Hai Dang Phan’s poetry explored memory and history in his “Reenactments” reading.
Poetry is such a personal form of artistic expression. The best poetry allows us a glimpse inside the mind and feelings of the poet. No matter what the poetry is about, we are able to see the way the artist perceives their world through their writing.
That is is exactly what Hai Dang Phan’s poetry did Thursday night during “Reenactments: A Night of Poetry.” For an hour and a half, Phan read aloud selected poems from his debut collection “Reenactments.” He also discussed how memory, war and family are common themes in his poems.
The Tulsa Artist Fellowship and the Oklahoma Center for Humanities sponsored this special event. Each year, the Oklahoma Center for Humanities picks a central theme to base their discussions and art. Past themes have included home, humor and similar topics. The 2018–2019 theme was memory.
Memory is a major theme in “Reenactments.” Phan enjoys writing about his family’s memories, in addition to photographs, because it gives him the chance to “experience something in the past that shaped me, but I never had the chance to actually experience” while acknowledging that “history is not the past — it’s the present.”
Many of Phan’s poems have a juxtaposition between delicate images and the harsher parts of reality. “Are Those F-16’s?” was one of those poems. The imagery that Phan infuses into the poem makes it captivating, but what is even more fascinating is the feeling that the images themselves prompt.
In the poem, Phan draws up images of machinery — cars and fighter jets — then has stanzas that seem to reflect a gentler side as he uses nature. A couple lines in the middle of the poem particularly struck me. Phan writes “as the last thin mists of fog burn fast / through the dark green archipelago of trees,” a stark difference from the previous stanzas in which he creates these images of broken cars and fighter jets.
There were two poems that Phan read toward the end that revolved around his parents and the stories they have told him about escaping from Vietnam and being refugees in America. He toggles between “imagination and reconstruction” to understand his family.
One of these poems is “My Mother Says the Syrian Refugees Look Like Tourists.” Phan wrote this poem in an effort to understand why her statement made him so angry. This resulting poem is a combination of his mother’s story and his own understanding of why she feels the way she does towards the Syrian refugees. He writes, “… she’s not callous, you must understand, just protective…”
After Phan read some of his poems, Mark de Silva, a writer and Tulsa Artist Fellow, sat down to have a conversation with him about the poems Phan presented. They also discussed the material that inspired “Reenactments.”
Phan said, somewhat jokingly, that he has a “deficiency of his own imagination, so he relies on images to get his creativity flowing.” Photos of actors reenacting parts of the Vietnam War in North Carolina inspired him to write “A Brief History of Reënactment,” which appeared in the New Yorker.
The poetry that Phan presented was captivating. He uses war, family and memories in “Reenactments” to create poetry that is powerful in its descriptions. The juxtaposition of hard and soft images, as well as the way he intertwines history and memories with his own experiences, makes “Reenactments” a truly special piece of work.