An Intimate Conversation with Vietnamese Performance Poet, Lê Phạm Lê


Nancy Arbuthnot

The author of two volumes of bilingual verse, From Where the Wind Blows and Waves Beyond Waves, Lê Phạm Lê is not yet a house-hold name, but she is fast becoming a cult figure among those who have had the great pleasure of hearing her perform, for her hauntingly beautiful recitation style is quite unlike anything else you may have ever heard unless you have lived in the Vietnamese countryside, where it is part of a poetic tradition over two-thousand years old. We are thus delighted to present the following interview by Lê's co-translator, poet Nancy Prothro Arbuthnot, together with a sampling of their poems and translations and a pair of not-to-be-missed recordings of the poet at the mike, one of which was made at San Francisco's Center for the Art of Translation, with poet and Vietnamese translator John Balaban assisting.

Would you tell me about your background, Lê, how you wound up in the States?
I was born and raised in Đà-lạt, then attended the University of Pedagogy in Sài-gòn. After graduation, I became a high school literature teacher. In 1975, my husband, our four-month-old son, I and 52 other Vietnamese left Việt Nam by boat and, after a week at sea, we ended up in the Pulau Bidong Refugee Camp in Malaysia. We spent a year there before starting our new life in America, where my two daughters were born. I am currently working with the English Department at Los Medanos Community College as a lab coordinator.
What made you decide to become a teacher?
In Việt Nam in the 60s, when I was in college, nursing, working in a bank, or teaching were my considerations among other popular career choices I had as a middle-class woman. Because I think language is so important, and literature so interesting, I chose teaching, which was a highly respected profession in Việt Nam back then. But we had three languages of instruction, French, English, and Vietnamese. I chose French as my second language since I was in tenth grade and was a very good at it, but I decided to teach Vietnamese literature, to learn more about my own culture.
      Lê Phạm Lê in College
You didn't mention a word about poetry! I understand that poetry is very popular in Việt Nam.
As John Balaban points out in Ca Dao Việt Nam: A Bilingual Anthology of Vietnamese Folk Poetry, “The Vietnamese draw folk poetry as freely and effortlessly as they draw well water.” I developed a passion for poetry in childhood, listening to my mother, grandmother and neighbors singing lullabies while swaying in their hammocks in the summertime. I was amazed that ordinary Vietnamese folk who could not even read or write could come up with such lyrical verses. I read a lot of traditional poetry when I was young, especially from Nguyễn Du's Tale of Kiều [an early 19th century narrative poem, considered the national epic of Việt Nam]. When I was in high school, my younger brother, who wrote poems himself, brought me a tape of Hồ Điệp, a traditional singer, reciting a poem by a contemporary poet, Nguyễn Nhược Pháp.
What was the poem? Do you remember it?
Yes, it was called “Đi Chùa Hương," or "Visiting the Hương Temple”. It's a long narrative poem composed in thirty one stanzas of five-syllable lines called “ngũ ngôn.” The speaker in the poem is a fifteen year-old girl who chances to meet a young gentleman on her way to the Hương Temple with her parents. She is struck by his literary talent when he suddenly writes the poem on the wall of the temple and then recites it. That night She dreams of marrying him . . . Or so the poem goes.

Do you remember any of the stanzas?

            Em đi, chàng theo sau,
            Em không dám đi mau,
            Ngại chàng chê hấp tấp,
            Số gian nan không giàu.

That's my favorite stanza. In English it goes something like this:

            As I walk, he walks with me.
            I don't dare rush.
            If I hurried, he might think
            it's a sign of my poor fate.

It's very lovely. But you were saying . . .
Well, my brother asked me to try to sing some his own poems and those of Quang Dũng, one of our favorite poets. I tried to express the feelings evoked in the poems, and my brother approved my “singing career” on the spot! Poetry had become an important part of my life. Singing and reading poetry then inspired me to write.
When did you begin writing your own poems?
In high school; it was a short poem of four five-syllable lines about walking in the rain. When I was young I enjoyed walking in the rain or in the fog in my city. I made an English version that goes like this:

    Who's out walking this foggy evening
    Dreaming of paradise?
    How lovely the way home is,
    Her hair scarved in mist.

What a lovely translation! I guess you won't be needing me to translate your poetry much longer!
Don't be silly, I'm really looking forward to your help on the “opera I'm working on with a librettist and composer, based on my “life journey” and our translations of my poems.

It has been wonderful working with you, to have published one book and finished the manuscript for a second. And now to be working on the opera with you! But can you tell us more about your poetry, how you began?
It wasn't until 1999 that my poetry career really started. My father died, which opened a need for me to express myself. I thought I would write about my feelings of losing him, but to my surprise I ended up writing about my life's journey, the path I traveled in discovering myself in a new land. I wrote about what I had been thinking for a long time but had never set my mind to write. John Balaban might be surprised to know that drawing well water is not always so easy.

Many of your poems seem to be based directly on your experience.
Yes, but I also enjoy writing visionary poems, such as “I'm Calling You from Paris” and “Snowstorm,” for example. I wrote the latter after seeing snowflakes falling for the first time, when I was visiting my daughter in Ohio. I enjoy writing in the first person, but in my latest poems, the “I” is not really me. And sometimes I write about myself in the third person, for example, in “Wanderers” and “A New Adventure,” which are both in my first book.
Which poets have inspired you as a writer?
Women writers have been very important. I enjoy reading traditional poets such as Đòan Thị Điểm and Bà Huyện Thanh Quan. I value their elegance, nobility and unconventional and deeply-felt images. I also admire Hồ Xuân Hương's artistry in creating poems with double-meanings as well as her courage to express her views within a male-dominated society. All these poets lived during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and wrote in "regulated verse," an eight-line rhyming verse form based on the Chinese "lu-shih,”which dates back to the Tang Dynasty. The rhyme falls at the end of the even lines. The two middle couplets are “paralleled” semantically and grammatically, just like Chinese. In the old days, before the Vietnamese alphabet was adopted in the 1920s, the poems were written in borrowed and invented characters called Chữ Nôm. It looks like Chinese but most of the characters are really not.

Were these poets taught in High School when you were growing up?
Yes, but the teachers only discussed the surface meaning of Hồ' s poems, not the deeper, more erotic significance, which was never mentioned. These poets, and especially Hồ, hold a special significance for me because so few women received any formal education back then.

Tell me about women's rights in Việt Nam.
Even today many Vietnamese women are struggling for the right to do things most men take for granted, like simply being a poet or writer, for example. I highly respect the Confucian tradition, which still holds sway over Vietnamese family relations, but its strict rules for women, such as the notorious tam tòng, the “three obediences” (obedience to your father before marriage, to your husband after marriage, and to your son after he assumes his responsibilities) strike me as belonging to another time and place which is not to say I do not respect my father. He was a great man much deserving of respect and obedience. I do think tứ đức, the “four virtues” (skillfulness, appropriate conduct, politeness, and honesty), should apply to men as well as women! But it is sad to see a woman giving up on marriage to pursue a career in writing.

What's your writing process?
I first jot down ideas, then read what I have written, then re-read it out loud. I prefer to use either the lục-bát, or “six-eight” form favored by folk poets, which is comprised of couplets made of a six-syllable-lines alternating with eight-syllable lines, rhyming in both cases on the sixth syllable, or sometimes I use the "regulated form" I mentioned earlier, but more often I write in the “thơ mới” or “new poetry” form, which is essentially free verse. I never feel a poem is finished till I can sing it, but I always close my door so neighbors won't hear.

But why? You have such a beautiful, haunting way of singing your poems in Vietnamese! Could you talk about that style of recitation—the tradition of "sung poetry" in Việt Nam and the unique way that you approach it?
Vietnamese “sung poetry” started out as a folk tradition some thousand years ago and has been a literary tradition approximately ten centuries, according to Nguyễn Thuyết Phong, a Professor of Music and Ethnology. While most folk poets were peasants who couldn't read or write and created their verses spontaneously and “sang” while they were working in the rice paddies without music accompaniment, the literary poets' approach was somewhat different and could require some practice or training. Whether literary poets recite their poems or folk poets “sing” them spontaneously, they both can improvise the melodies whereas professional singers seem not to have that same flexibility when singing a real song with certain musical patterns. Apart from some traditional reciting styles with certain techniques that professional performers must follow strictly, how the poet recites a poem very much depends on the performer's personal style especially when it comes to modern poetry or free verse, which I prefer. I was particularly influenced by the Tao-đàn Group, which was established during the 60's in South Việt Nam.

There's something about the Vietnamese language that seems to lend itself to this “sung poetry” tradition.
Yes. As John Balaban mentioned in his Ca Dao Việt Nam, “For a Westerner perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Vietnamese language and its poetry is word tone.” And probably because of the musicality of the Vietnamese language, I have found that my poems only truly come to life when I “sing” each verse and not simply recite it. The musical rendition of my poetry allows me to pour a myriad of emotions into each word, and my most touching moments are when I have brought my audience to tears. It has always been a great pleasure to observe the soulful harmonic marriage between poetry and music!

Would you mind if we included a recording of you singing one of your poems and one of the Hồ Xuân Hương poems that you and Balaban have read together?
Not at all. It is my pleasure, and I'm sure poet Balaban would be pleased as well.

One last thing I wanted to ask you about before I let you go: Can you tell me about your beautiful flowing gowns and that wonderful hat that you wear when you perform?
The gowns are called áo dài, which has been the most popular form of dress for Vietnamese women of all ages and classes. You can see women from noble families and professional and scholarly classes, brides, temple-goers, church-goers, merchants shopping at supermarkets all wearing the áo dài. What really makes the difference is the accessories that go with it and the occasions on which people wear it.

However, no matter how you alter it, what distinguishes the áo dài is the unique way it flows, especially when the person wearing it walks slowly. That's why the phrase “flowing dress” is such a popular poetic image for symbolizing a Vietnamese girl or woman. When I was teaching at a High School in Việt Nam, a colleague composed these lines about me:

            Gió bay tà áo cổ đồng.
            Dáng em đi vạt nắng hồng buồn theo.

            Wind sways two flaps of your rust long dress.
            The way you walk evokes melancholy in pink sun rays.

The particular hat I usually wear with my áo dài was designed for formal occasions only.

Who designs your áo dài?
My younger sister and I love to shop for special fabrics whenever I visit home. She and I will go to one of the best tailor shops in our hometown or in the capital to tell them what we have on mind, but for my poetry performances I prefer not to deviate too far from the basic form of traditional áo dài. Since it has to be custom fitted, we may have to visit the tailors a couple of times to get it right.
It's wonderful!


            translations by Nancy Prothro Arbuthnot and Lê Phạm Lê    

Late Night   Đêm Thâu  

Wind through the jungle camp
agitates the stars,
the mother flinches,
the baby squalls. . .

suitcase lost, milk, medication,
sweaters all gone, the four-month old
in only a shirt, hungry and cold,

the mother blaming herself
for believing someone unknown.
Now as the baby cries
as mosquitoes suck his innocent blood,

she recalls how the ocean, flat,
without waves, always absorbed her pain.

Immigrant Interview   Phỏng Vấn  

After the long wait, acceptance
by the American delegation,
third on the list, grade A civil-servants.

I still recall our wild tent
that moonlit night, the celebration
with my former student

full of happiness for us, holding
in his hands bottles of Coca-Cola
precious on that island as gold.

Young Nun   Thánh Thiện  

Evening at the end of winter, a soft breeze-;
The sun's pink rays linger in the sky.
The young nun, gentle as a Buddha at the pagoda gate,
watches me in the taxi waving goodbye.


            translation by Nancy Prothro Arbuthnot and Lê Phạm Lê    

In Annapolis   Thăm Annapolis  

The cherries blossomed late this spring.
Why couldn't they have waited one more day?
They left town the moment I arrived.
Dusk falls early on the port tonight.

I press flower petals in a book.
The last remaining scent drifts off.
Time won't relent. But—sent by whom?—
Love comes tumbling through clouds.

Spring Watching Pavilion, from SPRING ESSENCE: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong   Đài khán xuân  
            translation by John Balaban

A gentle spring evening arrives
airily, unclouded by worldly dust.

Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave.
We see heaven upside-down in sad puddles.

Love's vast sea cannot be emptied.
And springs of grace flow easily everywhere.

Where is nirvana?
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten.


                     Lê Phạm Lê and her co-translator, poet Nancy Arbuthnot.    


Photos reprinted courtesy of Lê Phạm Lê. Grateful acknowledgment to John Balaban for providing the images for Hồ Xuân Hương and for allowing us to reprint his version of Hồ Xuân Hương's "Đài Khán Xuân," which is copyright © Spring Essence,The Poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương (Copper Canyon Press, 2000). For info, write:tbalaban@earthlink.net.