Last Monday I had the opportunity to participate in our new National Book Festival Presents virtual programming. As we cancelled or rescheduled our in-person programs in March, we quickly shifted to an online format. Our first National Book Festival Presents virtual programs focused on the pandemic, but this June we turned the focus to programs on “Connecting the World With Words.”
Tonight we will air a new National Book Festival Presents program, “Ha Jin on the Legendary Li Bai,” at 7 PM EST on the Library’s Facebook page and YouTube site. (If you can’t tune in tonight, the event will be available to watch later on Facebook, YouTube, and on the Library of Congress website.) And, as the event moderator, that’s how I found myself in my home office in Brooklyn, NY, staring at my webcam while talking to famed poet and writer Ha Jin in Boston, MA. I had only done one virtual interview, with Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, last month, and so I was a bit nervous. Plus, truth be told I didn’t know much about Li Bai other than his standing as one of China’s—and the world’s—greatest poets, and his influence on 20th Century American poetry.
Luckily, I had Jin’s new and absorbing account of Li Bai’s life to work with—The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai. At the suggestion of Literary Director Marie Arana, I began my interview in the beginning—with Bai’s origins and upbringing—and went through the poet’s extraordinary life. Much of our discussion focused on what Jin called Li Bai’s desire to be part of “two worlds—the top political circle and the religious order,” as well as Jin’s assertion that nothing mattered more to the 8th Century poet than his own sense of belonging.
I’ll leave the rest for you to discover—but let me say that Ha Jin was a joy to talk to. I hope our viewers not only enjoy our conversation, but take the opportunity to learn more about Li Bai and his poetry. On that point, I want to highlight one item the Library has online: a collection of Selected Li Bai and Du Fu poems from 1694, from the Asian Division’s Chinese Rare Book digital collection. Check it out, and you might find yourself doing more research on Li Bai in our collections or clicking on more items featured in this one—and who knows where that might lead you!