Heartlines explores what it means to write – from the heart and soul – and where that writing takes us. Every writers’ journey is different, and so we invite you to take a moment to read, pause and reflect on what it means to shape stories for the page.
Luoyang Chen is a poet with a professional background in social work. He is a new participant of the local writing community, having recently moved to Perth and just completed the hot desk fellowship at Centre for Stories. Luoyang’s poetry has been published in Cordite Poetry Review, Farrago and Opal Literary. In this interview Anika Donnison sat down with him to talk about his presence as a poet, where his inspiration comes from, his hot desk fellowship and what he’s planning next.
Anika Donnison: So, my first question is what are you currently reading and why? What drew your attention to it?
Luoyang Chen: This might have something to do with ADHD, but I like reading so many books at the same time. So, I do have some books that I opened last year that I’m still reading right now, along with the books that I just opened. Robert Wood just gave me two of his books as well. So, it’s a bit hard for me to say, like, what books I’m currently reading and why or what drew my attention to it, sorry!
AD: Don’t worry about it. It sounds like you’ve read a lot of books. Do you have a book that changed your life?
LC: That changed my life? Oh, I wouldn’t say changed my life, but I would say there are some books that mean a lot to me. One of them is Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue. So, Bhanu is a British-Indian poet who I think won the T.S Eliot Prize for Poetry last year, for her latest collection How to wash a heart, which explores the experience of being a guest in a host family. You can think of it as being an immigrant in a country and the experience of the immigrant, or as a citizen of colour who was born in a country that is white-dominated. There are different layers of how you read her work, so that’s very interesting. I mean that book is also very important to me as well but Ban en Banlieue is a poetry collection that is not writing but something that resembles writing: it is a collection of, I guess, acts of writing. Or as Bhanu called it “the author’s notes”. It’s a failed novel. It is something that she has been writing over the years. It talks about racism, patriarchy, trauma, migration and reverse migration, about the relationship between mental health issues and post-migration stressors, about making something beautiful out of the shit, out of the detritus. Everything in that book is what is normally excluded in writing and publishing, so I think other than her, I think many writers will normally not publish the draft or the notes they took while they were writing or doing their project. They will only publish the final version of that. But Bhanu used this notetaking to literally use this detritus, this rubbish, to put into a book that has its own unique value. I think that’s what makes it a great poetry collection.
AD: I read that English is not your first language, but yet you write your poetry in English, exclusively. Considering how people are trying to push away from writing in English to decolonise their writing, would you be open to sharing why you have chosen to write in English?
LC: Well, if you asked me this question, say last year, I probably would have given you a different reason than now. So before, I would say it’s because I am scared of being imprisoned by the Chinese government. A lot of the things I write about, not exclusively, but a lot of the, I guess, the ideas and topics or themes that I write about are related to politics or, you could say, the idea of freedom or democracy. But let’s not go into that territory [laughs]. I think my answer to this question changes at different stages of my life. So right now, for me I think English gives me the freedom to write because I started writing – so I didn’t write in Chinese creatively while I was in China – but I noticed that I started writing, or, had the idea of being a writer around about the time I started learning English and knew that I would be studying abroad. I would consider myself a wordsmith: I like observing and taking notes, I have books on English phrases, words and their meaning sitting on my desk, my luggage, and my drawer. Sometimes I will go back and read over them and find how this word and that word pieced together to make something beautiful. So, I’m constantly piecing and putting things together. Like a collage. But that’s my creative strategies or my ways of being creative.
AD: Yes, English is my first language and I know that it is notoriously difficult to learn. But I think it is really unique to be able to pull together words, that others wouldn’t usually use. You are looking at it from another perspective.
LC: That’s right. I feel like that is another point – that I look at a language from another perspective because my cultural background is different from yours and others. But another point is that I am learning English as if I were a child, so in a sense, I am living in a child’s life, like observing and being creative and not being put down. So, I guess this is my way of discovering a language that a native speaker might not, I guess, be aware of. Maybe because when native speakers were growing up, they wouldn’t learn English in a creative way but just learn it in a pragmatic way and forget about the nature or the beautiful side of the language. Because for them, it is just so familiar that they can use it without even thinking about it. But for me it’s different. When I’m using it, I am constantly thinking, well if this is what I actually want to say, do these phrases do it justice in representing my point of view or what I want to express?, so, I will be more careful with language, and because they are unfamiliar to me, that’s why I’m attracted by them.
AD: So, what do you do outside of writing?
LC: Right. So, I am a Master of Social Work student at the University of Western Australia. So, outside, I guess, of writing and reading I am a student and do schoolwork and my prac. I am currently doing my prac at a local primary school. I guess another way to answer your question would be that I never stop thinking about writing because I consider writing multidimensional or multilayered, so I treat pre-writing and post-writing as part of writing. So, for me, writing is not just the process of when you are writing something or typing something. It involves what comes before, when you are thinking or when you are observing, all of that I consider writing – as creating. Because they must come from somewhere. I can’t just sit here and all of a sudden have those words to say. So, I treat my experience and my surroundings and the phenomena that are manifesting around me as equally as important as, I guess, the final version of whatever that is. That’s what I mean about making something beautiful out of the detritus or the everydayness. Yeah, so, I think I never stop writing, as well as while I’m talking to you now, I’m aware of, I guess, maybe I will reflect on my interview with you and a poem will come out. Or even just a phrase.
AD: I think it’s really cool, that writing is so deeply ingrained in your daily life. What is your most surprising hobby?
LC: My most surprising hobby? I guess buying books. So, I have [laughs] lots and lots of books. The worst part is that I haven’t read all of them, and I’m still buying more books. So, I’m reminding myself like, Luoyang you need to go back to your bookshelf. Maybe half of them you haven’t read yet. But I don’t know, I think books are valuable. I’m not treating them like a commodity. Because sometimes, when I buy them, I think I’m ready to read them. But when I get home, you know, there’s not enough time. A year later, or a few months, I pick it up and start reading them. Some of them I bought two to three years ago but I would just leave it there. Some books I just think this is the right time to read this book so I just open it. Sometimes I go back to the books I have read so many times just repeating over and over but every time I learn something new from it.
If you go back to my desk, you will see I have four or five books spread across it. But sometimes with fiction, whenever I pick them back up, I have lost the narratives. So, I feel like, I’ve lost the narratives of books. I think that’s a really good line.
AD: You’ve just completed a hot desk at Centre for Stories. Has the hot desk fellowship changed your daily practice or perception of Perth?
LC: So, before the application – I’m actually new to Perth. I’d been living in Melbourne for four and a half years. But I came to Perth in late February. So I have only been here for about half a year. When I was applying for the hot desk fellowship there was a question asking me why I wanted to apply. My reason was that I wanted to know more people in the writing community and to – not so much network – but have a genuine, sincere, meaningful connection with other creatives. That was my intention in coming here. The first few months, I felt a bit detached from reality or awkward and embarrassed over not being able to make a conversation with others. Then I was seriously thinking about what am I doing here? I mean it’s good to have a space to write, it’s good to get financial support but that was not the main reason why I applied for this fellowship. It was for me to actually find connections with people here. I am literally alone here and didn’t have any friends. I didn’t know anyone besides the people from my uni. But then, I guess you can see now, I am quite relaxed and open now. Which can imply that I have made some meaningful connections and I think this is a safe place to be around. Yeah, so for me, I guess, it makes me comfortable and safe. It’s not just ticking the boxes of “oh, we’re inclusive” or “we respect diversity”. I think they are actually doing it. At least for me, I feel that way. I feel accepted, seen, encouraged, loved and supported here.
AD: Yes, Centre for Stories is very committed to inclusivity and being a welcoming space. They’re about working with others and collaborating and providing a safe place for diverse thoughts through supporting each other: is there anyone at Centre for Stories that would be your ‘dream’ collaborator?
LC: A good question. Well, actually I never thought about that question. I guess based on my interactions, I’d say Raf Gonzalez. Raf writes spoken word poetry. But when he spoke to me or read to me, I didn’t put them into the category of spoken poetry, or it could be poetry on-page as well. Raf has this unique voice and his performance was just that wonderful. At the same time, it’s not just about the sound, it’s not just about the voice, it’s also about the meaning behind the words. That makes me feel like that it’s not just about performance it’s page poetry as well. But Raf can do these performances to make the sounds to, I guess, connect with his audience. At least for me, through the performance, not just the poetry on-page. So I thought maybe I could learn from Raf about the performances or the performative aspect of reading a poem. How to connect to your readers or audience not just through the reading form. But also, through the actual live performance. If that makes sense.
AD: Oh, yeah. I think especially with what you said before about your unique perspective on words. Spoken word poetry will be amazing. Because you have that unique outlook. It is just another way for you to play with the words.
LC: That’s right. I’m really interested in language. Not in that linguistic way, but more the philosophical way. What can language do and what impact it has on us and our personality, our identity, our lifestyles, our lives. I think that resonates with what you said about the words. We pay attention to words and what they do for us.
AD: Absolutely. Can you briefly describe a piece of writing that you worked on during your hot desk that you are particularly excited about?
LC: Before I came here, I had a piece of work I had been working on called Flow: an immigrant in act, it’s a poetry collection that explores and discusses intercultural experiences. It talks about inclusiveness and exclusion and about language and what language does to us, and what’s the nature of language. Does language help us communicate and get closer to each other, or does it exclude people from each other? That’s something that I am very interested in. In that collection, it also talks about racism or anti-racism, about longing about grieving. While being at the Centre for Stories, I didn’t look at them. I was writing some other stuff. They weren’t thematically connected to each other, so I wrote some new lyrical poems that aim to strike against lyrical tradition. Or what I would call reverse lyrics. But they are lyrical poetry themselves. It is very ambiguous; I am writing something against itself. Recently I have been writing a suite of poems called Zoom, that tries to reflect on how the global pandemic affects our lives. Do we actually have time for ourselves to grieve or are we just rushing into normalising everything?
AD: Although you may not have worked on Flow as you intended, it sounds like you have spent a good amount of time thinking it through and pondering over its meaning. What will you be working on next?
LC: I think that I will go back to working on Flow because it has been sitting there for quite a while and I do need to go back and read through it and maybe do another edit. Yeah, I think that will be the next project; however, I might have new projects or ideas coming up. Like I said I think everything is about writing, personally, so it doesn’t mean once it’s finished it is all done. If I have new thoughts, I will come back to them. Perhaps, hopefully, one day I can send them to some editors for writing assessment or publication assessment. But also, I am very interested in sending some of the poems from that collection to literary journals to see if I can get them published, or not, or see if people are interested, or not. I think that is basically my next step.
Luoyang Chen was born in Fujian, China. He came to Australia in 2016. Luoyang writes poetry. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Cordite Poetry Review, Rabbit, Portside Review, Farrago, Meraki, and Opal Literary. He is currently living in Whadjuk Noongar boodjar (Perth, Western Australia).
Anika Donnison studied Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University. She has appeared in GROK and COZE. She currently works as a Social Media Coordinator for Pegasus Professional Accounting.
Writing Change, Writing Inclusion is Centre for Stories’ signature writing program for 2021 to 2023. Generously funded by The Ian Potter Foundation, Australia Council for the Arts and Centre for Stories Founders Circle, this writing program features mentoring, hot desk, and publication opportunities for emerging writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and/or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.