One of the perks of being a college professor is paid travel. Yes, you have to write the grant, but when you go it is on someone else’s dime. And of course you have to have some project and come back and write it up, but most of us consider that an additional benefit. We like writing stuff up, that’s why we became academics in the first place. All of which is by way of preview to announcing that I will be returning to Vietnam this spring for a six-week visit. I’ll be spending most of my time in Hanoi, where I lived what I was a Fulbright scholar in 2000-2001, but I’ll also be going to the south. My plan is to record interviews with Vietnamese poets and collect poems for translation. I am particularly interested in placing contemporary Vietnamese poetry in its cultural and historical context. Vietnamese culture has long venerated the art of poetry above all others and I am interested to see how that attitude is holding up in the globalizing market economy that has taken hold with a vengeance in VN over the last fifteen years of so.
On a personal level, I feel a deep connection with the city of Hanoi. Unaccountably, living there I felt at home. Perhaps because I was free to be a flâneur, roaming the city at will & mostly without a need to do more than show up occasionaly at the offices of the publishing house where I was acting as an editor / consultant. In fact, all the freedom made me a little crazed at times, given to fits of obsessive compulsive walking. For a few weeks I went about in a kind of flaming daze, before returning to myself shortly before coming back to the states. Even that was lovely, in its way — “I have a great capacity for joy,” I repeated to myself incessantly as I walked the tree-lined streets and narrow back alleys of Thanh Long, the city of the rising dragon.
So I’m sitting around at home this morning looking out on the kind of beautiful fall morning that would usually pull me outdoors. My favorite yard chores are autumn yard chores. But I’m sitting inside because I picked up a head cold & sore throat at school. Colleges are viral breeding grounds. I just don’t have the oomph to get out & transplant perennials. Despite the cold, it has been a good semester so far — across the board, my students seem pretty engaged, though I remain amazed at their meager abilities as readers. And by that I mean, just the ability to get the basic prose meaning of a literary text. “That’s weird,” they say immediately in response to a poem they don’t understand (Stephen Dunn’s “Men Talk,” hardly a difficult text), dismissing it before they have even tried to suss out the meaning of all its words and images. Reading poetry, they tend to not read sentences, even when there are perfectly clear sentences. I guess they are reading lines as fragments. Perhaps it is just a very weak sense of grammar. And by grammar, I don’t mean knowledge of the names of different grammatical entities, but a sense of the way the parts of a sentence relate to each other to create a meaning. I also found out yesterday that I was one of four members of my department who had been nominated to replace our outgoing department chair, though I immediately took myself out of the running. Five years ago I wanted the job & didn’t get it, but I don’t want it now. I’ve passed that particular fork in the road. All my ambitions are literary & pedagogical these days. Inspired by Stuart O’Nan’s visit to campus, I have begun working on a short story — my first attempt in 20 years — & I’m still struggling with my long poem, pieces of which are lying around on my desk, in my notebooks, and on my hard drive like flotsam on the beach after a storm.
I was really too young to have been influenced by the New American Review during the main part of its run, but I remember in the mid-seventies picking up copies in used bookstores & feeling nostalgic for a scene I was never a part of. Ted Solotaroff is dead at 80. Those beat-up paperbacks, for my generation, were tokens of bravery to be lived up to. And they were printed (at a loss) by major publishers. Now there is something to be nostalgic for. Another believer in the efficacy of writing as an art is gone.