Many contemporary writers are making connections from the past to the present. One such person who has done this is Hai-Dang Phan, the most recent author hosted by Caxton Club. At the event, he read out poems from his 2019 book Reenactments, focusing on the experiences of refugees and the Vietnam war.
Phan was born in Vietnam in 1980, but in 1982 his family came to the U.S. as political refugees and he spent the rest of his childhood in Wisconsin. It is his family’s ties to the Vietnam War that initially drew him to write on the subject.
“I wanted to better understand how and why something I did not experience and have no memories of could be so impactful and enduring to my sense of self and identity,” Phan said.
Because he was too young to remember much of Vietnam, a lot of constructing the poems was going through pieces of the stories that have been passed down to him. As well as getting to know himself better through his poetry, Phan was inspired to write something that went deeper into the social consequences of war.
“I wanted to write about the war … not as something that happened in the past, in another country, but something that continues to happen here, right now,” Phan said.
Reenactments is not only a book of Phan’s original poetry, but also includes his translations of other poets’ work. During the reading, Phan explained that to him, translation in of itself is a reenactment. With many of the translations in Reenactments, he was actually able to work with the original poet on translating their work in making it come alive in English. While the initial similarity between translation and reenactment stands, that isn’t the only reason translation is valuable to Phan.
“The translations are there to remind myself, just as much as the reader, that our perspective is always in conversation with other perspectives, other voices and other times,” he said.
Phan is the department chair of English at Grinnell College as well as a poet. Phan thinks that poetry picked him more than he picked it, or rather they stumbled upon each other in a chance encounter he can’t pinpoint. He does believe that his intrigue with it has to do with how he personally processes the world.
Phan values Knox’s intellectual and creative community, specifically in the English Department and Caxton Club. To any aspiring Knox poets, he urges to drop the idea of a muse and instead points out that poetry is all around us. You can find it in the library, on a walk or on a drive. Poetry is already waiting for you see, hear and feel it.
While Phan read primarily from Reenactments at the reading, he also read newer work he has begun to write. Unlike Reenactments, which focused on the past and remembering, his new work is more based on the present and places. It is hard to say what fate lies for these new poems; whether or not they will be a part of a larger piece or book is undecided. As for now, they are searching for a home.