Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng noted in an interview for this issue of PIW, “it is hard to say which language will be suited to which subjects. I wrote a poem in Minnesota while walking in a pumpkin patch with my wife, my daughter and her young husband. This poem had all the elements of recalled memory [back to childhood] and therefore it was written in Vietnamese, yet people reading it said it was more like an English poem (which had been translated into Vietnamese), with its pastoral images of Minnesota, the way memories and existing views were invoked in the same sense of urgency, the lightness in the open quiet music of a Midwest terrain, and perhaps the vernacular that might very well be influenced by John Ashbery, whose poems I took along to Minneapolis with me at that point in time. All of those perhaps.”
Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng's poetry stands out among contemporary Australian poetry for the way it creates poems of an embodied bilingualism and biculturalism, wherein the linguistic and cultural heritage he draws from, in terms of Vietnamese and English, reshape each other as lived experience, creating a poetry that places the symbolic and the nature of origins into endless question, and that jolts the monolingual into a recognition of its limitations, without offering resolution. Nguyễn’s work subverts and destabilises English-language imperialism in a way that many of his monolingual contemporaries are simply unable to do. His relationship to the symbolic is guided by the embodied experience of bilingualism, wherein the separations and divisions of the symbolic, of the languages in which he lives, are fluid, uncertain and at times erased. In many ways they co-exist at a deep level, rewriting the nuance and significance of each other.
Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng arrived in Australia from Vietnam in 1974 under a Colombo Plan Scholarship. He graduated from Monash University in Melbourne, worked with Radio Australia and now works in information technology. He was consulting poetry editor for Hợp Lưu, a magazine publishing literary works across political borders. His poems and essays have appeared in English and in Vietnamese under the pen name Thường Quán in various literary journals in Australia, Vietnam, the United States and Europe, including Văn Học, Văn and Hợp Lưu.
Under the names Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng and Thường Quán, in 1990 he published Ngoài Giấc Ngủ (Beyond the Sleep) and in 1994 he edited Bushnights, which featured twenty-one Australian poets and the photography of the visting German photographer Berthold Daum. In the same year, Nguyễn’s cycle of poems was featured in the special issue of Văn Nghệ on Australian literature and culture published by the Vietnamese Writers Association, which coincided with the visit of then Prime Minister Paul Keating to Vietnam. In 1995, Nguyễn was a delegate sponsored by the Australia Council to speak on Australian poetry in the conference Australia, Country, People and Culture, organised by the University of Hanoi. In the same year, at the start of the first Iraq War, Nguyễn and another poet, Do Khiem, launched Thi giới chống Chiến tranh (Vietnamese Poets against War).
In 1996, Nguyễn received an Australia Arts Council grant for developing writers to research on the Humanity movement. This resulted in Dấu Nước (Watermark), a long poem on this short-lived movement by the intellectuals, poets and writers in Hanoi fighting for a more liberal and tolerant society, years before the term ‘socialism with a human face’ was coined in Europe. Dấu Nước (Watermark) was published in talawas.org, a literary and social issues website based in Germany in 2006. In Australia, Nguyên’s poems in English appeared in Meanjin, The Age, HEAT and the BlackInc Best Australian Poems anthologies.
In recent years, Nguyễn’s poems in Vietnamese have appeared in literary e-magazines including tienve.org and damau.org, the latter of which he is also a member of the editorial panel. He has translated a wide range of poets into Vietnamese, including Anna Akhmatova, John Ashbery, W.H. Auden, Joseph Brodsky, Jack Davis, John Forbes, Allen Ginsberg, Osip Mandelstam, Oodgeroo, Boris Pasternak, Octavio Paz, Peter Porter, Gig Ryan, John Tranter, Paul Valery, Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Judith Wright.
Nguyễn’s poems evolve from fragments of speech through images into a landscape that ‘chooses’ the language suited to its particular tensions and experience. In this feature of Nguyễn’s work, you will find examples of his poetry in English and Vietnamese, but it is important to note that for Nguyễn the issue of writing or presenting work in English and/or Vietnamese is not simply a matter of translation as such, as the two languages and their perceived relation to experience inform the language choice he makes from the outset.
I rarely translate the poems I write in Vietnamese into English. This may be because translation does not always render the same effect and impact that you have achieved in the original poem. Translation of my poems often involves more or less a rewrite. However, a strange thing is that many of the poems I write in English seem to have a ready equivalent in a Vietnamese version that I can possibly ‘write down’ over the course of voicing them out loud. Possibly because the original language, that is, Vietnamese, is the predominant and therefore fares better in such context? Again, the translations are often not necessary and I’m happy to leave the poem existing in its own right as such.
The landscape I am ‘in’ often determines the choice of language. It could very well be a combination of landscape viewed and landscape conjured up from mental storage and/or imagined out on the mind-frame. The tensions caused by these mental images move the words along, a momentum maintained by a kind of reflective music created by this very movement.
The role of Vietnamese as the “predominant” language underwrites his English-language poetry, with the passage from English-language poem to Vietnamese appearing more straightforward than from Vietnamese to English, which requires a ‘rewrite’, and by implication a new poem. This complication of the symbolic, not least what it means for English-language imperialism, is fascinating and for a country like Australia where the dominant political and cultural group is embarrassingly monolingual, Nguyễn’s poetry is as vital culturally as it is politically.
In her short essay on Nguyễn’s work accompanying this issue, Gig Ryan notes that there are intermittent surrealist touches of Breton, Apollinaire, and Celan that she sees as “a similar refusal of acquiescence, even to lyricism – and many poems are almost riddles of communication and withdrawal, where the tension between reflection and living experience can never be resolved”.
Nguyễn also notes:
For all forms of writing, but most acutely in poetry, it seems like one language is watching the other when I write. The choice of words; the sounds, the effects caused by the invocation of a word often reverberate through an imaginary membrane – if I could describe it as such. I notice when I write in Vietnamese that I often have the shapes and the sounds of few equivalent English words hovering in the back of my mind. I especially like the tones and timbres – which may be very well discordant and tearing and breaking – that seem to be trying to subvert the original words, especially when the original words are too easy for the ear. It is a challenge from the critical side of the mind, I guess. On the other hand, when I write in English, the words that depict, say, a situation, are much more from the logical side of my brain. But in terms of process, as they are about to appear, I often find almost simultaneously a call which comes from a train of thoughts, a string of sounds in Vietnamese, that would like to break in, to shuffle and diffuse — as if trying to create a field of echoes around the original words that are now more open, more vulnerable, more ready to skip a step or two. There seem to be a hybrid colouring, shading in the formations.
This tearing and breaking, this discord within the symbolic, arriving as Nguyễn negotiates the differing pressures and valencies of Vietnamese and English, as much as of experience and its reworking as language, is one of the inimitable strengths of his work. This ‘hybrid colouring’ does not simply reflect a postcolonial concern or resistance to English linguistic imperialism, but engages with the tissue and texture, the interweaving and co-mingling of languages, of symbolic structures as a way to engage, express, and critique experience. Nguyễn’s work creates a bicultural phenomenology of the everyday deeply vested in its engagement with the symbolic. As the everyday and the symbolic contend in the poem, so too the sound and logic of the languages in which Nguyễn experiences and writes his world, contend, complement and expand its possibilities, quietly demanding the reader to respond to the landscapes the poems create. These landscapes, while experientially at times lyrically clear, are just as engaged with the limits and agency created by the symbolic.
These riddles of communication and withdrawal, the surrealist touches, force the ‘English’ reader at times into what for some might be uncomfortable positions, wherein they must reconsider their expectations about usage, consistency and expression. Obviously this is common to the work of the surrealists, as Ryan notes, as well as to more recent movements in poetry. Yet Nguyễn’s work is striking, perhaps most of all, for the way Vietnamese and English shadow and inform each other. These are not simply language games for their own sake or part of the contest between the semiotic and the symbolism. In that sense, Nguyễn is very much the successor of poets such as Apollinaire and Celan, in whose work cultures and languages contend from the vantage point of an embodied bilingualism.
Of his contemporaries in Australia, poets such as Lionel Fogarty and Ouyang Yu are also taking part in similar engagements with the symbolic and cultural dominance of English in Australia. It is a pleasure to present a selection of Nguyễn’s work here, for the questions it raises about monolingualism and the symbolic, and for the pleasure to be found in a poetry that, as Gig Ryan notes, ranges “from such lucid simplicity to the exploratory, restlessly tipping language askew”.
Poetry (in Vietnamese)
Ngoài Giấc Ngủ (Beyond the Sleep) California, USA, Văn Nghệ Publishing House, 1990
Dấu Nước (Watermark), Germany, 2006
Bushnights, ISBN 0-646-16833-9
Thường Quán on tienve.org