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Wai: You seem to have an affinity with the Chinese exiles. Why?
Snyder: I feel strongly about freedom. Writers and students are often on the front-lines in the struggle to obtain or maintain freedom. Chinese literary exiles are but one category of people who are engaged in this struggle. The numerous Tibetan exiles; the Kurds who fled into Turkey, the Mayan Guatemalans who took refuge in Mexico, are others.
Wai: Bonnie McDougall says you are an admirer of Bei Dao. Why?
Snyder: Well, because he is a good writer, a significant cultural figure, and a very good person.
Wai: Recently Bei Dao has been elected an honorary fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. How and why, in your opinion, has he been given such an honor?
Snyder: In part because his role is symbolic for all of the exiled Chinese writers. And also of course because of the excellence of his work.
Wai: Would such honor diminish his sense of alienation?
Snyder: Only he can answer that.
Wai: Since "soul-home-sickness" is a motivational factor, should it be ever diminished?
Snyder: There are other sorts of motivational factors. One lives, learns, and changes. There are many sources of power for an artist.
Wai: With reference to your "Foreword," I think you would agree with Castro, who says: "You don't become a writer in order to become a nationality. I think poets have a particularly hard time of it because people, countries, tend to make them into national propaganda." Am I right?
Snyder: I have never had much use for any sort of nationalism. Nationalism is counter to true community, authentic culture, autonomy and self-government, and a proper relation to the world of nature.
Wai: "I think it will become increasingly obvious that exile, hybridity, immigration, will be the preeminent forms of cultural experience and expression in the next century," Castro says.
Snyder: This may become true for a small proportion of the population, but most people obviously are going to have to stay where they are and keep doing their work. Who's going to grow the cabbages if everybody immigrates? And where would they all go? More come to the USA? But hybridity --inter-marriage etc.--is surely on the rise, and that should have a tempering influence.
Wai:Do you think "Stay-at-home nationalists will be pretty much outmoded," as Castro says?
Snyder: Yes. But everyone who stays at home is not necessarily a nationalist. People who are not nationalistic, but simply folks of authentic culture who love their home region, will never be outmoded.
Wai: You seem to be very much ahead of your time. How valuable have been your East Asian experiences in your poetic career?
Snyder: Most of my time was spent in Japan studying Buddhism and participating in the Japanese environmentalist counter-culture. It was extremely valuable.
Wai: According to Sinologist William Tay, "We should look at Chinese writing from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities as an extended family of Chinese literature." What are the problems involved in such a definition? Is it valid?
Snyder: Yes. Just as we should look at English- language writing from South Africa, Canada, England, Australia, the Barbados, as an extended family of English literature. But there can and should be much diversity within it, and not one oppressive model of "Chinese literary culture" or "English literary culture."
Wai: You have said that "we are all dancing in and out of each other's dark and light." What is the nature of the shadows cast by the exiles?
Snyder: One of their shadows is that at the moment they have no home place on earth.
Wai: Do you think poetry is "painfully taught," as Angus Cleghorn has observed?
Snyder: Poetry is difficult to teach, but I don't think it is painful.
Wai: "The city of Toronto has posted some poems in the subway," Cleghorn also notes. Do you think it is "a great idea," as he does?
Snyder: I do. I have had my poems posted in subways. I have gotten interesting responses from many people. We should try to get poetry to the public any way that we can.
Wai: "Let me begin with a gentle heresy, that no poet has ever made a poem for himself or herself alone," Stephen Owen writes. "Poems are made for audiences" (The New Republic, Nov., 19, 1990). Is this really a heresy?
Snyder: He is right. Poems are made for audiences.
Wai: Whom should poets write for ?
Snyder: Anybody they want to.
Wai: That means some may use more elusive expressions than others?
Wai: "Owen is critical of Bei Dao's intention as an international poet who writes for translation," Cleghorn says. "I have no problems with that intention, if it's true." Do you have a problem with such an intention?
Snyder: I understand Stephen Owen's (whom I respect greatly) objection. There can be some artists who get stuck in a position where perhaps this must be the case--they must expect their main audience to be the one who reads them in translation. But in Bei Dao's case, his huge Chinese audience will eventually be able to read the originals. The question will still be, "are the poems any good"? And of course we cannot tell, in Bei Dao's case, how good the poems are simply by reading the translations.
Wai: This is the last sentence of your "Foreword" to Abandoned Wine: "We are all of us about to be born again." That was two years ago. Have we been born again yet?
Snyder: Oh, no. It may take a long time. As far as China goes, it may take a whole new administration.