Many People Don’t Know This


“Many people don’t know this: the Vietnamese brain simply cannot handle non-literal language, mine’s too full of ancient spiritual wisdom.” [1]

“When will I find a sister
across the Pacific
without suggesting a betrayal
because to some,
My curiosity offers absolution
still unwarranted.” [2] 

I’ve been studying Vietnamese poetry. Not for translation or even credibility, I’m not here to translate Vietnamese folk poetry, nor to write about a kind of performance that I hold unilateral ethnic ownership over. I’ve been studying Vietnamese New Formalism to see what it’s all about. Slowly, I am collecting anthologies from Vietnamese literary journals like Tạp Chí Thơ, a tri-quarterly print poetry journal that ran from 1994—2000. Many if not all their issues were printed in Orange County, CA, where I was born and raised.

At 26, I brought my mother to a bookstore on Bolsa Avenue. I told my mother that reading in her first language may be good for her early onset dementia, so she bought a lucky calendar and left the store. Inside, I found Issue (30) and bartered with the owner for ten minutes or so while mom wandered along the sidewalk.

Back in the city, I showed my mentor my copy. He said the opening poet, Bùi Giáng, is his friend and the first man who translated most of Heidegger to Vietnamese. “He is the best and brilliant 6x8 syllable grandmaster poet, like Hồ Xuân Hương, the queen of Tang-style 7x7 and 4x7 strict poems. He is crazy.”

Later, I instructed my university librarian friend to indefinitely borrow Blank Verse: An Anthology of Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry / Thơ Không Vần Tuyến Tập Tăn Hình Thức. There was one copy in offsite storage.

New Formalism departs from classical Tang-style and Vietnamese folk poetry, which typically goes for seven syllables each line for four lines and enjambment at the exact number of the syllable count. New Formalism is not always meant to be sung. It doesn’t require Tang 7x7 syllables or Vietnamese folk poetry’s 6x8 or 7x7x6x8 syllable rhythms. Very often, New Formalism leaves you with blank verse.

In his introduction to the anthology, Đặng Tiến writes, “Vietnamese New Formalism is a type of modern folk poetry, not the kind of poetry that has become literature and selected for lectures in the schools under intellectual scrutiny, but the kind of poetry that permeates the common folk, reflecting their ordinary daily activities.” [3]

There are poems that are in-between a classical style and New Formalist style, rhyming still but with no rhyming function. Take for example:

Chỉ một ngày nữa thôi. Em sẽ
Trở về. Nắng sáng cũng mong. Cây
Cũng nhớ. Ngõ cũng chờ. Và bướm
Cũng thêm màu trên cánh đang bay [4]

Just one more day. You will
Return. The morning sun longs for you. The
Trees also remember. The roads await.
And butterflies’ wings fly more colorfully

It is desperate and it is surviving. Really, it marks a departure from the classical in that it is about the war. It’s the 1970s—there was too much to bear witness to to not write poems about! Does this sound familiar? This poem is a transformation of that grueling horizon: “Just one more day.”

Nowadays, I write poetry that is necessarily trans-formative and trans-gendered in practice, but you could never catch me claiming me “queering” a poem about guerilla warfare. My poem can be a bomb, no, a bomb is a bomb, I could write about flowers if I weren’t thinking so much about war, no, I could do my laundry with ease if Palestine were free, no, and the poem still may be corny, but why does that matter? These debates are circular and have little political bearing to language or politics itself. What makes a poem circulate on our fascist little algorithms? Is it the popular masses, is it hegemony, is it the state, is it a pretty girl? When a poem makes it to the Instagram square, is it pop poetry or folk poetry? After all, when I live urban, I can still be country.

We can broker folk poetry from the immaterial to a mantra, a recitation for political practice. This is not a spell.

What do we say to become?

ُ وَأَشْھَدُ أَنَّ مُحَمَّدًا رَسُولُ ٱ َّٰ . ? أَشْھَدُ أَنْ لَا إِلَٰھَ إِلَّا

“It was important he die an anarchist?” [5]

Recite these lines, from a poem by Đỗ Kh.:

“Fukkit, let’s split this grenade between us. Me, no tough shit. One needs a piece of one’s heart involved in Poetry.” [6]


[1] Som-Mai Nguyen, in “Blunt-Force Ethnic Credibility,” Astra Magazine Online, June 30, 2022, https://astra-mag.com/articles/blunt-force-ethnic-credibility/.

[2] Read in One Mic night 7/2 at UC Irvine, as part of F.O.B. II: Art Speaks, resumed after the exhibition was shut down. Đỗ Lê Anhdao, “the people born after,” Tạp Chí Văn Chương Da Màu, February 2, 2009, https://damau.org/4059/the-people-born-after.

[3] Đặng Tiến, “New Formalism: The Beat of a New Era,” in Blank Verse: An Anthology of Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry / Thơ Không Vần Tuyến Tập Tăn Hình Thức, February 2, 2006.

[4] Chể Lan Viên, Anthology, page 282, Văn Học Publishing House, 1983, extract from Hái Mùa, 1973-1977.

[5] Wendy Trevino, “For Aaron Bushnell,” Twitter, March 2, 2024, https://twitter.com/prolpo/status/1764000266511380815.

[6] Đặng Tiến, “New Formalism: The Beat of a New Era,” in Blank Verse: An Anthology of Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry / Thơ Không Vần Tuyến Tập Tăn Hình Thức, February 2, 2006.

Teline Trần is a writer from Orange, California or Gabrieleño/Tongva land. They write about home and interstitial faith via several mediums such as fiction, poetry, film, and ultimately the browser. Teline works as the Membership and Community Engagement Coordinator at Wendy’s Subway, a reading room, writing space, and independent publisher in Bushwick, Brooklyn and the Development Manager at Mekong NYC, a Southeast Asian grassroots organization in the Bronx. Their work appears in Social Text OnlineNo, Dear Magazine, The Poetry Project, diaCRITICS, and MONO NO AWARE. Their first chapbook is Ad Học, published with Wendy's Subway (2023).