Overview: In this solo episode, Adam Williams kicks off an occasional series called “A Poet Was There.” Adam reads his poem, “I Want Poets,” which is his kernel of inspiration for the series, praising poets as essential truth tellers, the ones who are most equipped to help us understand the human experience — our own and others’ — more fully.

In this episode, Adam tells the what, why and how of “A Poet Was There.” He also highlights the story and work of the first poet in the series: Nguyễn Chí Thiện, a Vietnamese dissident who spent 27 years in and out of North Vietnamese “reeducation” camps.


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EP 118 SHOW NOTES, LINKS & TRANSCRIPT

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Episode cover illustration: Adam Williams


Intro/Outro Music

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TRANSCRIPT

INTRO

Hi. I’m Adam Williams, and this is the Humanitou Podcast. 

For those of you who have listened to this podcast before, you know two things:

  1. Humanitou is about humanness and creativity and 
  2. The podcast mostly features one-on-one conversations between me and a guest.

On occasion, I record a short solo episode, as I explore my own humanness and creativity, my work as an artist and life questions, and share encouraging and inspiring resources that I use. 

Today is a solo day. And I’m kicking off an occasional series I’m calling “A Poet Was There.” The idea for this series is based on a poem that I wrote in 2018, called “I Want Poets.” 

In that poem, I’m calling on poets as essential truth tellers, the ones who are most equipped to help us understand the human experience — our own and others’ — more fully.

With this series, “A Poet Was There,” I’m having a brief Humanitou conversation of sorts with a poet who has lived particular experiences and expressed them through poetry that speaks to me, and I think, to many others. Hopefully, you.

So, with this episode, I’m introducing the series, telling you a bit about where it comes from, inviting you to participate. And I’m featuring the first poet in the series, Nguyễn Chí Thiện, an amazingly courageous dissident who risked his life repeatedly at the hands of the North Vietnamese to tell his story of decades of political imprisonment through poetry.

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In the movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, the character, Ellie Arroway, played by Foster, is out in space. She witnesses what she calls “some celestial event.” She can’t find the words to communicate what she’s seeing. 

She says: “No words to describe it. Poetry! They should’ve sent a poet. So beautiful.”

I long have appreciated poets for putting expression — imagery, emotion, reflection — to their lived experiences, to places and occurrences that I have not known for myself and likely never will. For example, war, political imprisonment, the daily grind of work in a tin can factory, living in seclusion on a mountaintop and countless other experiences. 

I want to know these experiences, whatever the experiences, in all their truths. The joys and fears, triumphs and heartbreaks, profanities and revelations.

And it was with this in mind that I wrote my poem, “I Want Poets” in 2018. And to give you a better sense of what I’m getting at, here is that poem:

When another’s world, another’s life, another’s tether to all that is is frayed and on fire, I want a poet to tell me what it feels like

to bring me into the pain and the valor, the intensity and exhaustion, to make me wish I didn’t have the heart to know but grateful I have the heart to understand.

When the bombs and the screams and the salty waters of Pearl Harbor collided in chaos and virginities lost and futures being written at an unseen angle

When a parent’s child is sacrificed to the hysteria of life’s unconscionable mysteries or bullets rip breaths out of bodies, peoples, eternities in (not so) far off lands

When all loses its threads of connection and hatred dials up starvation of another if only because it’s an other

I want poets to tap the jugular of wine-red life force, to hold a blue flame to the rawest nerves, for they breathe like bodhisattvas when agony sears.

I want poets on the front line, so the records show the truth of humanity’s addled heartbeat, so my pulse will quicken until it explodes.

Only then, with the truth gnawed into our veins, the veins we deny we even share, will I and we and you know what we’ve done, who we’ve become and how far we’ve run.

I want poets to take me through their home cities, lands and regions, holding me by the hand and pointing out to me that slice of humanity I’d never have known otherwise.

There was a time I was a soldier, but war would not become my experience. When I was a civilian again and pursuing my own work in writing, I bought the poet Brian Turner’s book, “Here, Bullet.” 

In reading that collection I felt like Turner showed me the raw sorrows and pains and truths of his experience in war, and like he had taken me as close to that hell and as I ever would go.

For example, the opening stanza of Turner’s poem, “The Hurt Locker,” with its profane utterances of soldiers feeling the searing and unconscionable traumas of dying in war:

Nothing but hurt left here.
Nothing but bullets and pain
and the bled-out slumping
and all the fucks and goddamns
and Jesus Christs of the wounded.
Nothing left here but the hurt.

For many of the past 20-plus years, wherever I have traveled, be it Chicago or San Francisco, Edinburgh, Scotland, or Lucknow, India, or any of the places between and beyond, I have looked for bookstores that carry the work of local poets. (Sometimes “local” needs to be broadly defined.)

My wife, Becca, has patiently hunted with me on occasion. In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), we trekked the streets until we found a small bookstore that also sold works in English. 

It felt hidden away in a building that was more suited to small, nondescript apartments than to a retail space for poetic gems, and bilingual ones at that. It was a few levels above the noisy street traffic, reached by a blank stairwell. And it was all I’d hoped.

In it I found “Flowers From Hell,” a bilingual collection of poems by Nguyễn Chí Thiện. Nguyễn, a Vietnamese dissident who died in 2012, spent 27 years in prison for “reeducation” by the communist regime in Hanoi.

It’s here, with Nguyễn, that I’m starting this new, “A Poet Was There.” I’m starting by pulling works from my own shelves and, in short blog posts and solo podcast episodes, sharing samples from those books and why they matter to me.

If you have poets or poems that have resonated with you in similar ways, I welcome your reaching out by email — adam [at] humanitou.com — and sharing them with me. 

Because soon enough I will be reaching beyond my own shelves in search of more experiences I otherwise would not intimately, heartfully know, except for the fact that …

a poet was there.

Coming up, today’s “poet who was there” … the Vietnamese dissident, Nguyễn Chí Thiện. 

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I bought Nguyễn’s collection of poems, Flowers From Hell (Hoa Dịa Ngục) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in March 2018. It was translated and published in a bilingual, Vietnamese-English, edition.

Nguyễn opposed the communist North Vietnamese regime. In 1958, he independently published a review, For the People (Vì Dân). For that, he and two others were placed in a “reeducation” camp. Only Nguyễn survived.

Upon release, he joined an anti-communist movement. Again, he was arrested for a two-year stint of reeducation. Released in 1964, he continued. And then again was imprisoned in 1966, for poems that were irreverent toward the government. This time he would be reeducated for an indefinite period. 

That period would end in 1978, however, when the communists released him to make room for new prisoners following the fall of Saigon and the victorious end of the North Vietnamese war against South Vietnam and the United States.

With that release, Nguyễn was denied any opportunity to work by the communists. He sustained himself by letting out his room to prostitutes. With that money, he bought ink and paper, and he finally wrote the many years’ worth of poetry he had composed and held only in his memory. And he devised a plan for getting those nearly 400 poems to the free world.

In February of 1979, Nguyễn rushed into the British embassy in Hanoi, passing communist guards. He desperately handed off his manuscript and a cover letter written in French, explaining his intentions. 

The British welcomed him and indeed would help to get his poems to the outside world, telling the story of what was happening under the communist regime there.

An English translation of Nguyễn’s letter, in one long paragraph, which is published with his poems in Flowers From Hell:

It is on behalf of the millions of innocent victims of dictatorship, already fallen or dying a slow and painful death in Communist prisons, that I beg you to have these poems published in your free country. They are the fruit of my twenty years of work. Most of them were created during my years in detention. I think it’s up to us, the victims, rather than anyone else, to show the world the incredible sufferings of our people, oppressed and tortured at pleasure. Of my broken life there is left one dream: to see the largest possible number of men wake up to the fact that Communism is a great scourge for mankind.

Please accept, Sir, the expression of my deep gratitude as well as that of my unfortunate compatriots.

Nguyễn was arrested again upon exiting the embassy.

The British diplomats sent the manuscript to London. A Vietnamese employee at the BBC got hold of the manuscript and sent it to a Vietnamese magazine in Arlington, Va. 

Flowers From Hell was published in 1984 by the Yale Southeast Asia Studies program at Yale University. At the time of publication, no one other than his captors knew of Nguyễn’s whereabouts or status. It was named winner of the 1985 Poetry International Prize in Rotterdam.

A few of Nguyễn’s poems, translated from Vietnamese to English Huỳnh Sanh Thông, of Yale University:

“Each Error Cracks the Heart A Bit” (1963)

Each error cracks the heart a bit,
yet time will more or less heal up the wound.
But living on Red soil is a mistake
which time will widen, deepen, with no end.
In all my days, not seldom have I erred:
I have misjudged them, places, moments, men.
the error, though, that’s ruined my whole life,
was to believe and trust the Communists.


“Before A Poet’s Eyes” (1972)

Before a poet’s eyes
things hover in between what’s real, what’s false.
A pothole filled with rain becomes the sea.
Back stooped over the street,
a rickshaman seems small or looms as large
as all those kings renowned in history books.
A poet gives the hookah pipe
immortal life,
can change those lords
who’ve turned the country upside down
to higgledy-piggledy clowns.
In the benighted land,
a poet of this kind
has only his bare hands,
which the police may manacle at will.
To meet such poets, let the world come in
and see a jungle concentration camp.
They’ll read you verse that makes your hair,
not just Ching K’o’s,
stand up and sweep off
all caps with the yellow star
in the jungle night.


“Eyes Shut Tight, I’m Lying Sleepless Here” (1969)

My eyes shut tight, I’m lying sleepless here.
The gong rings loud and long — it’s morning now.
I’m lying still, dead-still — no thought, no dream —
just slumbering in shadows, dready, sad.
Shadows of parents aging, dumb with grief;
in a vast night where flicker dots of fire,
deserted, fit for neither tears nor laughs,
the grayish shadows of some wretched loves;
it’s my own shadow, coughing blood, back hunched.
I open eyes — stark looms the prison camp.

In Nguyễn’s manuscript were 191 poems, including one that was hundreds of lines long, and 188 “sundry notes,” quatrains. Here is one of those notes, number 61:

My life’s a book I long ago put down.
It once had hopes, those sheets all crumpled now.
Let winds blow off the leaves and turn it quick
to its last page, a plot of dirt-brown earth.

Nguyễn was released in 1990. He spent a total of 27 years imprisoned. He continued to write and publish. Later, he would live in France for three years. He died in Santa Ana, Calif., in October 2012.

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OUTRO

Thanks for listening. If you have comments or topical suggestions for future solo episodes, let me know. I slide them in between the conversational episodes every now and then. you can reach me adam@humanitou.com for email or by Instagram, DM at Humanitou. 

Information, links and show notes relevant to this and all episodes are at humanitou.com. You can also sign up for the monthly email newsletter, see what I’m up to as a visual artist, a poet– I’m doing a number of things and humanitou.com is where I show it all. 

I’m Adam Williams creator and host of the Humanitou podcast. Thanks for being here.

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