Hadaa Sendoo, a Mongolian poet of the 21st century
You are living in Mongolia and are an internationally well-known poet. When did you start writing? Could you tell us something about the reason and circumstances that let you start to write poems?
When I started writing poetry, it was the end of the 20th century. I was in the grassland when I was young, and I had the idea of being a writer. But life and fate made me become a poet.
The international poetry circle defines me as a professional poet, but I don't think poets who write poems form a special profession. “Professional poet” - this term is easily reminiscent of “professional teachers” and “professional players.” I feel that Hermann Hesse puts it very well: the poet who has become a poet is a poet.
I am proud for I was born in a good family, in Inner Mongolia, where the land at the Ergun River – also known as Ergune* (Mongolian: Эргүнэ мөрөн, Ergune murun) – was the cradle of the Mongolian national ancestors. The beautiful Shiliin Gol grassland, also known as Xilingol, is my hometown. In particular, I am gratified that the traditional Mongolian script (with its vertical “letters”), which is the "root" of Mongolian culture, is still used in Inner Mongolia, in Huhnuur (Qinghai) and in Mongolian regions of Xinjiang.
As to this question why I write poetry – this is like asking a painter, why do you paint? Or asking a musician: Why do you play music? These questions are very similarly. Maybe writing poetry doesn't need a reason; it comes from inspiration and the call of nature and spirit. I think that the poet is the son of heaven and earth.
Poetry not in a body of works. Poetry is in the spirit and soul, and it belongs to the world of all things.
* Ergune appeared first in The Secret History of the Mongols.
Is it usual in Mongolia, like in some other countries, that pupils or students can publish their first written poems in a School Newspaper, special editions for High School? If not, where do youngsters publish their first poems? When did you write your first poems?
Yes, over here, students can publish their first poem in school newspapers and special issues.
Young people also can submit poetry to literary newspapers and magazines at any time. In Mongolia, people are very fond of reading poetry. Some people on a trip or vacation very likely take along a book to read while they are away, and this book may be a poetry volume. There is an occurrence I witnessed in the 90s of the last century that I still remember. On a bus in Ulaanbaatar, I saw a girl reading a book very quietly, and I found out that she was reading a collection of poems. This, in itself, is related to the optimistic and deep character of the nomadic nation.
I think that my first poem was written in the early 80s of the last century. At the time, I was already in my twenties, so the starting point of my poetry was already fairly late.
Are there Writers Schools in Mongolia? Like in some other countries? How does a poet from Mongolia get into poetry?
As in some other countries, there are Writers schools in Mongolia. But for Mongolian poets, nature (the huh Tenger / the blue sky, its primordial force power) is the best school. In addition, until the early 1990s, there were still some Mongolian writers and poets who came to the Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow, where they studied.
For poetry, Mongolian poets seem to have an innate talent. Perhaps you can hardly imagine how a Mongolian poet can recite a long poem in one breath, even more than a few hundred lines of poetry, and perhaps he or she has never been to any Writers school. There was a late poet, my friend Uyanga, who one morning came knocking at the door and he said that he would read a new poem to me. He didn't drink water, so I poured him a half cup of vodka. He sat down and began to recite his poem: from that window ...
He recited the poem and I was paying attention to it. But the poem is very long, with long sentences, with sensations full of melancholy, and suddenly I was touched by his eyes and the rhythm. Mongolian folk songs and Ancient Mongolian epics made Mongolian poets most close to nature and spirits, which is the door for their poetry.
I'd rather believe that it is definitely not possible that one can produce a great poet or a great writer in a writers school.
You travel a lot. Many times you are invited for poetry festivals. In what places have you been the last two years? Is there something special you like about these festivals?
Yes, I like to travel because it always brings me fresh feelings and surprises. Every time I was to a country, I could feel the customs and culture of that nation. Every time I touch them with my heart, it will bring about friendly feelings. I think the biggest benefit of travel is to reduce the prejudice in our hearts and clean up the garbage that is piled up in the mountains. Every time I arrive in a country, a brand-new place will leave a very good impression and memory. And the wonderful memories of participating in the poetry festivals are hard to forget.
In the last two years, I have participated in the Poetry Festival in Turkey, the All-Russian Literary Festival in Russia, the Wuhan poetry festival in China, and the Vietnamese Poetry Festival. I also participated in the Tokyo Poetry Festival before. I was often invited by some international literary organizations as guest of these festivals. Last year and this year I also received official invitations from the Netherlands, Spain, Morocco, Cuba, India and Kazakhstan.
I like to feel the different cultures of the country and the real life of the people through the poetry festival. In the poetry festival, I am not only reading my poems, I enjoy the scenery, and afterwards, I hurry back to Ulaanbaatar. I surely enjoy the festivals. However, I am even more interested in the fact that I can walk through countless streets and pass through alleys to visit the folk life.
You have a great interest in Mongolian Mythology. Mythology is something basic. Did you find similarities with other myths, in other countries? For instance, in Greece, Iceland, Norway, Indonesia. What drove you, to get involved in mythology?
I think every nation should have a world of myths that is its own. Mongolian mythology is closely related to the historical process and to the literature of the Mongolian nation, and even to the lives of nomads. Today, its study of mythology as an independent discipline is also directly derived from ancient mythology. Mongolian mythology gave me a lot of inspiration. In the Mongolian steppe, perhaps a mountain, a river, a large rock has mythological meanings and is part of folk culture. Take for example the myth of totem, the legend of eclipse and lunar eclipse. Another example is the mythology present in the Mongolian nation’s “earth-diver myth” – it is considered a creation myth by today's scholars. The myth of diving tells us that God created the world, when the soil that was his assistant sneaked into the seabed. In Mongolian poetry, especially in Mongolian epics, myths occupy an important position throughout the history of Mongolian literature. My strong interest in mythology exists because mythology shows me the social form of the primitive period, including the linguistic sign system. If you use comparative research to explore the mythology of the Mongolian nation, you will be surprised to find that Mongolian mythology is also very similar to the mythology of some nomads. The myth of life is circulated in the Oirats, Buryats, and Altai regions of the Mongols. Although shamanism was later replaced by Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, the earliest primitive Shamanism let Mongol believe that everything is alive: It has a soul. Therefore, Mongolians believe in the Sahius Tenger* (the gods), and believe that the shaman (Mongolian: Бөө - buu) created the world. That is also an important part of Mongolian ancient mythology. In my young years, I read ancient Greek mythology and Ancient North American Indian mythology and legends, which also fascinated me. As for Norse mythology, in the 1st and 2nd centuries, it was first alive among the people in places like Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. I know that Nordic mythology was also a multi-god system. In this multi-god system, there is an early heroic cult, with giants, Aesir, Vanir, Elves, and Dwarfs. Yet, the giant created the world.
From this point of view, that’s consistent with the heroism and giants’ spirit of the Mongolian epic "Jianggar" and the legend of the skill of melting iron: melting mountains opened up the pathway. (The Secret History of the Mongols).
In 2006 you started editing the international Almanac of World Poetry, which is famous by now. It gives to readers a very good impression of modern poetry from all continents. Why did you start this immense project and did it give you the satisfaction you hoped for? Do you have plans to continue this immense work, as an editor?
Yes, I independently founded this international Almanac of World Poetry in 2006 in Ulaanbaatar. So far, I have edited quite a few volumes and passed through 13 years. Its influence has spread all over the entire field of international poetry. Of course, I will continue to edit it. That is not only a poetry anthology, and I see it as the presence and embodiment of a poetic spirit. My expectation is that it must reach a high level in a poetic way and it should be the home of the poets. It will maintain the spirit of exploration of the predecessors and set up a big bridge of poetry that leads to the world.
Mongolia is a very big country. Not many people had the chance to visit it. Half of the population lives in the capital, half in the rest of the country. Is there a reason that relatively few people live in the countryside?
You're right. Mongolia is a vast steppe that links land and sky. The total area is 1.566.000 km. It also considered one of the last few places on the planet for the precious nomads. Today more steppe people yearn to migrate to Ulaanbaatar. Of course, one of the important reasons is that nomads want their children to be able to have a better higher education in urban schools. However, the steppe’s people still love the life of the steppes. Also because the noise in the city makes them feel very depressed and can give them a feeling of suffocation. They like to live a quiet life. They would rather be friends with horses, cows, sheep, and camels. If you have been to the Mongolian steppe, lived in the yurt, felt the wind, looked at the moon and at stars from the skylight of the yurt, and breathed the fresh air, if you have been drinking tea with milk and, in the silent night, you sat on the grass, it is really intoxicating and has a deep impact in all of your life.
You have been translated into forty languages, which is really a lot for a poet. Is there a language that you really would like to be translated into, which is still not the case?
It is a wonderful thing that a poet's work has been translated into many languages. A poem, inspired when translated by an excellent translator, can be read by unfamiliar readers and then become close to them. The poetry translators translated my poems via another magical language and sometimes I think the translation is more beautiful than my original. In days past, my hope was that my poems can be read or heard in Greek translations, Persian translations, Hebrew translations, Arabic translations, German translations, Russian translations, Italian translations, Spanish translations, and even Norwegian and Swedish translations, but these languages are no more a dream now. Perhaps, the most desired translation in my heart is a French one, and I am expecting it to happen soon.
Poetry should find its own readers. This is my wish. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for translating my poems into your native language - beautiful Dutch, this is a great pleasure for me!
In your poems you often write about grasslands. Is it the favourite place in your life, the place where you like to be when you have time off?
I often write about the steppe, because I deeply love the steppe and nomadic life. If you settle down in a big city, that must be when you feel that the nomadic existence and the nature of the steppe will become more and more precious to you. Although I have been living in the capital Ulaanbaatar since 1991, I am still very fond of the steppe and though I often go back to it, I feel I would love to be there more often.
I’ve taught at Foreign Languages schools and at the National University of Mongolia. but now I that I am away from the university, I have more free time to arrange my reading, writing, meeting, traveling and participating in literary activities.
Thanks a lot for this interview.