Question: You have been coming to Vietnam since the 1990s and you lived for a year in Hanoi as a Fulbright scholar. As an American poet, what interests you about Vietnam?
Answer: There is a general response I can give, as an American citizen, then a more specific response, speaking as a poet. As an American, my first response is that I simply enjoy Vietnam-the people, the food, the cities, the landscape, the culture. As many American tourists discover with each passing year, Vietnam is a lovely place to visit. But since my fist trip, in 1996, I have had the sense that there is something deeper and more subtle that pulls me to Vietnam. On that first trip, I traveled with a group of American Academics and while it was very enlightening, we traveled on one of those big air-conditioned tourist busses. I remember one particular occasion, driving down Nguyen Thai Hoc in Hanoi, past the big statue of Lenin, I looked out at the street – the kids playing soccer, the pedestrians, the chaotic traffic, and I said to myself (I can remember this distinctly), I want to be out there, not behind this glass window. A couple of years later, living in Ngoc Ha, I walked past that park nearly every day.
Q: Did you find that deeper thing you were looking for?
A: Maybe. It’s complicated. American culture is oriented toward the individual and what I sensed in Vietnam was a different orientation, toward the family and the community. I find this very attractive, though, to be honest, the Vietnamese attitude toward the individual can be, well, surprising and sometimes exhausting. When I was first studying Vietnamese, it did not surprise me to learn that the literal translation of the standard Vietnamese greeting Di dau day? is Where you going? Often, cyclo drivers and postcard sellers would simply use the English version of the phrase, which, to an American, seems intrusive. None of your business! one is tempted to exclaim. Perhaps that is a trivial example. And, for the most part, I find the Vietnamese emphasis on friendship and community very healthy. I think Americans tend to be too focused on the needs of the individual and not sufficiently focused on the needs of the group.
Q: What made you interested in the first place? Why did you make that first trip in 1996?
A: I grew up during the American War. My family, without knowing anything about Vietnam, accepted the American government’s reasons for fighting in Vietnam; but as I got a little older-this would have been in 1968, when I was in high school-I began to question the US war and by the time I went to college and learned a little more about the war, I protested against it. To be honest, some of my protest was motivated by self-interest: I did not want to be a soldier. But I had also come to believe that the war was a terrible mistake. And unfortunately, the Bush Administration committed an almost identical mistake in Iraq in recent years-they didn’t learn anything from the war in Vietnam.
Q: Do Americans still think about the war?
A: Most young Americans don’t, just like most young Vietnamese, I suspect. But the war still has profound effects on the way many Americans think about the world, even if they don’t connect their thinking to Vietnam. I teach a class at my university called Understanding Vietnam, and most of the students who sign up know virtually nothing about the war. And most of what they do know is wrong. and yet it still affects us as a country-just look at the support for President Bush when he started the completely misguided war in Iraq.
Q: So you wanted to come to Vietnam to understand the war?
A: Partly. Even though we may have forgotten it, the war shaped the way Americans of my generation think about the world. After the war ended for the US, most Americans, myself included, wanted to forget it as quickly as possible. We repressed our memories of the war and didn’t want to take responsibility, either for the war itself, or for our returning soldiers. It was a shameful time for the United States. When I had a chance to come to Vietnam twenty years after the war ended, it seemed like an opportunity to try to make sense of that shameful time in the history of my country. It seemed like a good idea to bring the repressed memories of the war out into the open and also to learn about the actual country and people of Vietnam-to cut through the myths created by our forgetfulness. Because I’m a poet, I started by finding Vietnamese poetry to read.
Q: What has poetry go to do with all this?
A: Well, if poets have a calling it is the call to pay attention. Of course, everyone should pay attention, but poets are specialists at it. Just getting out of one’s own country forces one to pay attention to the world in different ways. I learned this many years ago travelling in Europe as a young man. And because Vietnamese culture is so different in so many ways from American culture, paying attention is in some ways easier and in some ways more difficult-it is possible to be overwhelmed.
Q: Have you written about Vietnam?
A: There are several poems in my last book about Vietnam that try to see the country and the people honestly from an American perspective. Beyond that, the Vietnamese ethic that questions the supreme role of the individual prevalent in American culture plays a big role in my work. (I am not saying, by the way, that Vietnamese are not interested in being individuals-only that the relationship of individual to community is different.)
Q: Which Vietnamese poets are you familiar with? Which ones do you admire?
A: Among the first Vietnamese poets I read were Nguyen Quang Thieu and Lam Thi My Da, mostly because they have been very well translated into English. And I have worked quite a bit with Hoang Hung and Ly Lan, both of whom have helped me meet other poets. When I was in Vietnam in 2000-2001, I collected a group of poems by ten Vietnamese poets and arranged their translation and publication in the US in the journal Poetry International. I wrote an introduction to that group of poems that I think Hoang Hung translated and published in Vietnam, but I don’t know where. I am returning to Vietnam to continue that work. There have been several books of Vietnamese poetry published in the US in recent years, but most of these have focused on poets of the American war and the immediate postwar period. With the exception of an anthology edited by Linh Dinh, there haven’t been any good anthologies focusing on younger Vietnamese poets. There is another recent anthology of good Vietnamese poets, but unfortunately the American translator didn’t do a very good job. He is a famous American literary figure, but I don’t think he knows much about Vietnam.
Q: Will you be following up on the poets you selected in 2000?
A: I hope so. I admire the work of those poets and would like to see what they are doing now-especially Phan Huyen Thu, Thanh Nguyen, Ly Hoang Ly, and Hoang Hung. I worked closely on the translations of those poets, so I have a special interest in them. I’d also like to meet other poets.
Q: You worked on the translations? You speak Vietnamese?
A: [Laughing] Let’s just say I have studied Vietnamese. Unfortunately, I don’t have any Vietnamese speakers where I live, so I don’t have a chance to practice. I can read the language slowly and when I lived in Hanoi for a year, I got so I could make myself understood. The tones of Vietnamese are very hard for most Americans to hear: I would go into a shop and speak Vietnamese well enough that the person there would reply in Vietnamese, but my ability to understand was not as good as my ability to speak. I have nothing but admiration for people like you and Ngo Tu Lap, as well as Americans like John Balaban, who are completely comfortable in both English and Vietnamese. Anyway, I am again practicing with a computer program and a CD of conversational Vietnamese. A translator needs to experience in the language, even if he is not fluent; even more important, I think, is an understanding of Vietnamese culture. Besides, I have you to help me with the translations. When I was here before, Hoang Hung went over almost every poem with me word by word to make sure we had gotten not just the literal meaning, but the feeling too, into the English versions.
Q: What will you be doing on this trip to Vietnam?
A: Well, I will be arriving in Hanoi in the middle of April, where I’ll be working with Ngo Tu Lap and Hoang Hung, meeting and interviewing poets, then I’ll travel south. I don’t know anyone in Hue, but I’d like to stop there if something can be arranged, then in the south I’ll be working with you, Ly Lan, meeting and interviewing poets and also collecting poems for translation and (I hope) publication in the US.
Q: Why are you interested in Vietnamese poetry?
A: Vietnam is a very interesting place, especially now as it grows economically and opens itself increasingly to the West. In the US poets often have an adversarial or even alienated relationship to their culture, but I’m not sure this is the case in Vietnam. I want to interview poets and read contemporary poems because I am very curious about how Vietnamese poets see their role in society. Historically, writers have been respected figures in Vietnam. Many of your national heroes wrote poetry. In the US we really don’t have this tradition. So I’ve been wondering how, in this era of globalization, Vietnamese writers, especially poets, see themselves in a social context. I know from reading Vietnamese newspapers that literature remains important to the Vietnamese, who are willing to argue about it by sending letters to the editor when they think a writer has done something wrong. You would almost never see this sort of thing in the US. Literature just isn’t that important to Americans.
Q: So you are interested in the sociology of Vietnamese poetry.
A: Yes, but I am also a poet, which means that I am above all interested in the poems themselves. I do think poets always write within a social context, though, and I am interested in that because it affects how one understands the poem.
Q: Do you have any questions you would like to ask?
A: Yes, I do. Why do Vietnamese poets, many of who live in huge cities, write so many poems about the countryside? That may seem like a superficial question, but I mean it seriously. Vietnam is undergoing massive urbanization right now, but there seems to be a kind of nostalgia for a simpler life. I don’t offer that as a criticism, just an observation. Actually, it occurred to me just now, that one sees a similar poetic reaction in 19th century England-during the Industrial Revolution, many poets were drawn to writing about rural subjects.