‘Dancing with the Dead’ screening, Q&A with Porter by Castro Luna

By Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 6/12/24



The film “Dancing with the Dead: Red Pine and the Art of Translation” returns to Port Townsend for two screenings only, at 2 and 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 15, at …

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‘Dancing with the Dead’ screening, Q&A with Porter by Castro Luna




The film “Dancing with the Dead: Red Pine and the Art of Translation” returns to Port Townsend for two screenings only, at 2 and 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 15, at the Wheeler Theater in Fort Worden.

It will do that on a 4K projector with 5.1 audio, a rare experience these days.

Filmmaker Ward Serrill and producer Rocky Friedman’s biopic of Port Townsend’s own Bill Porter, a.k.a. Red Pine, a world-renowned translator of ancient Chinese poetry, previously screened at the Rose Theatre last October, and was reviewed in The Leader last November.

While last year’s screening was followed by a question-and-answer session including Serrill, Friedman, Porter and Spring Cheng, who created the film’s musical score, the June 15 event’s post-screening presentations are set to include not only a Q&A session with Serrill and a musical performance by Cheng, but also a conversation with Porter moderated by Claudia Castro Luna, who served as poet laureate of Washington state from 2018 to 2021.

“If you’re an Indie filmmaker these days, getting into theaters, even local ones, is more and more difficult,” Serrill said. “We’ve got a rich river of material here, so let’s build special cultural and literary events around this film, by bringing in other literary and cultural perspectives,” from Castro Luna and Cheng.

Cheng not only comes from the culture that Porter immersed himself in, but 14 of her family members from China will be in the audience June 15, having arrived to attend her mother’s 80th birthday.

During the film’s previous Port Townsend screening, Cheng recalled the “collective trauma” of growing up in China during its “cultural revolution,” which she saw as a desecration of Chinese culture.

Even with the scarcity of food at the time, Cheng saved up lunch money as a little girl to buy books of poetry, which had been made rare and expensive.

“I gobbled them down like food,” Cheng said.

As election year rhetoric heats up in America, Cheng observed that “there's a lot of tension between the U.S. and China, politically, with misconceptions and othering between the cultures.”

Cheng sees this screening as a hopeful opportunity for the two cultures to come together and “work toward something that's meaningful, beautiful and life-giving, rather than war-drumming.”

Castro Luna brandished Porter’s first book of translations as she spoke with The Leader, recalling how she bought it close to a decade ago, at the Skagit River Poetry Festival.

“Any type of creative work is an effort at translating,” Castro Luna said. “Writing is an act of translation, because the more efficient we become as writers, the closer we’re able to get to that thing which we’re trying to express.”

Castro Luna spoke glowingly about having “gotten lost” in Porter’s translations. She said she remains curious about how much of himself Porter has brought to his translations, as a Westerner who traveled extensively through China over the decades, including visiting the homes of the country’s hermit poets.

“I was 14 years old when I came to the U.S.,” Castro Luna said. “My family escaped the civil war in El Salvador. I’ve written a lot about that experience, of war and displacement, but also, just being an immigrant in a new place. Home, and place, is at the center of all of my writing, but this is something that doesn't show up in (Porter’s) writing, because he's translating ideas of other people. I want to ask, what is the meaning of home for him?”

Whatever Porter’s sense of “home” might be, it can’t help but inform his approach to translation, as he bridges the cultural gaps between ancient Chinese writers and modern American readers, Castro Luna said.

Serrill pointed out the irony of asking Porter, “a devout Buddhist practitioner,” to elaborate on his individual perspective, and noted that it only occurred to him to contact Castro Luna for this event after he saw that she would be taking part in a Centrum writers’ program in July.

“You must empty yourself, when you translate, to be a vessel for the person or the material you're translating, but it’s still coming through your body,” Castro Luna said. “It is inescapable, so traces of yourself are left in those poems. You are the living body that’s enacting this old truth.”

Serrill touted Cheng as adding her own ancient truths to Porter’s translations in the film, by composing music that had historically accompanied such poems, but was never written down, while Porter had previously offered a tongue-in-cheek assertion that alcohol is required to compose those non-notated songs.

The June 15 screening is also set to be followed by a book-signing by Porter, along with a co-presentation between Centrum, KPTZ 91.9 FM, Copper Canyon Press and the Port Townsend Film Festival. For more information, visit centrum.org.