Wawa and Henry Wei Leung, Medium-Pure Poetry and Translation as the Cost that Language Learns to Bear

Poupeh Missaghi

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During a Vermont Studio Center residency this past summer, I stood with a friend in the landscape behind one of the studio buildings where trees in a semi-circle carried pages of Wawa’s poetry. In their shared studio, Wawa and Henry had also set up an installation that brought together nature, mirrors, words, and chocolate. The presentation of the words so tightly interwoven with natural elements or objects brought out the materiality of the texts, not just in the sense of the words literally appearing on different surfaces but also in making the content and meanings feel like they, too, were these other physical bodies present in the spaces. The installations’ elements each had their own weight and voice, and if you paused and allowed yourself to see and hear, it felt as if you were having a whispered, ghostly conversation with them, as if you were standing in a sacred site going through an embodied ritual.

Engaging with the works created a sense of constant crossing between multiple worlds: linguistic, cultural, material, formal, historical, but perhaps most strongly a sense of crossing between this world and the otherworld, the worlds of the body and the spirit, the living and the dead who were gone but who had left behind their marks. Throughout these crossings, shadows from the past and a feeling of loss followed you, transformed into new linguistic and physical beings that somehow enabled you to be more present. There was vulnerability and pain, but there was also resilience and beauty, manifested especially in the fragility of the texts, and the contrast between, and the arrangement of, the materials used.

Wawa and Henry were at the Vermont Studio Center for a second time, this time on a translation fellowship. They read first, each their own poetry, when we, the writers, met early on in the program, to share our works and break the ice. They sat on the floor, close to one another, and I vividly remember feeling a sense of belonging, trust, and care between the two of them, a sense of them holding on to one another and to each other’s languages against the world beyond. Later on in the residency, they gave a more in-depth introduction to their work, taking turns reading originals and translations, providing explanations, asking each other questions, giving each other space to chime in whenever needed. It was all an embodiment of a poet-translator collaboration, and a manifestation of the togetherness of two people finding each other beyond geographies, histories, and languages despite, or perhaps because of, the private and public socio-political contexts of their lives.

—Poupeh Missaghi

Wawa, how did your poetry find its way into other forms of art? Were you always working more as a multidisciplinary artist, or was the transition from poetry into visual and conceptual arts a gradual shift? What does the physicality of these art objects or their possibly different audiences make possible for your literature?

WAWA:  Poetry is passive. Most “finished” poems reach no one unless an editor or publisher swoops in, and many of those “published” poems reach no one unless a reader goes out of their way to seek a book of poems. Meanwhile, the industrial complex of publishing has turned poetry into a frantic race for self-promotion, making poetry an object, burying its qualities as an existential need.

Two years ago in downtown Honolulu, I saw a clean Starbucks take-out cup positioned in a statue’s hand, surrounded by a pile of whole coffee beans. The cup itself was empty. A small note in German was written on a piece of cardboard nearby. That life-changing moment showed me anew what art can do, how its pure essence is to physicalize, to appear, and how its appearance is unstoppable.

The physical fact of a poem on the page is barely the entrance to the poem’s life, but it’s also where that life ends, silenced and taxonomized. After playing along with the industry for almost a decade, I decided to pack up my ideas about poetry and find them a new home. What I want to reconstruct with my artwork is the wormhole of the ecstatic trances my poems record, within which poetry arises as a physical reality. This shifted my poetry from the semantic to the perceptual: poetic information no longer lying only in written text but in a whole presentation that permeates the senses. It’s not intention that drives me, but instinct. Less like public art, it’s closer to primordial cave paintings. I only mean for my poetry to be complete, which requires every material aspect of it to be meaningful, cohesive, and integral to the whole. I call this medium-pure poetry. Different from text-based art, medium-pure poetry is an attempt to break open preconceptions and synthesize the starkest creative impulses. My vision is to empower the essence of poetry with a physicalized artistic imagination, so we can have in this world poems that are alive, not asleep on the page.

The seed of medium-pure poetry was sowed during a writers’ residency in Vermont last winter, when I felt increasingly claustrophobic in my writer’s studio. I stared at my window so intensely until I suddenly opened it, climbed out into the snow, and inked a poem on the window. Since then, I started seeing myself shift from the traditional poet’s trajectory to being a medium-pure poet—though not necessarily an “artist.” I no longer send out poems to editors for publication, but imagine the poems appearing as I want them to: on what surface, by what method, in what environment.

One of my ongoing projects is to “re-publish” my poems about children’s suicides in Hong Kong by handwriting the poems on transparencies inside white linen cylinders and hanging them from a tree, so that when lit from inside, the poems emerge as shadows. At first, I was awkwardly trying to imitate a child’s handwriting, but after a while the act of it actually awakened the muscle memory of my own handwriting exercises as a child. As I wrote on, I felt that every inch of my body was restored to that of the child I was. It was almost a spiritual journey allowing me to commune with the children who died, from the body of a child, through handwriting. This is just one example of how the sublime was unearthed by bringing a poem into medium-pure representation. I’d never experienced this through traditional publication.

My ideal audience has never been poetry readers, which publication has limited me to. My ideal audience has always been everyone in the world. But adopting a visual expression doesn’t limit me in the same way to gallery visitors or art collectors. There’s an infinite freedom in making poems physical and real in the world. No longer pressed into a page, in a book, in a bookstore, it can be encountered anywhere. In one work, Henry and I recorded poems we’d written to each other on a cassette, which I connected to a handheld phone receiver. I installed it in random public places in Brittany, Paris, Reykjavik, Yosemite Valley, and Santa Barbara, and was amazed to watch strangers pick up the receiver and hold it to their ears. It’s an instinctive act. I think I am undoing literature’s capitalistic filters. My whole life is all about striving to not die in a complex world of impurity. Medium-pure poetry finally brought me to this one artificial space of absolute purity, built by myself.

How are your poems in conversation with the materiality of the sculptures or installations? How do you decide on the shape, material, or even modes of their presentation? For example, how do you decide on engraving your words into a wooden cylinder versus sewing them on a kite? 

WAWA:  Singing was my first artform, my life’s marrow; I was a soprano and indie singer for almost two decades. My poems are still written in the same ecstatic trances I found through music. I always have a very clear, vivid, final image of a work in my mind first, followed by a strong feeling of which poem or set of poems need to be housed in it. After that, the rest is bringing myself back to physical reality. It’s like hearing a pure note in my mind. I’d say my upper consciousness decides the final, perfect ideals for my work, then my lower consciousness scrambles and struggles to align with those ideals despite a world of uncertain conditions and imperfect materials. I originally saw myself pushing a gigantic white salt ball into the sea with my poems carved on it. In reality, I found an animal salt lick of only five pounds so that I could actually transport it, and I carved on it with the tiniest V-gouge I could find—which is definitely not meant for carving on salt and which cost me a bloody middle finger in the process. I originally saw my poems to the heavens sewn in white thread on gigantic white flags on a mountaintop flagpole, but for legal constraints, I scaled it down to a Circoflex kite, then again to a simple diamond kite. As a color-phobic person, I like that the relationship between my poems and the world remains between black and white. Other than that, my aesthetic decisions are usually made intuitively as quick, sharp decisions—whatever feels right and can’t be otherwise. I follow my fetish for cleanliness, modesty, simplicity, and purity when it comes to material, shape, and even location. I’m not too fastidious, however, as I believe that there’s always a cosmic reason for the appearance of things that become available to me.

Several of your installations engage with the environment, both interior and exterior spaces, and sometimes you even install the outside inside. What is your interest in bringing the surrounding environment into your work or taking your work into the environment?

WAWA:  I want my poetry to be in the world in the fullest and most authentic sense. I want my poems not only to be read, but to be accessible, felt, and understood even by illiterate people like my parents. My relationship with words started not with poetry, but with singing. Singing out of my cage-like windows to the sky as a child may have been the archetype of my medium-pure poetry. And when I sang, the same terrible world immediately became different. Medium-pure poetry was born out of this survival need to transform dangerous realities into safe and beautiful spaces. My medium is just the architecture of a synthetic poetic space.

I want my poems to bring consolation not only to people who can afford an activity like visiting a bookstore or gallery. I want to make poetry accessible by bringing it out to the world and letting people fall inside each work. I don’t think we have so exhausted physical spatial possibilities that we have to resort to virtual creation. Think of those ancient cave paintings, or those poems engraved by Chinese detainees on Angel Island without fancy M.F.A. degrees, awards, art training, exhibitions, or group shows. I want to restore the omnipresence of poetry in our lives and address the poetic instinct in everyone, the instinct that is more than printed text or an intimidatingly fancy language for highly educated people. I don’t believe it when someone says he can’t understand a poem, just as I don’t believe it when someone says he can’t sing.

I can’t help but notice, in some of your works, the presence of a sense of loss and absence. This sometimes comes through the materiality of your pieces; for example, in the case of the gradual disappearance, or, as you put it, “consumption,” of the salt block by the sea waters; or in the ghost-like quality of the curtain poems and their black-and-white images; or in the traces of words left behind in a drawing; and sometimes in the topic you choose to work on, such as in your ongoing project about children’s suicides. What is the draw of loss/absence for you? What do you hope to achieve in exploring and complicating this theme and feeling in all these ways in your work?

WAWA:  My works are priceless and worthless at the same time. I’m drawn to energies that are torn between extreme investment and complete annihilation. I like to see things in their most “invaluable” light in which they can be ditched at any time. I’ve struggled my whole life with suicidal nihilism, and considered Buddhist renunciation twice; but in the rare moments when I’m intensely engaged in something, I live so extremely it’s as if I exist just for these things. So on the one hand, I’m used to nothingness and take comfort in loss, absence, and annihilation. On the other hand, I also know the taste of dire importance. The repetition of these extremes is where absurdity arises. I’m hopelessly Platonic in this, and have found consolation in the eternity of disappearance. Materials age, disappear, wear out, and I don’t hesitate to let go of things, even my own arduous work. After traveling through the physical realm by my construction, my works disappear by returning back to the incorporeal, atemporal idea that birthed it: a perfect, permanent existence. To me, the highest beauty and consummation of poetry is in the utter demolition that reveals the residue of the poetic space, that invisible ash left in one’s soul.


Wawa and Henry, can you both speak a bit about the impact of your personal relationship and professional collaboration as poet/translator on your individual endeavors—literary, artistic, legal, and else? How has the togetherness and shared space (re)configured your creations?

WAWA:  I met Henry when I was living on Peng Chau, a small island in Hong Kong, on the last day of the Umbrella Movement when the last protest camp was torn down. I’d returned from Europe about five years before that and was still struggling in the literary scene in Hong Kong to a point of hopelessness.

Henry was the first to read my poems and take them seriously; he also translated my soul by translating my Chinese poems across languages; and he made my first poetry collection happen, despite it being outside Hong Kong. It sounds like a cliché love story. During one of the quiet ferry rides we took to Peng Chau, he said that he wanted to “swoop me away” from Hong Kong, a place that had been nothing but abusive to me.

He did swoop me away, from Hong Kong to America. What neither of us expected, however, was that my Hong Kong–ness would be undone in the process, and I wouldn’t pick up any Americanness in the process, either; perhaps a self-imposed punishment for leaving my home. I keep losing myself while nothing new is added to me. The chemical result was a void that started growing beyond the sense of time and space.

We attended a court hearing earlier this year when we returned to Hong Kong, for a riot that broke out two years ago. He looked at the trial as a lawyer-to-be, re-routing his skills in language through legal applications to make social justice actually happen, while I stared at the courtroom floor with teary eyes, floating forlornly in outer space. If we met in midair, both as writers, one with a Hong Kong consciousness, the other with a Chinese-American consciousness, our shared political experiences eventually drove us to pursue opposite things. I rose farther and farther away from earth’s gravity, while he was grounded lower and lower to realize actual good with his poetry through practicing law. But the grand act of letting go of everything in Hong Kong has unexpectedly allowed me to let go of the corners, fears, and impossibilities that burdened my whole life there. It wasn’t until I became unrecognizable even to myself through this transnational marriage that I was able to know who I actually am and could be, and to own an entire “outer space” of a nameless time and space where I could make my own world-creation happen.

HENRY:  I’m not sure I have much to say about my “creations” right now, as a law student deep in the fog of preparing for finals. But I want to say something important about my late decision to step away from literature and pursue law, and how this marriage/partnership has kept me sane. When I was a kid, I edited and sometimes even ghost-wrote my mom’s essays for night classes, so that she could get her A.A. degree and pull herself out from doing menial labor. My path to poetry therefore was never luxurious; it was the path of an immigrant kid living under the shadow of poverty cast by an imperial language. In other words, I learned from an early age that one could steer the material conditions of a life by narrative, by the sheer force of grammar. In other words, writing was always a social and political engagement for me, and the future I’m looking at as a lawyer still resonates with my first idea of letters and literature. What I’m risking, though, is a reduction of the humanity I came to through literature, and which can vanish readily under the economics of the law and of the sociopolitical. It’s been a struggle as a law student to study external values and their attendant rules, while also remembering to be an actual person. But being married to a singer-poet-artist-mystic helps to reign me in, as does continuing to engage with, translate, and participate in her vision of a poetic world. This household is at the center of my understanding of what it means to be human.

Translation, in its wide-ranging definition, is an important component of your work together. Can you both tell us about your modes of engagement with translation in your individual and collaborative creations?

WAWA:  I wrote in English when I was in Hong Kong and started writing in Chinese, sometimes in Cantonese, only after I moved to America. Sometimes I translate my own poems from one language to another as well. I grew up using incorrect Chinese and incorrect English interchangeably while attending a Catholic girls’ school. Being bilingual or using Chinglish was quite central to my life, as well as to Hong Kong’s life as an ex-British colony now half “returned” to China. I was fluid, not exactly fluent, between both languages and would use them at my disposal. It’s like seeing the same object under a flashlight or under a black light. In our first collaboration with Pei Pei the Monkey King, we overcame most of the linguistic absences in the English language through Henry’s linguistic invention but had our first taste of incommunicability due to cultural difference.

My latest manuscript, Prelapsarian Bloom, was where I encountered a deep linguistic helplessness, and coincidentally, it was also the point from which the idea of medium-pure poetry officially took off. Henry and I worked on translating the manuscript in Vermont during my second residency there as a translation fellow. The poems are image- and feeling-driven and trance-like. To convey them, I needed words to comply by appearing in unconventional arrangements. In short, I had to re-invent the language within itself. It already takes a Chinese reader two times to read and arrive at the image or feeling, so it’s not hard to imagine how difficult it is to even translate this, doubling the linguistic absences. We saw how “Chinese sentiments” in the reinvented translation can be totally dismissed because of their incomprehensibility to an English reader. That was partly why medium-pure poetry took off—to capture the untranslatable by translating something else beyond the words. Translation is matching ideas in two different languages, and for a person growing up in music, language did not exist only in the words. Searching for and digging out visual and ambient “wordless words” to give physical shape to my poems drove me to fly a kite at night with a poem dedicated to the heavens stitched in it and an LED light attached, and to leave a salt block with a poem at the edge of the sea. I translate the untranslatable through presenting a medium-pure experience. The understanding is not linguistic as a traditional translation, but perceptual and sensational from being present inside an artwork of poetry.

HENRY:  I think of translation as the cost that language learned to bear. That’s the Babel lesson: strive to reach God as a unified people, only to be split asunder. Or the asymptotic curve: that the infinitesimal proximity of one line with another is like an illusion, a unity that will never arrive. I was always intrigued by Walter Benjamin’s gesture at a “pure language,” in which we don’t translate a meaning horizontally from A to B, but rather go vertically below the surface of A to some universal pool of pre-societal language, which then allows us to swim toward B and pierce the surface coming back up. I think all true writing does this to some extent (but see my reservations, below, about the “universal”). And I’ve been wondering if the law might operate in a similar way as well, not as the resolution of a horizontal dispute between A and B, but a brief submersion into what’s elemental, into what fundamentally undergirds both of them.

You have both lived in and created in multiple countries and cities. How do cities and their languages, and your own ways of being in them, affect your artistic processes and final outcomes?

WAWA:  I was born and raised in Hong Kong bilingually. I learned French through my studies in philosophy, which ended up with a master’s in the Netherlands. A large part of my first marriage was in Germany where I was exposed to German, and now I’ve moved to America for my second marriage. The diversity of cultures and languages I encounter only consolidates my faith in the unity of man. In front of differences, I only see sameness. When it comes to what my comfort food is and what makes me feel at home, I know that I’m just a person made in Hong Kong like anyone else there. Prelapsarian Bloom is obviously written in Chinese aesthetics, but dipped in an uncategorized experimentality that makes the Chinese usage in the poems not at all familiarly Chinese. However, culturally and colonially, I doubt if Hong Kong readers can appreciate the poems; and linguistically, I doubt if American readers can understand the poems. So medium-pure poetry is where I am now, with my body in America and my mind in Hong Kong, to convey my highest beauty beyond the boundary of both.

HENRY:  I’m still enamored of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that our world is closed off and circumscribed by whatever language(s) are available to us in our naming of that world. I still think the research I undertook for my Fulbright year in Hong Kong is viable—I just never finished it because my attention was redirected by the protests. The idea was this: maybe (1) there is no universal narrative, contrary to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and Hollywood’s assimilation of that notion. Maybe (2) there are only cultural narratives instead, meaning every culture tells different stories not just in content but in fundamental structure. And maybe (3) that’s not a cultural and structural difference, but a linguistic and grammatical difference. Lastly, maybe (4) increasingly polyglot cities like Hong Kong, which I count to have at least five Chineses and at least three Englishes in common currency, have the possibility of fundamentally re-making this world in a way that is now much needed. So, again: how is the material world steered by the grasp we choose to take on our language? This question has directed all the work I’ve done and will go on to do.