Michael Brennan: When did you start writing and what motivated you?
Ouyang Yu: I would have started writing when I was a grade-one primary school student or earlier because there were writing classes, but if you meant ‘writing’ as something serious, self-initiated and personal, that would have been in my middle-school days when I started keeping a diary as part of the school writing assignment. My diaries were presented in class as a showpiece for all the other students to see. This would be around 1970 or 1971. There was no motivation. The teacher asked us to keep diaries and I followed suit. Then, again, my zuowen, or written compositions, were also shown to other students in class as something exemplary, in my senior middle school days. Motivation? I wanted to do a good job. Now, that was writing in Chinese. What about my writing in English? I started learning English in middle school, junior middle school, but did not start writing in English until my university days, a few poems here and there, and a diary kept in both English and Chinese (I still have a few diaries from those days, kept in English that is not exemplary but that would show early traces of a language in its embryonic form.) I wrote poems in both English and Chinese when I went to do my MA in Shanghai (1986–1989) but did not send them for submission; in fact, it never crossed my mind to send them nor did I know where to send them. It was not till I arrived in Australia in early 1991 that I started writing seriously in English while at the same time writing in Chinese, not wanting to give it up.
MB: Who are the writers who first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What’s changed?
Ouyang Yu: Over the years, there have been many, such as Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi, Li Bai, Du Fu, Li Shangyin, Bai Juyi, Ouyang Xiu, Su Shi, Xin Qiji, Li Yu, Tao Yuanming, Gan Bao, Yuan Mei, Feng Menglong, Xu Wei, Ji Yun, and, on the Western side, too many to count but a few would suffice: Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Herman Hesse, Stefan Zweig, Wilfred Owen, Paul Celan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Roberto Bolaño, Somerset Maugham, Thomas Hardy, George Gissing, Arnold Bennett, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pilorad Pavic, John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Ingrid Jonker, Czeslaw Miłosz, Patrick White, Christina Stead, Alex Miller.
Right now, I am hardly reading any Australian authors. In fact, not a single one at the moment. I have recently finished reading a number of big anthologies of Greek poetry, Cuban poetry, Polish poetry, and I have been trying to lay my hands on more from elsewhere, such as China, South Africa, England, France, Germany, Chile, the Arabic world, and I want to read all the poets from the rest of the world, classic and contemporary. I keep buying poetry from elsewhere, such as Polish poetry and Serbia. I am a daily reader of poetry. Right now, I’m running out of poetry to read and have to go to the bookshop to buy more. I've just finished reading John Donne. Loved him. I’ve also just finished reading Sylvia Plath. She’s okay, not really my type, although her poetry is weird enough to excite occasionally.
MB: How important is ‘everyday life’ to your work?
Ouyang Yu: A poet, when dead, can’t write poetry. That's how important. Life and poetry, life poetry, live poetry. That’s what life is all about and that's what poetry is all about. The kind of poetry I see these days is so dead. I love the everyday in poetry, with the every minute, the every second that might generate a poem in its million-year length. I am also a daily maker of poetry, the daily in poetry and the poetry in the daily.
MB: What is the role or place of subjectivity in your poetry?
Ouyang Yu: I think with my head. I think with my penis. I sometimes think with both. I sometimes think with more than both. Subjectivity or objectivity? You can’t separate them like a tedious academic.
MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary tradition/s and/or broader cultural or political movements?
Ouyang Yu: My work is a product of dual Chinese and english (yes, small ‘e’) traditions, linguistic, poetic, cultural and political, combining influences from other places as mentioned above. It is part of, and apart from, the Australian traditions. I am, after all, on my own in this country, just a place to live, and probably to die, with little connection to anyone.
MB: What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?
Ouyang Yu: I never regard poetry writing as ‘challenging’. It’s always a pleasure, not a trial or examination in the sense of students. To me, poetry is the easiest thing. To me, form is as important as content and the need for innovation, although poems differ from each other in their emphases on any one of these three. There is nothing perfect in poetry. Certain poems may seem perfect in one language but are imperfect in another. Recently, I’ve been showing ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ by A. E. Housman and ‘The Road not Taken’ by Robert Frost to my translation students, and I pointed out that the second stanza in both poems is so boringly repetitive that it could be succinctly expressed in Chinese, in a single line, when translated.
I do not have much hope in getting my poetry published in Australia, for two reasons. One is that certain publishers have become so heartlessly cruel that they shredded two of my submitted manuscripts recently without even letting me know beforehand until it was too late. How can I ever send anything to them anymore? Other publishers never respond to anything I send or return my stuff outright. To me, that is a sign of total rejection. If it is a granite wall, I certainly will not keep dashing my brains out against it. As a poet writing in 2011 in Australia, I am in despair, but I shall keep writing.
Forget about ‘paying the rent’ bit. What’s that got to do with poetry? Poetry is the semen that wants out unpaid. Can you stop it from being ejaculated because you can’t get paid in order to pay the rent?
MB: What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?
Ouyang Yu: I read all sorts of things, classical Chinese poetry, fables, essays, contemporary Chinese fiction, poetry, prose, philosophy, biographies and autobiographies, all written in Chinese, apart from the same in English from other parts of the world. I read everything and anything literary, in both English and Chinese. I read stuff that is boring, too, such as half-dead academic articles, but I learn, sometimes from a single word or a sentence.
MB: What is ‘Australian poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘Australian’ poet?
Ouyang Yu: I don’t really care. I’m content with being a poet.
MB: Don Anderson once described Australian poetry as Australia’s only “blood sport”. More recently critics have seen Australian poetry in terms of a “new lyricism” (David McCooey) and “networked language” (Philip Mead). What is the current state of play in Australian poetry? How do you think Australian poetry and discussions about Australian poetry might best develop in the next ten years?
Ouyang Yu: I’m not interested in whatever Mead says in that book. I have chosen not to read it. The sad thing about Australian poetry is that certain editors sit on top for years without relief, without change, dominating the scene with their personal tastes, playing the tyrannical role of a poetic dictator and getting paid for that, too. That situation should be overthrown in a poetic revolution in which hundreds of flowers bloom in hundreds of different styles, languages and voices, or else the Australian poetic scene will remain stifling, oppressive, suppressive, suffocating, to the degree of death, as it has been for so long. To maintain one’s integrity and sanity, one has to skip certain books by certain people who one does not respect whatever others say.
Also, “blood sport” is the wrong term. Poetry is never meant to be a blood sport in which poets compete with each other for prizes and hunt for game, big or small. To go through Australia’s literary magazines published in the 1940s and 1950s and see some frequently published poets is to remember that those names are completely forgotten by now. The same thing will happen again. Let the blood-hounds chase the “blood sport” for all I care, not very interesting at all. Just show me the good stuff that is missing.
When reading poetry, I have an impulse to translate it if I spot a good one. This does not often happen in my readings of Australian poetry. Blood-sport or not, it’s none of my business.
Lyricism is fine with me, although someone in his 50s is definitely very different from someone in his early 20s in terms of lyricism.
MB: How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in Australia or at an international level?
Ouyang Yu: I have no idea. All I know is that no literary agents want to agent poetry. Over the years, people who buy my poetry can be numbered on 10 fingers. Perhaps only when people die, as in 9.11, they’ll start reading or writing poetry. However, when they buy a new house, they’ll drink, rather than resort to poetry. As long as poetry is relevant and valuable to me, that is fine. I don’t care what others think, not anymore. I live, I write.
To tell you a recent story, or two. When I began my poetry translation classes a couple of weeks ago, I asked my students two questions: “Does anyone read poetry these days? Please hold up your hand.” No one did. Then my second question: “Does anyone write poetry?” A raucous laughter greeted me as students found the question so unbelievably ridiculous. This happened in another class of mine. It reminds me of a remark, in Chinese, made by Xu Jingya, a Chinese critic, that goes, “zai dangdai xieshi hui bei fakuan” (one will be fined for writing poetry in contemporary times; English translation mine).
What is heartening, though, is the fact that, at the end of that class, when I announced that the class had come to an end, the students ‘oh’-ed, surprised that it was so short and wanting it to last, it seemed.