5 QUESTIONS with duy doan
by Woody Woodger | April 2018
You’re the recipient of the 2017 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. Can you describe what you felt when you received the news, and who was the first person you told?
I got the news via phone from Carl Phillips, the series judge. It was late morning, but I had just gotten up and couldn’t quite grasp what was happening—I was convinced that he was just notifying me that I was a finalist and that there would still be hoops to jump through, which gave me a feeling of impending deflation. It’s funny to think about it now, but it took me a long time to finally understand for certain that I had won the prize. The first person I told was my partner, Allison. She was at work and didn’t pick up her cell, so I called her work cell, which I never do (she said when she saw the call she knew it was either really bad news or really good news). It was great to get to celebrate with her that way because she’s been my biggest support. Then I wept for two days and watched my favorite soccer videos on YouTube.
Is there someone in your life who really pushed you toward pursuing poetry?
I’m lucky because from middle school through graduate school, I’ve always had plenty of teachers who were writers who inspired and guided me in my writing. While I was at Boston University for my MFA, I studied with Louise Glück, Rosanna Warren, and Robert Pinsky, the latter of whom has remained a close mentor to me. They all gave me advice and feedback, mainly encouraging me to work hard to write the best poems that I could. But none of them pushed me to pursue poetry in the way that, say, your parents push you to be a doctor or lawyer or UN official or something. I think my teachers who encouraged me were wise and kind in this way. I’m not sure anyone should push you to be a poet.
You often use forms in your poetry, both traditional forms, such as the Pantoum, as well as invented forms such as lists. As a writer, why constrain your poetry in a form rather than give yourself the freedom of lyrical free verse?
I don’t think of pantoums or other fixed forms as constraining, exactly. I’d say that formal limits are opportunities to be creative, to challenge your skill. Writing prompts work in a similar way: they spark your creativity by providing a set of rules or instructions to follow. Sometimes when you’re stuck, constraints can free you up. And although I do agree that my poems are pretty various formally, most of them are neither fixed nor invented forms; I guess you could say most are what you might expect when you think of free verse, which I agree comes with a different kind of freedom altogether.
In an interview with WBUR, you briefly mentioned that Vietnamese is a tonal language and that tone is not something that often comes up when discussing the musicality of poetry in English. Do you think the tonal quality of Vietnamese affects the way your write in English, and if so in what ways?
I can’t say definitively if or how my awareness of tone affects my writing, but what I can say is that I’m quite conscious of not being fluent in Vietnamese, and that that self-consciousness or regret means I’ve thought a lot about many of the linguistic differences between Vietnamese and English. I think my own perceived lack of fluency has also somehow helped develop my ear and helped me to be sensitive to the music in poetry.
In what ways do you think bilingual poems effect the reader that monolingual poems cannot?
Some poems I love because they’re estranging. I think bilingual poems, when they’re effective, have a special way of inviting and courting mystery. If I’m reading a bilingual poem and I know some of the non-English words, of course I might take delight in that. But I also enjoy reading poems that have non-English words I don’t know at all; if it’s an effective poem, then it’ll spark a curiosity that makes me want to feel estranged. Some people don’t like being alienated by non-English words. But think of the monolingual poems you love that you don’t quite understand; maybe it’s because they provide an exciting challenge, or maybe it’s because they’ve found a clever, roundabout way to sneak up on your intellect and emotions.