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  • Coming Full Circle: An Interview
  • Duy Nguyen (bio)
    Translated by Ba Chung Nguyen (bio)

Nguyen Duy was born in 1946 in the village of Dong Ve in Thanh Hoa Province, Viet Nam. From 1965 to 1975, he served as a signal soldier, laying down communication lines for the field command in the South, where he fought in most of the major campaigns. As a response to the hardship and suffering at the front, he began writing poetry, and as his work came to be known, his poems were read over the radio. After the war, he settled in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where he became the Southern editor for the literary journal Van Nghe.

Nguyen Duy's poetry evolved through the late 1990s, when he traveled to the United States and Europe and collaborated with Vietnamese artists, choreographers, and musicians in programs that integrated various artistic forms. The author of over a dozen books of poetry, three memoirs, and a novel—including the collection Distant Road:Selected Poems, translated into English by Kevin Bowen and Nguyen Ba Chung—he announced in 1997 that he would no longer write poems.

In the following conversation, conducted in Vietnamese in August 2001, Duy makes a distinction between the phrase o nuoc ngoai (live abroad) and hai ngoai (overseas). The phrase o nuoc ngoai is less of a divisive term than hai ngoai, as it, by denotation as well as connotation, indicates Vietnamese who live outside of Viet Nam, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Hai ngoai, a phrase of Sino-Vietnamese origin, is virtually identical in meaning but indicates those who have gone overseas under duress.

NBC The village and village life have occupied such a prominent place in your poetry, not as an abstract idea, but as something very concrete, very alive, that people can almost smell, touch, and know. Recently, you made that connection between village life and your poetry even more explicit in a "poetry exhibit" that showed in Ha Noi, Thanh Hoa, and Ho Chi Minh City. It was probably the first event of its kind: poems living side by side with the most common artifacts of village life—well-worn bamboo baskets, old carrying poles, jute mats, earthen pots, and so on. Do you think that the youth of today still hold such a deep attachment to the village? [End Page 39]

ND Time changes, and with it come the changes to all the material and spiritual needs all of us have. The global video and audio culture—with its advanced technology, its worldwide distribution via radio, TV, CDs, DVDs, Internet—has crossed national borders. Viet Nam's young generation cannot be an exception. The traditional village culture of Viet Nam is an important factor in what it means to be Vietnamese and is being more and more overshadowed every day. But since it has been so much and so long a part of the national culture, it has become almost hereditary and therefore cannot be easily eroded. It somehow remains, continuing its flow through the veins, and makes itself an indispensable part of Vietnamese poetry. This is true, in a way, with every culture.

NBC You have had many poetry readings, from Asia to Europe and the United States. What is the place of poetry in the world? How do you find people react to Vietnamese poetry?

ND Poetry is the language of the soul. In this sense, there is equality among poets all over the world. The poetry of one place might be different from that of another because it's imbued with the scents and flavors of its place of origin. It's a fact that the world knows very little, in some cases nothing at all, about Vietnamese poetry. But because poetry has played such an important role in Vietnamese history, "Viet Nam" is, in a way, the name of a poem, not a war. I believe that with good translation and better dissemination, Vietnamese poetry will be better known and appreciated. The recent success of the collection of Ho Xuan Huong's poems, Spring Essence, is an example.

NBC You have been to the United States three times—in 1995, 2000...