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Words As Playground And Memory Lab: The Poems Of Stacey Tran


Stacey Tran's writing can be found in Brooklyn Rail, diaCRITICS, and The Volta.

Stacey Tran’s writing can be found in Brooklyn RaildiaCRITICS, and The Volta.

April Baer/OPB

Stacey Tran’s writing process isn’t radically different than many of her contemporaries’. But she’s collaging words and phrases as a way to open new doors on meaning. And she does have ideas about jumpstarting the form.

“I was collaborating with the writer Vi Khi Nao,” Tran said. “Vi and I would alternate lines. There was no rhyme or reason to them. The only constraint is we would text a line and wait for the other person to respond. You can only send one line at a time.”

The resulting experimental poem, “Catching a Fish with Two Hands,” published in “Soap for the Dogs,” includes a section called “Banana Leaf Blower” that begins:

“Quail egg white
eyes unraveled

Yellow heart
pile of gravel

The body
washes
the body

Chest open
barrel full
of arrows

To walk away
unplagued

Adult man
pours milk
into beer mug

Satisfaction”

“Banana leaf,” said Tran, “to me is really sweet and used for specific cooking practices that are very traditional in Vietnamese cuisine. A leaf blower, on the other hand, is very unpleasant. I had a fun time pairing these turns of phrase.”

Tran’s curiosity about how use of language changes it informs many of the poems in “Soap for the Dogs.”

The very phrase “Catching Fish with Two Hands,” she said, “suggests when you try to grab something so tightly, it’s going to slip away from you. That idea comes up in these poems and those texts I was sending with Vi.”

Later sections of the book are populated with prose poems that translate fragments of stories Tran knew of her parents’ lives with a dash of fiction. The process of writing these works was riddled with questions: “How much did I remember correctly?” Tran said. “What did they tell me? How does memory betray us?”

Both her parents came to North American in their 20s — her father the third son of the family to emigrate, her mother the first in her family to leave. Their stories made deep impressions on her, of presents and artifacts mailed back to Vietnam, bearing all the scents and impressions of the United States. Using the family memories and her own imaginings as stepping stones, she hops around in time, by turns a custodian and explorer of her parents’ stories. One prose poem, “Mimus Polyglottus,” notes her mother’s birth fell the same year as the publication of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and invokes the memory of finding her mother’s copy of the book, bought for a community college ESL class.

“In eighth grade we were assigned to read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ & I went back to my mother’s closet to borrow her copy. I wrote my name in permanent marker in a corner of the book cover, so as to claim it was mine, to protect the fact that I am my mother’s — her only child — that I am sole custodian of her narrative & any threads that touch it.”

Tran said she didn’t set out with intentions to decode her family history.

“I don’t want to be the poet who wrote about the Vietnamese refugee experience,” she said, “But if I didn’t do that I don’t think I’d be able to move on and do other work … I may explore this again, just differently.”

Stacey Tran will read from “Soap for the Dogs” at Powell’s City of Books, with Dan Kaplan and Shayla Lawson, Sunday, April 22 at 4 p.m.

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