Photo: Teresa Mei Chuc
Teresa Mei Chuc was born in Saigon, Vietnam and immigrated to the U.S. under political asylum with her mother and brother shortly after the Vietnam War while her father remained in a Vietcong “reeducation” camp for nine years. Her poetry appears in journals such as EarthSpeak Magazine, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Hypothetical Review, Kyoto Journal, The Prose-Poem Project, The National Poetry Review, Rattle, Verse Daily and in anthologies such as New Poets of the American West (Many Voices Press, 2010), With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, 2014), and Mo’ Joe (Beatlick Press, 2014). Teresa’s poetry is forthcoming in the anthology, Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees. Red Thread is Teresa’s first full-length collection of poetry. Teresa’s second collection of poetry is Keeper of the Winds (FootHills Publishing, 2014).
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Saigon, Vietnam. Could you tell us why you immigrated to the United States?
Teresa Mei Chuc: I was born in Saigon, Vietnam shortly after the fall of Saigon. I was about two years old when we immigrated to the United States under political asylum. After the fall of Saigon, during the time when my mother was still pregnant with me, my father, who served in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) had to report to “re-education.” My mother told me that in the evening after my father reported to the Vietcong “re-education” camp, some soldiers came and checked if my father had gone. My mother said that if my father did not report when he was suppose to, he would have been taken out of the home, like some of the other villagers, and shot to death. My father was told to pack enough food and clothing for ten days, but he ended up being imprisoned for nine years. In a Vietcong prison, there was no sentence, the prisoners didn’t know when they would be released or if they would ever be released.
Conditions were terrible for many South Vietnamese after the U.S. war in Vietnam. Vietnamese who were part of the ARVN or had family who were part of the ARVN, or those who worked in an American company or had some Chinese ancestry, were persecuted. My father had served in ARVN during the U.S. war in Vietnam, my family had worked for an American company selling music records in South Vietnam before the war, and we were ethnically part Chinese. On October 21, 1978, my mother took my brother and me and a bag of belongings, boarded a boat and fled Vietnam before the Sino-Vietnamese War when the persecution of Vietnamese with Chinese ancestry was mounting. China invaded North Vietnam on February 17, 1979 and began the Sino-Vietnamese War also known as the Third Indochina War that lasted until March 16, 1979. My mother, brother and I arrived in the United States on February 10, 1979.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you remember about the Vietnam War?
Teresa Mei Chuc: I was very young then, two years old, when we fled Vietnam. What I remember are the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual memories passed on from my family members and the stories that they would tell me about the war. I think my first remembrance of the Vietnam War came in the form of absence. I deeply felt my father’s absence from my life since he was taken away when my mother was still pregnant with me. So this hollow space in my life and heart and spirit was so great that it consumed me as a child. My father was imprisoned for nine years in a Vietcong prison in Northern Vietnam. I first saw him when I was nine years old and he brought the weight of the war with him when he came. I felt my suffering, my family’s suffering and the suffering of those involved in the war. Over the years, I learned so much from my family about the war and from reading historical texts. Many poems from my first collection of poetry, Red Thread, are about my family’s experiences through the U.S. war in Vietnam and about the war itself.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write from personal experiences?
Teresa Mei Chuc: I think that I write from personal, universal, natural and human experiences. I believe that our most intimate and personal spaces reflect the greater story of humanity, the earth and the universe. So, the deeper I look inside myself, the further and wider I reach into the world.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired you to become a writer?
Teresa Mei Chuc: I love words and languages and I think that I can best express myself in writing. Writing makes me feel human and allows me to share my heart and spirit. Writing also allows me to tell my story and my family’s story through the Vietnam War. I believe that it’s important to preserve many sides and voices in history, especially those of the oppressed because those are usually the voices that are silenced or overwhelmed into silence. It is almost a resistance against erasure.
Geosi Gyasi: You have a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Goddard College in Plainfield. Why did you decide to pursue poetry?
Teresa Mei Chuc: Poetry is the form that I gravitate towards. I think that I fell in love with poetry early on when I was a child and learning English as a third language (my first and second languages are Vietnamese and Cantonese) because I finally felt that I had control of language when I was able to write poetry and express myself. I didn’t have to follow any of the rules of English grammar or punctuation. I was able to recreate myself in a new world and country. Writing poetry was a way that I was able to reclaim a part of myself that had been exiled, dislocated and torn apart through war and its consequences, into something that was wholly my own…something of compassion, love and beauty.
Jane Hirshfield has a great quote that I think reveals my dedication to poetry. Hirshfield wrote, “…for giving oneself to the lion, or to poetry, is a vow- nothing more, nothing less than one’s entire life will be asked.”
Geosi Gyasi: You served for two years as a poetry editor for Goddard College’s Pitkin Review. What do you consider as good poetry?
Teresa Mei Chuc: When I was in high school, my English teacher taught us that the difference between good poetry and great poetry is that great poetry transcends time and place and that there is a working that a poet must do between sound and sense…a sort of balance or a sort of wisdom about the two, I think…and that sense should never be sacrificed for sound. I think this is true of what I believe and also that poetry should move me deeply in some way either by its images or sounds or meaning and I should be both transported and transformed in some way after reading it.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you edit your own work?
Teresa Mei Chuc: Yes, I mostly work in my own poet cave and mostly edit my own work. I am very self-critical so I am grateful to also belong to an email writing group called New Nada consisting of a few friends. We email each other poems now and then and provide some feedback and the group has been incredibly supportive over the years.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem, “The Road”?
Teresa Mei Chuc: I went to an art exhibit at a local museum that was featuring paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The people in his paintings lit up. I remember reading somewhere that Caravaggio painted in a darkroom and treated his canvas with a luminescent powder made from crushed fireflies.
The experience seeing Caravaggio’s paintings in person and connections I made to my children, who are my biggest inspiration, became my poem, “The Road.”
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about how you founded Shabda Press?
Teresa Mei Chuc: In the summer of 2011, I was sitting in my room and decided that I wanted to create something and support what I love – books and poetry. So, I decided to create a press to make poetry books and bring poetry into the world. I wanted to experience what it was like to go through the entire process from writing to publishing to distribution/sharing. I didn’t really know how to go about doing this and began by learning along the way. The road was unpaved and dark before me, but I took my first step. Now, I am happy to have brought some wonderful poetry books into this world.
The first books that I use to make when I started to put my poems and writings together were made by hand; I would make photocopies of each page, cut, paste and staple the pages together. I loved giving away the hand-made books to friends. I truly love the “do it yourself” process and making things.
Available on FootHills Publishing
Geosi Gyasi: I am wondering how it feels like to translate your own poems into other languages?
Teresa Mei Chuc: I actually haven’t translated my own poems into other languages, but I am very fortunate to have several of my poems translated into Vietnamese by some brilliant Vietnamese poets, Le Dinh Nhat Lang and Ngo Tu Lap.
Geosi Gyasi: Having studied the Russian language for about two decades, could you tell us anything about Russian literature and poetry?
Teresa Mei Chuc: Some of my favorite Russian writers are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov and some of my favorite Russian poets are Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilyov, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. I really think that Russian literature and poetry speak for themselves in their brilliance of expression of humanity, society and imagination. If you can read the literature and poetry in Russian, that is even better because the Russian language is so descriptive and versatile and musical.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your first full-length poetry collection, Red Thread?
Teresa Mei Chuc: It took me about a decade to write Red Thread. Many of the poems are about my experience and my family’s experiences in the Vietnam War and after the war. I also wrote about other aspects of the war such as Agent Orange, napalm, and the My Lai Massacre. Writing the book was important to me as I was documenting my experience as well as my family’s experiences. Writing the book helped me to process the war in the most intimate and compassionate way possible.
Geosi Gyasi: Is Keeper of the Winds actually your second book? Do you mind sharing anything about the book?
Teresa Mei Chuc: Keeper of the Winds is my second full-length collection of poetry. The book came much sooner than I had expected. Since I write at odd times, I didn’t even realize that I had enough new poems to make a second full-length collection. I just started putting all the poems together and then realized that I really had been writing. This made me realize that if you write here and there and now and then, pretty soon all those poems add up. Some of the poems were earlier poems that I love but weren’t included in the first collection. In Keeper of the Winds, I explore other aspects of the consequences of the U.S. war in Vietnam, such as the effects on the environment. In my poem, “the decade the rainforest died,” I explore the effects of Agent Orange used during the war on the rainforests in Vietnam. I have two poems in the book, “Jumping Jack: The M16 Mines” and “The Gambler,” about the continuing effects of unexploded ordnance or landmines used during the war. “Con Son” is a poem about Tiger Cages used by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. My poem, “Violin,” is about my childhood experience with my father’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I also wrote about current wars in the book. My poem, “Depleted Uranium,” is about the consequences of the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan. “Pencil” is a poem about the use of drones in the middle east. “ocean in a conch shell” is a short poem about the use of F16s in the middle east. In the book, there are also poems about my name, about healing, about breathing, about being and not-being, about birds, about the nuclear plants in Fukushima…
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about critics of your books?
Teresa Mei Chuc: I try not to think about what critics say unless it’s constructive and I can learn from the criticism. I think worrying too much about what critics say about one’s work can be distracting from the real work of writing. I try stick to what Rainer Maria Rilke taught me, to trust myself. Rilke wrote, “Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.…”
Geosi Gyasi: Where and when do you often write?
Teresa Mei Chuc: I work full time as a public school teacher and am also raising my kids, so I don’t have much time. Many poems I write in the middle of things, in waiting rooms, waiting in line, stopping while in the middle of washing dishes and jotting down notes, late at night when everyone is asleep or early in the morning when everyone is still asleep. Since there isn’t a lot of free time, I write whenever I can. Many times, I record my poems using voice memo on my phone while driving to work and then type them later. Whenever I have some free time on the weekend or during spring break and summer break, I try to write as much as I can. Sometimes, on the weekends, I go out into the garden and sit on some bricks in the silence beneath the guava and orange trees and write.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind ending the interview in Russian?
Teresa Mei Chuc: Sure, here is a short poem by Marina Tsvetaeva that I translated. The translation was first published in an amazing journal, Aldus Journal of Translation, in Spring 2013, Issue 4. http://www.theartmovement.info/aldus/
All the magnificence of
Trumpets — is the murmur of
Grass — before you.
All the magnificence of
Storms — is the chatter of
Birds — before you.
All the magnificence of
Wings — is the flutter of
Eyelids — before you.
by Marina Tsvetaeva
(translated from the Russian by Teresa Mei Chuc)
Труб – лишь толъко лепет
Трав – перед Тобой.
Бурь – лишь толъко щебет
Птиц – перед Тобой.
Крыл – лишь только трепет
Век – перед Тобой.
– Мари́на Цвета́ева
Большое спасибо, Geosi Gyasi!