Mistakes make poetry

On the morning of my sixty-fifth birthday, someone added me on Instagram. As usual, I accepted it. Normally, things stop there. But this person started warming up towards me, enquiring about my health and all that. Politely, I said ‘thank you’. But I was careful enough not to say ‘and you?’, hoping things would stop there.

They didn’t, for this person went on with more greetings, suggesting something important that I should know. I went into a prolonged silence until he or she sent a ‘?’ That’s when I decided to block them. Afterwards, I wrote a poem containing the line in the title. I had meant to write ‘I don’t believe in instant friendship’ but because of a slip of my pen, the line became ‘I don’t believe in instant friendshop.’

Ah, I heard myself say, ‘I love it.’ There and then, I kept the line and it started this article off.


What are creative mistakes?

Creative mistakes are ones made by accident or deliberately. In poetry, this comes from misreading, a powerful tool of creativity often ignored or dismissed by the literarily correct. Years ago, when I started reading Dana Gioia on the recommendation of a US-based poet, I found I was prone to making mistakes whenever the poetry bored. Normally, I would chuckle to myself and went on. But it was around that time that I started recording my mistakes wherever they appeared on the pages, because – I’m now on the point of sharing my most secret secret with you – I found my mistakes inducive to poetry. Many of the lovely mistakes later on ended up finding their way into my poetry, the following one bearing a living proof.

Reading Dana Gioia, wrongly that is (1)

I thought I saw
Peel pain
But I was disappointed
To see
“feel pain”
when I read it again

Honestly, I like my mistake better than the timid ‘feel pain’ because mine was more creative. Who wants grammar if it is only meant to hamper creativity and innovation?

As mistakes came thick and fast, particularly when attention slacked and interest weakened because of the reading stuff getting tedious, I began recording them on the margins and keeping track of them wherever and whenever they appeared, turning them into poetry or fiction when the occasion suited.

Terminally Poetic is a collection of poetry I had had ready for submission by 2000. After numerous rejections worldwide, I put it aside and had completely forgotten it until late 2019, when I came across it by accident in search of other files in my computer and thought: Why not? Blindly, I found the first publisher online that I bumped into and sent the MS by email. Overnight, I received acceptance for publication by return email, the fastest acceptance in my writing life. There are quite a number of poems in it that contain deliberate mistakes, such as ‘Bad Writing’ below (2):

you reject me because I write badly
you reject me because I write ugly
you reject me because I write unintelligibly
you reject me because I write ungrammatically even ungraciously
you reject me because you are scared shit of my bad writing
because it turns your stomach
it stinks yes its stench right under your nose
I tend to agree with you
you are too good for me too fucking good for me
too bloody good for me
you and your bloody fucking good thing that you call arts literature or poetry
that you write too good in english
I have been writing badly all these two hundred years don’t you know that
I have been using your fucking english to write badly don’t you know that
your english that is easy to fuck with but hard to use
your english that wins you prises but gives me shit
your english that excludes and extrudes us baddies
the “bad chinese” remember the bulletin said a 100 years ago?
the bad chinglish that’s me and my bad writing
written on your wall
and in your face

One recalls words like ‘acquired taste’, ‘angry’ and ‘his work needs editing’ from editors who refuse to publish me over the years, words that I’ve somehow heard on the grapevine. But how can one be totally correct if not born into the language and why can’t one claim it as one’s own if one works hard enough to learn and has the intelligence to achieve the ownership in one’s own way? Do they expect a creative person to be tamed by their grammar that once produced ungrammatical and incorrect lines like ‘The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne’, by Geoffrey Chaucer?


Early signs

In the early 1980s, when the author was a university student majoring in English at a Wuhan university, what he disliked most of all was endless examinations as that kept him constantly busy reviewing his homework and trying to cram all the information into his brain. Amidst many an English poem he wrote expressing his frustrations and discontent, there is this one that captures the mood of the poet’s time,

‘Everything for examinations’ (3)

Everything for examinations
Whether Shakespeare or Milton
Go for examinations, Swift!
And you, too Byron!
Nothing is left for thought
Nor for creation and imagination
But let us sing praises to God
And enjoy being bored

Far from perfect, this poem – written long before the poet went overseas to an English-speaking country – contains all sorts of blemishes of a thought burst although it clearly demonstrates his desire to break off the shackles put on him by the educational system in early 1980s China. And, in another poem, written about the same time, the tip of an iceberg of mistakes begins to emerge, with all its fresh ungrammarly – note that ‘grammar’ is the least favourite word with most of us English majors at the time, and with the poet in particular despite the imposition of it upon all of them. The poem goes thus:

‘I love that naked tree, it’s thee’ (4)

I love that naked tree, it’s thee
I love to lean against her nakedness

I love that whispering tree, it’s thee
I love to hear her whispering lips

I love that secret tree, I’s thee
that has seen us both be

I thought of correcting that ‘I’s tree’ and found it impossible. Correcting it as ‘mine thee’, ‘my thee’, ‘It’s thee’, ‘Its thee’ – hang on: Why correct if the mistake makes more poetic sense? And why try to correct something written thirty-seven years ago as if something done now is more correct than something done more than three decades ago? Going by that logic, this would be obsolete in another thirty-seven years, wouldn’t it? What does being correct mean anyway? Correct by whose standards? By poetry’s standards? If so, that is right because, in this poet’s view, mistakes are what makes poetry.


Mistakes make poetry

Twenty-two years after I wrote the poems, I returned to the same university, Wuhan University, where I did my major in English (1979-1983) and started teaching creative writing as a professor, and an Australian citizen, to Chinese students. While it was a pleasure to see students grow in linguistic strength, it was a pure pain to correct their work full of grammatical infelicities that never seemed to go away however hard one tried to work on improving them. Frustrated to a helpless degree, the poet found himself inspired rather than daunted by their mistakes and wrote a poem to express his perverse enjoyment in ‘Bad English’:

Bad English (5)

Teaching English in China
The old professor can’t help
The fact that his hair is turning grey

An email letter leaves him
Upset for days without knowing why
That begins with this: ‘Dear Mr professor Richard’

Student papers are written in such a way
That how much effort goes into fixing them
He invariably sees a new English cropping up postgraduateswise:

‘I felt boring when days after days were spent meaninglessly’
‘He doted him and he doted her’
‘Grandma cared me so much she does something out of expectation’

The professor decides that it’s probably just as well
His grasshopper arms powerless against the onslaught
Of an English in spite of itself

So, in his last class, he found time to speak
Their language: I felt exciting at the thought
Of returning to Oz as living here I often feel boring

I objected myself speaking such bad English
Although I do care you and I admire you

For things like this: ‘On that day’s noon’
And your brilliant slips of pen, like this:
‘We must all uphold human tights’

In locating this poem in a sea of poems in my own computer, something else was brought to my attention, a collection of poetry that I had published in the late 1990s, the one titled Songs of the Last Chinese Poet. I spent a year (1994-1995) writing this book while working on my PhD thesis on the literary representations of the Chinese in Australian fiction. It was published in 1997, two years after my PhD thesis was successfully passed. To the best of my memory, it’s in that book that I deliberately created mistakes for the purpose of ridicule and criticism, which, in retrospect, could be termed ‘creative and critical mistakes’. It took me no time to find the one and include it, ‘Canto 2’, here, as follows,

2 (6)

thinking of destroying everything
thinking of destroying a civilization
a civilization as long as the footwrappings of a feet-bound woman
we are a dying race
no longer can we live on our own
but must we metamorphose by losing our tongue
our beautiful sexy body
into something we would have been ashamed to see
something hairy something so self-centred
that only a T. V. set can match

but our women are lovely
with their milk white skin pearly pearly pearly
their eyes dark and deep sparking desires of ancient races
who mixed mixed and mixed indiscriminately
in profuse promiscuity
which is the reason why everybody can die a death of love
in those dangerous pools of pure sex
and come out alive
with more energy and a lifelong longing for the mix of bloods
that creates the purest of pure things

now the ancient desire is upon us
wherever we are
in south africa or america in austria or australia
in canada or canaan in paraguay or paradise
among british or brutish
german or germ
french or frenzy
wherever we go we stay
born exiles willing to die in lands not their own
traitors capable of translating the falsest messages into truth
liars used to revolutionizing the system of invention
every once in a while
hopeless slaves selling our brains like bodies
to the masters of a mad civilization

In 2012, when I attended the NT Writers Festival, someone from Scotland interviewed me and later produced a podcast titled ‘Ouyang Yu: Creative Mistakes’. I recall talking at length about the mistakes and how to use them. But I don’t want to listen to myself talking over the net. If you are interested in that, why don’t you do that yourself?


Mistakes make poetry that is bilingual

If the 1990s were a time in which the poet was struggling with his voice, however wrong and erroneous it was found to be, to burst upon the scene of Australian poetry, the 2010s saw the poet making more conscious efforts with creative mistakes along the lines of bilingual poetry and prose poetry. This coincided with his teaching creative writing in a less literary university in Shanghai where the students had a background in areas other than literature. Hence more mistakes homework-wise that commanded more of his attention and resulted in more mistake-oriented poems, such as this one below,

Miss Takes Taken (7)

Don’t be 累zy
Or 雷zy

番人ners never learn
they really are 烦人ner

Some like to play skytrue
Which is, of course, not my菲vourites

Shakespeare sai: Chinese students doo two much
ho me work bcaus they want2 bcom confucious

If you 做 that
My you live in intriguing time

But I know 瓦特 that is:
Rather be a 太平 dog,不做乱世 woman

Yellow long gone
Memory still a 赖夫

Because my students were all Chinese, they had no difficulty recognizing the Chinese word in the poem that sound like English, 瓦特 for ‘what’, 赖夫 for ‘life’ and 累 for ‘tiring’, all in sound, and also because I had initiated a teaching component known as ‘Bilingual Writing’ that encouraged them to write more bilingually because, after all, it is a space, a third or fourth space creative enough to keep them going without having to constantly bother with the wonderment of whether or not the native English-speakers understand them, my advice being: if they do not understand, it’s their problem, not yours, and it means they have to work hard to catch up, not the other way round.

This was based on a physical experience I had while a young man majoring in English in Wuhan. Whenever I wrote an English poem and had difficulty finding the right word, I’d replace it with a Chinese word, as shown in the following lines from a poem, written on 23 September 1982:

But do you know that beneath it
Is fire blazing, wild and red
That resembles the岩浆moving under a
Still, haggard, sad and pale

The Chinese words, 岩浆, which means ‘lava’, that got me stuck in the middle of writing the poem remains there for good, turning into a living fossil of bilinguality (8), one of the earliest impulses driving towards the production of bilingual poems across the decade of the 2010s, culminating in the Flag of Permanent Defeat collection in 2019, published by Puncher & Wattmann.


Relaxed and comfortable, with diversions

When I got my PhD, in early 1995, and became permanently unemployed and unemployable in Australia, shortlisted by a dozen universities and always rejected at the last minute, I thought what an irony that was. Despite my record of piles of publication and my impeccable English, no panels of white Australian universities found me usable for their purposes. I think it’s their mistake. A boringly uncreative mistake, too, as much as a mistake as mine in even pursuing the wrong degree.

Beginning from 1996, after I was rejected by the dozen universities and by more universities that didn’t shortlist me, I decided to travel down the path of decolonisation and de-theorisation. By now you’ll probably have already noticed that I have not quoted one theorist. I didn’t because I didn’t want to, as theories shackle the mind and hinder creativity and innovation; I have not come across one single theory book that inspired me to write error-ridden poetry and prose that are also bilingual. Unfortunately, few of the Western theorists know anything about the Chinese language, the exact reason why I refrain from quoting a single Chinese poem here with creative mistakes.

Over the years, for Ouyang to encourage Yu, or vice versa, for Yu to encourage Ouyang to engage in the innovative activities, they (Ouyang and Yu) collected sayings about the use of mistakes wherever they appeared.

In early 2010, when Leslie Zhao, now Zhao Chuan, a playwright based in Shanghai, came to Melbourne to visit us, he brought us a bag of two soaps, the shopping bag containing these words that I found interesting enough and recorded them then and there:

We believe in long candlelit baths, sharing showers, massage, filling the world with perfume and the right to make mistakes, lose everything and start again.

I don’t know who the author of these words is but I don’t care because I like them. Then, on 19/8/2012, and on FB, I found a remark by Corita Kent to this effect: ‘Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.’

If you don’t stop me, I shall go on and quote two more because they gave me spiritual support in my darkest days when no one gave a fuck about my experiments and there’s no one in Australia who knew how to experiment my way, back then and not even now. One by Ovid – I’ll talk about him shortly come Covid-19 – who says: ‘I don’t correct these poems; let them read as written’ (9). I like this because he seems to talk about my poetry as I have been included in Best Australian Poetry more than ten times but I can unashamedly say I have never revised one single word of the included poems. And this, by Laurence Durrell: ‘Heavy with sponges and the common error’ (10).

In late 2004, I had a poetry reading organized for me by David Gilby at Charles Sturt University. From memory, it was on a bleak Sunday morning, around 9 am. There was an audience of one. Subsequently, I wrote a suite of poems to commemorate the event, one of which is still findable online:

In Wagga Wagga

With the arrival of a poet
Everything seems to go wrong

A breakfast becomes plastic
A workshop with minimal attendance

Because rain, over the Murrunbidge River, supposedly stopped
Any interested, even as slightly as the rain

And three nights
No visits by a single possum

I know, the correct spelling for the river is Murrumbidgee
And we thus have come full circle

The wrong poem, or the wrongly written poem, that got knocked back, is findable in my own computer folder and presented below as an example of the loneliness sustained back then:

Wonga Wonga (11)

near wagga wagga writer writes
I see peppercorns with a david in them
I see karrajong with a zhang in them
I see plum-cherry trees with flowers in them
and I see Robert Timms with two Asian looking, Australian looking
            women in it
and I remember, not too belatedly, at Blue Mountains
I saw currawongs with a wong in

ah, Wonga Wonga
            Asian Asians

In Living After Death, my latest collection, published by MPU, and the first one, of prose poetry, I have something about the mistakes, as follows,


Went to give a talk at the school where Man Chen is teaching. Had a haircut after dinner. Otherwise, daily details are not worth recording. One lives from day to day. One writes. But how much of his writing lasts? Very little. If it does, he won’t know. One just fills in, hoping to win. Why win? Doesn’t one win from day to day if he doesn’t die, doesn’t fall ill? He already wins. Why win more than mere living? Mere living from day to day? What is the obsession? Why the obsession? Youth is a forest of mistakes. Old age is a forest of corrections. Two forests, standing side by side. Looking across a barren field of lived landscape. A to-live landscape. Love is nothing but a sob. An orgasmic sob. Absorb? Abhor? Abhsorb? Love is nothing but an abhsorb.

Did you notice something that is ungrammatical or ungrammarly? What do you think if I call my next collection of creative mistakes Ungrammarly?


Writing in the Covid-19 times approaching the post-Covid-19

Please don’t get jealous of me if I tell you what happened to me in August 2020, the worst time in Victoria, Australia, as it entered and stayed in lockdown with nightly curfew imposed. I didn’t test positive, and so in that sense there is no jealousy due. But I wrote 330 Chinese poems and 84 English poems, a total of 414 poems in 31 days. What a number, for 414 rhymes in Chinese with death wanting death!

And out of the hundreds of poems I wrote per month, I’ll choose one to end this piece with.


There is a no in now
A no in know
A no in stone, oh, no, a no in kowtow
Oh, no, a no in snow
A no in fnow, or flow is it
A no in carcinoma
A no in monolingual
A no in binocular
A no in nose
A no in immunology
A no in denote
A no in technology
A no in genocide
A no in sinology
A no in abnormal
A no in iconoclast
A no in monolithic
A no in homogenous
A no in Abo
A no in canon
A no in nostalgia
A no in ignorance
A no in north
A no in nowadays
A no in ignoramus
A no in minority
A no in melanoma
A no in denounce
A no in enormity
A no in snobbish
A no in novel
A no in doornob
A no in nominee
A no in xenopus
A no in topknot
A no in normal
A no in albino
A no in monopoly
A no in shnook
A no in noise
A no in tenor
A no in window, oh, no, in noon
A no in Cnovid-19
And a no in nom de plus:

Nouyang Nyu

You think I’m going to provide you with a footnote detailing where and when I wrote this poem?


Other relevances

The other day, when I went in search of sites in relation to submission of my work, I found a book titled, 50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make, and thought: Why didn’t the guy write something like Thousands of Mistakes that You can Turn into Great Poetry?

And whenever you check submissions guidelines out, you see things like you need to ‘ensure an error-free submission’, you need to make sure ‘there are no mistakes’ in your submissions and baby-like exhortations. Why don’t they grow up and know that mistakes are the goldmine of creativity? Will they never have enough of their newly built grammatical prisons that they are going to enforce on all creative minds?

Let me tell them this, once again: I don’t believe in instant friendshop.



I think I’ve found the Ovid poem, as follows:


Due to Covid-19
We can’t help you. Please visit us at www.you’llfindeverythinghereifyoutryhard.com

Due to Covid-19
We have all entered into hibernation known as social isolation and self-distancing. Goodbye

Due to Covid-19
We are having virtual parties, separate but together, all in it together

Due to David-19
We can’t do anything but just wait till restrictions are eased

Due to Ovid-19
The world is overrun with poetry like never before when capitalism collapses

Due to Vivid-19
We are afraid we’ll have to wait till the second wave

Due to Fervid-19
We are kind of cool at the moment, not wanting to meet, not wanting to talk, not wanting

Due to Livid-19
We don’t encourage you to act like the protesters surging for a return to work

Due to Avid-19
We have tons of toilet rolls, paired with mouth masks, for the taking

And can I pretend to be an all-correct editor and tell Ouyang and Yu off by saying: I’m sorry that I have to say no because it’s so full of errors?



(1) Published in Cordite and originally written on 19/3/2004; rev. 20/3/2004. Please refer to Daily Horoscope by Dana Gioia, p 63.

(2) Written in Kingsbury on 25/08/2000 and published in Terminally Poetic, by Ginninderra Press in 2020, p. 20.

(3) Hand-written on 23/3/1983, from an as yet unpublished collection, No Title Whatever.

(4) Hand-written on 24/3/1983.

(5) Written, Sunday, 14/1/2007, at Room 402, Wuhan University, and subsequently published in Voice & Verse, based in Hong Kong, Issue 39-40, March 2018, p. 9.

(6) Ouyang Yu, Songs of the Last Chinese Poet. Wild Peony Press, 1997, pp. 2-4.

(7) Written at 8.32am, Sunday 11/6/2017, at room 308, hbl, suibe, based on my own deliberate mistakes made on Smash Poetry Group two days ago, and published in Ouyang Yu, Flag of Permanent Defeat. Puncher & Wattmann, 2019, pp. 190-1.

(8) Readers are referred to my collection of Chinese and bilingual Chinese-English poems written in the 1980s, titled, Breathedings (《呼的吸》), published by Otherland Publishing in 2019 and available with Otherland Publishing.

(9) In his The Poems of Exile, p. 86.

(10) In his Selected Poems, p. 28.

(11) Written in Wagga on 12/9/2004, ‘karrajong’ meant for ‘Kurrajong’ and ‘Karajan’.


Image by: Anna Gru



Ouyang Yu

Ouyang Yu is a poet based in Melbourne and since his first arrival in April 1991 in Australia, he has published quite a few poems. His eighth novel, All the Rivers Run South, is forthcoming with Puncher & Wattmann in 2023.

More by Ouyang Yu ›

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