Why My Poems are (Not) Sad: Nguyen Do and His Vietnam

Nguyen Do
BY Helen Nguyen

Singular, free-spirited, straightforward and with an honest sense of humor, NGUYEN DO writes and translates poetry in Vietnamese and English. Born in 1959, in Ha Tinh Province of Vietnam, he moved to Hanoi as a youth. He read surveying from Hanoi Construction College and literature from Vinh University. After teaching at a high school in Pleiku city, he lived for several years in Ho Chi Minh City, working as an editor and reporter for a literary review, newspapers and magazines. He moved to the States in 1999, and now lives near San Francisco.

As an artist Nguyen Do stands out, in life and in poetry. During his early publication days, many in Vietnam questioned his style, criticising it as sad, pessimistic, nihilistic, personal or inaccessible. Despite censorship, he continued in his style. He is not a member of the Vietnamese Writers Association.

His eleven books of poetry in Vietnamese include The Fish Wharf and The Autumn Evening (in collaboration with Thanh Thao, 1988), The Empty Space (Association Writers of Vietnam, 1991) and New Darkness (Association Writers of Vietnam, 2009). With Paul Hoover, he also edited and translated the anthology Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry (Milkweed Editions, 2008), 12+3: Selected Poetry of Thanh Thao (Association Writers of Vietnam, 2008), and Returning to Con Son: Selected Poetry of Nguyen Trai (Saigon Culture, 2009). Another translation, Beyond the Court Gate: Selected Poetry of Nguyen Trai, is forthcoming from Counterpath Press. With Hoang Hung, he edited and translated Selected Poetry of Allen Ginsberg (Association Writers of Vietnam, 2009).

How did poetry walk into your life?

Poetry walked into my life, I think, in two ways. First: the natural way, like my karma. Being a poet is to experience loneliness. A poet chats with himself for most of his life. Since I was a child, I didn’t know why I wasn’t accepted by others — “not a single skip rope circle welcomes you / not a single tree branch offers a leaf to protect you from sunlight / you have to pick one for yourself” (from “For My Lovely Au”). When I grew up, I was still that kid, both in life and in poetry. I’ve spent much time talking to myself. As a result, I’m very sensitive and vulnerable.

Ba Me va Au /
Nguyen Do & His Parents
(Vietnam, 1997)

Another “source” of poetry for me was my mother, a descendant of Phan Dinh Phung, the famous doctor and a scholar of the Nguyen dynasty. Also, my mother’s village — where I was born and grew up — is one of the best-known in Vietnamese history. Hundreds of noble doctors and famous writers and scientists of the feudal dynasties came from there. A beautiful town, Dong Thai lies along the river La, which is as crystalline and fresh as its people. They are poor in resources, but very well-educated. Most of the best “academic” songs and folksongs I know derive from the region of the river La. My mother sang lullabies to my sisters, brothers, and me when we were children. Poetry, like the other arts, has been in my blood since those days. However, my first poem was not published (in a daily newspaper at my home’s province) until my first year in college.

Ba Me va Au / Nguyen Do’s Parents & His Daughter
(Vietnam, 1997)

Your poems contain a unique musicality and lyricism. Since folk songs were like your first bridge towards poetry, can you speak more about the musicality in your own writings?

Musical elements appear clearly in classical poetry as melody, rhythm, beat and form… but in modern poetry, a poem relates to music mostly by its tone. In other words, the author’s soul makes readers feel something that is like music. That’s why people can sing a modern poem as a rap song, even without any rhythm or melody. When a mother sings, her spirit comes alive to the baby through the song. But the only one thing that music itself can convey to a baby is its melody. So in fact, even a three-year-old toddler, a child, cannot really “understand” what the mother is singing… My mother’s heart (and my father’s, too, obviously) have made my heart “bigger;” it contains all their loves, including music and poetry.

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