Nam Le on 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem

Nam Le on 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem

Nam Le is one of Australia's foremost poets. His short story collection The Boat has been republished as a modern classic and is widely translated, anthologised, and taught. 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem is his first poetry collection.

Nam has received major awards in America, Europe, and Australia, including the PEN/Malamud Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award, and the Melbourne Prize for Literature.

Nam Le on 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem


ASTRID: Thank you so very much for being with me here today on The Garret. 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem is an exceptional work. I read it twice over the weekend, and I know this is a collection of poetry that I will pick up randomly and just read a poem or two as I walk past. Thank you for sharing that experience, of giving me that experience.

I was wondering, because this is the first work that you have published, I guess, in book form – you've been writing for years, for decades, but this collection is the first book that you have put out since The Boat. That's about 15 years, and to start our discussion today, I wanted to ask you, why a collection now? Where did this collection come from?

NAM: Oh, thanks, heaps for having me. And apologies for my croaky voice, because I've got whatever the kids have given me.

I did write a monograph, through Black Inc’s Writers on Writers series that came out a few years ago as well. It's pretty instructive, because it speaks to a lot of the same interests and agitations, I guess, as this book, and looking back to the same interests and agitations is, you know, a large part of what The Boat was doing back in the day as well.

I think it's taken this time because it's taken this time, you know. I'm slow. Writing, it's hard for me, and I'm hard on myself when I'm writing, and I guess I want… I mean that in the satirical sense as well, like only to be able to stand behind what I've written, and because I'm always changing and what I want to read changes and also the conditions under which I believe I'm working are changing, then my estimation of the work changes as I go along as well. And so, it's been really hard, to be honest. I've written a lot, and I think prose to me… it hasn't felt like it's been able to convey the full scope of just the not knowingness that I like when I read in prose, often I find myself sounding more knowledgeable or authoritative or certain that I do feel. Whereas poetry is like this field that I can work within that can hold my uncertainties and doubts and contradictions as well. And so, I think the form that I found in this particular work, which is a large poem made up of smaller poems, each of which plays against and buts up against and undermines and undercuts and destabilizes the others. I feel like that's as close as I've been able to get to showing you where I am.

ASTRID: There is so much in that answer. Firstly, I should apologise. I have read your essay on David Malouf in the Writers on Writers series. I do love that, and I have questions to ask. But before we go there, let's unpack what you just said. You said that writing is hard. Writing is hard. And just after you said that you explained that you are hard on yourself. Can you elaborate that?

NAM: This is where you get into that cheesy lexicon of truth and sincerity and risk, I guess. I think the only way that I know that what I'm writing is telling my truth and that I'm being honest is if it feels risky and if it feels dangerous. I think part of it is a negative awareness in the sense that I know when I'm taking an easy route, or compromising or copping out or reaching for the lower shelf and certain, you know, choices. And as I said before, you know, I change as well, even from the beginning of work that I'm working on to the middle to the end. I think because it is so hard, because I am so slow and because I've taken so long, all of the exigencies of needing to get it done for its own sake or to capitalise on this or that or, you know, just to get it down, they're dissolved for me in a way that feels good. It also feels hard. And what's left is I just need to be able to back my own writing, I need to be able to say, in a way that feels real, this is the best that I could do, to come the closest that I can to how I'm actually feeling and to tell the truth about what I'm doing. And part of the language that sometimes enters my mind is that of what do you owe? Whether it's you know, to readers or yourself or publishers, or the tradition in which you're working? I think that's a dangerous paradigm through which to say things, because obviously I owe my publishers something that is codified in black and white. But in terms of what do you owe your readers? I think it's a really complex question that in some ways has boiled down into a nugget of simplicity for me, which is, I owe them my truth, you know, not just my production. I guess that is an excellent distinction.

ASTRID: I consider myself a reader first and foremost. Of all this descriptors I could pick in the world, I would pick a reader. And I think that might be one of the most nuanced responses I have ever heard from somebody who does share their art with the audience, as in, you know, the readers.

Let's go into the craft of your poems. You previously mentioned you sometimes are aware that you might be reaching for the easy route and you're not happy when you do that, or you kind of pull yourself up when you do that. That is craft. One of the many things you provoked me to think about in this collection is language, the violence of language, the violence of the English language, the problems with translation, and what every single language brings with it to the page, all of the historical assumptions that, you know, when we write in English, and you and I are now talking in English, the Western Imperial colonial mindset that comes with that and infects the language that we use. So much of this collection is unpicking that, challenging that, and I guess I found that in every poem, but you know, in poems 15, 21 and 22. Really, I don't know if you meant that, but they jumped out to me as poems that were specifically doing that. I guess my question after that very long ramble is how do you take your craft and how you take the language that you're working in in this collection, you know, English, and question it whilst also doing beautiful things with it?

NAM: Thank you for that. Thanks for the care and the attention of your read as well. I guess one of the things that I would say is that sometimes it can feel as though the discussion when writers write about language or about writing is a sterile one, because in the same way that when you're watching movies about movie making, it can seem a little bit insular and solipsistic and navel gazing. But I would make the case that for a writer to be thinking about the language in which they work is as essential as breathing, you know, for a creature with lungs like it is to me. Language is not neutral; it never has been. Language is not as powerful as we sometimes make it out to be, nor is that as ineffectual as we sometimes make it out to be.

You know, when you talk about the violence in language, it's the violence that obviously, as you say, incorporates the histories of that language, the histories of conquest and of sublimation, and appropriation and dominance. And language, obviously, can be used instrumentally as an instrument of dominance and all those things as well. But there's also a violence within language, right? Like there's a theological violence where every word comes with its own etymology and history, and that history is steeped in both material and linguistic violence, it's a history of appropriation and erasure and miscegenation. And that, to me, it is almost the condition of all things that are generative that there is a violence to them.

In that poem 11 that you refer to, it speaks to mitosis, you know, it speaks to mitochondrial action, and I'm trying to piggyback off of the profundity of the cellular action, where the basic action of life is one of cleaving, rending, splitting, of intrinsic violence. And it speaks to a motif that goes through the book in the insofar as nothing, nothing happens without tension, without things that are unlike being forced into some sort of accommodation with something else. And I don't think that's unnatural, or, you know, something that should be avoided. It's just the condition of things. And so, what I would hope in these poems is that a reader would come to a certain place and feel a certain apprehension of what's happening, and maybe that involves having a bit of discomfort or being unsettled, and then for them to move to a different poem and see that first apprehension from a different angle, and have that constantly in flux and in play because to me, that's the goal, f like, there is there is no answer or that I reached a resolution that I'm confident of. It's all just a process of uncovering these things which we take to be neutral, which are not at all.

ASTRID: I want to share this with you. So poem 5  is called ‘Violence: Taxonomic’, and 16 year old Astrid hated poetry – I have moved on from that failing – but 16 year old Astrid also studied Latin and this poem, Poem 5, is mostly written in anglicized Latin, which is the scientific classification system, and we have how science deals with the natural world in a few lines of English at the bottom, and a footnote as well. It's quite an unusual poem. And I just wanted to share with you that 16-year-old Astrid would have found this amazing and would have, you know, used this as some weird young person jumping off point for a deep philosophical thought, and my teacher would have had a bad week. I wish I had this kind of poem. I mean, I got given Keats and Donne, which, you know, have their place, but also, maybe not, I just wanted to share that with you.

I also wanted to ask you about Poem 8. Now I'm not going to read the title for an obvious reason, the title is longer than the poem. And I just wanted to explore that stylistic choice. It's quite amazing.

NAM: Thank you. It's a book that is basically a collection, a how to guide, you know, a litany of ways of writing a Vietnamese poem, I guess, Poem 8 is the catch all sort of receptacle for all the other ways which someone else can do, like, I've done my bit, and maybe your 16 year old Astrid can write the various other poems that are delineated there.

ASTRID: Now, this is called 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem, but there are of course, 37 poems in this collection. Now, this seems a very obvious question to ask, but I do feel the need as an interviewer to ask it. Why the 37th poem?

NAM: Well, maybe because I'm just contrary and I like to like put a little a little trap in there for the unwary readers, in part because, as you know, there's a motif of close enough that runs through the book as well. And it speaks to another metaphor which is used on occasion, these two actions that are often applied onto work by others, whether that's, you know, marginalized, or minority, or in whatever way peripheral writers, and especially writers who are Asian, let's say there, because there is not a plenitude of examples nor understandings about the histories and etiologies of Asian writing. I'll definitely count myself among that, that ignorant mess. What is there assumes, you know, an outsized burden of representation, of explanation. And these things just end up being sort of smeared across each other so that in one of the poems I go into… in some ways, the seminal modernist application of Asian poetry onto English is through Ezra Pound, through Fenollosa. The cafe poems were his using Fenollosa’s translations by Rihaku, which is the name that was given, the Japanese name that was given, to a Chinese poet Li Po, who also had another name that was then assumed by different sort of cultures, but of course, to Li Po and those following a lot of that stuff is just, you know, smudged, and it's hard to dig into it, to uncover it, because we don't have the infrastructure of knowledge, you know, our own traditions and canons.

And so, I think the close enough sort of motif is one that definitely applies to the 36, which is actually there are not 36 ways, there are 37. I think that the deeper meaning, which is my personal favorite meaning, is that the 37th poem is a potential way out of the taxonomy of classification and maybe even the urge to classify. It is a poem that expands beyond the very rigid parameters of this is the way of writing, this is the form, and it's for me, in a way moving myself into a place that is both more stuck, but also more all inviting.

ASTRID: I was fortunate to have a conversation with Sara Saleh recently about her new poetry collection, The Flirtation of Girls, and part of our discussion was about this. She writes predominately in English, but also there is Arabic in her collection, and how readers like me are completely unaware, and have no ability to access the Arabic tradition of poetry, which is as long and complicated as well says anything that I may have access to in English. The tension between how you honor that, how you bring it into English, what you lose by doing so, but what you can gain or share in a different way, noting that your readers probably have even less access or less understanding, because of the way we structured the curriculum, because of the way we structure English education, and a variety of other reasons. Some of what you just said, made me reflect on that conversation. I guess I wonder, you know, outside of us redesigning the school curriculum – which I would really like to do, at some point, and I always come back to this on The Garret – but if you could wave a magic wand, how would you help young people like 16 year old Astrid, who didn't understand poetry, into the variety of different poetic traditions that are alive?

NAM: I don't know. What I would say, there's a metaphor of Jean Rhys’s that I just adore. She says that all of literature is a great lake. There are these mighty rivers, like Tolstoy and Shakespeare that just flood into this lake. But there are also myriad smaller tributaries that are feeding the lake. And one of the things something I love so much about that, one of the things I love, just as by the by is the notion that it is a living, and never stable ecosystem, and that what destroys a lake is engineering, or pollution, or monoculture or occlusion, you know, and I think that speaks to how I want to think about my culture, which is as a field of capacity and generosity. It should be one that can contain everything that's human, which includes all of the emotions from joy and love, to all the other stuff on the other side as well on grief, despair, anger, rage.

I will say that one of the things that I love about English is its capacity to absorb and take on with all of its weird sort of misshapen, sharp angles, things from outside of it, whether it's other languages or different usages. And I think I mean, even from a quantifiable level, I think English has, if not the largest, but like, the largest vocabulary of many languages anyway, and that sense of realisation, that sense of anything goes, is I don't think necessarily that one need feel that one has to look outside of it in order to get a sense of variety. I think one should, because we're way too Anglo-centric and inward looking in that regard, and there is never enough stuff in translation.  The whole structure around translation predicates English as basically a dominant language, which is never really interrogated or spoken about, but I think you can spend your whole life in pockets of the English language that would stand you in their valence, as in, you know, poly vocal, poly seamless, you know, tolerant, ability to change shape and size, look at choice. For example, you could spend your whole life just reading one book of Chaucer and feel as though you're not even coming close to taking in the, you know, the breadth of what he can do with the language. So, to 16-year-old Astrid, I will just say read, I will just say read, read, read, read, read, read everything. Don't think of it as something that need be a means to something else, don't instrumentalize your reading, don't weaponize it, necessarily or credentialise yourself with it and be one of those people, which I certainly was for a certain amount of time. Just approach it in a spirit of openness and curiosity and I think that that's 90 per cent of the way there.

ASTRID: That is such a good word to describe reading and what one can find in there. Let's go back to your essay on David Malouf, which, of course, you brought up before that was published in 2019. You obviously explore Malouf’s writing and your engagement with it and the joy that you have found from it. But you also talk about, you know, the conception of Australian literature, immigration, the idea of who gets to write or be considered part of Australian literature. We are talking now in early 2024. I guess I'd kind of like to pose a really broad question, but like a follow up to those big ideas that also come out in your new collection.

NAM: I'd say that I have a very vexed relationship with literary nationalism. I think I have a vexed relationship with nationalism per se, because I feel like it offers so many of the attitudes and then actions that have divided us and maintain the status quo that is clearly not fair. The notion of writing or inscribing Australia has been one that I think has been quite alive and attractive to a lot of people in Australian culture for some time. I've always found it, you know, a little strange, to be honest, because anytime we go into actual specifics about what Australia is, what is the voice of Australia, what is the face of Australia, what is the spirit of Australia, it feels to me like we just enter the realm of cliched myth or of advertising. It never feels as though it can reach past that. And to me, it rings a bit hollow because it's trying to find harmonics of resonance, that if you're looking for it, you're not there, you know, that resonance is not real, and it's not inherent.

One of the things that I explored that Malouf book is the idea of how imperatives of nation and of nationhood and writing nation can exert quite an influence or gravity over writers, even if you don't think that you're writing into that space. I think that's leaving aside the normative question of whether that's good or bad. I think it's something that needs just to be more transparent, or, you know, we need to be made more aware of, and have it in front of us so that we can turn it around and look at it and interrogate it and sort of see, where does that come from? What assumptions and implications does that have? I think that nation ends up being to me like family, where it's not something that for most of us you really choose. I think there are obvious exceptions to that in terms of immigration, but this idea of mythic, deep seated nationhood as given in a sense as family is, and I think, as with family, you're allowed as a person to be all about it, and to be obsessed with it and write only about it, and you're allowed to not write about it at all. There shouldn't be a mandate that, you know, you're less of the family if you're not writing about it, or, you know, somehow suspect. And also with family, it's one of those things where who would have the gumption to say that they could actually capture the full variety and complexity of their family? And yet, we think this is something that we should, you know, with a straight face be talking about in terms of nation. To me that just feels reductive and silly.

NAM: That is an amazing answer. You took that into a place where I was absolutely not expecting. I think I was naive when I asked the question. I think maybe you have just articulated the response of a writer, and I guess I was asking more as a reader, because I know, 20 years ago, so many books were imported by people who did not write on this continent, and it was harder to sell books written on this continent. I love the fact that there are now there is a healthy industry of people writing here, getting read here, getting talked about here, getting sold here, and I did not anticipate where you're going. Thank you, I'm going have to listen back to that and have a long reflection on myself.

ASTRID: I don't know. Like, it's interesting. I think one of the main psychological catch rules, if you want to understand what's going on, in the same way that cui bono? who profits? is a really good catch all understanding why certain decisions have been made. I think reactance is probably for me, one of the defining dynamics of our time. And you know, it's that sense for me anyways, it's my understanding of it, which may be incorrect. It's that sense of I'm going to strongly react against what you're telling me to do or think. I think it's the primary drive behind the Trump phenomenon, for example, with people who, for whatever reason, were disillusioned or spirited or, you know, were then told by a whole other slice of so-called society that they were, you know, really bad in X, Y and Z ways, and just calcified and hardened. Their sense of self like they actually repose their sense of self in what they were reacting against. I think there's a danger for little literary nationalism to invoke the same attitude. You know, it's the same attitude as we all have in high school, where we're made to read whatever is in the Australian canon, given your schooling at a particular time. I think most of us, especially readers, have an ingrained sense of, you know, don’t me what to read or tell me what to think. I think as long as we're aware, again, as long as we're aware of these currents at play there, I think what ends up happening is that as long as there's currency circulation, there's a healthiness to the discourse, but when those things are occluded or allowed to stand, then then that's when, you know, the corruption sort of seeps in.

ASTRID: So well said, Nam. Thank you. Congratulations on 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem. This conversation has been a pleasure for me. Thank you.

NAM: Oh, thank you so much.