You create an experience where I feel like I am looking into a mirror. A mirror can be a distant cold object, but in your poems, they are a connection.
Fang: I had not thought of my work that way until you mentioned it. I am afraid of mirrors and writing about mirrors. I didn’t realize that my poems even have them. But I think that what you said is beautiful; it is indifferent and cold. And the mirrors almost always outlast their assailable hosts. They are like us, opening themselves to the attacks of faces. Only that they are smarter; they become what they are presented.
Rumpus: People have been singing your praises for the way longing and loss appear in your work. Rather than simply describing or creating a sensory experience for me as the reader, you are bringing loneliness in as a character to have this conversation.
Fang: That is very beautifully put. I don’t think my old work has achieved that but you just gave me a new direction of writing. It’s hard to talk about loneliness abstractly. Though I think we mentioned that loneliness is, for example, like a mirror, or a shadow. It’s a part of us, a replica of the self that accompanies the self. I hope that is not a representation of the ego, but rather to cast a fragment of self outside the self, to be able to just divorce from who I am by looking at the I more attentively from a distance. I find loneliness useful from my upbringing experience. I was sort of an abandoned child. Since I was young, I have had trouble sleeping; I fear darkness. When I was a child I had to keep the desk lamp on all night. And my days were just spent with music, books, and art—if I can find them—books about art. Loneliness as a character was constituted by all of these experiences. And I think if it is indeed a character, it is larger than I am. It is beyond my comprehension, and it is teaching me how to keep going on. I think writers tend to find themselves to be lonely, and that’s just an awareness of being. Art comes out of helplessness when you confront a piece of blank paper, a piece of nothing. It’s a toxic relationship between everything (the mind) and nothing (the paper). It’s what shapes poetry, and it has to be done alone. I like a line from Jane Miller’s poem, “Who Is Trixie the Trasher?”: “Art is righteous loneliness.”
Author photo by Shilin Sun