Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Split This Rock Interview with Paul Tran

By C. Thomas

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

Online registration is available until midnight (EST) on March 28. Onsite registration will be offered during the festival. Group rates, scholarships, and sponsorship opportunities are available. Readings by featured poets are free and open to the public. More information at: www.SplitThisRock.org.

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Paul Tran is Poetry Editor at The Offing and Chancellor's Graduate Fellow in The Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis. Their work appears in The New Yorker, Prairie Schooner, and RHINO, which gave them an Editor's Prize. A recipient of fellowships and residencies from Kundiman, VONA, Poets House, Lambda Literary Foundation, Napa Valley Writers Conference, Home School, Vermont Studio Center, The Conversation, Palm Beach Poetry Festival, Miami Writers Institute, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, Paul is the first Asian American since 1993 to win the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam. Since 2013, Paul has taught creative writing and coached the slam poetry teams at Barnard College, Brown University, Columbia University, Hunter College, New Urban Arts in Providence, RI, and Urban Word NYC, as seen on HBO Brave New Voices. Paul is working on their first poetry collection. The manuscript examines intergenerational trauma, sexual violence, and U.S. empire after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Learn more at their website. Photo by Chrysanthemum Tran.

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C. Thomas (CT): As a spoken word artist myself, I feel that often performance poets discover poetry as an outlet, a release for their emotions. How did you discover poetry and when? Why poetry?

Paul Tran (PT): Poetry, for me, is investigation. The poem is at once archive and archival material. It provides space to document the triumphs and tragedies of people, places, and things I love in their complexity, complications, and contradictions.

I first came to the page after seeing Franny Choi and Jamila Woods perform during my first week at Brown University in 2010. Their power, their magic, their precision and imagination rendering visible the experience of women coming of age, confronting the outside gaze on our bodies, the bodies of subjects in the aftermath of war and intimate violence, blazed a path for me to see the poem not only as site for language arts, for play and persuasive communication, but as sanctuary for critical evaluation of the commonplace ideas, systems, and behaviors that shape our lives as well. My poems, therefore, begin with a question. Why did my father molest me while my mother slept in the other room? What brought him to that decision? When and how did I understand what he did and what did that to him? How did I rationalize my survival in order to, in fact, survive? Is this survival?
I do not have answers, and I may never. But the attempt to respond, to say something about being human and witnessing what humans do to each other, propels me to slam my words onto the page, to transfigure this breath leaping from my throat into song, and illuminate what has been obscured, overlooked, or deliberately annihilated to secure someone else’s comfort.

Poetry, for me, is not comfort. It is not release or recovery. It is not beauty or brutality, though it can be all this and more. Poetry is alchemy. Poetry is the acquisition of new knowledge. It is a vehicle for transporting us from one mode of thought to another, demanding we assess what we think we know and how we know it in order to, at best, change our lives and how we choose to live. If I am not changed by my own poems, then I am not doing the work of what my teachers call “the true poet.”

(CT): Of your contemporaries, who has inspired you the most as an artist? Who would you say has had a deep influence on shaping your work as a queer artist?

(PT): I owe a great debt to the women poets, queer poets, and poets of color who cultivate not just my writing but also my soul and my mind. I would not be here without their instruction, their generosity and sacrifice, and I am determined to pay forward their magic in my pursuit of being a teacher, editor, and advocate for voices that, as Toni Morrison writes, move in the margins.

I am currently studying at Washington University in St Louis, where I am a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow in The Writing Program. My teachers and classmates embolden me not just to read, think, and write better. They push me to be a better person in the world: to live not for the goal of exacting revenge on circumstance or people who hurt me, but to live for the joy and mystery that accompanies being human and being with others who are also trying to make the most of our humanity.

I am also grateful to my blood and chosen family. Praise the group chat. Praise Team MDH and The Heterosexuals. Praise Brooklyn and Nuyo and UDUB and The NYC Union. Praise my sisters from Seattle to Providence. Praise my brothers deep in the heart of Texas and deep in my heart. Praise The Theys. Praise The Bottoms. Praise the Leaches and the Kwons and the Wongs and the Yangs. Praise Victory and Rob and Lissa. Praise Naoko Shibusawa and Francoise Hamlin. Praise Ocean and Tiffanie. Praise Hieu. Praise my mother who calls every night exactly at 10 PM. Praise my grandmother and every year she tells me she is still 87 years old and that she will always love for me who I am and that she likes my flower crowns on Instagram.

They inform my work. They are the reason I work.

(CT): You live your life out loud and unapologetically. I applaud you for this because as a queer poet myself, I know it is important. Being an openly queer person can draw homophobic reactions. How do you deal with this ignorance? In what ways does your experience of gender identity influence your work and how you navigate the world as a queer poet or activist?

(PT): My mother came to the United States from Vietnam in 1989. She worked three jobs. She met and extricated us from a man who did not love us the way we asked to be loved. She raised me on her own when he disappeared in 1999. We ate sesame crackers dipped in soy sauce or whatever I brought home from the dumpster behind my middle and high school where free and reduced lunches were stashed.

I replay these years in my mind when a man tells me he is going to kill me on the subway platform. I replay the nights I thought we might not endure when people spit at me on the street or tell me to go back wherever I came from. I replay the scene in which my mother tries on a Chanel dress, studying her reflection in the Nordstrom mirror, as a clerk follows my brown face around the store when strangers set their dogs on me and my sister, Chrysanthemum; or when they film us buying Hot Cheetos and cigarettes at the gas station, laughing at how we transformed our bodies into the women we are.

Nothing that happens to me, as a queer and transgender poet, surmounts what my mother and I confronted to become New Americans. I draw on the strength gleaned during those times to forge my way through life with love, compassion, understanding, openness, and grace. It is my job to teach people how to treat me, how to see and love me, and I attempt to advance such imperatives each time I speak, think, instruct, and write.

(CT): You have a way of using persona poems to explore hidden pain and trauma, the erasure beneath false narratives. Your poem “#1 Beauty Nail Salon,” for example, uses the voice of a Vietnamese manicurist as a metaphor to explore atrocities committed by the US military. Referencing the manicurist’s tools, it tells us: “A pen is all you need to be #1, honey, to make an ugly truth look beautiful.” What’s the poem you’re still hoping to write to dismantle an ugly truth made to look beautiful? What do you hope these poems open up for audiences?

(PT): My poetry investigates human suffering. I want to know what compels and helps us to rationalize violence towards others, the world, and ourselves. I am fascinated by the matrix of power, pain, and pleasure rooted in the operations and technologies of violence. I think my purpose as a writer is not only to craft poems that examine the why and how of violence. My job is to craft poems that ask if the knowledge gleaned from such scholarship is sufficient for our survival.

After being raped at Brown in 2013, I wanted so badly to carve my way out of this life. I thought I stood on the precipice and saw nothing good enough to keep me here. I felt stupid, ashamed, and incredibly resentful at the premise of staying alive. Why live, I thought, if this is what the living does to each other? And still I stayed. I woke up each day and endured every terrible thought or thing because some part of me desperately wanted to know the answer to that question. And then I realized: this is the question—the great ghost, the unbearable and generous spirit—haunting my poems. I wrote and continue to obsessively write about family incest and sexual violence because I have yet to sufficiently answer this question. But every attempt I make, I hope, brings me closer to that dream.

And, I write to share my attempts with those for whom they can serve.

I am an immigrant writer. I am a queer writer. I am a transgender writer. I am a writer from a neighborhood where people I love are threatened by police brutality, deportation, and all possible iterations of disenfranchisement. I am a writer whose writing has been censored, criticized, and cast aside. Yet I am the first in my family to read and write in English. I am the first in my family to graduate high school and attend college. I am the first in my family to complete an advanced degree in any field. I, therefore, do not have the luxury to look the other way while people I love hurt. I do not have the luxury to look away while they fight and rise and fail and fashion joy and purpose and prayer and dreams from the rubble at our feet. I write the poems I feel my ancestors and gods and past lives sent me here to write, however they take shape and whatever shape they take, and I hope my poems make it possible for writers like me to do their work on their terms in the full glow of their glory.

(CT): What advice would you like to give to young poets inspired by your work? Is there advice you would like to share with young Vietnamese American artists in particular?

(PT): Keep going. We have no other choice.|

(CT): In our current state of the world with all the various calls to action regarding sexual assault, hate crimes, domestic violence, racism, and more, what do you feel is the unique role of poets? Is there more that you'd like to see poets doing or doing better?

(PT): I believe the poet should investigate. Investigation is important to me because our world, as every world before ours, needs thinkers to illuminate the human condition: why are we here and what does it mean for us to be here? What is our purpose and how do we forge, challenge, or resist it? What animates and gives dimension to our desires, dreams, and determination to exact what we think we want by any means necessary? To what lengths would we go to be happy, safe, or satisfied with the shape of our lives and at what costs?
Poetry helps us answer these questions. That means, for me, at the heart of every poem is a writer trying to reach for and grapple with a possible or temporary or difficult answer to these questions. Poetry, from this view, is not a “reliving” or “retelling” of events. It is not transcription, as Carl Phillips reminds us. It is transformation.

Poetry elucidates from the evidence of our lives, histories, and research a kind of information and way of thinking that was not previously available to us because we had not or were not able to ask the right queries. Take, for example, the typical response to a poem: What does it mean? Implicit in that reaction is the expectation that a poem should and does mean something. It reflects hope that everything we see or experience in the world has, in fact, a meaning of some significant degree. Poems of great merit to me, of indispensable social or political value, by that logic, are not indulgent or parochial or invested in appearing to rebel against power when, instead, they remain constitutive of business as usual. Poems should say something. Poems should say what elided our view. They excavate what we, by choice or in compliance to the status quo, kept buried.

And, they marshal with excellence the craft necessary to exact their aims.

(CT): What's on the horizon for you? Anything else you would like the Split This Rock community to know?

(PT): Split This Rock has been my lighthouse and ship since the first time I participated in 2014, sitting in the auditorium at National Geographic beside Cathy Linh Che and Ocean Vuong, with whom I presented a reading of Vietnamese poetry in a backless outfit I cut and sewed and studded on the Megabus on my way to the Festival. Thank you for taking me through the night, for giving me flight across ceaseless seas. I feel lucky being part of the urgent and necessary work you do.

I bow to you.

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Additional Links

Paul Tran visits with The Poetry Gods (SoundCloud)

Tran’s poem “Boy Dreams of the Wolf” (Poet’s House)

Dinnerview: Paul Tran, by Danielle Susi (ENTROPY)

Tran’s poems “The Santa Ana” & “ I WANT” (The Quarry)

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No stranger to the stage, C. Thomas has graced numerous venues. Along his journey, C. has blasted his story at Studio 2001 Art Gallery, Angelina College, Howard University, Eleanor Roosevelt High School, and Journey of Faith United Methodist Church, among other venues. C. Thomas raises his voice through his art for the benefit of Child Abuse Prevention Awareness, Black Lives Matter, SGL (Same Gender Loving) and the LGBT community. He knows there are many other minds, bodies and souls to be touched by his message. He intends to continue to challenge mindsets and command stages.

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