An interview with Teresa Mei Chuc, a musical and emotional Poet of ancestral Vietnamese heritage and contemporary lyrical sensibilities.
By Kathabela Wilson
A telescope on the poet
How do you see the performing poet in the world, what can she give and how do you see yourself doing that?
It is incredibly healing for me when an audience listens deeply. When I am reading my poetry about my family’s experiences immigrating to the U.S. from Vietnam, or about the Vietnam War, it is deeply healing for me when I feel the audience listening. I realized this when I began to feel a physical change in my body. I think sharing one’s work can be a healing part of the writing process for both the writer and the reader.
Mapping the Poet
How does the place where you were born, and the place you grew up, nourish and ignite your work?
My birth country, Vietnam, is full of my ancestral memories, forests, mountains and rivers. Our family came to Pasadena. This is where I grew up and spent almost my whole childhood. I am grateful to be in the belly of a mountain. In times of much needed retreat, I seek sanctuary in the silences of the San Gabriel Mountains. And from this deep solitude and silence, something emerges that becomes poetry.
A microscope on the Poet
What has made you a poet, what propelled you from the beginning and what continues to light the creative fire in you?
It was a relief when I discovered poetry as a child in elementary school. I finally found a way to express myself in a language that I didn’t really feel was mine for a long time. Vietnamese and Cantonese were my first two native languages and English was my third language. The grammar, sounds, pronunciation, and differences from my native languages were hard for me. Writing poetry, I was able to express myself without worrying about punctuation or grammar. Through poetry, I was able to reclaim a part of me that was fragmented and fractured through war, immigration and exile. Poetry empowered me and helped me to transcend language, giving me a way to understand and express myself and my connection with the world.
A metronome on the Poet
How did music come to you and how does it relate to your poetry?
When I was in third grade, there was a school assembly and a girl played a solo piece on the violin, “The Young Prince and Princess” from Scheherazade composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. As I was listening to the girl play the violin solo, I fell in love with the violin and with the song. After I heard her play, I was so moved that I pleaded with my mother to let me play the violin. I had discovered a way to express myself with sounds. I began to feel in the sounds of words and language, their arrangement, like musical notes, the ability to touch the human heart.
Pulse of the Poet
How does your family, your music, and your poetry work together in your life now?
Composing poetry helps me to make sense of the world and helps me to document my family’s history through the Vietnam War, the war itself and the continuing consequences of the war. Poetry allows me to transcend myself in a dance with life and death. Life as well as death lights the creative fire within me. I feel that my work, my family, my poetry community, my travels are all a part of me, my being. So, I do see them as a whole…they are an intricate part of the circulatory system in my body…and my family being the heart.
The Bomb Shelter
by Teresa Mei Chuc
When bombs are exploding outside,
it means that there are implosions.
Vibrations travel through air and liquid.
My amniotic fluid is imprinted with airplanes
dropping bombs and screams and fire.
In the bomb shelter in Saigon,
my father teaches my two-year-old
brother French. “Je m’appelle Chuc Nai Dat.”
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