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Drowsy eyes waiting for sleep. There is a man hanging from the roof. A death with the beauty of a small waterfall pouring down a jagged peak. A comedy is performed by an old monkey. His image has been printed on postcards to sell to tourists.

Death has no gender. The entire body is bound with musical strings. Testimonies are taped all over the hallway. A few words clump their heads together, ancient characters hobnobbing with complicated constructions erected by absent-minded individuals. The grammar of those who believe that, after a night’s sleep, they will wake up mute.

Between the green and red signals, the streets coagulate. At the intersection of Great Vietnam, a project gives its death notice. Next to a pile of broken bricks: garbage, animal carcasses and strewn humanity.

A horn shrieks. The crowd surges, screaming: “Kill! Kill! Kill!” A saxophone soloist suffers a stroke in the middle of Castaways. The stage turns 180 degrees. The MC smiles, apologizes for the technical glitch. A jazz singer sings Spring On The Steps, ass swaying, breasts heaving.

The reason for the calamity is determined by the sharp nose of a rabid dog.

From “Revolving Stage” by Nguyen Quoc Chanh translated by Linh Dinh

Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s difficult poems have attracted readers throughout the world, establishing a reputation among those who most care for progress in Vietnamese literature, believing that its relevance to the present offers hope for the future. In this collection of translations and interviews we seek to bring his poetry to an audience in English.

The poems of Nguyen Quoc Chanh are difficult in the sense that they are not easy to paraphrase. “In the legends of dry springs there are the pebbles’ intonations.” What does that mean? “The reason for the calamity is determined by the sharp nose of a rabid dog.”

What could that possibly mean? You may say, well it means something to me. Undoubtedly, the first quotation means something to Mong Lan, who translated it, and the second one means something to its translator Linh Dinh.

These distinguished Vietnamese American writers would not spend their time and attention on nonsense. The sense they are attending to in translating Nguyen Quoc Chanh is a deliberate attack on the common sense of Viet Nam and rest of the modern world.

Nguyen Quoc Chanh declares himself a surrealist, a purposeful member of a movement across the arts and around the globe that is getting to be one hundred years old. Surrealism remains new because it talks nonsense to draw the reader’s attention to the present, to right now, to the rumbling body and ramshackle mind in which each of us negotiates an unjust world.

Hitler and Mao and Stalin all detested surrealism and oppressed surrealists brutally with murder and the camps. An unfunny irony of the twentieth century is that Viet Nam, of all the socialist countries right and left, embraced surrealism as an official style.

They did this in recognition of their allies, the celebrated surrealists of the Communist Party of France. So Ha Noi has oppressed dissent among its surrealists mildly. Consider the example of one of the forebears Nguyen Quoc Chanh speaks of in his interview with Linh Dinh.

Tran Dan of Ha Noi was a young poet who set down his surrealist magazine to join the revolution in 1945 as a sloganeer. When he tried to return to his art after the victory over the French in 1954, embracing art led by artists for the sake of art, his Party simply shut Tran Dan down and never let him publish again.

In the 1990s, during a period of tolerance, the painter Tran Vu showed a series of paintings at a Ha Noi gallery of his father Tran Dan as a large soulful man cramped in a small dull room. About the same time, Vietnamese authorities let Nguyen Quoc Chanh publish two books, but since then he has been quietly shut out of the magazines and publishing houses.

In his interview with young Saigon poet Ly Doi, Nguyen Quoc Chanh explains his situation in specific terms, about the words that are not allowed at the government monopoly publishing houses, and those that are required. You may speak of hair, but not of pubic hair; you must speak of Uncle and never of uncle, to show respect to Ho Chi Minh.

No matter. Nguyen Quoc Chanh and Ly Doi are both thriving as artists, publishing their poems themselves by photocopy in Saigon and posting them at the great global Vietnamese websites for literature and critical thought, critic Nguyen Hung Quoc’s Tienve from Australia, and author Pham Thi Hoai’s Talawas from Germany.

These now are the homes of Nguyen Quoc Chanh, where he is living the rebirth of the wide-open literary culture of the Republic of Viet Nam which flourished in Saigon from 1954 to 1975. Nguyen Quoc Chanh picked through the remains of this world in the flea markets on the sidewalks of Saigon as a college student and soldier.

A picker in the rag and bone shop of literary history, a bricoleur, a self-taught surrealist of the unofficial strain, Nguyen Quoc Chanh recently discovered that he is as well a postmodernist, when at the turn into the new century he met such visiting cosmopolitans as Linh Dinh. Whatever you call him he remains a man of our times, delivering the eternal message of surrealism:

Who do you think you are anyways? Where are you? What do these poems mean? We present fifteen poems by Nguyen Quoc Chanh selected and translated by Mong Lan and Linh Dinh, with interviews by Linh Dinh and Ly Doi and a bibliography to assist your reading.