96-year-old Madison poet recalls magical day in Beijing

Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei’s new memoir, “1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows,” has drawn rapturous reviews. Lenore McComas Coberly reflects back on meeting the author's famous poet father.
Ai Qing And Lenore Mccomas Coberly In Beijing 1982 in a black and white photo seated next to each other in his apartment, both looking at the camera
Courtesy of Lenore McComas Coberly.
Ai Qing and Lenore McComas Coberly met in Beijing in 1982.

Thinking back on what she considered a “life-changing” few hours spent interviewing the revered Chinese poet Ai Qing, Lenore McComas Coberly recalls that even the translator was nervous.

It was worse than that. This was Beijing, 1982. The translator’s name was Wu Ling.

“In the car she told me she had at first refused to go with me because she was afraid to meet such a great man,” Coberly wrote later. “She considered Ai Qing to be China’s greatest living poet and knew several of his poems by heart.”

Once they were seated in Ai Qing’s apartment in southeast Beijing, Wu Ling “appeared to have forgotten Chinese as well as English.”

What do you do when the translator goes silent?

Ai Qing smoked a cigarette.

Coberly opened her notebook.

Wu Ling, happily, recovered her considerable language skills.

Across the next three hours, Coberly — a Madison writer and part of a group touring China — talked poetry and more with the “bear-like man” who “deserves to be called China’s poet laureate,” in the words of the Christian Science Monitor a year after Coberly’s visit.

“We had a wonderful time,” Coberly told me last week. “We had so much in common. We had the same ideas about poetry and wrote the same way — his much better than mine, of course.”

Coberly continued: “China puts a great deal more importance on poetry than we do. It’s like their national form of literature and has been for centuries.”

RELATED: Lenore McComas Coberly has lived a storied life

At one point during her visit, Ai Qing showed Coberly a photo of “a young man with a broad smiling face.” It was Ai Qing’s son, Ai Weiwei, then studying art and computers at the University of California, Berkeley.

This month, that son — now 64 and himself a celebrated artist and activist — published a memoir, much of it focused on his father. Ai Weiwei’s “1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows” has drawn rapturous reviews from the New York Times and National Public Radio and, according to the Wall Street Journal, it is being translated into 18 languages and published in more than 20 countries.

Father and son shared both an artistic gift and a willingness to defy Chinese authority.

A recent Art News review of the new memoir notes that Ai Qing was imprisoned decades apart by both anti-communist and communist regimes: “[The poet] was imprisoned for ‘causing a public disturbance through Communist Party activities’ in the 1930s and exiled to remote work camps by the Communists during a purge of government critics in the late 1950s.”

Ai Weiwei — whose activist art includes photography, documentary films, sculpture and blogs (he has 600,000 Instagram followers) — spent 81 days in Chinese state custody in 2011 for “inciting the subversion of state power.”

“It was brave of him to write the memoir,” Coberly says of Ai Weiwei, who is now in exile from China.

Some readers may recognize Coberly’s name. I’ve written about her before, most recently a year ago when her childhood friend, the legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager, died.

Coberly — who is 96 and still writing — told some stories about Yeager in her most recent book, “From the West Virginia Hills.” That volume also includes a warm and admiring chapter on the time Coberly spent with Ai Qing in Beijing.

In 1982, Coberly was in China with a group of chemical engineers — her late husband, Camden Coberly, was associate dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. A few years earlier they’d toured China with a UW–Madison delegation led by Chancellor Irving Shain, who established student exchanges and otherwise advanced academic ties between the U.S. and China.

On the earlier trip, Coberly made a friend — she refers to him as Mr. Su — who in 1982 was the conduit for her audience with Ai Qing.

“I’ve arranged for you to meet the great man,” he told her.

Coberly’s passion for poetry flowered in the 1970s when she took David Gitin’s modern American poetry class at UW–Madison three times.

With Ai Qing in Beijing, Coberly mentioned the excitement that comes with seeing a poem published.

“Yes, yes,” Ai Qing said, leaning forward. “Poets who say they don’t care whether they are published are lying. Or they don’t understand that poetry is communication.”

Ai Qing died in 1996. His wife, Gao Ying — whom Coberly also met that day of the interview — survives him, as, of course, does Ai Weiwei.

Coberly wrote me recently: “The editor of the Princeton University Press, which published some [books] by Ai Weiwei, called me and said they would get my book to him if they could.”

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