An Interview with William Marr

By Alan Harris(采访者:阿伦-哈里斯)

1. Where were you born and raised? Were you raised in a literary family? When did you come to the USA?

I was born in Taiwan but spent my childhood in a small village in Southern China. At the end of World War II, I returned to Taiwan and attended school there. In 1961, after completing my undergraduate studies, I came to the United States.

I was not raised in a literary family. My mother never went to school and claimed that she did not recognize one single Chinese character, although mysteriously she could read some rather lengthy story books. My father did go to school for a few years but was away from home most of the time, running business overseas. I was more influenced by my uncle, also a businessman, who was fond of classical Chinese literature and painting.


我不是出身于书香门第。我的母亲从未上过学也不识字,但奇妙的是,她能朗读一些长篇的民间故事书。我的父亲上过几年小学,但他长期在南洋做生意。我那位喜爱中国古典文学及绘画的伯父给我的影响较大 。

2. How did you first become interested in writing poetry? What was your age and what were the circumstances?

When I was in my fourth grade, there was a severe drought in that part of the country. Our teacher asked each of us to write an article praying for rain. The morning after I turned in my article, a poem bearing my name was posted on the wall in the classroom. My teacher had broken up the lines of my essay and put them in the form of a poem. It happened that my uncle was home on vacation at the time, and my poem must have caught his fancy because for the rest of his stay, he would recite it to every visitor who came to our house. That really sparked my interest in poetry, but I did not begin writing until I entered college in Taipei and started a school publication. As its editor, I had to write all sorts of things -- stories, essays, and poems, etc. -- just to fill up the pages. However, I remained nameless in Taiwan's poetry circle before I left for this country.

我读小学四年级的时候,那年夏天广东乡下大旱, 老师要我们每人写一篇求雨的作文。第二天早上到学校一看,教室里的布告栏上张贴了一首白话诗,作者是我。原来是老师把我的作文分行,排列成新诗的形式。刚好我的伯父从南洋回家度假,看到了那首诗,大为赞赏。每当客人上门,他便朗诵给客人听,还不忘当众夸奖我两句。就这样引发了我对诗的兴趣。但真正开始写诗,却是我进入台北工专,与同学创办了一个叫《晨曦》的文艺刊物以后的事。作为刊物的创办人兼主编,我不得不自己写各种各样的东西,包括小说、散文以及诗等等,去填补空白。但在我离开台湾以前,在诗坛上可说是藉藉无名。

3. Through what chain of events did you become a popular poet in China?

When I started working in Milwaukee after I received my MS degree from Marquette University in 1963, a friend of mine, who was a well-known young poet and the editor of a bimonthly poetry magazine in Taiwan, asked me to translate, on a regular basis, contemporary American poetry for the magazine. Along with my translations, he also published some of my poems. Later he told me that poets and readers were asking who Fei Ma (my Chinese pen name) was. They seemed quite excited yet somewhat perplexed by the sudden emergence of a rather mature new poet.


This friend later helped me edit and publish my first book of poems In the Windy City. He also arranged to have several reviews of my book published in the magazine. It created quite a stir when one of the reviewers favorably compared my book to a book published by one of the best-known poets in Taiwan at the time. Since then, I have published a total of 14 books and several translations in Taiwan, China Mainland, and Hong Kong. My poems have appeared in over ninety poetry anthologies published in Taiwan and China. Recently, one of my poems, Bird Cage, was included in a Chinese Literature textbook used by a university in Taipei. I consider it a rare honor since, under the same cover, there are names of such great poets as Li Po and Tu Fu.


4. Did learning the English language hamper your fluency with writing poems in Chinese?

I really don't think so. As a matter of fact, I think the opposite is true. I've found that in translating my own poems from one language to the other (whether it was originally written in Chinese or in English), I can see more vividly the difference between the two languages (and, for that matter, the two cultures). And it is often possible to find some way to enrich the languages and, in the process, improve the poems.


5. Do you think that having several of your poems posted on your Web site has helped your popularity?

I'm not sure. Most of my Chinese readers came to know my poetry from publications such as newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and books. Several young poets told me that they first encountered my poetry when they were in high school and that it had a big influence on their own writing. Some of them could even recite my poems without much difficulty after so many years.


Through my own Web site I have established contacts with poets and scholars from several Asian and European countries. A couple of years ago, a poet from Israel translated some of my poems into Hebrew and posted them on a Web site.


Lately, I discovered that several Chinese Web sites have set up Web pages dedicated to my poems. Some had posted over one hundred of my poems in their collections.


6. What has your occupation been? Has your career in the USA had any effect on your poetry writing? If so, what effect(s)?

I worked at Argonne National Laboratory after receiving my Ph.D. in nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin in 1969. Before taking early retirement several years ago, I did research on energy and environmental systems and electric vehicles. I don't think my career had much effect on my poetry writing. Many critics, however, did point out that the refined qualities they often found in my poetry could probably be attributed to the scientific training I had received.


7. Why do you think you write mostly very short poems?


Several reasons. First, working full time did not permit me the luxury of writing long poems. But, more importantly, short poems are my perception of what poetry should be. By my definition, a good poem uses the least amount of words to stir up the strongest of our innermost feelings. Each poem is a universe in itself. Many good examples can be found in classical Chinese poetry.


8. Is it possible to boil down the messages of all your poems into a single sentence or two? Or does each poem have its own life and statement?


I intend for each of my poems to have its own form, its own voice, and its own life. Through poetry, it's possible to discover new meaning and new beauty in ordinary objects from our everyday lives. If my poetry can help people recall or rediscover a happy moment in their lives, or bring back a beautiful scene from their memories, or it can show them that the world is still full of interesting and exciting things, and that it is so beautiful and so wonderful to be alive, then I think I have succeeded as a poet.

我尽力想让每首诗都有它独自的形式,独自的声音,与独自的生命。通常一首好诗能为我们唤回生命中快乐美好的时光,或记忆中的美景。它能使我们在日常事物中发现 新的意义与新的美。它告诉我们,这世界仍充满了有趣及令人兴奋的东西。它使我们觉得能活著真好。能写出几首这样的诗来,我想我便不愧为诗人了。

Ford Maddox Ford (1873-1939), an English author, once wrote, "The quality of great poetry is that without comment as without effort it presents you with images that stir your emotions; so you are made a better man; you are softened, rendered more supple of mind, more open to the vicissitudes and necessities of your fellow men." These words often cross my mind whenever I write a poem.

英国作家福特(Ford Maddox Ford,1873 -1939)曾说过这样的话:「伟大诗歌是它无须注释且毫不费劲地用意象搅动你的感情;你因而成为一个较好的人;你软化了,心肠更加柔和,对同类的困苦及需要也更慷慨同情。」在我写诗的时候,这些话常闪掠过我的心头。

English version of this interview appeared in ISPS NEWS ,JAUNARY 2002,
中文部分刊登于2002年1月号《文讯 》(台北)

William Marr (Fei Ma) is the author of fourteen books of poetry (all in his native Chinese language except Autumn Window which is in English) and several books of translations, including the bilingual anthology Let the Feast Begin—My Favorite English Poems. He has also edited and published several anthologies of contemporary Taiwanese and Chinese poetry. A longtime resident of Chicago, he served from 1993 to 1995 as the president of the Illinois State Poetry Society.
诗人非马出版有十四本诗集 ( 除《秋窗 》是英文外,其它都是中文 ) 以及几本翻译,包括双语诗选《让盛宴开始──我喜爱的英文诗》。他还编选出版了几本台湾及中国现代诗选。他是前任伊利诺州诗人协会的会长,现居芝加哥。

Alan Harris is the President of the Illinois State Poetry Society.

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