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Shelf Reflection is our series where we explore the bookshelves and reading habits of some of our favourite authors. In this latest instalment, Nam Le talks to us about poetry, re-reading books and why his latest release, 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem, is the book he has been writing his whole life.

Images: Supplied.

What’s the inspiration behind your new book of poetry, 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem?

I actually didn’t mean to write this book. I was asked by Monique Truong to contribute a 500-word-max musing on the occasion of the 25th-anniversary reissue of Watermark, an anthology of Vietnamese American poetry and prose. I hadn’t read Watermark. I asked Monique if this was okay, and if it was okay for me to do my bit in poetry. (Yes and yes.)

What this kicked off was a series of spinnings-off and spirallings, sucking in things I’d been thinking and reading and talking about for years, about identity and authenticity and authority—who has it, who gets to claim it, under what conditions—resulting in this: a kind of accidental book-length manifesto, an ars poetica, a clearing of throat and air, a proof of maze, at the heart of which is an altar filthy from sacred-cow-slaying and cake-having-and-eating. I realise, looking back, that this is the book I needed to write, that I’ve been writing my whole life.

What draws you to the poetry form?

I’ve never not been drawn. I started there—poetry was my first love and discipline—and prose, in a way, has been the (prolonged) sidetrack. But nowadays all the ways seem to be criss-crossing and converging, which feels right to me.

This is the book I needed to write.

When I asked Monique if I could do my musing in verse, I said it was because I wanted to ‘preserve my ambiguities’. This still feels right to me: poetry provides—enacts—a field in which ambiguity thrives, and by ambiguity, I guess I’m covering for truth as it feels to me: protean, provisional, antinomous, irresolved. Which isn’t to say that prose can’t convey these things; it’s just that poetry, to me, lives closer to music, and the music that came off pages of poetry when I was first learning to read rocked me deep as deep goes.

What are you currently reading?

Not ‘currently’, but winging its way towards me as we speak is Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Iliad; I’ve only read the Rieu and Fagles translations, and those decades ago, so I’m excited to plunge into a new rhythm in a new rendering.

I’m also reading some killer books by writers I’ll be lucky enough to be ‘in conversation’ with in March: Eula Biss’ Having and Being Had, Daniel Khalastchi’s The Story of Your Obstinate Survival and Gregory Pardlo’s Air Traffic.

What kind of reader are you?

Reading wise I’m kinda everything everywhere all at once. I’ll have heaps of books on the go at any given time: books I’ve been reading for years, books I’ll read in a single swipe (my ideal way, as a writer, to be read), books I’m re- and re-re-reading. And not just books: advance reading copies, manuscripts, magazines, journals, online stuff I’ve printed out or bookmarked or saved. There’s madness in the method!

Poetry was my first love and discipline.

What does your book collection look like?

At the moment, my book collection looks like a bunch of boxes (from a house move a year ago) in what’s become known as the ‘box room’. I can picture which books are where but only in my mental map of our old house, which isn’t super helpful. Currently, I’m working in the garage, and there are some books to my right, in an art crate I converted into a shelf. Their only organising logic is recency: books I’m reading or recently read; books I’ve bought or been sent; journals I subscribe to; books I’ve dug out of cardboard for whatever reason; books informing works-in-progress.

Images: Nam Le’s bookshelf (supplied). 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem (2024).

Which poets are you constantly recommending other people read?

You won’t be surprised to hear I’ve been really into book-length poems and sequences of poems; some extraordinary examples I’ve recently read or re-read are Alice Oswald’s Dart; Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day; William Carlos Williams’ Paterson; Peter Gizzi’s Fierce Elegy; Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of; Alice Notley’s For the Ride; Ed Roberson’s To See the Earth Before the End of the World; and Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

What’s next for you?

A bit of everything. More poems, maybe long ones (I’ve gotten the taste now). Stories, the novel, some essays / non-fiction, some screen stuff. A hybrid thing on plastics.