NEA Literature Fellowships

Hai-Dang Phan

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(2017 - Poetry)

"A  Brief History Of Reenactment"

On day one the photographer walks into camp
and immediately starts shooting. She shoots us

at breakfast eating our c-rations, in our hammocks
reading Stars and Stripes. She shoots us in her sleep.

When we first cross paths at the creek, she says,
“Hello, Tiger! Nice combat boots. Is that thing real?”

pointing to my Special Forces jungle shirt.
“I’m afraid so,” I say nonchalantly, trying to mask

my satisfaction. Day two: no more messing around.
The photographer has agreed to join the action.

“So what’s the scenario?” A lone guerilla left over
in a booby-trapped village jumps out of a hidey-hole

and ambushes the platoon on a search-and-destroy.
“Good thing I brought my black pajamas and sandals!”

What a trooper. She also plays the captured prisoner,
the native informant, and the beautiful turncoat.

The sniper girl is her favorite role because
it’s like taking pictures. “The beauty, the beauty!”

her voice volleys spookily from behind some rocks
as she picks off one of my men after another.

Sometimes the photographer shoots herself.
I know she must have her own personal baggage—

later I find her sobbing in the bamboo grove.
I tell her it’s okay, these wars only last three days.

“What will you do when it’s all over?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I say, “Plan the next one.”

On day three, after another routine patrol we sit
together on my favorite log, in the shade of oaks,

and devise more scenarios. The topo map
unfolds across our laps like a magic carpet.

She’s got killer bangs above camera eyes.
I mark all the booby traps and landing zones.

She speaks of controlled light and the hole
that opens up when you press the shutter button.

At twenty four hundred our hands nearly touch.
There was a meteor shower. I call in mortar fire.

(originally published in The New Yorker)

Hai-Dang Phan was born in Vietnam and raised in Wisconsin. He is the author of the chapbook Small Wars (Convulsive Editions, 2016). His poetry has been published in Best American Poetry 2016, New England Review, The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Prelude, and elsewhere. His work has been honored with the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry and the Emerging Writers Award from New England Review, as well as fellowships and scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the American Literary Translators Association, and the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. He holds an MFA from the University of Florida and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently teaches at Grinnell College and lives in Des Moines.

Photo by Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College

Author's Statement

This NEA fellowship is an invaluable gift of time and affirmation—to write and revise, and to think about what I will do next, and what I will try to become, as a writer and as a citizen. More concretely, it lets me take a semester leave from teaching to focus solely on writing. During the fellowship year, my hope is to complete my first book manuscript, A Brief History of Reenactment. The existing poems excavate family memories and cultural histories of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, giving them new life in poetry. The emerging poems right now, including a longer work-in-progress that may warrant another research trip to the Vietnam Center and Archive in Lubbock, Texas, are preoccupied with mapping various Norths and Souths—of Vietnam, of the U.S.—in the geography of my imagination. I am wildly grateful to the NEA and this year’s panelists for their vote of confidence in my work. As a young poet, I feel awed and honored to join the company of NEA-supported writers whose work has enlarged and enriched American literature, and feel not only reassured going forth in my writing, but also enjoined to take new risks. As the son of Vietnamese refugees, I connect the freedom I strive to enact in poetry with the freedom my parents sought when they escaped Vietnam by boat, and will continually challenge myself to draw, through imaginative expression, ever greater circles beyond narrowly defined senses of identity. That an institution like the National Endowment for the Arts exists gives me hope, as an American citizen, that literature remains as yet vital to the life of our democracy. It feels barbaric to imagine otherwise.