After the smoke clears from Marilyn Chin's accusations against my Bohemian-Finnish-Slovenian xy chromosomes as a racist, sexist, and imperialist, I once again encourage all readers of Poetry to invest some quality time with Eliot Weinberger's slender classic Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, and then read Chin's translations of Ho Xuan Huong [April 2008] against John Balaban's. I'll let the translations and scholarship speak for themselves to readers of all genders, races, classes, creeds, sexual orientations, and educational backgrounds.
Responding to Chin's tirade against my use of the phrase "noodling around," I checked several dictionaries. The Encarta College Dictionary says that "noodle," as a verb, means "to improvise on an instrument in a random, meandering fashion, often in order to warm up." Webster's (tenth edition) says pretty much the same thing. In The New Dictionary of American Slang "noodling around" means "to think, esp. in a free and discursive way; indulge mental play." Finally, harkening back to the pre-Internet days, the Dictionary of Afro-American Slang, edited by poet Clarence Major, says: "In jazz, to play in a testy manner; also, the human head."
When I consciously wrote the phrase "noodling around," I was working from some commonly understood definitions. That Chin—who describes herself in her letter as a "dark-skinned Asian woman poet"—would suggest alternate resonances makes perfect sense. She's a poet doing her job in the language. I hear her point, and thank her for it.
When I follow "noodling around" with "in the margins of someone else's book," I highlight those areas in John Balaban's Spring Essence where Quoc-ngu, Nôm, or English do not appear, and a reader of interest has ample room to write notes or comments or attempt their own versions of the poems. This is reading on a very deep level, and is to be encouraged. If and when those translations are deemed publishable by knowledgeable editors at reputable publications—and sources are acknowledged—we readers have the good fortune to compare translations and make up our own minds as to whether they are worth the paper they're printed on. This is another example of deeply engaged and responsible reading.
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