TANGO POET IN BANGKOK
BY ANTONIO PINEDA
His Excellency the Argentine Ambassador Don Felipe Frydman invites me inside Casa Argentina, his Residence, to celebrate a poetry reading by Vietnamese-American poet, artist and tango dancer, Mong-Lan. She and her husband Joe Arden are preparing the final touches for the reading. The tango salon has been converted into a theatre.
Prize-winning poet, visual artist, and tango dancer, Mong-Lan has just returned from a tenure in Buenos Aires where she translated her latest collection of poetry and drawings, Tango, Tangoing: Poems & Art, into Spanish. In Buenos Aires, she also had two art shows of her photography and paintings based on the tango. One show still continues until the end of the year in a very well known milonga called Porteno y Bailarin. She recently spent three months in New York City giving poetry readings, tango performances, teaching tango and even displaying her artworks at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
I repair to the bar where the bartenders, immaculate in white jackets, pour me a glass of fine Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon. The buffet table in the dining room is replete with empanadas, an Argentine delicacy, and bread with sausage. Taxis roll up to the entrance, depositing guests. Felipe converses with me about the literary merits of Simone De Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. He is an aesthete and lover of fine art and culture. When I grow up I want to be like him.
The theatre is full-up with Bangkok’s finest. The literary salon welcomes Mong-Lan to deliver a performance of her tango poetry. She instructs the audience in the terminology of tango, explaining the dance vocabulary.
For instance, “a tanguero” is a person who tangos. A “milonga” is a place where one goes to dance tango; it is also the name of a tango dance, precursor to the tango. A “milonguero” is a person who frequents the milongas. An “ocho” is a figure-eight drawn with the foot. A “voleo” is a whiplike motion created by the legs.
She recites from her erotic and intellectually charged oeuvre, Tango, Tangoing: Poems & Art. Her paintings, drawings and photography, representative of her love of the tango, are projected on a screen. The paintings are flavored with modernist influences, bringing to mind the stark linear style of Picasso. She engages the audience in Q and A. I take the occasion to inquire about her literary influences.
Q. As a young poet whom did you read that inspired or shaped your poetry.
A. From Argentina, there was Borges; from Chile, there was Pablo Neruda; from Spain, I loved Lorca; amongst other Hispanic influences. I read many American poets, and they ranged from Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Wallace Stevens, and of course, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. I also read French poets like Baudelaire, and I read the Vietnamese poets such as Nguyen Du.
Q . There is an element of Magic Realism in your work. Do you consider the sacred and profane a necessary component, a mix of the erotic and the spiritual necessary to high art?
A. Oh, certainly. I think that including the sacred and profane, the ugly and the beautiful, the mundane and the ethereal simultaneously and juxtaposed in one work deepens the work, heightens one’s sense of the world. In my humble way, I try to include the whole world in my poetry, and perhaps the end result is a sense of Magic Realism or the Surreal. Fact is sometimes more surreal than fiction.
The audience applauds and demands a tango performance. Mong-Lan invites New York City tango dancer Anthony Blackwell to accompany her in the tango. They dance to the Argentine tango orchestra leader Di Sarli’s “Bahia Blanca.” Anthony displays the fancy footwork and elegant style that distinguishes tango from ballroom dancing. Mong-Lan’s style is smooth, sophisticated and graceful; her delicate footwork is tempered with voleos, as she moves with her partner in time to the music. They dance twice. Then Anthony and his New York partner Ye-Ling dance a tango. The syncopated rhythms are derived from African influences. The bandoneon is like an accordion, but it has buttons instead of keys. The sound is augmented by violins and cellos, giving the sound a European flavor.
The Cabernet Sauvignon flows as does the good craic, as the Irish say. I bid adieu to Felipe. I am on my way to Pattaya where I am in the process of writing a screenplay titled The Last Mafiosi with the line producer Ed Harper. It is a crime noir, a Mafis based on real characters and criminal underworld lore. The night outside is starry and bright. The street is shaded by trees and the perfume of wild orchid. I roll deep in the street cos I have far to go before I sleep.
Mong-Lan left her native Vietnam on the last day of the evacuation of Saigon. Her books include Song of the Cicadas (winner of the Juniper Prize and the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Awards for Poetry), Why is the Edge Always Windy?, Love Poem to Tofu & Other Poems, and Tango, Tangoing, Poems & Art. A Wallace E. Stegner Fellow in poetry for two years at Stanford University and a Fulbright Fellow in Vietnam, Mong-Lan received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arizona. Honors include a Pushcart Prize and inclusion in the Best American Poetry anthology. She travels frequently between Southeast Asia, the United States and Argentina. Visit: www.monglan.com