Enjoy our prose-poem of the month, a lovely piece by Jenna Le.
HFR: "Book Report" clearly takes an interesting form -- in a way, mimicking the form of a book report or journal entries; and in the broader sense, a prose poem form. What was your thought process in creating this unique form? Did the title come before or after the final result?
JL: I was inspired to write “Book Report" after reading Ocean Vuong’s poem “Aubade With Burning City” in the February 2014 issue of Poetry. Because Vuong’s poem is written in long lines, I initially envisioned “Book Report” as a poem with long lines, even though I usually write poems with short lines. I felt that, if I chopped “Book Report" into short lines, I would wind up imposing my personality on the poem too much, and I wanted the poem to have a broad scope and universality. As I sat down to write, I struggled to decide what key I would use to open the doors of the haunted house. Should I begin by retelling the narratives my parents had told me about their escape from Vietnam, or should I begin by describing a scene from a TV show I had watched about the politics that shaped the American evacuation strategy? Ultimately, I decided to use Bulgarian poet Blaga Dimitrova’s life story as an entry-point, believing this would give me the necessary emotional distance from my subject matter, while also giving the poem the syncretic, international-minded perspective I wanted. From this one decision, the poem’s title and its book-report-mimicking form both emerged naturally, simultaneously. Using the book-report form, so familiar to me from elementary-school homework, allowed me to access my childhood memories more easily. It also gelled well with the naive/faux-naive/childlike voice that I thought would serve best to address this gnarly topic. Grown-up journalists have already covered this topic from many angles, for many years, I thought; why not let a child who only knows how to write book reports take a crack at it?
Blaga Dimitrova was a Bulgarian poet. She was Vice President of Bulgaria in 1992, when I was a fourth-grade student in a small brick schoolhouse in Midwest America. The schoolhouse was shaped like a bird, mummy-wrapped in snow.
At eight years old, I didn’t know where Bulgaria was. I knew where Vietnam was, because my parents lived there until war speckled their world with red and brown like a stampede of giraffes. Last month, a Danish zookeeper shot a giraffe in the head and fed it to a lion, who ate it slowly, just to be polite. Blaga Dimitrova visited Vietnam as a journalist in the sixties, but she didn’t meet my parents.
In 1967, Dimitrova and her husband adopted a Vietnamese girl. Dimitrova was forty-five and childless. I was my mother’s second daughter. At eight years old, I wanted to be an astronaut. I longed to be a bird, but I was mummy-wrapped in snow.
Like my parents, Dimitrova was an anti-Communist. She believed that politics need not be antithetical to poetry; one of her poems reads: “The sky moves through the swamp / without becoming muddy.”
I once watched a documentary about the fall of Saigon. In the movie, a Vietnamese woman burns all her adult daughter’s belongings in a bonfire in their back yard. It’s so that the Communists don’t find out you’re an America sympathizer and kill you, she explains. The daughter never speaks to her mother again.
Dimitrova’s adopted daughter grew up to be a writer. She published a memoir after Dimitrova died, alleging that Dimitrova’s husband raped her. What does betrayal mean? In the documentary, a Vietnamese woman shakes her fist because her American G.I. friends deserted Saigon without warning and left her there to die. When I turned eighteen, I moved out of my hometown without a backward glance.
Jenna Le is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011), which was a Small Press Poetry Bestseller. Her poetry, fiction, essays, book criticism, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI Online, Barrow Street, Bellevue Literary Review, Massachusetts Review, Measure, Pleiades, and 32 Poems. She was born and raised in Minnesota, but now lives in New York, where she works as a physician.