An Interview with WILLIAM MARR

by

Alan Harris, President of the Illinois State Poetry Society

 

JANUARY 2002

 

(H--Harris; M--Marr)

 

 

H:  Where were you born and raised?  Were you raised in a literary family?  When did

you come to the USA?

 

M:  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.

 

 

H:  How did you first become interested in writing poetry?  What was your age and

what were the circumstances?

 

M:  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.

 

 

H:  Through what chain of events did you become a popular poet in China?

 

M:  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 though 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.

 

 

H:  Did learning the English language hamper your fluency with writing poems in

Chinese?

 

M:  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.

 

 

H:  Do you think that having several of your poems posted on your Web site has helped

your popularity?

 

M:  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.

 

 

H:   What has your occupation been?  Has your career in the USA had any effect on

your poetry writing?  If so, what effect(s)?

 

M:  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.

 

 

H:  Why do you think you write mostly very short poems?

 

M:  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.

 

 

H:   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?

 

M:  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.

 

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.

 

 

English version of this interview appeared in ISPS NEWS, January 2002

Chinese translation appeared in Literary News, January 2002 (Taipei, Taiwan)