Guangzhou, Cuba


This account of a visit to the Guangzhou Poetry Festival dates back to the cusp of 2007/8. It was written for the British Council, but I’ve never seen any trace of them using it — though other mysterious me-related pieces do crop up on their site(s) from time to time. For instance, I came across an account of an anthology of translations into French named after one of my poems: La Comète d’Halcyon. Poésie en Ecosse aujourd’hui, which, apparently, John Glenday edited. I’d never heard of it before.

There is something perverse about arriving in Hong Kong just to leave it. But then there is something indecent about the hunger of the traveller to confirm sights they have seen prefigured in the media, instead of extending their vocabulary of the eye. When our plane dropped from the clouds and began its descent over that great harbour I was cricking my neck to see the famous skyline and squinting at dots in the water, trying to resolve them into junks – the whole opening sequence of You Only Live Twice was stubbornly refusing to flash before my eyes.

Then, whilst waiting for my flight to Guangzhou (eating a bright green blueberry muffin and serially mispronouncing ‘Guangzhou’ to anyone I asked), my only ‘view’ of Hong Kong was a sepulchral blood orange sun hanging in the smog over by a control tower. By the time I arrived in Guangzhou it was so dark all I could see (apart from the intermittent roadside blasts of character-dotted neon which indicate restaurants) was a very tired man being bumped about the back of the truck in front of me. I felt I knew how he felt, though a day’s travelling doesn’t really equate with a day’s labour, and, on reflection, I was probably looking for something, anything, that could ground me in this new environment.

This was not helped by arriving in a hotel complex modelled on a possibly Castro-less Cuba – more American than Cuban, though still subtly Chinese. All the staff wore Hawaiian shirts, and we were transported through the muggy night air in grandiose golf buggies. At breakfast, cigars and coffee supplemented the usual green tea and rice gruel, and outside, the shopping precinct included a ‘spirit hall’ (church to you) hung with banner-sized images of we poets like latter day saints. I wandered up to a hotel room to meet the organiser, Hu Xudong, a bustling, energetic young professor of Spanish literature I had last seen at a banquet in the Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture in faraway Xinjiang Province – an event which featured too much rice spirit and, not to put too fine a point on it, horse. He was thankfully pleased to see me, probably as he hadn’t expected me to survive both the hangover and the digestive process.

The theme of the festival was ‘Back to Classic’ – a term with, perhaps, even more layers of resonance for the Chinese writers than the varied international guests – French, Brazilian, US, and an acquaintance from a previous trip, the Venezuelan poet José Manuel Briceo Guerrero. For our Chinese colleagues, the issue is how to engage, in such a powerfully monocultural unit as China, with a contemporary multiculturalism that seems to fragment heritage. Can they reach back through a century so disrupted by cultural upheaval towards the work of predecessors which, in the case of the Tang and Song Dynasty poets, seem both as immediate and as unsurpassable as ever? It puts British poetry’s squabbles over risk and readability into a certain perspective.

As is often the way at such events, we were gathered together with representatives of the press, a couple of microphones were passed around, translators heroically attempted to maintain links across sometimes three languages, and the surface of the theme was gamely scratched. I had the misfortune to be handed the mike first, and set forward the thesis that the most severe critic of the Classics in any language was Oblivion; that those works which survived to attained ‘classical’ status often owed it equally to luck and to their innate translatability: their capacity to be imaginatively re-read and rewritten by each successive generation. Both premisses were comprehensively demolished by my fellow speakers, so all ended happily.

Readings at Chinese literary festivals tend to be communal affairs, in which, unlike the separate (and subtly hierarchical) events of their Western equivalents, everyone pitches in, reading a poem or two with a PowerPoint accompaniment helpfully displaying (what you hope are) your biographical details and a translation of the relevant work. The readings are frequently interrupted by singers, dancers, or, as in one of the events this time, prizegivings.

These included an award for an old friend of mine, the Szechuan poet Zhai Yongming, with whom I had worked on a translation project several years ago. I emphasised strongly yet again how good it would be to give a reading in her famous bar in Chengdu, and she politely explained once more that I didn’t need the excuse of poetry to visit and, anyway, it was theoretically possible to have good Szechuan food elsewhere on the planet without her ordering it for me. This seemed highly unlikely to me, but we still parted friends.

Before the second reading we visited one of the main archaeological sites in Guangzhou, the two thousand year old tomb of the Nanyue king, Zhao Mei, which was concealed until 1983 beneath a hill in the centre of this huge city. This sounds physically impossible, till you reflect that the tomb of his more famous grandfather, Zhao Tuo, the founder of this breakaway Han Dynasty kingdom, is also a ‘mountain’, also somewhere within the city — and still undiscovered. It makes you look twice at any nearby knoll.

The tomb is laid out in the shape of the character for ‘warrior’ — somewhat ironically, as the king appears to have been anything but, and actually died of poisoning from taking his ‘immortality’ pills. Each of its chambers held the remains of real warriors, eunuchs, musicians, cooks and concubines, who were all obliged to accompany their liege, who was discovered laced into a suit of jade, to the next world or, as we would term it, a custom-built museum where gaggles of visiting poets can gawp at intricate bronze ceremonial discs, a chariot, and some musical bells. Oblivion, temporarily, has been defeated.

Our reading that night was in a gigantic new hotel which appeared to have the Quadriga from the Brandenburg Gate at its entrance, and the Pantheon for its foyer. The scale and mock-Mittel Europa feel was every bit as discombobulating as the pseudo-Cuban effect of our ‘home’ hotel. Directly beneath the middle of the dome was a familiar-looking little stage with a screen set up for the PowerPoint, while serried ranks of schoolchildren solicited our autographs despite never having heard of us before.

Directly next to this tribute to the glory that was Rome was a huge busy, loud, delicious fish restaurant with one wall devoted to tanks full of that evening’s oblivious supper – twelve bone-suckingly good dishes later and we were ready for the show…

After which we had been promised a trip in moonlight (and neon) down the Pearl River — by paddle steamer no less (though perhaps I dreamed the paddles). Instead, our bus managed to get lost on the dusty lanes between two stretches of flyovers, and we trundled for what seemed hours down a bumpy backstreet lined by an inordinate number of late-night barbershops – a midnight chorus rather than a quartet. At this point, it seemed to me for the first time, watching a score of sleepy scissors in action, catching the pearly glint of mirrors, eyes and steel, that I was finally ‘here’.

The rest of the trip offered up sight after sight for the starving gaze: an extraordinary feat of carving-within-carving in the Chen Family Temple which had over twenty crabs and lobsters struggling within a net, all formed from a single piece of honey-coloured wood; a stupefied pig, jammed into an iron frame on the back of a motorcycle we overtook on my way to a lecture; the ‘fragrant’ durian marshmallow I ate before giving said lecture (on contemporary British poetry); my evening in the hot springs afterwards, where I wandered through a park dotted with pools and mosquitos, the pools filled with a mixture of hot water and wine, or tea, or ginger, or milk (I’m not kidding), the mosquitos filled with a mixture of businessmen’s and a visiting poet’s blood.

My favourite moment was culinary, nocturnal, and particularly Cantonese. Hu Xudong was determined he would ‘persuade’ one of the award-winning poets, Zang Di (with whom I later climbed Yellow Mountain) to pay for a banquet (only the fourth of the day). Zang Di was too sharp to be located, but a party set out anyway shortly after midnight. We crossed a sleepy river and a busy highway, leaving the Cuban territories, and ended up in a roadside bar with low-slung deckchairs and cold beer, a dusty pool table with a singular slope to it, and dish after dish of local specialities including long black-shelled periwinkles and chilli-strewn clams.

I had better meals elsewhere – chickens’ feet in a dim sum restaurant, speckled frogs’ legs on lotus leaves – but sprawled beneath the stars, singing in the darkness everything from parodies of Cantonese opera to badly-remembered Beatles songs, I began to realise that not only did I not want to go home, I didn’t even feel the need to go to Hong Kong..


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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