Article by Beaton Galafa, Malawian writer and participant of the Jinhua Homestay in Songxi 2018.
Death of the poet. That was the philosophy that gagged me when I sat in the room decorated with calligraphy and poetry on the walls, face to face with one of Songxi's celebrated poets. I could read disappointment on the face of my guide, but there was nothing I could do. The poet was willing to talk; there was no doubt about that. But I was also not willing to ask questions. The plan had been to visit the Songxi Reading Club house next to Xu's Family Ancestral Hall, get a few rolls of poetry on our gadgets, return home, and devour it. That was how we would discover the poetry of Songxi.
Earlier in the day, Juan had told me that he managed to get access to the main room of the reading club. Just that while inside, he realized there was one minor problem. There was another room where all the poetry was kept. And, this, he did not have keys for. He suggested that we visit a poet of the village he knew, who would definitely have collections of poetry about the village.
Just in front of Shao Family's Ancestral Hall – where on its square we had practiced Tai Chi two days before, Juan stopped. We were coming from a late night salon at the Flower Hall. He kept asking me to "wait-a-moment." He was trying to figure out which of the homes belonged to the poet. On one open entrance to an enclosed compound, there were about three or four grannies sitting on stools. He approached them, asking for where we could find the man we were looking for. He should have heard him, because he appeared almost instantly.
I remembered the face. Shao Lufu. I had only known his name earlier in the day when his face appeared in an article on the poetry of preservation in Songxi by Jacob Pagano in China Daily. Juan later led me to his biography and poetry in a collection of Pujiang poems. Wearing the same smile, he had approached me with in Xu Cheng'en's calligraphy lesson a few days earlier, the man invited us in. Unsure if it meant Juan or both of us, I hesitated a little. The old men and women sitting at the entrance stretched their hands towards me, signaling a welcome. We walked for a while through a space of flowers and paintings, as well as a few sculptures. He turned left, to his actual residence. After seconds in the corridors, we finally arrived to where he was taking us to. A spacious rectangle bordered by four cream white walls and two doors – the one we had used for entrance, and the one we would use for exit. On the walls hang calligraphy, paintings and poetry. To the right corner, he had a shelf where a pile of books and newspapers was stashed.
He went straight behind his working table which bore dried ink spots on the surface, a painting brush, black ink in a bowl and bottles, plates, a knife and few more books. We sat down on stools facing him directly. Juan told him why we were there. His face glowed. After an exchange of words with the poet, he turned to me. He wanted to know what I needed exactly from him.
I don't know if that's how it came out when I finally uttered something. All I wanted was for us to have the poetry and go home. I couldn't wait to read its translations and explore the psyche of Songxi's literary life. Juan asked for my phone. I had already told him it had a bad camera resolution. I brought it out. Juan spread the grey-covered book containing the poetry of and about Pujiang that Shao had handed him on his lap. I aimed for the page he had advised me to capture. He checked how the paper looked from the phone, laughed, and opened a bag to bring out his laptop. I asked if I could borrow the book for a few days. “No, no, no, no, no. That would be impolite you know.” I said I understood. I did not.
Shao and Juan talked at length. Juan turned to me and asked again what I would do with the poetry. After our discussion, he turned to the man and continued with their conversation. I had asked him to ask if there was a poem Shao liked the most in the collection. I saw him read a few lines from some poem. “I cannot say which one poem I exactly love, but I like Xu Qing Yi. He talks to us through his poetry. He tackles issues we encounter in our daily life.”
Shao kept talking. We had been joined by his wife for some minutes now. She stood on the other end of the table, near a computer on a desk almost opposite the side where the bookshelf was, smiling. I felt like asking Shao something, but I had not yet figured out what that something was. Besides, he was staying a stone throw from our residence. I would return to him on my own if I figured out what I had felt asking him about was. Although interviewing him wasn't part of the plan, I at some point felt the urge to, but had been put off by Juan when he had strongly discouraged me from borrowing the poetry book.
Now, the book is mine. He told Juan as we were about to live that I could have it if I wanted. Picking his phone from the table, he had also asked if Juan would take a photo of the two of us. I held his book, the cover facing the camera, and smiled – ready for a photo with one of Songxi's most celebrated poets. I could've asked him for one if he hadn't asked first.
The article was first published by Kalahari Review on https://kalaharireview.com/minutes-of-glory-with-a-songxi-poet-a4e3faed2be3