BackArts & Culture » Literature » Serious Play: A Conversation With Award-Winning Poet Duy Doan

Serious Play: A Conversation With Award-Winning Poet Duy Doan

A lion cub’s tussling, teething and roughhousing represent not simply play for play’s sake, but instead, training for a life of stalking, pouncing and throat-gashing; and so it might be with the poems in Duy Doan’s book, 'We Play a Game.' Whether relying on Vietnamese’s linguistic intricacies or the detailing of soccer matches and boxing bouts, the games presented are not mere recreation but reflections of the complicated, brutal, beautiful facets of the human condition.

The lyric poems investigate issues of family violence, estrangement from one’s ancestral homeland and language, sexual desire and religion/sacrilege with enough ambiguity to allow the reader to “play” along.

Missives from a Small Viet Village

Taken out of the context of a fluent audience, a language can take on many roles. Duy respectfully turns Vietnamese into a toy of sorts for his readers. He lets them delight in its tonal nature via a series of three tongue twisters such as 'Dessert':

Cô con c`ân ca˘´t trái cây.
Trái cây c`ân câ´t con cây.

Auntie has to slice up the fruit.
The fruit had better hide the children of the tree.

If one knows how to pronounce the tones, each offers the simple pleasure of one’s mouth uncomfortably contort and contract; if not, the audiences can at least marvel at the otherness of the language. And beyond those joys, a deceptively interesting observation or narrative lurks in each.

Duy doesn’t simply use Vietnamese as a plaything, however. He shares that his parents both left Vietnam in 1975 before meeting in Texas where he and his siblings were born. Duy modestly claims “my fluency in Vietnamese isn’t where I want it to be … [but] I cherish the Vietnamese I do know.” Reading the poems, it's obvious how central Vietnamese figures into his experience. In 'Tội Nghiệp, cat,' for example, not only does he offer a pleasing portrayal of his pet, but thinking of him draws him back to Vietnam where the creature would have “made some farmer a lot of money” during the post-war rat hunt.

That poem reveals the limitations of working in a foreign language as well. He says the name of his cat, Tội Nghiệp or Nghiệp for short means “both a grave, solemn acknowledgment of someone’s suffering or misfortune, [but] also be endearing or cute, like ‘Aw, poor baby.’” Obviously, people who pick up this book and cannot speak Vietnamese — likely the majority of his readers — will miss out on the deep duality of the name. But Duy explains, “I think readers who only read in one language or readers who read in one language and then encounter a second language without being OK with being at least a little baffled by it, possess a privilege that puts them at a disadvantage. I don’t think poems should always be easy to understand, easy to sit with, or easy to stomach. I think it’s important for us to face difficulty when we read, whether it’s at the level of comprehension or at the level of facing a reality that makes us feel smaller than we thought we were.”

Such a desire may lie at the core of why the translations for the many Vietnamese words sprinkled throughout the book lie at the back in a glossary as opposed to in footnotes. In this way, the terms function as objects to twist and fumble with the way one does a puzzle piece lacking a clear spot in the bigger picture.

Vietnam as a setting and subject retains a prominent place in the book beyond the language. Duy introduces the country early on in the poem 'Romanticizing Vietnam': “I fail to see / meaning in the white lotus / blossoming in the swamp” which one could interpret as an admitted distance from a country whose citizens employ the lotus flower as a metaphor to the point of cliche. The title gains particular resonance when learning Duy wrote this and some of the other poems about Vietnam, of which there are several, before he had visited the country.

“When my brother and sisters / and I talk about Vietnamese / pronouns / we’re ghosts / reminiscing about facial expressions,” Duy writes in another poem, articulating the fractured relationship one can have with their mother tongue when no longer in a place that speaks it. Poems that were written during one of three trips he made to Vietnam during the writing of the book reveal this confluence of recognition and displacement, eschewing conclusions and often settling instead on imagery: “Iris, Violet, Mayflower, Rainwater.”

While careful to say he doesn’t have a particular reader in mind while striving to make sure he isn’t writing towards any particular audience in hopes of “success (whatever that means)” he notes that “I have a special, small Viet village [in America]. We’re all trying to preserve the language and customs together. It’s like mourning an endangered species, but at least we’re together and know each other’s sadness. And we celebrate, too.” And while he never thought people in Vietnam would read his book, if he could express anything to them it would be that “it’s important to me that people understand that I and other Vietnamese-Americans are trying to honor or remember our heritage. And we’re sometimes sad about it.”

Everywhere a Playground

Duy is an inspiringly multi-dimensional poet and he touches on numerous subjects including childhood, sexual relationships and religion. Many of them can be connected to the of the book’s title via form, subject or metaphor.

On its surface, writing poetry has little in common with playing soccer but look closer and similarities abound: they both involve following rules, dedicated practice and learning styles and skill from veterans. While the majority of the book is in free verse, Duy occasionally uses poetic forms, such as the Malaysian pantoum, which requires a repetition of end words according to a specific pattern. The rules require a certain juggling of structure, phrasing, and meaning. Similarly, 'Dancing school' contains a series of questions or statements like a surreal standardized test: “Describe the body’s shape. Is it favorable or inauspicious.” In regards to the role of tutelage in Duy's poetry, it’s worth noting that beyond the forms, poems are written in the style of Yuriy Norshteyn and Marie Howe while others have epigraphs citing poet Elizabeth Bishop, a traditional ca dao song, Ray Charles and a popular soccer fan phrase.

I use soccer as my example because Duy is an avid supporter and the sport appears in the book frequently via allusions and references to both the professional stars he admires and moments of playing as a child. Poet Carl Phillips, the series editor who selected We Play a Game for the prestigious Yale Younger Poetry Prize, notes in his introduction: “It’s as if soccer is its own Olympus, with stars like Messi and Iniesta as its gods. Which is to say, soccer becomes an ideal that the rest of life gets measured against. And in the taking of that measure, Doan tells us that everything else is found wanting.”

While one could interpret the many depictions of romance and sex as games, a well-worn metaphor, perhaps the most poignant game that Duy plays is one with the reader. The works are not difficult per se, but thanks to moments of lucidity and obscurity, enjambment and fracture, it’s often as if the poem is a ball that he passes to the reader saying “here, your turn.” So when a poem about a sexual affair drastically turns to the image of a blinking sheep, or instructions of how to care for a poisoned rat on the street are placed next to an explanation of how ships can only be loaded one of two ways, there is room for the reader to let his or her mind play.

The electronic version of Duy Doan's We Play a Game is available online through sites like

[Top photo credit Jess X Snow]

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