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Talking with Le Pham Le

By Poetry Foundation

Poet Le Pham Le will read her work tonight as part of the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Off the Shelf series at Chicago’s Newberry Library. Le’s first publication is a bilingual collection of Vietnamese poems entitled Gio Thoi Phuong Nao/From Where the Wind Blows. She took time out from her busy schedule to answer a few questions for us:

What line or poem do you find yourself sharing again and again?

Here is a poem that my readers found “lyrical and meditative:”

Chùa Kim-Sơn, California

Chập chùng đồi núi nhấp nhô.

Sưong giăng chắn lối, mắt mờ rừng cây.

Bồng lai, tiên cảnh là đây.

Không gian tĩnh lặng, trời mây phiêu bồng.

Ung dung trên đỉnh núi rồng,

Chiều Kim-Sơn tự, rừng xông khói trầm.

Lối về Giác Ngộ, “Vườn Tâm,”

Thoảng hương Cam-lộ, cõi lòng vô ưu.

California:  Kim- Sơn Temple (co-translated with Nancy Arbuthnot)

Mountains beyond mountains.

Misty fog settling on trees.

Tranquility of sky and cloud

On top of the mountain shaped like a dragon.

Kim- Sơn temple, incense

and holy water, scent of dusk.

My heart, free from worries

On this path toward peace.

This poem depicts the spiritual life that is part of my belief.


Can you remember the first poem you read and really liked?


The first poem I remember I heard instead of reading was the lullaby:

Của Chồng, Công Vợ

Thịt heo rừng bóp tái xào lăn.

Rượu tam cúc em đã đậy đằng.

Mời anh lên uống xuống ăn.

Bao nhiêu quần áo, tóc khăn, em trừ.

I Earn It (co-translated with Nancy Arbuthnot)

I’ve prepared a special dish of wild pig.

Enjoy it with wine whenever you want.

I’ve earned, I think,

Those gifts you bought!

It reminds me of my grandmother who first sang it to me. I think it is not only funny but also illustrates part of the Vietnamese culture in the old time where the man worked outside which involved labor and the woman did housework inside. This lullaby is part of Vietnamese folk poetry from 1,000 plus years ago.

A cause you would attach your name to: carrying on a new tradition, empowerment

Many Asian women are still struggling to do things considered normal for most men. For example, it is sad to see any woman who has to give up on her marriage to pursue her dream to become a writer or poet. Although I highly respect Confucian tradition for the most part, its strict rules for women in particular, such as tam tòng, the “three obediences/single obey your father; married obey your husband; widow obey your son,” strike me as belonging to another time and place and inappropriate for our own (although I think one of those obediences would be acceptable if one has a great father as I did).

In sharing my personal experience with younger women Asian-American writers, I hope they can go outside the norm and take “the road less traveled” and be appreciative of the opportunities they have. It takes courage and perseverance to overcome fear, especially living in this new land, where everything seems to be possible. But if you have optimism, you can keep hope alive. I will be honored, if in any small way, my work could inspire my readers to find their dream.


The picture that comes to mind when you hear the word “poetry”:

When I hear the word poetry, I imagine two true friends enjoying a cup of hot, steamy green tea sharing their literary work or discussing other authors’ pieces while the moon shines over them. The poetry discussed would be something soulful, poetic, elegant and rare which is portrayed in their friendship called “tri am, tri ky”  in Vietnamese—only with true friends do voices harmonize.

If forced to quote your own writing, what line or poem would you provide?

During my Malaysia sojourn, to overcome life struggles in the refugee camp I discovered poetry as a form of relaxation—whenever I am challenged by anything I always refer to poetry. Here is a poem I wrote for example:

Đơn Sơ

Lạc loài trên đất tạm dung,
Dựng căn chòi nhỏ bên vùng biển êm.
Bàn tay chai cứng, đá mềm.
Đêm trăng soi bóng bên thềm đọc thơ.
Đong đưa chiếc võng chùng tơ.
Điệu ru ngày cũ à ơ ví dầu.
Chòi sau lắc lẻo nhịp cầu.
Buồm xa thấp thoáng bóng tàu lắc lư.
Bềnh bồng sóng nước vô tư.
Gió ơi, đưa mối sầu dư sang bờ!

Simplicity (co-translated with Nancy Arbuthnot)

Exiled in this strange land

We build our tent-site on sand-

Rocks feel soft to work-hardened hands.

At night when the moon shines

We recite poems. The hammock sways.

A mother’s song, à ơ ví d ầ u, lures her child to peace.
Beyond the monkey-bridge,

A boat rocks with the waves.

Wind, carry my worries

To the other side of the sea!

The metaphor regarding the line above “wind, carry my worries” demonstrates how poetry has helped me along my journey to freedom.


The longest amount of time you’ve gone without writing [creatively]?

I’m working full-time and am not self-disciplined in terms of writing (although I wish I am). So it could be a couple of months during which I do not do anything creatively.

Favorite public figure: No one else but John Balaban, an American celebrated poet who introduced Vietnamese poetic tradition to the Western readers with his acclaimed translations of Vietnamese folk poetry from 1,000 plus years and that of a Vietnamese woman poet, Ho Xuan Huong, of almost three centuries ago. His efforts to preserve the Vietnamese ancient writing system are tremendous.

Favorite literary device: Writing poetry in a metaphorical sense is challenging to me but when I do it with the ability to express the meaning behind it, it is very rewarding.

Bão Tuyết

Mùa xuân trắng ngợp trời.

Người đi rồi, vó ngựa cũng xa xôi.

Tuyết rơi.

Tuyết vẫn rơi trên đường.

Lời anh nói mơ hồ như sương khói.

Bên này, bên kia, cách mấy dòng sông?

Đại dương dập dồn sóng vỗ.

Tình yêu vỡ tung trên từng phiến đá.

Ôi tiếng nấc nghẹn ngào trong tận đáy tim ta.

Gió gào thét, gió than van!

Ngựa dừng chân, ngoảnh mặt.

Lòng ta như cơn lốc điên cuồng…

Tuyết rơi.

Tuyết vẫn rơi trên con đường vắng.

Nụ cười nào rạn vỡ.

Tình yêu bỗng trở thành huyền thoại.

Ôi mùa xuân,

mùa xuân trắng cả một đời…

Snowstorm  (co-translated with Nancy Arbuthnot)

Spring sky: a white curtain flowing—

A rider on horseback riding, riding,

Snow falling,

Still falling on the road.

All sound muffled in mist.

How many rivers flow between our two shores?

Like waves crashing against rock, love explodes.

A quiet cry sinks to the bottom

Of the heart.

How the wind cries! How the wind howls!

Exhausted, my horse stops, turning his head away.

My heart, like a churning wind. . .

Snow falling,

Still falling on the empty road.

Your smile cracks.

Love becomes myth.

Oh, spring,

That whitens my life forever. . .

When I think of Chicago, I think of confusion especially the airport, I missed a connecting flight once.

How would you describe your poetry?

Let me borrow words from my co-translator and friend Nancy Arbuthnot. In the Preface for my second book she wrote:

Waves Beyond Waves chronicles in poetry the physical, literary and spiritual life journey of poet Lê Phạm Lê. Her first bilingual collection of poems, From Where the Wind Blows (The Vietnamese International Poetry Society, 2003), describes the often painful journey from Việt Nam to the Malaysian refugee camp to her new home in the United States. The image of the wind in this first collection functions, in the words of one reader, as “a continuing metaphor that emphasizes the sense of being cast by the winds of fate into a new life.” This new collection of poems, Waves Beyond Waves, which incorporates a few of the earlier poems, elaborates on that journey, particularly with poems that recall Lê’s early life in Việt Nam and with “response poems” to poets of both Việt Nam and America. A metaphor of the sea that both separates and unites pervades the poems in Waves. Lê’s two worlds mingle in these poems, as she brings the ancient traditions of Vietnamese literature and culture to her second home in America, and as she brings to a new generation of young Americans, especially those from immigrant families, an example of how to pursue the American dream. Two other dominant subjects in Lê’s poetry–love and the practice of meditation—offer ways to move beyond the personal self to deeper experience of the world.

John Balaban was the first American audience who recognized my reading style and use the word “sing” to describe my reading style. In fact, when I write my poem it is not considered finished until I can sing it. Finishing a poem is just like putting the finishing touch to a bouquet of flowers with a loop of bear grass curving down.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, October 28th, 2010 by Poetry Foundation.