‘Refusing to be published, refusing even to perish’: Amelia Dale Interviews Ouyang Yu

By and | 1 February 2018

Image by Nicholas Walton-Healey.

Ouyang Yu, now based between Melbourne and Shanghai, came to Australia in mid-April 1991 and, by early 2018, has published 96 books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, literary translation and literary criticism in English and Chinese. He also edits Australia’s only Chinese literary journal, Otherland. Ouyang’s poetry has been included in the Best Australian Poetry collections from 2004 to 2016, including his poetry translations from Chinese in 2012 and 2013, and has been included in such major Australian collections as The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (2009), The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2010), The turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry (2014) and Contemporary Australian Poetry (2016). Ouyang has to date published five English novels, The Eastern Slope Chronicle (2002), The English Class (2010), Loose: A Wild History (2011), Diary of a Naked Official (2014) and Billy Sing (2017), and four Chinese novels, The Angry Wu Zili (1999 and 2016), Land of Gold-diggers (2014), A Lonely Night Boat (2016 in Taiwan) and She (2017). Ouyang was nominated one of the Top 100 Most Influential Melbournians for 2011 as well as the Top 10 most influential writers of Chinese origin in the Chinese diaspora. He is now the ‘Siyuan Scholar’ and since 2012, Professor of English at Shanghai University of International Business and Economics (SUIBE). In 2016, Ouyang won an Australia Council grant for writing a book of bilingual poetry and a special award from the Australia-China Council for ‘his contributions to Australian Studies in China through major translations and original works of scholarship’ (for the 2000-2016 period).

This interview was conducted with an awareness of the many rich dialogues with Ouyang Yu that have come before it, such as the recent conversation with Melinda Smith at the National Library of Australia, and the four interviews conducted between 2003 and 2008 which close his essay collection Beyond the Yellow Pale: Essays and Criticism, the conversations with Prem Poddar and Steve Brock particular highlights here.1 Ouyang has also written poetry that describes disastrous interviews.2 The abundance of interviews means it makes sense to not begin (again) with the basics. By now it should be taken as a given – along with Ouyang’s importance as a literary figure in both Australia and China – his longstanding commitment to bilingual poetry, the importance of translation and self-translation to his practice, his complex drawing out of a poetics from, and between two different literary, linguistic and national cultures.3 I took this interview as an opportunity to talk about his most recent and most experimental poetic activities. Given the way Ouyang’s work persistently engages with temporality and the material text, it is fitting to note that this interview took place over Microsoft Word email attachments between Wednesday, 20 December, and Friday 22 December, with us both located in Shanghai. One of the many joys of moving to Shanghai has been getting to know Ouyang, and participating in the intensive online discussions around poetry and poetics that he facilitates through the WeChat poetry group ‘Otherland原乡砸诗群’.

Amelia Dale: Your ‘unpublishable’ poetry objects take the detritus of life as both an archive and the medium for the inscription of old, unpublished poetry. There is the voluminous ‘Living Book,’ a diary-like collage work, with fading receipts, tickets, used tissues and food scraps dated and sticky taped into multiple notebooks. Then, there are the ‘Poetry Coffins’, where empty tissue boxes and toilet rolls are stuffed full of inscribed cigarette butts. Then there are the fruit peels, which are similarly marked with old poetry and are kept even as they begin to stink and rot. When did you begin writing poetry on surfaces beyond paper? And what do you see as the end point to these projects, if any? Is ‘Living Book’ a life-long project? Will the inscribed fruit peels be stored until they turn to dust?

Ouyang Yu: It’s a secret business. It all started with my handmade books that go back to early 2003, around the time when my brother Ouyang Ming died, a Falungong practitioner, as a result of persecution meted out to him. In fact, the very first self-made / handmade book of poetry in Chinese is my《B系列》(Cunt Sequence),that I published 10 copies of under Otherland, which is a controversial book at the time and still is, the parts I’ve put on my Sina Weibo having been removed by the authorities. I have since moved onto other things, things that you’ve seen part of and described in your question.

The ‘Living Book’ is later, a few years after《我操》(I Fuck), another handmade book I self-published in 2003. I’ve made many of them, all based on my idea of ecology and time, and the perishability of flesh, and traces of living. And, of course, the unpublishability. Who would ever publish them? If so, how? And also the connection of poetry to art, to perishable objects, such as the fruit peels that turn to dust, along with the Chinese characters or English words written on them. The sadness of life. The sending up of all those aimed at success. It’s an ultimate expression of failure. The meaninglessness of life that is rubbish that is life.

AD: These preoccupations with time and perishability are also there in your recent poetry collection《乾貨:詩話》or Dry Stuff: Notes on Poetry (Otherland, No. 22, 2017). There’s the leaf litter cover art, which like many of your photographic poems posted on social media, magnifies a writerly detail in dirt. And yet if the phrase ‘Dry Stuff’ evokes these issues of poetic materiality and staling, there is also the other part of the title, ‘Notes on Poetry,’ 詩話 (shīhuà), a Chinese textual form with an old history. Why did you choose these textual ecologies for your book, and how did you modify the conventions of 詩話 for your purposes?

OY: Having got tired with academic writing, which to me is literally deadwood that helps the academics get on their social / academic / professorial ladders and that few bother reading after it’s published and kudos are won, I return to the old Chinese form of poetic critique, ‘shihua’, hua as in shuohua (say speech), almost oral notes on poetry, in a very spoken manner, all fragments, long and short, to the point and with references made to all sorts of things. The two volumes of 《乾貨:詩話》or Dry Stuff: Notes on Poetry are exactly that, that also incorporate different genres of writing, academic, fictional, poetic, nonfictional, diary, pen-notes, and bilingual from place to place, written on a daily basis, that has been going on for more than six years since mid-2011. The only thing I did is I remove all the dates and places where I wrote the entries, so to speak, spanning continents and countries.

Why ‘dry stuff’ (ganhuo)? It’s a Chinese expression that means stuff that is not wet, timber, if you like, or firewood, which is why it was rejected by the head of a journal after it had taken it and why it’s not accepted for publication anywhere on the mainland China except bits and pieces here and there.

AD: On a larger scale, dexterous shifts between different writerly forms are present throughout your body of work. As a novelist, essayist, academic as well as a poet, how do your different practices inform each other, especially if you’re working on multiple projects at once? If you are in the middle of writing a specific novel, say, does the novel lead to related poetry? Does the poetry help write the novel?

OY: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biography, autobiography – the list goes on – are all but forms or genres, containing ideas, thoughts, traces of life, of people, of things experienced. They might as well not have existed for me. But they do and cross each other all the time. I write poetry in the middle of writing a novel, for example. Indeed, I write poetry everywhere and any time. Recently, I wrote on a leaf of a tree near the lake where I live. I can still find it, growing with the leaf. And poetry sometimes forms the basis of fiction, becoming its core. A novel is too wordy. Why do we live a life and read another life while wasting the life we are living? Much of the fiction we read today is just words, helping one waste one’s life faster. I write poetry when I translate a book of criticism or nonfiction, too, as the form of found poetry helps that happen more conveniently. If the words, translated by me into Chinese or English, make poetic sense, I turn them into poetry. And that’s already mixed flesh of two languages via translation.

  1. The National Library of Australia (25 February, 2016); “‘You in the I’: The Chinese-Australian Writer Ouyang Yu Speaks to Prem Poddar (24 May, 2006)” in Beyond the Yellow Pale: Essays and Criticism (Melbourne: Otherland Publishing, 2010), 254-266; “Interview with Ouyang Yu by Steve Brock” in Beyond the Yellow Pale, 267-278. An edited version of Brock’s interview was published in Westerly vol 53, November 2008, 161-72. Other interviews of Ouyang include one by Sandra Fabretti (22 September, 2003) published in Beyond the Yellow Pale; one for the Victorian Writer’s Centre (May 2006); one with Michael Brennan for Poetry International Web (1 July, 2011); one with Claire Nashar for the Australian Poetry Library (March, 2013) and the Scottish Poetry Library (2 March, 2016). This is not an exhaustive list.
  2. See ‘Interview with Yu’ available online at the Australian Poetry Library and first published in Southern Review (Adelaide), March 1994.
  3. See for instance, interview by Magdalena Ball (22 May, 2010), ‘i’ve got 2 languages and i like writing using these two as there is so much potential to dig into beyond the comprehension of any here and i’m sick of having to explain it all. just see my poetry in either.’
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