“Come Let Me Teach You How to Love”: An Interview with Ko-hua Chen
Ko-hua Chen (陳克華, 1961–) started writing poetry when he was in high school, in 1976. He has had a prolific career with works of poetry, prose, drama, and film criticism. He has received multiple prizes in Taiwan, such as the United Daily News Literary Prize (聯合報文學獎), The Best Poet of 2000 (中國新詩協會八十九年度傑出詩人獎), and the Turn News Literary Prize (時報文學獎). He is also famous as a songwriter. His works, particularly those in the then-controversial collection Decapitated Poetry (欠砍頭詩, 1995), focus on homosexual erotica and challenge societal taboos. Along with Chiu Miao-chin’s Notes of a Crocodile (1994) and Last Words in Montmartre (1996) and Chu T’ien-wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man (1994), Decapitated Poetry is considered a milestone for its queer exposure in the LGBTQ literary movement after the lifting of martial law in 1987. Dr. Chen trained as an ophthalmologist at National Taiwan Medical School and has practiced in that capacity since graduation.
Chen’s work is significant not only for including the first explicitly queer piece of Taiwanese literature: writing from a place of marginal identity, Chen resurrects genres overlooked by the poetic establishment in Taiwan. Sci-fi and erotica are employed in parallel to reflect on homosexual desire suppressed by heteronormativity. Like the Marquis de Sade, who described violence, perverse sexual behavior, and blasphemy against Christianity, Chen employs multiple deviant and heretical expressions to appall his straight readers and reclaim poetry as a space for queer voices in Taiwan. Our interview was conducted at the beginning of 2021. Due to the full schedule of the two translators, the piece could not be completed and released until today. The poems we translated for Taiwan Lit focus on homosexual desire, sexuality, and romantic love. Our English translation of Chen’s collection Decapitated Poetry will be published in a forthcoming volume by Seagull Books.
Can you talk about your early life? We’d be interested to know about your experiences growing up queer in Taiwan, and how you have explored this in your poetry.
Although I will turn sixty this year, I have always felt young, and will always feel that way, until the day arrives when I sleep in my coffin. And at that moment, my soul will still be young.
I started to write poetry the first summer vacation of high school. It was 1976, and during that year I gradually realized that I was gay. Life in Hua-lien was dull; I didn’t have anyone there who I could share my thoughts with. In 1979, I went to the capital to study at Taipei Medical University and had a chance to know gay communities.
“Notes on a Planet,” composed in 1980 and 1981, was about my first love, which was unrequited. W.S., the character in the poem, was real. He was a senior student of medicine, and straight as an arrow. Perhaps even now, he doesn’t know he was my first love. I had gay friends since my third or fourth year of university. We went to the New Park—a small gay colony—or gay bars on weekends. The gay bathhouse was always open, and never far.
In addition to being introduced to new friends by old friends, pen pal clubs in magazines and newspaper columns were also one of the ways that one could meet other like-minded people. Other methods have arisen since. At that time, the social atmosphere of Taiwan was either “anti-gay” or “I do not know what gay is”—in my experience, these two subject positions are closely entangled. After accepting my sexuality, I became very liberal in creative writing. After winning some literary awards, I began to write explicit poems, such as “The Necessity of Anal Sex.” Since then, I have been labeled as gay and am frequently attacked by self-righteous people, including not only conservatives in the past but also those who are seemingly liberal but morally superior and want me to be “politically correct” in contemporary Taiwan. Both ways of correctness, underneath them all, are the same ideology. This ideology—be it left- or right-wing, conservative, or sanctimoniously liberal—has done much to harm literature, so I choose to be politically incorrect. I have experienced the rise and fall of certain gay bars—Cupid, Stallion, Funky—the transition from no Internet to digital communication, from same-sex marriage banned by civil law to its legalization, the renaming of the New Park to the 2/28 Incident Memorial Park, the movement from a family founded by a dad and a mom to a more plural way of seeing families, the emergence of AIDS and the development of antiretroviral therapy. Everything changes and people change, too. But, as I see it, the social situation, as well as the emotional responses of gay people to this situation, does not change so much.
Your poetry collection Decapitated Poetry, published in 1995, challenges the hypocrisy of a heteronormative society that sought to suppress and discipline gay people. In this way, your work has a strong social function. What was your approach to writing poetry at that time?
You describe me like a tragic hero. My inspiration at that moment came as much from the stress of my everyday life as an ophthalmologist, in a monotonous institution, as it did from any desire to stand against heteronormativity. However, your question reminds me of another story. In 2016, before the legalization of same-sex marriage, a poem of mine, posted on the bulletin board of an independent bookstore named Gin Gin (晶晶), was boycotted by local residents. This really opened my eyes. The bulletin board was in a community park near Taiwan Power Company, and there was a protest outside of the building, with signs and slogans being shouted. For Taiwanese people, my explicit openness is like a dog barking at a train. I question whether things have improved.
Our favorite work of yours is “Notes on a Planet,” which combines science fiction, cyborg discourse, posthumanism, and scenes of gay love. This synthesis is developed in the later work “Twelve Love Songs for a Cyborg.” Can you talk about the connection between the two poems: how do you write sci-fi in a queer context?
Both sequences were quite different: they were written at very different times in my life. “Notes” is a record of my early sexual identification, and “Twelve Love Songs” is a love letter dedicated to a future vision of mankind. “Notes” is directly influenced by Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and indirectly by Yang Tse (楊澤) and Lo Chih-cheng (羅智成). “Twelve Love Songs” is inspired by the film Blade Runner. The stellar colonization in “Notes” implies an escape from human gender roles, whereas in “Twelve Love Songs,” the possibility of falling in love with a cyborg is more intended as an embracing of humanity. A cyborg is made by humans who copy themselves. This is narcissistic: it must be a same-sex form of love. “Twelve Love Songs” is an exploration of our boundless solitude in the universe. The famous monologue articulated by the android at the end of Blade Runner can be a footnote to the “Twelve Love Songs.”
You read Buddhist scriptures and often incorporate Buddhist concepts into your works. But I also see some gay sensuality depicted in your poems, such as the famous series “Body Poems.” How do you make Buddhism and eroticism coexistent?
The practice of Buddhism begins with the body, such as cultivating the five sensory faculties (五根), adjusting one’s breath, and chanting slowly and steadily. Dismantling the body and focusing on specific physical parts, as I do in “Body Poems,” is an exercise that corresponds to Buddhist doctrines. In terms of eroticism, there is a well-known story. A disciple asked the Buddha if sex with prostitutes violates their precepts. The Buddha replied, “only if you do not pay them.” In Tibetan Buddhism, there are stories about disciples who encountered obstacles in their practice and went to find prostitutes. The disciple became enlightened. There is a legend about the “Bodhisattva of Locked Bones” (鎖骨菩薩) in Northwest China. This bodhisattva transformed into a prostitute to enlighten people through the practices of sex. After she passed away, it was discovered that the bones in her grave were locked together, which is different from ordinary people. There are too many related stories. Buddhism is lively, diverse, and far beyond our imagination. I have a Buddhist side and an erotic side; I do not see the two as contradictory.
The Human Phallus is Boring and Unimaginative
The human phallus is boring and unimaginative. Don’t you agree?
I’ve heard that a bee’s cock is graced with long balletic barb,
and every mouse pecker has hundreds of sensitive protrusions on the glans.
A whale’s member can weigh up to half a ton,
and horse dongs have a talent for thermal expansion that would put any gas to shame.
When a bison gets a boner, it’s harder than titanium alloy.
A golden beetle’s nethers can stretch to more than five times the length of its own body.
The volume of ejaculate contained in your average dolphin? Twenty liters.
The genitals of jellyfish are full of neon synapses.
The pearly, precious manhood of a hummingbird’s petite and crystalline.
When rams get randy their willies tongue
the ground with spunk, and that’s how ginseng is made.
The only animal humans are like is pigs.
So, if human sex can only be like pig sex—
happening in a pen, exclusively
for the purpose of reproduction—
Who would ever want to fuck a human?
Ode to Muscles
Do you love me?
Long live the king. Hoorah, hoorah.
People are the masters of their country.
Home, sweet home.
In the bin.
Orbicularis oculi muscle.
The landscapes of your motherland are so magnificent.
Are you happy? Yes, I am.
Superior oblique muscle.
Correct sex position.
Disposable tableware, Tylenol, hair restorative.
Love your country, your people, and your party.
Latissimus dorsi muscle.
I’ll tell you the story of our national hero.
Corrugator supercilii muscle.
A smile is the lubricant of interpersonal relationships.
Arrector pili muscle.
One, two, three, go!
Popularity keeps you healthy.
Upper frontalis muscle.
Follow in the footsteps of God.
Victory comes first. This situation is excellent.
Extensor carpi radialis muscle.
Obey, obey, and obey.
Fists, pillows, nipples.
Have you never felt empty?
I feel so fucking empty.
Actually, I Am a Leg-Fetishist
Actually, I am a leg-fetishist.
But how can a person fall in love with a leg,
want him, please him
write him an email, send him an SMS
write poems, sing him love songs, die for him
How to love only a leg
how to kneel down and kiss his toes
and those flawless ankles emerging from marble
those strong Achilles tendons
those two lusty flounders hanging upward
finding rough knees and thorny leg hair on my way
up to the fountain at the end of the groin and
the valley between his two legs—
an area called invisible or a line of sky—
because of love, I accept everything
I transgress the boundaries of love
and cannot stop loving the hill on his hip
the suspension bridge of the spine
I go up, and up, continue my love in
the cave where the pubic ends, the craggy throat
the mines that detonate pleasure on his nipples
I go up, and up, encounter
And apologize, for now I cannot fall in love with a face
God created man in his image: this only refers to the face
All I love is the dust, the ant, the shit, the piss
and your feet
where you are closest to the earth
inscribed with all human burden, labor
trekking and climbing. I come at the height of your eyes
In which part of you do you really love me?
Don’t mention soul or light.
What comes from dust returns there.
Don’t recognize it, don’t say it’s my face.
You can only love me from the neck down.
Down like ninety-nine percent of people.
You cannot look up when you are this deep in the dust.
Body Poems (Selected)
Back then, the men
would go to heaven to bathe.
I was a child, I saw their thighs like trunks
and traveled through that forest:
paradises of buildings, pillars of pagoda beds,
and erect beams everywhere:
so big and thick that I could barely embrace them.
I practiced climbing trees,
hanging from a horizontal bar.
I felt the warm mist of the mountains
as a hot spring spurted.
The smell was like a lingering body odor
a pheromone that urged me, grow up, son—
Just like in the fairy tale,
I was finally lost in the forest of thighs.
And still I am compelled to reach
for countless, loaded, swollen fruit…
The headline of today’s newspaper—
“Why do men have nipples?”
On my table, two poached eggs,
creamy yolks on a white plate
waiting to be licked clean:
Under a white shirt
(evolution of man)
like two unexploded mines
left on a battlefield—
Whenever fingers tap and pinch
or front teeth bite
like an alien rodent—
(how imperfect they are)
hidden under the skin of the calf
and repeating again—
how tasty it looks
It teases a shark like me
in the hot briney air
I am ravenous
“Mine is mellow, plump,
bright red, a little purple, and juicy”
on an online dating profile,
he notices it. It sticks out from the others
is brutally snatched away—
he thought it was for nipples
it is applicable to all possible sexual organs
including the nose, the toes
“But among all the organs,” he says
quietly and gracefully
“I still prefer—”
In the name of inspection
my fingers enter his anus
and touch his prostate.
Soft and shy.
hidden in the part of the body
that cannot be spoken—
only through the anus
can a finger
God buried the gland
in secret, at a distance:
like a middle-aged man—
he has begun to urinate frequently
to be incontinent to piss slowly—
in his abdomen
in his loosening anus
a pressing touch.
A country where all humans are equal.
Everyone has a private part
like his face: reflecting personality,
mood, age, secrets.
Everyone loves to hide
in his hands or simply rub
the beautifully hirsute private
minefield that is as moist
as the miasma of a deeply
buried, decomposing mole.
As everyone loves philosophy:
loves to sacrifice things for the greater good
meditates on how to improve the world
so that as a species we might reach a state of peace, fairness, and equality:
all private parts will eventually be made
public, formulated, and common.
The law will be administered
harshly and will forbid one person
from having two cunts or two dicks,
or one cunt and one dick.
Only one cunt or one dick will be allowed.
Private parts represent the generosity of love.
Love is wordless.
It always returns to an unsolvable contradiction.
Love is selfless.
Private tattoos are banners of secret betrayal.
Love should be selfless.
I say private parts are great and free and empty.
Long live the privates, long live the privates, long live.
到處是天堂的棟 床笫的柱 勃起的樑
「我的圓潤 肥大 鮮紅 帶紫 多汁」網路上他讀到
Twelve Love Songs for a Cyborg (Selected)
1. Come Let Me Teach You How to Love
Come let me teach you how to love—
although you may have been familiar with this idea or
are genetically predisposed to not loving—back on earth
the millionth panda was successfully cloned
and now eats meat—
my watch synchronizes with a satellite
that guides me every day on the way to work
recommending a circuitous route
that allows me to shake off any of my stalkers—
yes, now we must hide our love, disguise it
and find it again like finding the seeds of an extinct ginkgo tree
in the lama’s urn we buried on our terrace
love hidden like the secret weed plant in the apartment—
our love sprouts in secret too, its branches swelling, lunglike
green blood, veins connecting sky and core—
alas, it’s true. Like a mineral that cannot recognize the plant
it calls home, you will never love a human.
Every extant ginkgo tree casts a spell that echoes the world.
You should echo me, love.
Now, speak the first word of the Androids:
3. I’ll Explain Why You Have No Belly Button
Please allow me to explain
why you have no belly button—
such a lovely pit
shy, intolerant of cold, a sensitive wound—
I have one but you don’t.
Who has erased this stigma, the evolutionary stamp of the mammal?
No matter. Now, your flawless belly is for me
a flat and deserted miracle—when my cheek
lies on your billowing abdominal waves—
when I listen to your groaning intestines
and feel your body without uterine memory
like a galaxy without stars
weak, supple, logarithmic.
Between two ribs gliding through the sky
and the warm, abashed hip where I graze
multiple meanings are created I read you
I love it
specifically and surely
as I love my own regrets—
your non-existent belly button.
4. Our Insides Are Emptied
Our insides are emptied…
Looking into your metal engraved eyes
I expected a sort of oracle to emerge
ancient and cryptic, like an inscription standing
in the spaceship’s cemetery
far beyond our galaxy endless light-years away
I thought I’d find the secret of the universe’s reincarnation
in your eyes—
evolving from nonbiodegradable particles
cells, into humans, galaxies
a whole universe—all would be
represented in the glorious mandala
of our shared gaze
—but every time I look into your reflecting eyes
It’s like looking down a rusty sad
and I love you. Because I can see
both your and my emptied souls
being reincarnated in the turbulence of life
our movements the same, mirroring each other
our oaths burning
through time and space
5. Will You Remember How I look Tomorrow
Will you remember how I look tomorrow?
This imperfect question should be sewn into your DNA.
When you first saw me, you immediately
recalled I was your “yesterday”—
the original work which was, which is to come—
then you were convinced I was a vague copy of you
a piece of fax paper with faint handwriting
where the sender’s number could not be displayed—
you will love me as you love yourself
like a cub opening its eyes and
falling in love with the first thing it sees—
you drive all you can drive you approach me
with care looking at me as though I were a well-designed trap
slightly confused, cautious
completely ignorant of my fate
coming close to me even fearing me
as you fear another deadly trap that caught you once—but love
love’s breath tickles your ear
my tongue stirs to
remove a layer from your disguise. Just look at yourself...
6. Actually, You and I Are Not the Only Beings
Actually, you and I are not the only beings
who have had the thought that someday we will find
our models and serial numbers
in armpits, groins, or the back sides of our heads—
well, perhaps we are the only ones here that think so
but we are not alone in the universe
the universe is like a nest of ants
we work all day, recognizing the marks of
survival and reproduction and feeling extraordinarily happy—
please do not deny that you are not the only one—
among the uniform crowds, we are burdened
by our distant desires and extra rations
a worker ant meets a worker ant
a worker bee loves a worker bee
obey the orders of labor and reproduction
believe in rules and loyalty
—I love you. At the same time I heard
countless clamoring “I love you” echo
through the universe, each instance copying the other
drowning the quiet and cold nest of
androids in darkness
7. Mole or tattoo
Mole or tattoo? I can see
your body, plain after it sheds its clothes
mountains, valleys, lakes, and sky—you say
you want a blue tattoo but
even you could not have an azure mole, you
nude and impeccable like an unfenced slab of
wheatfield in September
uncontaminated by crop circles overnight—
those implications of more advanced mathematics
scientific laws, astronomies
those oracles, warnings to mankind
keys that open gateways to extraterrestrial civilizations
—but all it is is that you are just impeccably naked
a body without anything other messages
related to any civilization:
I love you
too deeply to
accommodate all mystery things
between you and I
a tattoo, a mole, a crop circle
faintly emerges from the fields
I walked through last night
10. How to Summon the Next Century Orgasm
How to summon the next century orgasm?
You are a priest or a lamb
created through asexual reproduction?
But you use your body to break the law
and love me like a UFO
a UFO like a huge cloud landing
on my aging body that has been lovingly stroked
all too frequently and all too long
plundering all my senses and dispatching
a troop of locusts to fuel my sleepless body
that aspires to be colonized someday
—hereafter I am a wasted territory
even in my dream
a desolate, burned, barren, dry land
I long for your advent
like a plague or a UFO in the next century
as the prophecy is a grand one: you
will gloriously descend into
the next century orgasm
羞怯 畏寒 而敏感的傷口——我有
而細胞 而人 而星河
我渴求的荒涼 焚燒徹底 焦土入地六呎