ZM: This is Zoë Maughan and it is May 20, 2022. I am meeting with Dao Strom via Zoom today. Dao, we are really glad you are here today. You first recorded an interview with us in November 2019. Could you begin by reintroducing yourself and giving a brief update?
DS: Well, my name is Dao Strom, and I still live in Portland, Oregon. I guess I spoke to your team in November about my background as a Vietnamese person, a refugee, and how I ended up in Oregon. I guess it might help if you wanted to be a little more specific about what kind of update you would like.
ZM: Yeah, for sure, we can get into it more as I talk about some of your work. Since November 2019, if you were working in a different position, or if you've moved, or anything like that.
DS: No, I still live in Portland, Oregon. Southeast, and still working on my art practice as a writer and musician, and artist or hybrid artist. In 2020 I actually did release another hybrid project—a poetry art book and an album that accompanied that book. The book is called Instrument, and it was published by Fonograf Editions, which is a local Portland press, and they specialize in experimental poetry and books of the intersection. They have done poetry records of poets reading—so kind of at the intersection of music and poetry, and my book was the first book they published, moving from vinyl records of poets to hybrid form of book and music projects. And the album was released in collaboration with Antiquated Future Records, which is a local small record label and the album was called Traveler's Ode, and the two pieces go together in that the album accompanies the book and there are pieces of the lyrics and things inside the book. It's a hybrid blend of poetry and music and visual photographic-based art, but also visual/textual art. And I worked on that in 2020, I was working on it at the beginning of lockdown and it was released in the fall of 2020 and I recently was awarded the Oregon Book Award for Poetry, for the book Instrument, so that's sort of been the most major event off of that book. I also released an album this March, 2022, called Redux, and it's just an album of ten songs, also with Antiquated Future Records.
ZM: That's awesome, congratulations on all of that. So a lot has changed since your first interview, including the emergence of COVID-19 and the resulting social unrest. Can you talk about your experiences living in Portland since the pandemic began and changes in the environment?
DS: Yeah, I think my experiences with the changes are probably like a lot of people in Portland, as a witness of all that has happened, which I don't feel I need to re-summarize. It's been a lot, for myself, I think I've been fortunate, as far as what occurred over the pandemic. We still have a place to live, things were disrupted, but my own family has been safe and healthy. It's really the difficulty of witnessing everything that has gone on in the world and in Portland. I think I continue to do the same things I've been doing, which is just my own artwork and community and collaborative art work projects—just trying to uplift the marginalized voices that I have access to. That continues to go on, I work mainly with a small organization called Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network—DVAN. That organization was founded by Vietnamese writers and scholars, and I've been working with them for years and years. But that work was moved online and got busier during 2020.
ZM: I was curious to ask about how engagement has changed with this shift to a digital and then sometimes a hybrid model.
DS: DVAN in particular—more online events and readings happening, or just meetings. And less in-person work. I feel like for me in 2020, on a personal level, that was OK. It was going to be a really busy year as far as travel and public events, and things. So the opportunity to be a little quieter, or just stay in one place was fruitful on a personal level. I think it's fostered a level of communication where given the urgency and heaviness in the world, I think people are a little more attuned to smaller things, more sensitive to each other also, more sensitive to things in the world. So I feel like if anything were coming out of these two years—I guess this is my take on it, or sort of hope—that it's really awful, but maybe as a whole, people have a little more collective awareness, maybe Americans have a little more collective awareness of the impact of things happening to other people, other groups of people, other places in the world. I think that is my reaching for a silver lining and all the depressing things that maybe we are a little more sensitized to how we're connected locally.
ZM: Right, and you say that now there has been this need to slow down in ways that we haven't before, and so seeing what comes out of that has been interesting. [DS: To voices on the margins a little more.] Yeah, certainly. So you've spoken to this a little bit already, but more specifically, how has the onset of covid impacted your work as an artist? That could be in a more concrete sense, or that could be in a more artistic sense.
DS: I don't know that it's changed the artistic focus that much. I'm still exploring things having to do with diaspora, and just still the same questions about intergenerational trauma, and inheritance, and return, and the difficulty of return, and living between cultures. So I think that those themes are still pretty prevalent. I would say the thing about collective action or just contemplating what it means to live in a world as a member of a collective but also as an individual person—the things that you want to carry forward and the things you want to let go of form those collective obligations and pressures, you know? [ZM: Yeah.] I don't know if that is connected to the pandemic so much as it's sort of an ongoing… I think the pandemic has certainly agitated that contemplation… questioning what it means to have responsibility towards each other, how to care in whatever spaces you're in. And concretely, I think that the work that I produced was actually pretty fruitful for me, it was almost like I got more work in 2020 than I have gotten ever, which is really strange. If it's coincidental, but I think it's also just some of the shifts that were happening politically—in consideration of race and marginalized groups maybe. I actually did have the opportunity to work on putting this book and the album together and some of the months of the quiet and isolation of lockdown may have helped with that and just gave me the permission to go into an interior space and do experimental work. I was also invited in 2020 to do a public art commission for Portland State University and the City of Portland—a building, the Vanport Building downtown, which is a nonprofit of PSU, City of Portland, OHSU, PCC. The building itself is a collaborative use—or that's what it was described to me as, a community space. I made a poem that is a permanent installation of the outer walls of the building. At the time that I commissioned to do that, it was right after the George Floyd murder has happened, and all of the things with lockdown and COVID. And then part of the commission was asking the art to be addressing the moment, but also looking forward—something that was going to be visible and ongoing. So the theme that I arrived at was to contemplate the air, and breathing, and in terms of environmental, and social, political, racial, and the public health situation—that just seemed like the element in common. So I made a poem called "We Breathe, and Breathing is an Asynchronous Music, Everybody Needs the Air." I guess that's another work that came about in 2020. So I don't know if that would've been offered to me… I don't know if it had to do with the circumstances with the year, and then just I know the public art commission was specifically engaging local BIPOC artists. So if that is a way that COVID has impacted.
ZM: That makes sense. Thank you for sharing that. [DS: Sure.] So, you mentioned this already, but it's amazing. In April you received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry for your book Instrument. Can you tell us a little bit more about the content of this book and album?
DS: It is an experiment in multi-modal poetics. The book is a series of poems, or fragmented poems. I think of the word "instrument" in terms of my own interest in the intersection of poetry and music, of voice and the different ways that voice manifests for me. Instrument also has body, instruments are bodies that channel other things, and bodies are instruments that channel. There's just different implications of the word "instrument”—themes of the body, themes of music, themes of voicing, articulation, and the type of conduit I want to be in the world, which has a lot to do with voicing and music and sound. There are photographs in the book. The book is a lot of things, it's hard to summarize, but those are some of the general themes. There are some key travels and collaborations and events that have occurred in the past few years that went into the book. One major thing was in January 2020, right before the lockdown happened, I actually took a trip to Vietnam and traveled to a cave in central Vietnam. I wanted to hike to this cave and it's just this amazing cave system, there are themes about caves, and the landscape and interiority that I wanted to think about. And there's also some historic events that happened in that part of Vietnam that were part of my family history, because my parents witnessed a massacre having to do with the North Vietnamese shelling South Vietnamese citizens were fleeing along this road in 1972. And there a lot of events that happened in the war time, this is just one of them, but its significance to me had to do with my parents' experience of it, particular time, and I wanted to visit the site along the road. So those pieces, it's a pilgrimage of sorts: exploring memory, exploring artifacts that don't really exist anymore. Ghosts, I guess. Those are some of the major themes in the book and that event takes up some space in the book.
ZM: So we've touched on some themes of memory already, and I think this next question comes back around to that. So in your first interview you talked about the intersection between personal and collective history, and it seems that has come up again. And I was just wondering if you could share more of your thoughts about this construction of memory.
DS: Well I think it's very complicated. Memory is very subjective, and it's very personal. At the same time we claim memory; nations claim memory. Groups of people, families, claim memory as history, as a narrative—so they claim it as authority. I think in my work, I am questioning all of those constructs. Of course within my subjective self there are ideas of truth, and what really happened. But I am also very aware of the fallibility of that, and how much I don't know. Especially in regards to Vietnam, and politics and history—there's a lot I don't know. The incident I just talked about is interesting to me—it's part of my parents' memory, it's part of South Vietnamese memory, that [at] this certain time in 1972, over a thousand people were massacred. Refugees, citizens fleeing by the communist forces. And the reason it's significant is because that memory doesn't actually exist in the North Vietnamese record because it's been erased from the winning side's national history—and the American portion of that point in history. There are so many other things happening in the Vietnam war, that event is not really registered as significant, but it's significant to people like my mother's generation, and largely also because it wasn't reported or recognized. And then my mother's newspaper at the time wrote about it. It's an incident that I've grown up with, as far as hearing them talk about it. And then the fact that I was born nine months after that is sort of the intersection of my personal history with that collective moment. I think of memory as consisting of all of those, those conflicting, contradicting impulses. I'm a writer and poet, I'm not a historian, so I think my goal is to introduce more questions, and evoke things rather than try to claim authority. So I think I'm very wary of that position of trying to claim authority when I know there’s a lot of different sides to history and stories. Whether it's on that personal level of one's memory and life experiences, or collective/cultural stories. Those are just some of my thoughts on memory. One thematic in the work, the book Instrument, and the album Traveler's Ode, I think of memory… echo is a really apt metaphor for memory. And the book is exploring that as a metaphor, and the music is also playing with echo, and the distortion of echoes, and the distortion of a source sound as a way to keep evoking the mystery, and reverberations of memory. So that's another way I've contemplated memory.
ZM: Yeah, I really love those ideas about memory and music, and how you play with those ideas, or interrogate that. [DS: Thank you.] Thank you for sharing that. That is the end of my questions, the last one is is there anything else you'd like to discuss today or any other projects that didn't come up? But this has been wonderful, I really loved hearing what you've been working on.
DS: Well, what else? I guess just in terms of what I'm doing in Portland. The De-Canon Anthology project is still going, and I'm working with a collaborator/co-editor Jyothi Natarajan, and we are editing what's going to be an anthology of hybrid literary work by women and nonbinary BIPOC writers. And this is going to be published in collaboration with Phonograph Editions sometime in 2023. So, that is another project in the works.
ZM: That sounds great. [DS: Thanks.] Alright, well, I think that's everything I've got for you today. Thank you so much for meeting with me. I'll just close us out: again, this has been Zoë Maughan speaking with Dao Strom via Zoom, on May 20, 2022.