Tag Archives: Ouyang Yu

Journal Catch-up 19

I’m almost caught up on my journal-reading. This isn’t a result of my diligence, but of the difficulties besetting literary journals just now. Heat has been appearing like clockwork, but the Summer 2022 edition of Overland arrived in my mailbox in mid Autumn 2023, and Southerly and the Australian Poetry Journal and Anthology – to which I subscribe – haven’t published hard-copy issues for two years.

Here are two almost-current issues, blogged with attention to page 76 as per my arbitrary blog policy.

Alexandra Christie (editor), Heat Series 3 Nº 7 (Giramondo 2023)

From the Heat website:

The first issue of HEAT was published in July 1996, in the wake of the Demidenko Affair, in which an Australian author of English background posed as Ukrainian in order to gain credibility for her Holocaust-inspired novel. The anger provoked by this hoax accounts in large part for the magazine’s name, and a commitment to the publication of genuinely diverse writing.

The third series is different from the first two in many ways, but it continues to make a rich contribution to Australian literary culture through its commitment to writing from non-British backgrounds. This issue includes translations from Chinese, Spanish, French and Ukrainian, as well as work by two non-Anglo Australians – П.O. and Eda Gunaydin. Five poems by Melbourne poet Gareth Morgan may make him an exception, though a man in one of his poems says, ‘He must be fresh off the boat,’ which seems to imply a non-Anglo appearance.

I most enjoyed Eda Gunaydin’s ‘Fuck Up’, a comic tale of two young Anglo men who set up a Go Fund Me for an imaginary anti-Islamophobia conference, whose scheme goes awry when they find themselves actually trying to organise the conference. Two stories by Zhu Yue (translated from Chinese by Jianan Qian and Alyssia Asquith) reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges; Andriy Lyubka ‘Roasted Uganda’ (translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan), a letter from the war in Ukraine, is available to read on the Heat website.

Noémie Lefebvre’s ‘Les non-dupes errent and other ghosts’ (translated by Sophie Lewis), which begins on page 76, overcame my codgerly resistance to stories that invoke French Theorists: the narrator is stuck in the middle of writing a tragedy, pondering the futility of literature given the state of the world and remembering her mother’s anorexia as she prepares to eat some toast – as one does – when Lacan (no first name) turns up and they have a weirdly obscure, but funny and resonant conversation.

Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 249 (Summer 2022)
(Some of the content – less than in the past – is online at the revamped Overland website, and I’ve included links)

Apart from its usual excellent content this issue of Overland brought tears to my eyes with a letter to ‘the Overland family’ from the editors committing themselves to the MEAA’s Freelance Charter, which among other things means not passing on the effects of funding challenges to their contributors. I’m an MEAA member, book editors’ section. They’ve just guaranteed that I’ll keep subscribing for the foreseeable.

The issue kicks off with an excoriation of Heather Rose’s Bruny, which almost makes me want to read the novel to see if Elias Grieg, the excoriator, might have failed to notice that the narrative was deeply ironic. But I can resist. There are also interesting articles on forced adoption (by EJ Clarence), brain tumour as experienced by an environmental activist (Bonnie Etherington), and language liberation (Natalia Figueroa Barroso).

Of the generous array of poems, I most enjoyed Ouyang Yu’s uncharacteristically upbeat ‘To Richard Ouyang’, a meditation on the naming of his bicultural son.

There are five short stories, including one (by Avi Leibovitch) that features a talking cat, another (by Tim Loveday) that features small dogs in a bushfire (and mentions in passing a horrific practice in commercial dog-breeding), a family drama (by Rob Johnson) told from a child’s point of view (‘it was like a movie and I wasn’t part of it’). I enjoyed all of them. Fortuitously the one beginning on page 76, ‘Black Spring’ by Hossein Asgari, is perhaps the most interesting.

The protagonist of ‘Black Spring’ is a university teacher who has moved back in with his parents during the pandemic. It begins:

He pushes his chair back and stretches his limbs, turning himself into a multiplication sign before taking his glasses off and rubbing his eyes. He knows how they must look: red, irritated, thirsty for a few artificial tears. Has he just snapped at a student? In an online class which was recorded? God damn it! He slams his laptop shut, opens his desk drawer, picks up his eyedrops, and walks to the window. His father still squats where he’s been for the last hour, under the shade of the fig tree, a garden trowel in his hand.

The family relationships reveal themselves – the father is in early stages of dementia, the mother has health issues, the pandemic brings its own problems, it’s not easy working from home when it’s also your parents’ home, and so on. It reads as a Melbourne story, like most of Overland‘s contents, with mild hints of non-Anglo culture in the father’s habit of sucking on sugar cubes, or the mother’s offer of a choice between dates and dark chocolate with a cup of tea. Then there’s a deft reveal, first with the mention of an Imam influencing the water supply, and then with a place name, that the story is unfolding in Iran. No big deal is made of the reveal, and the story continues – a sweet, understated piece of anti-Othering.

Heat 8 has already landed (and been reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog). The good things just keep coming.

Ouyang Yu’s Terminally Poetic

Ouyang Yu, Terminally Poetic (Ginninderra Press 2022)

Every now and then someone on my Twitter feed shares an angry response to a rejection letter from a literary magazine. These responses generally assert that the rejecting editor is too stupid, racist, sexist, transphobic or something of the sort to have recognised the brilliance of the rejected work. In my time as editor of a children’s literary magazine, such responses were rare, but they certainly never made us think we might have been mistaken.

Here’s one editor’s take on such responses:

Much of Ouyang Yu’s Terminally Poetic could be read as making poetry out of that kind of letter. The persona in these poems rails against poets who are famous (Les Murray is singled out a couple of times), against the useless sadness of ancient Chinese poets, against editors who say they want to publish work that will sell, against editors who ask that a submission be accompanied by a stamped self-addressed envelope, against editors who are white or coloured, against the notion of revising poems, against literary prizes, against the dominance of white people in the Australian literary scene, against the intrinsic mediocrity of Australian poetry, against people who don’t pay him enough attention, against himself.

The poems were written over three decades. A couple of them self-identify as written in 2000; one calls for Australia to emulate the 2000 coup in Fiji; one (‘Temporarily Untitled’) starts with a bald account of a murder-suicide by a poet, who a little googling identifies as Chinese poet Gu Cheng in 1993, making it perhaps the earliest poem in the collection. It begins:

the news came that the poet died
he had killed his wife and hang himself on a tree outside the house

on an island not far from auckland
called something i can't remember at all

because it is difficult to pronounce

The offhand disrespect of these lines is all too typical of the book (the unconventional/incorrect ‘hang’ is less so). It may be a sign of youthful harshness, but as the poems are presented in alphabetical order of title – from ‘About poetry’ to ‘Written by one who doesn’t know how to write poetry’ – there’s no telling if there is any mellowing with age.

This is an unpleasant book. It means to be. It’s also an insider’s book. Even though the speaker of the poems positions himself as an outsider, his attention rarely moves out of the world of literature and publishing. It won the Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Collection in the 2021 Queensland Literary Awards. I couldn’t find the judges’ comments online, and I’m curious about their choice.

When I blog about poetry collections it’s my practice to single out one poem for a closer look. Here’s one of the few poems in this book that isn’t about the poetry world:

(Maybe this appeals to me because I cherish childhood memories of coming home from a movie and peeing in the yard in the moonlight with my father and brothers while my mother and sisters took turns at the toilet inside.)

The heart of the poem is the moment when the speaker is taken by surprise by the moonlight and the edible-looking streetlights. I know hardly anything about classical Chinese poetry, but I understand that there are many poems about the moon and moonlight, including the one at this link by the great Li Bai. I can’t help but read Ouyang Yu’s poem in the context of that tradition.

But before we get to the moonlight, there’s ‘a long dream of dreaming of toilets’ in ‘the unconscious hours of the night’. It’s not just sleep, but unconsciousness. It’s not just a dream, but a dream of dreaming. He’s deep in the dream, dead to the world as we say. The syntax of what follows is muddled: read literally, the speaker is ‘turned away by closed doors or crowds of pissers’ after he gets up to relieve himself. This captures so well the muddled state of waking from a deep dream, especially perhaps a dream of pissing, the way the dream pulls you back to itself.

In the two middle stanzas, the speaker goes to the real toilet, and he momentarily forgets bodily functions because the moonlight is there. And then there are the streetlights, like juicy oranges, and the stirrings of some unnamed, hunger-like desire. In these stanzas he comes fully awake to the world in the silence of the night.

In Li Bai’s poem the speaker looks down to see the moonlight like frost on the ground, looks up at the moon, looks down again. This poem has a similar movement: the speaker looks down, metaphorically, at his bodily need; looks up at the moonlight and the streetlights; then looks down again, to pee (this poem definitely assumes a male body). Then there’s a moment’s reflection. Li Bai thinks of his homeland, evoking the yearning of nostalgia. In Ouyang Yu’s poem, ‘shiveringly’ refers to the cool of the night, but it also suggests an emotional moment. The final line, banal and bathetic at first glance, is just surprising enough to give the reader pause: what does it mean to wonder about life without toilets? I take it to be an oblique way (a very oblique way) of giving thanks for a tiny moment of appreciation of the beauty of the world, perhaps even of transcendence.

I haven’t read any other of Ouyang Yu’s many books of poetry. I hope they are full of such moments.

I am grateful to Ouyang Yu and Ginninderra Press for my copy of Terminally Poetic.

Journal Blitz 10

‘Blitz’ is a misnomer. My progress through my backlog of subscribed journals has been at anything but lightning speed. One of the journals has gone into a troubling hiatus, which has had the silver lining of reducing my pile of obligation, but I’ve filled the gap with a couple of one-off purchases, so the pile continues to grow at least as fast as I can read. The reading itself, of course, is largely a pleasure.

Jacinta Le Plastrier (editor), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 10, Number 2: tribute, observations (2021)

For this issue of APJ, Jacinta Le Plastrier commissioned 29 poets and poetry-connected people to choose a poem by another poet and write a response to it and to the collection it appeared in. It’s a terrific idea. Much as I love Francis Webb’s description of a poem as ‘a meeting place of silences’, I’m delighted by this project’s invitation to read poems in the company of other thoughtful and engaged readers.

The resulting collection of poems and ‘commentaries’ lives up to the hope. Jan Colville’s poem ‘Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium’, for example, was chosen and commented on by Kristen Lang, whose book Earth Dwellers I loved. The poem is a response to a collection of herbs made by Emily Dickinson when she was a girl. It begins:

words slip off the page 
paste_ more than a century old 
_____ barely there_  cracked with age
_ and still
_____ here is the light through the forest
_____ her young hands 
_____ choosing stems, bare feet 
_____________________ in the dirt

Kristen Lang’s commentary sheds light and warmth even from her first words:

It is difficult to force a gap between the name ‘Emily Dickinson’ and the word ‘poet’. [This poem] not only prises the two apart but embeds there the warmth of an absorbed and absorbing child. There’s a contagious tenderness in this poem …

After a few more words that (for me) open the poem right up, she describes the book it came in – Journey (Walleah Press 2019). I immediately put Jan Colville and that book on my To Be Read list.

The rest of the poems vary richly in form, tone and content. There are poems by award winners and by people you’ve never heard of; poems by people whose work I love and have blogged about and people whose work is thrillingly new to me.

The commentaries are just as varied – including close, but not too close, readings like Kristen Lang’s; intensely personal prose poems; scholarly abstraction; and general advocacy for particular kinds of poetry.

There’s a translation from Bahasa Indonesia: ‘Termination Letter’ by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao, whose commentary on translation as creative collaboration is fascinating.

There’s a bilingual poem, ‘BIGGER THAN SCHOOL STUFF’ by Arrente poet Declan Furber Gillick, accompanied by the poet’s note on the incomplete poem as ‘a glimpse into the process of language revival’, and then a commentary from Jeanine Leane, who edited the anthology in which it appeared, Guwayu – For All Times (Magabala Books 2020).

As a lively, challenging and enjoyable introduction to the thriving, multifaceted contemporary Australian poetry scene, this would be hard to beat.

And then there are items that aren’t part of the main project, including an essay on poetry and science by Alicia Sometimes, tributes to Melbourne poet Ania Walwicz who died in 2020, and a blurb on Poetry Sydney, an independent literary organisation founded in 2019.

Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 240: Activism (Spring 2020), with links to the articles at overland.org.au

Here’s Adrian Burragubba on the alliance between Indigenous activists and non-Indigenous environmental activists in the context of the Stop Adani campaign:

Wangan Jagalingou’s case overlaps with the fact that large numbers of Australians oppose the Adani mine, and want it stopped.

The positive is that many people also support First Nations rights, and are joining forces with us. They know that by standing with us they can help protect the Galilee Basin, the natural springs, the Carmichael River. We welcome them. The negative is that support for our rights is not extended unconditionally and may therefore evaporate when the common goal is no longer an issue …

This is dangerous ground.

We call upon people to stand with us, but it’ll be our walk, our path, and it’ll be under our circumstances. 

That’s from his essay ‘When I speak I speak for the land‘ in this issue of Overland. It’s one of a stunning line-up of First Nations voices from the Activism @ the Margins Conference held in February 2020 at RMIT in Melbourne. Others range from Warlpiri story-teller Wanta Jampijinpa (‘Say sorry to the land‘) and longtime activist Puralina Meenamatta Jim Everett (‘An open letter to the next generation‘), to historian Victoria Grieve-Williams (‘Oodgeroo: Breaking the iron cycle of settler colonialism‘) and Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, whose ‘An Epistemic museum for modernity‘ calls for the thinkers and writers who legitimised white supremacy and slavery to be ‘identified, tracked down and held to account’. Taken together, the articles amount to an impressionistic history of Australian Indigenous activism from the 1960s Referendum campaign and the Gurindji walk off from Wave Hill to Blak Lives Matter and Indigenous hip-hop.

As always this Overland has rich selections of short fiction and poetry, edited by Claire Corbett and Toby Fitch respectively.

The poetry section includes stellar poets Omar Sakr, Samuel Wagan Watson, Ouyang Yu and Pam Brown. Jessica L Wilkinson has a beautiful historical poem, ‘Loïe Fuller entertains M. and Mme Curie at Boulevard Kellerman‘, and Zenobia Frost’s prose poem ‘sandwiches‘ is a powerful narrative of the loss of a parent.

Of the four sort fiction pieces, ‘Here comes the flood‘ by Perth writer Belinda Hermawan stands out for me. It’s a complex impressionistic tale of growing up with anti-Asian racism in Australia.

Vern Field (editor) Island 158 (2019)

As with the only other issue of Island that I’ve read, this issue is lavishly presented, with glorious full-page colour illustrations throughout. In fact, there’s hardly a page that doesn’t have some kind of image or colour effect behind the type, which is not always an advantage when a reader with deteriorating rods and cones is reading in artificial light.

This issue has a focus on the climate emergency, which is definitely a Good Thing, though maybe because I’ve been reading and brooding an awful lot about that subject I found more joy in the non-themed parts of the journal’s mix of creative nonfiction, essays, poetry, short fiction, excerpts from novels, and visual art.

Carmel Bird’s ‘Dr Power’s Prescription for the Fabrication of a Tasmanian Imagination’ is a nice piece of promotion for a work in progress, in which she discusses Colin Johnson’s largely forgotten historical novel Dr Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the End of the World and its importance in the history of Australian, particularly Tasmanian, literature.

Angela Rockel’s ‘Rogue Intensities’ is an excerpt from a forthcoming work that gives us three months out of five years of ‘sensations and thoughts arising from a life in place’. Its combination of personal observation and scientific information about the flora and fauna of her place is full of charm, though I don’t know how I’d go with a whole book.

Dominic Amerena’s story ‘Just Maybe’ has just two full stops. The first comes at the end of a four-page sentence that loops back and forward in time telling a slightly creepy story of seduction from the seducer’s point of view. Then there are two words and the story is over. It’s like watching a juggler on a high wire: will he lose control and have innumerable clauses come clattering to earth?

I read Ken Bolton’s long poem ‘Letter to John Forbes’ with undiluted pleasure. Writing 20 years after Forbes’s death, Bolton identifies himself as a fan, and as a fellow poet. In semi-formal seven-line stanzas and a disarmingly informal tone, he brings the departed Forbes up to date on developments among their community of poets and in the world in general – our recent run of prime ministers, the careers of Forbes’s poetic friends and enemies, speculating on how Forbes would have responded. You probably need to know a bit about all that history to enjoy the poem, but it’s full of life and wit. Here’s a taste:

__________________________________ Our foreign ministers
___you'd have cherished – Downer & his air of stammer, of blithering,
Julie Bishop's show-pony, best-girl competence
 _ _(the earrings & tailored clothes), Bob Carr – how he rose 
___ to the occasion – & Rudd, after years of talking down to us, 
was about to, patiently, talk down to the United Nations. Look at me, Ma! 
They must've objected, or seen it coming.

Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian edited by Mabel Lee

Mabel Lee (editor), Poems of Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian (Vagabond Press 2014) – translated by Mabel Lee, Naikan Tao and Tony Prince

1ml This is the second book I’ve read in Vagabond Press’s admirable Asia-Pacific Writing series, and like the first – Poems of Yi Sha, Shu Cai and Yang Xie, edited and translated by Ouyang Yu – it features work by three poets translated from Chinese.

Strikingly, neither Mabel Lee nor Ouyang Yu mentions any of the poets who appear in the other’s book. The only overlap between their respective histories is a mention of Bei Dao, whom Ouyang Yu says is now regarded as ‘uncool, pretentious, even boring’ and whom Mabel Lee honours as a key figure in the post-Mao era. Clearly the story of recent Chinese poetry can contain multitudes.

Mabel Lee’s poets are a generation older than Ouyang Yu’s. Where his introduction discusses the way his poets turned away from the revolutionary zeal and protective obscurity of their Mao-era predecessors, she takes us further back, to the surge of translation of European literature into Chinese at time of the May Fourth movement (1915–1921), then forward through the turbulent decades that followed, the repression of the Cultural Revolution, then the process that began in the late 1970s, of Chinese writing ‘extricating itself from decades of stringent political censorship’.

These three poets were part of that process. They all came of age during the Cultural Revolution and were publishing poetry by the early 1980s. Hong Ying (born in 1962) and Yang Lian (born in 1955) left China soon after the brutal crackdown in Tienanmen Square on 4 June 1989, now live in London and are translated into many Western languages. Zhai Yongming (also born in 1955) lives in Chengdu (where the pandas are) and is something of a celebrity there as an artist and owner of White Nights, a wine bar ‘that functions as a literary and arts salon’.

Hong Ying, Mabel Lee tells us, writes as a form of self-treatment for trauma, and much of her poetry has a dreamlike, painfully introspective feel, like this from ‘Whose Mother?’:

She is linked with all words of grief
In endless gloomy rain
She delivers good fortune to my hands
I see clearly
Black ants crawling all over the road
Dragging along a crowd of silent monks

In the early 1980s Zhai Yongming was thrust ‘into a role model position for other aspiring women poets’. Her poetry is much more outward looking than Hong Ying’s, dealing with social issues, including but not at all limited to issues concerning women. The book’s sole endnote explains that her poem ‘Lament for Scholars’ relates to an incident she witnessed during the Cultural Revolution, in which the renowned actor Feng Zhe was publicly humiliated, later to be ‘tormented to death’. This factual background enriches the poem hugely for the ignorant reader (that is, me) and makes me wish for more. For example, I’d love to know the story behind a sequence of poems about a six-month stay in a village, with lines like this in ‘The Second Month’:

Shouts are heard on Cold Food Day
And to comfort the dead the villagers practise self-restraint
As I search I always wear a faltering smile
My inner wound linked to their eyes in a straight line
How can I enter Jang’an Village?
Though every day there are corpses of drowned infants and of brides who have swallowed poison

Is this telling us about the brutal conditions of village life, or is the speaker projecting something of her own inner suffering onto the villagers? I know I could look it up somewhere, but a note would help with the immediacy of first reading.

Mabel Lee describes Yang Lian’s poetry as possessing an exuberant male sexuality. There’s no sex as such in these poems, but there is a wonderful swaggering energy that carries all before it. here are some lines, picked almost at random, from ‘Dance: Swimming Naked with Li Bai’:

A cup of wine moulds the shape of a throat
A deeply private action _exposed to the public eye
Shakes the body’s _ defects become blindingly beautiful
Once you’ve jumped into the sweet stench of that river you’re drenched
From being submerged in it for a thousand years

I struggled with this book, partly because of my lack of familiarity with cultural/historical contexts, partly because I was constantly aware of the translators’ struggle to do more than paraphrase (though none of it has the English-as-a-second-language feel,of Ouyang Yu’s translation). On the way to writing this post I did some haphazard research (ie, a quick trawl of my bookshelves): I read T S Eliot’s comments on Ezra Pound’s translations from Chinese, in which he writes of the need for a great poet to communicate the poetry of another culture; I reread J P Seaton’s introduction to The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry, which explains some of the complexity of translating from Chinese to English, and tells the history almost to the point where Mabel Lee’s introduction begins. I decided that my ignorance is profound, and that for me to really grasp the work of these poets would take serious commitment to study on my part, or a translator-poet of genius to hand me something on a platter. For now, I can be grateful for the glimpses I have gained from this little book, and hope to be able to build on them in time.

awwbadge_2014 I’m probably pushing the boundaries to count this as part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge. But Mabel Lee is an Australian woman, and translation is a form of writing (the book doesn’t say it in so many words, but I think she translated Hong Ying and Yang Lian’s poems, while Naikan Tao and Tony Prince translated Zhai Yongming’s), not to mention her lucid introduction. Maybe I should count it as half a title, which means I’m up to 6.5 books. I don’t remember how many books I signed up for. Assuming it was 10 – the ‘Franklin’ level – I’m on track to have completed the challenge by the end of the year.

Yi Sha, Shu Cai, Yang Xie translated by Ouyang Yu

Ouyang Yu (translator), Poems of Shu Cai, Yi Sha & Yang Xie (Vagabond Press 2013)

Vagabond_Press_Asia_Pacific_Poetry_3This is the third title in Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Writing Series, but it’s the first I’ve read. The series, according to the Press’s website,

aims to create an open space for the sharing of cultural knowledge, understanding and enjoyment across national, political and language boundaries.

Working ‘in close collaboration with a growing community of writers, translators, editors and artists’, Michael Brennan, Elizabeth Allen and the rest of the small Vagabond crew have produced a dozen or so elegant volumes in the series, including work from China, Japan, the Philippines and Burma. At the Vagabond event at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, the ‘open space’ that the series aims to create was tangible in the diversity of writers and translators who were there in the flesh.

Ouyang Yu, who wasn’t at the Festival (I believe he’s a Melburnian), is a tireless writer, translator, scholar, editor and activist for Chinese literature in Australia and vice versa. His first translations of Yi Sha appeared in the second issue of Heat in 1996, twelve years before Bloodaxe Books published Yi Sha’s Starve the Poets!, describing it as his first English publication outside China. If you want a background to this book, and an overview of Chinese poetry in recent decades, you could do a lot worse than listen to ‘Neither Red Flags Nor Peach Blossom’, Parts One and Two, Poetica programs from 2013 in which Ouyang Yu speaks at greater length than his short introduction to this book allows.

The three poets in this book represent three historical stages in Chinese poetry. After the revolutionary zeal of the 1950s and 60s and the deeply coded elusiveness of the ‘misty poets’ in the next two decades, Yi Sha aimed to have poetry ‘enter into an era in which it speaks like a human being’. The poetry scene was split between the intellectual camp and the camp to which Yi Sha belonged, which emphasised oral poetry, story telling and (to judge from these poems) a degree of scurrilousness. At the end of the 1990s, Shu Cai introduced the ‘Third Road’, that belonged to neither camp, and was open to influence from the rest of the world. Yang Xie, born in 1972, belongs to a younger generation, and writes, as Ouyang Yu says, ‘a poetry that taps into the violence of daily life in small cities, with an inquisitive eye for detail’.

There’s a lot to enjoy here: the gutsy vulgarity of Yi Cha, the contemplative lyricism of Shu Cai, and the Yang Xie’s graphic narratives.

I found it a hard book to read, though, probably because of Ouyang Yu’s response to the translator’s inescapable dilemma: faced with the choice of making his translation read naturally or beautifully in the new language, or keeping readers aware that they are venturing out of the confines of their own language and culture, he has gone the latter path. Very little here reads as smooth English. In fact, it’s sometimes as if the poems have been translated from Chinese into English-as-a-second-language: prepositions feel slightly off, commas and definite articles appear in strange places, and the vocabulary is occasionally stilted. For example, the opening lines from Yi Sha’s ‘The File’:

at grade 3 junior high
when i first came into contact with chemistry
i was passionate about the experiment
and devoted myself to the research
i wanted to develop an air
that stank worse than carbon monoxide
i wanted them to be taken back
that day I was successful
the whole class withdrew from the lab
in panic

I think I chose this because I relate to the story, having once emptied a chemistry lab in ten seconds flat by exposing some potassium to air. Here, leaving aside the fact that carbon monoxide is odourless, maybe the original is just as flat as the translation, but it feels as if what we’re getting is a kind of report on the poem, which we then have to reconstruct as well as we can, each reader for him or herself. I’m no poet, but I can’t see that anything is lost if it is taken all the way into easy, spoken English, something like this:

in grade 3 at junior high
when i first did chemistry
i loved the experiments
and threw myself into research
i wanted to make a gas
that stank worse than carbon monoxide
i wanted to make them all sit up and notice
the day i succeeded
the whole class stampeded from the lab

I have an uneasy feeling that I’m out of my depth in commenting in this way on the work of such an eminent translator, but my experience in reading these three poets was all too often that the translation was simultaneously giving and taking away: showing me these interesting and exciting poems, then making it hard work to grasp them. Maybe, of course, that’s exactly how it ought to be.


NSWPLA Dinner, a report from the trenchers

Last year a woman premier presented the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards at the Art Gallery. Tonight a non-Labor premier, just as rare a beast in the 10 of these dinners I’ve been to, did it at the Opera Point Marquee, … Continue reading

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist

The 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist seems to have been announced without the usual Macquarie Street gathering for PowerPoint and photo ops. That probably makes sense, given that the Premier has a lot on her mind just now, and barring a total windfall for the bookies she won’t be Premier when the awards are presented in May. Or maybe I just wasn’t invited this year. But I’m not bearing a grudge, and I was busy that day anyhow. For those who find it irritating to have to flick back and forth to read the different short lists on the Awards site, here they all are at the bottom of this post – the links take you to the NSWPLA website’s discussion of the title.

I haven’t read, or in the case of the plays seen, very much from the list at all. Speaking from the heart of my prejudice, I don’t much want to read any of the Christina Stead titles except Utopian Man and Night Street, both novels about eminent Victorians (the State rather than the era). I’m tempted by all the Douglas Stewart titles – this is where literary awards really do serve a purpose, by drawing attention to books like Tony Moore’s history of political prisoners among the Australian convicts, Death or Liberty, which might otherwise have gone unnoticed, at least by me. I’m glad to see Jennifer Maiden’s book on the Kenneth Slessor list, but I haven’t read any of the others. In the past the NSWPLA lists have led me to interesting poets, so I’m inclined to go in search of Susan Bradley Smith, Andy Jackson, Jill Jones (of whom I’m ashamed to say I’ve yet to read a book), Anna Kerdijk Nicholson and Andy Kissane.

Of the remaining lists, what can I say? I’m out of touch with writing for ‘young people’ (a term I understand here as designating teenagers), but my friend Misrule was an Ethel Turner judge, and I’m confident in her judgement. Though I’ve only read one from the Patricia Wrightson list,  I know the work of five of the six writers, and will be delighted whichever of them becomes several thousand dollars richer come mid-May. If the other books are as good as The Three Loves of Persimmon, it’s a vintage year. I’ve seen four of the six scripts produced for the big or little screen, and wouldn’t know how to choose between them for excellence – another vintage crop. I heard Ali Azadeh read from Iran: My Grandfather at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, and it’s been on my TBR list since then.

Here are the lists:

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Peter Carey – Parrot and Olivier in America
Stephen Daisley – Traitor
Lisa Lang – Utopian Man
Alex Miller – Lovesong
Kristel Thornell – Night Street
Ouyang Yu – The English Class

The Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction
Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons – Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs
Anna Krien – Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests
Tony Moore – Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia 1788-1868
Ranjana Srivastava – Tell Me The Truth: Conversations With My Patients About Life And Death
Maria Tumarkin – Otherland
Brenda Walker – Reading By Moonlight: How Books Saved a Life

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
Susan Bradley Smith – Supermodernprayerbook
Andy Jackson – Among the Regulars
Jill Jones – Dark Bright Doors
Anna Kerdijk Nicholson – Possession
Andy Kissane – Out to Lunch
Jennifer Maiden – Pirate Rain

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature
Michelle Cooper – The FitzOsbornes in Exile: The Montmaray Journals – 2
Cath Crowley – Graffiti Moon
Kirsty Eagar – Saltwater Vampires
Belinda Jeffrey – Big River, Little Fish
Melina Marchetta – The Piper’s Son
Jaclyn Moriarty – Dreaming of Amelia

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
Jeannie Baker – Mirror
Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood – Clancy and Millie and the Very Fine House
Cassandra Golds – The Three Loves of Persimmon
John Heffernan – Where There’s Smoke
Sophie Masson – My Australian Story: The Hunt for Ned Kelly
Emma Quay – Shrieking Violet

Community Relations Commission Award
Ali Alizadeh – Iran: My Grandfather
Anh Do – The Happiest Refugee
Maria Tumarkin – Otherland
Ouyang Yu – The English Classm
Yuol Yuol, Akoi Majak, Monica Kualba, John Garang Kon and Robert Colman – My Name is Sud

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
Stephen Daisley – Traitor
Ashley Hay – The Body in the Clouds
Lisa Lang – Utopian Man
David Musgrave – Glissando: A Melodrama
Kristel Thornell – Night Street
Gretchen Shirm – Having Cried Wolf

Play Award
Patricia Cornelius – Do Not Go Gentle…
Jonathan Gavin – Bang
Jane Montgomery Griffiths – Sappho…In 9 Fragments
Melissa Reeves – Furious Mattress
Sue Smith – Strange Attractor
Anthony Weigh – Like a Fishbone

Script Writing Award
Shirley Barrett – South Solitary
Glen Dolman – Hawke
Michael Miller – East West 101, Season 3: The Hero’s Standard
John Misto – Sisters of War
Debra Oswald – Offspring
Samantha Strauss – Dance Academy, Episode 13: Family