The Possibilities and Limits of Play:
Poetry and (Self) publishing Practices in Vietnam Today
Straining to give poetic existences their visibility, through acts of writing and publishing that I have undertaken without knowing where they will lead me, I prefer to envision the effort as an inspirational encounter rather than an ambitious idea, as a dream of community rather than a promised vision, as a poetic means rather than a pragmatic goal. In this essay, through exposing some fragments of the generally outdated quixotic adventure stories bound up in passions for literature, I want to question the possibilities and/within the limitations of poetry’s connection to practices of independent (self) publishing, which continues to bear the label of ‘underground’ or ‘unofficial’ publishing in Vietnam today and thus cannot be detached from attempts to understand censorship and freedoms of expression. As a personal side note, the three parts of this essay have been difficultly written and rewritten many times, spanning over five years and evolving into these fragments as the most possible form, a form not detached from my own experience as an intuitive observer, a maker and a writer.
Sidewalk Publishing: a Political & Aesthetic Venture
AJAR: A Possibility of Play
Writing: a Choice
AJAR: A Possibility of Play
I imagine a playground where Vietnamese poetry is present without the haunting chains of an external censorship system. A place where Vietnamese poetry can be read and collide into other languages. Where drifting adventures meet, often unexpectedly, and share experi(ence)ments, aesthetic questions, generously and fruitfully. Where the writing of poetry is not detached from the reading of poetry, and the distribution of poetry in its community is not merely the distribution of manufactured products but rather a distribution of sense and beauty. Ideas of sharing in language through publishing started to take concrete shape in late 2013 when Kaitlin Rees and I, though certainly inexperienced, began to sketch a website, to read and translate poetry together, and make some very first books to nurture a toddling AJAR with the companionship of friends.
AJAR is something unprecedented in Hanoi: self-funded and unaffiliated with outside organizations and national institutions alike, the press is run by writers and their personal resources, as well as the support of readers. As self-introduced on the website: “AJAR is dedicated to the discovery of poetry and art in both ordinary and hidden places, providing a space for these works to be exhibited, loved, and challenged. As a bilingual journal and independent small press based in Hanoi, AJAR provides an opening for questions, imaginings, and poetic (im)possibility to be shared across borders, inhabiting language as it moves between worlds and words. In bringing fresh and critical voices of Vietnamese literature and art into English, and welcoming those voices from everywhere into Vietnamese, we focus on quality translations and envision books as artifacts of artistic collaboration.”
In terms of intention, AJAR operates under the premise of freedom and equality, not as a mode of independent publishing with aims to confront censorship in Vietnam. As such, we do not simply promote self-publishing acts and banned works for political reasons, nor do we desire to be a deviant thorn in the system. Rather, AJAR works to create a co-existing space, to preserve love for the solitary voice, to be occupied with exploration, to welcome the possibilities of writing and reading, to embrace the admirers, to invite poetic exchanges in a supportive community of friendship and love. The language of resistance is foreign to our way of thinking, though a battle itself may be the constant: in being reluctant to follow the well-worn paths, I can never finish questioning the limits and possibilities of attempts at co-existence.
Lacking legal security, the total absence of support from official media outlets limits distribution of the poetry products: without the right to sell at state-run bookstores, AJAR books are sold at independent bookstores only, which are scarce and highly controlled in Vietnam, or they are passed hand-to-hand through networks of friends, exhibited in a few cafes and galleries, or sold through an online shop. Distribution is more focused on an enduring sensibility: to make books and hand them over to readers as beautiful artifacts that give a presence to Vietnamese poetry, Vietnamese poetry in translation, and translations from other languages into Vietnamese. Reading new works or new authors gives us a chance to destabilize an aesthetic establishment and open ourselves up to perceive others. Possibilities of conversation between readers and writers spring from the pages of books, from the website, and from related events. Languages expand us: each issue of AJAR’s journal opens one word to explore in meaning and signification, as an open dictionary. The act of choosing a work to translate and publish is sometimes quite personal: we meet works that we’d love to see reborn in another language, we meet and become fond of authors and their languages, writers seek each other, a certain writer seeks us. There are those who have achieved fame, there are those just starting out. There are those who come and return, there are those who come and leave. There is care taken to balance the works from Vietnamese language with those from other languages, as the familiar faces with the absent or remote presences.
The question of (self) representation in translation parallels the need to exchange. To self-publish is to self-represent. To translate poetry is to make a representation inside another language. To self-represent does not mean to be isolated, rather to be on one’s own and invite a meeting with another. I love to be read in others’ languages. I learn to love these languages: an insecure love with a language I thought I knew, an anxious love with a language to which I am a stranger, all are adventures, educations, attempts to understand the languages of my loved ones. I have not considered being translated and represented in English as something ‘international’, but more, as an appreciation for the relationships between writing and reading found in another language. Expansion of the self lies in an encounter, not a reinforcement of privilege: we always need to converse, to meet five or ten more readers and converse. Or more simply, our dear friends are speaking a language and we would love to bring our language over to converse with them.
I hold stubbornly to the belief that there are neither major nor minor languages; there are only ways to care for and nurture different writing-reading communities. The distance between languages connects living curiosities. Translators, like the ones circulating around AJAR, work for the most part out of love for an author or their fondness for probing into languages. I feel reluctant to talk about the importance of introducing poetry into other languages, particularly introducing yet-to-be-known literature into more widely read languages. Why do I want to introduce Vietnamese poetry into English, and vice versa, and who will care about it? Perhaps to me, first and foremost, poetry continues to be where the unlimited specificity of cultural differences can be held and tolerated, where the otherness of languages can be embraced, and the act of translating, therefore, can create chances to encounter different ways of thinking and feeling, to enlarge a better understanding of myself and others.
At its core, I hope for AJAR to be as a transformation, for its more or less joyful community to keep expecting encounters with a real presence, equal and inspirational, rather than with more industrial products that try to enter the market; I hope for the continued efforts of nurturing and expanding languages rather than blindly promoting any ideology.
AJAR books (www.ajarpress.com; https://tictail.com/s/shopajar )