by Travis Macdonald in issue No. 2 of Fact-Simile. This was conducted on 6/18/08, at the bar of a Mexican restaurant in Boulder, CO, when I was out there to teach for a week at Naropa. This is the untrimmed version, as transcribed by JenMarie Davis:
Linh Dinh: I’d like a pint of the Belgian ale, I can’t remember the name. The one over, yeah. Okay, yeah, whatever that is. I had that yesterday.
Fact-Simile: It’s a good local brew here. Okay, so, I think we are recording. I am very skeptical of technology. That’s why I have two tape recorders (laughs).
(Need a menu?)
LD: I don’t need that.
(chips and salsa?)
FS: Sure, that’d be great. Linh, thanks for joining me today, we’ve been talking this week about the state of the union. I was hoping you could speak briefly on your perception about our current state of cultural affairs and contemporary literature’s place therein.
LD: Contemporary literature? The place of literature. Just on the way here we were just talking about how the Dow dropped three hundred fifty points yesterday and it was sixty down as I left for class today. So, in essence, I obsess about these, this collapse, this ongoing collapse of the past couple years. It’s hard really to even read literature, to tell you the truth. I told Charles Alexander I haven’t been reading a whole lot of poetry lately just because this, the quickly developing story of our society’s unraveling is so compelling that it’s hard for me to focus on anything else to tell you the truth. So I’m reading financial blogs and I read people like James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg, and this website called, what is it, this peak oil website I check constantly for developing stories. So how do I see literature fitting into this? I guess my last book was an attempt to come to terms with it, you know, Jam Alerts is basically finding ways to write about this.
There’re so many pitfalls to this kind of writing. I mean, you don’t want to do the job of a journalist, right, because I’m not bringing today’s news to you. A poem should not have to function on that level, right? So, a poem written today, if you’re lucky, will be read a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now, fifty years from now, if you’re very lucky. So I just want to be, as a thinking person, someone who is alert to what’s happening, who is seeing what is happening. I don’t want to be someone who is oblivious or ignorant of the most urgent issues, that’s all. So I feel it’s a worthwhile challenge for a poet or a fiction writer to try to understand the biggest issues affecting his or her society. So, instead of getting caught up in trivia, there are so many distractions in society right now, in the media. You know, I mean, every culture has strategies to divert their populace’s attention from the issues that really matter, so people who say “I don’t want to write about political stuff, social stuff, I’m interested in my own thing," okay, but I think we’re being steered, we’re being fed certain kinds of information. The room temperature is controlled, let’s put it that way. So, you know, I don’t want to be sitting in this room and be oblivious to the trauma that’s happening right outside my window. And also on a survival and on a personal level all these issues are hard to ignore, okay, so my own attempts at writing about these issues are related to me teaching this class called “State of the Union” at three universities now because I find these issues closest to my day-to-day, closest to my heart. So I try to convey some of that urgency to the students but how they respond to it is up to them. So does that sort of answer your question?
FS: Yeah. You said recently one of the main tasks of the writer is to startle the reader. How does one accomplish such a maneuver in the face of a culture desensitized to violence, raised on sound bytes and numb to wonder?
LD: Yeah. Well. In essence, the media also wants to startle the viewers, the readers, right? But they resort to devices, they’re bringing more violence now, sex is kind of a funny business in America, you know what I’m saying, we use it, I mean the corporations use sex to sell stuff, but they do it in a weird, kind of, in a very, I mean we’re a lot more caught in violence than sex. We don’t apologize. I mean by saying “we” I’m saying the powers that be and also the people who receive these images. They don’t apologize about manipulating violence to get us to do what they want us to do. But as far as sex goes, it’s always somehow foreign, you know what I’m saying? It’s both, it’s always present, yet always distorted. But as a writer, the need to surprise is not about titillating or shocking the readers with a bag of tricks. It’s about upsetting thinking patterns and reading patterns, you know? So in that sense, how a reader, how a writer solves that is up to him or her. I don’t know, but for me I find... I guess I have my own bag of tricks, too. You develop a set of repertoire as you work, so in essence, yeah, there are techniques involved. But, you know, I mean, Coca-Cola has its set and I have my techniques. It’s not just about the context it’s about me manipulating you, too, okay? But ultimately, I hope it’s not just that.
LD: I’m admitting to something that even to me seems a little raw just now.
FS: You have your own marketing department.
LD: I have my own marketing tricks, yeah.
FS: How would you describe your relationship to English and/or to language in general?
LD: I’m finding myself in kind of an odd position right now. My publishing career only started, my first chapbook came out in ’98, okay, and it was a thin little thing, it was thirty-some pages, so I’ve been doing this, I guess, a decade now. I’m finding myself teaching at universities. I have no degrees, okay, so in essence, I came through this with a kind of, I mean, I always had confidence but there’s a part of me that felt semi-fraudulent. I studied painting.
With painting I didn’t have to, I didn’t need to justify, but even with painting, most painters, most successful artists, at least when I was in school, were white. There weren’t that many black artists. I’m talking about oil painting in particular. Most people would not be able to come up with a single Asian oil painter of significance. I bet you can’t think of one. So even then, I realized what I wanted to do, to become a successful oil painter, was something really, as an Asian person, that wasn’t done. No one has done it. I thought about that, what does that mean? But I thought it was a challenge, what if I could do it? But, in essence, I did not do it, I dropped out of that game. But, deciding to become a poet in English was an even bigger thing for me because, you know, it’s not my first language. But, I was convinced I would be a successful artist. I thought I was surely chosen to be a painter by whatever. I felt something in my head, maybe a baseless sense of being chosen to do this somehow.
So I transferred that extreme confidence into writing, but yet, on the other hand I felt I’m not quite qualified to do this not because English isn’t my first language but because I didn’t study this. Which is okay. I felt that a writer should just study from the best. That you like a certain writer, let’s say you are really into Borges. Go ahead, go home and read Borges over and over. Read Borges. Why do you need somebody like me telling you about Borges? I would just get in the way of you perceiving Borges. That’s why I didn’t want to learn from anyone but the people I really admire. That’s in the text, do you know what I’m saying?
So I chose to stay outside of the writing system. The writing school system. But on the other hand, my reading is very sketchy. I don’t know a lot of stuff. I mean, I don’t know some of the very basic stuff. I don’t, I can’t say that I’m totally candid about what I don’t know, because when I talk or somebody mentions something, I just sort of nod along, because I can’t admit to my ignorance constantly. When I do that all the time, it not only, it almost sounds as though I’m bragging about it. Okay, I don’t know so much, but deep down I know what I don’t know. So when I find myself in a situation like this, people who have a lot behind them, I don’t know how to justify it, except that I’m taken seriously by writers, people that I admire, so that’s a kind of indication that I’m doing okay, but the fact is that I’m not trying too hard to catch up. Like I’ve said, I’ve had a hard time reading new poetry or any poetry because of other things I’m seeing in front of me. I can’t take my eyes away from that. I mean, I read constantly. I read every day, first thing in the morning. I can’t stop reading. But I’m reading about all the crises. So, what was the question again?
FS: It was your relationship to English—
LD: To English, yeah. So, I feel okay because, you know, I mean, the writing is happening, and I’m getting published, and, you know, when I’m rolling, when I’m working, I can feel this surge coming on and, like, hey, you know, I want to kick your fucking ass. But then, when that surge is over, you know, when you feel tired or whatever. When I make mistakes speaking, occasionally I still do that, I feel like, what the hell’s happening. You know what I’m saying? So, I lapse in and out of that weird assertion of my, you know, not only do I belong, but that I am going to assert myself with a kind of vehemence in English. And other times I feel, you know, I guess that feeling of being a fraud is diminishing. But yesterday when I heard Daniel Kane giving his very thorough, very well-researched lecture, I felt like, man, you know, again I’m reminded, what I, what the fuck, I don’t know so much, you know.
FS: I think we all need to be reminded of that.
LD: All the time! Okay, yeah, but if you’re just apologetic and say “I don’t know shit,” you’re not really about much. So I go back and forth between the two. Like the reading yesterday [at the 2008 Naropa Summer Writing Program], I was thinking very hard about it, because I thought, hmmmm, there are all these heavyweights in the audience, and then, I take the students seriously because, you know, they have heard and they will hear a succession of very impressive poets and I just don’t want to be the weak link, I just don’t want any of them to come up and have people say “What the fuck?” you know? It went well yesterday, but it could have gone very wrong, too. I don’t know. So, I do not take anything for granted. I was sitting here [a restaurant in Boulder] before the reading, thinking very hard about what I’m going to read and how I’m going to do it. So, okay, I don’t want to over analyze myself. I will say that I have enough confidence to do what I do, but I know… I don’t take anything for granted, you know what I’m saying? I know my ignorance in terms of what I haven’t read and all the gaps in my, I can’t even call it scholarship. I don’t have scholarship, but I can assume that the writing will continue to prop me up, you know what I’m saying? Because everyone writes shit, you know, and it can stop tomorrow. Maybe there will be shit coming the rest of my life, I don’t know. I don’t take shit for granted. I just gotta... I mean, I respect... I don’t want to present readers with stuff I myself have serious doubts about. That’s all.
FS: Do you still paint?
FS: I’m just curious, what caused the switch there? Was it any one thing? When did you decide that—
LD: Well, I just could not afford it. It’s just too costly to paint. And plus, to do two things at once is too much. If I had a million bucks in the bank maybe I would attempt it. But even then, maybe it was good I did not have the means to continue the painting because to try to do both is a kind of insanity, you know, because it’s hard enough to make yourself relevant with one medium, okay? What else? Okay, to get back to the English question, I like to do unlikely things, things I’m not supposed to do, and maybe it’s a sign of my insecurity, that immigrant mindset, you know? You’re not supposed to write in English, so I’m going to write in English, okay? And then I went the other way because, you know, as someone who had been away from Vietnam for so long, I was not supposed to write in Vietnamese, so of course I started to write in Vietnamese as a kind of, see if I could get away with this. So yeah, I give myself these, I leap at these challenges, you know, and it’s slightly pathetic in a sense. In a way I am performing for other people, you know what I’m saying? I’m trying to impress the readers too much. Does that make sense?
FS: Yeah. What we were speaking about earlier this week about being directing. I can see where you need to be conscious of what’s influencing you in what direction. It was something I took to heart. Since you mentioned it, you spent a considerable amount of time translating, publishing, and promoting a number of Vietnamese poets and writers. Who in your opinion are the most important voices in Vietnam today and where can the average American, or myself, find their work?
LD: It’s coming. I’m doing an anthology with Chax Press and it’s coming. I’ve done all the translations. I asked a friend to do the introduction. You know, ideally, if you are the editor and a translator, you should write the introduction, but I’m just so exhausted right now, I just cannot, you know. I just don’t have the stamina to do it, so I’ve asked somebody else to do it. So as soon as that’s done, anytime now, I will submit it to Chax Press and hopefully they will have it by maybe spring of next year, I hope. And most of these poets have never been translated, I mean, they were translated for the first time through me. Some of them have been published in magazines and webzines, so to see them all together, I think, will be exciting because I gave a talk here in 2005 about Vietnamese writers and it was, and people liked it.
FS: I recall that... I’ll have to dig out my notes on that.
LD: Nguyen Quoc Chanh I think is the best poet right now. He’s a big part of the book. But there are many others, yeah.
FS: So is there any truth to the rumor that you once applied and were accepted for a job at the CIA?
LD: Yeah, there is. I wrote it on my blog, yeah. One of the students in class, who didn’t show up today for some reason, talked about being manic depressive and I had this episode. I had at least, as I recall, three major manic episodes, like, I would go mad for months. Just thought I was God or something.
Anyway, after one of those manic episodes, I had a serious breakdown, and I was living in, I had just got out of school, so all these things converged. I mean, I just got out of school, I didn’t know how to make money, I was living in a twenty-five dollar... I was living in a house that, me and a friend of mine rented for fifty bucks a month, so my share was twenty-five dollars a month. You can imagine living in a fifty dollar house. This was 1995, but even then, it wasn’t... yeah, so anyway, I was feeling like shit because it was just a shitty neighborhood. So I tried to write a novel for the first time, and it was a disaster. So my life was falling apart on every level. No money, I was drunk all the time, just everything was wrong, you know what I’m saying? Relationships, just one embarrassing episode after another.
I don’t know, I guess I had a religious kind of moment, you know. I became obsessed with Swedenborg, and especially Simone Weil. Swedenborg talks about, Swedenborg was a sort of I guess a visionary, maybe just a nutcase, but anyway, he wrote about heavens and hells, he was simultaneously on earth and he could see the spiritual realm. He would describe hell in very physical terms. So anyway, I was obsessed with like, you know, I mean, I was raised Catholic, okay, so I guess maybe that was my last bout with Catholicism, this last convulsion. Anyway, I felt like this is all wrong, this writing business, this art business is a kind of madness. So I wanted to repent, really, like, clean myself of all this pollution or something. So I was working as a filing clerk in Washington, D.C., living with my uncle, you know, and then I saw an ad in the Washington Post for the CIA so I thought “this is it!”
But anyway, they gave me an interview with a shrink because you know I guess it’s just standard procedure with anyone. They asked me like, “How come you didn’t work for like, six months?” Maybe it wasn’t six months, how come you didn’t work for three months, what happened there? How come you couldn’t hold a job? So I was just ranting and raving you know about how corrupt the art world was, how in a sense I was running against my past, everything I believed in before. I sounded like Rush Limbaugh in that interview, you know what I’m saying? It was my condemnation of the art ideals. The need to be artists, the need to be writers. You know, the neo-cons have a vision of us, us decadent losers. We’re freeloaders, yes, I adopted that party line talking to this shrink. Looking back, I’m thinking, wow, if he had any competence at all as a shrink, he would have known that I was insane in this brief interview because I was like ranting and raving away. Why would they want to hire such a madman, right? So anyway, but they did hire me, for some reason. But it took them so long, you know, to give you a drug test, physical, or whatever, it took six months for them to finally decide that they wanted me. By that time I was no longer insane.
So I went back to Philadelphia, and began in earnest, like this effort to make something of myself in the art world and back then it was still about painting more than about writing, you know, and it was a daunting kind of... it was a scary decision, because, you know, I mean... that’s why when I teach, I try to warn my students about what’s ahead of them, because it is very scary, you know, because you see, all of the sudden, you see your whole life ahead of you, and there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be rewarded in any way. I’m not talking about monetary work... in any way. It could be, like, a huge mistake, you know? So, yeah, I understand the culture doesn’t allow for the pursuit, and the support system that you find in a college, you know, the drop from that, it’s like falling off a cliff. All of the sudden, you’re in the parking lot of Wal-Mart, and that’s your life. So for me to realize, look, this is what I want to do and I’m just going to fucking do it, you know, and you need to become aware of the sacrifices that you will have to make in terms of knowing that you won’t have much money and that you’re willing to live through that. But my biggest fear was if I make all these sacrifices, and end up with nothing, so, what’s that? Just the occasion for working for little wages and using most of that wage you’re earning to paint, basically, because painting is very expensive and then having the patience to develop and evolve to the point that you can become, you know, become a player in the game, you know what I’m saying? So in a sense, I never got there, but in a sense, with my writing, I arrived.
But there’s a lot of luck in this, too, okay, because I’ve had help along the way. Several people have been very very supportive, you know, just gave me the right nudge. Clayton Eshleman, for example, who was very crucial to me at a point when I was very desperate. He published me in Sulfur, he took me seriously, he gave me some advice which meant a hell of a lot at the time. Gil Ott, who published my first chapbook. Gil guided me because what I gave him wasn’t quite publishable, so, in a sense, he coached me and almost commissioned me to do a chapbook, you know what I’m saying? What if Clayton Eshleman didn’t respond to what I was trying to do? And then Ron Silliman showed up and gave that little thin chapbook that I published, a raving, glowing review. Why did he do that? I still wonder, why did he do that? Because, frankly, the evidence was so thin, you know what I’m saying? And then Susan Schultz gave me my first full-length book. And other people--Renee Gladman did a chapbook for me. I’m just thinking, you know, all these people showed up and helped me out. If any of them didn’t show up at certain times, things could have been very different. Especially Ron. Ron moved to Philadelphia and started championing what I was doing. When I heard Laura Wright quoting from Ron Silliman, yes, I still cringe because I’m thinking, I hope he doesn’t live to regret giving me such a strong endorsement because I don't, I really don't know... so the element of luck is kind of funny, right? I mean, I wish everybody else had my kind of luck, because we need to be nurtured, we need to be applauded, but most people don't get it, you know? What are you going to do?
FS: Before we move on, I just have to ask this question: Do you work for the CIA right now?
LD: [laughing] No, no...
FS: Would you tell me if you did?
LD: I would... But, my father was a police Colonel in South Vietnam and my stepfather worked for the FBI, so maybe there's some weird... maybe somewhere in the back of my mind... No, I do not work for the CIA.
FS: Going back to the question of the most important writers in Vietnam today... Who do you think are the most important voices writing in America today?
LD: Hmm, wow. Okay, let me think about this... The last poet I got really turned on by was Michael Palmer. I mean I hate making lists like this. Shit. I would say the most important writers in the last, let's say 20 years... Wow, that's a tough one. Who might survive? I would definitely say Michael Palmer... Harryette Mullen... Kasey Mohammed and Kent Johnson. I don't know... really. Who else? Writers who became prominent in the last 20 years?
FS: Who you're reading today...or who's writing in America today that's imperative?
Waiter: One more beer?
LD: Well that list, you know, is a little conservative... but I'll stick with those four.
FS: Well maybe we can extend the range a little bit with the next question: What do you consider to be your literary lineage? Who did you read that helped bring you to your own work?
LD: It's funny: Charles Alexander and I, we just took a walk and somehow Dylan came up, you know... Oh, Charles said he put some money in a jukebox when he was like 11... He put some money in the jukebox and just punched something almost randomly and Dylan came up and he'd never even heard of Dylan. But when he heard that, it was like it woke him up, you know? Like, "I've never heard this". Something about it was unusual. I'm not sure he was 11, maybe he was a teenager, very young... I don't know what brought that up for Charles, but I told him: My best friend in high school was a Dylan freak. He had all the albums and all the bootlegs, you know? And he would listen to them in order, song by song so, in a sense, I couldn't help but absorb this huge dose of Dylan. And I told Charles, "You know: For a dumb kid living in the suburbs,"—I was living in Northern Virginia, at the time and my parents are not book people. They didn't know shit about anything. My parents were divorced actually, so I was living with my mother and her husband. But anyway, we didn't have books, we didn't know anything... I didn't know anything, so Dylan was my first exposure to some kind of poetry" You know, like Blonde on Blonde is probably my first exposure to some kind of surrealism. So I started out with Dylan, I guess.
The first book of poetry I bought was Langston Hughes, this is kind of bizarre, because: why Langston Hughes, right? The bookstore in Annandale had so few books that they would not display them spine-to-spine, but cover-to-cover, you know? And I'm thinking, looking back, that there must have been some sort of sub-conscious affinity that I felt with the non-white face on a poetry book. So, I think, it had to be--though I did not articulate it that way at the time--I think a part of me must have felt: "Hey, there's a non-white guy writing poems and getting published" So maybe there was some sort of weird... and this was in high school. This was when I still wanted to be a painter, you see what I'm saying? But through Dylan, I started writing some bullshit that I thought were poems... so Dylan turned me on, yeah and Langston Hughes: not so much the contents of the writing, but just his face on the cover. Because, in a sense, I mean I never became a Langston Hughes fan. And later on when I got to college, that's when I let my mind run. But I would say Kafka and Borges have always been a constant. When I was paying $25 rent, I read Death on the Installment Plan and Journey to the End of the Night and that's like some of the darkest fiction ever written, so Celine has left a definite imprint on my mind. There've been many others, but I keep coming back to those.
Artaud to a certain degree because I feel that... I'm always drawn to extreme writing, you know? What's the most you can do? Even when things go wrong, you know? Things fall apart, but you want to see the outer limits of possibility, of what you could possibly do. In that sense, I've always been drawn to the more extreme writers.
FS: I guess the other side of that question is: What would you have the world inherit from your work?
LD: From my work?! I don't know. I think, the past couple of years, I've been more consciously political. Trying to reach people who don't read poems. To the point of even writing a few social-commentary type of essays that I published in non-poetry journals. But it sort of fizzed out too quickly. I realized that, for me to do this well, it would take a real investment of energy... which I don't have. But that was a desire.
I'm frustrated by the fact that poets don't have any sort of public forum. We have our little ghetto, but that's it. Anne Waldman comes as close, of all the living poets, she has as big of a public voice as any. Baraka, maybe, has a bigger voice. But, you know they're not quoted in the newspaper, they don't get to write op-ed pieces. So I wish poets, I wish we were not so enclosed within our little universe. You know, we're in a little bubble, so yeah... I've made attempts to break out of that. Maybe with minimal success. But I don't want to give up quite yet. I'm hoping for opportunities to reach people who don't care anything about poetry.
FS: And finally, with Jam Alerts recently released and Love Like Hate forthcoming from Seven Stories Press, could you give our readers a glimpse of what's lurking on the horizon?
LD: The last three books I did were conceived as books, Borderless Bodies, Jam Alerts and American Tatts were conceived as books. The unpublished poems I have right now, I don't know what the underlying... I don't know the organizing principle behind them, so that's a little funny to me. I guess I have half or two-thirds of a book now but I don't know what the thinking is behind it... what's the crux of it... I'd like to sort it out soon. And hopefully, I'll have a book out next year. Fairly recently, I started blogging. I’ve stopped caring about selling books. I don't sell hardly any books anyway, so it's not about the money. I thought, why not just post them online... Everything. Whatever you're writing. Post it online. So I would be comfortable with that, actually... if I never published another poetry book again and just posted them online. I mean, it's nice to have a book, I'm not dismissing that, but...
FS: As long as the oil flows and we can keep the internet running, right?
LD: Right, right, right... but books need some infrastructure too... you have to get it to the bookstore.
LD: With me traveling around, you know--we just talked about the North Pole possibly having no ice as soon as this winter--I mean, there's some hypocrisy here. I have never passed up a flight, you know? If someone's paying me to be somewhere, I'll be there... almost always. Unless of course there's some other factors involved. I made the point recently at some panel in England: "Unless we're willing to go through a personal collapse, a personal depression, nothing will change. As long as we're still invested in our own personal success, nothing will change. We all talk about doing the right thing but, in a sense, we don't want to give up shit. Everyone wants to have more of something.
FS: We want to do the right thing and still be comfortable, right?
LD: Let's just say... Forget comfort. Let's say I sleep on the floor. Let's say I don't buy anything. I still want to sell more books. I want more readings, more travel. I mean, people want something. I have my own version of greed, okay. So I don't own an SUV, but I do other things... But just saying that, I feel like I should defend myself: I haven't owned a car in years. I don't have any credit cards. Already, I feel like I'm defending myself in some weird way. I think I live pretty simply, but my carbon footprint is probably still criminal. Some people would say, "Hey, artists and writers are not the biggest sinners. It's the corporations, the Pentagon, etc." So we're not the biggest sinners... in a sense, any kind of success means more consumption. Even if it's not payment, it's travel: you get paid to go places... so how do you sidestep that? I can flatter myself by saying that the message I deliver--whateverthefuck--in a new city--blahblahblah--what message? I travel because I get paid! You know what I'm saying?
FS: Well, Linh, that's all I have. Thanks very much for joining me.
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
by Travis Macdonald in issue No. 2 of Fact-Simile. This was conducted on 6/18/08, at the bar of a Mexican restaurant in Boulder, CO, when I was out there to teach for a week at Naropa. This is the untrimmed version, as transcribed by JenMarie Davis:
Hola, It's Io
- An essay by Susan M. Schultz
- Interviewed by Matthew Sharpe
- Interviewed by Phạm Thị Hoài (in Vietnamese)
- Audio file of an interview by Leonard Schwartz
- Audio files on Pennsound
- YouTube videos
- Posts at the Harriet Blog
- Free Love Pix
- Two poems at Green Integer
- Two poems on Mipoesia
- Two prose poems in Jacket
- Poems translated into Arabic by Tahseen al Khateeb
- A short story in Jacket
- Eight Vietnamese poets translated into English
- Seven Contemporary Italian Poets
- A translation of Roberto Castillo Udiarte's "Vita Canis"
Bouncer, Janus, Bellhop
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.