Open Mouth

The revolt of trash in contemporary Vietnamese poetry

Four members of Open Mouth, 2006. From left to right: Bùi Chát, Khúc Duy, Lý Đợi, Nguyễn Quán. Image courtesy © Open Mouth.

Author note: This paper was originally written in Vietnamese by Nhã Thuyên and translated into English by Nguyễn-Hoàng Quyên. This is an abridged version of an essay that appears in the book un\ \martyerd: [self-] vanishing presences in Vietnamese poetry by Nhã Thuyên (New York: Roof Books, 2019).

i plei poetry

sand bhụbbler krabs plei sand

kid$ plei other thïngs[1]

— Bùi Chát

Poetic citizens of alley 47

The precursor of the group Open Mouth (Mở Miệng), six poets, originally literary friends at the Sài Gòn University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Class of 2001), consisted of Lý Đợi, Bùi Chát, Khúc Duy, Nguyễn Quán, Hoàng Long, and Trần Văn Hiến, who self-published together the poetry collection Six-faced Circle (Vòng tròn sáu mặt, 2002). Hoàng Long and Trần Văn Hiến soon afterwards left the group due to conflicting literary philosophies. Shortly after, the remaining four poets released the collection Open Mouth (Mở Miệng, 2002), Nguyễn Quán withdrew from the group to become a monk and Khúc Duy simply disappeared from the scene once the collection Smorgasbord (Hầm bà lần, 2004) was published. In the last couple decades, besides releasing poetic works, Open Mouth, with two remaining members, Lý Đợi and Bùi Chát, have persistently pursued the independent/underground publishing path. They founded Scrap Press (Giấy Vụn)Press, a highlight in Vietnam’s contemporary samizdat movement that resists censorship in the struggle for the freedom of publication. In recent years, their reputation in publishing seems to have overshadowed their poetry, especially after Bùi Chát was awarded the 2011 Freedom to Publish Prize by the International Publishers Association (IPA) and has since been subject to frequent surveillance and interrogation by security agencies.[2] To me, their persistent courage in self-publishing  expresses a respectable dimension in the poetic lives of individuals deemed unfit for order and discipline. Nevertheless, due to my bent for poetic questions (as opposed to, say, an intentional evasion of other investigations), I do not aim for this essay to objectively and exhaustively identify this infamous group of poets; their significant contribution to Vietnam’s independent publishing movement has been discussed in another essay.[3] Certainly, this essay might lose some liveliness since I approach the poetic questions of Open Mouth as autonomous from their publishing practice as well as their personal lives on the margin. However, the consistent points of inquiry throughout my research remain: who are these Open Mouth poets? Is Open Mouth simply a dissident poetry group? What are the potentials of renovation and revolution in Open Mouths practice, particularly their coup d’état in poetic material with the creation of lingos such as “trash poetry,” “filthy poetry” or “cemetery poetry,” which have sparked multidirectional debates on diasporic artistic web forums? How have their practices contributed to contemporary Vietnamese poetry movements or might they gradually fade as memories since Bùi Chát and Lý Đợi have lately grown quieter as poets? These questions force me to keep my distance from the group’s active and diverse participation in publishing and the arts in order to examine only their poetic manifesto and practice. The shape of Open Mouth, therefore, will be found in the language of poetry itself, rather than the authors’ social participation. Therefore, an effort to repaint a poetic portrait of Open Mouth beyond ethical debates and political reductions is what I aim to bring forward in this essay. 

Open Mouth declares: “we do not make poetry” 

The assault on poetic conventions is the core of Open Mouth’s seemingly colloquial and improvisational manifesto, through Lý Đợi’s article, “Poetry: we do not make poetry” (2004).[4] Seen in a larger context, this statement points to a dialogue between the present and the past, a battle between the novelty of the avant-garde and the decay of the conservative, a proposal of poetry as anti-poetry that is certainly not an outlier in the history of poetry, an attempt to resist perceptions that have turned fixed and fossilized, an urge to speak that arises within a suppressed presence. After referencing a pastiche poem by Bùi Chát, Open Mouthinvokes Dadaism as a source of inspiration: 

We (young writers in Sài Gòn) call this rhetorical device pastiche, a combination of satirical imitation and assemblage. Recall the collage device of Dadaists with their cut-tear-paste and mixed media paintings. Also known as coercion. Thanh Tùng’s poem has been coerced by Bùi Chát (the way Postmodernism raped Modernism). So what is creativity? Creativity lies at the threshold of the coercer and the coerced.

Poetry oftentimes is just a casual fight, a little humor, a shock of perception, even a joke among drunkards, no less frivolous. […] We do not make something too high-end, too indecent or too eccentric, because we maintain that besides popular media’s aesthetics, there has been/is a different kind of poetry — our poetry/our aesthetics, the aesthetics of those absorbed in making poetry instead of critics or ethicists, moralists or sociologists.[5

In this manifesto, when using the phrase “poetic practice,” Open Mouth’s antipoetic will to exist as an Other is manifest in multiple aspects including: (1) the antipoetic material — the poets do not hesitate “before topics rated as alien or vulgar by Vietnamese aesthetic traditions”; (2) the antipoetic act of not-making-poetry, which proposes a different relationship between the poet, the material and the poetry; (3) the statement about belonging to the underground: “our poetry is not subject to the editorial screen of publishing houses.” Antipoetry is a double protest: not only opposing tradition, which they consider synonymous with archaic aesthetics, Open Mouth poets also protest the school of poetry that works exclusively with words and meanings through experiments encased within linguistic units.Open Mouth propose poetry-making as an act. The entire being of the poet with gestures and environments makes poems that no longer exist in isolation, but rather embody links in an endless chain of interactions. Refusing to simply churn out new poems, Open Mouth declare, destroy and propose, persistently pursuing the project of decentering poetry from poetic conventions that have reigned for millennia in a country where poetry is traditionally sacralized with heroic missions to “carry the Tao,” “speak the will,” or “preserve the heritage.”

I believe Open Mouth’s combative proposal of conceptual poetry as a conceptual art practice should not be regarded as an imitation of imported fashions or an arbitrary mutation in the so-called Vietnamese poetic tradition, but rather, as a desire to protest from within. Unwilling to dwell in shadows, the marginalized begins to question the revolution and the ones who claim to revolutionize poetry; they question the very label of “the unofficial” itself, a label imposed on them as if to brand a peculiar sort of food that requires caution. With their declaration, Open Mouth fulfill the verdict of Otherness by their signature poetic practices: “trash poetry,” “filthy poetry,” “cemetery poetry.” Conceptually, these practices have been inspired by the trash and filthy artistic movements of the world, letting them precipitate into an insurgent attitude of destruction and mockery: the literary past is an infinite landfill where they freely dive, scavenge, and indulge in ostensibly filthy, extremist, and obscene materials, unfazed by the risk of stumbling on mines.

In the reconfiguration of poetic concepts and practices, the negating word “not” (in “we do not make poetry”) is the space of free play in both language and consciousness. Similar to the addition of the prefix “post-” before “ism”s, the work of decentering and redefining poetic conceptions continues without end. At the creative and critical foundation of institutions, what must be demolished is the coordinate system that projects what qualifies or fails as poetry onto empty abstract metaphysics. Only then would open possibilities of reading and writing unsettle the lives of poetry and its participants who might otherwise be stuck in creative blocks or delusions. Each poet, while making poems, should be summoning possibilities of (making) poetry. To trace the origin of poetic concepts is impossible and meaningless; the poetry-making subject endlessly goes after ever-slippery concepts in a thrilling race that blurs the distinction between the Playful and the Real, between Making and Unmaking, between seriousness and nonsense — perhaps an inescapable game of chase.

Open Mouth plei poetry: “Pardon me, can’t stand it”

“Trash poetry” and “filthy poetry” are concepts proposed by Bùi Chát, starting with his 2003 collection Däily ùpheavals (Xaùo choän chong ngaøy[6]), which featured the slogan “jubbish poetry from jefuse” (“thơ jác từ jưởi”[7]). He continued in the same direction with “cemetery poetry,” a term self-coined in the collection Pardon me, can’t stand it (2007) with the introduction titled “Ablaze/Foggy/Opaque” (“Hỏa/Mù/Mờ”[8]). I would like to cite the segment in its entirety, preserving the author’s own grammar rules:


After an almost two-year-long break from all literary and publishing activities due to health reasons, since early August I have launched a project called “Có jì dùng jì có nấy dùng nấy” (“Got dis use dis got dat use dat”): a sidewalk poetry project that aims to publish an anthology featuring 47 authors and many other individual works. For the project, I revisited old manuscripts and stumbled upon: Pardon me, can’t stand it.

Pardon me, can’t stand it was originally the first volume of The Mummy Returns, the collection of 333 cemetery poems completed in 2004 which has, for reasons incomprehensible to myself, not yet been published (by me). This cemetery poetry collection is a significant part of Made in Vietnam, a controversial work of conceptual art.

My job is simply to extract one part of one portion of one complete project in order to form 1 part of 1 portion of 1 other to-be-completed project as I, the author, execute part 2, “Got dis use dis got dat use dat.” This step is identical to that of taking a complete poem by somebody else and turning it into a (potentially) incomplete poem of mine.

The goal is for the poetry collection to return to its right place and role: cemetery goods.

Why must I do that? There are certainly many responses to such a question, but first and foremost: no organization or individual have coerced or cajoled/bribed me. I only want to execute my own mandate of the past few years: Try not to make anything new, if possible: One should reuse what has been/is available.

(Is it not less work that way?)

Finally, this collection is an inseparable component of trash poetry and trash art, which have constituted Open Mouth’s most controversial issues over the past few years. The conscious and thorough practice of cemetery–trash poetry, in my humble opinion, has transformed Open Mouth artists and those sharing the same philosophy into authors with (perhaps) the most vivid flavors of tradition throughout Vietnam’s cultural/literary history.

A cultural/literary history of trash. 

Most poems in Däily ùpheavals resemble ribald folk tales of trivial objects that seemingly mean nothing as they exist only in the vernacular, an underground world where stories may feature a single broomstick, women as mice in the sewer, panties, a bowl, a couple hairs, few farts, copulation and many other lewd matters.

Not long after, Bùi Chát dedicated an entire collection to the “concept” of cursing, The Cunt that Got Away and Poems of Cursing [cursing-meddling, cursing-tumbling] (Cái lồn bỏ đi và những bài thơ chửi [bới, lộn]),which explores the ferocious intensity of colloquial ribald language. Bùi Chát thoroughly practices plurilingualism, using puns that complicate translation and various manners of shapeshifting: distorting sentence structures, inverting spelling standards, morphing urban and officialized language, imitating dialects of the rural North (where Thái Bình province, Bùi Chát’s hometown, exemplifies a dialect deemed “defective” by the rules of “correct” standardized Vietnamese) and other regional dialects that have barely survived in ribald folk tales.

Demotic tongues are not only taboo among contemporary writings but also estranged from the Vietnam’s previously avant-garde word-laborers dedicated exclusively to the shadows of words and ways of sculpting rhythm. Chasing after aesthetic and exotic verses, they came to be known as poets of the school of letters (dòng chữ),[9] a term coined by the poet Hoàng Hưng to describe a renovation trend practiced by Northern Vietnamese poets such as Lê Đạt and Dương Tường who, in pursuit of mellifluous syllables and sounds, deviated from the dominant school of meaning (dòng nghĩa) in Vietnamese poetry. In the case of Open Mouth, romantic lyricism is destroyed as the poetic subject looks into a convex mirror and sees a self-translated portrait of a hypertrophic, distorted, and worldly underdog. Inserting the vulgar into his poetry, Bùi Chát does not provoke, or more accurately, he does not curse for the sake of being provocative. He uses words as egalitarian materials where poetry is no longer reserved solely for sophisticated letters and where overbearing humans who mistake language for a numb instrument might end up dethroned and ousted by the words themselves. Nonconformity — what poets often strive to attain — lies in life, a fact Bùi Chát discovered and turned into a poetic rule, which has in turn revealed different angles of poetry-making in an engagement with vernacular language and reality. 

champion (vô địch)[10]

a mediocre cock, he treasures, modeling the forefathers
to protect, to cherish — allowing no fault
he hardens and suffers despite the desire to f-
launt his cockness

vowing virginity to the end, though girls do follow
thanks to moral virtues. each day he looks in the mirror, wrapping a cloth
around the groin [seriously] many times in order to possess …  a prepared future
each cunt that got away is like a small rivulet
he does not know that the [damned] forefathers well dead before his birth
lived half their lives uncaressed, he has touched nobody
still … intact & black

for some old age solace. he stealthily moves
the cock to the back and thrusts it in the ass

[sob sob] 

In the attempt to exterminate lyricism, accomplish surface description, and utilize the vulgar, not all Open Mouth authors have gained the same level of success. Khúc Duy, with his smorgasbord of profanities in Smorgasbord (2003), a collection in the vein of the “continually crass,” turned out to be a mere vent of meaninglessness and ennui. Bùi Chát blasphemes like a folk storyteller, like Ba Giai, Tú Xuất and Thủ Thiệm,[11] like a poetry promoter for those eardrums fed up with refined sounds. Lý Đợi extracts various poetic materials from colloquial journalism, reconfiguring journalistic texts and bringing poetry closer to slogan and slogan regurgitation. These poets have created a flea market of authentic local brands mixed with smuggled items. I suppose, Open Mouth’s first and foremost contribution in the practice of “filthy poetry” is their decanonization of aesthetic conventions around “noble” and “literary” language whose inertia has become a creative block for poetry-making in Vietnam. Open Mouth have thus proposed a new set of communication rules around poetic language and material. Their contribution lies not in the use of profanity but the carnivalesque spirit or the public-poetry quality, which brings poetry closer to daily behavior and folk custom. The argument for the openly in[discriminate]nocent usage of vocabulary that references sexual organs and relations such as “cunt,” “cock” or “fuck” is an attempt to reestablish textual equality, which possesses a powerful appeal in its subversive intent.

In fact, in Vietnam, the political use of profane language might also suggest a life attitude. Obscene literature, often suppressed and excluded, seeks refuge in the folk undercurrent of rural opera, ribald tales, and proverbial songs. In an effort to claim their voices, many poets have used the vulgar to unchain and overturn the taboo by expressing political anguish or sexual liberation. The poet Nguyễn Quốc Chánh considers the vulgar as “transmutations of political obsessions on the body,” and as ways of “spitting at deceptive propaganda.” He says, “wherever human beings are robbed of their freedom of speech, whatever useful means of resistant literature could then be reasonably used because this is a nontheoretical space.”[12] The critic Nguyễn Hưng Quốc in an essay has asserted, “In a place like Vietnam, perhaps only saints would abstain from cursing.”[13]

Open Mouth’s conscious infliction via “filthy” material and words constitutes only one of the many linguistic reactions in Vietnamese contemporary poetry, yet it has produced mayhem partly because the group’s practices transgress the boundaries of preexisting aesthetic standards; they shock, both visually and psychologically; they make use of common material and yet face backlash for acts marked as taboo. And whenever taboo resurfaces, so too does the inevitable question of artistic freedom: is there a limit to this freedom? Is it us who ought to gradually erase the entrenched taboos within ourselves? When “filthy poetry” overwhelms our common aesthetic threshold, it might prompt us to suspect the poems’ salacious language and the poets’ supposed “lack of discipline.” Using the obscene as a way to deal with text and a vessel for an iconoclastic voyage, Open Mouthhas somewhat overcome the struggle to speak. However, the bristling repetition of vulgar vocabulary tends to foreclose other pathways. The “antipoetic” conquers and inherits the crown, causing the initial creativity to turn into lethargy and become a new obstructive force. The idealistic conception of equality for poetic material and language ironically gives rise to an energy of destruction instead of rebirth. My perhaps redundant question remains: where could the filthy face and body take poetry?

In addition to “filthy poetry,” Open Mouth’s specialties also include “trash poetry” coupled with the device of pastiche. The tactic has instigated controversy especially when the authors not only lampoon their own materials (as Bùi Chát made remixes and parodies of his own poems in Däily ùpheavals)but cook up poetry using readymade and well-known poems the way Marcel Duchamp appropriated the Mona Lisa or Andy Warhol reworked the image of Monroe. For example, in Pardon me, can’t stand it, Bùi Chát takes the poem “The Choice” by Văn Cao[14] and transforms it into a new work as a way to retell the original poem: 

The Choice of Văn Cao[15]

Between life and death
He chooses life
To preserve life
He chooses death

That is all [the end]

Ingredient: “The Choice” by Văn Cao

This original poem by Văn Cao, often associated with the tragedy of choice or the desire for aesthetic life and sublime ascension, has produced comedy out of its own seriousness. Adding the few words “That is all [the end]” as a viewer’s commentary at the end of a tragicomic play, Bùi Chát satirizes the idealism of ascent metaphors and its excessively grave language which, in his vision, should by now be buried and consigned to oblivion. Using the rhetoric of folk ribaldry, propaganda poetry, graffiti poetry, Bamboo Pen[16] poetry and slogan poetry, Bùi Chát pulls conventional paradigms out of their elevated standing, dragging them down to the worldly realm of unmetaphysical and unphilosophical language where delight, laughter, and release come with startling self-reflections and awakenings. Here, the free play with poetic language by adding, cutting, assembling, and impishly remixing readymade materials, hence the formation of Bùi Chát’s new infamous poems does not erase but coexists with the original poems and intensifies intertextual dynamics. This is why, despite its simplicity, applicability, and mass reproducibility, Bùi Chát’s textual play is a critical landmark as it attacks and redefines what threatens to become institutionalized truths.

Lý Đợi’s pastiche, on the other hand, is executed mostly on trash material found in Vietnamese daily news and explicitly sociopolitical Eastern European poems translated into Vietnamese and published on literary web magazines by diasporic poet-translators such as Hoàng Ngọc Biên or Diễm Châu. Playing with Vietnamese local contexts, Lý Đợi both translates and implants texts, sometimes even importing wholesale Eastern European contexts, to create a sociocultural hodgepodge that travels across space and time. For example, Lý Đợi’s poem “Socialist Realism”[17] is rooted in Ryszard Krynicki’s Socialist Realism (translated into Vietnamese by Hoàng Ngọc Biên on Tiền Vệ). Lý Đợi rearranges and juxtaposes originals lines with newly added details: 

The ghost is a dove of peace
The corpse is a plate of party snacks
With a small bottle of white rice wine, a red bottle
The white flag — planted in the center of the beak
Fiddled back and forth
Sitting down standing up
By the ice cream seller
serene afternoon
along the yellow plaster wall
in alley 47
several eavesdroppers
snake-like faces
unable to bite
how bitter

The poem “Recent excavation of Vietnamese identity”[18] is another example of the contemporary folk genre, which has its origin in a TalaCù[19] issue published in December 2005. A humorous story reports that a peasant from Thanh Hóa has discovered the Vietnamese cultural identity while digging a fishpond. The protagonist, a peasant known as Mr. Cù (“Cù” meaning “to tickle” in Vietnamese), proclaims, “We were digging about five meters deep when we came upon a strange object. When my brothers and I hauled it up, I immediately suspected it was the Vietnamese identity because I thought it looked very weird.”

However, the poem’s concluding commentary seems to significantly diminish the humor of this poetic-folk story: 

Vietnamese cultural identity
It looks like a rotting cadaver
Like an old pillow
Like a pus-filled wound
Hauled from the sludge
Reeking of death

Here, as the boundary is blurred between the primary text and the secondary, between the translated and the retranslated, the hunt for the origin again proves to be futile. Lý Đợi consumes poetry and is willing to let poetry dissipate the way we consume the daily news. I presume that when translated into another language and uprooted from the Vietnamese vernacular, Lý Đợi’s poems lose much of their humor and satirical meaning. The poems are most animate and organic when read by the author himself in his hometown cadence of Điện Bàn (Quảng Nam province) to which I have had the chance to listen at the famous Arhat Chamber of Open Mouth poets in Sài Gòn.

It has been commonly suggested that Open Mouth’s use of pastiche as a rhetorical device and political disposition offers nothing original since the readymade art movement of repurposing old material and reconfiguring past masterpieces has become a cliché. Might “cemetery poetry” be dead? Is Dada indeed gone? I imagine that art movements, once they have ceased in a certain context, could enter rebirth in another. The value of Open Mouth’s poetic texts or their inventive edge compared to the primary texts lies in their capacious interaction with context and intertextuality — the “text” here is understood as social-political-cultural texts. When the text is inherently intertextual, it should no longer be evaluated as a complete work in which words bear the mission to carry value, but rather an infinitely unfolding cultural reaction across different contexts, spaces, and reading movements.

A sample of Open Mouth’s poetry collections published by Scrap Press.
A sample of Open Mouth’s poetry collections published by Scrap Press. 

The practice of “trash poetry” and “trash art” was so widely shared and spread in Vietnamese contemporary art and literature. The diasporic poet Nguyễn Đăng Thường had previously self-registered his copyright of a Vietnamese nonpoetry poetry genre in which he uses negative prefixes as a way to concoct new poetry from preexisting works. Phan Bá Thọ self-published a collection titled Endless Pile of Trash (Đống rác vô tận). Nguyễn Quốc Chánh,[20] in an interview by Lý Đợi, responded:

My poetry certainly belongs to the tradition of trash. Because Vietnam is a trash can of both the east and west. Over a thousand years of struggling and sleeping with Chinese, Western, Japanese, American and Russian empires, Vietnam has acquired a uniquely tragic fate, both coquettish and noble, identical to the life of Ms. Kiều[…] The bickerings between the old and the new, between tradition and renovation, ultimately are inner [nội] projects –inner wars/mongolia/furniture/chores/bài[21] —between two eastern and western filaments of trash. In this cultural milieu where pig’s trotters stand in for dog meat, my solution is: consume and dispose as quickly as possible these fresh strands of trash, both eastern (heresy) and western (venom).

In the vein of trash art, a 2010 controversial exhibition titled Debris (Xà bần),a component of the Concrete Cutting and Drilling project, gathered a number of painters and artists around Ngô Lực’s painting studio with the idea of creating a “no curator, no manifesto” space and “exhibiting only conceptual trash.” These artists’ effort to decenter artistic behavior and space counteracts the top-down approach of highly intellectualized and alienating spaces like foreign cultural centers and opulent galleries. The exhibition does not evoke beauty, and thus, what normally passes as aesthetics becomes questionable. The event, at the very least, signals a wriggling resistance against repressive systems of control, especially invisible mechanisms perpetuated by the knowledge system that possess the power to name and label others. Certainly, unresolved questions linger on, concerning what generates visual allure, what makes certain works haunting or what constitutes the relationship between art and politics in “trash poetry” and “trash art.” 

An installation view of the exhibition Debris, Ngô Lực’s painting studio, Sài Gòn, 2010. Image courtesy of Ngô Lực.
An installation view of the exhibition Debris, Ngô Lực’s painting studio, Sài Gòn, 2010. Image courtesy of Ngô Lực. 

Returning to Open Mouth’s practice of “trash poetry,” “filthy poetry” and “cemetery poetry,” the poets have caused a ruckus on conventional poetic materials. They have destabilized or, at the very least, forced readers to reflect on, the secure rank of poeticized language in nice-looking letters, metaphors, rhetorical devices, and renovation efforts that exclusively hinge on “pure” language. Open Mouth’s revolution in language should not be defined as an establishment of a new canon; it is essential for the enrichment of Vietnamese literary language and the demolition of winsome things masqueraded as poetry. 

Open Mouth, once more 

My entire analysis of Open Mouth’s practice, ranging from their manifesto to their practice of “trash,” “filthy,” and “cemetery” poetry, with a special focus on their early phase, is an effort to reconstruct a picture of Open Mouth as a poetry group. The core question concerns their survival strategy as poetry practitioners and not as a sociocultural group of agitators whom Vietnamese authorities have labeled as “dissidents.” A couple of ajar questions on the innovative and revolutionary quality of their poetry practices might, however, extend the conversation on their potential. Might the poets continue their individual journeys or “is that all [the end]”?

With these questions in mind, I would be remiss to overlook a significant body of works by Open Mouth, which could be seen as their transition from thriving trash into explicitly sociopolitical poetry, a hazardous species of taboo in Vietnam. Reacting against a corrupt and volatile society, the works of this period indeed positioned themselves in the stream of Vietnamese dissident poetry. Many poems by Bùi Chát, Lý Đợi, and Khúc Duy during this period revolved around the 2005 cancellation of their reading at the Goethe Institute, the police interrogations and the poets’ relevant correspondences and discussions of the regime. In the collection When Our Enemy Falls Asleep, Lý Đợi vehemently exhibits journalistic qualities in his streak of “consumerist poetry,” which offers social and cultural commentaries. In the collection Single-rhyme Poem, in which the “single rhyme” revolves around the keyword “communism,” Bùi Chát uncovers his ambition to overthrow the language of ideology with its propagandist slogans and chronic delusions. The following excerpt of the poem Thói (Habits)[22] by Bùi Chát, through a series of imperative sentences, bears the entrenched paradoxes of human society: 

- Sirs please let us know the truth!
- Sirs please let us sleep with our wives/husbands!
- Sirs please let us breathe!
- Sirs please let us have justice in court!
- Sirs please let us think differently!
- Sirs please let us combat corruption!
- Sirs please let us have free speech!
- Sirs please let us congregate on the sidewalk!
- Sirs please let us write this poem!

In my personal view, these poems’ directly political content perhaps no longer shares the same exploratory path with Open Mouth’s earlier “trash,” “filthy” and “cemetery” poetry. Associated with topical media manipulations and the latest political scandals or conspiracies, these works might easily turn into propaganda in their overzealous antipropaganda. Their political implications are easily misunderstood or coopted, and therefore, considered threatening: the cultural police’s “engagement” with Open Mouth could be regarded as both creative repression and governmental precaution against “political acts disguised as literature.” As a bleak result of a past long saturated with poetry strictly serving politics, the term political poetry in Vietnam today continues to rely on a severely narrow, literal, and ideological definition of politics. As literary discourses become mere wordplay and the social function of literature comes under suspicion, the rise of Open Mouth’s explicitly political poems seems to reduce not only the aesthetics but the resonant politics of the group’s earlier period.

I would argue that Open Mouth’s most significant achievement is their aggressive all-out war on conventional poetic material, a militant operation that has unraveled important questions on the fate of language — which doubles as the fate of human beings — in a cultural and political milieu. It is with this operation that Open Mouth’s presence has become a text larger than linguistic texts as a result and reflection of Vietnam’s particular social context — a space of fury and anxiety with stringent cultural policies and underground angst, an apt milieu for rebellion, chaos, and nihilism. The choice to annihilate personal poetics in exchange for a different conception of poetry-making as a participatory act is, for me, Open Mouth’s most poetic expression. In a way, these poets have sacrificed their personal breakthrough potential for their vision of a collective practice. It is Open Mouth’s violent collision with and emancipation from the rigid order of poetic language and material, rather than their social declarations or commentaries, that made Open Mouth’s aesthetical resistance (or resistant aesthetics). Such unique politics, in turn, has provided the necessary conditions for, if not wholly become, for the pioneering quality of their practice.

Although I wouldn’t regard Open Mouth as the representative of a generation, for the past couple decades, they have remained a robust and prominent voice that fervently calls for the demolition of authoritarian fortresses in Vietnamese literature, namely, the “Berlin Walls” of conspicuous censorship bureaus and invisible routines of making and reading poetry that hover like truth-preserving institutions in the language of ideology. Open Mouth forces us, the readers in Vietnam, to resist getting drunkenly caught up in anarchy and take a sober look at the surrounding chaos, a space where all entities seem to be thrashing about, agitating for disruption, entertaining ridicule, facing confrontation, and crying out for a rupture in normalized values to unbolt possibilities of literary play. The language of artistic refusal often embodies a generative virtue, especially as the past turns into dubious debris and the present, blazing disorder. And so, even as fleeting fantasies of breakthrough and metamorphosis crumble with chimerical visions of a new canon, even as changes here lead to congestions elsewhere, the refusal has opened up vital dreams and substantial thoughts. Disobedience bears its own import, perhaps demanding no utterance of apology or interpretation.

Click here to view poems by Bùi Chát.

Click here to view poems by Lý Đợi.

1. Translator’s note (TN): Open Mouth poets frequently play with corrupt spellings and diacritics in the original Vietnamese. Throughout the essay, the English translation is inevitably an approximation of their signature play.

2. On April 25, 2011, at the thirty-seventh International Book Fair, Bùi Chát, as the cofounder of Scrap Press, was awarded the Freedom to Publish Prize by the IPA which was founded in 1896 to protect human rights and authors’ rights, resist censorship, and honor the freedom to publish. Returning from the award ceremony, Bùi Chát was held at Tân Sơn Nhất airport for around forty-eight hours and got his passport confiscated along with the IPA’s certificate and two bilingual poetry collections: Bài thơ một vần (Single-rhyme poem) by Bùi Chát and Khi kẻ thù ta buồn ngủ (When Our Enemy Falls Asleep) by Lý Đợi, published by Eva Tass in 2010. Afterwards, Bùi Chát endured house searches and had his laptop and various other documents confiscated which, to this day (2018), have yet to be returned despite his multiple appeals. The information was recounted by Bùi Chát.

3. See Nhã Thuyên’s essay “The Possibilities and Limits of Play: Poetry and (Self) publishing Practices in Vietnam Today” in We, now, here, there, together | Chúng ta, lúc này, đây, đó, cùng nhau, ed. Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, Kaitlin Rees and Nhã Thuyên (Hanoi: AJAR Press, 2017).

4. Lý Đợi, “Poetry: we do not make poetry,” Talawas, April 16–17, 2004.

5. Lý, “Poetry.”

6. TN: Xaùo choän chong ngaøy mutates from the standard spelling of Xáo trộn trong ngày, meaning daily upheavals.

7. TN: “thơ jác từ jưởi” is a distortion of “thơ rác từ rưởi” (“rubbish poetry from refuse”).

8. Bùi Chát, Pardon me, can’t stand it (Sài Gòn: Scrap Press, 2007). TN: The title of the poem “Ablaze/Foggy/Opaque,” “Hỏa/mù/mờ,” works effectively in Vietnamese thanks to the monosyllabic structure of the Vietnamese language, which supports mischievous reassemblage. The breakdown and recombination of “hỏa” + “mù” (smoke screen) and “mù” + “mờ” (murky) produce a sum of total chaos.

9. Hoàng Hưng, “15 years in retrospect,” Talawas, June 12, 2004.

10. Bùi Chát, The Cunt that Got Away and Poems of Cursing [cursing-meddling, cursing-tumbling] (Sài Gòn: Scrap Press, 2004). Note: the poem’s title could be pronounced as vô địt (“no fuck”) in certain Northern dialects.

11. TN: Ba Giai, Tú Xuất and Thủ Thiệm were real-life nineteenth-century storytellers who became archetypal protagonists in the Vietnamese tradition of satirical folk tales.

12. nguyễn quốc chánh, “nguyễn quốc chánh, trịnh cung, phan nhiên hạo, chân phương, nguyễn viện, trần vũ:  Literature today viewed from the margins,” litviet, May 9, 2009.

13. Nguyễn Hưng Quốc, “And other animal kinds,” Tiền Vệ, November 20, 2003.

14. Văn Cao (1923–1995) was a popular Vietnamese painter, poet, and songwriter. He authored Vietnam’s official national anthem, Marching Song (Tiến quân ca), and was one of most well-recognized faces in Vietnamese modern music. He participated in the Nhân Văn-Giai Phẩm affair, a twentieth-century campaign led by Northern Vietnamese artists and writers to demand the freedom of speech. The movement was violently suppressed and silenced by the state in the 1950s, and Văn Cao was banned from writing for several decades. During his lifetime, only one poetry collection was published under the title Leaf (, New Work Press, 1988).

15. Bùi, Pardon me.

16. Bamboo Pen (BútTre) was a twentieth-century Vietnamese poet’s pseudonym and the style of popular folk poetry named after him.

17. Lý Đợi, When Our Enemy Falls Asleep (Sài Gòn: Scrap Press, 2010).

18. Lý, Enemy.

19. TN: TalaCù was the humor supplement of Talawas, an online Vietnamese literary magazine, forum, and archive that was closed down in 2010.

20. Nguyễn, Quốc Chánh, “In conversation with Lý Đợi: Poetry is to (poetically-indifferently) gouge a hole through which the humiliation (e.g. shame, lust, disgraced kings) stinks,” Talawas, July 26, 2004. 

21. TN: Inner bài, as in Nội bài, references the largest airport in Vietnam.

22. Bùi Chát, Single-rhyme Poem (Sài Gòn: Scrap Press, 2010).