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 Two interviews with Nguyen Quoc Chanh

A Conversation with Nguyen Quoc Chanh

With Linh Dinh (Translated by Cari An Coe)

Linh Dinh (LD):  Please tell the readers a little bit about your background.

Nguyen Quoc Chanh (NQC):  I was born in Bac Lieu in 1958, into a family of opposing customs, with a Southern mother who chose action over words and a Northern father, nearly the opposite, who chose words over action.  I didn’t fit in with Southerners because I had a little Northern blood, and I also didn’t match with Northerners because I had a bit of the Southern temperament.  I was the distorted product of that confused relationship.  It influenced greatly my way of thinking and my attitude.  Currently I live in Saigon and I’ve published two collections of poetry: Night of the Rising Sun (Dem Mat Troi Moc, 1990), and Inanimate Weather (Khi Hau Do Vat, 1997).

LD:     I heard you were in the army?

NQC:  I was called up in 1979 and spent two years in the ranks who go in sandals and beards, wear a helmet and shoot AK rounds, but luckily I did not see combat.  I think, if sent into battle, I would have been taken prisoner, or I would have surrendered, or been the first person shot.  I didn’t go to battle, but still I am left with two scars: one scar in my stomach from an ulcer caused by hunger and eating improperly, and a scar on my psyche from repression from the ever-inflating pressure of the collective.  During those two years, I came to recognize the nearly instinctive martial spirit latent in the majority of the Vietnamese people and it filled me with more terror than imagined gun battles against Pol Pot.  But it’s also lucky, because of the stomach ulcer, I was released from the ranks early. 

LD:     When you were a student, which authors did you read?  How did they influence your thinking and the way you write verse?

NQC:  The Stranger, The Time of the Assassins, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra not only left a deep impression, but they served as a hammer that broke me free.  I read The Stranger, in Le Thanh Hoang Dan’s translation of Camus, for the first time in 1974.  It hit  me like a firestorm, burning and ravishing every illusion in my mind about human existence, replacing it with an ever-slowly growing loneliness in my emotional state.  I read it when I was still a student and now, I still read it again sometimes, and in the future I believe that the thoughts of Camus in The Stranger will be a foundation for the virtue that ends alienation among people.  Time of the Assassins, Pham Cong Thien translating Henry Miller writing about Rimbaud, was to me at that time, more than any psychological or aesthetic education, a mirror into the primal need to remove the sentimental waste of tradition from life and from literature.  Those books formulated my individual consciousness, and caused me to resist the half-civilized environment of the collective power, and to always see in the individual a threat to their provisional safety.  Besides that, utopian economics and political autocracy in Vietnam after the war caused calamities, conflicts and harsh disorder in my psyche, so that strange images, unexpected thoughts in lines of poetry, such as: the revolver has white hair, innards are of stone, air is a tree root, stone is the tree for masses of clouds . . .  immediately entered me like a toxic windstorm, and the surrealist method of verse indifferently turned into breath, flesh and blood, and grew into the most important part of my artistic consciousness.  During that time, translated books from the Soviet Union monopolized the bookstores, and almost all the books wore the uniform.  But, luckily, there was a line of verse that really went off-track: the cloud masses that wear trousers, by Mayakovsky, rescued me.

LD:     Studying at a socialist university, how did you pick up those depraved works?

NQC:  I picked up all those things at the flea market.  Before there was the socialist university of Vietnam, there was the university of capitalism in Saigon.  Before 1975, Saigon had nearly all the types of books for a beginning writer, the fundamentals of philosophy, aesthetics and world literature.  After 1975, those works were thrown out on the street and the hat of ‘depravity’ was placed on their heads.  While Gorki and his comrades-in-arms dominated the price of books, at the flea market, Faulkner, Beckett . . . lay stretched out on the sidewalk.  98% of the students were sacks, they passively held all the things that were crammed into them.  I also was a sack, but a sack with holes in it.  I saw my studies as a reason to remain within the law, but my soul had long been having an affair with those depraved works from the flea market.  Because of that, I was able to accumulate a little experience, so that I would never turn into a disciplined member in the ranks of those sacks.

LD:     Can you explain to the readers why surrealist poets were able to publish in Vietnam, when their poetry had nothing in common with socialist realism?

NQC:  Those were two misjudgments that had opposite meanings. Surrealist poetry cannot but occur within vague conceptions of utopian desires about the relationship between a people and modernity.  Socialist realism in Vietnam has always regarded itself as a component of the advancement of the people, and having advanced, why shouldn’t it know the genius of the world?  And so, surrealist poetry made its way into Vietnam.  However, it is necessary to reflect upon both of these misjudgments.  The misjudgment that socialist realism brought was that it played a role in the mass murder of talent by taking away consciousness and opportunity.  But the misjudgment of allowing surrealist poetry to enter Vietnam was a lucky opportunity for those talents still latent.  How is it possible to modernize the plastic tail of the pig with the head of a locomotive?  While surrealist poetry takes the policy that writing is carrying a revolver and shooting randomly into a crowd . . . writing is taking the power of the individual and illuminating it over the ignorance of the collective . . . writing is calming down the whirling within us, radiating light on dark, somber places and making the darkness shift to other places.  And writing is taking revolt to revolutionize poetry, and through poetry, to break through the borderline between life and death, between reality and dreams, between things and objects, between this object and that object - because surrealist poetry contrives to place thought outside of its system of reference of idealist and materialistic consciousness.  However surrealist poetry and socialist realism may exist together, just try to place the poem “Free Union” by Breton next to “A May Morning” by To Huu, or “In Search of the Shape of my Country” by Che Lan Vien, with “New Tiles” by Xuan Dieu (from wartime), for example, and you will see their ridiculous contradictions.

LD:     I want to expand upon your observation that one reason why surrealist poetry can be printed in Vietnam is because almost all the surrealist poets support socialism.  Another author who has a large influence in Vietnam is Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  He is also pro-communist, even though magic realism, a type of surrealism, has nothing in common with socialist realism.  What are your observations regarding the influence of Marquez on Vietnamese literature?

NQC:  I think they support communism in theory, according to the canonical works of Marx.  But the reality of communism under Stalin, I cannot believe that they support that in any way.  The prisons in Siberia, the place where many writers were maltreated, surely cannot be warm like the central office of the Communist Party of France, where Aragon sat and drank tea with his surrealist comrades-in-arms, discussing a future classless society among all genders and races.  I read a piece written by Marquez about Castro, but Castro, in the eyes of the magic realist Marquez, is not the colossal character that pushed Cuba down a dead-end street.  Castro emerges as an old sorcerer in the admiring eyes of the people of the village of Macondo.  Because a writer, no matter where he looks, will see the presence of illusory traits, Marquez doesn’t view Castro from the perspective of participating in the suffering of the people of Cuba, suffering caused by Castro’s own policies.  Marquez lifts Castro out of the setting of Cuba like tossing a queer fish from the ocean onto the deck of his newly-bought yacht, to drink and admire it, and when he is drunk, the glorious yeast stimulates his sympathies.  And surely, it was in that manner that he came to Vietnam after One Hundred Years of Solitude was translated into Vietnamese.  In my opinion, that was the key that caused Vietnamese literature to jump out of its skin after 1975.  Except for Pham Thi Hoai, I think Nguyen Huy Thiep, Tran Vu, Nguyen Quang Thieu . . .  of course, without Marquez, we would still have the writing of Thiep and Vu and the poetry of Thieu, but without Marquez, I believe, they couldn’t have been as good as they were.  Because of Vietnamese socialist realism, from the critical perspectives of Nam Cao and Vu Trong Phung, true substance has become impoverished.  Meanwhile, according to the rosy perspectives of Nguyen Khai, real substance was exchanged for something better.  But, from the perspective of illusion, real substance has been inflated, creating extraordinary results that are difficult to sense and which correspond with the nature of a semi-civilization, and the stagnation of a society slowly dying because of its closed-ness.  With the approach of magic realism, the remaining capital of Vietnamese literature orbits around realism, and there are works which match well with it.

LD:     Is it hard for you to publish your poetry in Vietnam?

NQC:  It sure is.    Before 1990, I had a few poems that came out in the newspaper, but after I published The Night of the Rising Sun, that all but stopped.  By 1997, the Youth Publishing House had allowed me to publish Inanimate Weather.  They say, necessity is the mother of invention.  But here, necessity leads to ‘cracks,’ and the evidence is that two donkeys managed to sneak by. 

LD:     How do other poets and critics in Vietnam assess your work?

NQC:  In Vietnam, the poets and critics are nearly all cadres.  They get paid and work within the establishment of the State.  Whenever they speak or write about someone, they have to look in front and behind. Literature for them is a rice bowl, or the way to a promotion, or a fake blindness to sit out the rain until retirement so that one can be buried in the same cemetery as the leadership.  They don’t have a literary opinion other than standing their ground by passing Party resolutions about literature.  There are about ten articles from the newspapers about my two collections of poetry, especially about Night of the Rising Sun.  They criticize my poetry as being dark, obstructed, harmful . . . They view my poetry as no different from garbage, insecticide, coming from a group of scoundrels or spies.  They cannot distinguish between the attitude of a person in language and the attitude of a poet in the language of poetry.  And for those people who are in good, the artfulness, the sneakiness in the way they write, causes them to make every extreme turn neuter.  Ninety-nine per cent of them are literary eunuchs, and they use the same knife that was used to castrate them to sever the ovary or the penis of the literary work.  They write not for the reader or for the poetry, but because of their relationship with the State, who they sleep with, but have different dreams.  Even if they dream of different things, these cannot be.  And if one of them is permitted to be different, that one falls immediately for  the pride of the profession, because they aren’t experienced with freedom and learning.  Just recently, there was an article in the paper Tia Sang (Ray of Light), which appeared to be wide-eyed, outward- and inward-looking, but its vision was poor.  Quoting two lines of my poetry, the article said, “And it is because of this that they write poetry in prose, trying to annul the rhyme in the poem, writing without accents, leading in a dance the lines of poetry with its abruptly ending and descending lines, with truly new and strange representations and remembrances.”  If the writer of that article truly saw, in my poetry, extremely new and strange symbols and memories, that strangeness could not fallen from the fig tree in front of the village communal house.  Rather, it comes directly from that dance we are led on in the lines of poetry.  To say it violently, for the sake of the strangeness of the poetry, even if I end up burning the mountains and the fields, I would still burn them down, much more than simply leading the poetic lines on a merry dance.

LD:     Only revolutionaries would dare burn down the rivers and mountains to achieve their goal.  It’s fortunate that the poet can only bring forth revolution with his words.  What do you think of the place of poetry in Vietnamese society now?

NQC:  I am only joking, and then you turn around and pull out the problem of the place of poetry.  In Vietnam, the place of the poem is always close to politics.  It’s correct, poets are revolutionaries because of some of their objectives, they dare to burn down the rivers and mountains, but with poets, there is only one objective, and that is poetry, and they only have the power to burn one thing: words.  To burn words is to burn the person that was before, from To Huu to Tran Dan.  One person excels, and may be the vice-minister at times; and one person sits in one place until their eyes sink in, with surely very little to eat.  The poems of To Huu will never stand outside of the political establishment, but the poems of Tran Dan, whether sitting or standing unstably anywhere, they will always be poems.  The inability of this country to fully raise its head, is surely partly a result of politicians who like to write poems, and so Vietnamese poetry advances but little, because poets continue to worry about being political.  While the politicians ought to use clear-sightedness to guide the nation, they instead bring forth vagueness to placate the world.  And for the group of poets that follow behind flattering the powers-that-be to wheedle a place for themselves in politics, they make poetry trite and hollow with their sticky rhetoric called a ‘return to the source.’  It is that which poetry makes as its purpose, to push language into isolated vantage points, its standing is still unclear in the present moment.

LD:     I would like to share a long excerpt of an email sent to me by a friend, which talks about your poetry:  “I continue to read Nguyen Quoc Chanh ever since The Night of the Rising Sun, and I find that he has a tendency towards fierce innovation, and his poetry naturally has nothing in common with the persistent rhyme-spreading and careful preparation, like the way those poets still prepare for a feast, even if it is a feast of delicacies.  But let us not discuss that further.  We don’t have to overstate it, but NQC usually pieces words next to each other in a very unpredictable fashion, and when a person who writes prose, such as myself, reads it, they feel pleased.  I just have an observation that is very irritating, that the internal rhythm of NQC seems to not exist, or is inconsistent, or it misses, it seldom is truly persuasive.  To speak in the old manner, it has the air of not yet having been brought together, so that there is a lot of substance but it seems there is not yet much weight.  To say that is actually quite vague.  To try to express it more intelligibly, I just know to say that perhaps NQC mostly uses his head to make poetry.  Within our national poetry, among those poets who pull out their own hearts, displaying their feelings in pieces in their poetry, there are some who use their heads [in the manner of NQC], but still play the prosody very well.  But to play this prosody in Vietnamese, no matter whether it is modern Vietnamese, it is still Vietnamese, a language which both succeeds and fails with abilities to create fixed emotion . . . to ignore those abilities, to ignore the special characteristics, the quintessential emotions, which are expressed most perfectly in Vietnamese, I call that foolishness.”  What do you think of this observation?

NQC:  The ability of old Vietnamese to create emotion in its ancient poetry, and romantic poetry, up through modern poetry makes me sick and tired.  Of course, I cannot exist outside of this tradition, but I will never be its slave.  Precisely because of this, in the consciousness and action of the poem, I always display an attitude of provocation and hostility, in order to have many opportunities to banish it from my game.  Some others have also informed me of the violation of the quintessential special characteristics of Vietnamese.  Because I made a choice, although it was a foolish choice, that foolishness has given me many pleasant feelings.  But if I were to re-adjust myself and rely on the emotion-provoking special characteristics of Vietnamese, naturally more people would identify with my poetry.  But that would betray my aesthetic tendencies.  The aesthetic tendencies of each person in each time period will give Vietnamese a varied face.  Because with language, its substance is both the means of transporting thought as well as the thought itself.  Thought develops through the means of language, while at the same time, it alters the nature of the language itself that is used to think.  Vietnamese is both the concrete Vietnamese of each person, and abstract and independent of everything.  Each person who participates in using it doesn’t muddy it or make it immobile.  Besides that, the aesthetic principle determines the structure of the poem, which rules the structure of the poem will follow, resulting in the rhythm of that structure.  The aesthetics of discontinuity, conjoining, lop-sidedness, heaping, bagging, will not have a continuous structure connecting between the principle/auxiliary, the center/periphery . . .  and naturally, its rhythm will not lead us to the emotions of the main points, the concentrated center, stability and accumulation.  It will have the autonomous rhythm of the transitory, without a center.  The observation that my poetry has a fiercely innovative tendency, that it has nothing in common with our persistent measured verse and careful preparation, if we display it according to the principles of yin and yang, I fall under the tendencies of the aesthetic yang.  Though the rhythm of my biology, according to Eastern medicine, usually occurs in the situation of discord between yin and yang, in my poetry, I always choose, to let the yang points fall, even the anodes.  So, my poetry cannot reassemble and deposit, it can only crush or move.  It cannot be emotionally moving or resound, it can only knock against and symbolize.  Because reassembly and depositing are yin, while crushing and moving are yang, vagueness is yin, concreteness is yang . . .  I don’t choose the way of yin/yang to fit in to my poetry, I like to push it to one side, like the anode.  As a result, the observations above are half-correct about my poetry, and for the other half, because of the demand for yin in the way that poetry is read, it cannot be used in my poems.  Thank you for your friend’s aggressive, inclusive, and good observations, he is also our friend.

LD:     Finding good books in Vietnam is not easy.  What must you do to always have sources of inspiration to create?

NQC:  Reading a good book is to have the pleasure of feeling like a person who is knocked out in the ring to be replaced by one who is better than himself.  It does not directly impact the creative process, rather it acts to control the self and widen the concept of aestheticism.  I can’t usually write from the emotion that comes from reading something good, it’s only when something bad injures me and slights me that I write more easily.  And those things are profuse in Vietnam, to the point that, at any place or time, it can make us stop breathing.

Note on source text

The Vietnamese-language original of Linh Dinh’s interview with Nguyen Quoc Chanh, “Noi chuyen voi Nguyen Quoc Chanh” first appeared in the Australian journal Viet, number 8 (2000).

The interview is now available at the successor to Viet on the Web, tienve:  http://www.tienve.org/home/literature/

The interview is also available at talawas, dated August 11, 2002:


Note on interviewer Linh Dinh and translator Cari An Coe here.

Nguyen Quoc Chanh, seated center, with bridegroom Linh Dinh toasting.

Poetry Is An Effort To Make The Shame Stink

With Ly Doi (Translated by Pham Viem Phuong)

Ly Doi (LD):  After three volumes: Night of the Rising Sun (Dem Mat Troi Moc, 1990), Inanimate Weather (Khi Hau Do Vat,1997) and Of Metaphorical Identity (Cua Can Cuoc An Du, 2002), what do you have to say about your creative work if forced?

Nguyen Quoc Chanh (NQC): Creating is a way to link myself with life. I don't know what the situation in foreign countries is like, but here, in this dark and miserable corner of the world, to live means being resigned to sinking the shame. And writing poems is to rake up everything to make the shame stink. The more you rake, the stranger the smell. I love the smell of marrow so I drive my drill to the bone. Let's have a look, dogs love gnawing at bones, and creative work is somehow like that. We are like dogs that gnaw at a lot of bones to find some marrow.

LD:      Is each volume of poems an achievement, or simply some stupidity you didn't know where to throw away? Many people have thought so, how about you?

LD:      I think each volume of poems is a consequence of some holes you have dug, and from each hole a chance comes out to help you to escape, even for only a second, from this obscure, mean and tattered condition. In an obscure and tattered society such as this, art provides nothing but introspection and an act of staring. But keeping on staring will eventually lead to disillusion.

As stated above, gnawing at a bone is not wise. But gnawing (with a sense of disillusion) and at the same time getting ready to apply for the membership of the Association of Writers is irremediably stupid. If the first volume of poems helps you get into the provincial Association of Writers, and the second into the central Association, and the third one gets you the Prize A of the Vietnamese Poetry Committee, it may be seen as an achievement. An achievement also means getting money grown on trees or applying for a license to print money. Such a license is a bitter dream for most of the junk poets here and now. Excuse me, but I regard them as flies hovering over a corpse until it has nothing to stink, but the flies keep hovering. It's a strange symptom of the passion to belong to a herd.

Imagine you are living in a confined place, and your creative work is a means to dig a hole through it. If your creative work doesn't dig such a hole, it is but a fake paint put on the wall of darkness and deception. A hole as such is both a gap for you to breath and a plot to upset the fake order, just for fun, with a view to confusing those who look into it and suddenly see your deformed face. Confusing everybody is a decent and kind occupation of so-called art in this lifeless and lethargic time.

LD:      How did you develop your ideas and working manner in each volume of poems? Did your techniques and contents change over time?

NQC:  My first volume was a plot to cause confusion by using epigrammatic language, such as:

The bank bill stinks of gunpowder
and salary is the corpse of the war
I have to hold the past in my hand every month
all my blood rushes from head to toes

and the second one was the same plot but with fantastic language:

tick-tock tick-tock
the horny bill taps on the night drum
the two eyes reveal the secrets
sliding on the fat layer of time
the walls show death niches made by generations of prisoners
only the tick-tock keeps counting rolling aspirins

and the third one did it with humorous and brazen language and started the technique of assembling things according to the post-socialist cloning dogmatism (called socialist-oriented market economy in Vietnam now):

Looking out from a blind alley, the world is covered with glue, my friend says: taking a fake pill, I gave birth to a hare-lipped boy on the nineteenth of May. A long-tail silhouette glides on the wall in an act of masturbation, and ends with a fall on its face . . .


One day suspended from the ground
Drumbeat still sounds urgent in messy memory, and the temples of a menopausal woman jerk. Blood pours out. Why so quick
Is that Kotex White
Always Kotex White

As mentioned above, each volume of poems is a series of holes, but they are not bored at random but done according to an overall effort to cause confusion. Because our concepts of poetry could give birth to new ideas in a poem, and vice versa, these ideas could lead to new concepts of poetry. Interaction between these ideas and concepts results in the artistic content of the poetry that mostly depends on changes in techniques.

LD:      Why didn't you send your Of Metaphorical Identity to publishers for a permit as you had done with your two previous volumes? Are you afraid of them now?

NQC:  Anyway you should be afraid of them. You can't do anything about it, because to them, the word toc (hair on your head) is OK but long (hair on other parts of you body) begins to be problematic; mat (eye) is extremely ethical, but cac (penis) surely corrupt; can cu (hard working) sounds patriotic while dan ngu cu den (people at the bottom rung) certainly reactionary. You can even be seen as the biggest reactionary when you fail to capitalize bac Ho (uncle Ho). State publishers are a black market that professionally sells printing permits to private printers, but it always sells them carefully because it is afraid of getting involved with some depraved or reactionary books. Its selling is well oriented. It is the socialist orientation. In Of Metaphorical Identity, there is no toc but a lot of long, no can cu but full of dan ngu cu den. In other words, it has no damn orientation and it is even unruly. How can it get a printing permit? I don't give a damn about the printing permit because my manuscript would be distorted, it would "lose its roots", after it was handed to them. Just because I don't want it to "lose its roots", I don't dare go to the publishers.

LD:      What are your overall interests and ideas in your three volumes of poems?

NQC:  What is present in all of them is a sense of confusion. Although each volume represents a type of confusion, all of them aim at causing confusion, because the most important objective for the Ideology Board of the Vietnamese Communist Party is to struggle against confusion. It's the need to fight against confusion by this Board in a very confused society that forces arts, including poetry, to do everything in reverse. To reverse what the Ideology Board has introduced is suitable to human nature. Because human beings will make change when they are confused, and changing the way of thinking is the only way to fumble along the path to freedom. If you can't change your thinking, that is, you keep clinging to the old political viewpoint, you will eventually become conservative and reactionary in terms of thinking. Because reaction means going against something, and those who go against progress are reactionary. I think the Ideology Board usually accuses people of reaction while they are the biggest reactionaries, because their foremost political task is to control the freedom of (confused) thought by others.

LD: What do you think about the fact that young and innovative poets today like to disseminate their works by photocopy instead of having it published officially and legally?

NQC:  Private persons can have rights to have dog meat, and even traffic in women and children, but they have no right to publish their works. Publishing is monopolized by the government. And a monopoly never supports innovations. And photocopying one’s work is a natural form of struggle for the freedom of speech that is suppressed now. You can’t ask for this right, but you must rub against it to make it "erect". The slogan “there is nothing more precious than independence and freedom” should be interpreted as independence and freedom for everybody, and should not only exist in the air or the slogan. Young and innovative poets should photocopy as many works as possible. Up till now, only Bui Chat photocopied his Xao Chon Chong Ngay [wordplay on Disturbances Today] while others, such as Phan Ba Tho, Nguyen Huu Hong Minh, Lynh Bacardi and Ly Doi, failed to rub their independence and freedom to make them "erect". Oh, no, I’m wrong. They have actually done a lot of things, making such websites as Tienve, Talawas and eVan hotter.

LD:      Somebody said Nguyen Quoc Chanh was the last hand that put an end to Vietnamese free-verse poetry in the 20th century. What do you think about this remark? What poetry you are making now? Your methods of imagery association?

NQC:  Such a remark originates from Khe Yem’s New Formalism. His followers think that their new-formalist poetry has replaced free-verse poetry. It’s worth noting that free verse is not a pattern and it has a lot of variations. It has no form in its internal structure. It is the only poetry that is free while new-formalist poetry exists in a fixed pattern.

If you rewrite a new-formalist poem as a piece of prose you usually find it bad. The same thing happens when you rewrite it as free verse but it isn’t so bad due to its uneven rhythm. I think free verse has no end, only the free verse of each poet has its beginning and end. Failing to realize this leads to the opinion that free verse had reached its peak with works by Mr. A or Mrs. B, so others could make no free verse because they couldn’t surpass A or B.

And now I write something like the following:

I’m a dying stuff on the chopping board
Fuck you who keep sharpening the knife.

LD:      Facing such new trends as New Formalism and post-modernism in the Vietnamese poetry, where do you place your writing? What do you think about present Vietnamese poetry?

NQC:  New-formalist poetry is a form of free verse that is better developed due to its narrative, and worsened by the use of enjambment. The New Formalism is a dilemma of one of free-verse forms.

As for post-modernism, I saw its symptoms in works by Nguyen Dan Thuong, Do Kh., Nguyen Hoang Nam, Le Nghia Quang Tan, Phan Nhien Hao, Nguyen Hoang Tranh, Than Nhien (overseas Vietnamese), Phan Ba To, Nguyen Huu Hong Minh, Lynh Bacardi, Bui Chat, Ly Doi, Tran Tien Dung (Saigon), and Phan Huyen Thu (Ha Noi).

Articles on post-modernism have been disseminated in Poetry (Tho) and then Viet (Viet) magazines, and most impressively in Calvino's lecture "Multiplicity" [translated into Vietnamese by Hoang Ngoc-Tuan as "Tinh cach boi truong trong van chuong tuong lai", in Viet no. 6, 2000]. In my opinion, such articles are the most important contributions by those magazines and by Hoang Ngoc-Tuan and Nguyen Hung Quoc to the re-awakening of the new consciousness or rather, the post-new consciousness, after what Pham Cong Thien did some 30 years ago in his New Consciousness in Arts and Philosophy (Y Thuc Moi trong Vang Nghe va Triet Hoc) in a number of poets in Saigon, including Phan Ba Tho, Nguyen Huu Hong Minh, Lynh Bacardi, Bui Chat and Ly Doi, who are the most active writers to respond to the post-modern spirit.

I have grasped with excitement the essence of post-modern consciousness, particularly the following awesome statement by Calvino: "Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function." (English translation of Vietnamese translation by Hoang Ngoc-Tuan), and I had the inspiration to write a series of poems in my Of Metaphorical Identity in 2001. I had read The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot before, therefore, when I read Calvino's "Multiplicity", I immediately recognized that The Waste Land was a very fine example of multiplicity, and I had every reason to experiment with the concept of multiplicity in my poetry. My first new poem was “Revolving Stage” (San khau quay). After having completed it, I happily sent it to Linh Dinh who felt so excited that he translated it to English. Luckily, at that time, the post-modernist poet Linh Dinh was staying in Saigon, and with Phan Ba Tho and some others we met almost every week, had some Lang Van rice liquor with dog meat and discussed all things on earth. What’s wonderful was the fact that these small talks absorbed me into post-modernism without my knowing.

In an interview, Linh Dinh said, half jokingly and half seriously, that in the term “New Formalism” only New was OK, and that in the long run the term “post-modernism” may leave behind only the word post. You want to know where I put my writings, don’t you? Maybe somewhere between new and post. I followed the New-Post school. Between New and Post, there must have been some aperture, and I am trying to turn it into an air hole. Doing creative work is to bore a hole through which I could come out and draw in playing with the stuffy block around me, not to illustrate any trends or theories as many people thought.

Vietnamese poetry of today is not different from that under the Ly and Tran dynasties. It always makes the new by adopting the old from foreign countries. So Vietnamese poets can feel free to buy, steal, or rob the world poetic heritage. All trends, from futurism, dadaism, surrealism to new formalism and post-modernism, are necessary, because the Vietnamese poetry is like the Vietnamese economy in that it will be in the doldrums if there is no foreign investment.

LD:      What about playing fields for writers, from Literature and the Arts (Van Nghe) magazine to the Association of Vietnamese Writers and other addresses, where do you belong?

NQC:  Literature and the Arts magazine and the Association of Vietnamese Writers are no place for me. They are places built by the Vietnamese Communist Party to control the army of lackey writers. While the Party still has the extraordinary power to rule the country unreasonably, these lackey writers will keep shining. When the Party becomes old and weak, or loses its extraordinary power, they will get bewildered and turn into dust. What I say is based on experience presented by Nguyen Dinh Thi, the leading lackey writer who had ruled his fellows on behalf of the Party for life. What he wrote will turn into dust like anything else on earth, but I think the statement he made from the bottom of his heart as a professional lackey (“We writers are only specks of dust, but they are shining ones belonging to the Party”) and reported by Bui Minh Quoc, will shine forever although some day his glorious party may cease to exist. In Nguyen Dinh Thi’s slavish imagination, the Party is not merely a political organization but something omnipotent. In other words, Nguyen Dinh Thi made his Party a God and he even didn’t know what his rank was among disciples of the Party.

My family has been atheist for three generations, so we have no place in a country where everything could become gods, from a beggar to a terrorist. Two places I like to frequent are Tienve and Talawas.

LD:      Anybody who knows you see that you are interested in the concept of Freedom. What is freedom, in your opinion, in its ordinary sense and what is freedom in the arts?

NQC:  Freedom is the most beautiful concept among spiritual ones. This concept needs to be nurtured specially, and if it survives and grows up, other rubbish concepts will have no place in our mind. In my opinion, such concepts as "The Socialist Republic of Vietnam", "The Liberation of the South Vietnam", "The Ideological Front", "The Central Culture" . . .  must be eliminated before the concepts of "democracy", "development" . . . can be realized. And the concept of freedom must be embodied in the broom and the foxhound during this task of elimination.

Ordinary freedom means braking and slowing down when seeing the orange light on a road while freedom in the arts means speeding up before all red lights.

LD:      What traditions does your poetry belong to, Oriental or Occidental?

NQC:  My poetry may belong to the tradition of garbage, because Vietnam is a trashcan for both the East and the West. After some 1,000 years of struggle and coexistence with Chinese, French, Japanese, American and Russian imperialists, Vietnam developed a strangely tragic culture that is both virtuous and wanton, something like Thuy Kieu’s life. Why are the Vietnamese people madly in love with the Tale of Kieu [Nguyen Du’s classic verse narrative]? I think the Vietnamese people, in their unconsciousness, feel similarities between the tragic fate of Kieu and Vietnamese history. It is a cultural complex, a defense. And it’s this complex that unceasingly turns Vietnam into a trashcan for both the East and the West. Disputes between the old and the new, and traditions and innovations, are nothing but conflicts between two pieces of rubbish from the East and the West. In such an environment full of nonsensical conflicts my solution is to use and discard as quickly as possible all pieces of rubbish from both the East and the West.

LD:     What do you think of luc-bat poems [poems written in lines of alternately six and eight syllables]?

NQC:  A luc-bat poem comprising only a couplet is good. If it comprises two couplets, it begins to become bad. And it is unbearable when comprising thousands of couplets.

LD:      What are the shortcomings of Vietnamese poetry?

NQC:  Its instinct is abundant, and its consciousness is insufficient. Or both its instinct and consciousness only go halfway with the consequence that everybody is content with only a slight touch of innovation for fear that if one goes too far, one’s name maybe removed from the genealogical account.

LD:      In your opinion, what are a poem, a free-verse poem, and a good poem?

NQC:  Jean-Paul Sartre regards a novelist as a man who could tell a big victory from a small one while poets could see some failure in all victories. Sartre's intelligence helps him say the right thing although he doesn’t like poetry. Novelists can only see flame and smoke in wood while poets think of ash. That is why what a poet writes will be a poem in general; while a free-verse poem is written by an ordinary poet who is well aware of his freedom. A good poem is the one that causes an esthetic confusion, either slowly or quickly, forcing readers to review their thoughts.

LD:      This is my last question: What are you doing? And who are you?

NQC:  I do some affairs to make a living, but as I have no big capital I can easily go bankrupt. What I do with, and without, my poetry is something that only God knows. In an environment where walls have ears, I had better keep it secret, as Ho Chi Minh pointed out, because of the following reasons:

I was born in a dull place (Bac Lieu), into a dull family (half Northerner and half Southerner), went to dull schools (not worth mentioning) with dull teachers (not worth mentioning), and now although I live in a brilliant and chaotic city (Saigon) I have no alternative but to become a dull person (called Nguyen Quoc Chanh) and I have to take anti-stress pills (magne-B6) every day.


Note on the source text

In Ly Doi’s interview, “Tho la (tho o) khoet cho cai nhuc (nha, duc, vong) boc mui”, the poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh plays on words in ways that are not translatable.  The Vietnamese original is available at talawas, dated July 26, 2004:


Note on the interviewer

Interviewer Ly Doi is a poet and writer, born in 1978, living in Saigon.  For more on him in English, please see “Vietnam’s rude poetry delights intelligentsia”, by Nga Pham of the BBC Vietnamese service, August 31, 2004, at:

For an article in Vietnamese including a photo, please see “Hien tuong tho photo o Saigon” (The Phenomenon of Photocopied Poetry in Saigon), by Chinh Vi, BBC Vietnamese service, August 12, 2004, at: bbc.co.uk/vietnamese/entertainment/story/

For Ly Doi’s own poetry in Vietnamese and another photo, please see his index page at tienve:


Note on translator Pham Viem Phuong.