Poetry News

Checking in With Linh Dinh at Jacket2

By Harriet Staff


We realized today that too much time has gone by since we checked in with past and prolific Harriet contributor Linh Dinh, so we're grateful to the editors of Jacket2 for posting a conversation with him and Tahseen al-Khateeb, "first published in Arabic on March 15, 2015 in Al Arab and Al Jadeed, both of London." The interview is wide ranging and covers topics as various as language acquisition, translation, politics, contemporary poetry, and Dinh's ongoing photographic project that seeks to document the economic unraveling of America. We'll shave off a thin slice of the interview to whet your palate, but be sure to head to Jacket2 for the whole thing:

Tahseen al-Khateeb: Though you were born in Saigon, you spent most of your life in the US. Do you consider yourself as an American poet?

Linh Dinh: Yes, very much so. A writer is defined by his language, above all, so anyone writing in English already belongs to that tradition of Skelton, Clare, and Stevens. Although also important, subject matters come second. Though many of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories take place in America, for example, he wrote exclusively in Yiddish, so he’s seen as a Yiddish author. Yiddish was his mental universe. Having said all that, I can also claim to be a Vietnamese writer, since I also write poems, stories, and essays in Vietnamese, and I speak Vietnamese daily. I’m two writers sharing one brain, which is probably a very dubious, if not catastrophic, proposition, but I would like to think it has actually helped me. Not entirely at home in any language, I can see how tenuous my claims to writing, thinking, and even life are. I’m a very desperate person, frankly, but who isn’t? Already an American poet by virtue of my shaky, shaking, and shook-up English, I’m also very much a part of this appalling socialscape because of what I write about. I’ve learnt how to become more of a hands-on, down-in-the-slush kind of writer. I get out there to see everything firsthand and to hear people speak. I eavesdrop or strike up conversations — and sometimes barge into them — all in order to hear everyone’s farcical, heartbreaking or blood-chilling anecdotes. I’m also out there to soak up their language — that is, their English — because this besieged, yet cocky English is most fascinating. Also, for the last several years, I’ve become much more invested in writing that addresses issues that affect everyone and that anyone can read, and since I live here in the United States, this reorientation has made me even more of an American writer.

Dinh's work as a translator includes rendering T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" into Vietnamese. About this project, Dinh remarks:

When I was in Saigon in 2000, poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh asked me to look over his translation of “The Waste Land,” and I made so many corrections, I figured I should do my own version. I didn’t want to steal from Chanh, however, so I said that no line of mine would match his, and this is no easy task, considering there are 433 lines in that poem. Chanh ended up publishing his version in Vietnam, and mine appeared a little later in Vietnamese American venues. Chanh is Vietnam’s foremost contemporary poet, by the way, and he’s the star of The Deluge, my anthology of new Vietnamese poetry. In any case, the decision to translate “The Waste Land” was made by Chanh because this major modernist landmark wasn’t available in Vietnamese. Readers are entirely indifferent to our two versions, however, and I can’t say this surprises me. All the exotic cultural references make no sense to them, and I’m sure many are also annoyed by “The Waste Land”’s meandering and its footnotes. I’ve introduced a few American poets to the Vietnamese audience, but always only through a handful of representative poems. The first to translate Wallace Stevens, a personal favorite, I transposed “13 Ways of Looking at Blackbird” and a few others. Sometimes I translate a poem from an English translation, as in Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living.” I did Pablo Neruda’s “Walking Around” while looking at both the original and different English translations. As you well know, the best poems are not always translated, and often it’s simply because they’re too challenging for a translator.

The rest of the interview is yours to discover!