Interview with Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng



Michael Brennan: When did you start writing and what motivated you?

Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng: I started putting things down on paper quite early, but the first serious poem must be the one that was published in my high school magazine when I was in year 8. It was a free-verse long poem, about my year 7 class, and what happened to us over that year, 1969. 1969, following the Tet Offensive, was another blood-letting year in the war timeline, like 1972 three summers later: while the American escalated the dropping of bombs in the countryside and in the North, the other side started attacking the cities in the South with missiles at night – tit for tat. The message of these terrorising attacks was that the cities were no longer safe. Two of my friends died in separate fatal nocturnal attacks to the heart of my home city, Da Nang. I remember this poem: it runs like a war-reportage, detached, fragmented, and as I tried, unsentimental. It included small excerpts of writing of these friends. A contrast of their palpable thoughts and their deaths, which were too early, too cruel. I wrote the poem to mark the last day of the school year before the summer break. My literature teacher happened to be the editor of the school magazine and somehow got hold of it and decided to publish it along with the selected writings from students of year 11 and year 12, months later in the Tet school annual publication.

MB: Who are the writers who first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What’s changed?

Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng: Early in my high school years I read Vietnamese and French novels, short stories and poetry. From year 9 onwards I focused more on the new writing that was appearing in the new literary magazines, Vietnamese poets like Thanh Tâm Tuyền and allegorical writing by the playwright Vũ Khắc Khoan.  I wrote the poem I mentioned above before I read Thanh Tâm Tuyền, and I found out with glee I was writing very much in his style of ‘thơ tự do’ (free verse). My first play, written in Monash, was inspired by Vũ Khắc Khoan. This was before my reading of Beckett, Arthur Miller and Patrick White.

South Vietnam in the late 60s was abundant with translated short stories and novels. I spent my summers between school years reading translated Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, André Gide, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Tagore and the Chinese classics . . . It was a time when I was like a sponge, absorbing anything I could lay my hands on. I have some friends whose families ran bookstores, so I could spend time in their bookstores simply reading. The Americans brought with them Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, the Beatniks and J.D. Salinger, a hit in South Vietnam in the summer of 1972.

Then the university days in Monash [Melbourne], when I tended to re-read things I was familiar with but now in English: Hermann Hesse, Hemingway, Sartre and Camus. A few years later, Lorca and Alberti when I got into reading about the Spanish War. Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak for the Stalinist years. Octavio Paz and the Irish writers and poets when I tried to explore the writing of the exiled. Ungaretti, Montale, Saba and Pavese, when I watched the Italian neo-realists. David Malouf, Patrick White, John Tranter, John Forbes, Gig Ryan in the past decade.

I have this habit to read anything that gives out promises that I will soon be transported to another place, another time. Scientific articles, memoirs, biographies, travelogues, contemporary short stories and poems. I will go back to W.H. Auden and Peter Porter and Rilke anytime. But right now African-American and contemporary Australian poetry.

If there is a change that I can notice, I would say it is the colours and nuances in the private language of the contemporary poets. These things are more important to me now than the stories or the facts. The female poets and the secrets of receiving and bearing. Marguerite Duras, Marguerite Yourcenar, Maya Angelou, Ai, Rita Dove . . .

MB: How important is ‘everyday life’ to your work?

Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng: Rilke said something along the lines of us absorbing things in the visible world to serve the essentials of the invisible world. I used to write in the early hours of the day, now I tend to write in the late hours, when I get back to my hotel after a long day at work. At those hours, things seem to flow back in; from the invisible harness a first line may come out. I don’t know if we do the work during the day to prepare for this moment, but if it’s true, then we should definitely love daily work more. Since a young age I have loved to walk around the city and explore its secrets. That is unchanged. I also love films, notes writings, and I still casually draw sketches in my notebooks.

MB: What is the role or place of subjectivity in your poetry?

Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng: In reading [a poem] I suppose ‘subjectivity’ may mean that we can say this poem is good because I simply like it, or that it appeals to me, that it agrees with my sentimental situation or my personal experience. In writing a poem, things are not that clear-cut. What does ‘subjectivity’ mean in the creating process? We may try very hard to attack a subject that we have chosen, but there is no guarantee that we will lure the object to within our reach. Very often, it reacts, it may become disobedient, intractable, withdrawn. Poetry is an enigma, as life is. They both are beyond us.  I don’t know. When a poem comes and stays on as an experience, and if it is a profound one, then what is it in my part that has contributed to this coming and forming? Very often, I feel I am only a conduit for this happening. Sometimes on re-reading a poem I am bemused that I’d been able to pen such a line.

MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary tradition(s) and/or broader cultural or political movements?

Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng: Some time ago, I liked to be on the same side as the poets who wrote in the face of oppression. Lorca, and the Humanist poets of the Nhan Van Giai Pham period 1956 in Hanoi [Trần Dần, Lê Đạt, Văn Cao, Phùng Quán, Hoàng Cầm]. The poets who write about war and violence and the human conditions – many poets, but let me name a few: Yeats, Paz, Auden, Eluard, Celan, Szymborska, Heaney.

I am more and more into the unexpectedness in writing nowadays. I am more at ease with what I read, and with what I write.

MB: What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?

Nguyên Tiên Hoàng: Someone has said that poets are the legislators of the world; some say poets are lepers of the world. Both are true. Poetry is a struggle.  An Quixotic one in theory. The reality is that at crunch-time, poets often are pushed to suicides, deaths, jails and oblivion. It happened in Soviet Union, in the contemporary China. And in Vietnam even now. In such situations, to be able to write as an independent poet, the poet must bear the world on his or her shoulder. Camus’s rebel. No wonder we worship Prometheus.

MB: What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?

Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng: I read philosophy during my university years, and later worked as a translator/broadcaster for Radio Australia, working on an artist basis. This meant I got to read a lot of things, then selected the material, deliberating over whether it was worth the air-time, getting permission to broadcast. The subjects ranged from agricultural science, bio-technology to ethics and animal rights, environmental flashpoints, conflagrations in world politics. Those radio days were useful for my making. I continue to read history, my favourite subject of all time. On this, I must say lately I found myself reading into Australian war history, subconsciously bringing myself to attend many services on the Remembrance Day or Anzac Day. While I was there paying respect to the fallen, I just wished Australia would one day build remembrance places for the civilians as well as the soldiers. Without paying respects to the civilians, we ignore the sufferings caused by wars.

Cinema and music are my other source of inspiration.

MB: What is ‘Australian poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘Australian’ poet?

Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng: In terms of being Australian: this is not about citizenship. I came here as an overseas student, a recipient of a scholarship out of the generosity of the nation,but I expected to go home after the studies. The war ended abruptly. Thanks to the veteran journalist Denise Warner and the barrister Stephen Charles, later a QC, who lobbied with the government of the day, students from South Vietnam like me were given a freedom of choice. I chose to stay on. The sense of being Australian came with one event. It was  the birth of our first child in Melbourne back in 1979. The first-born turned the whole thing around. Quynh (my wife) and I have three children who were all born in Melbourne; our first home was a rented duplex not far away from the Maths Building corner of Monash back in the late 1970s, early 1980s. Quite a mythical time!

The book that gave me the first glimpse into Australian poetry is an anthology edited by Chris Wallace-Crabbe that I found in a university bookshop during this period. From this book The Golden Apples of The Sun: Twentieth Century Australian Poetry, I spent more time reading into Australian poetry, and when a small publisher asked me to edit a poetry book called Bushnight, I was more than equipped to handle the task. It was a photography-poetry book. The theme was the Australian landscape [at night], the photographer was from Germany, the editor [me] was a new Australian. I reserved a large part of this book for the indigenous Australian poets – Jack Davis, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (We are going), Bill Neidjie. That book was published some time before I read Lionel Fogarty. 

And am I an ‘Australian poet’? I have truly enjoyed my readings at various venues over the years, including at Melbourne Poetry Festival in 1999, La Mama in 2000, the Water Rat cafe [when Jennifer Harrison was co-ordinating the regular open reading there]. I still buy books by my fellow poets and sometimes receive books from them. Australian poetry is all that: what is still happening in poetry readings across the nation, the presence of various literary magazines, e-magazines that are still having poetry in their domain of content, issue after issue, given the economic hardship; the special bookstores that care to stock poetry books; and the general readers who are still reading poems.

MB: Don Anderson once described Australian poetry as Australia’s only ‘blood sport’. More recently critics have seen Australian poetry in terms of a ‘new lyricism’ (David McCooey) and ‘networked language’ (Philip Mead). What is the current state of play in Australian poetry? How do you think Australia poetry and discussions about Australian poetry might best develop in the next ten years?

Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng: There comes a point when we read the poem without the need to know where the poet comes from. I read Tomas Tranströmer for many years without the need to associate his poetry with Sweden. Perhaps it was my failing to do so. Or perhaps his poems reached out, beyond the national borders. I always read Tomas Tranströmer against a background which could be Iceland, Norway, Minneapolis, or Tasmania, a land in which the cold sets in at the end of the day, humans move in solitude under the grey canvas of a sky.

We draw borders for the sake of bringing the common tracts together and for a kind of interconnectedness. For the sake of defining, then, very well, ‘Australian poetry’ is a continent of vernaculars, a republic of poets who see themselves sharing the language with Auden and Frost, but facing a linguistic terrain slightly different with these two poets.

MB: How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in Australia or at an international level?

Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng: Paz once said “poetry is useless, but without poetry, humanity is moving towards suicide”.  This is increasingly true in the postmodern world where the real world seems to be increasingly threatened with take-over by the virtual world, and in which the power waged by the invisible financial corporate men seems to have greater controls over the life of the common person.

Poetry matters, and one of the duties of those who write poetry is to write in its defence. I would like to see poets have a stronger presence in the public domain and even in policy-making. I particularly enjoyed reading about how, in the twentieth-century period of Europe, especially in France and Germany, how the artists and writers played an important part in the resistance, how they extended the dialogues in the intellectual life of the nation. I like that period very much. The impact of that period rubbed on to the intellectual life in South Vietnam during the war, and was to me the most positive thing that happened to the South: it saved the humaneness in a society that was under constant threat of being completely destroyed by the senseless war. Australia, to a degree, had the voice of Patrick White in the same period.

© Michael Brennan  

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