“I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough.”
Why did you start State of the Union?
In 2005, I taught a writing course called State of the Union at Naropa University, in Boulder, CO. I’ve also taught this course at the University of Montana and University of Pennsylvania. I wanted the students to address the crises afflicting our nation. It’s certainly not easy to make sense out of what’s going, especially since there’s so much disinformation and propaganda out there.
State of the Union is my attempt to track, through images and words, what’s happening to this country. The project has also forced me to spend much more time in the physical world, as oppose to sitting in front of the computer.
Like most of us, I was living a mediated life, I was living mostly through the computer, but, with this project, I’ll walk for miles though the streets, looking and hearing, and sometimes asking questions. Before I started, I had become alienated from much of my home city. I had forgotten the names of the neighborhoods, places I had known as a housepainter.
I was also tired of being an inhabitant of the poetry ghetto. Poets are entirely invisible and irrelevant in this society. As America collapses, poets have nothing to contribute to the general conversation. Few have anything to say, and the ones who do are ignored in any case.
I was tired of being published in books and literary journals that no one reads. My political essays, then, are my attempt at reaching a bigger audience, a more general audience. I want to use all of my skills as a writer to address people who would not likely read my poems. I’m particularly happy that my latest piece, “Mare Mere,” is being run by both CounterPunch and Dissident Voice, since it has elements of the prose poem. It is 2/3 political essays and 1/3 poetry. I’ll try to write more in this vein.
Why do you think poets are ignored? Is it worldwide or just an American phenomenon?
Conditioned by the car and television, we value speed above all. We want everything to be fluid and accelerated. We don’t care about quality, just quantity. It doesn’t matter what we eat, we just want to stuff ourselves as fast as possible.
Poetry is too slow for this culture. The poets themselves are also to be blamed, however. Dodging life instead of confronting it, most of them are ridiculously feeble. They think the ideal life is to be on campus forever, with a break once a year to go to their much-anticipated convention. There, they can suck up and screw down.
Da Vinci said, “A man who looks forward to spring is looking forward to his own death.” To always look forward, then, is to be forever dissatisfied with the present, but that’s the culture we have, we’re always looking forward to next year, next week, next hour, we can’t stand this present second. Our culture doesn’t just anticipate death, it’s living it!
In short, a people who will not reflect and who can’t stand silence will not read a poem. Though this has become a worldwide phenomenon, it’s much more advanced in certain places, like the U.S., for example, where we’ve reached a psychotic state. We hate our own mind, frankly. We don’t want to hear it speak.
Notice how people must turn on an electronic device soon as they enter a room, be it TV, stereo or computer. Sometimes all three are turned on simultaneously. Without these surrogate voices, we’re lost. What I’m talking about goes way beyond poetry, obviously. What I’m trying to get at is the reverence and courage that allow you to hear yourself and other people not just more clearly, but at all.
A quick observation about Vietnam. I went back in 1995, 1998, then stayed for 2 ½ years starting in 1999. While there, I could observe it shift towards the American model, which is all distraction all the time, where serious thinking is drowned out by nonsense, titillation and trivia. Wearing T-shirts with weird or actual English, many people started to listen to loud, recorded music, watch mindless TV and lust after brand names, though few could afford them.
None of this is necessarily bad in itself. I mean, a stupid T-shirt is just a piece of underwear with some moronic writing on it, and I enjoy a good soccer match as much as the next guy, but this rising pop culture was helping to mask many, many serious problems.
There was prostitution on practically every street. In factories, workers were being abused. Likewise, the servants in middle class households. I’m not even against prostitution in itself, only the poverty that forced many young women to become whores.
Top Communist officials became obscenely rich, bought many properties and sent their kids to Western universities, while the poorest sold their bodies and begged. However, with this loud music, exciting soccer matches, constantly flickering TV and many sexy photos, intimate or blown up, it was no longer necessary to arrest serious writers and thinkers. As in America, the Vietnamese intellectual has become irrelevant.
When you first left the office and computer how did you feel getting out into the physical world?
The office sounds so grand! Well, I have a little room with a desk and a tiny bed. I didn’t snore ten years ago, but now I do, so my wife and I sleep in different beds, in different rooms.
In my so-called office, there’s some food stored in the corner: a case of tuna, one of instant noodles and several bags of rice. We don’t have much room, so every square foot must be stacked with something. Where I work, then, where I’m typing this, is more survival bunker than regular office.
If there’s a nuclear explosion or meltdown, my wife and I could lock ourselves in this rat hole of a room and survive until Jesus, Allah or Buddha, whoever’s truly biggest, meanest or asskickingest, knocks on the door to say, Hey, everything’s OK, you can come out now!
By definition, a writer or artist must work in isolation. He must be removed from the world as he writes, paints or whatever, but a writer must also be among other people so he can have something to write about.
My first book, Fake House, was populated mostly by losers, the types I was surrounded with, and with whom I worked and drank. Of course, some of the characters were more or less me. I was a total loser, financially, socially and erotically. I was an embarrassment. Still am. I couldn’t get any of anything.
You asked about the media. Well, the media is all about getting stuff. It’s about having all of your natural and unnatural appetites fulfilled. It’s about whooping it up, partying, fucking and spending, but real life is not anything like that. Well, you might have a few highlights here and there, fondly remembered, but most of the time, it’s incredibly hard just to get by. Just to maintain your basic dignity, you have to exert yourself like crazy; you have to be a physical and mental athlete just to get by.
My first book, Fake House, was dedicated to “The Unchosen.” I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough. We will all lose, but there’s also dignity and strength in losing. I came from a losing society, South Vietnam, and I’m experiencing a collapsing culture right now.
Anyway, I’ve always been a wanderer, a walker. As a kid in Saigon, I walked all over. When I lived in Italy and England, I’d go to many strange cities, towns and villages and just walk. This project, then, is an intensification of an impulse I’ve always had.
The only time in my life when I didn’t walk was in high school. I lived in San Jose and Northern Virginia then. These two places are heavily car-dependent. I hate them, frankly.
The computer is very addictive. I have never been addicted to the TV, for many years I didn’t even have a TV, but with the computer, I became sort of a screen addict for the first time.
My site, State of the Union, gives me a clear reason to leave the house, so that’s a good thing. I can walk out without going to the bar. I don’t drink a fraction of what I used to.
When you’re among people, you’re always surprised. You think you already know how they look and talk, but you’d often be wrong. People are always inventive because they’re restless, bored and exhibitionistic. They also like to have fun. Packaging themselves, they’re always refining their acts. They’ll come up with the weirdest way of putting on a hat, for example, or of conveying the simplest message.
What surprised you the most when you first started documenting the homeless? What surprises you now?
I’ve lived in cities most of my life, so the homeless is nothing new. There is a lot destitution and squalor in Saigon, where I was born and spent my early childhood, and where I returned to live for 2 ½ years as an adult.
When I moved to Philly in 1982, I saw many homeless living in the subway concourse, and I remember seeing hundreds of homeless in Tompkins Square in New York in the mid 80’s.
Before I started my State of the Union project, I never talked to the homeless, however. It is enlightening to hear people’s stories. I don’t want to generalize too much about the homeless, but it is amazing to observe how tough and resilient these people are. On their faces and bodies are evidences of the very difficult lives they’ve endured, even before they became homeless. Many of these people look beaten up, because they have been. In Vietnam, too, you see these types of faces and bodies.
“Home” is such a physical and emotional necessity. While most of us still have roofs over our heads, I’d say that many of us are emotionally homeless. At best, we are dwelling in emotional halfway houses, or emotional bunkers, with many cans of expired tuna in a corner.
Now, I’d like to shoehorn an umbilical cord mooning monologue about home: I was born in Saigon and have lived there as an adult, but to call that home would be a stretch. I’m most familiar with Philadelphia and do identify with it, but I can’t deny feeling elated whenever I could leave it, if only temporarily.
I was calmest and happiest when I lived in Certaldo, Italy, population 16,000, but I could barely speak the language and didn’t have to make a living there. With the exception of San Jose and Northern Virginia, I’m fond of all the places I’ve lived in, including Norwich, England, and Missoula, MT, but, as Camus said, and I’m quoting from memory and probably butchering it, “He loves all women, which means he loves none of them.”
My mother is from Hanoi, so I can still fake a fairly convincing Hanoi accent, and several times I’ve caught myself thinking, while in Hanoi, “It’d be beautiful to die here,” but of course I’m not dying to live there, so that’s not really home either. I’m OK with being home/less. I’m happiest when I’m on a train, though of course, I’m also anxious to get off.
You said many homeless people have been beat up. Who is attacking these people?
Tyrone, a 45-ish black man who was on the streets for nearly a year, told me he was beaten up by three teens. He showed me stitches on his forehead. A thirty-ish white guy was almost stabbed with a box-cutter by a white, drunken girl, walking with a group of friends. She slashed his bag. The story sounded a bit outlandish, but everything else he said was plausible. He said black women treated him the best, and, sure enough, a young black woman gave him a bag of McDonald’s food while we were talking.
In Richmond, a white former nurse, Tony, also said that black women were the kindest to him. As if on cue, again, a black woman gave him an apple not even a minute later. Tony related how a Mexican homeless man was hit with a stick as he washed his clothes in the river. His attacker was some black guy, maybe another homeless dude. This Mexican guy had a big gash on his head but didn’t dare go to the emergency room because he was illegal. Knowing Tony had been a nurse, he asked Tony for help. Tony looked at it and said it would heal eventually, so that was that.
If you’re lying on the sidewalk, you’re going to be vulnerable, obviously. That’s why so many of them sleep during the daytime, because it’s safer that way, with many people walking around. Even when you’re not attacked, it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, because of the weather, the noise and because you’re lying on cardboard.
Some of your pictures feature images of advertising. What do you think about the relationship between marketing and the homeless?
Much of photography is used to seduce. It sells you on a fantasy so you will buy the product. The glamorous advertising images and catchy slogans serve as an obscene contrast to what’s actually on the streets.
The last time I was Vietnam, in 2001, I often saw the slogan, RICH PEOPLE, STRONG COUNTRY, on government billboards, but this was still old style Communist propaganda. With their heroic, broad shouldered and determined figures, always depicted from below, the Communists sought to inspire, but Capitalism is all about seduction.
On American TV, there’s an ad that shows a famous football player, first in uniform, then stripped down to near total nudity. These female hands then dressed him in slacks, shirt and tie. Only at the end would you discover that this is actually a car commercial!
In any case, photography plays a central role in this come-on economy. There’s photographic seduction everywhere you turn. The system will strip you and leave you with a very cool photo, and it won’t even be yours to own, son, you can only look at it! I’m trying to capture this swindle in my photos.
In your writing you are critical of the spread of casinos. Why?
Casinos are perfect emblems of our non-productive economy. A lot of money changes hand in a casino, but it produces absolutely nothing. Factories are being abandoned in cities and towns across America, but casinos are spreading all over. Fools and crooks who support casinos say they bring jobs, but casinos are net losses in every community.
Do you ask for permission before you photograph anyone? Do you explain what you are using the images for and if so, what is a typical reaction?
If I can get away with sneaking a photo, I’ll do that. Generally speaking, I don’t want my subjects to pose or even be aware of my presence, but since I carry a large camera, this is not always possible.
From each photo, you can generally tell whether I’ve engaged my subject. Sometimes I offer people a bit of money, usually just a buck or two, to take their photos. I gave $10 to a Camden woman, however, so she could buy cans of Sterno for her tent.
In Detroit, I also gave an old man 10 bucks because he was in such bad shape. He said he needed this money for a prescription. Whenever I visited the tent city in Camden, New Jersey, I’d bring 24 large cans of beer, though I’d end up drinking three or four myself. I’ve also bought food for the homeless.
When I talk to people on the streets, I do tell them I’m writing about the economy. Most know full well the economy is in horrible shape and will get even worse, and most of them don’t mind talking to me about their dire situations.
Once, I saw a young woman who was raving and extremely dirty, she even smelled of urine, but as soon as I talked to her, she became sane and radiant. Not to exaggerate but she became shockingly beautiful. I bought her something to drink and lent her my cell phone so she could call a friend in Baltimore to pick her up in Philadelphia.
As an artist, you’re always a kind of vulture when you’re around people, you’re always trying to make use of what they say, how they look or who they are, and since art is always subjective, a kind of distortion, you’re always deforming people to suit your purposes. Although art is always, in this sense, an exploitation, it is also a kind of tribute, and hence, of love. Sometimes I can barely stand how magnificent and beautiful people are.
You mentioned bringing beer or food with you sometimes. A common stereotype is the homeless asking for money or holding a sign by the freeway just want it to buy drugs and alcohol. How accurate is this stereotype?
Well, there are soup kitchens. In Camden, I went with a group of homeless to a very clean and dignified soup kitchen. People sat down at these long tables and were served by volunteers. When this homeless couple left a bit early, I asked them, “What happened? Didn’t you like the food?” The woman was a deaf mute, so only the man answered. He said, “Yeah, we liked it fine, but now we’re going to a second soup kitchen!” Another guy told me, “You have to be a moron to starve in Camden.” The problem is, many of the homeless are at least slightly crazy. Though some started out mentally ill or deficient, I’m sure many more became that way from having to live on the streets.
There’s a guy who wandered around the shopping mall in downtown Philadelphia. His pants were falling apart and sagging. You could literally see his crotch. My wife actually tried to give him a belt, but he wouldn’t take it. He wouldn’t even take cash. He never said a word, not one word, so maybe he couldn’t talk at all. Every now and then, you’ll run into a homeless person who won’t even take money.
In any case, I bring beer to the tent city in Camden because I figure, why shouldn’t these people have a beer? Also, I’d not be so welcome if I didn’t bring beer!
The tent city in Camden, New Jersey has made headlines in the past but I think many people would be shocked to hear tent cities exist in American. Some news reports said the type of people there would surprise you. What was it like when you went there?
It was orderly and safe. In the summer, you could smell the shit in the honey bucket, but it wasn’t terribly dismal. Sure it was bad, but people were making the best of it. They’d hang out in the center, talk and laugh. Sometimes people would fight, they’d scream at each other, but I was there maybe ten times and never saw any violence. I’d hear about violent episodes, however, but these were very rare.
In any case, the rest of Camden was much more dangerous. Jamaica, the head guy of the tent city, kept everything under control. Later, I’d hear from someone, living in another Camden tent city, that Jamaica would charge people a nominal fee to live in “his” tent city. I don’t know if this was true, but I did notice that Jamaica sometimes hoarded some of the beer I brought. Whatever. He was the “mayor” of that place, and a lot of the people I talked to seemed genuinely grateful to him. Rex, 76 years old, told me Jamaica carried him on his back to the hospital. Hardly anyone had a cell phone there, so it wasn’t like you could easily call 911 if there was an emergency.
One time I went there and it was, like, 5 degree out, and there was a huge snowstorm, and this kid, maybe 22, was freaking out. We were standing around the fire, trying to warm ourselves, and this kid was raving because he couldn’t take it anymore. I lent him my cell phone so he could call his mom. He started to beg her to let him come home. “I’ll do anything you want me to do, Mom! I can’t take this anymore.” Jamaica said he’d put the kid on the Greyhound, and he apparently did, because I never saw that kid again.
That tent city got too much publicity, so the city government finally shut it down. It didn’t do anything but chase the people out and put a chain link fence around that plot. As for all the newly displaced, a private organization did take them to a motel, where they could be cleaned up, groomed then assisted in finding a job or housing.
The official unemployment rate of Camden is 25%, however, so I’m sure many of these folks have ended up on the streets again. As for other tent cities, I’ve seen people living in tents or makeshift dwellings in a few other places besides Camden. There must be dozens across the country.
American cities are outlawing sleeping or camping in public. In many places, dumpster diving is also illegal. One should remember that during the 1929 Depression, much food was destroyed even as the nation starved!
In Hawaii, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, you can’t sleep in your own car, and in San Francisco, you can’t even sit on the sidewalk. These cosmetic measures are designed to mask our accelerating economic collapse. And yet, despite all the evidence, the mainstream media trumpet daily that the recovery is here.
To close, I want to quote Texas Congressman C. Wright Patman, as recorded by the great Studs Terkel in his 1970 oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”
Well, that depression is here!