The renowned American traveler, translator, and author Bill Porter, who goes by the pen name Red Pine, has partnered with Copper Canyon Press, a nonprofit publisher focusing on poetry, and Woody Creek Pictures, a film production company dedicated to improving the common good, to create a feature-length documentary film about his life and an anthology of his translations of ancient Chinese poetry. Both the film and the book are to be titled Dancing with the Dead. The collaboration is now raising funds to ensure the timely production.
Aiming for a total of US$80,000, fundraising has so far reached more than US$45,000. The project will be funded only if it reaches its full target by 1 June. The funds will be shared between the projects, with the film and book scheduled to be released in 2023.
Red Pine has written and translated more than 20 books in English and has published nine books in Chinese. His works, which have detailed the lives and teachings of Chinese mountain hermits and poets, has reached best-selling lists in China. Enjoying an eccentric life, Red Pine dropped out of graduate school at Columbia University, spent years at a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, worked in Hong Kong as a radio presenter, and traveled widely throughout China.
Like many of his era, Red Pine was influence by the Beat writers of the 1950s. When he was at Columbia, studying with famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, he read Alan Watts The Way of Zen (Vintage Books 1957), drawing his attention to the Chinese language, which he began studying.
“Chinese was hard,” Red Pine said in an interview in 2018. “I met a monk in Chinatown and he taught me how to meditate, and I started spending weekends with him at this retreat place. I realized this is what I wanted to do. It was much more interesting than studying. So I quit Columbia and went to Taiwan. A fellow grad student had the address of a Buddhist monastery. I studied Chinese, so I went there. I stayed at two different monasteries and studied philosophy at a Chinese university.” (Peninsula Daily News)
Red Pine has compared his encounters with Chinese poets with a dance, as he has sought to carefully translate the beauty of their words into English: “Every time I translate a book of poems, I learn a new way of dancing. The people with whom I dance, though, are the dead, not the recently departed, but people who have been dead a long time. A thousand years or so seems about right. And the music has to be Chinese. It’s the only music I’ve learned to dance to. . . .”
“For me,” added Red Pine, “this means a tango with Li Bai, a waltz with Wei Yingwu, a dance with the dead.” (Kickstarter)
The filmmakers—Ward Serrill and Rocky Friedman—will compile interviews, utilize animation, and draw from past footage of Beat poets and Chinese landscapes to illustrate the life and thought of Red Pine, who now calls the small town of Port Townsend, Washington, his home.
As part of the project, the filmmakers will work with the Port Townsend-based publisher Copper Canyon Press to release a new anthology of Red Pine’s best translations. The book will be part of the press’s “Essential Poems” series, which has previously published works from Buddhist practitioners W. S. Merwin and Jim Harrison. The press has also published works from Ursula K. Le Guin and Pablo Neruda.
Red Pine won the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters Thronton Wilder Prize for his translations in 2018. The prize recognized his significant contributions to the art of literary translation and included an award of US$20,000.
“The way I see my work is that I discovered these treasures in China and I wanted to introduce them to Westerners,” Red Pine explained at the time. “Getting this award is confirmation that, yes, I did do this. I’ll never get anything like this again. It isn’t as much money as a Guggenheim, but it’s the respect of your peers.” (Peninsula Daily News)
Red Pine: Dancing with the Dead (Kickstarter)
Port Townsend translator of Chinese poets wins national prize (Peninsula Daily News)
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