I’ve noted before that it’s easiest for me to understand Vietnamese when I am inside a stereotypical situation like a restaurant or a taxi or a shop. Tonight I’m sitting in a “modern” cafe in HCMC where Vietnamese pop music is piped over a really good sound system and I find I can understand almost all the words of the songs. Pop songs, of course, have a narrow range of subjects and a remarkably limited vocabulary. Lots of lines about being “only one man” who is “alone” and always “asking” for “understanding” or “a little more time.” And so on. I’m grateful for what I would otherwise find a distraction because it provides some evidence that bits and pieces of the Vietnamese language are sticking in my brain.
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.
Just returned from morning coffee with “the sidewalk poets,” an informal group of friends — poets, novelists, editors — who meet in cafes and pass around samizdat copies of poems and stories. They also publish in official channels and actually have a private (non-government) press, called Trash. I’m still digesting a lot of what I heard, but I learned more about contemporary Vietnamese poetry in two hours with these guys than in three weeks knocking on official doors in Hanoi.
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.
Going around Hanoi and trying to speak Vietnamese (with my limited vocabulary and grammatical resources) has made me acutely aware of the social contexts in which language operates. In a restaurant, certain kinds of words and sentences are used; in a shop, different words and sentences. In fact, this makes it easier for me to communicate because I know what to expect in different places. I’ve also learned to expect several stock questions: How long have I been in Vietnam? How old am I? What work do you do? What country am I from? And because I expect these questions, I don’t have to think quite so hard, but can fall back into language I already know. Such scts of communication always take place within some social context. Aren’t poems the same, in some respects. In poetry, the shop or restaurant might be replaces with a mode or genre — an elegy or a sonnet. So the conventions of conversation or poetry are not something — at least initially — to be gotten outside of, but something to be used. The actual language of a conversation or a poem can only be extracted from the context by an act of critical violence, an act of Abstraction, to adopt Blake’s terminology. But surely we don’t want to be limited to conventional subjects and modes. True enough. I offer my observation only to make the point that such conventional situations can carry a good deal of satisfaction and even emotional power. They ought not be sneered at or avoided in favor of novelty or originality, I think. Such moments of mutuality can be deeply significant. Poems, like my primitive conversations, start in such places and such moments.
Cross-posted at The Plumbline School.
Perhaps for the impious nature of the poem I posted the other day, I have been struck with Uncle Ho’s revenge. Nothing serious, but the very nice British doctor at the clinic gave me a run of cipro to get my gut back to normal. Any more information than that would be too much information. I’m already feeling better after one dose of antibiotics. But impiety is something to watch out for and this place will make you superstitious. Does wide-spread belief in active forces beneath the surface of nature actually create (or release?) such forces? Hanoi will make you wonder. In any case, I have four days to recover, since we are moving into the April 30 / May 1st holiday. April 30 is the day that northern troops captured Saigon in 1975, thus putting an end to the division of the country — and May 1st is of course May Day. After Tet, the lunar New Year, this is the big Vietnamese holiday extravanganza. I’ll be spending the time reading and writing while my Vietnamese friends party.