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Celebrated poets meet at Master Pagoda

Update: February, 14/2012 - 09:38

 

Poetic moment: Poets Nguyen Quang Thieu(centre) and Phan Que Mai (right) speak at the First Asia Pacific Poetry Festival in Quang NinhProvince.
by Lady Borton

For us international guests in Viet Nam, the flowers for sale twice a month help us track the lunar months, giving special notice to the first and fifteenth days. The fifteenth day – the full moon – of the New Year's First Lunar Month brings another special feast across Viet Nam as well as a special night for poets.

This year, the Viet Nam Writers' Association chose the waxing first moon to host the First Asia-Pacific Poetry Festival. The programme from 2 to 6 February included workshops and sight-seeing in Quang Ninh, celebrations for Viet Nam's Tenth National Poets' Day on 5 February, a book-signing at the Temple of Literature as well as splendid cultural performances, and, of course, organised and impromptu readings. Since I've translated Vietnamese poetry, I joined a day trip to Thay Pagoda with the international delegation of 67 poets from 26 countries and the hosting Vietnamese poets and translators.

What fun! Master poets at Thay (Master) Pagoda!

Master Pagoda, 30 kilometers west of Ha Noi Center, was built in the 11th century and takes its name from the religious, literary, and teaching contributions of Superior Bonze Tu Dao Hanh (also known as Tu Lo, c. 1072-c.1116) and King Ly Nhan Tong (life: 1066-1128, reign: 1072-1128). Their poems are among the earliest extant works of Vietnamese literature.

Venerable Thich Truong Xuan, the superior bonze at Master Pagoda, hosted the visitors, who sat behind a magnificent Buddhist symbol fashioned from fresh flowers arranged on the courtyard. A service was in process inside the nearby pagoda, one of many at Master Pagoda.

Thich Truong Xuan read Tu Dao Hanh's famous "Being and Non-Being," his words playing against the chants, soft drums, and occasionally a punctuating bell coming from the service. Poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai had translated the poem. Serving as interpreter, she explained how the poem's twenty words interplay the title nine times across complex images.

Vietnamese poet Nguyen Quang Thieu, vice-president of the Writers' Association and a festival organiser, thanked the hosting community. "We poets write poems about peace," he said, "and the monks pray about peace. Together we can build a more peaceful and more prosperous world."

Superior Bonze Thich Truong Xuan led his visitors around the famous pond that sometimes features water-puppet shows to the pagoda buildings that date back nearly a thousand years. I lagged behind the others. I'd visited Master Pagoda but had been besieged by a guide whose persistent chatter eradicated any chance for reverence. This time, I looked forward to absorbing the ambiance.

Inside the pagoda, I stood before a statue of King Ly Nhan Tong.

Dao Kim Hoa, a festival organiser and long-time colleague, appeared at my elbow. "How fortunate," she whispered, "The French and Americans ignored Thay Pagoda." She moved on to tend her guests. Soon Thuy Toan, Russian translator and retired Translators' Association president, came up. "How propitious," he whispered. "The French and American bombers never found Thay Pagoda."

There, amidst voices in many languages and buoyed by Vietnamese friends, I could experience poetic solitude, honour the statues, and feel the spirits they embodied.

Having lagged behind the others, I walked alone around the far side of the pond and arrived back before the others. I found the chairs rearranged around tables laden with Buddhist vegetarian delicacies. A young man followed by a traipsing four-year-old set dishes on a table.

"Come to the kitchen," a Vietnamese photographer said.

 

Together in peace: A Sri Lankan poet speaks to a monk at Thay Pagoda. — VNS Photos Lady Borton
 
What a delight! The cooks were finishing up, with only one huge wok still tended by a woman stirring bamboo shoots. A young monk with his sleeves rolled up covered plates of bamboo shoots with cellophane and arranged them on an aluminum tray. A nearby table held trays of Buddhist vegetarian "chicken" and "sausages." Elderly women sat on the floor around large baskets, peeling pomelos and arranging the segments in dishes.

"Here!" A young woman offered me warm manioc, a staple for highland poor families when they have no rice. When you are hungry, nothing is better than warm manioc. Indeed, this was the best manioc I'd ever tasted, for this was a party. The cooks – monks and lay neighbours, young and old, men and women – celebrated their completed labour (except for the washing up!) with warm manioc.

After we visitors had enjoyed the cooks' delicacies, Superior Bonze Thich Truong Xuan presented his visitors with two beautifully designed prose-and-poetry anthologies of writing from the community around Master Pagoda. The Writers' Association Publishing House had produced the anthologies with an introduction by Nguyen Quang Thieu to Volume I, poems by Thich Truong Xuan in Volumes I and II, and paintings illustrating the Master Pagoda sites. I also treasure the magnificent photography book, Non Nuoc Chua Thay (Master Pagoda Scenery), produced by the Ha Noi School of Stage and Cinema with poems by Thich Truong Xuan and others.

For me, a great joy in these events is extended bus conversations in Vietnamese with poets from countries where I don't know the language. By good fortune, on the way to Master Pagoda, I sat opposite Mme. Phiulavanh Luangvanna, the acting Lao Writers' Association president. I'd been impressed by her Vietnamese. Mme. Phiulavanh never studied Vietnamese in a class, but since childhood has read Russian, French, British, and American works translated into Vietnamese.

I gave Mme. Phiulavanh a copy of the bi-lingual Vietnamese-English anthology of Vietnamese women's poetry from ancient to modern times jointly published in 2007 by the Women's Publishing House in Ha Noi and Feminist Press at City University of New York. This is the first bi-lingual anthology of Vietnamese poetry, ancient to modern times, to come from Viet Nam itself. I explained the process the Women's Publishing House in Ha Noi had engaged to produce the book, which could be a possible model for another language and, for Mme. Phiulavanh, another source of Vietnamese literature.

On the way back, I sat next to American poet Mary Croy, who has lived in Ha Noi for five years but whom I'd never met, although we live a block apart. We talked about writing children's picture books, about how they are like poems – so apparently simple yet complex (the good ones, at least) and how children are the most demanding readers, immediately discarding a book that's boring.

That night, back in Ha Noi Center, the "dust rain" petered out, and the weather cleared. The Lunar New Year's first full moon was resplendent, claiming once again its reputation as the Poet's Moon. Master poet Huu Thinh, the Viet Nam Writers' Association president and mentor for many, spoke at the closing banquet, sending the international and Vietnamese poets off into their work by saying:

Poetry is like water,

We poets flow into one another.

Poetry is like the earth,

We poets sustain one another.

Yet to write good poems,

We poets must revise again and again. — VNS

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