PT’s ‘Red Pine’ reveals how he ‘dances’ with dead Chinese poets

By Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 7/3/24



Port Townsend’s Bill Porter, the world-renowned translator of ancient Chinese poetry who’s also known as “Red Pine,” was interviewed by Claudia Castro …

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PT’s ‘Red Pine’ reveals how he ‘dances’ with dead Chinese poets




Port Townsend’s Bill Porter, the world-renowned translator of ancient Chinese poetry who’s also known as “Red Pine,” was interviewed by Claudia Castro Luna, who served as poet laureate of Washington state from 2018 to 2021, following last month’s screening of the film “Dancing with the Dead: Red Pine and the Art of Translation.”

Filmmaker Ward Serrill and producer Rocky Friedman’s biopic of Porter received two screenings at the Wheeler Theater in Fort Worden June 15, whose post-screening presentations included not only conversations between Porter and Castro Luna, but also a Q&A session with Serrill and a performance by Spring Cheng, who created the film’s musical score.

Serrill noted that “Dancing with the Dead” had already been the subject of 30 screenings, and attributed its origins to his exploring poetry in the midst of the editing of his 2019 documentary “The Bowmakers,” which was also produced by Friedman.

Serrill had joked that “The Bowmakers” was an instance of “a hermit making a film about other hermits,” given the solitary craftsmanship of the bowmakers and his own youthful retreat to the remote villages of Alaska, before he acknowledged this was even more true of “Dancing with the Dead,” given its focus on Porter and his fellow Buddhist hermits in China.

Since “Dancing with the Dead” is concerned with ancient Chinese culture, Serrill noted how unlikely it was that he was introduced to Cheng, whose passion lies in composing the non-notated music that once accompanied such historic poems, through a chance meeting on Orcas Island.

Cheng recalled her father reading the works of 8th-century Chinese poet Li Bai to her when she was 8, adding that she only heard the words to such poems when she was growing up, which inspired her, in her adulthood, to search for the music to suit those poems.

Castro Luna pointed out to Porter that they both “move and live in two languages,” since just as Porter is an American who’s translated ancient Chinese poetry, Castro Luna came to America from El Salvador when she was 14.

Porter countered Castro Luna’s characterization of him having “mastered” the Chinese language by asserting that one “can never master language,” but can master translation, which he said he does by embracing the Buddhist process of “letting go.”

Porter declared that literal accuracy is impossible when translating poetry, so instead, once must accept that “the poem is not on the page; you have to find it,” which he conceded means that no one translation can ever be perfect.

Ironically, Porter believes the process of translation benefits because he is not a poet himself, but he sees himself as “dancing” with dead poets who have already produced the poems he’s translating, in much the same way that he knows he’s not a good dancer, but he’s capable of dancing with others.

Porter said he fell in love with translation because he found those dead poets to be “incredible dancers,” and he had no career goals, since after a misspent stint in the military and multiple academic pursuits failed to sustain his interest, “I had nothing better to do.”

When Castro Luna described Porter as being “in communion” with those poets, to share “the wisdom of long ago” with modern readers, Porter agreed. “I guess so,” he said, since he sees such a vocation as aligning with the Buddhist objective of helping others.

“I’m not interested in translating the works of living people, though,” Porter laughed. “They might complain.”

When Castro Luna observed that Porter had not translated any works by women writers, he lamented “how hard it was for women in the past” to make significant or lasting literary contributions in ancient Chinese culture. They faced discrimination that included the intentional destruction of their works.

Nonetheless, Porter touted how “women have become a real force” in such literary traditions in more recent years, as he lauded a number Buddhist nunneries for being “more successful” in producing poetry than a number of Buddhist monasteries. In certain cases that is because the enduring sexism of Chinese culture means that daughters becoming Buddhist nuns can yield cost savings for their families, he said.

Porter accounted for his affinity for the Buddhist lifestyle by citing how he was already inclined to “leave everything at the door” before he ever entered a monastery, since he’s been content working in bakeries, or waiting tables, where he can meet new people, even as the modest incomes from his chosen pursuits left him in debt for much of his life.

The next screening of “Dancing with the Dead” is Sunday, Aug. 25, at 6:30 p.m. at 4569 Lynwood Center Road NE on Bainbridge Island.