Interview: Ouyang Yu, March 2013

moon over melbourne
Moon over Melbourne
stack level too deep
By Claire Nashar on May 2013

Why do you write poetry? 

Simple question but hard to answer. The short answer is I like it better than any other literary genres. However, the long answer would be very involved as it covers stages of poetry writing, from when I was young to when I am old, standing at 57. There was no reason when one wrote poetry young. One just wrote it the way one liked something or loved someone. One just did it. The way one loves fish. Why fish, of all the other meats? Besides, there is also the vexed question why one writes in both languages, English and Chinese, not just one? At one stage, I did realize and wrote in a poem that one doesn’t write poetry when happy but one does when feeling sad. That, in a way, is part of the truth, or poetic truth. As one matures, in age, in knowledge, in human experience, one begins expanding into other areas, such as fiction and nonfiction. But poetry stays. For me, it may not be for others, it is the easiest thing to do. It’s almost as if poetry were made for me or I were made for it. I write it, therefore I am. In contemporary society, poetry is the best cure for people who have no time for long novels or anything that takes long in coming. I remember a poet scorned my idea of writing a novel by wondering why I bothered if there was poetry to write. I think he’s right.


Poetry is often described as ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’, both to read and to write.  What do you think of such assertions?  Is difficulty important to the pleasure of poetry?

Refer to what I said above. But there are all kinds of poetry, the difficult at one end and the easy on the other. Believe it or not, the most difficult ones are the easiest to write. Refer to my article, partly, on this: 

Difficult ones have their own pleasures; they make you heady, like wine. I enjoy John Ashbery because of that. But I don’t particularly like J. H. Prynne. But the easy ones are good, too, as they are like bullets that hit your heart straight. I have not seen many like that in Australian poetry because much of it is pretentious and arrogant, not worth my bothering. Difficult ones are also calculating, with a mind bent on some ulterior motives. I don’t know what they are. But I don’t really care. If I don’t understand it, I won’t waste my time trying. A wine is good not because it is difficult. Give me something simple and short that is good.

I like the way Taha Muhammad Ali says about ‘a difficult, elusive, or even inscrutable simplicity’1. As I’ve just finished reading a book of menglong poetry, I find much that is simple and difficult. Take this by Gu Cheng, wo naba jiu yaoshi/qiaozhe houhou de qiang (I carry a bunch of old keys/and knock the thick wall). Or this, also by him, qingyong liangliang de xueshui/ba dizhi xie zai shoushang (Please write the address on my hand/with the cold snow water). Or this, the title of a poem, also by him, qiong, youge liangliang de bijian (Poverty, with the tip of a cold nose). Or this, again by him, zuotian tingdian, yueliang shi weiyi de deng (power failure last night/the moon, the only lamp).

Too much poetry is clogged with cosmetics and difficult junk, to a sickening degree, because the mind thinks itself too clever, too good, for us, for the readers.


Could you describe your poetry-writing process?  

Again refer to that article above, in which I give details of my writing process, as it happens anywhere, in bed, in a kitchen, on the back seat of a taxi, when moving my bowels, or when pissing, on board an airplane, out taking a walk in the open, when driving, in total darkness, with a Dictaphone, on my mobile phone when taking a bus or wandering from shop to shop in a shopping mall, and just imagining anything and anywhere. The only place where poetry writing can’t happen is when one is engaged in the act of making love. It does, though, in my head. And I write afterwards.


What and how do you read?

I read all sorts of things, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, yes, poetry on a daily basis, and poetry from all over the world, South Africa, Iraqi, Palestine, Nigeria, Cuba, Poland, China, Chile, and whatever I haven’t read but can lay my hands on. Right now, I am reading an Iraqi poet, Sargon Boulus, and a Palestinian poet, Taha Muhammad Ali, both very good. And I am reading a nonfictional book in Chinese on multiple sex partners in China as it is becoming increasingly permissive, more so than Australia, I think. And I am reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, a bit too long for my liking, I must admit.

How do I read is another thing. I always read with a pen, to mark things that induce thoughts. To tick the good ones and cross out the bad ones. To write my comments in the margins. I never read a book without leaving it unmarked. And many of my published books are fruitions of that habit.


How does writing in different languages (and in different literary traditions) impact upon your poetry?  Has your work as a translator changed your poetic practice?

I only write in two, Chinese and English, and translate two, the same things. But because I translate fiction, nonfiction and poetry, the influences intersect and cross-fertilize. Coming from the Chinese tradition, I find much Australian poetry and Western poetry, for that matter, verbose, too detailed and fastidious, narrow-minded, too. But, from an Australian point of view, I find much Chinese poetry sentimental, flat and showy, lacking in humour. Translation is one of the best ways to introduce what in my opinion is the best to an otherwise ignorant audience or readership.

Translation informs that there are other traditions and other cultures that one needs to be constantly aware of, not just the limiting and limited English ones. As a translator of poetry, I learn to be humble, to open my eyes to the rest of the world, and to keep my heart large enough to incorporate all things.

Translation also provides one of the best pleasures and pastimes. Whenever the ‘silly season’ (Christmas) comes---it never touches me in any way, shape or form, perhaps because I don’t have a friend in Australia and I don’t want to intrude upon their festive mood---I take the time to read ancient Chinese poetry and translate it, just to make the season pass faster; many of my translations were done then.


What do you think Australian poetry is? Is it a term that you find meaningful, both generally and in relation to your own poetry?

Australian poetry, by definition, is poetry written by Australians, people with Australian citizenships, or people with permanent resident status, or, by extension, people who temporarily live in Australia before they leave or even people whose poetry happens to be translated and published in Australia. A recent example is the inclusion of three poems, respectively, by Shu Cai, Shu Ting and De Er He, all citizens of the People’s Republic of China, translated by me, in The Best Australian Poems 2012, edited by John Tranter. That very fact, never even mentioned in a number of book reviews I have read, shows that Tranter is more open-minded and liberal-minded than a lot of Australian editors I have come into contact with. I congratulate Tranter on his inclusiveness, something this country is found lacking.

I am an Australian citizen, which means I am an Australian, by nationality if not by race or ethnicity, and that what I write can be categorized as ‘Australian’ even if it is written in Chinese, my native tongue. Does that also mean that whatever I translate from English into Chinese can be categorized as ‘Australian’? What about African poetry that I have been translating into Chinese? Is that African-Australian or Chinese-African-Australian? Categories are rigid and need to be more fluid to incorporate new changes.

As a bilingual Australian, I write---even when I am in China or elsewhere overseas---always aware of Australia as long as I have not come to the decision as Professor Zhao Yiheng---who has renounced his British citizenship, which he has had for over 16 years2 and regained his Chinese citizenship---has done. Even if I have, the twenty-odd years of life lived in Australia has injected into me something unreplaceable, poetry-wise, its democratic spirit---not poetically democratic as some have negatively demonstrated---and its self-deprecating humour as well as its psychosis with undertones of race, ethnicity and rejection.


 1. Taha Muhammad Ali, So What, trans. by Peter Cole, et al. Bloodaxe, 2006, p. xxiii.

 2. See the Chinese article on that here: