Q&A: You May Leave a Memory, Or You Can be Feted by Crows

Can you tell us a little more about Huang Gongwang?

His most famous paintings are Living in Happiness Spring Mountains Painting and Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains. He was a Taoist and is included by scholars as one of the landscape painters known as “The Four Great Masters of the Yuan Dynasty.” I’m particularly taken by how he did his best work in his seventies, and spent long years working on a given painting, only adding to it when it felt right to do so, which is very Zen. As a shan shui (mountain waters) painter, he was most interested in capturing emotion in his landscapes. His subjects were mainly nature and light. People may be present in his great landscapes, but you have to look hard. That doesn’t mean people are insignificant...or maybe it does. 

Huang Gongwang is dedicated, patient, and a perfectionist—but as he appears in this poem, we’d hardly call him prolific. Is he a role model for the poet, a figure of fun, or both (or neither)?

From what we know of Huang Gongwang, he wasn’t prolific—some sixty paintings left, and most likely some attributed to him weren’t his. In my poem, I’m picking up on how he’s been described at work: like others in his school, he’d start with an original inspiration or design, and then over sometimes very long periods would let his brush elaborate—or on some days simply touch—the work here and there. 

Subjectively, yes, I’d call this painter, who was also a poet, a good role model, at least for the kinds of poems I try to write. He’s both a figure of fun and a figure intent on having fun. Watching him paint, you feel both his delight and his intense purpose. When I think of him, I also think of the William Carlos Williams poem “Danse Russe,” with its much younger but still equally lonely and wild and proud poet dancing around the room.

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This poem originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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