Poem

I hesitate to post this poem, written just this afternoon, fearing that it is insufficiently respectful; but whatever disrespect it exhibits is only an attempt to express a more profound respect. One never gets entirely outside the lecture room, of course; but one chafes. The seat is hard, the oscillating fan insufficient to ventilate the musty smell of old books in a tropical climate.

A Lecture on Vietnamese Culture

The professor tells the visitors
that today they will learn about
the betel leaf and the areca nut,
which is the history of Vietnam

in one small package, he says,
and then recites a song
for his audience, who have
been brought captive by a guide

to listen, though they would
be walking the narrow
streets lost in the heat blinded
by the haze of burning paper

from the temples, the sidewalks
filled with families eating soup
and gossiping, but they will
never be allowed outside —

today it’s the betel leaf
and the areca nut and slaked lime
for them, Vietnam as a quid
pro quo, their being here to hear

the lecture, offered many times
to others and polished smooth
as a Buddha’s toe kissed for
centuries, rubbed for good luck.

They are allowed nothing else.
Not the State’s music spilling
from the loudspeakers nor
the singing from the Cathedral

punctuated by the air horns
of tourist buses and the tinkle
of cyclo bells, the calls of women
hawking fish and fresh bread.

Tomorrow it will be coconuts
and when they are finished with
nuts they will move on to fruit
and flowers. And if they come

every day, before long they will
be allowed to discuss weather
and international relations,
which are very like the betel leaf.

(Hanoi, April 2009)

Some Questions about Vietnamese Poetry

As I prepare to go to Vietnam in the spring, I have been in contact with friends there, asking them about poetry in contemporary Vietnam. Part of my project involves interviewing Vietnamese poets and that means thinking of the sorts of questions I want to ask. I know a bit about the history of Vietnam and its literature, particularly in the 20th century, but I want to know how that history is affecting the making of poems now, in the first decade of the 21st century. Here is a first pass at some questions, or pre-questions — the sort of questions I need to ask in order to find out what the real questions are:

  1. Who are the most interesting poets now working in Vietnam?
  2. To what extent is contemporary Vietnamese poetry connected to the poetry of the past?
  3. What is the nature of the connection, to the extent that it exists?
  4. Do contemporary poets make use of the extensive folk traditions, for example, of Ca Dao?
  5. What has been the effect of urbanization of Vietnamese poetry over the last twenty years or so?
  6. Have the changes in the Vietnamese economy over the last generation affected Vietnamese poets?
  7. Are there marked generational differences among younger and older Vietnamese poets?
  8. To what extent are Vietnamese poets aware of and interested in poetries in other languages?

Those are the questions I’ll be asking poets I already know as I get ready to go to Vietnam; presumably, these questions will lead to others that are more detailed and take into account the individual situations of the writers I’ll be meeting. If anyone happens by this space who has answers to the questions posed above, please feel free to chime in.

Vietnamese

Powering up the Vietnamese software to refresh my (very modest) language skills. It now looks as if I’ll be going to VN in the spring to research & collect material for an anthology of contemporary Vietnamese poetry. I will have the able assistence, thankfully, of my friends Ly Lan & Hoang Hung. What I envision is an anthology with extensive notes, interviews and an “ethnographic” essay that treats Vietnamese poetry as a cultural text. Because of the rapid & radical social & cultural changes in Vietnam over the last thirty years, the country is itself an experiment in cultural change; and the Vietnamese have always put poetry at the center of their culture. Poetry still seems to matter in Vietnam. My working thesis is that Vietnamese poetry can be read as a sort of genetuic code.