Few writers have come so far to wedge their voice into American poetry. Stephen Liu was born in 1930 in Fuling, China, near the Yangtze River—a town that is now underwater. Not long ago, Liu's daughter April filmed the small community before it was flooded and superimposed her father's poetry on the film, Requiem for a River.
Liu grew up steeped in the tradition of Chinese poetry and painting. His father and grandfather wanted to convey their love of these art forms so that he might follow in their steps. Like so many immigrants, he found that politics radically altered his life and he fled China before the Cultural Revolution. He arrived in San Francisco with limited English and began to look for work. Almost two decades later he completed his PhD in English literature—and mastered the craft of poetry in this new land (he published thirty poems during a year of his graduate study).
Fuling and Las Vegas could not be farther apart and yet, for more than thirty years, both cities shaped his poetry, as the desert became his home. He was both the poet who walked the Strip to find the dream of the modern world fallen to its knees, and the sagacious bird-watcher, alone in the market in Hainan, who purchased an egret to save its life. This he recollected in his poetry: the threads of two cultures as he moved from one to the other, whether poet, father, or teacher at the Community College of Southern Nevada. Liu felt isolated in the neon landscape but spent his every free moment taking pictures of the southern Utah mountains, and the birds in all places.
After three decades of conveying his love of literature to students, he retired and moved to British Columbia, where he lives with his wife, Shirley. He has spent the last decade completing his autobiography, Entering the Valley of Peach Blossoms, and writing the poems that have sustained him for this long journey.
What is most startling about his work is its effortless, dream-like quality rooted in the two-thousand-year-old tradition of his homeland. Liu has returned to visit his younger brother and five sisters who remained there, and has come to terms with the anguish of leaving home. The dedication in his last book, "For you who have suffered for loving nature and art too much," recalls the intimation of his ancestors that art and nature are necessary and not peripheral. Quiet, unassuming, diminutive, his poetry is the consummation of that motherland in this, what was for so long, a last frontier.
Liu is the first Nevada poet to receive a Fellowship in Creative Writing from the National Endowment for the Arts (1981–82). His work has been featured in Seneca Review in 1979 and in many other periodicals, including the first issue of American Poetry Review. He translated his first book into Mandarin for its bilingual publication in Beijing. Now out of print, it was an art of two landscapes in appearance and substance: ideograph and English, East and West. In 1993, Liu was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.