A National Poetry Month conversation with Paul Tran, author of “All the Flowers on Your Knees”
Paul Tran’s first book of poetry, “All the Flowers Kneeling” (Penguin Books, 2022), was just released in February, but their poetry extends beyond this slim, beautiful volume. They are immersed in the world of poetry, serving as poetry editor at The Offing magazine, visiting professor of poetry at the University of the Pacific, and Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, in addition to many prizes and scholarships. Tran’s work connects the corporeal and the cultural, history and the future, the intimacies and violence of living in a world shaped by colonization, imperialism, war, misogyny, patriarchy and, s blossoming somewhere in the middle, resilience, resistance, growth and love. A child of Vietnamese refugees and a survivor of sexual abuse and assault, Tran recounts these experiences with candor and scholarly creativity. They incorporate and subvert both their Western education (which includes a Bachelor of Arts in History and a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry) and their broader exploration of art from around the world.
Tran spoke with the Seattle Times on Zoom about love and violence, silence and voice as tools for survival, the vital importance of discovery and curiosity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In a recent interview with The Dark Warrior Review, you said, “As a poet, I can’t help but see the word ‘lie’ inside the word ‘believe’. I also can’t help seeing, anagrammatically, the word “love” inside the word “violence.” It is as if there could be no violence without love, but there could be love without violence. What are the intersections of love and violence in the book?
This kind of anagrammatic pun comes from my experience as someone who learned English as a second language. Growing up, I heard words that sounded like other words and was immediately corrected in order to perfect my own English, to be my family translator. But as a poet, that whole arena of puns becomes available again. These game mechanics, there is the sound relationship they have. For example, love and violence, they have this sweet rhyme, but there is also a semantic relationship between them.
The poems in this book emerge from my experience as a rape survivor when I was in college, and it forced me to reckon with being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. from my father, who was a South Vietnamese veteran. When I started writing this book, this question, “Why do people do what they do to others?” animated so much of my curiosity, but I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t presume what’s in another’s heart. I can only map my own interiority onto the page. I can only say what I felt, what I believed, what I thought and how my own mind changed about it. Ultimately, I think that quote in The Black Warrior Review still stands for me – that there can be no violence without love because even the aggressor, regardless of the apparent understanding that of this word love, seeks to complement each other in some way. But I really hope that there can be love without violence, that there can be ways of caring for each other, of showing up for each other that don’t rely on these outdated ideas of power.
They overlap because sexual violence has been a tool of war since war has existed. A tool not only for war, but for empire building, conquests, championing for control. The women in my family, they had to endure that as witnesses of the French Indochina war, as witnesses of the American war in Vietnam, and they are coping in their own way. There are members of my family who won’t talk about it. It’s their survival mechanism, to compartmentalize the past. Not in terms of denial or misdirection, but it’s their own story, their story to tell or not to tell, to do with their choice, because that’s the choice they can have. Then there are those who choose denial, and that too is a choice. Out of their own agency or not, I can’t guess. But saying it never happened gives them a way to move on, a way to not be tied down to that identity. And I respect that for all of them. I believe there are as many ways to survive as there are survivors in the world. The diversity of survivors and our survival mechanisms, they all hold true for me. Because I am part of the first generation in my family who can read, write and speak English, I feel the imperative to enlighten and enlighten it by how it unfolds in my own life.
How do you approach or find the sites of empowerment and healing in your work?
Word grated does not appear anywhere in this book and neither does the word trauma, because that is not the subject of these poems. They emerge from this experience, yes. But the book is about survival. How we cultivate our own survival, how we redefine it on our own terms, for our own ends. It is a process of deep reflection, investigation and discovery. My poetics is a poetics of discovery. I want to learn to be in this world, to be human, to be better, to have things like happiness, security, friendship, brotherhood, security. None of these things are given. They are done.
I think of each poem as a primary source document of what I’ve learned along the way, to get to this life I believe I can build myself, this life I deserve…to remember what it’s like. was that learning what I needed to forge my own escape when escape seemed unfathomable. Empowerment figures into this journey simply by being on the journey itself, the effort it takes to become a better person, a more honest person, a person who can love better. How can I really overcome not only my past, but also my present to re-imagine the future?
What looks forward to you right now?
I have spent the last almost 10 years writing through this experience. I don’t think it’s done, but the book is done. When the last poem was completed, I felt both incredible joy and incredible fear… I can do it again. It’s both incredibly liberating for me and scary because it means I have to make more choices. I hope to make good choices. I hope I understand or learn what kindness means.
Toni Morrison has a series of lectures on the nature of good and evil. She says evil is often portrayed as this deeply sophisticated character with incredible cunning and costumes. But she says kindness is just as sophisticated, if not even harder to understand. An example of the kindness she gives in so many of her novels is that the protagonists experience the acquisition of knowledge. When I think about my future, when I think about the choices I now have to make, when I think about how I hope to make good choices, and how I hope to learn what kindness means, I also say that I hope to continue to learn, to acquire new knowledge, to experience the world, to fall in love with it and to fall into its wanderings again. I hope to be curious and ask even better questions, pursue things even more rigorously and deeply – questions about how to live, how to make a living, and how to cultivate an imagination of radical precision and radical liberation to do this very work. .