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.

Black Dog, Black Night

Black Dog, Black Night
Nguyen Do & Paul Hoover
(Milkweed Editions, 2008)

From the Publisher:

“Vietnam — the very word raises many associations for Westerners. Yet while the country has been ravaged by a modern history of colonialism and war, its ancient culture is rich and multilayered, and within it poetry has long had a special place.

In this groundbreaking anthology, co-editors and translators Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover present a revelatory portrait of contemporary Vietnamese poetry. What emerges from this conversation of outsiders and insiders, Vietnamese and American voices, is a worldly sensibility descended from the geographical and historical crossroads of Vietnam in the modern era. Reflecting influences as diverse as traditional folk stories and American Modernism, the twenty-one poets included in Black Dog, Black Night, many of whom have never before been published in English, introduce readers to a fresh, uncensored, and utterly unique poetic vision.”

In the contemporary Vietnamese society, what voice does poetry maintain or possess?

Romanticism is still a strong presence in contemporary Vietnam, but its influence is less pronounced now than a decade ago. Modernism has developed quickly in my country, and today, the most successful Vietnamese poetry in the world associates itself with Modernism. For instance, Black Dog, Black Night, the anthology which I edited and translated with Paul Hoover, is the first anthology of contemporary Vietnamese poetry published in the United States, and it reveals how little the influence of Romanticism exerts upon Vietnamese poetry today. Its tone is characteristically existentialist and nihilist — “loud” and ironic, rather than sentimental and “natural.”

Nowadays, in Vietnam, not only the young poets, but also the established poets of the older generation have moved away from the Romanticism that was introduced during the French colonial period in the early 20th century.

Throughout your life, you’ve faced severe persecutions in terms of censorship. How have you dealt with it in your emotional life, and in your writing?

When composing a poem as an artist, I don’t think and don’t care about the censorship, even if it’s very strict in Vietnam. When I was sending poems to publishers or newspapers (most poems in Vietnam are made public via the daily or weekly news before they are gathered together into a book) and they were rejected, I just got upset.My poems are somber, so newspapers and popular magazines in Vietnam often didn’t like them. They said that my poetry was sad, but the country was not sad. As mentioned before, my poems are somber, so newspapers and popular magazines in Vietnam often didn’t like them. They said that my poetry was sad, but the country was not sad. They also thought my poems were too personal; they didn’t (and couldn’t) see the people in my poems… In fact, they were using the literary standard of socialist realism, dominant in the former Soviet Union and imported to Vietnam in the mid-20th century. Their belief was that poetic matter must come from objects rather than subjects (the poets). All arts should serve the community, not just yourself! Socialist realism is one reason why modern poetry and its “complications” weren’t accepted in Vietnam until recent years. It demanded that poetry be easily understood by everybody, even those unable to read or write!

I had waited to publish my poems until I met an editor who didn’t care about the censorship issue. If an editor suggested that I should change some lines or ideas of my poems in order to pass censorship, I would rather withdraw them than publish them. It’s not just me; many poets reacted to censorship in a similar way. That was the best way to survive as an artist in Vietnam. I understand that poetry’s quality speaks for itself; sooner or later it will be shown.

Censorship in Vietnam is really a big, big obstacle, and it has been going on for 65 years, as long as a human lifespan. A lot of talented artists died before they could se their most important works being published. Notable cases — in our anthology — are Dang Dinh Hung (1924-1990) and Tran Dan (1924-2001).

Nguyen Do
BY Helen Nguyen

Is there a particular writing aesthetics that you personally champion?

I write everything that my experiences force me to write about. It’s like a poetry diary. All of my poems come from my own fate. It’s like pouring my soul onto the paper or the computer. I rarely smile when writing a poem. Most of the time, I’m sad; even in a poem that contains humorous details, its voice in general is still somber.

You mentioned the word “sad” or “somber” a few times. Why do you think you’re strongly inclined towards writing sad poems? Are they necessarily poems about sadness?

I’ll respond to your question with questions:

What is the circumstance in which a poet usually creates a poem?

(Hints: sadness, darkness, loneliness);

How many of the best poems by the greatest poets in the world are funny, and inspire laughter?

(Hints: Nguyen Trai, Shakespeare, Apollinaire, Eliot, Whitman, and Pasternak);

Isn’t poetry also like all other great works of art (such as the nine symphonies, the violin concertos, and hundreds of other Beethoven’s works) that communicate sadness? The brightness of the color yellow in Van Gogh, isn’t it also sad, and yet is not sadness?

What do you hope to convey to your public through this “sadness”?

Let me quote from my poem “Headache”, from my latest collection, New Darkness (Hanoi: Vietnam Writers Association, 2009): “the darkness illuminates darkness.” In other words, sadness gives birth to happiness; “losing” results in “winning,” hence further motivating others to achieve their goals.


suddenly I’m like a helpless goalkeeper
dumbstruck looking at the empty space beneath the players’ bodies

clasped hands on asses walking out of a blind alley
I’m the same, a rat sticking out of a hole

punching the back of my head I see
flamboyance blossom but not redness

one step ahead is a news stand
another step is a country liquor store run by a dwarf
tomorrow I have to give you a new broom
why don’t people say anything?

I place my hands on my head and press it to the ground
it becomes dark and sweaty
I’m scared to look at you
you smile so nakedly

I will give you a bowl of vegetable noodle soup
although it belongs in the trash, it has a sweet scent
darkness illuminates darkness

Ho Chi Minh City,
May 13, 1993

nhức đầu

bỗng dưng ta như một thủ môn bất lực
ngơ ngác nhìn khoảng trống dưới háng

chắp tay sau mông ra đầu hẻm ta chơi
như con chuột thò lò nắp cống

ta đấm vào gáy mình
phượng nở sao không ra màu đỏ

đi bước nữa quầy báo lẻ
bước nữa quán rượu đế anh lùn
mai phải mua tặng em cái chổi mới
thiên hạ sao không nói không rằng

ta chống tay dí đầu vào đất
đất tối sầm dầm dề mồ hôi
ta hốt hoảng nhìn em
em khỏa thân nụ cười

anh sẽ tặng em một tô canh bún
thơm mùi em anh
dẫu là rác vẫn thơm mùi mía
tối tăm chiếu sáng tối tăm.

Saigon, 13.5.93.

Vietnamese is your mother tongue, and you choose to continue writing in Vietnamese, even after having moved to the States. Why? Since you also translate your own poems from the Vietnamese to English, can you write in Vietnamese without thinking of how it would be like when you translate it?

Vietnamese is my first language, the language of my blood. Obviously, it’s easier to use it to express my heart. I don’t know why sometimes I “fall” naturally into writing English. When this happens, English automatically blocks Vietnamese from my mind. I’m answering you in English now, and I’m not thinking in Vietnamese. Someday, perhaps, my “birth language” will also not feel as “natural” to me as it used to be.

Nguyen Do (right) with his collaborator,
Paul Hoover (middle)
BY Helen Nguyen

What is your working process like when it comes to co-translating with your friend, Paul Hoover?

Paul Hoover and I have enjoyed working on translations very much. First, I translate the Vietnamese texts into whatever English I have. Then I give them to Paul. He puts my English into his tongue and heart, so the poem will be as alive and active as it has been in Vietnamese. And then he sends the texts back to me for approval.

Most of the time, I feel that Paul has created an excellent poetic landscape in terms of language, and I take off my hat to him. However, this process sometimes takes longer than we would expect, due to the many cultural differences between Vietnam and America.

Cultural differences such as?

The American culture surprises me very much. In at least three ways, in terms of its “philosophical opposition” to the Vietnamese culture.

A. Help versus no help:

One morning, while I was jogging near the room I shared in Sacramento, I saw a little boy aged around three years old who was running with his father. The boy fell very hard in front of me, and I stopped right away, extending my hands to help him. Suddenly, the father stepped forward, waving his hands and saying, “No thanks” to prevent me from helping. I was shocked by his response to my way of expressing sympathy. The boy was in tears and seemed to be hurt. Such a refusal would be considered inhuman in Vietnam. After living here for a longer time, I realize that the father’s gesture meant, “Let the kid stand up by himself.”

B. Crying versus laughing:

At President Ronald Reagan’s funeral, the audience laughed when his wife, children, and friends talked about him. In the Vietnamese (and Asian) cultures, laughing at a funeral is considered extremely impolite, even immoral. Many funerals hire the service of a professional crying team, and all relatives must be in tears when a visitor comes to pray for their loss. No one would consider smiling at a Vietnamese funeral.

C. Old versus young:

In Vietnam, when people meet for the first time, they immediately calculate the age of everyone present. If they are having a meal together — dinner, lunch, or even breakfast — the oldest one is given the honored place at the table, and the highest or best chair. He is also served first, with the best food, unless another younger person is a powerful man. Children must sit at a different table and eat more “ordinary” food.

Many such differences exist between two different cultures. One similarity that binds us is the blood beating in our hearts. That drumming is so sensitive. So the process of translation itself can actually be translated into this essential question: how can an interpreter from the other culture ever capture fully the meaning of this drumming in its home culture?

Do you feel as if you are now “in exile”?

If you had asked me nine years ago, I would have sadly nodded my head, “Yes.”

Now, I understand that I will always feel being “in exile” — wherever I live and whatever I’m doing, be it writing or reading a good poem, listening to great classical music such as Beethoven, Chopin, Stravinsky…

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