Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Philly Sound Feature, issue #2: Linh Dinh 

December 31, 2003

Welcome to the second issue of Philly Sound Feature, an occasional blog zine which features the work of a single poet on the Philly Sound Blog. Each of the members of our Blog will alternate editing issues and choosing poets to feature. Our second issue is dedicated to the work of Linh Dinh. Enjoy.

Frank Sherlock
editor of issue 2


Linh Dinh is the author of two collections of stories, Fake House (Seven Stories Press 2000) and Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press 2004), and a book of poems, All Around What Empties Out (Tinfish 2003). His work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000 (Scribner 2001) and Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present (Scribner 2003), among other places. He is also the editor of the anthologies Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (Seven Stories Press 1996) and Three Vietnamese Poets (Tinfish 2001).


A liquid balm for a solid hurt.
A skirt for a holy farm.
Everything balms, then capsizes.

I was two doors past hope.
I had come here for a bit
Of inter-species romance
But found a doorjamb instead.

Smooth-skinned fruit induces shame.

The tyrannical taste of one's own mouth.
Everything is inside out here:
The animals, the houses.
One can even see behind what's behind.

My head now rests on a garrulous pillow
That speaks without verbs.
My wife is muttering in her sleep:

Fuck you, I've heard all it before.
You are neglecting life, my dear.
I miss you so much.

Four Questions for Linh Dinh:

Frank Sherlock:
Linh, you dedicated your collection of short stories, Fake House (Seven Stories 2000) to "the unchosen." There is a sense that the unchosen (as subject and/or as voice) is a current working through both your poetry & prose. I was wondering if you could talk more about this.

Linh Dinh:
I've always written for and about the unchosen, people whose lives cannot be encapsulated by national or corporate propaganda. Most of us fall into this category. The more widespread and insistent the propaganda, the more displaced and schizophrenic we feel. Some of us are crazy enough to identify with the slim blonde soaping her mammae in the commercial. I do not have to seek out the unchosen to write about them. I've always been surrounded by them. I go to bed with them.

You've studied as a painter. You're a poet and a fiction writer. While there are evident intersections in your work, it also seems that you maintain boundaries between each medium. To what extent do you allow for integration of your visual art, fiction & poetry? How are the boundaries helpful to you as an artist?

Painting initiated me to creative labor. It takes a lot of preparation. To start with, you have to stretch and prime the canvas, first with rabbit skin glue, then with gesso. The painting process is also labor intensive and costly. When you're painting, you're grappling with a live animal, and at the end of the struggle you may only have a worthless carcass in front of you. Painting also gave me my first intellectual role models, people whose search beyond what is apparent inspire me to this day. There is a mystical component to painting that only the best painters can tap into. As for fiction and poetry, I try to be a good student of each and explore what each form allows, but I also fudge genres occasionally. My next book, Blood & Soap, is being billed as a collection of short stories but there are many prose poems in there. I'm working on a novel right now and I'm aiming to make it a novelist's novel, not a poet's novel.

I think it's important to address the utilization of violence in your writing. You are one of a handful of American poets I can think of writing today that produces serious, thoughtful poems that are often laden with graphic, violent content. What is the role of violence in language as process?

I see violence as a common misfortune and, by extension, fate. It's what awaits each one of us just around the corner. One cannot think seriously about life without contemplating the destruction of the body. Born in Vietnam, I was baptized early into this awareness. As an adult in Philadelphia, I had many opportunities to gather my bloody evidences.

You spent most of your life writing in the United States- a place where writers (particularly poets) take a rather obscure place in the culture-at-large. You moved back to Vietnam a few years ago. There you were considered a national threat. What made you a perceived danger? Was it because you were a writer "from the West?" Did your translation work figure into this at all?

Poets do not show up on the radar in the US. I doubt if any of our current "leaders”-(Bush, Powell, Rumsfield or Rice) can name a single contemporary American poet. In Vietnam, a police state, poets are harassed and monitored. When I lived in Saigon I hung out with all the troublemakers. An acquiescent poet is not worth a pound of shit, in my mind. I brought news and books to my friends in Vietnam, and as a translator, I was a conduit between two literatures (Vietnamese and English), between inside and outside. I felt very useful during my stay and am contemplating a return, if I can get a visa. The attention from the police makes Vietnamese poets feel very important but the truth is the general public pay no attention to them. As with every other country in the world, Vietnam has become a satellite of the USA. People there are learning to appreciate Danielle Steele and Britney Spears. But there are precious messages in cracked bottles riding this tidal wave of scum. You have to take the good with the bad, as they say. I've done my small part by translating Eliot's The Waste Land and poems by Stevens, Dickinson and

Community Commentary:

Jordan Davis:

Cathartic brutality beats the hell out of longing anecdotes, meaning that if they're not family, they will be -- they come from the same neighborhood. What I get from Linh Dinh's poetry that I wish I got from television more often isn't exactly the truth, as much as aggression, resilience, and an understanding that worst thought is often best thought. Blurbs and short reviews are famously inane, but even when the inevitable special issue arrives to contextualize this simultaneously goofy and unstoppably angry work, there won't be much getting closer than recognizing that all the ways we have been taught not to repeat the tragedies of the last century are in fact hymns to destruction taught by rote. The most beautiful words occur to those lying among the wounded, and they ain't pretty. The righteousness of this work ought to make readers "more wary" of spontaneous reactions. But in the event, you don't get time to trust your reflexes, only to have them. "One is undressed by the whizzing bullets." "We wandered until dawn popping every lit window." "If someone strokes your hair in sleep, open your eyes to see who it is." My reflex is to pay close attention to Linh Dinh.

Tom Devaney:

Linh Dinh is a visual artist working in words. His name is its own form, a palindrome (reciprocus versus) -- Linh Dinh. He has written: "All the bullets in the world are contained/ Within this skull, the punctured face"; this is true and also manifest in Linh's hair, which is a pitch perfect instrument he occasionally tunes himself. Linh's poems are interlingual, musical, familiar -- they make me nervous and unsafe. Linh once mentioned he felt safer in Vietnam where he was under surveillance than in the U.S. For Linh the lyric is a dead form, but that doesn't stop him from clubbing and flogging it daily. He writes: "But the living, some of them, like to dig up the dead,/ Dress them in their native costumes, shoot them again,/ Watch their bodies rise in slow motion." No, it's not true that Dinh is related to Max Jacob, whom he refers to as Jack Cobb. They were old friends back from Philly along Linh's uncle by blood, Ethridge Knight.

Patrick Herron:

Linh's poetry is exactly that: poetry. Some poems merely look like poems; they hang like jackets on a wire hanger drawn from formal elements that are merely associated with poetry. Sometimes people make the mistake of seeing a person when they are confronted only with a jacket. But what is under the vacant coat, between the wires of the hanger? Nothing. With the explosion of the MFA industry we who struggle every day to find great poetry find ourselves confronted by a sea of overcoats, frocks, suitcoats and slickers. We are awash in a sea of poetry jackets: garments that look like poems, that are easily mistaken for poems, but ultimately are not poems. Linh has the rare gift of being able to tune in some other-worldly poetic voice. His poetry is not a mask and neither is his muse. In his work you will find not the threads and patterns of poetry but the very embodiment of poetry. Like all great poetry, Linh's (work) is unafraid of attitude, evil, or offensive language; like Whitman you may catch his verse by its indirections, but unlike Whitman and perhaps like Catullus those indirections are not so faint. Immersed in the language of crisis and squalor, his poetry forms its own world, and in that way it embodies perhaps the fundamental & darkly comic conflict of poetry: his poetry is at once both of our world and not of our world. It is at once oppressive and liberating, hilarious and depressing. Linh's poetry does not look cute with a vest; it is acutest at its vanishing.

Molly Russakoff:

> I met Linh Dinh at one of those marathon open readings at the Painted Bride. He read a poem that had the speaker looking into a mirror. As he shifts slightly, his image lags slightly behind. Fascinated, he plays with the phenomenon. His projected image is not in synch with his actual self. This poem didn't survive posterity, but I always remembered the creepiness of the image. In a recent poem, on describing a woman in a cafe doing a series of self portraits, he comments: "Multiplied by an infinity of angles, the/ human face is really a kaleidoscope, an infinity of/ faces, and
it is truly a miracle we can recognize each/ other (or ourselves) at all." Linh watches himself and the world with morbid interest and incredulity, making notes on his observations, which become his poems.
There is not a drop of sentimentality in Linh's writing. I would almost consider his stance to be clinical but he has too sharp a sense of humor to qualify. His language is impeccable. His vocabulary and usage is brilliant. With fascinated detachment and great control, he depicts places and events, shifting easily between magnified reality and sharply focused surreality. His images are most often harsh and unsettling, even in their eloquence. "I was born astride a suckling pig./ Inside this pig was a fancy mirror/ With instructions scratched into it/ on how to slaughter a suckling pig," he writes in the poem "Nativity".
He is highly attentive but not at all affectionate. It's what rattles you as you read his poems and stories. In an old account of his passage from his homeland during the fall of Saigon, another that ended up on the cutting room floor, he tells about his harrowing stopover in China as they waited for the go-ahead to continue on to the United States. There is an awful self-consciousness of being dressed wrong, in fashions half learned from American soldiers, platform shoes with pants too short. It was obvious to him that he and the people he traveled with were suddenly all wrong. It was embarrassing and infuriating. As his writing, which had always been sharp, became more honed and flawless, he was able to identify this feeling in almost anything he turned his sights to. People are either ridiculous and ill-fitting or they are not worth mentioning at all. Absurdities exist everywhere.

Once we were hanging out at the bar and he became enraged because someone at the next table was wearing gold chains on top of a button down shirt. "Look at him. He looks so fucking stupid. Why the fuck would he wear that shit?" I laughed and told him to calm down. "Since when are you the arbiter of fashion?," I asked. He always wore the uniform of the avant garde, painted-up jeans and a serviceable shirt. His head was closely shaved. He squinted behind his unrimmed glasses. He sat at the bars most frequented by artists, McGlinchey's, Frank's, Fergie's, and drank cheap beer.
At a certain point, his intensity as a writer and artist was bolstered by a new interest in professionalism. How was he going to navigate his way towards supporting himself without painting houses or cleaning apartments? He asked me to co-edit a literary and arts journal. Although we both had misgivings about the title, we called it the Drunken Boat in order to placate the publisher, a bartender at his latest watering hole. The primary mission of the project was to publish and promote our own work and to connect with other writers on our own terms. It would serve as a calling card to gain us entry into the literary world. We also ferreted out other poets, published essays and found writings, and printed black and white reproductions of artists' images. A year into publication, with six issues under our belts, Linh decided to abandon the project in favor of moving forward with his own work. I was disappointed but it was so clearly his aesthetic that it would have been fruitless for me to continue it on my own.
At times I worried that he was teetering on true insanity, swinging between sleepless euphoria and a deep dark brood. He either lived "in the house of light" or "in the dumpster." I would show up for work in the morning and find him sitting on my doorstep. "What time do you open this place? I've been here since 5 o'clock." Then he would hand me poems to read or tell me some revelation. Once he was all excited that he could suddenly read Spanish, as if a light had been shed on the page. When he won the Pew Fellowship, he became intensely involved in painting large canvasses, which were not received well, and finally spent most of his time in bars drinking and stewing. He referred to the Pew as subsidized alcoholism. We began to grow apart during this time and, with an air of superiority, I wondered what would happen to him, as I lit out in favor of a domestic lifestyle that would later erode beneath me.
Even as Linh became more respected in the arts community, he grew more disaffected. It became gradually apparent to him that the source of his discomfort was a matter of race and racism. He felt alienated from both the predominately white arts community and the immigrant Vietnamese community. He was noticeably different than the other immigrants, his countrymen on 8th Street, with their tight pants, bright shirts and layered haircuts. The proprietor of the Vietnamese pharmacy where he bought a certain salve for his hands, dried and raw from the chemicals in paint, called him "The Professor," because his intellect was so apparent. He jokingly told people that he had given up his squatting rights. At the same time, he became more ill at ease as his drinking buddies from PCA, where he was a painting student, would eventually leak some offensive slur in a barstool conversation. I, who consider myself above all that, have always called him "Lynn," being too self-conscious to use the Vietnamese pronunciation, the soft ng at the back of the throat. Of the two camps, I thought of him as one of us.
In 1995, he returned to Vietnam for 5 weeks, his first time back since his escape when he was 11. He described it as an exhausting experience. There were no boundaries between people and events, none of the neat delineations we have here. In my smugness, I figured he had returned to the U.S. for good, that he had gotten something out of his system. He seemed indigenous to my city. I wanted him to stay.
In establishing an aesthetic framework for the Drunken Boat, Linh often used the word provincialism. He meant this in a literal sense, rather than the derogatory sense that I naturally attach to it. "About being provincial," he explained to me in a recent email, "I think that a writer should have an intimate relationship with a place, let it get under his skin, know it over time." It's interesting how words are filtered through our own experiences, how they take on nuances. I tend to associate provincialism with a sort of snow globe image of the world. This place, Philadelphia, is where I exist. For me, it is both finite and infinite. The rest of the world is a story that I am told, a fairy tale. Linh's reading of the word is more accurate to the dictionary definition. "I am not advocating provincialism over cosmopolitanism," he went on to tell me. "I'm only emphasizing that a writer should know at least one place really well."
In 1999, Linh moved back to Viet Nam. He became part of the literati there, married and lived with his wife, Diem, in a 7x11 foot room. His career as a writer gained momentum here in the States, but his work was considered to be too decadent or reactionary to be distributed in Viet Nam. His first book, Fake House, was confiscated at the post office when he went to pick up his author's copy. "In essence, the Vietnamese are not allowing me to read a book I wrote," he told a friend. "I'm an author without a book!"
He and Diem have since moved to Certaldo, a small town in Italy. He continues to write prolifically and sends me poems so quickly after I ask him for them that I imagine he is constantly at his keyboard. It is his third country, third continent of residence. In "The Self-Portaitist of Signa," he is "leaning against the bar holding a Peroni, my fourth or fifth, and surrounding me are middle-aged men in rumpled suits downing shots of amaro. The potato chips and peanuts are actually free." In his poem Costa San Giorgio, he reports that "The thin sky provides the only relief from claustrophobia." He also sends me found poems culled from internet chat rooms, ridiculous in their loneliness. The world is infinite and microscopic. The world is a ridiculous and lonesome place.

Linh Dinh online:

from Jacket

from CrossXConnect
from Milk

from Tool: a Magazine

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