An Interview with Truong TranAlex Rieser
you are saying reflects the idea of a writer being compartmentalized. Someone
who has the ability to question their trajectory will certainly be able to
notice when the other is stepping in
and pointing them in a certain direction.
TT: It’s not always easy, and even very strong writers will unknowingly allow themselves to be influenced. I had a student who came to me and he said, I can’t get past this teacher. This guy is constantly telling me to write about my immigrant experience. It doesn’t seem like he has a whole lot of interest in the stuff that I’m doing and he keeps telling me that he wants me to write about my identity in this certain way. I just don’t have those memories.
I said, Let’s try something: why don’t you try to write a poem that responds to everything that he wants. So the student made up a poem that was completely fictitious, about going home to his country and seeking out the banana tree that he remembered from his youth, and he stood under the tree and felt the hollowness of his stomach again, the hunger came back, the hunger that he felt as a youth. It was a total sham. A farce. He turned it in. The professor loved it! The professor prompted him to submit the poem to be published.
The student came back to me and he said, Yeah my professor loved it. And I said, That’s because that is what he needs for you to be. That’s how he wants to see you. He does not want to see you as this experimental Ted Berrigan type of writer because in his mind you’ve already been compartmentalized. You inhabit a certain space and he’s causing you to inherit it. It’s not about you: it’s about the other. This student was learning how to put his own questioning into his work and the feedback that he was getting.
The teacher has the capacity to reprogram himself to believe that his student can exist outside of that space. Given that knowledge, what are you going to do now?
It’s the same both ways. I have a lot of young male white students who say to me, almost like they are envious, I don’t really have much to say because I am just a kid growing up in suburbia from a privileged background. It’s not like I’ve struggled. The young white male writer feels that their role is to inhabit the space of the innovator. They think, I don’t have a story to tell, but what I do have are these clever ideas. That’s a cop-out, because if you dig deep enough you will find something there. And you see this in the trend of poetry. The young white male writer is the innovator. But almost to the point where they’ve been pigeon-holed into the role of the innovator, just in the same way that the young writer of color, or the queer writer has to tell the story of their life from the margins or from their heartache. If they try to do anything other than that, they are not recognized.
SB: If you look at who is being taught today: O’Hara, Berrigan, Ginsberg, all of these people who are white mails being innovative, and being praised for it.
TT: It’s interesting how we all fall into our roles. It’s that same expectation that I am trying to speak out against in the act of erasing. Twenty years ago could I have written erasures and been accepted, probably not. There was no room for that. I realize it’s not about me, but the reader. They are programmed to see me a certain way. Most of us are not able to re-program ourselves. It’s a lot to think about.
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