An Interview with Truong Tran

Alex Rieser

Truong Tran is the author of five collections of poetry and a children's book. His first book of poetry The Book of Perceptions, published in 1999 by Kearny Street Workshop, was a finalist for The Kiriyama Prize. placing the accents, published in 1999 by Apogee Press, was a finalist for the Western States Book Prize for Poetry, and dust and conscience, also published by Apogee Press in 2002, was awarded the San Francisco State Poetry Center Book Prize. His most recent book is four letter words, also from Apogee Press. Lately, Truong has been more heavily focused on visual art. His website states that he is an artist first, and that his alter ego is the poet. His most recent work is a solo show entitled the lost and found, which premiered at the Mina Dresden Gallery in San Francisco’s Mission District in February of 2010. I sat down with the visual artist, poet, and educator at his home in the Haight to learn more about what led up to his book four letter words and his subsequent transition into visual art.

Switchback: I realize your fourth collection of poetry four letter words came out of a difficult period for you. The events surrounding that book seem to have been the catalyst for your movement away from written language as a medium. Before we go into this, I’d like to begin with what drew you to poetry in the first place. Did poetry do for you what other modes of art didn’t?


Truong Tran: To me a poem is always an exploration of the economics of language and space, the senses, and time. I am drawn to the density of poetry as it allows us to take something and force the tension into a compact container using such spare language. I also think that it has to do with my own fragmented consciousness; I have a hard time holding that narrative thread in a novelistic approach. I am much more comfortable with the fragments that poetry allows to exist.


SB: I see that exploration of fragments taking place in placing the accents. At the beginning the collection is dealing with whole memories and as it continues readers begin to see pieces.


TT: It disintegrates, and that was a real moment of discovery for me when I found that I didn’t have to write the whole story. That I could let it exist in the world and not feel like I had to arrive at an ending. My next discovery was to realize that nothing has really ended yet.

One of my literary heroes is Edmond Jabés. He’s written I believe around 26 volumes and he really does have this belief that his work is one continuous book.


SB: You have referred to your alter ego as being a poet. Although your students and the art community in San Francisco know you primarily as a poet, rather than a visual artist. Has your work through the lost and found art instillation eclipsed poetry for you, or do you see it as an extension of that work? Is it the next step?


TT: I reached a point in my writing life where I didn’t want to use words anymore. I didn’t trust language. So what I did was I went back to my four books of poetry to reconsider them in various ways, but without the additional creation of language. For placing the accents I am engaged in the act of erasing. I’m going through the book and crossing out the language that feels false to me, and a lot feels false. I wrote it almost twenty years ago at a time when I was very young and in school, and I was being told subtly who I am supposed to be, and that there is a particular story that I needed to tell. I was being compartmentalized. And I listened and I responded, and placing the accents is a response to that. I’m trying to erase that sense of pre-constructed self.

People get upset with me asking how is erasing yourself empowering? It is empowering because I’m erasing the other in that book, and I dare call that voice the other, when the other is usually designated for the marginalized voice in our society. But I’m calling that voice that dictated to me who I should be the other.

With four letter words, which is my last book, I chose to reinterpret every poem in that book as a visual work, and that work is the lost and found.


SB: I’d like to come back to the idea of the other and the compartmentalization of writers a bit later on. For the moment let’s focus on the lost and found. It’s interesting to me that the lost and found is a re-envisioning of four letter words. Many of the objects used in the pieces are trash, post-consumer products, things that serendipitously came into your possession; did the use of these objects come from a need to look outside of the self?


TT: It came from an exploration of the discarded self, and for the marginal people, ideas, experiences, all deemed not worthy for the subject of poetry. Reclaiming the discarded was a perfect metaphor for my transition into the visual world.


SB: How from your point of view has the lost and found been received?

TT: Someone recently said in a discussion about my work that it fees like the work is really refined, as though it’s gallery art. As if it was a bad thing. Because it’s trained and it feels like it’s such a finished project. In each piece a refined surface is projected; people look at the beauty of it, but they have a hard time looking at what’s beneath it. Let me give you an example. Someone went to an art show and said to me I want to use this piece, the butterfly piece, for my book of poems. 

So she bought the rights to use the work, and I sent her a hi-def image for the book cover. She came back to me and she said, Oh, it’s pornography. And I said, Yeah. She became reluctant to use it. Of course I said, It’s fine if you don’t want to use it. Again, this was someone who sees the surface and not what’s underneath, and I present the work in a way that allows both levels to be seen.

There have been academics who have thought that I’m exploring the politics of pornography in my visual art and my writing. In reality I have no interest in advocating for pornography, as I’m merely using porn as a metaphor. Porn is a surface, the real obscenity is the distraction from policies and issues that shape and define our country.

What happens in our country? We are in dire straights economically, and our former president evokes porn. He invokes the obscenity of two men being intimate, and what does that do? It confuses our consciousness. It merely distracts. Somehow a good segment of our society shifts their thinking and no longer are we wondering about the economic crisis, but of the obscene, of two men kissing or just the image of nakedness.

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