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

By and | 1 February 2018

AD: I’m very interested in the poetry you wrote on the living leaf of the tree. Can you say more about it? Can you quote the leaf’s poem here, or is it for the leaf alone?

OY: It all began with an idea of writing on anything found that is writable where I live. It goes back to around 2005 when I taught at Wuhan University. In fact, it goes back to thousands of years ago in China where, when a poet visited a whorehouse, for example, (oh, my God, this might sound offensive to feminists but it’s a historical fact that refused to be white washed or yellow washed or any colour washed), he would pick up a brush and write a poem on the wall. Indeed, that’s what Huai Su, an ancient calligrapher famed for his kuangcao (wild grass) style, did in the temples that he visited or stayed in. In order to retain his writings, the Buddhist abbots would keep whole walls clean so as to give him an impression, and a delight of discovery, that clean surfaces are available for him to write anything on.

While I was teaching at Wuhan University, I pasted the walls of my apartment with anything and everything, cigarette cartons, cigarette-butts, banana peels, tissues containing my phlegm or snot (pretty disgusting and un-petty bourgeois, I know, but photos are retained which are clean), pieces of wastepaper with words or characters I’ve written on, and things, but after I finished a term, went back to Oz and returned in the new term, they were wiped out of the walls, leaving them blank again, without ever letting me know beforehand and without them even realising that what they destroyed was a living museum of non-art by a living poet. Three terms of that! All gone except in the photos I’ve taken and kept.

I went out with a pen and a marker. But I found the leaves hard to write on because they refused to show. I managed to write a couple of characters indicating ‘poetry’ or 诗, on a leaf or two. Then I changed my mind about plucking the leaf off the branch, instead leaving the leaf where it belonged. I also wrote a few lines on a fallen leaf and left it where it was lying, for the wind to blow it wherever it wanted to. That in itself is poetry, refusing to be published, refusing even to perish. There’s no market for it, sadly for the marketing people and marketable people.

AD: Are feminists offended by sex work? Oh! I didn’t know, nobody told me. I’m not, and I thought I was a feminist! I can only speak, of course, for myself, as a (kind of Westernised) feminist but I’m fascinated with how the spaces of sex-workers were (phallically / poetically) inscribed. Feminist histories cannot recover the presences of the marginalised and the erased if they themselves enact erasures, if they don’t read the dirty walls!

What I love about the leaves, the Wuhan wall-work, along with the Poetry Coffins works and so on, is their attack on poetry as a consumable commodity: as you’ve said, these objects completely resist being reproduced and marketed. Their overt materiality got me thinking about the different materiality of the digital and the consumption of poetry in online spaces (in China and abroad). Do you think the internet can provide a space for the dissemination of what was previously unpublishable? And / or is it just another place for poetry to be marketed, monitored and consumed?

OY: Internet might be a way in terms of the simulacrum that it provides and is capable of providing minus the tangible objects, and who knows that these things might not be collected one day, even in their pristine state, e.g. cigarette-butts written with the start and end dates / time? All these, one might say, serve to show that life is perhaps only meant to be wasted in being lived, for a liver of life, a waster of life.

AD: In a 2011 Overland feature you discuss several Chinese new online poetry movements – movements that embrace the waste and shit of life – including the Xia Ban Shen Group (lower downs or the lower parts of the body), Laji Shipai (Rubbish Poetry Group) and Di Shige (Low Poetry). I was wondering how the scene has developed since you wrote that piece? Are there new movements of particular interest?

OY: Those have all gone out of the picture, relegated to a corner of history now and still findable online, one reason being that some have since made a big name, meaning established, and don’t want to be reminded of their humble beginnings. The born-in-the-1990s (or 90 hou) have never heard of them. Official poetry, the kind found acceptable by established journals or magazines, remains the cleansed and sanitised. But oral poetry, or what is known as ‘kou yu shi’ (mouth language poetry), is on the rise although it has become so plain and tedious, so lacking in linguistic invention, dwelling in the daily and story, aimed at scratching the readers’ backs and providing them with comfort by masturbating them, that reading one is reading all or almost all. Unhappy with what I have read so far, I set up a WeChat group, called ‘Otherland原乡砸诗群’ (Otherland / Yuanxiang Smashing Poetry Group), aimed at smashing the sentimental, the pretentious, the sodden, the uncreative, the unimaginative, basically the stuff that is not avant-garde and not experimental, containing no barbs of poetic critique, by promoting picture-based poems, bilingual poems, pinyin poems, accompanied with self-assessments or self-comments, and by expanding horizons of subject matter to include everything that could be written about, such as office poems, translation poems, classroom poems, abstract poems, sound poems, and everything that is different from the hitherto publishable stuff. Thanks to WeChat and WeChat Official Accounts, this has been made possible.

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