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.