Contributors / December 2016 (Issue 34)

Make Our Voices Heard Together: Poetry in Its Community

a melted conversation between Kaitlin Rees and Nhã Thuyên

What happened?

We survived. I call this process a kind of magic:

thinking programming emailing checking translating making books deadline making deadline reminding deadline bending printing getting anxious talking making handmade gifts eating talking performing dreaming sleeping dreaming of an end of the process (everything will probably be fine and anyway it will be over soon) dreaming of the island trip while getting stressed in Hanoi planning another festival in future here or on another planet reflecting writing

What do you remember?

I want to tell this little story from the first night,

Yes, please tell. I am listening to you.

about that guy in the audience who commented, perhaps a bit ignorantly, that someone's poetry was (awfully) personal. The comment seemed to stir a collectively riled response, and suddenly it seemed like the festival had officially started: we were all there, thrust into a conversation like being pushed into deep water, with some strong labels—"personal," "girly," "emotional," "objective"—like heavy rocks tied to the feet. We all, organisers, poets, humans who want to live in a less bordered world, squirmed to untie ourselves, to resist the framing language. In that mutual resisting, even just in some moments of tense glances exchanged across the room, we became entangled in something that lasted the whole weekend, is still lasting now.

Some conversations always last longer, linger longer, some words, some misunderstood words, some misspelled words, some moments of being unable to find the right word to speak.

Yes, and I remember that another audience member, perhaps much more wisely, then bounced back the question: "What do you mean by personal?" And we continue to circle back to this question.

Yes, and it was, is a big question among our PhD thesis questions.

I remember the long wait of this summer, the precarious hope and despair, I remember what happened, what occurred, and I am trying to make the remembering an occurrence in my mind. (Why is it that whenever I want to describe something with facts and figures, all the words immediately escape from my head!) What I remember might remain only an essence, like a scent, fragile, and lasting the whole life. "Only sometimes in a way, I eat the pieces of memory, silently, slowly, always hungry," and it makes me smile and wonder more. No, it was simply beautiful.

I also want to remember the moment when you were so exhausted and did not want to do the performance we had planned,

No, yes, no, yes.

and how we kept sitting there, not knowing how to move on or stop or what we should do. And maybe it was just one moment; you decided to stand up and go to the bathroom to change your dress, and we made it. Sometimes we are so exhausted and feel like an empty tank, but then we realise we might never actually stop trying. It is like the feeling of waiting.

As for me briefly wanting to quit that performance, perhaps it is because when someone speaks a pain, it somehow becomes safe for other pains to emerge, those lying latent inside those listening. I think part of my hesitation before that performance, the wanting to hide in the shadows and cancel everything, was triggered by some conversations during the panel discussion earlier that day, when someone had opened up a vulnerable mental condition, a "diseased imagination." In listening to that story, I think I felt my own little demons, the ones urging me to disappear and be silent, wanting to come out. Maybe it is contagious, the healing process is contagious, and that night, I was in the process of being infected/healing from this openness of dialogue.

I think we need to be brave to open our pains with other pains.


Since this is a reflection, can you tell me what you see when you look in the mirror now?

Some echoes radiate off my face. I am tired, I am refreshed. I have more questions than I did before that long weekend, those questions make me the tiniest bit older/wiser/more in love/more wondering/more lost/more found.

I look in the mirror and see myself a bit differently now, maybe a bit more of a grownup self. And yes, more lost, more found. More patient in waiting. Waiting for what? Waiting for someone to come back and to know me a bit and to open a bit more together. Waiting for something that almost happened and then might never happen.


How was it conceived? And when?

I don't know exactly when it was conceived. We couldn't find the exact date of a meeting, a sharing. But we all know, the festival was born out of love for poetry and all poetical beings.

The budding idea of this festival in Hanoi was shared among some close friends here and elsewhere years ago, and after I participated in a regional workshop on freedom of expression hosted by the Foundation for Community Educational Media (FCEM) & Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southeast Asia in Bangkok last year, I wanted to make it for real. This is the first time for an independent poetry festival to take place in Hanoi.


What was your vision in making the festival?

The idea of this poetic gathering was/is to create a transitory space to be together, to float together, to share and to be shared in languages, to connect our heads and hearts together, and see if the world can be more possible for poetry and us, this way and that, in a more or less intimate space.

We've been thinking of and following along the idea of a festival that cares about companionship, collaboration, equality, poetics and love for languages. Literature and poetry are a sharing and a multiple of the sharing, the shared. The human touch matters to all of us.

Our participants are poetry lovers and poetic caretakers, including but not limited to writers, poets, translators, publishers, entrepreneurs, cultural organisers and especially poetry readers. We have been configuring (configure = shape + together) a community of poetical beings shared in here and out there.


How did you name the festival?

I remember when we all sat together and made a list of possible names. Someone said aaaaaa and chose that?

After making a long list, it was you who said, let's just call it "a" festival, and without any explanation, we said, yes, that is the name!

The name of the festival came from somehow an impossible desire of a return to the beginning: "To return to the beginning of our languages we start with the first letter, we say aaaaaa, not knowing what will follow, but beginning again (and again) to find a new path with (and in) our languages, we say aaaaaa, we speak it into a new being, we say it is magic."

With the simplicity of the letter, the first one in the alphabet, standing alone in perhaps the purest form that language can take, we have a hope for new discourses to take place this weekend, ones that are looking at familiar topics but with fresh eyes, fresh languages. To see if in coming together in this way, we can get "there," which is a new, not-yet-known destination. We are open to the chances of encounters. An encounter is always not known, yet still an encounter.


Why poetry?

Poetry has been becoming an essential part of my life, as a writer, a reader and a human being.


But how could poetry be the starting point to think of some common interests in our societies of the now? Is there a community of poetry? How could we feel connected to that community and make it our community?

I've come to think of poetry not as a genre or something that you can make, but as a poetic intentionality that may refresh our (non)human relations and recreate our living state, nurturing our capacity to think differently and to explore the relationships between us and other human beings, between us and nature, between us and language, as a practice of following the call of my soul. I do not want to make it more abstract or mystical, but there exists a soul in need of being spoken out, being shared, being mirrored in others, surviving to talk to the other.

This is why I feel the need to be in touch. To be in a context and out of a context, to know about the other, to learn from, to listen to, to share with, to be silent with, to speak together, to exchange ideas, to challenge and be challenged. To be together in dreams of equality and freedom, individually, collectively.

All stories can be told more fully, and all fears can be looked at more fearlessly, with the faith that we can speak for ourselves, and we can hear others, too.

It is essentially a commitment to dialogues. Poetry in dialogue can be political. Dialogue can also be intellectually poetical.


Why in this region?

I prefer to imagine "a community" rather than any country or region, because it seems to me a more possible term with greater sharing. But our stories can start in the region, with the region of Southeast Asia as the starting point to make our voices heard and shared, by us, the people inside, and our guests who are also the insiders. To practise embracing diversity and being in multicultural dialogues, we can hear the shared stories of individuals from neighbouring countries or from far away, and then our stories of the region can be reconfigured to be stories shared from various national and cultural backgrounds.

I am thinking about physical presence, and how it seems it's harder to achieve this today, with our increasing ability to reach further, all the way around the earth. But even as our reach lengthens our hands remain empty of touch. Perhaps this lengthening reach even highlights the fact that directly in front of us, what we most often physically feel is not someone's hand there but the boxes of individual letters of our computer keyboard.

And for this one weekend, there is this small success to remark on, to acknowledge the simple fact of the shared room and togetherness. Having reached across some distances near and far, we are able to touch hands and say "nice to meet you" with the vibrations of those spoken-out-loud words entering and rubbing the tiny caves of the ear.

All of us, being in the East or the West, or more Eastern or more Western, are sharing the contemporary, sharing the now, the here and the there, rather than dividing into "local" and "international," who are rooted tightly to a place geographically, and at the same time, nowhere, but all sharing the love and life of languages. To embrace a concept of fluidity in the region: here is everywhere.


What is next?

We were floating into the idea of having one festival for every letter of the alphabet, on every continent, maybe sometimes even on a boat between continents.

It is our goal to grow inward, not outward, to stay small, to stay informal. I loved this particular group of people for the intimacy that sprouted between us, everyone on the same level, as friends spending time together, talking, asking, getting stumped by problems, drinking beer, reading, listening …

To be bigger is not necessarily to be better—I feel an aversion to running a festival as a business, mainly for the reason that I do not know how to do that properly. What I/we know how to do is show honest love, to be open to others, or at least to be ajar to others.

It's a professional amateurism. We do/make/are for love, with love, and hope to open ourselves better in love and to understand and to be comprehended in return.

I've been thinking much about the presence and the absent presences in our festival, about appearances and disappearances. So much going on behind the scene. So many ideas to share and to be shared. We will need many more festivals, more gatherings.

What were some of your concerns leading up to the weekend?

We were worried much about the safety of the festival, for activities such as these in the context of Hanoi can be easily misunderstood, misinterpreted. Being "independent" meant there was no state institution or cultural organisation behind the festival; rather it was simply/complexly run by writers. We had to consider when and where and how to make it public. We did make it public on Facebook pages and our public blog, which was the official site of the festival, but we did that closer to the date of the festival in order to decrease the risk of negative intervention from authorities. We were intentionally not so noisy leading up the weekend, and we did not invite any official newspapers to attend and spread the news. We supposed that the state-run/official media would not be, or were not ready yet to be, interested in supporting these activities.

Media is never a monopoly of the state: media belongs to those who attempt to understand it and know how to use it. We have other channels to give voice to the festival, and we can create a public space of our own. We have support from a community of readers and writers, here and elsewhere. But of course, I am happy to be open for more collaborations with other institutions and organisations in the future. And if the freedom of assembly policy in Vietnam can be clearer, I think we will have better opportunities in the future.

However, I think our main priority as organisers of the festival was to create a space for our invited guests and audiences to freely share together. We tried to make it beautiful and special in every tiny detail of the whole process, so that those who came could keep some beautiful moments in memory. This experience/experiment was the responsibility we most cared for.

And we expect/hope our attempts will have further sharing, better understanding and more collaborations to continue to make our voices shared and heard.

This can be considered a project of freedom of expression. What do you think about censorship or/and freedom of expression?

In every encounter, there is a kind of censorship coming from within; however, we think this kind is acceptable, or we do not notice it, we do not name it as censorship. It is when censorship is imposed from the outside that we call it a problem. But why do we place more importance on that external source of censorship rather than the internal source? It is much easier in some ways to look outside. I do not know if publicising only the external variety of censorship is a healthy thing to do for anyone. Of course, it is important to know when someone is being abused so that we can stop the abuse. But to emphasise a particular external presence that is controlling language is in some ways to reinforce that presence, to make it real, to make it more visible and elevate the status of it. I am not trying to write in a direct way about current events that are directly problematic for the government, although perhaps I would feel differently about censorship if I was writing about relations with China or about land rights reform. For journalists who write about these things, it is a different conversation. For when it comes to poetry, in the conversation of censorship, as Nhã Thuyên once said, I don't know how people can talk about censorship in poetry without first thinking about the internal sources of it.

I would love to hear that part of the essay again ...

Yes, in the essay, I wrote: "I do not often understand well the way someone talks about censorship as something outside of themselves, or to say that there is no censorship here while there is censorship there, or there is more here and less there, or that writers here only have to face themselves while writers there always have some horrified companions, monsters with scary powerful scissors, or that writers here are just happier/more suffering for their writing and experiments, while the writers there are happier/more suffering for having something to fight for. And then, another way of thinking and doing that I personally would love to avoid, is the fact that some people try to benefit from censorship in some ways."

We've talked much of our fear of not having (enough) freedom of expression to express ourselves. Freedom of expression is always a phrase that I am reluctant to use and talk about. It is not something available there and not available here. In my opinion, freedom of expression and censorship are the same, or an inseparable couple. It's not something that we have to fight for to have, but something we can practise, by conversing on it, challenging all the ideas about it, to see its limits and capabilities, and more importantly, simply to pursue a personal truth that each follows.

At the moment, to me, freedom of expression is how to open my heart again and again, and not self-censor the abilities of being myself. I understand it is the most difficult task, and I've experienced how vulnerable and painful the process of being open to others is, though I know it is essential to me. To grow up and be brave to grow up, I need others to share my fears and to fearlessly look at my fears and to be a bit more brave to be free.

So I am still learning how to see the capabilities and limits of freedom of expression in my own mind and heart and body, to be an active presence and to co-exist with others. If having to speak about freedom of expression, as well as about censorship, I would prefer not using any language of resistance. Or if possible, I would prefer not to talk about it and feel stuck in, but practise my notion of freedom based on a hypothesis of freedom and equality. It is about listening more, understanding better, seeing, touching more.


What did you learn from this project?

People seemed surprised that the festival went well in Hanoi. Yes, it was not easy to make a "normal" festival here as other festivals everywhere, and people did consider it abnormal, but all I want is to be "normal" here, believing and contributing to a community. And that is why it is difficult to say in a few words what I learnt from the whole process, or from the first time managing a project of this scale. After the festival, I told some friends that we can gradually get to where we want to be, this place that has been missing for so long: normality in how we are and in the way people look at us. Maybe the festival can be one step for us to be in an equal dialogue and share with others. We share "here" and "everywhere" and "now"; we want to be a part of this.

As for the festival, I can say it is a shared work, a real collaboration that I experienced, and I've learnt from all people involved. As I said once, human touch matters to me, all glimpses of beauty accumulated in an encounter. How can you learn without touching others and being touched?

(We should all hug at this moment.)


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