by aengelson | April 16th, 2010
Well, yesterday I gave my talk on American poetry at the American Center here in Hanoi. And it was a heck of a lot of fun. About 50 college-age Vietnamese students attended and we spent two hours talking about poems by Whitman, Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop and others. The American Center is run by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, and they put on a nice series of talks, book groups, and other programs aimed at helping Vietnamese improve their English skills and learn more about America.
Of course one of the hurdles to talking about poetry is the language, but I think I managed to explain such words as glib, forgiveness, absorb and iambic tetrameter adequately enough so they got the general idea. I started the talk off with the warning that poetry was often difficult to understand, even for those of us who’ve spoken English all our lives. Turns out poetry is much more integral to Vietnamese culture than American culture, so this wasn’t a foreign concept at all.
There were some interesting moments. Someone in the class thought Williams Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say” wasn’t poetry but just “a sentence that looks like a poem.” That’s a good critical appraisal of
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
That sparked some discussion of just what a poem is. Afterward, I learned from one of the students that in Vietnam, some poets today are breaking with traditional forms to arrive at a more direct method of expression. But the idea that a poem doesn’t have to rhyme or have meter was somewhat surprising to some of the students (as I think it might be for some in America, too).
At one point, one audience member wondered what the “O” meant when Whitman wrote “O my soul.” I babbled something about how it was a kind of meaningless exclamation, sort of em oi! my soul!–(Vietnamese for: Hey, my soul!) Another audience member had trouble understanding how Whitman could compare his soul to a spider in its web. My answer mentioned something about how in the West the individual often comes first, and seeks connections and community second, while Asian culture tends to emphasize family and society first, and individual’s seeking and needs secondary. Or something like that. It seemed to help. I think.
The most fascinating part of the afternoon was when I turned things around and let the students write their own poems. We brainstormed a list of ten words, including growl, flower, heart, laughter, smile, etc. (can you guess which word was my suggestion?). They spent about ten minutes free writing, and then about a dozen of the students read their work aloud. Several said they were proud to have written their first poem in English. Someone even tried writing a poem in the style of William Carlos Williams. Then we tried writing one poem collectively using iambic tetrameter and trimeter (the rhyming scheme Emily Dickinson used). I explained that this rhyme scheme is why most of Dickinson’s poems can be sung to the tune of the Yellow Rose of Texas. I tried singing one stanza and that was clearly enough. Karaoke is not my strength. The poem we wrote together wouldn’t win any awards, but it was a fun exercise.
Then we had a little question-and-answer session. The engaged and curious audience asked a ton of great questions. Many of the questions concerned my career as a journalist and writer. One woman wanted to know how journalism influenced my fiction. Another wanted to know how I found it writing a novel set in America while living in Vietnam and if I also planned to write about my experiences in Hanoi (this blog came up in my answer). A young man wanted to know why I chose a writing career when I’d pointed out several times in my talk that writing and poetry are not generally profitable careers in the U.S. I blamed by parents for encouraging me to do what I enjoyed.
One question stumped me for a moment: “will you include your love life in your novel?”
Well, I suppose Joanie might object to that. My answer had something to do with how I wrote both from experience and imagination, and some things were better left to the imagination!
It was great fun, and I have a new-found respect for all those teachers out there who do this day after day. It’s challenging, but very rewarding. I’m not sure my explanations completely helped them understand these poems, but they were really sharp, eager and enthusiastic. I hope maybe a few will explore these poets in more depth on their own.
I also learned a lot. Including the names of a couple of historic Vietnamese poets that one student suggested I read. I’ll definitely check those out. And I’m going to arrange a Vietnamese tutor very soon.
The longer I’m here, the more this country continues to fascinate and charm me.