An Interview with Truong Tran

Alex Rieser

SB: four letter words runs the gamut from frustrations, anger, betrayal, exclusion, and even includes ad-hominem attacks and thoughts of violence, it also includes apologies, and regrets; reactionary to devastating events in the speaker’s life that seem to have imposed that silence. Was this in any way a reason for your (temporary?) artistic transition away from poetry?

TT: Well after writing that book I felt like I couldn’t write again. The book, and language itself felt really vulnerable to me, so I retreated to visual art. Because in some ways I think that my visual art is a lot more loud and direct. And much more cantankerous than my poetry.


SB: It’s common for a poet or novelist to finish a work and be unable to write for a while afterwards, but this is a far more emotional reaction than simply being burnt out. Was the lost and found a form of recovery then for you?


TT: It was. Although the first version of four letter words was really angry, it was venomous, and I think that my true recovery came through the tempering of that book. It took me several years to extract the anger. It was and is important to me that the work be art first and foremost, that it exist in and through time. It could not just be this response in the moment if I were to call it art. So my personal issues transformed and by the end of that book it wasn’t any longer just about me.


SB: It became a larger entity. Something readers can locate their own struggle in.


TT: That’s important to me. That the person reading it can locate himself or herself. If that’s accomplished then my struggles in the text are eventually irrelevant.


SB: Did the tempering of four letter words change your relationship to poetry and art?


TT: I wasn’t a visual artist before I chose to re-envision that book, I was content doing poetry. But it changed everything because it made me question what I was doing. It made me question my desires and what I was hoping to gain from this entire experience of being a writer and teacher. Visual art became this amazing space for me in which I could fully express some things that I’ve yet to touch upon. The metaphors really opened up. I don’t see visual art and poetry being separated anymore. There is a cyclical movement to them. I teach now in that same way. And that’s because I want to challenge my students to push themselves further. To recognize that our practices aren’t that different.


SB: What are some ways that you’ve been doing that?


TT: I use as example someone like Mark Bradford who is collaging and de-collaging, piling things on and sanding things off, and revealing things in the act of taking away. That is exactly like writing. We pile things on and we begin to take things away, we take back meaning. And in the absence of that meaning we hope that something echoes through the work. I think that they are very much the same practice.


SB: There’s a Ted Berrigan act of collaging in your work, visual, and language-driven. Does that come through in the classroom as well?


TT: I use cut-ups and collages to invoke tension in the work. I just want to be clear in saying that I don’t encourage young writers to experiment just for the sake of experimenting. Ask yourself: What are these experiments doing to the consciousness of your work? A lot of my students are beginning to erase. And there are a lot of writers out there who are erasing other writers like…


SB:  Jen Bervin.


TT: Yes, Jen Bervin and erasing Shakespeare. And you have to question the meaning behind the act of erasing. That’s why I wanted to erase my own book. I wanted to ask myself, What are the implications of erasing yourself as a writer of color in this society, and as a queer writer? I’ve encountered quite a few individuals who take offense to that because we’ve worked so hard to gain our voice in this society.


SB: I can see how it would be misconstrued; in a way, if you weren’t willing to turn the page to see what’s under the veil.


TT: Again the surface of things right? Let’s face it we are working within the realm of poetry and art. If you want to call something art or poetry then you have to recognize that there’s a surface and there’s something beneath. The question is, are you willing to look at what’s beneath? More often than not when you engage with a work of art and you’re willing to lift the surface, the veil, what you encounter is not about the writer. It’s about you at that point. How do you respond to what the work is saying to you? What is the root of that discomfort? When someone’s looking at my art they begin to look at it as pretty butterflies but then realize that it’s pornography, in that moment they have to question themselves, because they have already accepted it as decorative art, are they now willing to accept that it is art having witnessed what’s beneath the surface? That’s the challenge for all of us.


SB: We seem to be moving into the age of the project. Collections are being conceived of in conceptual ways as opposed to just a series of poems that follow one another. Is that playing a part in your teaching?


TT: It’s very important that we note that movement. In my teachings I include built-in questions about the work, these help students to know when something’s not working. You have to be able to assess yourself, the trajectory, and the political stance of your project. Because sometimes nobody will question you. How you go about saying something has to be a part of your consciousness as a writer.

I’m not saying this to the staunch conservative. I’m saying this to the left-wing spoken word poet who is out there in Berkeley railing against the system. It’s easy to agree with the politics of that work usually, but you have to question your methods of interrogating the subject. You have to be able to ask yourself, Am I saying this in a way that will last and will resonate beyond the moment? Often times when you listen to a poem that is designed to be heard and is designed for reaction, it exists in the moment. But the poems that stay with us have also considered what it means to ingrain the words into a person’s consciousness. 

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