From 1998 to 2010, Vietnamese American author Linh Dinh released six books of poetry, one translation, two collections of short stories, and a novel. It was a prolific twelve year span for the author, who has continued to type like a madman with an endless gallon of black coffee running through his bloodstream. His work is energized, debauched, hysterical, lonely, perverse, lovesick, critical, and adventurous. Whimsical and wild, without a filter, he keeps his chaos brief, blending prose poetry with microfiction.
With that being said, just last year, Linh Dinh released two of his largest bodies of work: the nonfiction journalistic Postcards from the End of America and the poetic and cultural A Mere Rica. Focusing on documenting and providing insight into the down and out underbelly of America, Linh Dinh's two most recent books almost act as U.S. closure for the author, who is currently in the process of moving back to Vietnam. As an intermission during the move, Linh Dinh stopped in Japan for a writing assignment where he answered some of my questions during his down time. He discussed his writing discipline, his views on higher education, and the best place to die.
As I just mentioned, in twelve years, you wrote nine books, translated another, and edited another. What was your daily writing regimen like during that time?
Observing, listening and reflecting are also parts of writing, so in that sense, I was writing all the time, but I had to work hard at those three activities, and I’m still practicing, daily. Like nearly everybody, I hardly know how to see and hear, much less think. I miss so much. As for the actual writing, I wasted a lot of time banging on a typewriter, since I didn’t know how to type, but the arrival of the computer saved my ass. To write, one should read very carefully, that’s all. See all the different ways Hemingway or Annie Proulx build a sentence, for example. Teachers and writing workshops aren’t just useless, for the most part, but likely harmful, for you’re prone to be learning from not just a failed writer but someone who’s hustling for a deeply corrupt and intellectually crippling institution, an American university. On top of that, you’ll receive idiotic inputs from your fellow students. Although people can learn directly from Celine, Paul Bowles and Whitman, etc., at minimal cost, many are still willing to go into suicidal debt to receive instructions from a cast of dishonest incompetents, and they do this because they’re much more interested in networking than writing.
How has your writing discipline / routine changed over the years?
Nine years ago, I made a conscious decision to spend less time inside my room, and more time on the streets. I also realized, once and for all, that I would rather hang out with anybody but writers or intellectuals. Even historical writers I deeply admire, I wouldn’t want to meet, for they’re already at their best in their writing. That said, I do have writer friends, just as I know people who are cooks, waiters, mechanics or domestic servants. In any case, since I couldn’t even finish college, I knew early on that I was no academic, but then universities started to invite me to teach, which forced me to interact with other professors, something I was not at all comfortable with, and this distaste is clearly mutual, for I haven’t had a teaching gig in a while. The last one was in Leipzig, which of course I welcomed, for it allowed me to stay five months in Germany. I’ve spent over 3 years in Europe, an exposure which has been so instructive in so many ways.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a collection of writing about foreign places, and I’ve covered 16 countries so far, with Germany, France, Mexico, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia discussed in more than one essay. It’s basically Postcards from the End of the American Empire. I hope to do a lot more traveling for this book. I just finished a 2,900 word piece about Japan, after a too-brief visit, but I’ll return this October for the launch of the Japanese edition of my Postcards from the End of America. I will stay longer this next time. Last year in Toluca, Mexico, I met a young poet who said his ideal life would be one of constant moving, from hotel room to hotel room. Although already quite worn out at 54, I can understand the sentiment.
This fall, Chax Press will put out my collected poetry. Going through all of my poems. I revised a bunch and deleted some that should never have been published. This book, then, will present all the poems I’m willing to stand behind. Once it’s out, I can start on my posthumous collection. I certainly feel dead enough, especially today.
You're moving back to Vietnam, yes? Will this be your first time living there long term since your youth?
No, I spent 2 ½ years in Saigon from 1999 to 2001. Unlike nearly all of the Vietnamese-American writers, I speak the language well, and have even published quite a bit in Vietnamese. I also know many Vietnamese writers. Later today, I will down a few beers with poets Bui Chat and Ly Doi, for example. Some of my closest friends are here.
If it isn't too personal, what's the reason for moving back?
Money. At 54, I have nothing, no house, car or even job. By moving back to Vietnam, my wife can work for her sister, who’s a very successful businesswoman, and I can continue to write for PayPal donations. Ron Unz, for whom I write a column, also sends me a few thousand bucks a year. By writing so passionately about the US, I’ve been disowned by it, in effect. As my writing and thinking improve, the university reading gigs and book reviews disappear. Describing the down and nearly out, I’m also dispossessed, which is fine, actually, for it means I’m not a brown nose. In the US, nearly all self-identified rebels only rebel in prescribed and heavily manipulated ways, which makes them pawns of the very people they think they’re rebelling against. History will retch in disgust at the cowardly collusion of our “intellectuals.”
I was in Vietnam for three weeks last August/September and my favorite city (as well as my girlfriend's) was Ninh Binh, so when I started reading your work, I kept thinking of that city. Do you have a favorite place in Vietnam?
No, because I appreciate so many places everywhere. In fact, I’ve never disliked any place I’ve visited. In Vietnam, I’ve experienced many cities, towns and villages. I’ve slept in a wooden box and a grass hut with no toilet. I’ve eaten everything, much of it delicious but some truly awful, but if it was good enough for whomever I was with, then it was more than adequate for me. If I could choose a place to live, maybe it’s Vung Tau, a once popular seaside resort now turning sleepy, though convenient to Saigon via a fast passenger boat. My close friend, poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh, has relocated there.
I used to think I’d like to die in Hanoi, perhaps immediately, because that city had so much depth and resonance, but its oldest section is now a crass playground for tourists, and many other parts have been leveled to make way for highrise condos or office buildings. It would be most appropriate, I now think, to be killed in a place one has no business being at, and not as any sort of invader, but just a lost fool.
Along with your writing, you are also an editor and translator. Are these disciplines you're still pursuing?
Editing and translating helped me to develop as a writer, since it forced me to read very carefully many writers. Translating, I also had to ape many authors’ individual technique and syntax, thus allowing me to enlarge my repertoire when it came to my own writing. I’ve stopped editing and translating, however, for I can only do so much. Moreover, photography has become my secondary activity. Trained as a painter, I need my visual art fix. Yanking me onto the streets, photography hasn’t just conditioned me to see much better, but become more social. These enhanced skills have benefited my writing greatly.
While they contain many other elements, your poems and stories are often debauched, full of humor, and a bit on the wild side. Do you feel like these characters reflect your personality?
Language is used mostly to disguise and mislead, with whatever of any importance hardly ever addressed, much less probed. Although failing abjectly, of course, I’ve tried to give shape to these unmentionables. In Tokyo last month, I suggested after a reading that the first poem hasn’t been written, that “poets” are merely preparing the groundwork for a distant poetry, which of necessity must be unspeakably devastating. “We’re in the prehistory of poetry,” I said. “We’re cavemen.”
Dishonest, inept and cowardly, we echo other people’s lies, proudly produce more of our own, then preposterously call ourselves poets and writers. As for being “debauched, full of humor, and a bit on the wild side,” I’ve learnt a bit from the Rabelaisian strain of French literature. Kafka and Borges’ senses of humor have also been inspiring. As for how I’m in real life, I’m mostly a bore, honestly, and when trashed, I can be quite garrulous and maudlin, too. Knowing my flaws, I try to just shut up, observe and listen.
Some of your pieces are prose poems, while others form shapes, and others are traditionally lined. How do you approach a blank page?
As far as poetry, I’m fairly straightforward, actually. Nearly always, I indent left and capitalize the first letter of each line. If you get too cute with the layout, you can distract the reader from your poem’s best moments. In writing a prose poem, I remove enjambments as an option because I see them as distracting from what I’m trying to highlight, the juxtapositions of images and leaps between sentences.
Outside of your own work, who/what have you been reading recently?
Since I was thinking about Japan, I read Morris Berman’s book on the subject, Neurotic Beauty, then I read about Japan and China in David S. Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. Thinking about war after a visit to Nghe An, a much bombed province during the Vietnam War, I read Norman Lewis’ Naples ’44. It’s so insightful, humane and beautifully written, I felt ashamed to call myself a writer. It’s crucial to be reminded, often, of one’s ignorance and clumsiness. As a young writer, I was embarrassed at my lack of life experience, so I saw the accumulation of that as a first order of business, but now beginner writers are demanding safe spaces and fleeing to writers’ retreats, which I find ridiculous. Born a coward, you must remedy this by walking onto every mental mine field possible.
For this ongoing author interview series, I'm asking for everyone to present a writing prompt. It can be one that you craft out of thin air, it can be one you created a while ago, or it can be one you adore from an outside source that was passed down to you.
Go where you don’t belong, observe and, if possible, talk to people you’re not supposed to talk to. If the richness of life isn’t enough to jolt you into writing, then you’re not a writer.
Do you have any advice for writers/poets working on their craft?
Use what you learn from even the most unpleasant labor to inform your writing. Money is time, and since you need as much time as possible to observe, think and write, you must cut out all unnecessary expenses. Since it’s hard enough to just live, much less live and write, you must be willing to sacrifice many creature comforts, and even emotional ones, in the pursuit of a craft that may, in the end, yield no success whatsoever. Be confident that as you gain life and writing experiences, your thinking and writing will improve continually, and this ability to think better should be rewarding enough in itself. Since you’re the most readily observable specimen, to yourself, dissect your sorry ass most mercilessly. Your moral failures will taint and stink up your writing, and life too, of course, so don’t be an asshole. Strive to see everything from everyone else’s perspective. Don’t get addicted to any electronic drug, especially canned noise, for it will prevent you from hearing your deepest and most articulate thoughts. Consider yourself a mere tool to appreciate and love, if only optically, such is our misery, everyone and everything else.
Any final thoughts / words of wisdom?
Always listen attentively and read slowly.