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Vietnamese Poet Mai Van Phan interviewed by Hai Phong Weekend Journal,

Translated by Do Xuan Oanh


Reporter : Let’s begin the conversation from your side first, a poet with some thinking about poetry. In face of a situation where poetry was largely printed but little people read it, would you begin with worries or hopes ?

Mai Van Phan : Poetry used to be seen as a sacred temple for poetry writers, but in fact it was a market for readers. So far many had mistaken or misunderstood this point. For each poetry writer, the important thing was to be cold with oneself, to courageously look back in a truthful and accurate way, knowing oneself as being a grocery shop or a locksmith at the market. Poetry writers were as abundant as poetry itself. The fact of self-ignorance often made poets more confident in their self-oppression and humiliation on the road of self-torture. And some had been able to reach the target, hadn’t they. Just consider them as playing a game, which was much more healthy compared to some other games (a few people having power, title and money had played quite foolish !) In Vietnam, the time where everybody was in need of poetry and songs had gone. All concepts were of course much more complicate in a civilized society, poetry and songs being in agreement with each individual, an inevitable need for those who were concerned. In my opinion, creation trends became more and more diversified, and that was an indispensable development while it was quite normal in the literary life.


Reporter : In the past decade, prose had created a rather firm position in our country’s literary life while the impression on poetry faded away.  What do you think of it ?


Mai Van Phan : The “fade away” notion you just said made me understand you had read poetry from what conception. It was true that poetry didn’t bear much intuitive character like prose, therefore it was very difficult to feel it. If the readers failed to open spaces for themselves, (I mean those concepts which were not imposed) it would be very difficult to reach individuals with the unexpected. Creative individuals constantly emitted information meant to implant various trends, to be more concrete, the nature of creation was itself an imposition.


Reporter : Once in an interview you raised the concept “creation was a process of escape from personality”, please explain and quote those cases of your own “escape”.


Mai Van Phan : It was frightening when you had to gaze an artist who continuously stood in one place and performed many times an item to the point it almost became insensitive, in other words you would feel pity for those who interminably carried out intensive farming on an exhausted plot of land. The process of escape from personality was that of self-negation itself. For me personally, the process of self-negation was the distance between stages where I temporarily interrupted creation works. That was the most meaningless and frozen period. I had the sensation of being sunk into emptiness, emotional stagnation, even bitter disappointment...These states helped me find the way to escape. After each escape, I had the impression I was just lucky awake, regenerated, or reincarnated into another body.

Reporter :The process of self-negation used to come along with that of renovation and renewal, would you please “reveal” something about your own poetry.

Mai Van Phan : The more poetry and songs were imaginery, the more they brought in truthfulness. That was the way to call out the sensitive part, not to make ideas intricately tangled. In plane geometry, if you looked straight at a box, you could only take it as a certain square or rectangle. But in solid geometry, if connected to squares or rectangles on the front side, they might be lozenges or scattered dim dots. Simply speaking, reality in poetry was present on a “curved plane”. That space was large, helped the writer go in company with the past, the present, the multi-dimension and multi-layer future. When writing, the poet shouldn’t worry of writing for whom, but to hear only one’s heart tremble with heartfelt emotions from personal concept.


Reporter : In the past your poetry cleverly combined the traditional and the modern, now it had been completely renewed and created a distinct tone.  Was there any difference in your approach to each present poem ?


Mai Van Phan : About the concept of traditional character, I would discuss it later. I had always been myself in another rhythm. It was always like coming to the first poems. First I saw an idea that kept sparkling before me, very difficult to name it and describe it concretely. Most difficult was to write the first sentence. It was like an aircraft trying to land properly. Landing off the runway would be seen as gone bust. Each poem I conceived was an anticipation. There was no need to prepare anything because nothing had to be brought along. In place was a half-open particular space, it seemed someone just knocked off and pushed me out on a large road where I would meet the unreasonably stunned prosody of...non-prosody. In other words, the poem itself taught me the way to rewrite it.


Reporter : Was it that prosody renewal meant to change the form first, then the content next ? Where did you start ?


Mai Van Phan : I didn’t conceive the relation between content and form as similar to alcohol and the vase, or to body and clothing...In art, precisely in poetry and songs, the reality of life, a lightning from the past...written and rewritten many times without causing aberrance to the content, was only in state of material, not yet the content of true artistic character. In fact, the content was material having borne a defined form while the form never existed independent from its own content. The form was true when the change of form also made the content change, and the reverse would only be counterfeit form. The content itself was a converting process of form to content.


Reporter : After that some of your works were published recently, a lot of opinion had strongly refuted them. What do you think ?


Mai Van Phan : To have many readers would make a writer happy. But a poem being praised by everybody might sometimes be a product running after a mode in vogue. On the contrary, to discover a layer according to certain special style, the more it came to the top the more it would be close to a pyramid. Thus its area of contact would be reduced. If I were a talent, I would dare challenge not only the contemporary readers.


Reporter : How do you make the difference between instinct and consciousness of a poet ?


Mai Van Phan : There had been many figures who were at pains and lied inert in their instinct with a look of little regard for knowledge. This kind of situation originated from a behaviour (some thought it as ability) that was nurtured from what was called Laureate Culture in the design of Eat Laureate, Sleep Laureate, Wrestling Laureate... Laureate Culture was good too, even very good in the community life. But in order to have spiritual products of large calibre at the level of mankind inventory, these products should be projected from an Academic Culture. Academic Culture would be at the same time wise, knowing how to grow its main root into the national spirit and its fasiculate roots into the cultural forest of five continents.


Reporter : A last question, how do you conceive the traditional character ?


Mai Van Phan : Tradition was not merely inheritance. It also was continuous like the cases of self-negation. In other words, it was a creative process to reach higher values of national character. By advanced concepts, drastic renovation in the way of approaching problems, to mix with the breath of contemporary life, each poet of that kind would have the responsibility to enrich the traditional character.


Reporter : Thank you.