I’m in HCMC now and the place is frankly overwhelming. I was here ten years ago and it didn’t seem quite such a daunting place. But my friend Lan is a good guide and she took me out for noodles last night, which were superb. I’ve just walked around my neighborhood in Cholon a couple of times today without trying to see anything in particular, just to get a feel for the place. And the feeling is pretty overwhelming. Loud, crowded, busy, a little chaotic. Not unfriendly. And because I am far from the tourist heart of Saigon, there is none of the usual attempt to get me to buy things. The Vietnamese are doing plenty of buying and selling without my participation, not that they mind if I have a coffee and a banh my (sandwich) at a table on the sidewalk. I like the food better in the south, I think — more flavor, sweeter, more chilis. Lan has set up a bunch of literary meeting for me over tomorrow and the next day. I’ll have made more meaningful contacts in a week here than in almost three weeks in Hanoi, where the literary scene is either dead or has simply refused to show itself to me. Perhaps I offended somone there and the word has gone out. Or perhaps the literary institutions are simply moribund and I don’t have enough Vietnamese to penetrate the informal networks on my own. I had thought I had a couple of folks who were going to help me out, but they have fallen silent. Khong sao.
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.
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.