By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“My poems investigate,” opined Paul Tran, the Vietnamese American poet, slam poet, essayist, and educator. “I don’t believe in reductive, agreeable poems composed neatly arranged punchlines and platitudes. I don’t believe in work that reifies oppressive hierarchies or structures of power.
“I usually have a question and use the poem to dissect that question, rather than write a poem about things I already know and believe.”
Tran, coming to town as a featured poet at the Grand Slam Championship at Hale’s Ales Palladium, on April 19, identifies as gender queer, and uses “they” pronouns. Their appearance is supported by the Rain City Slam organization. They serve as Poet-in-Residence at Poet Urban Word NYC. They also work at Barnard College, Hunter College, and Columbia University, where they coach the poetry slam teams.
The championship will feature nine competitors performing for five judges, each competing poet vying to become the lone representative of Seattle for the National Poetry Slam in Denver.
Slam poetry, developed in Chicago in 1984, by Marc “Slam Papi” Smith, is a competitive game in which poets perform poems of a given time restriction, usually 3 minutes, and are judged by five random audience members. The judges offer a score of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest score, and the highest scoring poets advance to the next round.
Tran originally hails from San Diego, where they remember their single mother working to support family both in America and back in Vietnam. The neighborhood includes Vietnamese, Sudanese, Eritrean, and Mexican immigrants.
“It’s powerful,” the poet reflected, “seeing refugees, immigrants, and families of color making sense of their new lives in the United States, its tragedies and triumphs, and exacting all their human gifts in the cultivation of futures that are, as many of us hope, brighter and safer than the futures we were once conferred. I saw this each time my mother swallowed the patronizing and racist and sexist ways her customers treated her, each time I took the bus two hours to and from high school at the campus of the University of California, San Diego, whose wealth and conservatism told me I wasn’t supposed to succeed in life or that I was inadequately built for the privileges others had.”
Tran graduated from Brown University, and credited poets such as Franny Choi, Jamila Woods, and Fatimah Asghar. Tran especially points to Choi, who “taught me much about the elegance, responsibility, and radical potential of writing.” Poetry mentors, including Cathy Linh Che and Ocean Vuong, “helped me sharpen and re-sharpen my voice, turning the prism of what I have to say until I discover the most daring way to say it.”
Asked about their distinctive approach to slam poetry, Tran mused, “Nothing I have to say hasn’t been said before, but that it’s said by me, by a person occupying the intersection of my identities and life experiences, enormously matters.
“Benedict Anderson,” Tran added, “writes that the nation state forges imagined communities through print capital that clearly determines who the nation state values and serves. By writing from the intersection of my subject positions towards those of similar marginalized backgrounds, I aim to say that our stories matter. Our lives matter.”
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.