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Jen Bervin’s Research in China Leads to ‘Su Hui’s Reversible Poem’
Jen Bervin spoke in March at the 2017 Shanghai Literary Festival about her work on Su Hui’s Xuanji Tu, “[o]ne of the earliest extant poems by a woman—also among the most complex and unsung, [which] takes the form of a 29 x 29 character grid, embroidered or woven in five colors in silk, written in classical Chinese in the fourth century.”
Having spied a facsimile of Xuanji Tu at Suzhou Silk Museum in 2013 while on a research trip for Silk Poems, Bervin is now back in Suzhou, China—thanks to a grant from the Asian Cultural Council—to commission “double-sided silk embroideries [and engage] Chinese women in conversation about the poem.” The festival panel provided occasion for Asymptote’s Henry Ace Knight to interview Bervin about the project, her documentary approach (with filmmaker Charlotte Lagarde, she plans to develop the piece as a video installation), “artistic solidarity between Su Hui and Dickinson, and the continuum between traditional craft and cutting edge technology.” An excerpt:
In an interview published in The Paris Review, Elena Ferrante, reflecting on her reasons for withholding her identity from the public eye, said, “There is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence. We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a single protagonist behind every work of art. The individual person is, of course, necessary, but I’m not talking about the individual—I’m talking about a manufactured image.” This idea of a “collective intelligence” underlying all literary work seems consonant with your view of poetry as “a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten . . . a social space we share with others.”
I’ve always found that model of authorship so arrogant, this idea that we create alone. It’s patently untrue and disregards relationship. The emphasis on building things through relationship, I find, is very Chinese. The approach we are taking with Su Hui’s poem is to understand it through relationship, through specific readers, not necessarily expert ones, through Chinese perspectives, particularly those of women. The flip side of that question is in some ways a question of addressee. With both Dickinson and Su Hui, often the writer-reader relationship is one-to-one. I think in the West we value ideas of publication and fame, of books being numerous, above speaking intimately and directly to one person. We privilege that model for publication through all forms of hierarchy. That intimacy and, in some sense, urgency is present in both Dickinson and Su Hui’s work. When Dickinson sent the same poem to six different people over the course of four years, she changed it subtly each time, or prefaced it within the letter with a context that called for the poem. It was an infinitely flexible, intimate medium. With Su Hui, the poem had one explicit intended reader—her husband—and it was very effective. I would love to know more about Su Hui’s influences, who she was reading at that time. I read there is one instance of a reversible poem prior to this one inscribed on a mirror, also written by a woman, that I read about in Michèle Métail’s book, Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems, which is just newly translated into English by Jody Gladding.
Su Hui’s poem is bound by the rigidity of a grid, while Dickinson’s envelope scraps are an unruly, dynamic verbal-graphic chaos, spilling beyond the conventions of the printed page. Last night you spoke of their artistic commonality. What unifies them in your mind?
I think what they have in common is that they are both formal innovators. Even though Su Hui’s structure is more formally rigid, fixed, they both have found a way within their poetic composition to create forms of infinite reading. With Dickinson, it’s the variants—the words preceded by crosses, corresponding to alternate words preceded by crosses within the structure of the poem. If you start to read Dickinson through the variant system and retain the variant ghosts in your readings, you experience what feels like an infinite system—you encounter the echoes of variance in a way that is thrilling in its complexity. It really changes some well-known poems, ones we think we know, in wild ways.
Coincidentally, an excerpt from the aforementioned Michèle Métail/Gladding book appears in the current issue of BOMB, no. 139, as “Xuanjitu (The Map of the Armillary Sphere).”