Lucas Rivera: Truong, your poetry is, ostensibly, diametrically influenced by the visual arts. How important is the aesthetic feature of “words on a page” to you? That is: words as things-in-of-themselves.
Truong Tran: This is a great question to start our conversation because it just so happens that this is where I’m at in my own work right now. Let me begin by saying that I see myself as both a visual artist and a writer. “Words on a page” are of the utmost importance in my work because they are really never just that. I always tell my students that if you are writing poetry, your words don’t just sit on a page. There is a symbiotic relationship at work. The page has the capacity to hide or reveal. The page holds meaning. The act of turning the page holds meaning. I’ve tried to push the page and this idea of words on a page to its limits. In my current practice, I am trying to extend the poem beyond the page. I have been writing but the writing does not seem to want to inhabit the page as of late. The poems are finding their way into my art. I guess the art I am creating now is an extension of the page or the book...
I got so carried away with the question that I think I failed to answer it in some respects. You asked about words and I ended up spending most of my time on the consideration of the page. I do place value on words but words are not always reliable. I should say that the last statement is inclusive. My last book is all about the unreliable nature of words, both my own and that of others. Take the word diversity for example. It is such a meaningful word and yet it is so often used as a diversion. Its lip service for what is really lacking. As far as I'm concerned, it’s a catch phrase. Writers are wordsmiths. We're always manipulating words to fit our needs. It can be both good and bad. The page has the capacity to invoke silence. There is often truth in silence.
LR: It seems that in your earlier works the attention was not so much on the contingency and unreliability of the word-itself, yet those poems, at least for me, are much more opaque than the newer texts. Do you think that by coming to terms with some of the more uncomfortable and uncontrollable aspects of language your work has become more accessible? Maybe, accessible by syntactic and lexical gestures of inaccessibility?
TT: Coming to terms with language means that I'm coming to terms with the politics of language and the politics of writing. In my twenties, I had stories to tell and endings to arrive at. I thought I was being authentic but in fact I was writing into an expectation of who I should be as a writer. I don't regret responding to those expectations. I was expected to deliver the boat story and in a way I did just that. I am less inclined to do so now that I'm 40. I'm bored of that familiar story of identity. This is not to say that my writing is no longer about identity. I write what I know and imagine what I do not know. My identity will always be embedded in that equation. It’s just that identity is far more complicated at 40 as opposed to my twenties. I’ve given myself the permission to be private in my writing. Part of my writing process now is to take meaning back. The experiential component of my work is private. It is mine and mine alone. What the reader gets from this engagement is entirely theirs. Is this what you mean when you talk about accessibility? I would never write in an effort to exclude but I am more private these days.
LR: The word I wish I used, now that I have your response, is reciprocity. I read the newer works and I feel that there is an interpersonal dimension that is more intimate and constructed by reciprocity but also there is an embedded solitude which becomes, in many ways, the crux of how far I go inside of the work. I used the word accessible to simply, but I think sloppily, say that the new works stick to my bones with more force and more exhilaration.
As I’ve made attempts to get a more expansive evaluation of your oeuvre I am unceasingly brought into the works and simultaneously shot out into different points of reference. An all too obvious one is the “Targeted” forms, which take me to Jasper Johns and, as with much of the work, the New York School of Poetry. Is there a school of poetry/art that particularly interests you? And what do you think of, in a general way, the contemporary landscape of poetry?
TT:I agree with you entirely on the notion of influence. Almost everything we do comes from a tradition that precedes us. I am always reminding my students that they do not work in a vacuum. That is why reading is such an important act to the development of writing. I have to say though that I have never been compared to the New York School before. I am a big fan of O'Hara but beyond that, I cannot say that I have too much knowledge of that movement. I find myself gravitating towards those writers who share an urgency for language. And yet so often this urgency arrives on the page in a mode of silence. My influences include Harryette Mullen, Myung Mi Kim, and Edmond Jabes just to name a few. I'm also a fan of Nicanor Parra for his sheer audacity. These poets don't fall into a categorization of schools so easily. It is precisely why they are so interesting. I find that once we arrive at the naming of a particular way of writing, we often create a haven for writing that is too safe. I think that is a word that I could use to describe the landscape of contemporary poetry right now. It is safe and competent but is it the type of writing that will truly matter a hundred years from now? I remember a jolt running through my body when I came upon the line in Ginsberg's poem that said, "Holy the angel in Moloch." It mattered when it was written, it still matters. As for my influences in art, I'm all over the place. I go from Judd to Cornell and yes, Jasper Johns is definitely in there. I am a bit schizophrenic when it comes to my art. There are days when I want to be a minimalist as an artist and create what could be described as a gesture. There are other days when I want to beat my viewer over the head with the story in the art. I cannot seem to decide. I am currently working towards a solo show for Feb. of 2010. This dichotomy is becoming more and more of an issue.
Truong Tran is a poet and visual artist. His publications include, The Book of Perceptions, Placing The Accents, dust and conscience (awarded the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Prize in 2002), within the margin and Four Letter Words. He is the recipient numerous awards and fellowships including two San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Artist Grants in poetry, The Arts Council of Silicon Valley Grant, The Califoria Arts Council Grant, The Creative Work Fund Grant, The Fund For Poetry Grant and most recently The San Francisco Arts Commission Grant in Visual Arts. Truong lives in San Francisco, teaches at SFSU and is a Visiting Professor at Mills College. He will have a solo exhibition of his artwork in Feb. 2010 at The Mina Dresden Gallery in San Francisco.
Lucas M. Rivera lives in Oakland, CA. He is an associate editor and the distribution manager for the poetry magazine LETTERBOX. He is currently working as a librarian at California State University East Bay and doing research on Dialogical philosophy with Dr. Marek Bielecki.
Truong Tran and Gillian Hamel read on September 4th.
Doors at 7
Reading at 730 (for reals)
donation for entry
wine and beer by donation