An Interview with Truong Tran

Alex Rieser

SB: Do you feel that language is a lot like porn in that way?


TT: It is. Language is manipulative and has the power to give individuals authority. I see it happening quite often in classrooms when a student wields authority over a classmate by way of correcting the classmate’s grammar. That’s a weapon that says that you are a lesser being for not having this knowledge. And that happens when a subject in a poem is too difficult to address. The easier response is to address the surface.


SB: On the notion of words and language as weapons: I’d like to discuss the brick form often encountered in your work. This goes back to the debut of The Book of Perceptions. You crumbled it briefly in placing the accents and unraveled it in within the margin, but the texture was always there. The brick has multiple applications: it is both a tool for creation and destruction. Can you comment on that?


TT: One of my students said to me I really want to be a writer that is able to move beyond the venomous anger of my words. I want to be able to write a poem with many layers that a reader can absorb and sit with. Her desire was to say something that was lasting. And I think that as poets we are engaged with the world as witness and we witness for as long as we can, but there will come a point where you will have to pick up a brick. What do you do with it?


SB: To quote from four letter words: do you build a house or do you break a window?


TT: Exactly. Sometimes you break a window, but you do try to witness for as long as you can. The metaphor for picking up that brick is the metaphor of taking a stance.


SB: It has something to do with your prosody as well that I think I should address. Linh Dinh said of your prosody that: “Tran writes in the lowercase, without punctuation and rarely with any orthographical excitement. Beneath this deceptively placid surface is… jazzy and elegant, inspired yet restrained.” (four letter words book jacket). It seems like a form that is very difficult to control. Although Dinh’s statement is a testament to your ability to use it as a tool. Can you talk about the malleability of that form that you have created?


TT: The first thing that people recognize I think is the structure, the left and right justified margin. It becomes a container, so it’s very physical, and in the rigid containment of the block is a chaotic existence: images bleed into one another, fragments morph, there is no clear line between one voice and another. All of these elements come together purposefully to give a controlled chaos inside.  The brick, as a weapon, has the potential to detonate. It’s not always my job to detonate that. It’s the job of the reader to explode it if she is willing to, and I invite that of the reader.


SB: You’ve had your students discuss Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, a text that asked of Indian women living in England and the United States: “What are the consequences of silence?” The brick poem that appears on page 41 of four letter words discusses the notion of an “unwanted silence.” I’m interested in what ways your work as an artist and as a poet reacts to, or defies the idea that there are consequences to silence?


TT: Sometimes it’s not a silence of choice. You inherit the shame of someone else’s guilt and in those moments you have to ask yourself, What do I do with the silence that comes with that guilt? How do I break that silence, because it’s not your silence to begin with. When I didn’t want to accept the silence that was imposed on me was when I questioned its role in my life. And that was the struggle of four letter words.


SB: How did you go about breaking the “unwanted silence” in the text?


TT: That’s a good question, and it happened in a strange way. There are four poems in the middle of the book that are printed on velum, and just for the record, those poems were written and conceived as something that would be hidden in the book; bound-in so that the only way a reader could reveal it was through the violent act of cutting through the paper. Part of my agenda was to frustrate the reader—because the poems were not meant to be seen—so in a sense enacting that silence. The printers couldn’t do this, so the designer and I decided to use a velum paper and print the poems on off-white ink to create unreadable text. But what happened? We sent that to the printer, it came back, and right after those four velum pages they reprinted those four poems in standard black ink. That was a mistake.

I received those books on a Friday afternoon and I looked at them and I freaked out. It was too late by then to call the publisher to say that there was a printing mistake. So I sat with this book over the weekend, and I gave some copies of the book to my friends to read and I didn’t tell them what had happened. They read the book and they responded by saying, You bastard, you’ve constructed the veil that was the theme of this book. It’s a veil that we all choose not to look past, but the book forces us to lift the veil and then to be confronted with the exact same poems. We kept those poems in there. And ultimately those poems that were meant to be hidden and silenced insisted on being heard and voiced. That’s not something that I could have done on my own. There was a force that was working beyond my capacity.


SB: I believe Micah Ballard was quoting David Meltzer when he called it: “the Angel of Typography.”


TT: Yes. The book allowed me to reclaim my voice in earnestness. Those four poems had to be seen and read. There was a silence that was imposed on me that for the longest time I did not have an opportunity to respond to, and retaliate against. This book was my attempt at breaking that unwanted silence and regaining my voice.

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