Interview w/ Damian Robin

By Carol Smallwood & Damian Robin

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Damian Robin

You worked as web editor and reporter on UK events for The Epoch Times, English edition, and worked with the White Cloud Poetry Society. Please tell readers about your additional background.

Reporting for The Epoch Times was good grounding for writing about news and current events: fact checking, strong sources for quotes and information, a balanced view, simple sentences, transparency. Truth was and is paramount to its work.

For White Cloud Poetry Society, Jennifer Zeng translates poems of Xi Yuan into clear English, keeping close to the original and kindly gives me a character-for-word check. I finish the poems into rhymed and metered English, focusing on the original structure, characters per line, rhyme, and the features that Jennifer brings out. Xi Yuan is outstanding in her evocation of traditional Chinese poetry. She applies herself to landscape, subtle expression of mood, and connection of humans to the divine.

You are on the advisory board of the Society of Classical Poets. What are some of your duties?

I enjoy keeping in touch with Evan Mantyk, founder and president, and other advisors. I pass material about poetry from the news to Kristina Pentchoukov for the Facebook page. SCP is a great site with new and established poets. There are translations from many languages; essays and reviews on dead and living poets; forms you can use are explained; and there are comments of great insight and knowledge. Comments often contain poems of great quality. SCP has an annual journal. Under Evan Mantyk’s direction, it is developing into a strong resource for poetry readers and writers. 

Where did you get the facts about the topic of forced removed of human organs from prisoners of conscience in China for your poetry chapbook, Organ Harvest?

My main source is End Transplant Abuse in China; there is information on the work of Ethan Gutmann, David Kilgour, and David Matas (all nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize for this work). Another source is Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, also nominated for the Prize. And, of course, The Epoch Times which is a major source of information on China and its global activities.

How did you decide to use many of the elements of classical poetry, such as meter and rhyme, in writing your chapbook?

In China, speeches about transplants by authorities, casual writing in in-house medical periodicals, information clumsily hidden in caches and picked up by researchers, and reports from institutions contradict each other. However, there is a lot of overlap in anecdotal stories. See an update, a long document but, even if you jump in at random, the facts are startling.

To make sense of this secretive industry, I’ve used well-known and accessible structures of traditional European verse: set rhyme and meter and repeated stanza schemes. Western and Eastern traditional poetry forms are moral at their core and linked with the divine. Their consistency contrasts with the beliefs espoused by the regime in China that oversees transplants in all hospitals.

The meter is predominantly the familiar iambic pentameter.

One poem has stanzas of three lines of three, five, and seven syllables with the same rhyme. It is like some Japanese verse. To ghost the forced extraction of organs, this scheme is followed rigidly, even breaking words to force the count and rhyme.

A review by James Sale, noted your chapbook, reads, “a condensed and extremely powerful collection of poems” and includes sonnets from the chapbook. Why did you select the sonnet form?

The sonnet is known to many people. It has been the vehicle for great beauty, emotional depth, and verbal richness. Rhythm, rhyme, and stanzas that are self-contained move the argument, idea, or story to completeness. The choice sets people on familiar ground when the source material of organ transplants in China is confusing and ugly.

I have played with inversions, parallels, and mirroring of rhyme and content in some sonnets. (Traditionalists will wince at this.)

Do you have another book in progress and what are some recent magazines in which you’ve appeared?

Recent poems are in The Pennsylvania Review; The Middle Land, a dual language magazine; blogs and websites including Jennifer Zeng’s; the Society of Classical Poets website and journal; and translations on White Cloud Poetry Society.

Books of sonnets on events and situations related to China, Chinese Cameos, will become available via my Fulton Verse imprint. The first has a section on plastination. Many plastinated bodies in exhibitions or sold as teaching aids were obtained from official Chinese sources, yet the details of identity and origin are not made clear. This is similar to the lack of transparency in organ transplants in China.

A book on The Fool, or Jester, in Western and Eastern patronage, is incubating. I have also begun a book on the Classical Chinese Dance phenomena Shen Yun.

How did your wife, the artist Katya Robin, help in getting the chapbook out?

My wife and I have groundings in typography, printing, and bookmaking. She has kept in touch with digital developments in these fields.

She brought her conceptual and technical experience to the development and production of Organ Harvest available here. We chose the format of a polemical chapbook, and used clean, restrained typography. The letter ‘a’ is printed red to evoke blood-drenched organs. The ‘st’ ligature and the & ampersand of the Baskerville typeface are used to infer surgical sutures.

The book is meant to handle nicely, to feel right in its size and weight and paper stiffness.

My wife’s artist’s books are held by the Met Library, Joan Flasch Collection, Yale Center for British Art, The Floating Library MN, Chelsea School of Art Library, and in the UK: TATE, amongst other collections.

What advice can you give others considering self-publishing or setting up their own publishing house?

We set up Fulton Verse to play to our experience in traditional analogue typography and contemporary digital production methods. We wanted to control the presentation of my collections of poems.

We have just begun.

Carol Smallwood