“I thought what I survived deserved recognition”: the poetry of Paul Tran

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The Sillerman First Book Prize is now open through December 1st. To celebrate, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with emerging writers about the book publication process. This week, poet Paul Tran discusses poetry's inextricable relationship with history, the examination of power in their work, and the process of constructing their first full-length manuscript.

What are you working on right now?

I’m completing my first full-length book of poems. It investigates the Vietnam War, intergenerational trauma, sexual violence, and U.S. Empire after 1975. Of particular interest to me is how poems serve as primary source documents that offer, through figuration and abstraction, alternative perspectives on people, things, and ideas we might familiar or foreign. This objective’s important to me because Vietnamese and Vietnamese American history remains dominated by non-Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese American actors advancing peculiar notions of democracy, capitalism, and U.S. exceptionalism. By writing my personal and my family’s experience in the face of exile, reeducation, resettlement, racialization, poverty, and deliberate disenfranchisement, to name just a few of the obstacles we endure, I hope to expand our national imagination about what happened in Southeast Asia and its aftereffects.

Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?

My manuscript’s coming together still. It has about thirty pages of writing I’m proud of, and that’s startling to me because I’m what Edwidge Danticat calls “an accident of literacy.” There were times in this country when bodies like mine weren’t supposed to read or write. There were times when bodies like mine were forcibly taught specific ways to read and write so that we became “good citizens.” Now, I argue, a slippery form of those policies lingers, and benefiting from that, I join a generation of writers—children of immigrants and refugees—marshaling our English proficiency to shift dominant narratives that misrepresent and threaten our humanity. In fact, it was meeting Cathy Linh Che and Ocean Vuong at Kundiman, a fellowship for Asian American writers, in 2013 that inspired my decision to pursue both poetry and this book. Watching them respectively assemble Split (Alice James, 2014) and Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon, 2016) shaped my expectations for a unified and provoking collection.

My collection opens with poems about my parents’ escape from Vietnam, the physical and sexual abuse my father exacted on our family, and my mother’s resourcefulness in emancipating us from him. The poems then turn their attention to me, as a young adult, raped in my college dorm by a wealthy and influential alumnus, and how I dealt with what felt like a shattering of the self, the ambitions I worked so hard to achieve, my relationship to people and the world around me, and most frighteningly, my intent to go on as a body at all. Confronting invasion again helped me think about the U.S. invasion of Vietnam’s civil war in a new light. I began understanding what might’ve compelled my father to be who he was and do what he did, and I developed a critical empathy for those sculpted by immeasurable violence. I also grew increasingly intrigued with my mother’s brilliant fortitude, and in my poems, I sought to uncover what drives our will to persist.

Regarding its order, I consulted not only Cathy and Ocean, but also books by Suji Kwock Kim, Natasha Trethewey, and Louise Gluck. I looked at Carl Phillips’ introductions to Eduardo Corral’s Slow Lightning (Yale, 2012) and Ansel Elkins’ Blue Yodel (Yale, 2015), and I became fascinated with the magical conversations between poems set beside each other, as well as the possibilities generated by poems framing the manuscript and being, as Phillips writes, “now a cage, now a window out.”

Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (For instance, I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

I haven’t been writing for long. I came to poetry through poetry slam in 2012, and I didn’t write a poem “for the page” until I moved to Brooklyn after graduating from Brown University in 2014. Although I wrote poems here and there, most of my manuscript surfaced only in the past three months following my residency at the Vermont Studio Center, where, away from my life, which, during that time, I hated and had no idea how to change, something within me opened. Suddenly all the things I couldn’t say because I felt they were unrefined or humiliating spilled out.

I’d begun my manuscript obsessed with image, juxtaposition, and narrative. Those were the skills I saw my heroes demonstrate. Those were the skills I clung to in fear of not being good at anything else. My sister, Ricardo Hernandez, encouraged me to broaden what I called “my tiny toolbox,” but I just couldn’t relinquish those “tics.” My poems completely yielded to what Gluck deems as “harsh autobiographical intimacy.” As an underrepresented voice, I thought my life should matter. I thought what I survived deserved recognition, that the violators and violence committed against me occurred in a system that renders them both “unimaginable.” Using what I misunderstood as the plainness of image, juxtaposition, and narrative, I wanted to force eyes open. I wanted justice. And while harnessing those skills sharpened my dramatics and gave me a sense of a poem’s pulse, I quickly realized my fear of “not being good” enough stymied my potential to be “good,” whatever that means to me, overall.

So in Vermont, I happened upon the silly but happy thought of recording myself reading aloud Kim’s Notes from the Divided Country (Louisiana State, 2003) and Gluck’s The Wild Iris (Ecco, 1992), released during my birth year, and I not only felt their sonic qualities. I was liberated by their observation of the self as oppressed by love, faith, imperialism, and occupation. No longer was I tethered to story as my single operative mode. I determined to explore through my poems what happens to the self and the soul during and after seemingly unspeakable violence and how, successfully or not, we make language out of it. I was also very embarrassingly crushing on a boy who either didn’t know or simply didn’t feel for me during that time, which my friends in the writing studio can verify, and I employed my afternoons gossiping and thinking about my failed love. Somehow those feelings freed me to consider the process by which a body at the precipice of its life turns around or leaps forward and chooses, even if it might not be a choice, to live and seek love from the world.

How did you decide where to submit the collection? How many places did you submit?

I’m going to start submitting the collection to first book contests this fall. There are a few dream destinations, but I’m grateful to whoever gives it—and me—a chance.

What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

I wish I could tell my past-self, as I tell my current-self every day, to just say what we have to say no matter the method or shape it’s said, no matter if anyone but us believes in its significance.

I acutely remember embarking on this process in light of Cathy and Ocean’s mentorship thinking, “What do I have to say that hasn’t already been said?” I’d won awards for “Pushing the Art Forward” at the national college poetry slam and thought everything I produced had to push American letters forward as well. The expectation I imposed on my writing to innovate, despite never taking a poetry or writing class ever before, and my unshakable stubbornness paralyzed me. Rather than expose my mediocrity, I chose to say nothing until I miraculously felt confident I could say something excellent. My saboteur disguised as an impulse to read widely and patiently acquire formal techniques. But no matter how much I read or practiced, my manuscript pretty much remained a blank document until very recently

Trying to be more impressive than I am suppressed my voice and is a pitfall I now readily recognize in the young poets I work with through slam and elsewhere. For example, I tell my little sister, Chrysanthemum Tran, an emerging queer and trans-femme poet, what I wish I could my past-self all the time. Though it’s easy to relay, I’m sure it’s as difficult for her as for me to do. We know, like participants of any industry, the general effects an especially racialized capitalism engenders: minoritized poets must comply with established standards of excellence to be considered excellent; minoritized poets must trade their power to remain excellent or to impact the establishment; and minoritized poets only impact the establishment by maintaining its usual operations under contemporary order. But this doesn’t have to be true, and this can’t stop us from doing urgent and necessary work for our communities.

Has publication of individual pieces in the collection changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

The first poem in my manuscript and the first poem from the manuscript published found its home in RHINO. The feedback I got from the editors there about perspective, mystery, and unrelenting emotional truth still guides my approach to poems. It also informs my new work as Poetry Editor at The Offing. In some regard, I look for writing that astonishes and frightens me, calling my sight to detail and maneuvers I can’t conceive or implement but am both enraptured and instructed by.

What is your favorite part of your first book?

Right now, my favorite part is a poem about the Annunciation. It completely changed what I was doing and where I was going in the book. I recall finishing the final couplet at 4 AM and immediately sharing it with Ricardo on FaceTime. It’s special to me because it’s the first poem where I allow my speaker to actually speak: to think and come to an observation about matters under its scrutiny. Whereas my speaker previously, at best, transcribed experience in flowery detail, this poem, “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart,” marked a moment where experience transformed to argument about the body and suffering. Whereas I before only thought of my manuscript in terms of events I wanted to write about, the poem made clear my current concerns as a writer and, moreover, that stories aren’t meaningful alone. I have to extract meaning from them.

The bodies in your work are frequently imperiled. In "Gamma Hydroxybutyrate," which seems to be a poem about assault, the speaker says, "I stopped breathing—/All night/he searched my body." This sort of violent displacement happens in your recent work quite a bit. How does your work think about what power and desire does to bodies?

I’m still figuring how to write about rape and family incest in a manner that turns the prism by which I’ve been taught to view them in order to elucidate fresh perspectives on what compels bodies towards violence and what happens to bodies in the wake of violence. Although I was molested during childhood, I didn’t become curious about desire as a machination of power until I was raped in college. Perhaps this was because I didn’t understand what happened to me as a kid; I didn’t have language for it. I blocked it from memory until high school, when I met Pecola Breedlove while reading Toni Morrison. Perhaps I didn’t have time to unpack what happened to me until I became another’s “victim” and, unlike before, couldn’t block it from memory or resume my life like business as usual. Instead, my attention fixed on discerning “why” rape occurred. I think I needed something or somebody to blame so I could persuade skeptics and myself that it wasn’t my fault. I think I needed a reason because the idea of “bad” things happening for no reason scared me. Even now, I’m not sure I can live with that.

So my poems strive to reveal that person, thing, or idea convinced of its decision to exact power over another. Sometimes I turn to explanations derived from colonization. Sometimes I turn to trauma studies rooted in race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability-conscious discourse. I try not to mistake my poems for theory or analysis; they’re, of course, neither. My poems, at best, can be primary sources from which theory and analysis precipitate, and therefore, I must attempt to exhaust language in capturing the fullest examination of rape that I humanly can: not just the before, during, and after, but the in between, the internal and external, the seen and unseen as well. I’m curious about curiosity itself or, to paraphrase Claudia Rankine, the “unpoliced imagination.”

In your scholarly work you're, in part, interested in Civil Rights histories and much of your recent poetry examines the Vietnam War—in multiple contexts you're examining the historical record and contending with it. How does poetry allow you to work with or write into history?

I’m frequently asked this question, and it stuns me each time that my writing’s incorporation of history, for lack of better words, is noteworthy. It stuns me because we all have histories, triumphant and tragic, conflicting and contradictory, and everything in our world, including us, is the way it is because of the past. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m a minoritized writer, so I’m expected to be historical—trapped by my obsession with representing, revising, or rescuing “my people’s” history—because modernity’s reserved for and defined by someone else. Sometimes I think this question stuns me because it’s actually not a question for me. It’s a question the asker cannot—but has to—ask themselves.

The Vietnam War’s a major operation the United States lost despite its arrogance and attempts to win. Its decorated and richly resourced national security state succumbed to villagers. Every cultural agent from Hollywood to Washington D.C. manufactured stories about “the jungle” and Vietnamese prostitutes that corrupted our valiant and morally righteous warriors to justify our country’s defeat. Then these same agents manufactured stories about “the boat people” fleeing communism to mount “a second war”—one waged not on land or sea but in the hearts and minds—that the United States can win by accepting these refugees and transforming them into Americans. Therefore, as citizens or occupants of this country, how do we engage with what it has done? What does living with the knowledge of this country’s actions do to our knowledge of our selves?

I think every poem engages history and serves as a historical record because they’re bound by the historical contexts in which they’re made and their creators are bound by the historical contexts that enabled them to do the making. No matter how obscure or censored, readers can undress text and better comprehend the different governing filters. Being clear about this helps me find effective methods for writing about the Vietnam War’s aftermaths and ongoing freedom struggles in the United States, rather than surrendering to tropes designed to promote familiar master narratives. It makes me suspicious of those who write, as it seems, without history and how privileged it is to indulge in the illusion of belonging to or coming from nothing. I couldn’t bear that, and that won’t save me.


Paul Tran is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and historian. Their work appears in Prairie Schooner, The Cortland Review, RHINO, which gave them an Editor's Prize, and elsewhere. A recipient of fellowships and residencies from Kundiman, VONA, Poets House, Lambda Literary Foundation, Napa Valley Writers Conference, Home School Miami, Vermont Studio Center, and The Conversation, Paul lives in Brooklyn, where they serve as Poet-In-Residence at Urban Word NYC and Poetry Editor at The Offing.