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  • Jim Bessman

Award-winning poet Mong-Lan's artistic journey from Saigon to America to Buenos Aires to APAP


One Thousand Minds Brimming (Valiant Press)

One of the newcomers at this year's Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference was Mong-Lan, the award-winning (Pushcart Prize, Juniper Prize and Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Awards for Poetry, among them) Vietnamese-born American painter, photographer, writer, poet and dancer.

A child when she left Saigon with her family the last day of the evacuation at the end of the Vietnam War, Mong-Lan would later see her paintings and photographs be exhibited at the Capitol House in Washington, D.C., the Dallas Museum of Art, Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, and in galleries in the San Francisco area and exhibitions in Bali, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Seoul and Tokyo.

She was the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts' inaugural Visual Artist and Poet in Residence, and her artwork is also featured in her poetry books. Regarding her poetry, she received a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University and a Fulbright Fellowship in Vietnam.

Mong-Lan has also recorded nine albums of jazz piano and tango—which also feature her poetry—and teaches tango, having also studied ballet, jazz and flamenco.

She speaks five languages and also plays guitar, and "makes me look like a slacker," said poet/musician/showcase host Ken Waldman, who was displaying some of Mong-Lan's music and poetry titles at his well-stocked APAP booth.

"It's my first time here," said Mong-Lan. "I'm exploring the performing arts world in New York City and showcasing my poetry accompanied by my jazz piano, guitar and solo tango--with projections of my artwork screened behind me."

She showcased her program River of Senses: Dream Songs & Tangos—one woman's journey from Saigon to Buenos Aires, via America Sunday at cabaret club Don't Tell Mama. She sang in Spanish, English and Vietnamese, and as the show's subtitle indicates, she moved from Saigon to the United States and then to Buenos Aries.

"That's how I found healing, though tango—and the embrace of tango. Not only from the dance, but the singing and playing guitar and expressing through the song and dance."

Indeed, Mong-Lan's stated message is one of "healing, through beauty, dance and the arts," she said. "I come from a medical family, but choose to promote healing this way."

Tango, she continued, "is a particularly healing dance in that you dance in an embrace. It promotes healing though the body and emotions, and through that feeling of wholeness I overcome the feeling of fragmentation caused by the war and its aftermath and discrimination."

She noted her unique background: born in Saigon during war, her family fortunate to leave the day before the fall of South Vietnam, coming to the U.S. and growing up as a refugee.

"My poems deal with Vietnam--going back and exploring my roots as a person born there but no longer really Vietnamese and being discriminated against in Vietnam as well. Discrimination all the way around! But there are also love poems, not only to people but everyday items like food."

The latter topic is represented plentifully in her latest book One Thousand Minds Brimming: poems & art. An example, "Love Poem to Onion," peels off the layers of a failed relationship.

"I write to these vegetables as a lover—sometimes to the lover who never really addressed me at all," said Mong-Lan, who now splits her time between Buenos Aires—"an urbane city like Saigon, but quite different"--and Houston. By reciting her poetry to jazz piano, "you hear the voice of the poet playing original music as well," she added.

But there's a jazz feel, too, in the printed versions, as the lines and phrases of Mong-Lan's poems are freely spaced throughout the pages in giving them their own artistic dimension.

"Love Poem to Garlic"

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