Chinese-German-American Love Song

A few African-American kids with dreadlocks and sneakers. Two middle-aged Chinese academics. A bearded American professor of literature. A German mother and her son, who is wearing a Chinese silk jacket. When they arrive, the members of this gathering in the basement of the Shaw Library don’t seem to have much in common – except for the fact that they have come to hear a recital of German, Chinese and American poems.

But when they leave, something has changed. Poetry, like no other medium, speaks directly to the universality of the human condition. That is, if you are able to bridge the language gap – which is what this tri-cultural experiment successfully accomplishes.

For the organizers of the German Goethe Institute, this wild mix of cultures makes perfect sense. The German culture center is located in Chinatown, and Chinatown is wedged in between some of the most vibrant black neighborhoods of Washington, DC. Together with its partners, the Chinatown Community Cultural Center and the Confucius Institute at George Mason University, the Goethe Institute is entering the fourth season of its “Time Shadows” poetry project. In 2012, the organizers have carried the project out of the Goethe Institute into DC’s public libraries.

This year’s theme is the relationship between poetry and music. The German poem by Brigitte Struzyk is written in the tradition of medieval farewell songs. The Taiwanese poet Xi Murong follows a pattern from the Song dynasty while her mainland colleague Liao Weitang has dedicated his poem to the Beatles and their song “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Their works are being read in the original and in translation.

Fred Joiner is the only poet who is present to read his own words. He is a local artist from DC, and his works are more than mere references to music. Not only is he accompanied by Casey Danielson’s acoustic guitar. His words conjure up the sound of Ella Fitzgerald’s deep, sad voice, of an uncle’s saxophone and of the car alarms of Anacostia.

The ensuing discussion is a vivid display of cross-cultural curiosity. On the expert panel, Joiner enquires about the grammatical difficulties in the translation of the German poem. An African-American man in the audience stands up and asks the representative from the Confucius Institute: “Why do Chinese poems sound so sad?” And the young German man in the Chinese silk jacket wants his picture taken with Fred Joiner. It is a touching moment in which three otherwise separate worlds catch a glimpse of one another.

Curious? Check the calendar of the Goethe Institute for future sessions.

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