I may just be sitting on two stools at the same time, sweetheart
Here, not here
Author: Claire Barnard
Published on: 5/30/2015 7:20:37 PM

The idea for this project came to me on New Year’s Day, in the grey early morning hours of what would turn out to be a crushing hangover. I am sometimes blessed with a mysterious emotional clarity and lightness in those hours before the headache comes. Or perhaps it is the opposite of clarity. You wake up underwater and find that there is no way back to the surface, so you spend the morning writing about sea creatures. For whatever reason, this hangover-grace-period loosens the sails and I try not to question it. (That is not to say the ideas that come are always sound: once, in the dead of a Spokane winter, my brother and I woke up after a night of whiskey and decided to call in sick to our jobs and drive three hundred miles to Seattle, to go to Pike Place Market. At around Snoqualmie Pass, the Alka-Seltzer wore off, and we were left grappling with our immense hangovers in the midst of a snowstorm, miles from anywhere.)

But this is Hanoi and there are no snowstorms in winter, only days and days of a blank white sky that neither speaks nor listens. I stood at my kitchen sink on New Year’s Day with an empty feeling, and realized four things: 1) I should have drunk more water before going to bed.   2) I will need a project to get me through this winter. 3) I have never really tried to write about Hanoi. 4) I could write about the lakes here.

In three years, why hadn’t I written about Hanoi? I looked over my collection of poems, including ones that were recent, and could find only the landscape of Washington state—evergreen forests, craggy mountains, mining towns, long empty highways, freight trains. The Northwest, my faithful muse, unwilling to be so coldly abandoned, had followed me thousands of miles and pitched a tent in my living room. Daily life in Hanoi continued to unfold with its sometimes-messy sometimes-graceful poetry, but each time I sat down to write, a mountain would rise between the city and myself, vanishing all markets and power lines, temples, mist, motorbikes, mold.

There are several possible explanations for this hesitance of the creative self to move away from familiar terrain. Here are the ones that first come to mind:

1) Homesickness

2) Fear of Writing About the Unfamiliar

3) Loyalty To Certain Poetic Spaces

Homesickness is an obvious reason, and perhaps a little too simple. But when you leave your country, part of you misses it deeply. Even if you hated it when you left. Even if you still don’t want to go back. Even if you no longer claim it as your country. When you spend many years in a place it becomes part of the body, impossible to remove. And you miss it with your body, the way you miss a long-term lover gone suddenly absent. Your feet still hold allegiance to the hard, cold rocks by the river. Or your ears, the sound of so much water going by at once. I know I am speaking of myself here—maybe you grew up in a council flat in Manchester. But chances are, your eyes or ears or hands miss something, and your writing echoes that ache.

Another possibility is that it is simply easier (read: less frightening) to write about a place that you know through and through. As with your family, the depth of familiarity you feel towards a city—or country—entitles you to critique it honestly. To be true to your emotional reactions. You can write a funny story or a sad poem about that dive bar in your hometown because both the bar and the town, in a sense, belong to you. But when you’re a foreign transplant, the vastness of what you don’t yet know (and, quite possibly, will never know) about your new home is sometimes enough to stop you in your tracks. Unless you’re a travel writer, that is.

I have been assuming you have a place that you would call your ‘hometown’, a deeply familiar place that has had—or still has—a profound impact on your imagination. But what if you’ve lived in the same place your whole life and have never found it remotely inspiring? What if the place with the greatest hold on your heart is a city you only spent three months in? The concept of a hometown may not be relevant to every writer, but it is safe to say that there is a poetic space each of us returns to: a certain setting, a time of day, a type of weather (or internal weather) that has a special claim on the imagination. The poet Richard Hugo writes about this space in his book The Triggering Town, which is the only how-to-write-poetry book that I have ever found genuinely helpful. The “triggering town” is not necessarily a town, Hugo explains; rather, it serves as a metaphor for any subject that “ignite[s] your need for words.” A list of my towns (in no particular order) would look something like this:

1. empty, windswept places                6. half-constructed buildings

2. highways                                         7. jilted, jealous, or lonely characters

3. forests at night                                 8. drunkenness and mornings after

4. old men                                            9. bodies of water

5. dust                                                 10. unusual trees

While windswept places, highways and forests are easier to find in the Northwest than Hanoi, the rest of the items on my list (with the exception of number six—Hanoi, you are the clear winner here) are fairly abundant in both places. So, theoretically, some of my poems over the last three years could have been inspired by Hanoi. But if you were to choose a poem at random and ask me “Where is this located?” and if I were to answer honestly, nine out of ten times I would say the Northwest. The aim of this project, if nothing else, was to be able to answer that question with “Hanoi”.

The thing about a triggering subject, though, is that it is not ultimately what the poem is about. Hugo explains this distinction:

“A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or ‘causes’ the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.”

In other words, when you tell yourself “I am going to sit down and write a poem about a lake in Hanoi” what happens is that you end up with a poem about regret. Or desire. Or some unnamable emotion. The lake (or highway, or forest) remains, watching, even as the poem outgrows the initial subject and walks off in another direction. Early on in this project it became necessary, therefore, to accept that while each of the poems would be inspired by a specific place in Hanoi, they might not end up being about Hanoi, at least not in the way that I wanted them to be. In writing poetry there are certain things you should try to control (language) and others that you shouldn’t (meaning). According to Hugo,

“Your words used your way will generate your meanings…Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.”

So if you have ever asked yourself how to write about a place that you don’t yet understand, this is your answer: you don’t have to understand it. At least where poetry is concerned, you can trust your language to bring about meaning. You just listen for the sound that comes next, put down one image and then another, and soon a world with its own rhythms, rules and complications begins to emerge.

With Hugo’s advice in mind, I decided to put more faith in my words, to set aside the uneasiness I felt about using this city as a setting for my work. The mountain was out of view and I could start thinking about Hanoi and its lakes.

There may be a poet somewhere who has never felt compelled to write about water. Or the moon, for that matter. (I have yet to meet this poet but I’m sure she’s out there.) In my writing, however, the natural world tends to play a major role. It is difficult for me to write a poem without the wind turning up at some point. Or the rain. And if I manage to exclude both the wind and the rain, a branch will begin to tap at my window. I may have written one or two successful poems without these elements, but the truth is they feed my work. There is no escaping it. Hence, in a city with stunning architecture and night markets and people driving around with taxidermied water buffalo heads on their motorbikes, I chose to write about the lakes.

And like most everyone else here, I treasure the lakes. The unswimmable, tree-lined lakes. The deep-green or blue-grey lakes. The velvet black lakes at night. The morning lakes in mist, indistinguishable from the sky. The lakes so murky they are almost magical. It could be something about living in a place where the summers are five months long and brutally hot, something that makes you appreciate water (and trees, and shade) in a way you never thought possible. Or the fact that daily life in such a densely-packed city makes the eyes desperately crave a wide, empty space to gaze out at. These reasons aside, it is hard for me to pinpoint exactly why I have grown so attached to each of the four lakes (well, three lakes and one pond) that I have lived next to. I can only say that without them, Hanoi would be, for me, unlivable.

But as much as I love the lakes, these are not love poems. Revisiting my old neighborhoods, notebook and pen in hand, revealed something that my subconscious may have already known: each lake, along with its surrounding landscape, pulls the imagination in a distinctly different direction. Each one is a world in its own right. Memories also have a hand in shaping these worlds; the imagination does not act alone. Here are the notes I took for two of the lakes (a lake and a pond, to be precise), the first step in the writing process:

Truc Bach                                                                           Ngoc Ha

2:00 PM (Dead Time) / Overcast                                        5:00 pm                        /           Midnight

willow branches dangling into the water                             glowing green water                moonlit temple

lazy dogs, mild beauty                                                     completely opaque                  (good place to hide out)

wet laundry on a line (abandoned?)                                   noise, chaos, heat                   bright windows, rubble

forgetfulness                                                                     feeling in the way                    water looks almost normal

chess games, dripping trees                                             feeling of being watched        (but feels unsafe)

old men, old town                                                                decay, lost things

Along with memory and imagination, the time of day that you choose to visit a place effects, significantly, your impression of it. I knew that spending time by Ngoc Ha at five p.m. would be a challenge (walking anywhere in Hanoi at five p.m. is a challenge) and that at midnight, alone, I’d feel a bit unsafe. I knew that Truc Bach at two on a rainy day would be dead quiet, empty, almost solemn. I quite intentionally chose the times of day that would bring about these feelings (are writers supposed to admit this?) because I wanted the feelings to correspond with what I already viewed as each lake’s “personality”.

These distinct personalities (for lack of a better word) along with my notes, led to the writing of “assumptions”, or fictional laws that govern the world of the poem. This is a trick I stole from Richard Hugo (who else?) who describes assumptions as “a base of operations the imagination can take off from…and if necessary …return.” This set of knowns leads the imagination towards certain sounds and images, which, in turn, create forward motion and help the writer to uncover the deeper meaning of the poem. These are the assumptions that I came up with.

Truc Bach:

1)  The townspeople are mostly elderly.

2)  I should have left some time ago, but didn’t. I am (relatively) young.

3)  I have never been in love.

4)  It rains almost constantly.

Ngoc Ha:

1)  This pond has been the scene of violence.

2)  I have committed a petty crime which has not yet been discovered.

3)  It is deep summer.

4)  I am an alcoholic.

Hoan Kiem:

1)  I am an old, devoutly religious woman.

2)  People in this town, including myself, are quarrelsome. But in an effort to overcome this, I took a vow of silence three years ago and have not spoken since.

3)  I spend hours by the lake each day, among the ancient trees, watching the water but also watching people.

Ho Tay:

1)  I lived here once; now I have returned and no one recognizes me.

2)  People here prefer brief affairs—no one is married.

3)  They are thin. Also, they change their names often.

4)  At night the air is stunningly clear and the stars are brilliant.

In truth, I don’t usually begin my poems in this way, by writing assumptions. But they helped me enormously this time around. They took away the heavy obligation I’d felt to Sum Up Hanoi Perfectly In A Poem, the fear that had too long stopped me from looking to this complicated, magical city for inspiration (so thank you, Richard Hugo). The rest of the poetry writing process is trial and error, bursts of momentum and pure joy followed by long, stuck pauses, hair-pulling, and doubt. And then revisions. And then eventually, something almost like satisfaction. Or relief.

A part of me wants to go on revising, to stay out on the lake though the sun has long since set. But another, more practical part knows that it is time to pull up my nets and head back towards the shore.

I offer these poems to you with relief. They are not about Hanoi, exactly, but they would not exist without Hanoi. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to mend my nets.


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