Poet Paul Tran celebrates 'the agonising and inventive work of survival'

June 20, 2023
Paul Tran, All the Flowers Kneeling
'All the Flowers Kneeling' investigates how sexual violence, intergenerational trauma and war combine to shape lives. Photo: somostaos.org

All the Flowers Kneeling
By Paul Tran
Penguin, 2022

Paul Tran, author of the acclaimed poetry collection All the Flowers Kneeling, headlined the 2023 April Poetry Month events for the Society of the Muse of the Southwest (SOMOS) in Taos, New Mexico, in April.

Tran's work appears in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Best American Poetry and elsewhere. A slam poetry champion and a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Tran has received fellowships from the Poetry Foundation and the United States National Endowment for the Arts. Tran is an assistant professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Bill Nevins interviewed Tran in March.

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How do your poems connect to the violence — and the healing — experienced by your family, and by Asian people in general because of the 20th-century wars in Indochina?

My debut poetry collection, All the Flowers Kneeling, investigates how sexual violence, intergenerational trauma and war combined to shape not only my mother’s life and mine, but also the lives of immigrants and refugees like us. My mother came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam. In a version of that story, pirates captured her boat and trafficked the women onboard to an unknown shore. There, the pirates raped and executed each captive, sending only my mother back to her village to tell the tale of what happens when one dares to escape and fight for freedom. My mother, whose name means both “war” and “victory”, decided to tell a different story. She kept fighting, and eventually, she freed herself.

The word “rape” and the word “trauma”, however, aren’t used anywhere in my book. Instead, the poems extricate how survivors like us conduct the agonising and inventive work of survival: What is it like to put together the pieces of a shattered life, to reassemble a fractured self, and decide to live no matter the costs or the odds? What is required — love, knowledge, ambition, ruthlessness — to achieve that life and, perhaps more importantly, to achieve that life on our own terms?

Furthermore, in the footsteps of poets like Cathy Linh Che, Ocean Vuong and Hieu Minh Nguyen, my writing illuminates the emotional and psychological experience of survivors. They recover what history, and historians, have overlooked, ignored and misunderstood. Mine, therefore, is a poetics of investigation and a poetics of discovery.

In your poem, “Bioluminescence”, the persona is alternately “hideous” and “beautiful”. Are these apparently contradictory self-perceptions reconcilable, or not? Does the persona reflect the self-perceptions of the author, yourself?

Beauty is not something to behold, Toni Morrison instructs in her debut novel, The Bluest Eye. It’s something one can do. Thus, when I think about creatures of the deep sea, such as the anglerfish, whose physical appearance might be commonly perceived as frightening or ugly, I can’t help but see, still, the great beauty they perform with their very existence. Ostensibly, without ever having seen the sun, or feeling the warmth of sunlight on the surface of the water, or having an idea of what light is, these hardly understood beings found a way to forge their own light. They evolved through time and became their own source of illumination, turning their own cells into tiny suns, and they then were able to find food, shelter and each other under all of that ceaseless darkness. That’s beauty. That’s what it means to do beauty.

Does this persona reflect me? It does, and it reflects the community I grew up with: the mothers who every morning got up early to pack their children lunch before heading off to work at the nail salons; the aunties who counted every penny and opened up the first Vietnamese restaurants, grocery stores, tailoring shops, car repair shops, cosmetology schools, dentists and doctors and optometrists offices, newspaper stands, and radio channels; the kids who wore the same uniform year after year, working unfathomably hard to become the first in their families to graduate high school and go to college, and the kids who knew, even if they didn’t have the language to articulate their knowledge, that perhaps the dream beyond the dream wasn’t success, materialism, or mobility after all, but rather the charge, and the audacity, to heal the wounds history inflicted on our families and cultivate futures, in whatever form they might take, where we can be happier, healthier, safer and more proud of ourselves than our parents had the chance to be

Poetry can be an “acquired taste” for many people. What advice might you offer to folks who are readers but who are intimidated by poetry? Is there a way to bring non-fans of poetry to an appreciation or love of poetry?

One of my favourite poems is a single-word poem written by Aram Saroyan in 1965: “Lighght”. How is this a poem? I believe the word is a reference to the word “light” and therefore the properties of light, that force of illumination and heat enabling our world to exist. Its spelling, or intentional misspelling, contains an extra “gh,” the sound we omit when speaking the word. The extra “gh” creates a pattern — “ghgh” — that breaks the normative spelling of “light” and is, itself, broken by the “t” that follows.

Why is this pattern significant? The “gh” is the part of the word we don’t say, the part we ignore, just as we might ignore nature or the brutalities of human nature. Can we name the people whose hands picked the vegetables we ate last week? What about the people whose hands stitched the socks on our feet, or operated the machines that built the machines on which I write this to you and on which you read it? This poem is a poem because it uses patterned language and the meaningful breaking of patterned language not only to make silence known but also to transform it — orally, visually, intellectually — into a bodily force. Try saying “lighght” aloud without feeling uncomfortable. Try finding the sound for “gh”, let alone “ghgh”. It’s difficult, isn’t it? But it’s not as difficult, perhaps, as the agony of enduring an invisible existence, performing invisible labour and loving others invisibly, day after day.

This poem is a poem because it makes such agony real. It demands that we pay attention to what we ignore, that we try finding a way to articulate what can’t be said. Now consider the fact that Saroyan is of Armenian descent. The Armenian genocide and diaspora occurred just a century ago, and the assimilation of Asian Americans in 1965, when this poem was written, was a national security imperative to maintain US hegemony during the Cold War. Might you imagine this, now, as a deeply political poem about migration, race, class, citizenship, exclusion, belonging, the aftermath of imperialism, and so forth? Might a poem that seemed simple, just minutes ago, now seem profound because of the simple yet profound way it patterned language and meaningfully broke patterned language? I hope so.

My teachers, Carl Phillips and Mary Jo Bang, encouraged me to think of reading a poem like playing a game of identifying patterns and breaks in patterns — interpreting what they might mean and substantiating our interpretation with evidence from the text. Now, every semester, I encourage students to approach reading and writing poetry that way. We’re playing a game, and the objective is to understand as much as we can about the speaker who has returned from silence to speak to us. The game tests how much we want to understand someone else — and how much, in the end, we want to understand ourselves.

How do you see the future unfolding, both for all of us and for yourself and your work?

Who can know the future, really? And yet, doesn’t that make it rather exciting and scary, to live and find out?

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