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Manoa 15.1 (2003) 1-6

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The Legend

Chu Van

All of a sudden, every provincial big shot decided to be a poet. The desire to write poetry spread from the highest levels down to the provinces, even the districts. Everywhere they went, provincial and district officials would read their poems aloud and ask the audience for warm applause. The audience would give them a standing ovation. So it was they all became well-known poets.

If the matter had only gone that far, it wouldn't be of any concern. But whenever the big-shot provincial and district officials wrote their poems, a number of flatterers would vie with each other to praise the poets to the heavens. The competitiveness caused much suffering. One day, the flatterers said, "But it isn't enough to have good poems. They should be sung by a female whose melodious voice will seduce the listeners." They cited Tran Thi Tuyet and Chau Loan as examples of those whose sweet voices had immortalized various poets over the air waves.

This advice was immediately taken to heart by one of the province-level poets. Each time he had to attend a conference, he would send his secretary to the office for cultural affairs to request a singer to memorize his poetry and a guitar player to accompany her. These two would join the official and together give a poetry recital. They would be warmly welcomed and given gifts when they left. The quality of the big shot's poems was never questioned. Meanwhile, the district-level poets could only find amateur singers with mediocre voices from the towns or communes in their districts. These poets would travel around in groups, like the clans of singing beggars who set up in village markets.

The poetry disease was like a drug addiction. My elder brother, who was called cu cop (Old Bigwig), became seriously hooked. Once, he succeeded in composing a luc bat poem (a traditional form with alternating six- and eight-foot verses) and immediately sent his private secretary to summon the chief of cultural affairs, saying he wanted his opinion. On hearing this, the department head grew so afraid that he vanished into thin air, so his deputy went instead. The poet received him solemnly and offered him Chinese cigarettes and green tea. Finally, my brother put on his spectacles and read his poem. It must have been quite melodious because the deputy had [End Page 1] to keep pinching his leg to keep from falling asleep. Yet as soon as the reading was concluded, the deputy hunched his shoulders and praised the poem for the high level of its ideological content, its realism, and its beautiful concepts and phrasing. After great depths and breadths of praise, he went on to say that if my brother had been unsuccessful in his official position, he could have been admitted to the Viet Nam Writers' Association and by now would surely be secretary general of that organization.

At that point, feeling he had paid sufficiently for his cup of tea and few fragrant cigarettes, the deputy was ready to leave. But the poet motioned him to sit down, and then told him that since the poem had been so well appreciated, he would have it read at the next conference of the three Delta provinces. He wanted the deputy to take the poem and coerce the female singer Ngan Hoa to learn it by heart and recite it before the conference—without the omission of one period or one comma!

At first the deputy chief was upset by the order, but soon he thought of a way he could use it to get himself promoted. He knew that the head of the cultural affairs officewas obstinate toward his superiors and arrogant toward his inferiors. He never engaged in flattery and often poked fun at bad poetry. If all went according to the deputy's plan, his boss would soon be disgraced. Once he's out, thought the deputy, who else but me can become the new chief?

He summoned Ngan Hoa...


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