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Poet Q&A: Dao Strom, winner of the 2022 Oregon Book Award for Poetry

The multi-genre literary artist talks about process, perspectives, and her hybrid poetry work, “Instrument.”

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This video still is from "Traveler's Ode," a collaborative book-and-cassette-release project that Dao Strom describes as an experiment in multi-modal poetics. Image by: Roland Dahwen/Patuà Films
This video still is from “Traveler’s Ode,” a collaborative book-and-cassette-release project that Dao Strom describes as an experiment in multi-modal poetics. Image by: Roland Dahwen/Patuà Films

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Two decades, three returns, still no language, still that refugee-romantic
phenomenological hope of dragging back out into the light something lost, 
curative, possibly rectifying.

Injury carried within cave of self is by its nature: a non-extant a sunken
topography.

What is the body of memory? What is the language of the body, that cannot conceive of time?

The language of memory meanwhile forms and re/forms body after etheric body
out of echo after echo of no-longer-extant imaginaries—a collective ghost-nation
body (re)forms = definition of ghost being being without body.

We chase the immaterial light.

— [Wading into a new decade (ten miles of jungle, twenty+ river crossings, one night in a cave, chimes at the altar of the Highway of Horror, then lunch by the sea) forty-five years after the exodus], excerpt from Dao Strom’s Instrument

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Dao Strom is a multi-hyphenate poet, author, musician, and visual artist who explores the intersection between personal and collective histories through three distinct artistic voices — written, sung, and visual. Born in Vietnam, she grew up in the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California’s Placerville before relocating to Portland by way of Austin, Texas; Juneau, Alaska; and New York City; as well as San Francisco and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied. She said her first memories are of California’s landscape, “the hills, the trees and river, ponies and chickens, and dogs.” Moving to Oregon after living in Texas was a return to the West after spending years in other places around the country.

As a child, Strom was always writing — making up stories, sketching drawings, and dwelling in her imagination, she said, to find places of refuge and pleasure. Deriving artistic encouragement from her mother, a writer in Saigon during pre-1975 Vietnam, Strom turned to undergraduate programs in film before delving into literature, fiction, memoir, and eventually, poetry.

Throughout Strom’s career, she has cultivated a harmonious marriage of sound, words, and visuals to produce works including her hybrid memoir Meant To Be a Gentle People along with a song-cycle called East/West (2015), bilingual poetry/art book You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else (AJAR Press, 2018), Traveler’s Ode (Antiquated Future Records, 2020); and two earlier books of fiction before Instrument and its accompanying music album, Traveler’s Ode (Antiquated Future Records, 2020). She received a 2016 Creative Capital Award and an Oregon Literary Arts Career Fellowship in 2020. Strom co-founded and acts as creative director of De-Canon, a library and art project that focuses on uplifting, publishing, and distributing works by writers of color; and She Who Has No Master(s), “a collective project of women writers of the Vietnamese diaspora.” Last month, Strom won the 2022 Oregon Book Award’s Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry from Literary Arts for her hybrid poetry release Instrument (Fonograf Editions).

Instrument/Traveler’s Ode is a collaborative book-and-cassette-release project between Fonograf Editions and Antiquated Future records. Strom describes it as an experiment in multi-modal poetics. Conceived as a genre-blending album, the work speaks on the concept of fragmentation within our cultures, societies, histories, places, and within ourselves — ”combining color photography, personal biography and gripping, restless poetry” to offer a spellbinding result.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Strom about her trajectory as an author, daily routines, artistic voice, and the Oregon Book Awards.  The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dao Strom is at the 2021 Portland Book Festival
Of her creative process, poet Dao Strom says: “I just allow the work to incubate and I trust that the time will come when it’s ready to take form. Then I’ll try to listen and receive it.” She adds, however, “I struggle (like many of us, I think) to navigate the noise of the world.”

How and when did you decide to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

Strom: I was living in NYC after college — I turned 21 there, dealing with “real life,” the working world, the city — and I was a bit overwhelmed by it all. To be honest, I had a slight meltdown and in the fallout and doubt of all of that, I filled out applications to three graduate writing programs. Iowa was the only one I got into. I wasn’t even aware of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s reputation; I applied simply because I’d heard a friend of a friend mention it as a good writing program. I was very fortunate to be offered a fellowship to attend — I wouldn’t have been able to go to graduate school otherwise. This experience set me on a path. Iowa was the first time I experienced being encouraged to take writing — the endeavor of literary writing — seriously, where I first heard adults (the writing teachers) encourage a lifestyle that involved sitting still and thinking, contemplation and consciousness. 

When did you know you wanted writing to become a major aspect of your profession?

Writing was always a part of my pattern of being, it was always something that felt crucial to me. But I didn’t think seriously about publishing or the literary industry until I went to Iowa; things I learned not so much from the program but from being around other writers. So, perhaps the thought started there. The reality of writing as a profession, though, has in truth been such a long journey for me, also with unexpected turns. I’ve had many moments, years even, when it seemed like I would never publish again. When I started out, I did not have the slightest notion I would ever write poetry. I published two books of fiction and was writing songs, but didn’t really start trying to write poems until more than a decade into my time as a writer. It took me a lot of growing and reading and exploring to eventually realize my inclinations toward language and experimentation and elasticity of form were much more aligned with poetry and other forms of art.

What does your typical creation process look like? Do you have specific routines or rituals that inform your practice?

By now, the practice is so embedded in my being that I don’t really need to do it every day anymore. Earlier on, I would write or play music for hours upon hours — this is how I learned. When I’m in the later stage of a project, though, like actually putting a book together, then I work on it every day, think about it before going to sleep, etc. But in general, at least in recent years, I just allow the work to incubate and I trust that the time will come when it’s ready to take form. Then I’ll try to listen and receive it. I do sit down every morning with my coffee and try to have some time to myself, just to be in my own flow of thought, and some of these times I write or read past things I’ve written, or I play music.

Sadly, admittedly, there are many days when this morning time gets consumed by emails or other busywork or distractions like reading the news or other things; I struggle (like many of us, I think) to navigate the noise of the world. I try not to stress about it too much, though. I’m also aware that the snatches of writing I do here and there, that feel like just notes or fleeting, do add up over time, and sometimes my unawareness in those attempts is for the better. That has often been the case with music, too, where something I spontaneously record as an experiment ends up being a usable take because it holds some unselfconscious energy in it. I’m very much the kind of artist who courts the unknown, needs some openness and organic-ness in the process. I will say, however, that I do try to carve out some days that are “studio days,” where I can just allow myself to be creative, or at least try to be, for an unstructured amount of time.

Sponsor
Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival Portland Oregon

What is your preferred method of writing/creating?

I use the computer. I accumulate little notes on my iPhone (those lines that come to me when I’m lying in bed unable to sleep). As concerned as I am about embodiment in writing and art, ironically I don’t do a lot of writing by hand anymore. I use my hands for playing music, I guess. I record snippets of ideas on my phone; gather lots of images using my phone. My laptop is my primary notebook for collecting/holding/unfolding everything. I’m not opposed to the digital world and its non-physicality as an instrument.

Your website mentions that you use “three ‘voices’ — written, sung, visual — to explore hybridity and the intersection of personal and collective histories.” Can you tell me more about your experience and background with these three mediums?

In brief, this has been the most succinct way for me to draw three mediums/disciplines together into one endeavor of making. I consider myself a writer, a songwriter, and I also have a background in filmmaking. Writing and voice undergird everything, as I see it; it’s the same current, transposing itself across mediums. I studied film as an undergraduate, made a short film when I was 19 that was a very ambitious project at the time; I was very driven and young and thought I wanted to make feature films. I learned a lot from this endeavor. Without the logistical, physical, and very technical lessons of filmmaking, I think my writing might’ve stayed floating around in a more mental, abstract space striving after grand themes. Filmmaking taught me to think about form; how we literally manipulate places and bodies and camera angles and use other techniques to achieve certain emotional and intellectual, stylistic effects.

I started playing music in my early 20s, with no goal or interest in performing or writing, just because I’d begun to experience that it felt good to sing and I wanted to be able to accompany myself singing. I didn’t study music, it’s something I’ve learned on my own but also through social transmission — from friends, old boyfriends, from other musicians, through listening. The hybrid approach evolved gradually, starting around 2008, and looking back, I see that all the separate paths I took earlier were leading up to this hybrid work… perfectly, actually.

Within your artist statement, you say, “I am more interested in how to read the in-between spaces, the nuanced rhythms of textures, the slow currents of absences and silence, the long echoes of trauma and memory; and in allowing vulnerability and ambiguity to undergird understanding.” How does this interest and exploration affect or find its way into your work?

I think, in this culture especially, there is a tendency to pay more attention to whoever is loudest, makes the most quotable or summable statements (I’m thinking of the popularity/palatability of works whose messages or morals or political positions can be easily summed up, taught, quoted). I see this happening lately, especially in regard to so-called diverse literature. Although it’s great that attention is being given and efforts are being made to understand specificities of “minority” cultural and racial experiences, there is within this also an impetus — whether it’s the reader or the industry of publishing/marketing to blame — to claim understanding of “the other” according to the broad strokes of certain narratives, i.e. refugee experience, racial struggles, traumas endured, etc. And this danger of believing we understand each other because we understand the broad strokes of our cultural experiences (often defined by historical traumas) doesn’t always leave room for the ambiguities and complexities and contradictions that may also be a part of being a person of a particular cultural or between-cultures bearing.

My experience as a Vietnamese American, as a Vietnamese refugee, as a Viet woman, is not definitive of Vietnamese people (although I think that would be the default “understanding” some might take), and the Vietnamese aspects of my experience also don’t completely define me. I guess by stating a focus on “textures” and “vulnerability” and “ambiguity” in my artist statement, I’m also trying to hold space for not-defining — which is also a restless, impermanent, impossible-to-sustain kind of space. I also think it’s a kind of space we don’t always want to look at closely; we consider it inconsequential and in-between, but part of my work is wishing to amplify what happens in those transitional spaces.

Your hybrid poetry work, Instrument, just won the Stafford/Hall Oregon Book Award for Poetry (congratulations!), and speaks of “fragmentation — of/within selves, histories, cultures, groups of people, and places” as described on your website. Can you talk about the catalyst for this project and how it has evolved since its inception? What does winning the OBA mean for you/this work?

I’m honored and was truly surprised to receive the OBA, especially due to the work being of such a hybrid, experimental nature. My hope is that this means something for hybrid poetry, that more readers are interested in it and are “learning” how to read multi-modal work, which is a type of work that has been nourishing me, as both a reader/receiver and writer. I’m heartened and humbled to win this award.

I assembled both the book and album in 2020, during the months of lockdown and following a trip in January 2020 to Vietnam. I literally began that year (and the decade, which marked 45 years after leaving Vietnam) hiking through a flooded jungle in central Vietnam. This was a pilgrimage of sorts; of the “poetics of post-memory” type (a poetics I heard about first from a talk given by Brandon Shimoda for the PNCA low-residency creative program). But the book also contains other travels and what I call “self-travelogs,” which are what they sound like, seekings and rovings we carry within ourselves. Another catalyst of the project resides in its title: the word “instrument” and the many ways this word, this position of being and/or being played — instrument as music, instrument as body — might be contemplated. It’s hard to describe everything that went into this book; it really is a culmination of ideas, interactions, and collaborations (some images are from video-poetry pieces and photo-experiments created with others), among other relationships and encounters and observations of self in various places, too.  

What do you think is the current state of poetry in Portland today, and how can we encourage a brighter and more flourishing scene/community?

I don’t feel qualified to speak at large about poetry in Portland, but I am familiar to a degree with Portland’s small press and DIY scenes. For instance, I don’t know where else I might’ve connected with a press like Fonograf Editions, occupying this exact intersection of music and poetry and experimentation, and then be able to connect that conversation with one I was having with Antiquated Future records, a DIY cassette-tape record label, and the whole collaboration work out so beautifully. There is a lot of integrity, experimentation, and anti-commercial willingness-to-create-our-own-outlets spirit in Portland; there’s also a lot of heart as well as rigor in the aesthetic questions artists and writers are asking here. I love all of these aspects of Portland’s poetry and art scene.

As far as the future goes: There is always room for more cultural production by non-white makers and gatekeepers (curators, editors, etc.) to happen, and for this to flourish it needs to be nurtured by readers and audiences, by the presses making efforts to diversify their catalogs, and by the organizations or institutions that have the capacity to grant funding and opportunities to artists. I think all of these things are still very much unfolding and in flux in this town.

What advice do you have for younger poets and those seeking to publish their work or obtain literary representation?

Put in the work and your love of the labor. Make it a labor based in love, foremost, and work from there, because it can be a long and varied road to finding your place in the stream, or in whatever art conversation you wish to contribute to. Learn to be present and in your fullest integrity, as best you can, in every aspect of the work, business, and art, and hopefully, this will aid in finding the right roads sooner. Also, more pragmatically: Read journals, read books, pay attention to what resonates with you, and send your work to those places, and not just to the places you feel you “should” be getting published by. There is a lot of good publishing happening on the small press/small journals level. Most people involved in making or publishing poetry aren’t doing it for money, but rather to take part in the larger dialogue of poetry itself. This can also mean that community and connecting around poetry may be another important part of making poetry. 

Do you have any information about upcoming work, classes, or projects that you’d like to share? Anything else you’d like to add?

I released a new album in March 2022, called Redux, also with Antiquated Future Records. It’s an album I produced and recorded on my own and it resurrects some older songs from my much earlier years of making music, reimagining those songs in an ambient-folk vein. This is a very personal project for me, also a bit of a reclamation, to revisit these guitar-and-voice-based songs and rearrange and record them to align with where my voice is now. The album is available here and I may play a show or two this summer to share this music.

For my collective project De-Canon, I’m co-editing (with Jyothi Natarajan) an anthology of hybrid-literary works by BIPOC women and nonbinary writers, which we’ll be publishing in collaboration with Fonograf Editions sometime in 2023.

Amy Leona Havin is a writer, choreographer, and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based multi-media dance company The Holding Project. Her works can be read in Humana Obscura, San Diego Poetry Annual, The Dust Magazine, The Chronicle, Mountain Bluebird Magazine, and others, and she has been shortlisted for the Bridport International Writing Competition Prize in Poetry. Havin’s artistic process is rooted in classical and somatic movement practices, non-fiction writing, and honoring the landscape of the natural world.

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