We first met when Phong and Robert Storr paid a visit to our loft on Duane Street for a lengthy interview with my late wife, the painter Elizabeth Murray, on the occasion of her retrospective at MoMA, sometime in late September 2006. When Phong invited me to guest edit these Critics Pages, I wanted to turn the tables, so I invited Phong to my pad over the shop, above the Bowery Poetry Club, for a brief conversation about his love for poetry and spoken word.
Bob Holman (Rail): You grew up in Vietnam listening to songs in Vietnamese and in other languages. What effect did this oral tradition have on you and your work? And how does it relate to the work I’ve been doing with endangered languages?
Phong Bui: When I was growing up in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, all sorts of anti-war and sad ballads—both traditional and popular ones—were often sung in the house, and most of the older ones were poems in fact. Actually, my grandparents’ generation, and before, sometimes communicated through a form of sung poetry, which was the essential oral tradition and is still in existence. Chữ Nôm, as it is known, was the old Vietnamese language, and has been considered endangered for several decades and which many are now making a conscious effort to revive. It’s only in the last few years that it has been taught in language classes at a few universities. Before now, it was written in Chinese characters and read in a Sino-Vietnamese dialect. It was mostly spoken by the middle and educated classes until 1651, when Alexander de Rhodes, a Spanish missionary, created a system to romanize Vietnamese script phonetically into a new language called Quốc Ngữ, which slowly became the official language by the 20th century. Anyway, I grew up with that linguistic tradition. My grandparents from both sides of the family could recite by memory any segment from Truyện Kiều, known in English as The Tales of Kieu, written by the great poet Nguyễn Du in the late 18th century. It’s regarded as a Vietnamese equivalent of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost in the West, or Zhou’s Books of Odes and Ochiai Naobumi’s White Aster in the East.
Rail: But was it written down? Or was it strictly oral? The Tales of Kieu?
Bui: It was written down in Chữ Nôm. Poetry was taught early on, as early as the first grade when you learned how to write, and was heavily infused with history. In other words, when you study history, there’s a poem, sometimes it appears as an epigraph or sometimes at the end as a conclusion, so you remember the story through the poem. I can sing you one, a poem called “Qua đèo Ngang,” which means “Impression of Ngang Mountain Pass,” by the 19th-century poet Huyện Thanh Quan:
Bước tới Đèo Ngang, bóng xế tà,
Cỏ cây chen đá, lá chen hoa.
Lom khom dưới núi, tiều vài chú,
Lác đác bên sông, chợ mấy nhà.
Nhớ nước đau lòng con quốc quốc,
Thương nhà mỏi miệng cái gia gia.
Dừng chân đứng lại trời non nước,
Một mảnh tình riêng ta với ta.
It’s about walking through a very famous mountain pass in the middle of Vietnam, not far from Huế, the imperial city where I was born. The poem is roughly translated:
Having arrived at Ngang Mountain Pass at sunset,
Trees, grasses mingle with the leaves, as pebbles among the flowers.
Below a distant mountain there appear a few lumberjacks.
Across the river a couple lonesome houses are planted.
Memory of heartache is buried deep in my country,
Loving affection has always carried on my lips.
Setting foot here between the virgin sky and water,
It’s a mere private affair between me and myself.
I’ve also read Hồ Xuân Hương whose poems were translated by your friend John Balaban.
Rail: Spring Essence in2000. Yes, John went to Vietnam as a conscientious objector. Imagine that. He wanted to serve his time as a C.O. directly in Vietnam, to be something other than a soldier, to do something positive. He’s an amazing person and poet.
Bui: I thought the translation was very thoughtful. It reminded me of Alastair Reid’s translation of Neruda, which is very simple and direct, not at all manipulating or altering the meanings of the words.
Rail: I can’t think of how many parties I’ve been to, where—in fact it isn’t a party unless you and Nathlie are there! [Laughter.]—what happens at some point is you haul yourself up on a table and toast to everyone with a poem. I don’t know where these poems come from, but this is my idea of poetry’s place in the world. It’s a way to bring everyone together, into a world of consciousness where poetry has a job to do. What do you think is the place of poetry in the world?
Bui: Poetry is of great significance. Poetry is the conscience of human soul and spirit combined. It’s the vital key that keeps our languages alive. It’s like asking a taxi driver, “How’s your business going?” Whatever he or she tells you, that’s the state of our economy. It’s the same thing with poetry. When the culture is not being nurtured properly, you know poetry is not being appreciated. Although, as we all know, it will always be written one way or another. Poems can be written in the midst of horrific and desperate situations. Poetry is a written and spoken language that keeps the conscience of human communication intact, in a multitude of ways: it can function and be alive in an academic environment, it can function and be alive by young children in the most impoverished places. They can mediate poetry through the forms of rap or hip-hop, or through what you did at the Nuyorican Poets Café.
Art has the same function. In fact, I mentioned in my February editorial David Levi-Strauss’s personal meditation (“The Enamored Mage: Magic, Alchemy, and Esoteric Thought in Works by Robert Duncan and Jess”), which he had contributed in Jarrett Earnest’s Critics Page, on the relationship between Robert Duncan and Jess, his mentors. At any rate, it ends with Duncan’s generous use of his own death as a learning experience for a few close students. Levi also mentioned that, in his Pillow Book, Jess placed this quote from Bruno: “True poets and true painters choose one another out and admire one another.” The fuller quote is:
The first and chief painter is the liveliness of fantasy, the first and chief poet is…enthusiasm…
The philosophers are in a certain sense painters, the poets are painters and philosophers, the painters are philosophers and poets; true poets, painters, and philosophers love each other and admire each other mutually. He is no philosopher who does not poetize and paint. Therefore it is said not without reason: to understand is to contemplate the figures of our fantasy… He is no painter who does not in a certain sense poetize and think, and without a certain thinking and painting, no one is a poet.
Rail: That’s the heresy that all art is one, and that it is the essential nurturing of the human spirit, as with the pose of Bruno’s statue that you see in the Campo de Fiori, to feed the human mind. An example of the unity of the arts is what the Rail provides in every issue. Not only is it there, but I think it is the marvelous subtle movement of the wheel that is the Rail—the poetry is last in this issue, but it will cycle forward to be first in the next. If you don’t know this, the shift is so subtle issue-to-issue that you may not pick up on it. So, my question is—is this egalitarian approach, so indicative of your thinking, so subtle that most people don’t even know it? Don’t you think you could have a little note somewhere that says it? That these sections revolve the way they do? Don’t you think the public should know that the cycle of the Rail is slowly turning in each issue?
Bui: If everything were described so clearly, it wouldn’t have the same subtlety.
Rail: Aieee! I’m with you, Phong! I’m guest editor of the Critics Page of the April issue, which is National Poetry Month, oy. And I am a poet so people will likely think that my section will just feature works by poets. But instead, no! Poets are visual artists too! We’re in the Rail along with Sono Kuwayama and Joan Grubin, and our painter poets, Stefan Bondell and Sam Jablon, who are breaking new ground with their work, because the way the Rail is set up allows that freedom to experiment. Even though the word art is usually shorthand for visual art, Phong, you tend to use the word arts in its plural sense: all of the arts as one unity. But in order to understand that, the readers must look beyond the text, beyond the print, into the world. Because you’re not going to tell them. You’re not going to direct their gaze, because every month the meaning of the Rail changes. And it’s this commune of people that are fired-up, and couldn’t be happier than to sit around there in the Rail headquarters in Greenpoint and create all day, creating something they care about. And nobody says you just have to know that if poetry is last this time, guess what—next month, the last shall be first.
Bui: I’m very inspired by what Walt Whitman thought of as “imminent democracy.” What I am trying to do with the Rail is to make it function as a work of art where its manifesto is anti-manifesto. In other words, the monthly deadline and its monthly rotation provides structure, but the unexpected guest editor with his or her editorial, which is entitled to whatever he or she is currently excited or thinking about, is the anti-structure. The Rail is made for those who read in the same way that a work of art is made for those who look. I think beyond that it shouldn’t be a spoon-fed product to be consumed. The Rail should elevate and surprise readers instead of offering things that they already know. I don’t think artists, painters, poets, writers, musicians, or dancers make their works with specific audiences in mind or creatively rely on their audience’s approval.
Rail: I know exactly what you mean—The Poetic Economy is all that we have left against the Horrific Triumph of Capitalism. Because you can’t buy or sell the poem—it is a resistance to that idea. And I just don’t think you can put a John Ashbery up over the sofa and say, “Do we change the color of the sofa to go with the poem or do we ask John to change the ‘Glove Compartment’ of the poem to go with the sofa?” It doesn’t work.
Bui: Exactly, but we all know that a work of art has an advantage as a desirable and collectible object. Everyone can purchase it and hang it on the wall if it’s a painting or put it on the floor if it’s a sculpture. It’s there to be looked at, to be touched as a tangible and physical object therefore it has a monetary value, which can support the other fields of discipline, especially in the Rail. I mean, it’s the Art section that really generates the funding for most of the printing cost and allows for other sections such as Field Notes, Poetry, Art Books, Books, Dance, Film, Theater, and Fiction to co-exist as one living organism. I’m trying to make the point, to our friends and colleagues, that being an artist does not just compel you to see works displayed in galleries or museums. You can read a poem and be extremely inspired; you can see a dance that will change your sense of movement; you can listen to a song that will change your sense of rhythm. I think we live many lives. When I first heard Delta blues, I associated it with early Vietnamese classical music—the haunting sound, the kind of emotion that radiates from simple notes. How remarkable it is that the Delta sound was created from a guitar and European meter. How remarkable that those brilliant African American, self-taught musicians were able to intuit a sound that nears that of their ancestors. How inventive that they created open tunings and broke bottles to use bottlenecks like a sleeve on their pinkies to slide above the Western half-steps marked by frets: evoking the sounds of their old homes in Africa where their heritage is preserved. Many suspect that rhythm and style of the Delta blues may have derived from the diddley bow, from which Bo Diddley got his name. Basically, when I listen to Charlie Patton, Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, and other masters, I feel as though I were a blues musician in my past life. Don’t you get that similar feeling when you are in completely in rapport with something you see, read, or listen to?
Rail: Yes! Art is a time machine, as is language. And I can also relate to where you began your life here in NYC with the Schapiros and the nostalgia for that era of the artists and writers of the ’30s and what they were doing. But you can also find it in the remembering of your own childhood, back through the horrors of your journey to get here, back into the sounds of your grandparents and their songs of the poetry. It’s just another birth.
Bui: I wrote a few poems in Vietnamese when I was a kid, Bob, but I was never pleased with how they turned out. [Laughter.]
Rail: Can you give us one of them?
Bui: No way. However, it wasn’t until September 2012 when the beautiful and brilliant Bill Berkson was a guest editor in the Critics Page that I wrote my first poem/review. Bill’s prompt was: a) write about what you see through a physical or technical description without interpretation. He provided the example of Donald Judd’s review of Barnett Newman’s painting “Shining Forth (To George),” published in Studio International, February 1970, even though the painting was painted in 1961. I’m paraphrasing from what I can remember:
It’s 9 1/2 feet high and 15 feet long. It’s a rectangle on an unprimed canvas. There appear three stripes. One, less than a foot from the left edge, is painted the first black strip about 1 inch wide. One, less than a foot from the right edge, is another 1-inch-wide strip, but this one seems as though it was made by scraping black paint over the masking tape and removing it. The third one, slightly to the left of the center, is painted the last black stripe, measured about 3 inches wide. The three stripes are painted imperfectly and not straight.
That was it—the description. Or b) you write an emotional, poetic, or philosophical response without any physical or technical description. Bill then offered an example of W.H. Auden’s great poem “Musee des Beaux Arts”: “About suffering, they were never wrong, / The old Masters: how well, they understood.” Then it ends with the wonderful eight lines:
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Then Bill wrote that we could choose a or b, not both.
Bui: Exactly! So I said to myself I’ll undertake the latter, the poetic one. And it just happened that the painter Michael Berryhill had his one-person show at Kansas Gallery, and I chose this beautiful painting, entitled “Sensitive Parlour Ghost,” which I encouraged my friend, the composer Bryce Dessner to buy for his collection. I start with the three lines, “Possessed by certain homeostatic eccentricities, / She prefers to avoid definite lines that / Traces the body, especially in sunlight.” And then it ends with three lines: “Schwarmerei. Schwarmerei. / Avanti. Avanti. / It’s impossible to integrate the outer image as an inner world.” I now am addicted to this process. When I go to see a show in a gallery, I stand in front of the works that serve as a conduit until referential materials such as poetic, philosophical fragments, as well as ones derived from art history, literature, and so on, come to me. They tend to circle around quickly. When they settle down, I write whatever comes to me rather quickly. There is almost no further editing when I get home and type them up.
Rail: I can relate to that because that was Alice Notley’s assignment to me: I was to go to see one of the de Kooning women, a show that he had at Xavier Fourcade in the late 1970s. Alice said to me, “You will stand there until you write the poem.” And it sounds like that’s what you were doing there.
Bui: Yes! I’m grateful to Bill because he gave me a chance to reconnect and amplify my love for poetry.
Rail: As Ezra Pound wrote In a Station of the Metro, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” That’s all we have, a fleeting moment of perception, then it’s gone.
Bui: Yes, it’s like the four lines of Rumi’s famous poem, Eating Poetry:
Where a poem belongs is here, in the warmth of the chest;
out in the world it dies of cold.
You’ve seen a fish—put him on dry land,
he quivers for a few minutes, and then is still.
And even if you eat my poems while they’re still
You have to bring forward many images