Reviews / November 2011 (Issue 15)

Thơ Khác - Ấn Bản Song Ngữ (Other Poetry - A Bilingual Edition)

by William Noseworthy

Khế Iêm, editor, J. Do Vinh, translator, Richard H. Sindt, consulting editor, Thơ Khác - n Bn Song Ng (Other Poetry - A Bilingual Edition), Tân Hình Thức Publishing Group, 2011. 242 pgs.

In Other Poetry, Khế Iêm adds organization, analysis and an awareness for international audiences to his creative presentation of Vietnamese New Formalist poetry. Created as a memorial to Tp Chí Thơ (1994–2004, a poetry journal published in California to celebrate the works of Vietnamese poets) this volume brings together literary, historical and linguistic analysis, translations of original works selected from Tp Chí Thơ, visual poetry and the work of Stephen John Kalinich (translated into Vietnamese).

Khế Iêm's most recent edited volumes—Thơ K (Poetry Narrates, 2009) and Thơ Không Vn (Blank Verse) Tuyn Tp Tân Hình Thc (An Anthology of Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry, 2006—took substantial strides to place the development of New Formalist Poetry in a historical context and drew from a wide range of bilingual authors, many of whom also appeared in The Vietnam Forum (Yale University Press). Writing in August of 2005, Iêm compared Vietnamese New Formalism to a long literary tradition that includes the Nhân Vân Giai Phm (Humanist Movement) and Sáng To (Creative Writer) movements of the 1960s. He argued that at the dawn of the 21st century New Formalism was showing symptoms of decline similar to those of earlier movements. Iêm's recent revival of New Formalism, however, has brought together fresh voices and interpretations from proven experts to form yet another pillar of bilingual literary excellence, addressing the pressing concerns of an increasingly globalized literary community.

The works published in Other Poetry clearly exhibit Iêm's concerns, especially his attempts to bring together concepts of Western and Eastern philosophy through the presentation of popular image and form. This volume shows an increased recognition of the proliferation of beat versed, percussive spoken word poetic forms, popularized in the inner cities of America in the late 1980s and early 1990s before global markets developed a taste for spoken word works in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Iêm thus establishes a bridge between the poets of Def Jam and the dance halls of the Qun Ba Lô's (Backpacker Districts) and highlights the importance that the colloquialization of verse has played in his own translations.

A key aspect of Iêm's work is his examination of meter in language. He argues that Old English, like Vietnamese, was monosyllabic, until influences from French and Latin were introduced into the language. The traditional meter of Old English poetry (e.g.: iambic pentameter) was heavily emphasized in English poetry until the introduction of blank verse or free verse allowed for a liberalization of communication. Similarly, the classical forms of Vietnamese poetry—using Han-Nôm (demotic Vietnamese written in Chinese characters)—emphasized structure and form (particularly six-eight). However, the introduction of freer verse forms allowed works to be presented in translation, broadening the readership.

The aim of accessibility, while at the same time leading to the proliferation of thought, is one of the major aims of this most recent volume. It seeks to introduce readers to classical Vietnamese works (such as The Song of a Warriors Wife), Vietnamese interpretations of visual media (Bợt – waaaaiz – zơơơơ, Bud-wei-ser), and the work of Vietnamese contemporary artists (such as works that pay homage to TTKh, a Vietnamese woman, well-known for her 1930s poetry, and who once submitted a catfish bridge as an art exhibition). Furthermore, Other Poetry sets out to bring contemporary notions of the Butterfly Effect, Chaos theory and deconstructionism to a bilingual audience.

In one work from this collection "Trang Sách" ("Pages from a Book"), the poet writes:

He steps out from pages of whispered tales of love stories from The Hunchback of Notre Dame to the Strange Tales of Liaozhai to the 'magical realism' (One Hundred Years of Solitude) thousands and tens of thousands of love stories and all as fictitious as reality and after he had stepped out from the pages he is no longer himself and he is a fictitious character he is no longer himself now no longer the person he was he is himself…

Here the poet has clearly begun to recognize the value of an education in both French and Chinese classics. These influences, a result of the colonial experience, may have new implications for those who study history; having accepted the independence of Vietnamese identity during the period of modern nationalism, we are perhaps now being shown a way to recognize it in the period of recent globalization.

The so-called "crisis of bilingualism," which was a central theme in Khế Iêm's first volume, focused on the literary tradition of the past and the memory of Vietnam and had a deep connection to a history of tribulation. In this volume, we are reminded of this "crisis" and its effects, as the Vietnamese community came into contact with a more globalized audience. "Cái Chết Trên Truyền Hình" ("A Death on Television") provides a 2003 memorial of Mrs. Rosa Gonzalez's experience of watching Al-Jazeera:

The woman sees the death of her own son on the screen but does not believe that her son is dead, and even though the news came like a storm about the death of her son, she does not believe what she saw; no one received the news and recognized the death of her son and she also could not understand even her own pain…

Indeed, this volume demonstrates a new social consciousness, including dedications to the writer Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn (1947–2005, who compiled short stories about the experiences of young Vietnamese women coming of age), to the victims of the 2004 tsunami and to intellectual crises of the era of globalization. Major themes include poverty, the polarized experience of biculturalism and the deepening sense of isolation which comes with increased connectivity. For example, Nguyễn Hoàng Nam's essay "Cách Đọc" ("How to Read") addresses through a critical lens the topic of lch s vân hc Vit Nam (Vietnamese Historical and Cultural Studies) and its connection to global trends in poetry and philosophy:

The application of artistic notion in modern times is still limited to the subjectivism (and arrogance-narcissism) of the superpowers: "international" in fact refers to Russia, America and Europe. In the social realm, it is even more contracted.

The conception of the lens is integral to the reading of this anthology. In Other Poetry, we not only see the personality of terms, lines, poems and poets, but also of translators, cultural mediators, visual artists, philosophers and psychologists of the global experience. We might also think about this project in terms of the aims of the editors and publishers, which stretch far beyond the details of the individual texts to a wider attempt to bridge nationalities, languages and generations. Thinking about these layers allows readers to see the greater significance of this anthology. Though this is a necessary addition to the collections of individuals well-versed in lch s văn hóa Vit Nam (Vietnamese Historical and Cultural Studies), it also represents a key introductory text into the world of Vietnamese New Formalist Poetry, as a response to crisis, and, as Iêm himself wrote in 2006 "the dawning of a new age of creativity."

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