One of the nice things about being an academic with tenure is that I have big blocks of time that I can use however I want, but that’s — for me, anyway — also a problem. I tend to fritter away time when I don’t have structures and deadlines. I get the most done when I am busiest. I’m trying to figure out how to structure my days more effectively. The need to do this has come into focus as my Zen practice has “deepened,” as they say. (It’s a bit of religion-speak I find a bit off-putting.) Basically, what this means is that doing meditation morning and evening creates a certain structure around which other things can be organized, so that creates a starting point.
I’ve always tended to work to deadlines and to write in spurts and dashes of energy separated by wide deserts of non-writing. I’ve heard all the advice and rules about establishing a regular time and just keeping at it, but I’ve never done that with writing, but now I am finding it pretty easy to sit on a regular schedule, so why not sit and write the same way? I have to weave this around my teaching and other academic duties, but in that respect I have it very easy. so that’s what I’m going to do over the coming weeks heading into summer and I’m going to keep up some kind of daily writing even when I travel. It has taken a long time to come to this, but increasingly I have the sense that not-writing, like not-sitting, is not an option for me.
And it’s not an ego-thing anymore, this writing and even publishing poems. When I was a boy I wanted to be famous, but I quit being a boy — at least that kind of boy – at about age 52. (Not that long ago, true.) I just want to make sense of things and language — poetic language — is the way I’ve always done that, even when I was a boy. Buddhism puts a lot of emphasis on silence and even sometimes overtly relegates language to a secondary status, not more than a practical instrument, necessary but deeply flawed. At the same time, Buddhism has produced its share of great poets. The genius of language lies, as the old Zen hermit-poets understood, lies in its impurity and imperfection.
Sometimes the world hands you a gift. I just found out that I will be spending Christmas and the first ten days of the new year in Hanoi. I’ve been invited to participate in a conference on the translation of Vietnamese literature and its reception abroad, mostly in the English-speaking world. When I came back home from my trip to Vietnam last spring, I thought it would be at least a year before I returned, perhaps longer. I’d been a little disappointed in my failure to make more contacts and get more projects going during my spring trip, but apparently I was planting seeds that will now begin to germinate. I hope so.
I spent Christmas of 2000 in Hanoi, which is when I took the picture of the boy selling Santa Claus decorations. Christmas is not a holiday of central importance in Vietnamese culture except to the 10% of the population that is Catholic, but as in the West it has begun to be a commercial holiday even for non-believers. (In general, Catholics in Vietnam are probably more intensely religious that the followers of Tam Giao, or “triple religion,” the combination of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism that most Vietnamese at least nominally subscribe to and that overlies an even deeper level of animism.)
I am delighted to return to Vietnam, however briefly, and to meet others interested in the diffusion of Vietnamese literature around the world. And as soon as I return, still jet-lagged, I will begin teaching my course, Understanding Vietnam, at Clarkson. Though the course focuses on the history and culture of Vietnam, we use literature to illuminate and illustrate those subjects, so the conference discussions will certainly inform my teaching next semester.
The last week in September in the US is designated National Banned Book Week by the National Library Association. It ought to be every writer’s ambition to write a book considered subversive enough to be banned. This week the Word A Day folks are devoting their space to words having to do with censorship.
More on banned books. And Ellen Hopkins response to being banned in Oklahoma.
And not in a good way. It’s a shame to obscure the work of Edward Hopper with a haze of purple prose.
They say that golfers’ games go to hell when they lose confidence, which is an elusive thing. But when you have confidence, they say, the hole looks as big as a basketball hoop. Confidence, notoriously, comes and goes. Over the last decade I have written probably fifty poems, or drafts of poems, that I have never quite managed to finish or send out to editors. I lacked confidence in them. My game was off. But over the last year or so I have been going back to those poems and finishing some of them and sending them out and they are beginning to get published. I blame the avant garde. I blame flarf and conceptual poetry and Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman and all the Language Poets from sea to shining sea. I have always, temperamentally and politically, identified with the cutting edge, with the most progressive policy, with the new. Make it NEW, Pound told me when I was but an impressionable boy. I tried to be like those guys. I kept tinkering with my swing. The result was that I was always hooking or slicing of digging the club into the fairway. Jim Furyk has a swing you would never teach to a beginner, but he has been ranked as high as number two in the world — it’s a funny-looking loopy thing, but it’s his swing and he has made it work. I think I’m maybe finding my swing.
Lots happening here in HCMC. Toady my friend Lan and I met with two different publishers and we now have two book projects in hand, a collection of short stories by Son Lam and an anthology of younger women poets from the souther half of Vietnam. I couldn’t be more pleased. Tomorrow morning I meet with some of the women who will have poems in the anthology.
Update: This was an odd meeting. I showed up at nine and waited around for half an hour, but no one came. I was just going back to the hotel when Lan arrived and asked if anybody else was there. Nope, I said. So we sat and had coffee for another forty five minutes and were getting ready to leave when the first poet arrived. Now, this had been a casual invitation delivered by email to meet for coffee, but it certainly pushed the usual southern Vietnamese disregard for time about as far as it would go. After another half an hour and a couple of text messages, another poet arrived. Apparently, Lan told me later, they organize via text message and for a meeting to occur, one or two people have to show up and text their friends, We’re here; then others begin arriving. It’s an odd effect of cell phones being utterly ubiqutous in Vietnam — so much so that it appears to be changing the way people organize their social lived. But it’s only people in their thirties or younger: the poets I met with the day before were there waiting for me, though a few showed up later. Most of these were older guys, some my age. My own students probably organize their lives this way and I’m just not aware of it.
So that’s one social principle that was new to me. There was another that come out of this meeting that I didn’t pick up on until Lan explained it to me. Lan had used email to “introduce” me to several poets online, asking them to send me work for translation. (This was before the meeting described above.) I followed up with an email of my own and a few of the poets responded. Apparently, because I did not respond immediately when people wrote me (I’m traveling, with sketchy internet), that was taken as a sign that I was not interested. I find this baffling, especially given the experiences outlined in the previous paragraph. I chalk it up to an ambivilent post-colonial posture on the part of Vietnamese poets. If you don’t like me then to hell with you. It’s understandable, but something I have to internalize for the work I’m doing. I’d be defensive too, I guess. It just occurs to me as I write that the line between the personal and the professional is much more blurry in Vietnamese letters than in the US. So that when I respond in a “professional” mode it is taken as a lack of friendship. It bothers me, I want to work within the social structures of the people whose poems I’m reading, but these experiences demonstrate the perils of even the best-willed attempts at cross-cultural understanding.