Poems of Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan & Nhã Thuyên – Series Introduction Essay

Nguyen Tien Hoang, poet


Situated in the crossroads of a few dominant cultural powerhouses, the cultural exchanges between Vietnam and these nations have occurred over a long course of time – a thousand of years with China, building its national identity and independence; with France, especially in a long century that ended with the Battle of Dien Bien Phu; and with the US, an arduous road embroiled in the tragic Vietnam War and its aftermath. Translations of religious texts and official documents have been an essential part in these exchanges. Literature translation yet is another story. The Western students of East Asian and Southeast Asian history have heard of Nguyễn Du’s nineteenth century poem, Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kiều), but they must wait until 1983 when Yale University published the newly completed translation by the scholar-in-residence Huỳnh Sanh Thông, to finally have a full appreciation of the work. The impact of The Tale of Kiều to many generations of the Vietnamese people has been well recorded in Vietnamese studies. While the anti-colonial scholar Ngô Đức Kế blamed it for the lulling effects that he said had tamed the fighting spirits the young people should have had against the colonialists, the scholar Phạm Quỳnh maintained that the fate of the Vietnamese people depends entirely on the fate of this poetical masterpiece. Alexandre B. Woodside writing on the historical background of Huỳnh Sanh Thông’s translation had this to say about the poem: ‘Western readers who are curious about Vietnam and the Vietnamese may well gain more real wisdom from cultivating a discriminating appreciation of this one poem than they will from reading the entire library of scholarly and journalistic writings upon modern Vietnam which has accumulated in the West in the past two decades.’

1983 was the year many sides of the Vietnam Conflict were still coping with the agonizing legacy of war. In Vietnam, the border-wars continued with the neighbouring Cambodia and China; being isolated from the West, the country was trapped in a dire situation, diplomatically and economically; the common people facing severe social disruptions and economic hardships were leaving Vietnam by any means they could possibly manage to find. The literature of the exiled community was pervaded with lamenting poems and sorrowful stories. In the introduction of the Yale University’s publication, Huynh Sanh Thong pointed out, The Tale of Kiều holds many metaphors for the Vietnamese conflict; the identification with Kiều helps the Vietnamese, especially the Vietnamese living in exile, to ‘recognize in their country the image of this karma-cursed woman’. A classic poem written by a poet in the nineteenth century explains the causal linkages and the fate of the Vietnamese people in the third quarter of the twentieth century.

After the Geneva Accord signed in 1954, more than a million people from the North had moved South, the first time a transmigration of such massive scale occurred in the collective memories of the Vietnamese people. Poet Vũ Hoàng Chương captured a sense of loss in the transmigrated people in his often-quoted lines “We were born into the wrong century” and “The country castigated us, the people of the same blood disdaining us”. The visions of younger poets coming from the North like Mai Thảo, Thanh Tâm Tuyền were more upbeat. The young poets who gathered under the literary journal Sáng Tạo (Creativity) saw in the new land, the new cultural climate and Saigon, the metropolis itself, rather a promise of freedom for the arts. For poetry, Thanh Tâm Tuyền actively promoted free verse poetry (thơ tự do). The new form focused on imagery, the rhythm of the moving images, tonal variations and musical effects. Influenced by Paul Eluard and Ungaretti, Thanh Tâm Tuyền created a new avenue for poetical expression that affected other poets in the years to come.  This poetry is not necessarily severed from the pathos that seems to be genetically built into the make-up of the Vietnamese language. Yeats once said “my poetry is generally written out of despair”. As the war raged on, even though there was a diversity of poetical voices, the poetry of the South was exactly this: poetry created out of despair. Ironically, poetry was read and shared and respected essentially because there was also the sense of despair in people facing war and destructions. The Exodus that started with the fall of Saigon extended and accentuated the tribulation that had already been built up.

The nostalgia, sadness and despair engulfing the diaspora were finally lifted in the second decade of resettlement. Two prominent writers, who had been active in literary publication from the South, Mai Thảo and Nguyễn Mộng Giác, in an alliance with the new generation of writers and poets, launched the two key literary magazines Văn (Literature) and Văn Học (Literature). A few years later, Hợp Lưu (Confluence), and Tạp Chí Thơ (Poetry Magazine) were launched, expanding the platform for new poetry and new short fictions. This was a time for poetry translations to flourish. The emerging younger poets sensed for the general readers to appreciate them, the poems written in Vietnamese must be juxtaposed and linked to the world poetry. The four mentioned magazines are pivotal gathering points for the writers of the diaspora until the arrival of internet-based e-magazines such as Talawas, Tien Ve (Avant-garde) and Da Mau (Coloured Skin).

By late 1986, Vietnam embraced Perestroika. The political change sweeping the socialist world forced adjustments to official policy that extended to literature and the arts. Translation of the new work fiction flourished in this period of Renovation (Đổi Mới) thanks to the translators from the outside world. Overseas, many writers translated and edited works coming from a new generation of writers of the Renovation period. The national reconciliation within the Vietnamese people which never had a chance to be implemented on the official level, now seemed to be carried out by the poets and writers themselves.

Vietnam has moved on. It is moving into the Digital Age and its massive changes in cultural production and consumption. What has been called ‘the Margins’ by Deleuze and Guattari seems to be taking place – the writers and artists moved outside of the traditional, fragile community, ‘forging the means for another consciousness and another sensibility’. New works continue to be born out of the exigencies. Against a fast-changing post-modern social setting, the poets respond and attune to a more open and interconnected world, they write out of despair and to overcome it.

Modern Vietnamese poetry overseas took a turning point in 2000, when poet Khế Iêm, through Poetry Magazine, began to embrace New Formalism, a form of free verse poetry that called for the abandonment of traditional characteristics such as rhyme, rhythm, and structured style; instead enjambement and ordinary conversational language took centre stage. Khế Iêm believed New Formalism would be a perfect blend of past and future, of traditional value and the new freedom, an intersection of many different cultures that the Vietnamese in diaspora were currently experiencing. Many poets from inside Vietnam also joined the movement and a slew of non-traditional poems were being produced at a frequent rate. The poetic scene during this period was dynamic yet divided: New Formalism did have as many critics as its fans. Poets who resisted the movement pointed out that its mechanical approach and its lack of style discipline fostered works of weightless contents. After several active years, this form of poetry began to fade, with the discontinuation of Poetry magazine, however its influences on new and emerging young poets can not be discredited.

As free press is not an unalienated right enjoyed by writers within Vietnam, a group of audacious poets started the Pavement poetry movement which explored political subjects forbidden by the government. They refused to indulge censorship and began their own underground press called Scrap Paper Publishing House. Founded by poet Bùi Chát and poet Lý Đợi, this publisher printed and distributed many literary works of sensitive political and social subjects via the xerographic method, evading the government’s scrutiny. Bùi Chát later won the 2011 IPA Freedom to Publish Prize for his courage and effort in promoting free press. The Edge of the Abyss, a collection of poetry by Nhã Thuyên, one of the featured poets in this series, was published by Scrap Paper via this method. With the arrival of webzines and ebooks which allow less dependency on mainstream method of print publication, the significance of this movement becomes less essential yet remains an important symbolic mode of resistance against artistic censorship.

The three poets featured in this volume were born in the postwar period, their writings emerged when the set political agenda had already been gone, the old tracks of writing with an eye for the publication authority had been removed. These however are less important than the fact that their writings demand new ways of reading. The heightened language, the hidden pathos and the discernible passions may be the meeting ground for the intersecting flights, yet each poem sets its own pace, tilts its rudder in different way and brings the readers to different points of unexpectedness. The diversity of their concerns and subject matters apparently reflect the social and environmental challenges they are facing. Their responses are above all in the language itself.

Lưu Diệu Vân was born in 1979 in Saigon. In 1992, she migrated to the US, received her education in Boston. She received a Master degree from the University of Massachusetts in 2009. Postwar Saigon, the transmigration experiences, the re-examination of root/homeland and the sense of belonging, issues of gender and race, feminism and post-feminism, the traditional versus the new values, all of these ingredients for the postmodern discourse seem to have entered her poems, even in the early days when they first appeared and immediately captured the attentions of other poets within the Vietnamese diaspora. In the past five years, as a co-editor of the literary online magazine, Da Mau, Lưu Diệu Vân has translated and introduced numerous writers and poets across the two languages that she mastered. Her poems have now reached a wide readership both in the diaspora and inside Vietnam. Her first book of poems, 47 Minutes After, was published in 2010 by Van Nghe Publishing House in Vietnam.

Lưu Diệu Vân’s poetry appeals for reason and rationality, it defies the customary tendency that looks into poetry for the assuaging effects. Like the modern poets of the generation before her (Bishop, Sexton and Plath), she considers being a woman is a centrally important fact as much as writing poetry is concerned. Her poetic persona embodies the feminist traits of a modern woman who takes on the world as it is: a field of experiences. The poem is the result of thought-process and rational reflections along the traversing-paths of interactions between the writer, who is conscious of the contemporary milieu she is in, and the outside world. A poem is a voice that names, delineates and redefines, and mediates. Lưu Diệu Vân’s poetry has a strong emphasis on diction, it employs a language which address the public. Her poetry is not for the page alone, it is also for the tongue, for the performance stage. It is a spoken voice, the audience will hear the wit of the words, the exuberance of the vernacular and the energy of the speech.

Lưu Mêlan was born in in 1989 in Ninh Thuan, a province in Southern Central Vietnam. She moved further South and is currently working in Saigon. In the past three years Lưu Mêlan’s creative outputs seemed to flow out without delayed intermissions. With a progressively fractured, precise and direct language, Lưu Mêlan’s poems consciously look into human and the environment – what we are materially, physically; the inheritance and everyday; the collective subconscious, the quiet horror hidden in the living artefacts around us. Either reflecting on the soil, the crops, the rice-seeds that intimately linked her to the remote province she was born into, or on the ordinary lives of the people of urban Ho Chi Minh City, Lưu Mêlan’s poems always manage to evoke the haunting multi-faceted visage of the present. Hers is a poetry that never ceases probing and exploring which reminds of Holub’s and Popa’s.

Nhã Thuyên was born in northern Vietnam in 1986. She completed a Master of Arts course in Vietnamese contemporary literature at Hanoi National University of Education in 2011 and is currently a lecturer in the faculty of Philology of this university. Her first book, titled Writing – a collection of monologues, allegories and prose-poems was published in 2008. Her latest project, Underground Voices, looks into the marginalization in Vietnamese contemporary poetry and avant-garde poets in the Post-Renovation period – a project supported by Arts Network Asia (ANA). While Lưu Diệu Vân’s poems appeal to reason, Lưu Mêlan’s poetry employs the focused optical mind, Nhã Thuyên’s writing looks into the subconscious. Memories, dreams, and the dream-imagery are keys to Nhã Thuyên’s writing, the prose-poem in particular: it is in the prose-poem that she seems to rest her case for the functions of language and poetic language. In her own words, her poetry is a process through which “the language is pushed further down to the lower depth where the repressed memories have been stored, to be freed from the repression”. By ‘repression’, she refers to the imposing external forces including history, social customs and mores and the prejudices, all of which over the years allegedly have hardened, smothered or stripped language of its sparks, grace and strength. In Nhã Thuyên poetry, the borders of the poem are broken and extended, resulting in a composition of mass, blocks – like islands in a water-landscape – a visual composition that corresponds with the trains of rhythms that is not running on a single strand but multiple strata, bringing in the polyphonic effects. The characteristic dramatic edges often seen in her allegories and very short fictions when coming to the prose-poems are deliberately softened; the associations of images are loose and freer; the dynamic tensions turned to variations, pitched and extenuated in correspondence with the inner emotions, the phasings of the reverie in action.

Lê Đạt and Thanh Tâm Tuyền, fifty years ago, in looking for new modes and new language of poetry proffered that new poetry demands a new grammar. One poet then opted for the new free verse, another for his own form of LANGUAGE poetry. In this volume, three more poets are here to add, not only new voices but new actions towards the new grammar. This volume bears the fruits of many months of works between the poets and their translators, they are the first persons who read and deconstruct the poems and take on the work – apparently, with delight.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s