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Meet the author: Bill Porter

We are excited to meet Bill Porter who will speak at The Bookworm on October 28th about his recently published book
“There are very few westerners who could successfully cover so much territory in China, but Porter pulls it off. Finding Them Gone uniquely draws upon his parallel careers as a translator and a travel writer in ways that his previous books have not. A lifetime devoted to understanding Chinese culture and spirituality blossoms within its pages to create something truly rare.”—The Los Angeles Book Review
The Bookworm asked Bill a couple of questions to help our readers better understand his work.
The Bw: Your passion for and understanding of Chinese poetry and its history really comes through in your latest book, Finding Them Gone. What was the research process for writing this book?
BP: First, I had to decide on a route and an itinerary to go with it whereby I could visit the graves and former homes of as many of China’s greatest poets of the past as efficiently as possible – I decided in advance that I would restrict myself to thirty days. That seems to be my travel limit.  The route I came up with was to begin with Confucius and then travel westward up the Yellow River as far as Xian, then cross the mountains to the south, then head eastward down the Yangtze, and end up at the grave of Han-shan, or Cold Mountain.  Once the route was set, I had to locate graves and former homes.  About half of these I already knew.  The internet supplied most of the other half.

The BW: Having dedicated almost a lifetime to the subject of the history of Chinese poetry, was it easy to write Finding Them Gone, or were there any difficulties?

BP: The only difficulty was in the scope.  I bit off an awful lot.  I came up with over 40 poets and didn’t want to shortchange any of them.  So I had to a lot more research than I had expected.  Also, finding the right poems to translate to represent each poet took some work.  But I was happy with the result.  The gods clearly smiled on my endeavor.

The BW : Could you tell us a little bit more about your journey to become a renowned Chinese translator?

BP:It started in a monastery in Taiwan where I lived for three years. One day the abbot gave me a copy of Han-shan’s poems he had published.  Along with the Chinese, he pirated Burton Watson’s English translations of 100 of Han-shan’s 300 poems.  Seeing how a translator worked inspired me to do the same.  Initially, I saw it as a way of improving my Chinese.  As time went on, though, I became enamored of the art of translation.

The BW: What would you consider to be the most challenging part of translating Chinese poetry?

BP: I would say patience.  Translations go through countless versions.  The challenge is being able to be open to redoing what one comes up with.  I never stop making changes until the publisher says it’s time to go to press.

The BW: What would you consider be the most memorable part of your career?

BP: The struggle. There’s no money in translation, especially the translation of poetry.  I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done without help.  I’ve had to put my house on the market twice because I couldn’t pay my bills.  And I couldn’t have survived in America without food stamps.  But money has always somehow appeared.  Not a lot, but enough so I could keep doing what I love to do.

The BW: You spent 22 years living in Asia. Do you see yourself going back to live in Asia again, considering your works are very popular in Mainland China?

BP: I like to travel in China. The history is so palpable.  And transportation now is so easy.  But I have a nice house in a small town and friends who come by often enough and a garden that keeps my wife occupied half the year, and I walk on the beach every day.  It would be hard to give all this up at this stage of my life.  I’m easily content.

The BW: Are you currently working on another book? If not, do you plan to write another book in the future?

BP: I’m thinking of writing a book about another pilgrimage I took last Fall.  I visited all the places where the poet Ezra Pound lived: his house in Philadelphia, the graves of his two best friends: Hilda Doolittle and William Carlos Williams, all the places he lived and hung out in London, Paris, Provence, and Italy, his grave in Venice, and spent a night drinking with his daughter at her castle in Northern Italy (she was 91 and had some really fine rye), and the insane asylum in Washington DC, where Ezra stayed for 12 years avoiding the hangman’s noose for supporting Mussolini.  I think there’s a book there.  But I’m getting increasingly lazy and spending more time with friends.  So who knows?  Twenty books in print, I think, might be enough.


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