David Siew Hii, our editorial fellow in poetry for issue 72.2, interviewed every poet in the issue. To better center their voices, he removed his questions, giving them more space to talk about poetry and life. The document that follows is a curated, compressed version of that conversation. Read Yuan’s poem “Lesson One in Chinese Character/s: a Bilinguacultural Poem about Heart.”
I’m in Vancouver. It’s now four o’clock in the afternoon.
Oh, in Vancouver the weather is always bad. Rainy, rainy about one third of the day.
I have a magazine of my own I established with my son. Poetry Pacific.
Oh, this poem is a subgenre of my own invention. And I’m feeling very proud of this.
I began to write my first piece about Heart because of the structure of the word, of the Chinese character itself. First, I wrote only three lines for three words, and then I expanded the poem.
So, I play with the words in bilingual and cross-cultural contexts. Eventually I wrote almost 40 or 50 of them. Then I published a whole collection—called Sinosaur.
I explore ideas to their full extent.
As a student of language and literature all my life, I just enjoy playing with words.
Actually, I’m a very private guy.
But this one (“Lesson One: A Bilinguacultural Poem about Heart”) was particularly interesting because it was the very first one I’ve ever written in this genre.
You know I submitted it first to other magazines, including Taiwanese or mainland Chinese or Hong Kong ones, but none of them were interested.
I know that many people are learning Chinese now, especially native speakers of English.
I want to present this poem to those people who are friendly to or interested in Chinese culture. They might have an interest in learning something.
Oh, I just began to write fiction last year, and I’ve published seven short stories already. I wrote eleven last year.
I envy you young people.
I wish I could’ve done it much earlier, when I had more energy and time to do what I wanted to. But now I’m a little bit too old. My eyes are not good anymore.
I have a lot of health problems, and I don’t have enough energy, although I have many, many things to write about.
Sometimes—my records show—when I was inspired enough—I wrote 33 poems on a single day.
I got my PhD in English about 30 years ago, and even before I got my degree I began work as a part-time tutor.
Later on, I began to work as a ghost writer and then an editor and then a publisher and translator. And I was considered a very good and efficient translator. In recent years, I just work mainly as a publisher.
And now as China keeps rising, more and more attention will be paid to Chinese.
I think that Western people do not really understand Chinese.
In my poetry, I try to promote exchange of cultures. If the West understands more about Chinese people, about the Chinese nationality or national personality, maybe they won’t be so hostile.
Westerners only understand their own interest, their own culture, their own civilization. And they try to interpret Chinese in their own terms. So, I think as China keeps rising as a superpower, more and more Western attention will be paid to what is authentically Chinese.
I can only contribute in my own way. Whenever there is a chance, I would try to promote a cross cultural understanding; it’s what I can do.
A long way to go, yes.
I noticed many people, writers, especially from mainland China, have sometimes talked about bad things of their own culture, those things that can please the Westerners and appeal to the Western sense of superiority. For some personal gain. Some reward, some cash prize.
They become famous, blah, blah, blah, blah. But I hate that.
I would not try to appeal to the Western readers. I don’t like to please them.
So that’s why I know many people don’t like me. Especially, with a PhD in English, I know a lot about English mentality, about Euro-centralism, and although they are sometimes politically correct, they are hostile.
I don’t swear at my own people. I don’t curse my own culture. I don’t do that. I hate to do that.
I wouldn’t recommend people to conform to my taste; my taste is only good for myself.
I know I’m old enough not to care about anybody or about anything. I just read what I like.
But, for me, really, a good poem should be short. I like many Chinese poets because they tend to be more lyrical.
You know, I just follow my own heart, follow my own interest. I do everything according to my inspirations.
Officially, I should have been retired, but I’m still working as a produce clerk. Part time. This way I can keep myself fit, healthy. The job forces me to move around all the time.
Actually, nobody in the store knows that I’m a writer.
For further reading, Yuan recommends the poet, Lorna Crozier.