A Chance Encounter With Li Bai

(LI PO VIEWING A WATERFALL, by a Japanese artist, Korin (1661-1716)

On Saturday I drastically miscalculated my transit time from my mother's Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan to the MaLa Project Sichuan dry pot restaurant in the East Village. I was meeting an old friend for lunch, but I arrived 45 minutes early. How was I supposed to know that two consecutive subway trains would pull into the station at the exact moment I arrived at the platform?

Seeking to kill some time, I googled around to see if there were any funky bookstores nearby. Happily, just two blocks away I discovered Mast Books, an idiosyncratic shop specializing in used and rare volumes, organized according to an obscure cataloging system that was just opaque enough to be fascinating.

I didn't intend to buy anything, but it was a pleasant enough place to while away some minutes on a cold day. And then, floating alone in a sea of European and American poets, I spotted "The Works of Li Po" -- translated into English verse by Shigeyoshi Obata.

As readers of this newsletter may have already gathered, Li Po, aka Li Bai, is my favorite poet. And I'd seen this anthology praised before, although the spectacle of a Japanese writer translating from Chinese into English had always struck me as a little odd. First published in 1935, some Chinese poetry scholars consider it a watershed event in the introduction of Li Bai's to the wider world. So I retrieved it from the bookshelf and scanned the table of contents.

How could I not immediately turn to the poem "Chuang Chou and the Butterfly?" (Chuang Chou aka Zhuangzi.)

Chuang Chou in dream became a butterfly,

And the butterfly became Chuang Chou at waking.

Which was real -- the butterfly or the man?

Who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?

The water that flows into the depth of the distant sea

Returns anon to the shallows of a transparent stream.

The man, raising melons outside the green gate of the city,

Was once the Prince of the East Hill.

So must rank and riches vanish.

You know it, still you toil and toil, -- what for?

My own bookshelves don't lack for volumes of Li Bai's poetry, but compelled by an inexorable karmic force, I pulled out my wallet. The cashier raised her eyebrows.

"I shelved that just 20 minutes ago."

Of course you did. And if my first subway train had arrived just five minutes later, I'd most likely never have walked through your doors.

So, yeah, that's how it's going. I haven't had any spare time to devote to the newsletter the last few weeks, due to the combined forces of a trip to New York for Thanksgiving and a major deadline for a long feature for Wired that includes detours into ancient Indian philosophy, the history of word processing, and monkeys writing epics on typewriters. But I filed my first draft yesterday and I thought I would now take a moment to bring subscribers up to date.

As the anecdote above suggests, the universe is flashing me a big green light. I was very tentative about jumping into the newsletter (or Patreon-style crowdfunding) space because I honestly did not see much potential for meaningfully monetizing my eccentric niche interests via this format. But now that I've taken the plunge, I couldn't be happier. Writing purely to satisfy my own muse, for the 130-odd subscribers who have volunteered to subject themselves to my whims, has been liberating in a way I never expected. The strangest thing is that even since I started the newsletter I have remarkably found myself more able to focus on my commercial work. Previously I was trying to force the market to pay me to write what I want. That wasn't working. Now, I am perfectly willing to cater to what the market demands, because that pays the bills while I have my fun with Zhuangzi and chili peppers. Everyone wins.

Sometime in the New Year I will still probably turn on a very limited paywall. Right now, I expect that the paid-subscriber posts will most likely be similar to the one you are reading now, more insidery and personal. But the posts that require the most crafting and push my chosen narratives ahead furthest will likely stay free. The point here is to write and get read. If I can get some beer money out of the whole project, that'll be a nice bonus. Because then I can raise my mug to Li Bai.

(From "Three With The Moon And His Shadow" aka "Drinking With The Moon)

I sing, the wild moon wanders the sky.

I dance, my shadow goes tumbling about.

While we're awake, let us join in carousal;

Only sweet drunkenness shall ever part us.

Let us pledge a friendship no mortals know.

And often hail each other at evening

Far across the vast and vaporous space!

(P.S. The MaLa Project was great. Their fried chicken appetizer is a winner.)