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An Interview with Chen-ou Liu 
by Robert D. Wilson


“My mind, which was yearning after some indescribable thing from morning to night, could find an outlet to some extent only by making poems.”

— Ishikawa Takuboku

“I feel the pain and I see the beauty.”

— Masaoka Shiki

RDW:  Seemingly, out of nowhere you appear in the haiku world like a jack-in-the-box, your haiku is getting attention.  Most people writing good haiku today have been at it a long time, some for decades, and are, of course, well known.  Few, however, are Chinese, and fewer are those who were born and raised in Taiwan and come to North America to earn a living, and compose quality haiku in a language, like Chinese, that is considered one of the hardest languages to learn.  And as I learn more about you, I see that you’re an individual who puts his all into everything he does, some call it perfectionism. You literally become one with your art while composing.

What brought you to North America?  In Taiwan, you had a successful book review radio that garnered the national Best Book Review Program award, not once but twice. At the same time, you also wrote reviews, essays, and opinion pieces for various magazines. It seemed you were quite successful at a young age and had a promising future ahead of you. Married in 1992, you married Hing-fan. Together you decided not to have children in order to pursue both of your life’s goals.  In 1998, Hing-fan went to the University of Toronto to pursue a master’s degree in social work, while you stayed in Taiwan to work to support your wife and to pay for her schooling.  After more than ten years of struggling with a new life dream and preparing for a major change in your field of study, computer science to cultural studies, you and Hing-fan chose to immigrate to Canada to realize your collective dreams. Please elucidate.

CL:  The first time I came to North America I was driven by social norms and parental expectations. In 1988, after finishing the two-year compulsory military service, I followed in the footsteps of the Taiwanese elite by going to the USA to pursue a Ph.D. degree in Computer Science. I dreamed of getting a teaching job there after graduation. During my first two year in the USA, I began to envision a different kind of life, that of a film/literary critic, a life that I would enjoy and not just be obliged to live. After getting my master’s degree, I quit the Ph.D. program after just six months had passed and went back to Taiwan in 1991.

I found a teaching job in a college and, relatively speaking, had enough time and money to develop my own life interests, such as film theory, literature, philosophy, sociology, and writing. In the 1990s, one of the most tumultuous and ideologically charged eras in the Taiwanese history, everything was easily reduced to support for or opposition to Taiwan Independence. Through reading and living in an identity-seeking society at the time, my worldview was influenced by European existentialism, postcolonial literature, and Taiwan native soil literature, a literary movement that arose in opposition to both mainland-centered governmental geopolitics and the West-oriented modernist movement. I constantly asked myself the following questions: in what contexts were my identities situated? What kind of life would I like to live fully?

These questions prompted me to think seriously about how to pursue my self-chosen field of study, the newly-emerging discipline of cultural studies. No universities in Taiwan offered such inter/multi-disciplinary programs; even in North America, there were only a few. And I thought it would take more than ten years to get a Ph.D. degree because of the change in my field of study. Meanwhile, Hing-fan’s profession, social work, was not fully developed in Taiwan. In 1998, she went to the University of Toronto to pursue a master’s degree. Shortly after graduation, due to her good performance during work placement, she found a job at a mainstream social service agency.

At that time, both of us thought immigration was the best possible way to fulfill our life goals. Therefore, we decided that I would stay in Taiwan to earn money for our living expenses while she applied for permanent residency in Canada.

Driven by a personal life vision that I would live and die for, I came to North America for the second time in the summer of 2002, and settled in Ajax, a suburb of Toronto, where I continue to struggle with a life in transition and translation.

RDW:  How did these decisions and changes affect your family?  Are they okay with these choices?

CL:  I still vividly remember the day I left for Canada. My parents were virtually silent. My older brother and his wife told me to take good care of myself, and my young nephew kept bugging me to buy toys for him. I waved goodbye to them as I walked toward the Airport Departure Entrance. My parents didn’t wave back. I thought that they must have been too heartbroken, because all of my decisions went against their expectations, which were mainly shaped by the socio-cultural norms of the society in which we lived.

First of all, I didn’t finish my Ph. D. degree. One of the main explanations that I gave to my parents at the time was that I didn’t want to financially burden them and let them pay all of the expenses I needed to finish my studies.

Secondly, when I got married, Hing-fan and I decided that we would not have children. It was because we didn’t foresee that we would be able to provide a stable family life for children if both of us pursued our life goals.

Thirdly, while I stayed in Taiwan and saved money for my future studies, I had great difficulty explaining to my family why I wanted to make a drastic change in my field of study. My parents always tried to dissuade me by saying that I was no longer young, and that I had an important responsibility to take care of my family.

Finally, in 2000, due to the unstable socio-political-economic situation in Taiwan, the housing market was in decline. In 2002, when I sold my house, I only got the half of the money that I had paid for it. This money was supposed to be used for our future expenses in Canada. My parents wanted me to give up my immigration plan.

When my parents did not wave goodbye to me at the airport, it hurt me a lot, but I fully understood that I had disappointed them in the first place.

Since arriving in Canada, I was frustrated by my learning experience in terms of the depth and scope of the classroom discussions as well as stressed by the financial burden. So, I quit my studies and wrote essays in my adopted language, English. After two years of endeavor, I published three essays (“Disrupting Imperial Linear Time: Virginia Woolf’s Temporal Perception in ‘To the Lighthouse’”, “On Gibsonian Cyberspace in ‘Neuromancer’”, and “Cops: Packing and Policing the Real”) in Cultural Studies Monthly, but got almost no attention from the scholars in the related fields. Furthermore, I was frustrated by my incapacity to mastering English quickly, and also struggled with my newly-racialized identities. My pent-up emotions began spilling over onto pieces of scrap paper in the form of free verse, later of tanka and haiku, and the more I wrote, the more I thought about becoming a poet.

One of the worst nightmares my family in general and my parents in particular could imagine for me is to become a poet, which means little monetary earning. They asked me several times to return to Taiwan or wanted to send me money to support my life here. But I refused both, and stayed here and kept on writing. My family still cannot understand why I would choose such a difficult and insecure way of living. 

I haven’t seen my family since I emigrated to Canada in 2002. I am planning to visit them this October, and will have a heart-to-heart talk with them about all of the decisions I’ve made. I hope to convince them that I am having a more fulfilled life here as a poet, and that they should stop worrying so much about me.

RDW:  You’re far from your homeland and culture, and have to quit school to feed and care for your family.  During this time you discover poetry, and in your words: become “the quintessential ‘struggling poet’ writing from his agitated heart.” What is the source of this agitation?

CL:  Before my emigration to Canada, I’d always been a man who used words, spoken and written, to express my thoughts in an articulate way. Since my arrival here, I am constantly stuck in the middle of finding the exact words to convey my feelings. Even in the best case scenarios, in the strain of translating a Chinese word into its English equivalent, or vice versa, the spontaneity and natural quality of my speech are lost. In this laborious process of translation, I try hard to impose my learning, will, and intellect on my spoken English in an effort to turn my speech into an oral facade of my hidden self. I know that I am failing, for I feel that I’m falling out of the tightly-knit fabric of emotional vocabulary into the weightless net of the linguistic signifiers of a foreign language.

As Chinese-American writer Ha Jin emphasized in an interview with Dave Weich, “[dealing] with the question of language is at the core of the immigrant experience: how to learn the language–or give up learning the language!–but without the absolute mastery of the language, which is impossible for an immigrant. Your life is always affected by the insufficiency.” In one of my unpublished prose poems, “Why believe you can write verse in English?,” I also wrote of struggling with my faltering confidence in writing:

“To write verse in English is not like growing ideograms inside your heart, reaping the sentences matured by the muse of desire, taking your clothes off with words, and exposing yourself in the rhythm of the stanzas so that you can hold your passport and cross the borders of linguistic solitudes, emigrating from the ideographic to the alphabetic. 

English still remains an unmastered means of deciphering the musings of your heart and mind, and it is constantly intruded upon and twisted by inflections from the old language. Often, you are not able to connect emotions to words, to feel the weight of their syllables. Without emotional vocabulary, everything becomes elusion, confusion, and the fear of things you needn’t be afraid of.”

RDW:  How did you overcome this agitation?

CL:  I don’t think I’ve overcome this agitation. As Ha Jin said in his interview, “your life is always affected by the insufficiency” of language, an inability to capture the interplay between thought and expression of emotions.

Take writing as an example. Writing in English is very different from writing in Chinese, linguistically and culturally. The written Chinese language is highly literary, highbrow, and detached from the spoken language. Comparatively speaking, it doesn’t possess the flexibility of English which is very expressive and has a strong capacity for playing games with words and diction that are close to the spoken language. In Chinese, especially if you write a literary work, you don’t write in plain speech; if you do so, you’re definitely looked down on as a third-rate writer. A lot of words and phrases are deeply rooted in a centuries-old literary history of allusions, and they should be skillfully used in the context of the Chinese classic literary tradition.

To write in English requires a different way of thinking, and it focuses more on the expressivity and innovation of words and phrases. During the course of my adjustment to English writing, I have slowly begun to squeeze the Chinese literary mentality out of my mind. As Ha Jin said emphatically, “it was like having a blood transfusion, like you are changing your blood.”

Up to now, I’ve gone through a blood transfusion for almost five years. English writing, for me, has been and still is a twisting process of heart and mind. During the writing process, in the strain of translating one spontaneous idea or heartfelt feeling into a grammatically and semantically correct sentence, I, due to a lack of enough active vocabulary or literary expressions, have to simplify the way I think and write; thus I force myself to put on a kind of writing persona.

I find that writing practice can be a way of paying attention and acknowledging traces, revisions, and erasing. I have gradually come to a conclusion about my life: I am always, in some way or another, starting over.

Moreover, writing in English oftentimes forces me to see, think, and write differently; thus it broadens the horizon of my world and knowledge, which is one of the main reasons I emigrated from Taiwan to Canada. Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said,” If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.” In line with this sort of thinking, if I wrote in a different language, I would perceive a somewhat different world.  For me now, to write in English is to attempt and make a run at something without knowing whether I am going to succeed. It points a way for me to function with relative freedom in an unfamiliar world of the alphabet, and to make myself up from moment to moment.

RDW:  A follow up question, what brought the change from writing free verse poetry to tanka?

CL:  After almost a year of striving to write so-called free verse poetry without much success, I came across a book of tanka poetry, Sad Toy, written by Ishikawa Takuboku and translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda. In the introduction, Takuboku emphasized that

“My mind, which was yearning after some indescribable thing from morning to night, could find an outlet to some extent only by making poems. And I had absolutely nothing except that mind… I want to say this: a very complicated process was needed to turn actual feelings into poetry… Poetry must not be what is usually called poetry. It must be an exact report, an honest diary, of the changes in a man’s emotional life. Accordingly, it must be fragmentary; it must not have organization… Each second is one which never comes back in our life. I hold it dear. I don’t want to let it pass without doing anything for it. To express that moment, tanka, which is short and takes not much time to compose, is most convenient…” 

The emotional power, socio-political sensibilities and colloquial language of Takuboku’s tanka, a kind of poetry in the moment and for the moment, appealed to me, and I came to view tanka as a poetic diary that recorded the changes in the emotional life of the poet. I went on to read Carl Sesar’s Takuboku: Poems to Eat, and got a deeper understanding of Takuboku’s conception of a new kind of poetry, “poems to eat:”

“The name means poems made with both feet upon the ground. It means poems written without putting any distance from actual life. They are not delicacies, or dainty dishes, but food indispensable for us in our daily meal. To define poetry in this way may be to pull it down from its established position, but to me it means to make poetry, which has added nothing or detracted nothing from actual life, into something which cannot be dispensed with.

In some aspects, Takuboku’s view on poetry is similar to that of Dionne Brand: “Poetry is here, just here. Something wrestling with how we live… something honest.” Since encountering Takuboku’s poetry, I started writing tanka as a diary and kept on reading books of or on tanka.  Some of these books opened up a new world for me.

RDW:  Then you see a symbiotic similarity between Japanese verse and Chinese?

CL:  Yes. Generally speaking, tanka and haiku derived from Japanese court poetry, which was greatly shaped by the Chinese poetic tradition. According to Judith N. Rabinovitch’s Dance of the Butterflies: Chinese  Poetry  from the Japanese Court Tradition, the composition of Chinese poetry (kanshi) in the Japanese court dates to the mid-seventh century. During the Heian age (794-1185), kanshi emerged as one of two preeminent poetic genres employed by aristocrats, scholar-officials, and priests… over the centuries it developed into one of Japan’s most enduring literary forms. Kanshi continued to flourish in Japan through early modern times, remaining vital down to the Taisho era (1912-1926).” 

But, since the Meiji Restoration (1868 -1912), the Western literary traditions had exerted great influence on Japanese reform writers and thinkers, from whom a lot of Chinese overseas students learned modern Western literature. The most famous one was Lu Xun. He gave up his medical career, and later became one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, who is considered by many to be the founder of modern Chinese literature.
Like my fellow writers of previous generations, reading the following books written by or for Japanese reform poets helped open up a new world for me, and it also reminded me of the Japanese and Chinese struggles with revitalizing their literary traditions under the pressure of modernization:

In Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, Makoto Ueda’s structural approach to the poetic ideas held by the Japanese tanka/haiku poets, such as Masaoka Shiki, Yosano Akiko, and Ishikawa Takuboku, was very helpful for me to situate tanka in the socio-cultural-political contexts of the Japanese poetic tradition. His introduction from Modern Japanese Tanka: An Anthology provided the historical contexts of various tanka groups and movements, and the text itself showcased modern Japanese tanka poets and their works.             

Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems and  Songs from a Bamboo Village: Selected Tanka from Take no Sato Uta, gave me a glimpse into the suffering soul and prolific life of an innovative poet, Masaoka Shiki. Shiki’s three poetic principles — shasei (“sketches from life”), makoto (“truthfulness”), and everyday language — helped me set my feet firmly on the ground. His struggle with new literary expressions of tanka and haiku reminded me of Lu Xun.             

Moreover, disregarding all pain, Shiki wrote most of his heartfelt tanka and haiku from his sickbed with a discerning eye for beauty. This made him a model for human courage, and was epitomized in the following diary entry:  “there are ten goldfish in a glass bowl on the table. I watch them intently from my sickbed as I struggle with my pain. I feel the pain and I see the beauty (April 15, 1901).”  And his fighting spirit helped me to confront the harsh reality I faced without backing down.

Yosano Akiko’s Tangled Hair: Selected Tanka from ‘Midaregami,’ opened up a new window through which I saw private emotions (jikkan) play an influential role in instilling female selfhood, sexuality, and body imagery in the framework of centuries-old poetry. As well, the final three chapters of Janine Beichman’s Embracing the Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry, which are devoted to an interpretation of Akiko’s Tangled Hair, helped me further understand her audacious creativity in breaking the taboos in poetic expressions.

As one who has long been interested in cinema, Kaleidoscope: Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayam, greatly appealed to me because Terayama’s “fiction tanka” not only dismantled my hard-learned ideas about what the tanka is, but also interweaved the narrative threads of personal mythology, trauma, cultural memories, socio-political events and surreal imagination

RDW:  What drew you to include haiku in your repertoire?

CL:  Through the practice of composing tanka and its related genres, I felt the urge to enrich my writing experience, and thus decided to expand my limited understanding of another Japanese short verse form, haiku, and to try my hand at it.  Haruo Shirane’s book, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, helped me look beyond the haiku moment and debunk some modern haiku myths. With the aid of a newly-acquainted poet friend, Brian Zimmer, I was exposed to the Japanese gendai haiku, monostiches, and one-line haiku, all of which have enriched and deepened my writing experience.

RDW: Your extensive study of haiku and tanka seems to be paying off. Suddenly I’m reading your excellent poetry world-wide. I’m sure this has boosted your confidence.

CL: Yes, It has. After almost one and a half years of exploration into these Japanese short verse forms, more than one hundred and fifty poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals of tanka and haiku. One of them won Honourable Mention for The Saigyo Awards for Tanka 2009, another won Tanka Third Place for the 2009 San Francisco International Haiku, Senryu, Tanka, and Rengay Competition, and the other three poems were anthologized.

But, my writing in English is still far from perfect. In an essay titled “Three Readings of Ezra Pound’s ‘Metro Haiku’,” I wrote:

“As one who is an English learner as well as a struggling poet, I can identify with Pound’s six-year epic struggle with one poem, which embodies his audacious proclamation of “Make it new!” Every time when I confront the following impasse:

Respect English
is whispered into my left ear
Make it new
into my right –
the page remains blank

I always think of Ezra Pound:

an American
unties tangled threads
innocent
of Chinese ideograms
and weaves them anew

Now, this is a life-long writing lesson for me to learn “how to write more truthfully and innovatively.

RDW:  Thank you my friend for sharing this portion of your life and how it helped transform you into the poet you are today and the poet your will become in the years to come.

Do you have any advice for those new to the composition of English language tanka and haiku, especially those from a non-English speaking country such as your homeland?

CL:  I have only four words for them: read, write, and rewrite unceasingly. I’ve amazed by the short-lived and yet prolific life of the innovative poet, Masaoka Shiki. He read hard, wrote truthfully, and rewrote a lot.

For those who write in an adopted language, they should try even harder. As Samuel Beckett emphasized, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  For me, being a poet who writes in his adopted language means being voluntarily mad and struggling alone with the voices whispering, “you’re a failed poet.” Therefore, writing is a Jobian struggle against noises and silence.

I believe in the human spirit, and think that it is not the success or failure that matters, but the struggle itself. The purpose of a writing life is the struggle, and a poet’s salvation is based upon how well he or she handles the struggle.

At the end of our interview, I would like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about my struggle with being a poet. And special thanks to my wife, Hing-fan, for her unwavering support for my life decisions, to my Canadian friends, Mary Macdonell and Florence Jung, for encouraging me to write in English, and finally to my poet friends, Brian Zimmer and Aurora Antonovic, for stimulating me to write differently. 

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Chen-ou Liu was born in 1963 in Taipei, Taiwan. He received a B.S. in computer science from National Chiao Tung University, and a Masters Degree. He migrated to Canada with his wife Hing-fan. Approximately eighty of Liu’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals of tanka and haiku. One of them won Honourable Mention for The Saigyo Awards for Tanka 2009, and two poems were anthologized.

  

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