An interview with Linh Dinh
Note: This interview was first published in Arabic on March 15, 2015 in Al Arab and Al Jadeed, both of London. Among American poets, Linh Dinh is unique in that he writes regularly for several political webzines and also appeared regularly, for a few years, on Iran’s Press TV as well as Russia Today. His primary audience, then, is a non-poetry one, and he reaches them through an active blog that features photos, essays, and poems. — Tahseen al-Khateeb
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.
al-Khateeb: How is it possible for you to freely separate between those “two writers sharing one brain”? How (and when) do you decide to write “this” in Vietnamese and “that” in English? The “brain” decides, or the poem itself chooses its tongue, cadence, and transformations?
Dinh: I became reacquainted with the Vietnamese language by reading its literature and translating it. While living in the US, I translated and published Vietnamese folk poetry and a book of new Vietnamese fiction. In 1999, I returned to live in Vietnam for two years and a half, and so I became very comfortable with Vietnamese, and yet, even then, I continued to write in English. It was during my time in Vietnam that I felt challenged to write in Vietnamese, but this did not happen until I left. In fact, I wrote and published my first Vietnamese poems while living in Italy, where I stayed for two years. As you well know, each language has its unique shades, hues, quirks, wickedness, and sense of humor, and so a man who switches from one language to another becomes, essentially, a different actor. The Vietnamese language accentuates some of my emotional tendencies, but so does English. One language may be snarkier, starker, drier, more morose or abrupt than another, and syntaxes vary considerably, so a man who’s familiar with at least two languages will inflect or contaminate each with the other. Since my Vietnamese writing shows American influences, both emotionally and linguistically, the reverse must be true also. Before I could write directly in Vietnamese, I merely translated my English language poems into Vietnamese. Later, though, some of my Vietnamese writing was so immersed in the language, it couldn’t even be translated into English. The subject matters of some of these poems or essays would not be of much interest to an American audience anyway. For the last six years, however, I’ve been so preoccupied with my Postcards from the End of America project that I’ve written nothing in Vietnamese except for a poem and, for the occasion of the Vietnamese new year, three disquieting essays for a high-circulation Vietnamese-American journal.
al-Khateeb: You talked about your “reacquaintance” with the Vietnamese language by reading and translating its literature. And also about the “return” or “the coming back” to live again in Vietnam, when you “felt” yourself challenged to write in your own mother tongue, but you couldn’t write any, until you left, and were living in Italy. Does that mean that you could find your own “Vietnamese literary voice” — if I may say — only in exile? Especially when we read that your first book, Fake House (2000) was confiscated at Saigon’s post office when you went to pick up an author’s copy! Was that “switching” point between the two languages you talked about — between their unique shades — needed for you to be far away from the land where you were born, the land that “confiscated your first book,” to achieve that “point of departure” from one tongue to another?
Dinh: My graduation into writing in Vietnamese was a gradual, natural process, and not subjected to any design. I returned to Vietnam to get away from the United States, then came back to the US to get away from Vietnam, only to end up in Italy, thanks to the intercession of my New York publisher. I do want to say something about writing from the outside. As an immigrant, I had to learn English from scratch, and to this day, I’m liable to make a basic mistake at any moment, but this precariousness is actually good, since it forces me to watch my step at each moment. As I’ve said to novelist Matthew Sharpe in an interview, “I’m a hyperconscious writer.” That said, all writers are already hyperconscious, or at least much more paranoid about language than your average person. If you tussle with language at all, you know how tough, slippery, and devious it is, and can make you look ridiculous at any moment. Further, any writer knows that language is an extremely malleable conceit, and its naturalness is merely a goofy illusion. Each word is bizarre, much less a bunch of them strung together, and it is often the native speaker who butchers his language worst of all, yet is quite gleeful and insolent about it. Commenting about one of my postcards, a reader suggested that I should “ingrate” myself into more communities. Of course, he meant “ingratiate,” but even that is wrong, for I’m just observing and talking to people, and not trying to kiss their asses for ulterior gains. Thinking of the wrong word, he confused it with another that’s even more inappropriate. Of course, everyone makes linguistic mistakes nearly constantly, but since a writer is always dealing with language, he has many more chances to mess up.
With so many mind-scrambling gadgets, comprehension is more elusive than ever, but this doesn’t prevent the sloppy reader and thinker from having vehement opinions on just about everything, and he’s not shy about spewing his malaprop, off-the-cuff gibberish. If this was relatively rare, it could be laughingly dismissed, but one sees it everywhere now, so it has become a societal handicap, no less, and one that greatly assists the criminal elites in their husbandry of the bleating flock.
Getting back to the theme of writing from the outside, I published this in the American Poetry Review in 2004: “I’ve come to realize that I much prefer to live on the periphery of the English language, so that I can steer clear of the tyranny of its suffocating center. In this sense, I am a quintessential American. A Unapoet, I like to homestead just beyond the long reach of Washington […] Hearing the rapid syllables of a foreign language, a bigot is infuriated because he’s reduced to the status of an infant. Poets, on the other hand, should welcome all opportunities to become disoriented. To not know what’s happening forces one to become more attentive and to fill in the blanks. Hence, poetry.”
al-Khateeb: Please explain what you mean by Unapoet?
Dinh: Though highly educated, the Unabomber lived in a primitive shack in Montana, away from mainstream society, so by calling myself a Unapoet, I was pointing out my existence away from mainstream America, which in that sentence is depicted as “the long reach of Washington.” There is an American phrase, “the long arm of the law,” meaning law enforcement can get you anywhere, and Washington, as “the world’s police,” can harass or even kill people worldwide. American culture also distorts one’s perception, so by living outside of it (at the time), and away from its media and language, I could see the world (and America itself) more clearly. Though I’m back in the US now, I exist on the fringe and am connected to no institution. Like the Unabomber, I try to maintain my mental independence.
Though I don’t send bombs to people, like the Unabomber, I understand his frustration with mainstream society.
al-Khateeb: Are you familiar with Arabic poetry and literature?
Dinh: I must admit to knowing next to nothing about Arabic literature. Nevertheless, I’ll attempt a few observations about Mahmoud Darwish, since all writers can learn much from his life and work. First off, it is instructive and inspiring to see a poet who was deeply engaged politically, his entire life, without compromising his creative development. In fact, it was precisely his courageous willingness to grapple with the gravest crises affecting his community that gives his work such gravity. Though he tapped into timeless themes such as loss and homelessness, he never lapsed into a philosophical resignation, but struggled for justice, meaning, and his people until the very end. He believed that words, and thus poetry, must matter. Though he didn’t always write for the masses, he could reach them at will, and this achievement has become so rare that I can’t think of a contemporary example. Although Darwish wrote many private poems that drew strictly from his personal life, he never forgot that poetry’s most challenging and noble task was to give voice to an entire people. “A nation is as great as its ode,” Darwish claimed most interestingly, because the implication is that a people’s greatest canto, song, or poem is its highest achievement, and not its pyramids, cathedrals, skyscrapers, or aircraft carriers. Now, of course a poet will say that, you snicker, since it inflates his own status, but since words can survive even when bricks and stones have been pulverized, or when the country itself has been disfigured or dismantled, Darwish’s assertion rings truer than ever.
In the early twentieth century, when the French had already colonized Vietnam for sixty-odd years, a Vietnamese intellectual, Pham Quynh, pronounced that as long as the nation’s epic poem Truyen Kieu survives, the language and nation survive. This statement echoes, somewhat, Darwish’s claim, but a people can’t merely settle for a linguistic home. It can’t feed and clothe its children or have a proper, dignified place in the world with just a song, no matter how great, so it’s essential that the Palestinians, like the Vietnamese, regain their territory. Although there are ambiguities in Darwish’s work, its overriding statement is abundantly clear, and that’s that Palestine has been stolen from the Palestinians by the Jews, to which he famously addressed:
From you the sword — from us the blood
From you steel and fire — from us our flesh
From you yet another tank — from us stones
From you tear gas — from us rain
It is time for you to be gone
Live wherever you like, but do not live among us
It is time for you to be gone
Die wherever you like, but do not die among us
For we have work to do in our land
In this entire poem, there is no bloodthirsty vengefulness, but merely a logical and quite restrained request for the invaders to get out!
al-Khateeb: As you have been lately involved in politics, how do look at the horrors done by the American administration(s) to other nations: the invasion of Iraq and of Afghanistan, for instance? And what about their endless support for the Israelis despite their shameless war crimes against the Palestinians, whether in Gaza, or elsewhere?
Dinh: Oil and Israel are the two reasons for American criminality against the Muslim world. Without these factors, Muslims would not be so demonized and attacked by Americans, and this pattern will continue as long as Israel and oil remain. Israel is an unprecedented historical mistake, for it makes no sense to claim a right of return for Jews after 2,000 years, but deny the same to Palestinians after six decades, though many have lost their homes much more recently, for this landgrab is an ongoing process that won’t end until all Palestinians disappear from “the Jewish homeland.” It’s tragic and farcical that a Chinese Jew can move to Jerusalem tomorrow, but not an exiled Palestinian who still has the key to his ancestral home. Israel is a violent concept that is executed and maintained with terror, and by this I mean American-sponsored Jewish terror, though these world-class terrorists are so relentless with their propaganda, they have made “terrorist” nearly synonymous with their enemy, the Muslim. There is hope for Palestinians, however, for as the USA implodes, Israel will also go up in smoke. Working in tandem, the US and Israel have collapsed several Muslim governments and generated millions of refugees. The same fate awaits Israel, though its dissolution should be permanent, for only then will peace come.
Those living outside the US can’t fathom the American media’s extreme bias towards Israel. During the 2014 attack on Gaza, for example, American television viewers were only shown images of Palestinian buildings being blown up from afar, as if there were no people working or living in them. No corpses were seen being pulled from rubbles. While Palestinian victims stayed invisible, a single missing Israeli soldier had stories about him, with his portrait featured to emphasize his humanity. Unlike Palestinians, this Jew had a face. Female Israeli soldiers were shown sobbing over their fallen (male) comrades. When the massacre of Palestinians was finally over, there were articles about how quickly Gaza had gotten back to normal, so it was no big deal, you see, this butchering of 2,192 people (as compared to seventy-seven deaths on the Israeli side). As if to prove this point, photos were shown of bustling Gaza streets, with kids happily playing.
On American television, there’s a peculiar show called “Inside Israeli Basketball.” Since the level of hoops in Israel is not particularly high, and its b-ballers are entirely unknown to an American audience, there is no sporting reason for this program, except that basketball is only a pretext to display Israel in a banal, and hence benign, light. Game footage and practice scenes make up only a small part of this show, for the camera often follows the players or coaches of Maccabi Haifa, the featured team, all over Israel. (Everywhere, of course, except Gaza and other troubled spots.) In one scene, one might visit a lovely beach, while in another, enter a Palestinian restaurant. Here, two teammates, an Israeli and a black American, enjoy camel rides, and one can see that they’re very chummy with each other. The American, Ike Ofoegbu, gushes, “Here in Israel, the guys are very nice. They speak English, first of all, so they can interact with you. They’re really friendly […] To finally be here in Israel is very exciting. I’m just blessed to be here.” Highly unusual for a reality show, there is no rancor or argument in “Inside Israeli Basketball,” and no trashy behavior at all. Here, you won’t find any screaming, backstabbing, jealousy, or drunkenness, though these are the staples of just about every other reality show on American television. Always depicting Israel in an idyllic and harmonious light, this show is no more than propaganda, then, a carefully crafted mask to hide the endless violence needed to maintain this sham nation.
al-Khateeb: Though your poems were anthologized in the Best American Poetry series 2000, 2004, and 2007, and two of your prose poems were included in David Lehman’s groundbreaking book Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present (2003), and though Village Voice selected your short story collection Blood and Soap as one of the best books of 2004, I sense, in one way or another, that your are still “away” of the mainstream literary scene. Is it so?
Dinh: Yes, I’m only a tiny blip on the American literary scene, a barely noticed writer. My ten books of all types have gotten only a handful of reviews. A writer’s only task, though, is to become a better writer, and since this is a lifelong, all-encompassing quest, it should leave him no time to worry about his career. Instead of schmoozing and networking with other writers, I’ve been getting drunk with plumbers, roofers, cashiers, jailbirds, and cops, etc. If given a choice to spend an afternoon with a National Book Award winner or a manicurist, I’d choose the latter. Once a year, professional American poets attend a convention where they can suck up and screw down. Craig Santos Perez sums it up, “you get to travel to a fun city, you get to hear / meet many poets, editors, and publishers, you get to learn many things at panels, you get discount books, you get to eat at new restaurants, you get to dance, you get drunk, you get laid — what’s not to like?” While that may sound terribly exciting to many poets, I’m not at all interested. Moreover, my politics, dozens of appearances on Iran’s Press TV, and opinions about Israel don’t make me any more popular among my American peers, but, again, a writer should just concern himself with thinking, seeing, and listening a whole lot better, and not fret about his professional standing. Instead of ingratiating, he should just hone his chops. I do care very much about making sense to everyone who’s not a writer, however, and in this regard, I’ve made progress, for many ordinary people have sent money to support my Postcards from the End of America project. As a reader, I have to go way outside the mainstream to nourish my mind and spirit, so I don’t mind being on the periphery as a writer.
al-Khateeb: Publisher’s Weekly — in their review of your poetry collection, American Tatts (2005) — described you as “the rising star of the small-press world,” and talked about your “acrid ironies, [and] unmitigated disgust,” saying that “exploring disgust while toying with frames and assumptions, [you] become in one sense a real heir to Charles Bukowski.” To what extent do you think that those “acrid ironies” and that “unmitigated disgust” make you a “real heir to Bukowski”?
Dinh: I haven’t read a whole lot of Bukowski and, frankly, don’t see him as an inspiration. I do admire very much, though, his working-class existence, and his deep sympathy for bottom dwellers of all kinds. He was comfortable around struggling people or outright losers, but along this line, American literature also has Jack London and William T. Vollmann, and Mark Twain also knew how to get down and dirty. The notion that literature wells up from the bottom I also got from reading Vietnamese folk poems. Along with what’s beautiful or transcendent, there’s plenty that’s foul, alarming, or disgusting, so one must examine the whole gamut to have a balanced view of humanity and life. Cesar Vallejo urged, “doubt your feces for a moment,” but the implication here is that shit often weighs on our minds. As a young man, I was also exposed to that crazy lineage of French writers which sprung from Rabelais and peaked with Artaud. From Louis-Ferdinand Celine, I learnt that a writer should never flinch.
al-Khateeb: You translated Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into the Vietnamese, and the same work was also translated by the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh. Why Eliot? And why “The Waste Land”?
Dinh: 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. A while back, I was asked about my opinions on translation, and below are some of my observations:
The best way to criticize an imperfect translator is to do a better translation.
Doing this, you’ll make the imperfect, offensive translation, which you’ve sucked on and tweaked only slightly, disappear forever from the face of this earth.
The many resistances in the source poem force the translator to compensate and invent, enriching the language he is translating into.
In both cases, you have one culture or language trying to accommodate another. This meeting point, this border, this collision of avant-gardes, is where the new, improvised and unexpected can happen.
I’m not a translator so much as a tightrope walker between two unreliable dictionaries.
The worst translators are parasites and conmen, the best ones are parasites and pimps. I tend to think of myself as an honest and totally selfless charity worker.
al-Khateeb: Some of your short stories were published in anthologies and magazines as prose poems? First of all, do you believe in a “borderline” between prose and poetry? Then, is there any difference between prose poems and short stories? And, finally, what makes a “piece of writing” a good prose poem?
Dinh: There is definitely a border between prose and poetry, but the two forms do blend into each another. Most people think of a poem as having line breaks, and these dictate how a poem is read, but when there are no line breaks, can it still be a poem? Of course. Take Rimbaud’s “Phrases,” for example. Its absence of a narrative, ecstatic cadence and abrupt shifts within a sentence, and between sentences and paragraphs, all mark it as a poem. In fact, this is poetry at its purest:
“Should I have realized all your memories,— should I be the one who can bind you hand and foot, — I shall strangle you.”
It takes a poet to come up with “realized all your memories,” and to make the leap from “bind you,” in a love poem, mind you, to “strangle you.”
A similar passage might appear in the middle of a novel, and if it does, that’s also poetry.
Conversely, many poems may have line breaks and rhymes, but contain only a minimal amount of poetry, if at all.
Though written in prose, Kafka’s beautifully compact “The Wish to be a Red Indian” is also poetry. Since there’s no story there, it can’t be a short story.
Generally speaking, poetry is more tightly wound than prose, so you should get more protein with each bite. If this doesn’t happen, you must promptly spit it out, demand a full refund (even if you didn’t pay anything) and curse the fake poet, if not beat him up!
al-Khateeb: In your poems, you depict the “borderless body,” not only as a naked existence where the “soul blossomed” — an existence that is open wide, “cleaned from all obsolete and labored presumptions”; the body “blends into all humans, animals and things” and “naked, walks through the street as the very first human,” but also as an “erotic” existence that tends to free the body from its own “chamber music,” from its own “language and meat,” from its “obsolete maps”: to overflow and seep into a “defiant puddle.” Do you think that one can never be a true poet without celebrating the “body electric”?
Dinh: This borderless body suggests the immigrant, a child in the womb, rapists, spouses, sitting in a bar, and empathy. Human bodies are really one continuum that has been tragically yet mercifully broken up. If you’re cut, I should feel pain, and vice versa, and when we’re at our best, that’s exactly what happens. Too often, though, people derive an orgasmic pleasure from watching another body being violated by a drone missile or a bomb. Excited, they cheer. Elias Canetti talks about how instinctively humans laugh at seeing somebody falling, and he traces this to our days as flesh hunters. Since a fallen body represents meat, we laugh out of joy. Beside this atavistic impulse, however, we also rush to help the fallen because we recognize the body in distress as our own. The American entertainment industry, though, is relentless in pushing the fantasy of the super predator, somebody who’s capable of destroying countless bodies “of the bad guys.” With its mesmerizing war and “action” films, Hollywood has amplified, to an insane degree, all of our worst sadistic tendencies. Sex, too, has become a matter of body count, but this is perfectly in line with the American obsession with numbers. As for your question about being a “true poet,” there are so many types of poets out there, but I’d say the majority of them are not about grappling with the body’s hidden logics, but smothering these with verbiage, for language, after all, is most often used to dissimulate and disguise everything, and not just the body. Having said that, neurotic poetry has its place, so a poet who always sidesteps the many bodies lying all around him, some smiling, some freshly killed, also has his place. Just days ago, a Vietnamese poet asked me to translate something, and so I did, “I’m aroused. I’m horny. I’m a whore. I’m an aroused whore. I’m an extremely horny whore.” I’m not sure if she needed that for her Facebook page, or if she was communicating directly to me, but it was clearly her body starting to speak. Not one to be rude, my body spoke back to her, but alas, only by email. Such is our postmodern world.
al-Khateeb: You spent the last seven years photographing the homeless, the angry, the “rebels” of America — or what I might call “the borderless bodies,” borrowing the title of one of your books. Can you elaborate more on this “journey of the soul,” if I may say? What things, in the first place, moved you to do such a thing: to document the other/the real/the outrageous face of America? And to where, through those photos, do you want us to go?
Dinh: Actually, it has only been six years. I started this photography project in 2009, when I got my first professional camera. At the time, I was making these art videos that incorporated poetry and still photography, but with my new camera, I started to roam the streets. Years before, I had been a housepainter, so had known my city fairly well, but by 2009, I had become too alienated from it. I was staying home too much and sitting in front of the computer. It’s telling that the last two major movements in American poetry, Flarf and Conceptual Poetry, are both media-based and inspired. Like everybody else, many poets are enthralled by the Internet. What you have, then, is language feeding on itself. Gleefully recycling its own waste, it stares at its flabby folds in the mirror.
Any important shift in society will show up in art, so if you have a blossoming bourgeoise, you’ll see more middle-class images, and the advent of the newspaper, with its odd juxtapositions of serious news with ads, will usher in the collage. By the early twentieth century, the newspaper had become a part of daily life in modern societies, so people were conditioned to seeing, say, a story about a murder or a rape next to an advertisement for shoes or candies. On a single page, you will see tragedies mingling with the ridiculous or trivia. These common yet jarring juxtapositions in low culture triggered similar strategies found in collage artists, surrealists, Dadaists — then, later, pop artists, etc. What’s often lauded as radical art, then, is no more than an echo of a larger societal change, so it’s really conformist in the extreme, and not radical at all. In a hypermediated culture, the most radical act is to say no to all buffers and regain, touch by touch and one face-to-face conversation at a time, a more tactile reality, for it is, after all, your naked birthright.
Here, I’m talking about a resistance to media, not just its contents but its forms, and to clarify, I’ll give you an example from my own life. In my late twenties, I decided to stop listening to recorded music. First off, it’s highly unnatural and, I contend, even a sign of madness to subject oneself to endless noises that interfere with one’s thinking and perception of the world. Music should be occasional, and by this I mean triggered by a very specific occasion, and not something kept on constantly to make its listeners deranged. Remove this buffer of recorded music and everything in the room becomes instantly more intense. Having said all this, I’d occasionally check out a song on, say, YouTube, just so I’d know what’s happening in the culture. After reading about Miley Cyrus’ supposed twerking, for example, I watched her performance on YouTube. Also, in my daily life, I can’t help but hear recorded music, but when I’m at home, I function completely in silence.
With this conviction, I’ve walked out my door much more often, and just about everything I’ve seen contradicts what’s broadcast relentlessly through the mainstream media, for daily, we’re being told that the economic recovery is on course and unemployment is down, all positive news, but these are all lies, for if you’d walk down American streets and talk to ordinary Americans, you’d know how bad the situation is. Also, the parts of America that are most often seen by visitors are also extremely misleading, for Manhattan, Northwest Washington, DC, or Miami Beach, etc., are but a glossed-up façade to hide the rot that’s spreading across this country.
For a while now, I have been aware of this nation’s downward trajectory. In 2005, I taught a class called “State of the Union.” In it, I asked students to pay attention to their country’s political, economic, and social unraveling, and I challenged them to write politically relevant poetry. Though I’ve taught this writing workshop at various universities, I’ve pretty much stopped getting invitations to teach or even to read, and part of this is because of the deteriorating economy, but the bigger reason, I suspect, is because of my politics. You can’t expect the academy to embrace you when you keep calling it a Ponzi scheme!
Gouging students, American universities send young people to banks for loans that many can never repay, and it is the professors’ job to hypnotize them into thinking they have a bright future. Saddled with terrible, sometimes suicidal debts, many will be stuck with low paying jobs that don’t even require a college education, and even those with “practical” degrees will tumble into this abyss, for a collapsing American economy can’t absorb its many college graduates. As if this isn’t bad enough, foreign professional workers, as in engineers, doctors, and nurses, etc., are also being imported to knock wages down. Though this is done deliberately to benefit employers, it’s cloaked as a benevolent immigration policy so that anyone who questions it is accused of being a racist.
A huge pool of desperate graduates will also keep professors’ wages down and render them dispensable, so what you have are all these docile and conformist intellectuals who are terrified of losing their jobs. The academy, then, is not a hotbed of debates but a padded playpen that delimits the terms of the discussion. There, only the more superficial or privately indulgent kinds of radicalism will be tolerated, for these don’t upset the status quo or alarm the moneyed interests that are wrecking not just this country, but the entire world.
In sum, my project is a diary of America’s ongoing collapse, and I’ve learnt much from roaming around. Before I started, I had never been to a tent city, for example, nor had I seen Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Although Camden is only across the river from where I live, I didn’t know it because, like most people, I had no reason to go there. With its absurdly high crime rates, it’s also considered off-limits. Now, I have a much better understanding of Camden, as well as dozens of other cities I would not have visited. I’ve talked to hundreds of people I would not have approached.
It is ironic, though, that the Internet provides me with a platform to report what I’m seeing and hearing. A rationale for this project is a rejection of media, of living life through a screen, but I’m only reaching you via a screen. For those living in the States, though, my images and words can only confirm what many are already experiencing, and if not, my project is an invitation to go out and see for yourself what’s happening. For those outside the US, my project can be a window into an alternative America, one that’s almost never seen. Mentally trapped in a virtual reality dished up daily by the mainstream media, even many Americans are not aware of how destitute or squalid huge swaths of their country have become. American poverty, though, is not the same as, say, the Vietnamese kind, and having lived in four different countries as an adult, and traveled to a few more, I do have some perspective on this.
America’s relative affluence, though, is a direct result of her status as a super power. Running up the largest trade deficit ever, she is worse than broke, but merchandises continue to flow in thanks to the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency, but this arrangement is unsustainable. Soon enough, Americans will wake up to their true poverty, but in the meantime, the image that’s still projected to the rest of the world is a USA that’s obscenely rich, confident, fun, and free of worries. As Harold Pinter said, “As a salesman [America] is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It’s a winner,” so there’s a widening gap between the virtual America and the real one. When I posted a couple images of my own kitchen recently, a reader responded:
This might sound weird, but the photos of your kitchen are sort of reassuring. I live in the UK, and my kitchen is pretty much like yours, maybe a bit bigger but everything is from the 1970s and just staggering along. No dishwasher, etc. My US friends look aghast at me — “no dishwasher? how do you survive?” And I think, “What planet are you visiting from?” The advertising pics of America show huge kitchens, even the sitcoms of supposedly “poor” people show incredible kitchens, and meanwhile there’s a hugely populated layer of people in the US (and the UK) that live on microwave meals or fast food because there’s no place for them to cook anything. And then they get fat (and malnourished) from eating crap, and rich folks like my hedge-fund brother say “look at that fat bastard, I’m not paying my taxes to support that.”
The aim of my project, then, is to document the more hidden aspects of this country and also, through my political writing, to attempt to explain why it has become this way. Personally, this has resulted in my becoming more in touch with my city, country, and time. I was tired of being in the poetry ghetto.