Let’s pick up the chat I started with Ray Liversidge last week, by talking about Yu Xuanji and the voices of the dead!
ALS: I loved that you made mention of Yu Xuanji in your response. She is a poet that I have only discovered recently by stumbling across an ebook of her complete poems. A poet from the late Tang Dynasty, it seems there is not a lot of reliable information to be found about her. What was it about her life that drew you in?
RL: As you say details about Yu Xuanji’s life are very sketchy. My research showed that during the Tang Dynasty women had a fair amount of freedom of choice and social mobility compared to earlier and later periods. Yu Xuanji played a number of ‘roles’ in her very short life such as concubine, nun and courtesan. She seems to have been a free spirit who was unflinching in what she did and I admired that about her. Many of her poems dwell on sorrow, loss and longing, however she never feels sorry for herself and celebrates the joy of living even if it involves pain and suffering. There is a playfulness about her poetry which I love. She died when she was only 25 but she was obviously a mature woman. However, the flirty, mocking tone of a lot of her poems suggests she loved playing the little girl!
ALS: I am also interested to know whether each poem you wrote in some way took on the voice of its subject?
RL: I think it would have been a mistake to imitate the cadence, rhythm, tone, etc of the poets I have written about as the portraits could easily have become like cartoons or caricatures, and this would have been very disrespectful to those poets. Having said that, the opening poem on Dylan Thomas deliberately echoes his “bardic, bawdy hwyl and yawp, syntactical high jinks”. Of course, there’s a huge nod to Whitman in that line too! Within the constraints of a nine-line Spenserian stanza – in which all the poems are written – I was more interested in capturing the essence of their lives and work.