Hai-Dang Phan on Poetic Distance and Reenacting the Past
The Author of Reenactments in Conversation with Peter Mishler
For this installment in our interview series with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler corresponded with Hai-Dang Phan. Hai-Dang Phan was born in Vietnam in 1980 and grew up in Wisconsin. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Best American Poetry 2016, and the chapbook Small Wars. He is the recipient of an NEA Literature Fellowship, the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry, and the New England Review Award for Emerging Writers. He currently teaches at Grinnell College and lives in Iowa City, Iowa. Reenactments is his first book.
Peter Mishler: You mention in the notes for your book that some of your poems were inspired by the photographs of An-My Lê’s, namely Small Wars, which include photo-documentation of reenactors who staged battles from the Vietnam War in North Carolina in 1999. I’m curious about your experience of encountering these photographs, and how you experienced them when you first saw them.
Hai-Dang Phan: Yes, certainly the photographs of Vietnam War reenactments in the American South, but also the photographs of her return trip to Vietnam in the 1990s and of American Marines training in the California desert to fight in Iraq, the three series together comprising her first monograph, Small Wars—the entire work has been important and inspiring for my writing practice. I don’t remember exactly how I came to know her work as a photographer—it was likely through the Internet—but I do have a vivid recollection of the first time I encountered, this would have been at the Yale University Art Gallery, one of her photographs depicting Vietnam War reenactments in the American South, which I happened upon quite by chance: I see four men like plastic toy soldiers in various tactical poses surround an actual A-6 Intruder attack plane; the man designated to be the pilot in this particular scenario playing dead or wounded by hanging half of his body, his head and arms, over the side of the downed jet.
But, the details that really stirred me were the pine trees needling and framing the scene—as it happened, I was not transported to some imaginary jungle in Vietnam, but rather back to the wooded landscapes of my childhood in Wisconsin. That particular photograph inspired “Small Wars,” the poem that opens the book. More broadly, An-My Lê’s photographs helped me to see and conceive my poetry book as lyrical reenactments.
PM: What did you see in these photographs that you most admired as you began making poems inspired by them?
H-DP: An-My Lê’s photographs showed me how I might make use of distance, to not see distance as a liability but as a source of critical and creative power. I was born in Vietnam in 1980, and my family came to the U.S. as political refugees in 1982. I have no memories of our escape, the ten days at sea, or of the months waiting in refugee camps in Malaysia and the Philippines. I can’t pretend or fabricate an immediacy, an unmediated relation, to these events, memories, histories that nevertheless have shaped my existence.
Anyway, back to the photographs. I was interested in the near-documentary quality of the photographs of Vietnam War reenactments in the American South, how incredibly layered and allusive they were, and how they played with and complicated notions of truth and narrative. I also appreciated how the photographs resisted spectacle. Another artist might have satirized or sensationalized the subject, but An-My Lê seemed to approach these reenactors on their own terms. Rather than produce shock, her pictures provoke thought. The photographs are not in the middle of the action, as you see in conventional war photography. Instead the photographs capture what happens “outside” or “away” from the action, as it were, before and after the event, and in doing so they trouble the boundaries of time and history. They make you question what you’re looking at, what’s being presented and observed and enacted. Also, to make her pictures, she uses a large-format camera, like the kind Mathew Brady might have used to photograph the Civil War.
This felt like poetry to me, trying to make something new using an old piece of equipment.
PM: The poems inspired by An-My Lê include a first-person, a subjectivity, an “I.” What were your considerations in regard to integrating this perspective into the poems?
H-DP: I knew I wanted to find a way to write poems that question how we inherit, process, and understand past and present wars as they are mediated and represented, but this posed the risk of being, you know, too mediated. So the challenge was partly finding forms that would allow me to speak and write from my own location in space and time. Looking back over the collection, I can see it was important for me to integrate the first-person as a means of anchoring the poem in the present as other parts dive into the past. I should note that technically speaking, most of the poems inspired by An-My Lê are persona poems (“Small Wars” and “A Brief History of Reenactment”), and as verbal representations of visual representations they also rely on ekphrasis. Elsewhere, the “I” appears as an invested narrator and interpreter, a surrogate and a proxy witness, especially in poems like “My Father’s Norton Introduction to Literature” and “My Mother Says the Syrian Refugees Look Like Tourists.”
There’s also a lot of “you” in the book, in poems such as “Self-Portrait with New Weapons Systems,” “Get to Know Your Ghost,” “Are Those F-16s?” and “Osprey.” I occasionally rely on the more distant second-person to write about myself. This drama of pronouns was not something I actively staged, since I tend to write one poem at a time, but I like that it can function as an alternate navigation system through the collection. The multiplicity of perspectives, as well as the variety of poetic forms, I feel is there to remind you that our perspective is always in conversation with others.
PM: How interested are you in the psychoanalytic concept or phenomenon of reenactment?
H-DP: Not that much, to be honest. The psychoanalytic concept of reenactment offers a powerful tool for group and self-analysis for sure, but it holds little interest to me when I sit down and write. I mean, I can step back as a reader of my poems when I’m no longer entangled in the net of words and perhaps offer a compelling reading of this or that. I certainly don’t want there to be a single, dominant interpretive frame through which people are made to receive and experience these poems. I acknowledge that the poems do dredge up a lot of psychic debris and navigate emotionally complex terrain.
I think there’s always been this sense of belatedness for me, of being secondary and “after” in the temporal sense, with all the attendant feelings of insignificance and lateness involved. Writing poetry converts this secondariness into a pursuit. What I am after, in the sense of the pursuit of poetry, is the capacity to transform potent family narratives into an informed and enlarged understanding of history. I feel like one of those people addressed in Bertolt Brecht’s poem “To those born after”: “You who will emerge from the flood / In which we have gone under / Think / When you speak of our faults / Of the dark times / Which you have escaped.” And truly, we are living in dark times!
PM: In what way does “reenactment” interest you?
H-DP: The book’s title and subtitle taken together offer one answer by suggesting, claiming rather, that these “poems and translations” you are reading are “reenactments.” I’m interested in reenactment as a form of mimesis, a representation of reality. What excites me about literature, fundamentally as a reader and by extension as a writer, is this ability to recreate or create an experience. All this might sound overly literary and theoretical, but isn’t there something quite ordinary, quotidian, and everyday about reenactment?
For me, reenactment carries with it the very human impulse to do things over, to see what you missed, to say what you mean, to get things right, to do better—“To see my life in reverse, to see more clearly,” to quote the poet Margaret Ross. There can be no reenactment without an experience of frustration and failure, and also without an attendant desire for knowledge, clarity, and justice. That seems to me an essential thing that poetry gives us as writers and readers, the ability to recreate and reexperience the most vivid moments of our lives, to notice the ordinary things we missed because they were ordinary, and also to imaginatively inhabit other lives and other times.
PM: Would you be willing to talk about the experience of writing your family’s story of fleeing Vietnam in December of 1981? What was it like, the process and experience of composing this poem, “My Mother Says the Syrian Refugees Look Like Tourists”?
H-DP: My family’s story of refugee flight and resettlement gives me a lot of subject matter, a lot of material to work with as a writer indeed. It’s a powerful story, a true story, and also problematic when it becomes the only one. In that poem, I feel like I’m trying to say something like, look, I respect, honor, and love my parents, and I want to do justice to this awesome and awful inheritance they have given me, but I am, we are, right now living through another dark time when people are fleeing their homelands, risking death, in search of new life. I realized that in order for me to find virtue in retelling my family’s refugee story through poetry I had to tell another story, or rather multiple stories as well. I had to not only remember the past but also remember the present.
The poem, one of the last I wrote for the collection, necessitated an expansion of scope and scale. A more composite form better corresponded or approximated my thinking and feeling. Fairly quickly I settled on the longer couplets, which I find have this extraordinary capacity to carry and transport a lot of heterogenous material and create space that allows for changes in voices, velocity, and time. I felt the need to write both within the memory of the past being handed down to me and alongside it, clarifying, reflecting, and testing it with a renewed critical distance and historical awareness. The process of writing the poem became a personal challenge to feel and think more broadly about the history of the present and today’s refugees, to constellate lines of convergence amongst these seemingly divergent lines of refugee flight. It felt freeing to make.
I hope the poem maps in miniature the trajectory the collection takes, from these stories received and inherited as fable and myth, toward a greater truth and clarity.
PM: Could you say more about that concept, clarity?
H-DP: There’s that incredible, hard-earned moment of lucidity in George Oppen’s magnificent sequence, “Route”: “Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world, / A limited, limiting clarity / I have not and never did have any motive for poetry / But to achieve clarity.” It’s tempting to just quote that line and leave things at that, but let me clarify what I mean! As a process of thought and mode of perception, poetry helps me achieve a level of clarity that often eludes me in other forms of communication. Writing helps me figure out what it is I think and feel about something, and I’m interested in poems as verbal enactments of this process of perceiving, thinking, and feeling happening on and off the page.
More often than not, clarity is not simple and requires that we embrace what is uncertain, difficult, and complex. This means having to test, confront, and perhaps overturn our prior assumptions or statements about what is real and what is true. These considerations are inseparable from what we might call the clarity of composition, or clarity as a compositional value or quality. For me, for this book at least, this often meant using more discursive forms that could accommodate greater elaboration, digression, citation, and implication, which I think accounts for the narrative and essayistic quality that can be found throughout the poems.
PM: Could you say more about what opens the poem, how the Syrian Civil War is experienced in the poem by both you and your mother?
H-DP: The poem’s geography of imagination extends from the shores of the Mediterranean to Vietnam and Wisconsin. It circles back to a beginning, to the origin story of my family’s refugee flight, and also brings us forward to the present, to our time’s ongoing political and humanitarian crisis. As soon as the poem began taking shape, I knew there was no way of responsibly retelling that old refugee story, which has accrued the power of myth and fable, without also finding a way of including the refugees seeking safety and new life today. My Reenactments engages, if in a sidelong and allusive manner, the history of “our” recent wars in the “Middle East.”
It’s important to me that readers see the connection between past and present, that there’s not too much weight given to my family story. That would miss the bigger, perhaps more troubling picture I’m trying to draw. I understand readers will most likely focus on the legacy of the Vietnam War in these poems, since that is indeed a defining and organizing theme, but I hope readers also register in the book the presence of “our” recent and ongoing wars, in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. And now the hawks are circling around Iran. Wars of various sorts are recalled in some way throughout my book, by various reenactive agents. From the point of view of these poems, war is all around us, all the time, even far from the so-called “front lines” of combat. You can miss it because it is part of the ordinary and the everyday. War and peace are just there in poems like “Are Those F-16s” “To Fadhil Assultani,” “Osprey,” “Events Ashore,” “Waiting for Al-Qaeda,” “Watching World War Z”).
Part of the reason for this is that, to me, the distinction between war and peace does not seem obvious. In “The Moral Equivalent of War,” William James thought that “peace” was a synonym for “war expected”: “It may even reasonably be said that the intensely sharp competitive preparation for war by the nations is the real war, permanent, unceasing; and that the battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the ‘peace’ interval.” That was 1906. Back in 2019, we seem to be stuck in a forever war. I think my poems try to register this militarization of everyday life, to disturb our illusions of peace.
PM: Are there poets who have been instructive or particularly inspiring as it relates to the poetry of war?
H-DP: There are so many acknowledged and unacknowledged debts of reading, a private archive of my poets and poems, whose work has infused mine, made my own poems possible, which are everywhere made of invisible citations, quotations without sources, faint echoes. I certainly feel grateful to have contemporaries who are grappling with the legacy of war and immigration, and histories of violence, through an incredibly diverse range of styles and commitments. I’m thinking of works such as Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War, and Quan Barry’s Water Puppets, to name a few recent trail-blazing books. There were also plenty of poets and poems not usually associated with the poetry of war that I reached for when I was writing my poems. Karen Solie comes to mind, Michael Hofmann, C.K. Williams. . . .I wanted thought, lyricism, and a litmus-testing of experience.
If I may, let me try to also respond to this question by putting pressure on that term, the “poetry of war.” When we talk about war poetry we usually talk about poetry written from the perspective of combatants, specifically soldier-poets who have “seen combat,” to use that terrible phrase, and therefore can provide lyric testimony to the horrors of war. It’s a model of war poetry founded on what literary critic James Campbell calls “combat gnosticism”—that is, “the belief that combat represents a qualitatively separate order of existence that is difficult if not impossible to communicate to any who have not undergone an identical experience.”
That doesn’t seem to be the kind of war poetry on the ascendancy now, which is increasingly written by those on the “home front,” as it were, nor does it seem to be remain a relevant framework in a time when the nature of war itself has dramatically changed, or when the idiot hate-profiteer currently tweeting from the Oval Office/Mar-A-Lago wants to militarize the border as a vanity project and election stunt, when mass shootings have become as familiar as the weather report, when black lives and black bodies are being targeted and destroyed, when ICE raids our neighbors, and children are separated and detained. Maybe part of what we need from our writers right now, in addition to new forms of love and affiliation, is not the poetry of war per se, but new poetries of exile, poems not at home at home.
PM: Your collection also includes translations of poems by Vietnamese poet Phan Nhiên Hạo. What is available to you in the act of translation that would otherwise be unavailable to you had you not worked in translation?
H-DP: Speaking about a poet’s motives for translation, Seamus Heaney talks about the sense of something there that you need as a poet, something for your own creative purpose. You might say then I sensed something in Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry that I needed for Reenactments. Here was this post-war generation poet with a surrealist imagination and plain-spoken voice, a southern Vietnamese exile in northern Illinois. I admired and desired in Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poems their lyrical compression, loaded silences, free association, and surrealistic imagery. I get to be a different kind of poet, write a different kind of poem. Or perhaps translation helps catalyze those very same aspects in my own writing.
I wanted my book to have alternate voices, alternate histories, beyond my own and my family’s, so Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poems give me this extra generational and existential perspective. Translation makes available these memories and experiences that would not otherwise be accessible to me. You could say that about other poems by Vietnamese poets included in the book, such as Chế Lan Viên, Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, and Tru Vu, or the bits of language from found material, the army phrasebook in “Initial Encounter with Locals,” “Lives of the Vietnamese Poets,” and “The Sorrow of War in Bloomington, Indiana,” and the visual representation of the war. I wear them all like secondhand memories and time.
I turned to translation when my own writing was going nowhere, and the practice of translating a poem by someone else until it felt as if you had written it yourself, well, that was a gift, something that reactivated creativity itself, and ultimately returned me to my writing. I must suffer from imagination deficiency. I need pictures, other people’s words, to help me out, to get me on my way.