PORT TOWNSEND — “I met a monk in Chinatown and he taught me how to meditate …”
This isn’t the first line of a novel, but it pretty much reflects the foundation of Bill Porter’s unexpected life of good fortune.
Porter, 74, a translator of Chinese poetry and author, has been awarded the American Academy of Arts & Letters Thornton Wilder Prize for translation. He writes under the name Red Pine (Chi Song) and has lived in Port Townsend since the late 1980s.
He’ll pick up the $20,000 prize next month in New York. It is given to a practitioner, scholar or patron who has made a significant contribution to the art of literary translation.
Porter is looking forward to the trip, during which he plans to give a talk at the China Institute and visit old friends.
“The way I see my work,” Porter explained, “is that I discovered these treasures in China and I wanted to introduce them to westerners. 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.”
The award comes at a good time because Porter told both of his publishers that he’s done.
“I don’t want to write any more books. I definitely will never, ever write another book under contract. I have 20 books in English and nine in Chinese. I’ve written 18 of the English ones under contract. I want to stop that.”
The Thornton Wilder award was unexpected. Porter suspected something was happening back in December when he got an email from his publisher, Counterpoint Press in the Bay area.
“They said Robert Haas would like your contact information. Hass is a former U.S. poet laureate. I thought he wanted to talk about one of my books. I heard nothing back.
“A month or two later I got an email from my other publisher, Copper Canyon Press, saying Bob Hass wanted my contact information.”
“I thought, ‘that’s weird … sure.’ So, obviously he was assigned by the arts and letters people to get my info so they could contact me. They already made the award internally, but wanted to get in touch with me.”
Porter learned he received the award through an email.
“It’s just an email. I wished I had gotten a real letter. It looks like a letter, but it is a little chintzy.”
It seems most everything in Porter’s life has been the result of a series of good connections.
He wanted to study anthropology with Margaret Mead at Columbia and applied for financial aid.
“I noticed there was a language fellowship funded by the defense department for those who wanted to study a rare language. I had just read a book by Alan Watts called ‘The Way of Zen.’ It made wonderful sense to me and it had some Chinese characters in it. So I wrote in Chinese on a whim. They gave me a four-year fellowship to study anthropology and Chinese. Chinese was hard.
“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 to. 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.”
Porter worked as a journalist at the English language International Community Radio Taipei, a nonprofit station. He was heard by more than two million listeners every day.
He also worked at the first private radio station in Hong Kong.
“They hired me to do two pieces of fluff every 30 minutes. I did the Silk Road, featuring all the hill tribes in the southwest. I gave them 100 pieces of fluff in a two-year period.”
Those pieces inspired his book “The Silk Road: Taking the Bus to Pakistan,” published in 2016.
“My last book pushed me over the edge, the one Copper Canyon published,” he said. “In ‘Finding Them Gone: Visiting China’s Poets of the Past,’ I visit the graves of all the great poets and pour whiskey over them.
“In fact, it was such a hit in China that they are making a five-part documentary film about the book,” he added.
“They asked me to go there this summer to be in charge of one of the five sections, the one dealing with the poet Wang Wei. He was one of the great poets of the Tang dynasty. He wrote lovely poetry, the kind of poetry that’s not too ornate.
“Wang Wei lived in the mountains and practiced meditation. Everyone loves him. He was a deputy prime minister. I tried to visit his place in the mountains, but now they’ve been making ballistic missile warheads there for the last 30 years.
“We won’t be able to film there, obviously.”
There doesn’t seem to be an end to Bill Porter’s good luck.
“In China, there is a popular program on TV, like our Sex and the City. It’s the most watched program for people aged 20-40. Last May, the male lead told his girlfriend that she had to start learning more about Chinese culture and she should start with Bill Porter’s books. Fifteen hundred million people watch this program. Boom. I’ve been getting royalties from China ever since.”
With the Wilder award, he plans to buy a new car.
Fittingly, it is an Escape.
Jefferson County Editor Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at jmcmacken#peninsuladailynews.com.