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Wild Geese Sorrow: An Interview with Jeffrey Leong

Poet and translator Jeffrey Leong on his recent book of translations, Wild Geese Sorrow: The Chinese Wall Inscriptions at Angel Island.

Jeffrey Leong was born in southern California and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He earned a BA and JD from the University of Berkeley, where he helped found the Asian American Studies program in the 1970s as an activist participant in the 1969 TWLF student strike. He began his working career as a high school ESL teacher, then worked as a public health administrator and attorney for the City of San Francisco for over twenty years. He recently published Wild Geese Sorrow: The Chinese Wall Inscriptions at Angel Island, a collection of translations of poetry from the Angel Island Immigration Station. 

Jeffrey Leong will be giving readings from his translations throughout the Bay Area and elsewhere. More details can be found here.


Mark Hauber: This is the first new English translation in almost forty years of the Angel Island Chinese wall poetry. What drew you to this project?

Jeffrey Leong: In 1980, the ground-breaking book Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940 first appeared. It included translations of about 135 Chinese wall poems from the Angel Island Immigration Station men’s barracks walls. For a long while I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of this work, raising a family and providing health care to the poor. However, upon retirement, I decided to seriously pursue my life-long passion for poetry and enrolled in the Vermont College of Fine Art’s low-residency MFA program.

Soon I took a student-led translation workshop where I first attempted to parse a Tang-era classical Chinese poem, one by the elusive Li Shangyin. Later at a summer open house for the newly-renovated Angel Island men’s barracks, my pre-teen daughter showed me her mock-up of Chinese characters she had copied onto her handheld device from an Angel Island directional sign. Her creativity and ability to harness new technology impressed me greatly. I attempted my own translations for my thesis, and by graduation, I had a score. Afterwards I continued until eventually compiling new versions of over ninety Angel Island wall poems, most of which have been included in Wild Geese Sorrow.

I should add that my own journey into translation is unique. I began my life bilingual in Cantonese (Zhongshan dialect) and English. But like many second or third generation immigrant kids raised outside Chinatown, my Chinese language skills faded, until I re-upped them while at UC Berkeley where I studied both Cantonese and Mandarin. My early oral abilities aided in intuitively understanding syntactical constructs and meaning content.

The Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote that, “It is one thing to find lexical meanings for the words and to have some feel for how the metre might go, but it is quite another thing to find the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch for the overall music of the work… I was therefore lucky to hear this enabling note almost straight away, a familiar local voice, one that had belonged to relatives of my father’s, people whom I had once described in a poem as ‘big voiced Scullions.’”

For me, my parents, especially my father, were the most like Heaney’s “big voiced Scullions.” Around the nightly dinner table, they would explicate the cultural values and history of our extended family, including time spent as detainees at Angel Island. I believe this deep cultural understanding, combined with previous translations, Internet dictionaries and translation resources, has given me the ability to give the Angel Island poems what the Polish poet Anna Swir once called “the equivalent of a biological right to life.”

MH: Can you describe your approach to poem selection?

JL: For this collection, I chose seventy of the more than two hundred identified poems and poem fragments from the Angel Island men’s barracks walls. The poems selected provide a cross-section of experience and sentiment over the thirty-year lifespan of the site presented more or less chronologically. Care was taken to avoid redundancies, whether in subject matter, style or tone, particularly in regards to the traditional use of historical and literary allusion which is difficult to translate well.

MH: The poems/translations are presented in the book following a timeline. What was your thinking behind this format?

JL: The set of Angel Island wall poems are unique in Asian American or any world literature. Written in situ by detainees at an immigration station, they are by virtue of their existence a record of the daily experiences of men’s barracks occupants, who were involuntarily incarcerated. Furthermore, they are for the most part uninscribed, anonymous, undated and untitled, as if scribbled (or carved) in the night, sight unseen, and away from the prying eyes of their official jailers. The poems’ authors were in fact awaiting approval of their immigration petitions so had landing in America as first priority and not the writing of poetry.

Yet they chose to utilize their elemental understandings of Tang-style Chinese poetry to express a very personal and also political point of view, strictly for the eyes of their fellow detainees. The work primarily had a consoling effect but was also communal in nature like traditional tibishi Chinese wall poetry posted in public places for all to see. So by their very existence these poems asserted that individual “I’s” existed but also the collective “We.”

How does one organize such a body of work? Well firstly I wanted this to be a book of poetry, without the oral histories and explanations of prior texts. This desire was a leap of faith that the work itself could stand on its own. The organization became an “anthology” of sorts, by unnamed authors over a thirty-year period. Unable to organize strictly by chronology, I chose, as did the book Island, to more logically organize by theme, which related to the different stages of the detainee experience: arrival, medical exams, waiting, and deportation.

Yet I found that some themes were outside of “time” and related to the purpose of individual poems: some to urge political action or pride, others to provide consolation and advice. Thus the final organization became a hybrid of time and purpose in order to accurately reflect the ideas of the detainee writing. Whether this is the best organization for the work remains to be seen.

MH: What are the differences you see between your book and other Angel Island translations, such as Island?

JL: As mentioned previously, Wild Geese Sorrow is a book of poetry and contains neither oral histories nor other historical glosses, except for a brief introduction and extensive endnotes. Island is an excellent resource for the understanding of the Angel Island Chinese immigrant experience from primary source texts. And its value as another translation of the poetry cannot be understated. In the world of literary translation, classic source texts, whether the Christian Bible, Homer’s Odyssey, or Sappho’s lyrics, have been translated and retranslated over the centuries. After forty years I feel it appropriate for other versions of these poems to surface.

But even more important, I feel that Wild Geese Sorrow attempts to present these poems in a tonal register of anger, sorrow, and loneliness, an emotional sphere that Tang-style poems explore so well. I have tried too to emphasize the personal, the first-person “I” voice of the detainee, also a strength of the Tang poem. It can be argued that Tang poetry through its early translations by Ezra Pound in Cathay helped define the contemporary American style of personal verse, literature based upon the experience of a single speaker, whether writ confessional or political.

MH: Can you describe how the book fits into your own personal life and your life as a writer?

JL: This is a great question. On one level, the writing of this book of translations has taken me deeper into my own personal and family history as a Chinese American. A year or so ago my wife, daughter, and myself traveled with extended family to visit my ancestral villages in Zhongshan county of Guangdong for the first time. I intend to further explore my Chinese American roots which includes San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Sacramento River Delta rural Chinatown of Locke. I write more about this on my blog at my website.

But on another level my venture into literary translation has given me insights as a writer that I would have never had if I did not pursue this project. Like every poet, I’ve envisioned a full-length collection of my own poems as a personal goal coming out of the MFA program. But I think that I’ve learned that as a writer you have to follow where the writing is taking you, what’s hot, what you feel passionate about, and what that has been for me is the Angel Island wall poetry translations. You’ve got to give into that. And the next project might be a chapbook of my own poems about Angel Island and working on translation.

While translating this work, I’ve experienced something that all literary translators likely go through, that experience of occupying the mind and creative thoughts of another writer, to almost be inside his head, and then to have the ultimate responsibility to render those thoughts and words into your own target language, as if you were he writing in an alternate language. In some ways it’s the closest a writer can get to being someone else. I highly recommend it for writers.

And lastly, literary translation has already impacted my own writing in subtle ways and will continue to do so. The writing of the Angel Island poets in the Tang-style is both elegantly simple and emotionally direct. Lyric, it uses juxtaposition well, but without the clotted word imagery of much contemporary American verse. It does not shy away from narrative and making sense, but its reliance on spare presentation stays true to life’s mysteries, consistent with its Taoist-Buddhist (Zen) philosophical roots. I can only aspire to learn from these writers.

MH: What legacy do you want this book to leave? What do you want readers to come away with?

JL: Every book I think has a life of its own, and in some ways, a writer is like a parent who has raised a child to full adulthood and then has to let go to admire his or her flight into the world. For me this book fills a vacuum that I felt I could impact, that of a deeper understanding on a personal and literary level of how poetry was used in a transformational manner by early Chinese immigrants to try and make themselves personally, politically, and spiritually whole despite great emotional sacrifice and pressure. It is not just the story of an ethnic group, race of people, or immigrant wave, it is a human story and that is what I want to claim more of, as the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen would say, our right to be in anger, failure, hope, and love: undeniably human.

MH: Is there anything you would like readers to know before digging into the book?

JL: Not really, I think the poems speak for themselves. Perhaps if you don’t love poetry and its use of metaphor and concentrated language to describe emotion and situations, listen to what is being said by each speaker, try to get a sense of who they are as brother, father, husband or son, and how they see themselves in their current situation. If you do love poetry, then the better, maybe see the finer details of how poetry works to elucidate deeper human feeling, how it may fail and how it succeeds.

MH: Do you have a favorite poem and/or translation? What is it about that particular poem/translation?

JL: I do not have favorites among my children, they are all unique, and I hope that the particular individual voices come through for the reader as they have for me. In doing these literary translations, I have found more evidence for the multiplicity of voices than in any “contributor’s notes” of a literary journal.

However, I must say that in translating Poem 49 with its “pearl-like tears” falling, that I was particularly moved by its last line where the speaker is anticipating an event in the future where he will find the pain of deportation hard to bear. He is suffering grief in the present moment of the poem for a future grief that he knows he will suffer. What can be more human, we as one of the species who can know grief?