Vietnamese Poetry 4.0

I can’t read fiction anymore. When I was young, I found novels to be a great means to “travel” to places (both in the literal and figurative senses) that I could not visit in real life, and I would spend hours reading and imagining about life and the world. But I don’t/can’t do that anymore.

In looking at reports about the declining sales of books of fiction, it looks like I am not alone in this sense. Instead, with the Internet, and streaming services like Netflix, there are now many other ways to “travel” through fiction and stories.

While it is sad to see fiction fall on hard times, I am always impressed at how good the storytelling in some Netflix series can be, and that assures me that there are still many great writers in the world.

Dan Ta 1

Poets, however, are another story. Poetry has never been as popular as fiction, and the sale of books of poetry has always been a tiny fraction of the total sale of literary works.

Yes, the Internet can make it easier to share one’s poetry with the world, but just as I don’t find myself reading literature these days, I also don’t find myself reading poetry, even if it is readily available online.

That then creates a bit of a problem for me as my wife (Phan Lê Hà) is a poet, has been writing poems for decades, and has volumes upon volumes filled with handwritten poems. . .

She could publish a book of poetry. But who will read it? She can put poems online. But again, who will read them?

Soulmates 1

In recent years, Phan Lê Hà has collaborated with songwriters and musicians who have transformed some of her poetry into songs. That has been one way to make poetry more accessible to a contemporary audience/readership.

However, in the process of transforming a poem into a song, it is inevitable that aspects of the original poem will get lost along the way. So Phan Lê Hà has been trying to find a way to make a poem something other than words on paper while still maintaining the original spirit and form of the poem as much as possible.

With this goal in mind, I recently started making videos of Phan Lê Hà’s poetry. In these videos, Phan Lê Hà reads the poems herself. There is also music, but the music is limited, and plays more the role of a score in a movie, rather than the music of a song.

I’m not sure if we have fully succeeded yet, but this is the best technique that we have been able to come up with in order to bring a poem to life in the digital age. We can therefore, think of these videos as examples of “Vietnamese Poetry 4.0”.

Dan Ta 2

The first two videos that we have made are of “Soulmates” (Tri Kỷ) and “Telling Myself” (Dặn Ta).

Soulmates” is actually a combination of three different poems. It tells a complex and multi-layered story about songwriters/composers Văn Cao and Trịnh Công Sơn, as well as about Phan Lê Hà and her father. In this story of “Soulmates,” numerous direct and indirect references are made to the songs of Văn Cao and Trịnh Công Sơn, as well as to various historical periods and events, from the Nhân Văn Giải Phâm Affair to the Subsidy Era (Thời bao cấp).

The complexity of “Soulmates” makes it difficult to translate into English. Therefore this video is in Vietnamese.

This second video is of a poem called “Telling Myself.” This is a poem about struggling to keep up with the unpredictable changes and opportunities that life brings us. It is about deciding to make a change in life when one has still not settled from an earlier change in life. For this poem we have made a version with English subtitles.

Soulmates” (Tri Kỷ)

Telling Myself” (Dặn Ta) – With English Translation

Telling Myself” (Dặn Ta) – Without English Translation