Saturday, April 19, 2003


I received an email from Tsering Wangmo Dhompa:


Dear Ron,

It was a surprise, and such honor, to see my name this morning in Silliman’s Blog.* I have come to rely on it for sustenance during long hours at work. I am not often able to linger in the dialogues and thoughts you bring up, or talk about them with anyone around me as I would wish to. I learn a lot from reading them. Thank you! (I hate to admit it, but I read more fiction than poetry so your writing helps me keep a daily link to so many poets, and to the condition of poetry, so to speak.)


Yes, Nepal, Mongolia, Tibet and Bhutan are places you hear much about but little is mentioned of the contemporary literary work coming out of the community. Much of Tibetan literature and art focuses on Tibetan Buddhism – poetic traditions are part of this – that lay people didn’t get to study with the depth that monks and nuns did in Tibet. This has changed, of course, over the years and in exile Tibetans have some opportunity, but we’ve been busy adapting and learning new languages – Hindi, Nepali and English. I think the writing coming out of these decades in exile is exciting and yet at the same time, because I am writing in English, I reveal my distance, for a lack of a gentler word – from the Tibet I was not born into. The older Tibetans cannot read what I write. The younger Tibetans can but perhaps only the ones in the United States and Europe because again, many continents and much water comes between where we are located physically and make their own point.


The inevitability of change is something Tibetans are taught to believe in. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is therefore what it is. And that, I think, allows for great freedom in writing, in talking about the condition of exile, of culture, of language and of existences (breathing or objects) imagined or understood. Perhaps surrealism is very much part of it. Here we are, Tibetans in India or Nepal learning English from Indians or Nepalis who themselves had to learn English as a second language. Isn’t that wonderful? So we must know Hindi or Nepali in order to learn English. There are no guidelines. There are no existing guidelines. Everything is in the process of becoming. Into this language then we find a way.


I cannot comment on poetry, especially in America, because I don’t know much. I grew up reading poetry coming out of England and most of it from the 18th and 19th century. So you can see I have a long way to go in reading. I also have a long way to go in reading Tibetan literature – of which I know absolutely nothing, (something else I hate to admit).


Tibetans are writing poetry in English. There are more of us than we know because very few are published and I think the only other Tibetan poet I know of published in the US is Chögyam Trungpa (who was a well known incarnate lama and author of several Buddhist books). I’d like to share two poems by poet Tenzin Tsundue who lives in India. These poems are in his collection of poems KORA published by his sister in Dharamsala, India. He is an activist for Tibet and his poems capture the irony, sadness and the wonder of life in exile. I admire his writing because he is able to articulate the dislocation felt by many Tibetans, well rooted as they are in their homes in exile. He is able to bring exacting details that most younger Tibetans would be able to identify or feel sympathetic towards.



The Tibetan in Mumbai
is not a foreigner.
He is a cook
at a Chinese `take-away'.
They think he is Chinese
run away from
He sells sweaters, in summer
in the shade of the Parel bridge.
They think he is some retired Bhahadur.
The Tibetan in Mumbai
abuses in Bambaya Hindi,
with a slight Tibetan accent
and during vocabulary emergencies
he naturally runs into Tibetan.
That's when the Parsis laugh.
The Tibetan in Mumbai
likes to flip through the MID-DAY
loves FM, but doesn't expect
a Tibetan song.
He catches bus at a signal,
jumps into a running train,
walks into a long dark gully
and nestles in his kholi.
He gets angry
when they laugh at him
The Tibetan in Mumbai
is now tired
wants some sleep and a dream,
on the Virar fast.
He goes to the
the fast local
brings him back to Churchgate
into the Metro: a New Empire.

EXILE HOUSE - Tenzin Tsundue

Our tiled roof dripped
and the four walls threatened to fall apart
but we were to go home soon,
we grew papayas
in front of our house
chilies in our garden
and changmas for our fences,
then pumkins rolled down the cowshed thatch
calves trotted out of the manger,
grass on the roof,
beans sprouted and
climbed down the vines,
money plants crept in through the window,
Our house seems to have grown roots.
the fences have grown into a jungle,
now how can I tell my children
where we came from.


I have babbled on and I am afraid I have lost my train of thought.

I simply wanted to thank you – for encouraging me to continue writing and for opening me to other poets whose writing I otherwise wouldn’t know.


Best wishes – Tsering


It’s hard to believe that I didn’t think of Trungpa when I characterized Dhompa as “the source” of Tibetan-American poetry, given Trungpa’s role as the founder of Naropa. Yet this is precisely where Dhompa’s evolving reputation as an American poet comes into play. I’ll stand by my characterization of the historic importance of her poetry – I think it’s right.


In addition to his poetry & fiction, Tsundue is well-known as a political activist, whose creativity in bringing attention to the plight of occupied Tibet reminds me of the best aspects of the Yippies of the 1960s. Check out the links to Tsundue’s work & activities above, or go to the Friends of Tibet  (India), of which he is the general secretary.


Finally, a kholi literally is a room used as a home for one or more families.





* But see Tim Yu’s thoughtful critique of this particular blog. I worry about these things, too, Tim, though I think it always makes sense to discuss context, which I know from experience+ leaves me open to just such critiques.



+ See my discussion / collaboration with Leslie Scalapino, “What / Person,” in Poetics Journal 9 (1991), which grew out of “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject,” a piece I wrote to introduce a collection of poets in Socialist Review 88/3 (1988). In fact, the poetry world of 2003 wasn’t even imaginable in 1988. What amazes me isn’t so much how far poetry has come, but how fast.

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