Former NYU Shanghai Global Academic Fellow Jen Hyde returned to China this month for the city’s Literary Festival. Speaking alongside her mentor, acclaimed poet and visual artist Jen Bervin, at the Literary Reading Series at NYU Shanghai, Hyde spoke about the inspiration for her first collection of poems Hua Shi Hua (华诗画) Drawings & Poems from China (Ahsahta Press, 2017), and her upcoming project, Murmur, a 2016 finalist for the Creative Capital Grant in Literature.
What brought you to Shanghai?
I moved to Shanghai at the end of 2013. I wanted to teach myself how to read a language of my heritage and to understand my Chinese identity. In Mandarin, I’m called a 华人 (hua ren), an ethnically Chinese person who is not born in China. In English, I’m a person of the Chinese diaspora by way of my mother who moved to the United States from Indonesia. As a biracial American poet and book artist, I felt illiterate in a language that nevertheless belonged to me.
At NYU Shanghai I audited a book arts class taught by Marianne Petit and I assisted with the launch of the University’s first student-run news publication, On Century Avenue. While I experimented with book forms and storytelling, I was learning about free speech in China--a concept more complex than it is or can be depicted by English language media. Those complexities shaped the way I began writing about the Shanghai landscape.
What was the inspiration for Hua Shi Hua?
During my time in Shanghai, I became invested in depicting the liminal life moments and interactions between me and the people I encountered in the city and how such encounters enabled me to think about my own family and cultural history. Through a process I call generative translation, I interpreted classic Chinese poetry written at the site of the Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan city. And I used the image of the crane, whose presence is now that of a machine in the Shanghai skyline. It explores the landscape and defines my own relationship to my mother and my heritage as I move through it. It enabled me to render a range of my own selves in the landscape of my poems.
What was the significance to you of printing the poems using traditional Chinese techniques?
At the time, I was reading the Chinese printing scholar, Chao-kai Wen, who explained why woodblock printing became a popular publishing method for small presses in China. It remained the most attractive technology to most Chinese printers because a carver did not need to be literate. Illiterate workers could and did become carvers, and books could be printed by one person, from copying the text to the block, printing copies and finally stitching up the pages.
The poems in this printing of Hua Shi Hua, are an artifact of my performance as publisher, printer and illiterate writer. I printed five copies of Chao-kai Wen’s manuscript using wood block plates, a laser cutter, traditional relief printing techniques and paper sourced from a paper village in Suzhou--the paper village remains an independent publisher today.
What are you currently working on?
I have a congenital heart defect and in 2010 received a bioprosthetic heart valve made from the pericardial tissue of a cow. My latest project, Murmur, is about the lives of the four women responsible for hand-sewing my valve. My curiosity led me to discovering that my hometown had a museum for heart valves, through which I was able to connect with the very people who sewed mine. I had no idea my valve was handmade by human beings and I just wanted to know more about them. I ended up meeting these women in person--Mary and Angie, immigrants from Vietnam, Fabi from Mexico and Rita from Iraq. For the past two years, I’ve been getting to know them as friends and learning about their life experiences, as well as more about the history of people emigrating to the US and becoming assembly workers in the tech industry.
How has Jen Bervin’s work influenced your own?
I’ve known Jen Bervin since I was 19 years old. She was one of my poetry teachers when I was an undergraduate student at NYU and she’s really an important person in my life, a mentor and now I can say good friend.
She was researching her Silk Poems project -- which is currently on exhibition at MASS MoCA in Massachusetts -- in nearby Suzhou a few years ago when I was invited to come work at NYU Shanghai. The way she merges poetry with textiles and science as conceptual art has been a big inspiration to me.
Learn more about Jen Hyde’s printed work, written work and collaborations here. Follow Jen on Instagram to see her postings as a Valve Ambassador for the American Heart Association, or check out her YouTube channel for videos on how to lead a more mindful, healthy life.