David Remnick: In this week's issue of The New Yorker, there's a new poem by a young writer named Paul Tran. Their debut poetry collection, All the Flowers Kneeling, was named one of the best books of last year by my colleagues at The New Yorker. The book explores their family's history, immigrating from Vietnam, and their trans identity, among other things.
Paul Tran: Jeffrey, hi.
Jeffrey Masters: Hey, how are you?
Paul Tran: I'm Paul. So good to meet you.
Jeffrey Masters: They are full. Sorry.
Paul Tran: So good to meet you.
David Remnick: The poem we published is called The Three Graces, and it takes the name from a rock formation near Colorado Springs. You'll hear Tran describe it, "These towers of rock leaning toward each other in a way that strikes the eye as distinctly and weirdly human.
Paul Tran read the piece and talked about it with our producer, Jeffrey Masters.
Jeffrey Masters: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that you are among the first generation in your family who could read, write, and speak in English.
Paul Tran: Yes.
Jeffrey Masters: How did that affect or shape you as a poet?
Paul Tran: As a child, I was the family translator. I would translate for my mom at the doctor's office, at the grocery store, the dentist, parent-teacher conferences, and the practice of locating the precise words in my limited vocabulary or locating the precise words by expanding my vocabulary. Spending so much time flipping through the English and Vietnamese dictionary. Feeling frustrated that I couldn't often find the most accurate and precise words. I had to approximate that taught me very much, not just as a poet, but as a person, because just think about that. If we cannot find the exact things we need, most of the time we have approximation, but as a poet, I'm not always satisfied with close enough. I want to get closer.
Jeffrey Masters: Was poetry a presence in your home growing up?
Paul Tran: My mom is the family poet. She wrote poems when she was little, and she especially wrote poems when she first came to the United States as the way of keeping company with herself when she felt, especially estranged or alone, having to learn an entirely new language, having to readapt all of her recipes given the ingredients that she could find in California.
Jeffrey Masters: You grew up aware that my mom is a poet, like capital P?
Paul Tran: I don't know if it was capital P. I know she wrote metered and rhymed lyric poems about love, heartbreak, missing her homeland and her family and her friends, but they were just poems that she wrote for herself, so that for example, when she was hemming a pair of pants or embroidering Irish dancing dresses late into the night, she could hum her own poems as though they were songs to herself. Because she didn't have access to the books, she read growing up. She didn't have access to Vietnamese literature and culture at the time, so she had to be her own cultural producer.
Jeffrey Masters: Moving to The Three Graces, your new poem, what was going through your mind when you were working on it
Paul Tran: In the spring of 2021, in Colorado Springs, the experience of going to the Garden of the Gods and the experience of seeing The Three Graces, which is this incredible rock formation. Among the formations are these fins, if you will, called The Three Graces. I was stunned.
Jeffrey Masters: Wait, three fins. What is that?
Paul Tran: It's at this point I'm going to take out my phone to make sure I'm saying this right. Let's see. Let's see. Yes. Wikipedia.com, under the subsection geological formations, says that "the outstanding geological future of the park, which includes The Three Graces, our ancient sedimentary beds of deep red, pink, and white sandstone conglomerates and limestone that were deposited horizontally, but have now been tilted vertically and faulted into "fins"." It looks like this.
Jeffrey Masters: Oh, it's a very tall, long red rock structure.
Paul Tran: Yes. I was curious, what would these three rocks have to say about the nature of love? Because I have to write this poem for a wedding.
Jeffrey Masters: I love that. Should we read the thing?
Paul Tran: Yes.
Jeffrey Masters: Okay. Let's find a quiet space.
Paul Tran: Who could care about the probability of love when brought, like us, to this
world under endless darkness? A great mountain engulfed
by a greater ocean, we formed, ever so slowly, from tectonic plates
colliding, one mounting another, riding the way time rode
sunlight and moonlight across the icy surface of the water.
We learned, with time, to view and invent this life from the depths
where beasts, now extinct, bellowed and belted their brutal songs.
All that remains of them, and of that time, are the bones we buried, burnished
beneath beds of sandstone and limestone, made unknown and then known
when the waves and the darkness dried up. The wind whittled us
like a restless sculptor pacing around a slab of marble, imitating
God with a hammer and chisel. In the Garden of the Gods, we endured
the erotics of erosion. Loss. Change. What we couldn’t change
and what we lost to time made us more fully ourselves
and full of ourselves. We fooled around and made a fool of God.
We, in our faulted and faultless glamour, became a brand-new home
for the bighorn sheep and lions, the canyon wrens and white-throated swifts
swinging low below a cloudless sky. We drank the sky and threw up
acres of wild prairie grass, piñon juniper, and ponderosa pine
from the remains of ancestral ranges and sand dunes. Maybe this was love
after all. We remained. We reinvented ourselves. We let the weaker parts of us go
and decided, despite our egos and the tests of time, to test time and show
how miraculous it is to exist. To live beyond survival. To be alive
twice and thrice, and countless times to find one with and within another.
What are the chances of that? One in a thousand. One in a million. One in love
proves and is living proof that anything and everything is probable
through seasons counting on rain to come down like a downpour of stars.
Seasons of Never This Again. Seasons of This Could Last Forever.
David Remnick: Paul Tran reading their poem, The Three Graces. You can find it at newyorker.com. Trans spoke with Jeffrey Masters, one of our producers.
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