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Hung Q. Tu in Conversation with Caleb Beckwith

Almost two years ago, in the quarantine summer of 2020, I saw the name "Hung Q. Tu" out of the corner of my eye as Kate designed an issue of Tripwire. Hung is one of my favorite Bay Area writers from the early aughts, but scenes have short memories and I'd just assumed the absence of new books meant he fell out of poetry or stopped writing like so many of us eventually do. Turns out not only did Hung have a completed manuscript, The New Boma, but he was willing to publish it with Dogpark, the small press I help run with Kate Robinson and Eric Sneathen. I hope this short conversation helps you better access Hung's work and explains why I find it so generative for my own practice.  

— Caleb Beckwith

Caleb Beckwith: Since this interview is for Small Press Traffic, I’ll start by asking about the scene that we share across time and now space. Can you tell me about the Bay Area poetry scene in which you were active? How did your work fit with what others were writing at the time? And in what ways, if at all, did participating in the Bay scene shape your poetics?  

Hung Q. Tu: I’m not qualified to answer those questions. Insofar as my memories of those days are so fragmentary and hazy, the best I’d be able to do is offer the most impressionistic (and unreliable) report. I will just say, I remember them with fondness.

CB: As your friends from those days remember you as well, at least if early responses to The New Boma are any indication. Before we talk about The New Boma, I have to ask about your first two books: Verisimilitude and Structure of Feeling. I recall encountering both for the first time in 2019 and thinking that they felt deeply, eerily, contemporary. The New Boma seems to exist in the same universe as your earlier books, and it feels like a reminder that we’re now inhabiting the world they foretold. I’m wondering if you agree. How would you characterize Verisimilitude and Structure of Feeling now that you have almost two decades of perspective, and how has your thinking changed in The New Boma?

HQT: Structure of Feeling and Verisimilitude were written while the 90’s were in full swing.  The internet was in its infancy and harbored promises of being a great and ominous agent of uncertain change. Opportunists of every stripe clamorred to monetize, and somehow commodify it. Many failed, spectacularly, as witnessed by the bust, but others like Amazon endured and became that “irresistible force” we know all too well now. Also, that decade saw NAFTA take shape. Trade agreements consolidated like giant tectonic plates, pitting market against market. These issues were on the minds of many of the writers I was reading. Canadian poets of the Kootenay School, for me, stood out as being deeply and heavily steeped in this toxic brew.

Without subjecting myself to the actual books, I’ll work from my memory of them. They are reactive, in the sense of urgency to respond, on a moment-by-moment basis. Thus, there’s a certain impatience to them. Also, there’s the shallowness of thinking that tends to gloss over things, satisfied with just pointing at something and jumping to conclusions. This, in part, lends itself to an incoherence that makes chaos an organizing principle. Lastly, and this may be the biggest conflation, there’s an ungenerosity and pride (in the British sense) in my recollection of them.

Verisimilitude (Atelos, 2000) and Structures of Feeling (Krupskaya, 2003)

CB: I'm always curious when poets express ambivalence about past works. I find it deeply relatable, probably because I've at times considered it the job of poetry to react with the urgency you describe, so that others might later jump to better conclusions. But recent years have challenged whatever optimism I held in a chaos that might simply expose "irresistible forces" to figure things out later—perhaps a predictable lesson of age. All to say it makes sense that you feel skeptical of Structure of Feeling and Verisimilitude, though I can't say I agree with your assessment.

If those earlier books were reactive, how does The New Boma differ? I also wonder if you could say more about the distinction between chaos and incoherence, on one hand, and the natural indeterminacy of a poem, on the other. There are of course poems that resist chaos at the expense of indeterminacy and, in my opinion, enjoyment. I'll stop short of naming names, but your work is pretty far from the examples I have in mind.

Lastly, we wouldn't be talking about poetry if I didn't home in on the minutiae of your language. You described those earlier books as "reactive," which for me evokes contemporary uses of "reactionary."I wonder if this was intentional, and whether you see work of this kind as, let’s say, problematic?  

HQT: The word “reactive,” I knew, even as I chose it, would be troublesome due to its ambiguity, and also suffer from proximity to its more ubiquitously used political cousin “reactionary.” This might be, in itself, a “hot thought” or a bait without any expectation of a switch. Maybe “responsive” would be a more straightforward description. As I remember it, that period of history was rather quiet to those who may not have been paying attention, but behind the scene, trade negotiators and economic ministers of the Great Powers busied themselves, laying the groundwork for the global political economic order we are subjected to today. So all this tapestry tightening was quite worrying, and the earlier works were my attempt to respond, call this out, and make it legible, because of the pace, but also because it was happening in such a quiet way. This is where the incoherence and slapdashness comes in, but also its chippy-ness or what Juliana Spahr calls the “caustic” nature of those earlier works.

Moving on to The New Boma. Something like a sea change happened while I was writing the title piece “The New Boma.” I wanted the work to make more sense, to communicate, as how an essayist might, while retaining a poetic license. The poems, thereafter, in The New Boma are discrete, subject-driven, political-economic critiques. They read (and write) more deliberately and have a much slower pacing, with as much discipline as I could muster. The tone is more conversational, such that they could almost be laid out as prose, something unimaginable before. Their personae is, as Jeff Derksen astutely noted, of “sly intimacy” and feigned sincerity. The idea is to start with a subject, develop it with multiple recurring interweaving threads that ideally result in the starting subject metamorphosed. I’m happy others who’ve read the work have picked up on the humor. That element of satire and humor is hugely important, an everyday way to “resist.” As my favorite anthropologist, James C. Scott, puts it, these forms of subaltern noncompliance and other forms of suboptimal actions constitute “The Weapons of the Weak.” Or as a close reader of these poems has said, “they’re funny… and Not,” which when I think about it wouldn’t be a bad inscription for my gravestone. I’m not sure this constitutes a “poetics,” but there it is.

A while back I heard an interview with Nick Lowe. He was asked, yet again given his reaction, about his wonderful seminal anthem "What's So Funny About Truth, Love, and Understanding," and he got a little embarrassed. He sort of sheepishly answered, "Yeah, It was kind of my first original idea," as if everything he'd done before was just rock ‘n roll and derivative. Well, that's sort of how I feel about "The New Boma" poem.

CB: Engaging that poem means starting with the book’s preface. I know from privileged information that it was a late addition to the manuscript. As prefaces go, it’s both narratively clear and poetically opaque; it tells the personal story of how you encountered the word “boma,” but it doesn’t explain how the poems function so much as it introduces a central metaphor. Will you tell the story of how you decided to add the preface to the manuscript? And also address what work you hope it accomplishes? Because the preface functions for the entire book almost as the title functions for individual poems, I believe this will help readers better access their subject-driven, political-economic critiques.

HQT: The preface did come late into the publishing process, almost a year in, in fact. The resistance to your urging for a preface came from my reluctance and animosity to explication, rather that a poem should be an object between the reader and writer. This thing comes to take shape, form, and meaning from our mutual interrogation or negotiation with it, like Ranciere’s Ignorant Schoolmaster. Then something happened, a dinner party. After dinner I read a couple of poems, straightforward poems, I thought. But everyone was totally perplexed and one guest, in particular, insisted that the poems needed precisely what I had resisted, some kind of guide or explanation, in other words a preface. So that got me thinking. Ok, I’ll provide a preface, but because of something stubborn or incorrigible in me, this preface would be just for a word, in this case the book’s key word. I remember when a US Air Force plane experienced engine trouble and had to make an emergency landing and the closest strip was Hainan Island, China. There was a lot of back and forth before the Chinese would release the crew and plane, but not before the US paid the exit fee for each member of the crew. Alright, you’ll get a preface (crew) but on my terms (exit fee).

I was hoping the preface would introduce the reader to what kind of political-economic headspace the collection lived in and to suggest a possible approach to them. Most of the poems, especially the blockier ones, aren’t a riddle, but maybe they are locks, locks which have keys. So, the preface points to a key word for, in this case, “The New Boma,” an example which the reader could apply to the other pieces, while not explicating.

CB: “The New Boma” is one of those poems for which I’m foolhardy enough to sense a key-shaped implement in my hand. Let’s see where it leads.

“Brussels sprouts” grabs my attention early because I thought they were “brussel sprouts” for so long that I can readily recall the moment I realized it was actually “Brussels sprouts”—as in the place. So, thinking of Brussels in your bailiwick of political economy, I recall recently reading about the International Chamber of Commerce’s foundational Brussels meetings in Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists—specifically its meetings in the 1920s—a book that posits neoliberalism as an intentionally constructed system of international interdependence meant to prevent the catastrophe of a World War III by instituting a system of global control via the market. So, neoliberalism as less free market and more a project of the authority of states to “project capitalism on a world scale.”

If neoliberalism is, per Slobodian, the “ideas patiently germinat[ing] out of slight” from those early conferences in the ‘20s, the poem asks, Where are we now? Well, where are we? “A fully integrated market” and “domino theory” make me think I might have the right keys in hand, though perhaps I’ve just forced open an incompatible lock? “A South London dishwasher speaks/for immigrants at large ‘trying to do my job’” rhymes as an evocation of the daily indignities of physical labor—here offloaded to the subaltern migrant class—in one of the most expensive cities in the world that also serves as a center for global finance and, allegedly, money laundering for states, drug cartels, and intelligence agencies alike.

By now I’m feeling confident in this reading. “Western skies”//“the depth of their design in action” reinforces my general hypothesis that we’re talking about of the invention of neoliberalism; I start to feel quite satisfied as I read “but to see the supply chain in all its capacity/would turn museum-goers to stone.” The supply chain needs no introduction in this day and age, but I’ll add reading “museum-goers” as a gesture toward post-industrialism, the transition from industrial to service and, in some cases, tourist economies in so-called “developed countries” after the outsourcing of hard industry overseas or the Global South.

There’s so much else here, but I’m stuck on your question “is this what it means to be finally postmodern?” and the final lines:

so they would turn their colonial gaze inward
an elusive peace entered into force
creating the New Boma

HQT: Caleb, you would make a formidable lock picker. That is an incisive reading of “The New Boma” with a keen eye for details and a sweeping knack for synthesizing disparate elements. So, yes, “the New Boma” is a stand-in for the European Union. Among other things, the EU was and is a grand project yoking vastly unequal partners (teammates) to form a single supermarket, with its de facto capital in Brussels, a compromise location, much in the same way as Washington, D.C., is for us. This supermarket kills many birds with one stone. It works as a bulwark against destructive competition (wars), as a platform to exploit poorer members and discipline labor for the richer members. This is also a project which wants to be seen and justified, benevolently, as a democracy, politically, and a “free market,” economically. Thus it’s self-satisfactory both-ways thinking, which I associate with “postmodernist thinking,” as hinted at in the poem’s subtitle. This “gathering” project looks inward with a certain cannibalistic gaze, a colonialism of its interiority. But, of course, such projects necessarily throw up many anxieties and discontents, as evident with the three quoted figures: The immigrant South London dishwasher (you can’t get a cup of coffee in London without immigrant hands touching it at some point of its making); the undocumented African in Spain (selling Louis Vuitton knockoffs on the street); and finally, the Middle-aged housewife vacationing in Cornwall. I wrote this before the Brexit debate, so maybe an “Afterword” poem is called for?  Whatever else it is, the poem has a kind of personality.

CB: I read “The Sublime Transition” as an afterword to this poem and the book at large, which is why I was so pleased that you conclude with it. My reading of that poem seems very much like what we just demonstrated with “The New Boma,” where the broad contours were detected despite the particulars resonating in a separate frame of reference. I recall asking you about this poem and mentioning that I saw it as a response to the so-called “Great Reset”—a term originating out of Davos in 2020 and catching steam within a wide political spectrum, including the noxious—a purported next stage of capitalism in which workers will reportedly “own nothing and be happy.” Think a million different kinds of Ubers enabled by an internet of thingification of the world. I’ll resist another close reading, but offer the opening and closing lines: “Did abstract art see the gig economy coming?//in advance of the Sublime Transition.”

All of which brings us back to the preface, where I’m thinking we might end. The preface describes “A Boma, whose origins some sources say is Swahili (others say Bantu), is an enclosure or corral made of interwoven thorny acacia branches to protect livestock from predation. Or in this case, an indigenous word borrowed by colonial governments to mean a garrisoned site or a place from which administration happens.” So, an enclosure, first for livestock to protect against some wilderness, later stolen by a colonial government and set against the people and territory it occupied. Earlier, when discussing my request for a preface, you told the story of the Chinese government releasing US troops after an emergency landing on Hainan Island, but only after paying an exit fee. Again, there’s an enclosure, a border. And now the specter of Cold War conflict.

So, should we consider the task of reading your work as a negotiation of territory—here framed as the authority to assign meaning to a poem—between yourself and the reader? I am somewhat reminded of generic accounts of language writing in which the experience of reading an open text is meant to model nonhierarchical ways of relating in the world. Yet your poems are entrenched in the deeply hierarchical realms of global politics and political economy.

All to say, I sense some tension between your evocation of Ranciere’s Ignorant Schoolmaster and the lock/key dynamic of the poems. There’s a bit of “whatever you get from the poem, that’s what it means,” yet also a fair and obvious hostility to relativism. I invite you to expand, respond, or redirect the conversation to your desired end, if you are so inclined.

HQT: First, a little clarification about that incident with the USAF crew at Hainan Dao. It was a classic geopolitical episode between a US hegemony and its new antagonist (as apposed to the familiar old one). A long-suffering antagonist dealing with its humiliation and unequal treatment at the hands of the “International System.” Because it happened about seventeen years ago, any direct confrontation would have been premature (and dangerous) for our new rivals, who nonetheless still wanted to save face.

Talking about circling back, I would like to remind you of our earliest conversations, in which we discussed The New Boma as being about acceleration and being swept up and away to a place of frictionless accumulation and perfected abstraction. Even when what we might think of as brakes are thrown up, it just seems to speed the acceleration all the more. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a weird near-future movie, where I’m exquisitely conscious of living through the transition and afterwards looking back, thinking, “Yeah, those years were a transition, weren’t they?” But it’s here and now. The retroactive knowledge of a current/future emergence. To quote a recent poem, “The crystal becoming more crystalline.” In a perverted twist on Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, an idealization of the so-called free market, free of drag, free of tariffs, free of love, free of physics . . .  you get the picture.

So you see, Caleb, I’m writing “comfortably subversive” too. Maybe I’m talking about the poems I’m working on now—or that the current work is just a continuation of The New Boma, the “high” Boma, if you will. Does this make any sense?

Caleb Beckwith

Caleb Beckwith lives in Oakland, California. He helps publish books at Dogpark, a small press.

Hung Q. Tu

Hung Q. Tu lives in San Diego, California. He is the author of Verisimilitude, Structures of Feeling, and The New Boma.

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