Experiencing the poetry of witness: An interview with Wing Tek Lum

Jane Wong January 10, 2014 0
Experiencing the poetry of witness: An interview with Wing Tek Lum

When I began to read Wing Tek Lum’s The Nanjing Massacre: Poems, I was in a busy coffee shop in Seattle. As I kept reading, I kept shifting uneasily in my chair, not sure how to address the enormous distance between the coffee in front of me and the subject matter of Lum’s poems: rape, torture, death. While I knew the book sought to memorialize the forgotten stories of the massacre, I was certainly not ready to address my guttural responses as a reader and outsider. I was simultaneously moved, horrified, and stunned into silence. As Lum writes at the end of the book, this is “a witness so rude and raw/as to confirm/my blood existence as mere whim.” Through a witness “so rude and raw,” I began to question my understanding of what makes us human.

Lum’s collection brings to light the forgotten stories of the Japanese occupation of Nanjing, China in 1937. Throughout, Lum offers perspectives of tragedy from the victims to the bureaucrats to the Japanese soldiers. The Nanjing Massacre: Poems raises serious inquiries about human suffering and fear. Indeed, what are we capable of? And after such atrocious acts, how can we heal?

From the opening poem, he writes:

“All of the people in this book
no doubt are now dead
—though the hard truth is,
it was not because they lived out their allotted days.
Unlike you, they stayed,
and their world died so soon after,
before they would reach their primes.”

The world of the victims—a world that “died so soon after”—holds a ghostly presence, with stories that echo up from the ground. For instance, in “Heaven Has Collapsed,” we begin with: “I wake up in a field of corpses.” The directness of Lum’s language reminds us that something unnatural is happening. This is not a field of flowers, not a field of life. This is not a safe place. We enter a world where “an aunt and her niece carry a cleaver/wherever they go.”

These poems are notably overwhelming and uncomfortable; they demand our attention and demand that we look away. Brutality makes us look between our fingers. We must see that which is horrific:

“flesh to mud
wounds open
bared
maggots festering
rats all in a feast”

Likewise, we must alter our view of beauty and the natural world:

“surrounding snow keeps melting
our light machine gun
has not yet cooled down”

As Lum suggests, we must see in order to give voice to those who have suffered.

The amount of poems—there are over 100 pieces, written over 15 years—aims to fill in the silence left by the massacre. In the book’s notes, he writes: “The victims of war, especially those who did not survive, seldom have their experiences told. No one knows what happened to them, too often no one cares. Their lives, their sufferings must be recounted to provide a true memorial.” In this way, to write these poems is to give life back to the dead. And, at times, Lum offers defiant presence, as if to say: I exist. Thinking of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva: “I refuse to—be. In/the mad house of the inhumans/I refuse to—live. To swim/on the currents of human spines.”

Yet, Lum also recognizes the difficulties and complexities of writing literary truth. At a panel entitled “Critical Perspectives on the Nanjing Massacre,” delivered at the University of Hawai‘i, he addresses the distance between his own upbringing and the stories of the massacre:

“[There] are real difficulties in trying to write about an historical event that occurred 60 or 70 years prior, in another country, with primary source material in languages other than one’s own, and describing people dealing with conditions so utterly incomprehensible to a nice local boy who grew up in Hawai‘i like myself. … My project instead has been to try to speak for the dead, to serve as a proxy for those who cannot bear witness for themselves.”

As such, these persona poems do not attempt to “beautify” the events of the past; they are mediums through which startling and brutal stories are told. Here, we have a poetry of deep respect. Like Lum, we—as readers—are asked to put together that which is thrown apart.

I was fortunate enough to interview Wing Tek Lum about The Nanjing Massacre: Poems, which sparked conversations on the poetry of witness, the challenge of the historical poem, and his creative process.

Jane Wong: Can you discuss your experience learning and researching about the Nanjing massacre? How did you move from reading work such as Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking to writing? Can you speak about bringing history to life? Beyond using documents and facts, what can occur in the imagination?

Wing Tek Lum: As I mentioned in my Notes and mini-paper last month, I read Iris Chang’s book, was moved by it, and was inspired to write a poem (“Nanjing, December, 1937”). I was also moved at the same time to work on bringing her to Hawai‘i to speak at the University of Hawai‘i. Because of the popularity of her book, other publishers decided to come out with other history books in English on the Nanjing Massacre. I looked out for this material, and after reading these books I got inspired to write more poems, opportunistically, one after the other.

However, there was no master plan. Contrary to what a novelist might do, I did not consciously embark on a long-term project. Initially, I thought I might write one or two poems; then as the number grew, I thought they might be a separate section in my next volume. Only later on did I consider the collection as a complete distinct publication. I just kept reading more books and adding more poems. My interest was in the writing, not in the publishing.

But on the way I discovered that to then go from reading historical truth to writing literary truth is a complex and very sensitive task.

Wong: You write in the book’s preface that these poems are about “bearing witness.” I’m interested in “bearing” here as an act of carrying and caring—a burden, a responsibility, a necessity. These poems are undoubtedly terrifying and unrelentingly so: “we clean our rifles once again.” Can you talk about the weight of writing these poems?

Lum: Suffice to say, I believe that I was following an imperative—to speak for the dead, for they could not speak for themselves. It was to return to them the dignity we all seek. Whether I was successful or whether I was ethically responsible is for others to judge. Or for others to write their own poems, offer their own truths.

Wong: Indeed, these poems are a long-term act of witness, lasting over a decade. The multitude of poems speaks to the overwhelming emotional response of the massacre. In a way, as an act of giving voice to that which has been silenced, this book keeps going. How did you envision the breadth of the book and its many perspectives? Likewise, how did you organize the book?

Lum: I did consciously try to offer different perspectives, different points of view, different voices: Chinese, Japanese, perpetrator, victim, male, female, lyrical, graphic, moral or immoral, first or third person, reliable or unreliable narrator, clear cut or ambiguous as to who was speaker or what the author’s own stance was. That is part of the fog of war, I imagine.

After I had written a fair number of poems, my friends at Bamboo Ridge encouraged me to put them in a collection. I had an idea of how to organize most of the poems. Basically the five sections are in a loose chronological order: pre-occupation and the battle; what happened to the POWs; what happened to the women; how the rest of the civilians survived; and poems of mourning. However, I really did not look at the collection and say I am deficient in this area and so should write some poems to fill in. Again, I was opportunistic. If I found something interesting in what I was reading I thought I would try to write about it. And I kept writing even beyond the deadlines of my publisher because I was finding more material that was inspiring me to write more poems.

Wong: I keep thinking back to Theodor Adorno, who said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In the face and memory of atrocity, what can poetry offer us? In the same vein, what can poetry offer in terms of witness, beyond other art forms such as documentary film and visual art?

Lum: I disagree with Adorno’s famous dictum, especially in two ways. The Holocaust is no more and no less evil than the Nanjing Massacre or Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Jewish dead are no more and no less sacred than the Chinese or Japanese dead. Furthermore, in college I was already influenced by Auschwitz survivors like Elie Wiesel who had consciously chosen to write in a literary way about their horrific experiences. I suspect that it was more “barbaric” for Wiesel (and other writers like H. G. Adler) to not write. Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust is a really powerful collection; as an American Jew, not a survivor of the camps, he had the imperative to speak for the dead, and “merely” by copying verbatim the trial records he was able to do so (in my opinion).

To speak for the dead can take many forms. My impulse is to write poetry. But other artists trying to undertake this work might just as easily compose a song or paint a mural. And these artistic works may be more easily accessible in different ways to different people. Some may be unresponsive to my poetry, but moved by reading Ha Jin’s novel Nanjing Requiem, or viewing Lu Chuan’s or Zhang Yi Mo’s films. Or vice versa.

Wong: Are you still writing poems about the Nanjing massacre, after the book’s publication? And, as you continue to write poems, what reverberations arise from your experience with this book?

Lum: I have deliberately tried to stop both reading and writing poems about this subject. I feel I need to move on, and have been writing about a lot of different things, some more successful than others. This past week, I just finished a final reading here that is part of my launch year. I may start reading other newer work next year.

When I first started writing poems 40 years ago, I wrote mostly confessional pieces. They were mostly about me. After my first book came out, I also noticed how Laurence Yep (a friend) was embarking on this long series of young adult novels, that would cover the Chinese American experience, Roots-like, spanning many characters over many generations from the pioneers in the villages to after World War II. So I decided I would try writing about Honolulu Chinatown circa 1900—historical poems taking on personas different from me. This series freed me from my confessional mode; I learned how to write in third person. And this I extended to the Nanjing poems in many more ways.

Another thing I learned is more uncertainty. Robert Graves writes “In Broken Images”: “I in a new understanding of my confusion.” Especially the fine line between perpetrator and victim.

nanjing

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