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Manoa 14.1 (2002) 100-104

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Coming Full Circle:
A Conversation with Nguyen Duy

Nguyen Ba Chung

NguyenDuy was born in 1946 in the village of DongVe inThanhHoa Province. He joined the local militia forces defending Ham Rong Bridge in 1963. From 1965 to 1975, he served as a signal soldier responsible for laying down communication lines for the field command in the South, where he covered and fought in most of the major campaigns, including those in Khe Sanh, Quang Tri, and Laos. 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, where he became the southern editor for the literary journalVan Nghe.

Duy's settlement in the south was an important event that marked the creation of a milieu in which artists, writers, and musicians from north and south—including PAVN, NLF, and perhaps even ARVN forces—might support each other in creating new forums for the arts. Duy's heartfelt rendering of the hardships of country life as well as his critiques and sometimes searing assessments of urban post-war life and leadership won him a loyal following both in Viet Nam and abroad. Showing a mastery of traditional forms as well as free verse, his work continued to evolve 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 collections of poetry, he announced in 1997 that he would no longer write poems. In 2000, Curbstone Press published Distant Road: Selected Poems of Nguyen Duy, a bilingual collection.

The following conversation was conducted in Vietnamese on 25 August 2001. In it, 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 (overseas), a phrase of Sino-Vietnamese origin, is virtually identical in meaning but indicates those who have to go overseas under duress. [End Page 100]

NC    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?

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.

NC     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...


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