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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 August, 2004, 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK
Vietnam's rude poetry delights intelligentsia

By Nga Pham
BBC Vietnamese service

In a country heavily influenced by Confucian values, poetry is often regarded as a means to enchant and please.

Ly Doi
Ly Doi does not want poets to restrict their language

Now a group of young Vietnamese writers have decided to launch an offensive on poetic niceties and capture what they call "life's natural colours".

Open Your Mouth is the name of a literary quartet whose mission, it seems, is to shock and outrage.

Ly Doi, Bui Chat, Nguyen Quan and Khuc Dzuy write as they talk, with slang, grunts and all.

Their Vietnamese is the language you hear on the streets, full of swearing and sexual innuendo.

In print, their poems appear as if they were written by five-year-olds or illiterate drunkards.

The unofficial spokesman of the group, Ly Doi, said he thought all words, rude or polite, mispronounced or correct, should be treated equally and used liberally.

It blows a smelly breath into our literary scene, it makes us rethink about the way we have been writing
Inrasara, art critic

Another poet, Bui Chat, has a penchant for using "l" instead of "n" and "j" instead of "r".

To most readers, his verses often appear meaningless, to say the least. Some may find them annoying, or even vulgar.

But for Bui Chat, it is a way of expressing freedom and a departure from the usual rules and norms.

"I always think poems are to be shared with your loved ones. But these poems are so dirty and horrible," said Thuy Duong, a 35-year-old company manager. "They are rubbish."

Nguyen Quoc Chanh
(Poetry) should be regulated by market demands, not by state publishing rules
Nguyen Quoc Chanh

Yet Open Your Mouth has become a literary success since it was established a couple of years ago.

Never having been accepted by state publishing houses, the group's books had to be produced by Xerox machines in small quantities of 40-50 copies.

These copies are widely circulated among their fans and have become a must-read among Vietnam's intelligentsia.

"This type of poetry 'rubbish' is in Vietnam for the first time. It blows a smelly breath into our literary scene, it makes us rethink the way we have been writing," enthused Inrasara, an art critic.

"Perhaps up to now we have been too snooty, too clinical."

Open Your Mouth also organised poetry reading nights which quickly became extremely popular in Ho Chi Minh City until the police came to close them down.

The communist state still maintains rigid ideological control over literature and the arts.

But the government's restriction has failed to discourage the young poets, who see themselves as genuine, innovative and creative writers.

Staying free

Although they would not mind their work being officially printed at some point in the future, they prefer to stay underground for the moment.

"We want to avoid the state censorship that more than often cuts the life out of literary works," explained Ly Doi.

The poets' defiance against both humdrum life and government censorship has attracted a growing number of followers.

Now a dozen of young writers proudly list themselves as "underground poets", including Nguyen Quoc Chanh, who said he was happy that his poems could reach the readers in their "virginal" form.

Chanh believes there is a definite market for "real verse".

"It should be regulated by market demands, not by state publishing rules," he said.

The cultural authorities in Ho Chi Minh City have generally been turning a blind eye to the underground poets, except those reading nights that attract large groups of people.

But it is doubtful how long they can keep the status quo, given the fact that Chanh and his fellow poets' photocopying machines are getting busier by the day.

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