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Chinese poet jailed six times tells tale to Queens crowd

In the basement level of the Fresh Meadows Barnes & Noble Monday, a Chinese poet jailed six times for his work kneeled on the ground, raising his arms to the fluorescent-lit ceiling.

Reciting the world-famous poetry that has led him to be labeled China’s Walt Whitman, Huang Xiang spoke before an audience of Queens poets of being imprisoned so he could not participate in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and being viciously beaten in jail.

“This poem was written in the jail cell during Tiananmen Square,” Xiang said through a translator, poet Susan Xia Yang of Fresh Meadows. “The government was afraid of my poetry.”

Xiang, 68, was the featured poet at the open mic poetry reading at the Barnes & Noble in Fresh Meadows. The monthly reading, held every second Monday except for December, is run by Yang, who is also originally from China.

Both Xiang and Yang were born in the rural Hunan Province and became artists at the expense of their safety and well-being. Xiang’s poetry, much of which advocates personal freedom and artistic expression, has been banned in China. Xiang, who grew up in Guizhou Province, said he loves his country but had to flee China for the United States in 1997.

“If he hadn’t left, he would’ve been sentenced to another 15 years,” Yang said.

First living in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Xiang moved to Flushing last year. He continues to write his poetry and hopes there will be a time when he can return to the place he loves.

“I have a great gratitude to the soil and sky of my homeland,” Xiang said through Yang. “But I refused the dictatorship of the culture.”

Xiang had the rapt attention of the approximate 20 people in the audience Monday night as he read from his book, “A Lifetime Is a Promise to Keep,” one of two tomes of his poetry that have been translated into English. His poetry has been translated into a wide range of languages, including Japanese, German and French.

A number of other poets from throughout the borough shared their work during the hour-and-a-half-long open mic night as well, including Jamaica resident Bob Trabold, who runs a poetry workshop at the Fresh Meadows Barnes & Noble every third Monday of the month.

“Twenty years ago today the fall of the Berlin Wall took us by surprise,” Yang told the audience before Xiang performed his poetry. “The gate was opened, the wall was crushed. We thought that day would never come, but it was here.”

Yang, who was at the Tiananmen Square uprising, said she and Xiang said poets and other free-thinkers will not be welcome in China until communism falls “like the Berlin Wall.”

Before reading from her poetry collection, “Midnight Awe,” Yang also described her recollection of the Cultural Revolution in China, during which several of her family members were executed.

“My family was persecuted because my great-grandmother’s family was very wealthy,” said Yang, who is pursuing an MFA at Queens College. “My mother became an orphan because her father hung himself to avoid execution.”

The next open mic poetry night will be held Jan. 11 at 7:30 p.m. For more information, contact Yang at susanthewinner@gmail.com or call 718-454-6868.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

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