Wednesday, September 19, 2007


A visitor tells me he's a poet, from China, and asks about Chinese poets in Melbourne. He also tells me, casually, there are a million (did he really say a million?) poets in China. Incredible, though given a population of a billion (more?) a million is only a millionth! No --a customer looking for Robert Burns corrects me --it's a thousandth! But a million practicing poets --publishing, partying (I'm thinking drinking here, not toeing the line), in print and on the internet --astonishing to contemplate!
I offer Ouyang Yu as the most visible Chinese poet in Melbourne if not Australia. He doesnt know him (one in a million?) but as he glances at the books I show him he thinks he may have encountered him before. His opinion of our man is less interesting to me than the image he's sown in my imagination of the million poets, which shivers me in delight as well as dread as images of vastness always do.
Ouyang Yu has been visiting me at the Shop for years --late 80s, early 90s --ever since Alex Miller introduced us. Heaps of sympathy for this poet/translator post-Tianamin Square, but I had to smile when I read Kerry Leves in Overland a year or so ago, describing his annoyance with the poet whose signature style often includes insult & recrimination, albeit as exemplary post-colonial, anti-racist, post-modernist, militant non-Anglo-Australian --though, who or what is he in China? --one of the million among the millions, home away from home?
What's good for the goose is good for the gander seemed to be Kerry Leves's attitude : he accepted Ouyang's proffered mutual exclusivity. End of story. Ouyang does a good line in vitriol,invective, upsetting the bourgeois, but that's hardly unique in poetry throughout the ages (the Catullan spirit as it were). For my part, I confess that the same type of delight & dread, curiousity & discomfort as informs one's "Australian" take on "China" obtains in Ouyang Yu's regard.
It is the 5,000 year sweep of Chinese poetry, especially the T'ang & Sung periods to which English-language translators have paid particular attention, that amazes one. Its sheer length & breadth. In poetry there is no past which has passed forever; all poetry is constantly contemporary in the purview of translator & reader. As reader-poets we are constantly bearing up the past, bringing it through. Ouyang Yu knows that --and he also knows what's going down now : the complete opposition in China to any sense of tradition, and he seems happy to represent it, to practice it himself. However, he didnt demur when I said that reading several anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry in 2003/04, as research, if you like, for the Dear Takamura poems I was writing then (for which, obviously, I was also exploring the Japanese poet Takamura & his ill-fated artist wife Chieko), I was, rightly or wrongly, struck by a continuity of that clarity & directness, that world-as-it-is-ness, that occupation of the present (ramifying as either timeless or momentary)... Of course there's a difference between wistful equanimity and in-your-face Punk anti-literature, but even so...
To Ouyang's "mildly & sensitively anti-Western" attitude, as I say to him, "mildly & sensitively" (the phrase he uses in the introduction to his anthology, In Your Face : Contemporary Chinese Poetry in English Translation, pub. Otherland, 2000), I am as Western as he is not, as English as he is Chinese, as Australian as he is. That is, I come to poetry as a person of place & time --perhaps I can also say that I come to language in this way --and the poems I write or have written both represent that historical situation and find (however conscious the seeking) a something-else, a somewhere-else.
Perhaps our biggest difference relates to the part of "offense" in our attitude & work --practically non-existent in mine, almost a raison d'etre for Ouyang (see Bias : Offensively Chinese/Australian, pub. Otherland, 2007). Some contend quietly, others noisily with the ruling culture or the culture's current pleasure. John Kinsella tangentially fields Ouyang's figure of "paradise"; he translates it politically : "(...)there is no paradise in Australia, at least for the majority, but there is certainly a worse "no paradise" for some more than others, and certainly for some 'ethnicities' more than others." --Letter to Ouyang Yu, p10, Bias. However imposing the political is, it's only & always a partial truth; in this case "a worse 'no paradise'" is politically cute but ultimately a semantic tease.
Paradise is the central metaphor for the countries & cultures of emigration, the migrant's metaphor, the metaphor of migrant spirit, per se. And "no paradise" is its definitive & therefore indispensable corollary. Yes, it is the political & so too the psychological modus operandi; and it is the metaphor, the myth & archetype. And the poet is to know this and write to & from this knowledge. I've probably said all this before, "mildly & sensitively", in conversation with Ouyang Yu. The "angry poet" has been equally civil!
I'm moved by the complaint that it's "so difficult in this time for Chinese intellectuals to live intellectually in Australia." (A Tree That Hit The Granite Ceiling; Bias, p162.) But that, apparently, was how Australian intellectuals felt about Australia from the 30s to the Whitlam era, when the intellectual emigration was said to have reversed, and every few years the same sentiment is annunciated by someone or other --for example,the possibly paranoid & certainly hyperbolic Left-identifying intelligentsia during the Howard years. Periodically, those of British-extraction author the same eruptions of bitterness & nostalgia; European-originating, ditto; Middle-Eastern, Latin-American...
Perhaps migrants expect to find Paradise while the natives expect for it to be created? The migrant country is always under construction and tension between later & existing attitudes describes the country's dynamic. And what is the cultural difference between Australia and the USA in this regard? Is the answer 200 or so years? It's only 40 years, more or less, since the first Asian-American anthologies hit the scene, 20 years since the emergence of the so-called Asian-American first generation writers (denoting "widespread literary recognition"; Victoria Chang, Asian-American Poetry :The Next Generation, Illinois,2004)...
So I continue mulling the "million poets", and the one in a million, Ouyang Yu's works in one hand, the T'ang in the other, Australia all around...

(September 10-12, 2007)

The review of Ouyang Yu I had in mind was actually by Richard King, published in Overland magazine, #179/Winter, 2005, to which the poet responded in Overland, #180/Spring,'05. The short review ran as follows :
"It becomes apparent, reading Ouyang Yu, that not many people return his calls. It also becomes apparent why : he doesnt appear to like his friends. "I'd be so angry", he says at one point, "i'd just dial a familiar number / and hiss into the phone / wordlessly" . And that's not all. Ouyang Yu hopes that, one day, "a wireless telephone gun" will be invented, so he can not only hiss but shoot at you, too.
Ouyang Yu's contempt for humanity (especially Australian humanity) is, in the end, his own affair, and as long as he doesnt make good on the threat that the tone of his poems implicitly makes, I dont supose anyone really cares. As for the quality of Ouyang Yu's poems : suffice it to say, I disliked this book (New & Selected Poems) as much as I felt it disliked me."
Ouyang Yu responded thus :
"I thoroughly enjoyed the Mabel Lee interview by Vin D'Cruz in Overland #179, but was totally unimpressed by the Richard King poetry review, not only because it was presented without offering useful or helpful critical insight, but also because of its unfounded and untrue accusation of my "contempt for humanity". If Richard King has any knowledge of poetry at all, he should know better than to mix the poet-person in the book with the person-pen who wrote it. Unfortunately, his failure to recognize this leads to his dislike for my poetry and to my dislike for his review."
My apologies to Kerry Leves. Please read his correction below which also includes his review of Ouyang Yu's anthology, In Your Face.
--Kris Hemensley, October 18th, 2007


pb said...

Dear Kris, hi,
Sorry it's not a comment on the great Ouyang Yu...
I don't have your email.
I sent some chapbooks down to you a little while ago but now think I may have sent to your old bookshop address.
If you didn't receive them, please let me know. I'll be in melbourne next week and can bring a few copies.
Titles - 'Peel Me A Zibibbo' and 'My Lightweight Intentions'
I enjoy your blog
All the best,
Pam Brown

Anonymous said...

Dear Kris,
I wonder if you got me mixed up with another reviewer? Last and only time I reviewed a book of Ouyang's was 2003 (Overland 170), 'In Your Face' was the book - the anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry translated by Ouyang that you mention on your blog. I thought he did a great job! I don't think I did so well by him or his poets in the review. Very difficult trying to select quotations from an anthology - always thinking, 'If I quote this phrase from one poem by one poet, is it going to misrepresent the rest too much?' Review as follows, FYI:

'Ouyang Yu has a rare gift for translation. These poems take advantage of English as few native-speaker poets do. They don't sound stilted, makeshift or muffled - they never lapse into "translationese" (Leith Morton's term for stylised, approximate translation). Instead, every phrase seems lively, apt - just the right shading to add to the mood and tenor of the individual work. The poems make word-music that neither draws undue attention to itself, nor short-changes the reading (listening) ear; or mind. Despite the fact that the poets - there are many - have been arranged in alphabetical order, there's a cumulative excitement to reading In Your Face from cover to cover; Ouyang's selection process has been inspired, lucky, painstaking or all three. His preface is terse, combative and informative, sketching with clarity and gusto the diverse histories of recent Chinese poetics. "I selected the poems I liked, regardless of the politics some here will always impose on China and everything to do with China." The traditional delicacy of Chinese art is also under some (by no means total) erasure - the poems of In Your Face can be aggressive, dissonant, crude, loud, as well as plaintive, serene or quiet. Some work into rap-like protests and insults. Thematically In Your Face is very diverse. Few of these poets were born before the 1950s, many were born in the seventies, some later. A number of poems invoke the hostility of cities, the violence, prostitution, injustice; yet also the random islands of calm and pleasure city life can produce. Intimacy, these poems show, is still possible within the steel-and-concrete hive with its insect brutalities. Women's voices are strongly represented - Ma Shiju's 'Penis History' is brilliant. Family, through parental or life-partner figures, is celebrated, and also interrogated, found wanting, mocked. Yet there are nostalgic undertones, nuances of village life and village mores vitiated and submerged by big-scale commerce; in many poems a sense of the earth, of dust, rain, growth and groundedness. In Your Face is a triumph of the unpompous; almost every poem is fresh and pungent.'

Kerry Leves