Vancouver poet Kevin Spenst is interested in multilingualism for a number of reasons. With his Mennonite family background, he grew up hearing German and some Russian. Then as an English-as-an-additional language teacher in Taiwan, he was exposed to Mandarin and Taiwanese.
In more recent years, he’s worked with Laifong Leung, a retired University of Alberta professor of Chinese literature, who’s translated some of Spenst’s poems into Chinese.
“There are so many different languages that you hear in the city,” Spenst tells Pancouver over Zoom. “I am trying, in my poetry, to open up more spaces for different idioms. There’s poetry at the root of every language and it’s exciting to allow that to come into play.”
On Sunday (October 8), Spenst will join many other poets at a free multilingual event— Autumn Verses: the 13th Chinese-English Poetry Recital—at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. There, the public can hear poems by Spenst and three other writers—Bong-Ja Ahn, Joanne Arnott, and Andrew Parkin—which will then be translated into Chinese.
When asked how he feels about his poetry being translated into Chinese, Spenst replies: “It’s fabulous.”
The event will also feature the following poets from the Chinese Canadian Writers’ Association: William Chan, Wahying Chan, Lifen Chen, Aaron Han, Han Mu, Dongdong Huang, Jiazhuang Shen, Wenqin Wang, Yilin Wang, and Bill Zeng. Translation will be provided by Micao Cah, Shoufang Hu-Moore, Leung, Tommy Tao, Yilin Wang, and Zeng. In addition, musicians Diana Tong and Evan Luo will present a guqin performance.
Spenst, a Pushcart Prize nominee, is the author of three poetry books, including Ignite.
“It was largely a poetic biography of my father,” he says. “He was born in Winnipeg. He came to B.C. when he was a teenager, and then he suffered mental-health issues.”
Spenst loves creating chapbooks
While Spenst was doing his master’s in fine arts in creative writing at UBC, his thesis adviser helped him gain access to his dad’s medical records from Riverview Hospital.
“So, I was able to find out a lot about a man who I didn’t know that much about,” Spenst relates. “He passed away when I was 20 and we didn’t really get to have many conversations.”
Leung translated one of these poems, which Spenst later reworked visually in Ignite, which was published in 2015. This spring, Anvil Press will publish Spenst’s fourth collection of poems.
He also offers an online poetry class through the SFU Writer’s Studio and has appeared at previous Chinese-English Poetry Recitals.
In addition, Spenst has had about 15 chapbooks of poetry published over the years. He describes a chapbook as a “really thin volume of poetry”.
“Chapbooks go back to the 1700s—they were political or religious tracts that were sold by young men—chaps—or maybe they were cheap,” Spenst says. “The etymology is uncertain but in the 20th century, poets started publishing these really small collections.”
In the coming month, Spenst plans on releasing another chapbook, this time with the help of ChatGPT. He wrote poems and then asked the AI-powered language tool to write poems that don’t rhyme in response to his works.
“It’s a fool’s errand, of course,” Spenst says with a smile, “but I’m trying to make the most of it.”
Below is one of Spenst’s poems from Ignite, followed by Leung’s Chinese-language translation.
He tears up into a creature she doesn’t understand.
Her ten-year-old is desperate over some duckling of a girl.
Too young for “unrequited” but in need of language to balm.
No room for a yawn in her open mouth even at the end
of this glinting day at the jewelry counter at K-Mart
where she’s had to fend off a schizophrenic husband
who hunches in like a specter around the corner of her lunch break
to test the grounds of the restraining order.
Her brothers were hit upside the head to set up sense inside
and they didn’t cry, but whatever she says,
she says slowly waiting for security to come from somewhere
as her boy blubbers for a Somebody-Ann.
（Translated by Laifong Leung 梁麗芳翻譯）
The Chinese Canadian Writers’ Association presents Autumn Verses: the 13th Chinese-English Poetry Recital at 2 p.m. on Sunday (Octobr 8) at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.