Dao Strom is an artist who works with three “voices” — written, sung, visual — to explore hybridity and the intersection of personal and collective histories. She is the author of the poetry collection, Instrument (Fonograf Editions, 2020), and its musical companion, Traveler’s Ode (Antiquated Future Records, 2020); a bilingual poetry-art book, You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else (AJAR Press); a memoir, We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People, and song cycle, East/West; and two books of fiction, The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys and Grass Roof, Tin Roof. Born in Vietnam, Strom grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California and lives in Portland, Oregon. She is co-founder of two collective art projects, She Who Has No Master(s), and De-Canon.

Instrument continues Dao Strom’s masterful melding of her three voices through text and visual collage, songs from Traveler’s Ode, and fragmented, repeated lines of poems. It’s a book that questions the dominant modes of representation and narrative as much as it is her intention to weave the self back into the space of writing — to seek light, or hold memory closer. For me, engaging with Dao’s multimodal work invites a deeper connection to the body’s senses, and allows me to notice more clearly where language reaches its limits as well as how a poem can resonate beyond its usual form.

I was grateful to exchange emails with Dao over several months in summer 2021. We talked more about these fragments that permeate her work, sonic textures, and the attentiveness to language (or lack of) that invites in new growth.


Woogee Bae: I was hoping we could start by talking about the line, “From Theresa I’ve learned my lineage may always be one of echoes. Transmigrations of words.” I love thinking of language as passed down between generations and bodies, and of language as the ghost that lives alongside/within us. But also, this line makes me think about how much of language becomes severed or fragmented — due to war, due to colonialism, these many forms of trauma — to resemble more and more of an echo over time. Can you talk more about that?

Dao Strom: I think that language, for many people of diaspora, is certainly and can be a source of both loss and regeneration. We are severed and fragmented by it, yes, but this also produces a necessity in us to be inventive and very perceptive with language, its direct meanings as well as its ambivalences and slippages. We become different kinds of readers and receivers, because we have to learn how to navigate echoes and obscured meanings, as well as the silences and absences and delays. I think Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was certainly playing at these intersections in her work — her language is a splintered, multilingual, multimodal field — and in that poem I was looking toward her work as a lineage but also toward the notion that lineage might lie in the very current of change itself, i.e. in the “transmigrations”. I was also contemplating how short that lineage is — her truncated life, but also the relative newness of writing from an Asian (American) diasporic experience that was a consequence of certain US-involved wars, in Korea, in SE Asia. It’s all the more poignant to contemplate how much Theresa Cha’s work dealt with voicing and utterances, next to the fact that her death occurred through being strangled, and how this makes me think also about how many women — Asian women artists especially — are literally or figuratively silenced, or just expected to be more silent. Even if and when we are using our voices, as Theresa definitely was in her art, it still so often goes unheard or dismissed. And yet, in this space there is so much intricacy of language happening. I’m interested in learning how to read those echoes, how to be receptive to the ghost rhythms and reverberations. I think there is a lot of hidden and unacknowledged history in those currents.

Speaking of fragments, I’m so interested in how it appears throughout the book, beyond the text. Early on, you mention that you write in fragments “toward an attempt at a cohesive whole.” And then, there are instances where fragmentation actually conceals the whole — I’m thinking here about the photographs, many of which, I notice, are cropped, blurred, playing with the light (or absence of it) to obscure the subject in some way, as if to refuse the reader’s gaze or invite us to look more closely, beyond the surface. How did this idea come to you? And what was your process behind presenting the photos that way?

I am very drawn to the fragment, as is probably obvious. One thing I think about is an analysis I’ve read concerning the fragment in visual art, namely in relation to antiquities. This art historian was talking about how the fragment is the form that is actually longest lasting, that survives; the existence of an object in its “whole” form is, in fact, more short-lived and ephemeral. I love this thought of the fragment as enduring, and fragmented knowledge as containing longevity — the idea that maybe the fragment is all we really need to know, maybe it has more truth to impart than the whole… if we can just shift our thinking about what knowledge and understanding entail.

I think it speaks to the way the fragment works in memory, too, how our experience of perception is never really linear or single-focused. I’m also always aware, maybe a bit suspicious, about the intent of a photograph; how it can make a fleeting moment or vision seem permanent, representative, narrative. I’m very wary of this especially in relation to war documentary images that, in my lifetime, have sort of “defined” the Vietnamese body for the western viewer.

I can’t remember exactly when I started fragmenting photos, but some of it may’ve occurred by accident, by moving images around on the page and cropping them, liking better the way that felt, feeling like it said more truthfully whatever I was attempting to say (or not say). When I’m making images with my own body in them, I’m thinking about self-portraiture and representation at the same time I’m definitely also trying to question and undermine those impulses. So, yes certainly, refusing the gaze, reframing, failing to frame things properly, are all elements I’m playing with; but I’m also trying to disengage with the dominant gazes and center my own gaze, my own visual language, regardless of everything else I’ve been subject to. I think that my desire is to present images as questions, maybe as evocations, rather than as any kind of representative statement.

I keep returning to the line “Danger of <opening> inner self — to others?” in “Self-Travelogue/s,” in relation to what I notice is a theme of interiority, of being inside [an object, a place, within the body], throughout the book. I may be projecting here, but it makes me think of how, as Asian (American) women, it can be much harder to open the inner self in one’s writing (at least, it is for me), while wanting to make visible what has been hidden and remaining firm in doing so (“My response is to sing”). I don’t want to go so far as to say there is a desire to protect oneself in one’s writing, but I wondered how you wrestled with, if at all, the tension of an inside versus outside when writing this book? How does that play out in your writing process in general?

I do think it’s possible to put the personal into the writing, without it being absolutely personal, if that makes sense? Though, yes, for me I would say there is a bit of pressure point about being “seen” versus the impulse to guard oneself, to stay hidden (whether this is from conditioning or my nature). And maybe on the other side of this, also, a distrust of the mechanism of how others might see or receive what is revealed.

With that line, I was thinking, particularly, about these caves in Vietnam. I was thinking into the caves as a metaphor for interiority, I guess you could say. There is this vast system of caves in central Vietnam, that have stayed fairly untouched for a long time; the caves were opened to outside tourism only in 2013 (and I’ve heard that geologists presume there are hundreds of caves in that system that haven’t been explored at all). For me, this leads into thinking about what was kept hidden, maybe preserved, and maybe not even intentionally, despite many years of foreign presence in that land. The metaphor then becomes a question about self and what is preserved by not being exposed. Because, also, every visit to those caves by humans contributes to the environment changing. There is a feature called a doline — where the cave ceiling collapses and an opening forms — and I was thinking about how this opening lets in air and light, makes the interior visible/accessible from the outside, and leads, literally, to new growth, but how this also leads inevitably to changes in that ecosystem. I transpose this in my mind to a question about the self’s interiority. By naming, by sharing, by articulating, by connecting to the air outside, (how) does our own interior change? And is there a danger in that? I think the answer has a different acuteness when you add Asianness and female-ness to the equation, too…

About interiority, I might also say, I think it may be one of our last and truest places of refuge. There is a lot of concern in our times and society now to talk back to how others see us, this preoccupation with representation and how we are seen from the outside. While I think these are important issues, I also find myself at times wanting to disengage from those questions, or find some other angle entirely. Being Asian, being a woman, there are a lot of racial and societal conditions that expect you to absorb or reflect others — to always be responding — with little to no reception from the outside for the complexities and nuances that Asian/Asian American women actually carry inside themselves. Part of my desire in writing is to not cooperate, to go sideways or evade completely, and turn my attentions to getting to know the instrument of my own self, so to speak… It’s not that I believe there is a pure well at the center of the self, but more that I’m interested in that point where the question of identity starts to dissolve itself. I’m not sure this answers your question about opening the inner self, but maybe my answer is more about a process of engaging with that inner self, as a place to start.

Can you talk about some of the interiors/exteriors that brought these poems to life? Where did you write and how did those environments shape these poems? 

There is definitely a wide assortment of places — interiors and exteriors — in this book. Instrument encompasses bits of writing made between 2015 and 2020, with some pieces (some songs) going back more than a decade, just pieces I’ve carried with me. Many of the poems were written at home in Portland, but significant generative periods happened at an artist residency in northern Iceland, where I spent two months in the fall/winter of 2017; and I gathered content and inspiration on a return trip to Vietnam in January 2020.

I’m going to now contradict what I just said about an inward-oriented writing process, I realize, because I have to admit some of these poems came to fruition — were able to be finished — also because of interaction and collaborations with others. “Flower Diatribe #1”, for instance, was a text poem I’d written but then developed as a performance piece, that was turned into a video poem in collaboration with my friend, Roland Dahwen, who I also collaborated with to make the “Traveler’s Ode” video/song recording. Images from these performance videos went into the book. The spaces of those two video-poems are containers: a box constructed of paper for the “Flower Diatribe #1” poem; a cooling tower inside an abandoned nuclear power plant that I sang in for the “Traveler’s Ode” recording. The images of myself and the dead birds were taken in Iceland with the help of my partner, Kyle Macdonald, which I then further edited and collaged. So, the poems in Instrument are very much engagements with different places, and sometimes people, as are some of the songs. “I Have Traveled” was recorded at the residency in Iceland, even though it’s a song I wrote years ago and just never knew what to do with; for some reason, it happened to come together there, holed up in a studio in the snow. In going to Iceland, I was indulging a desire to be somewhere entirely disconnected from my diasporic history. Every return I make to Vietnam, meanwhile, I’m wrangling my relationship (or lack of) to the past. When I went back to Vietnam in 2020, I had in mind to visit the region of those caves, where nearby there is also a stretch of highway along which a massacre occurred in 1972, an incident I know about because my parents talked about it — they refer to it as “Đại lộ Kinh Hoàng” (“Highway of Horror”); it’s otherwise not really mentioned in any history books. For them, it was a significant event. That stretch of highway is another place that was formative to the poems in Instrument. I guess, without being fully conscious of it, I was enacting some of what Brandon Shimoda calls a “poetics of post-memory” by trying to revisit that site.

I would love to talk about Traveler’s Ode, the album accompaniment to Instrument. Can you share some of what went into its making? Did you have specific intentions of how a reader-listener might interact with it — alongside reading the book, on a long drive, or other?

Traveler’s Ode is, I hope, exactly what its title suggests — a sequence of small sung/oral tales about a journey, and in this case the traveler on that journey is a diasporic being adrift in the world. The “odes” contain echoes specific to Vietnamese diasporic experience, but, I believe or hope, might resonate with other stories of displacement, too. I wrote the song “Traveler’s Ode” many years ago, not thinking specifically of the Vietnamese experience, but of a more general mythos about exile. I initially fashioned it after the melody of a traditional ballad called “Pretty Bird” by Hazel and Alice Dickens, so for me the music is rooted in folk song intentions — to tell stories in the voices of people from a certain place and time. Being of diaspora, place and time become a bit abstracted though, and can be made up of echoes more than actual experience — I was exploring the use of echo and feedback as a way of evoking memory; its distortions and seductions, both. When I came to the idea of singing “Traveler’s Ode” through effects pedals, it became something new, and those effected vocals are somewhat the main experiment of this album. The recording of “Traveler’s Ode” came to fruition in the Satsop nuclear power plant — chasing long echoes. I think of the album as an exploration of voice and voicing. The songs are also experiments with fragments, with literally chopping up my voice and making sonic textures. I also used water sounds from the cave and jungle in Vietnam, sounds from that spot on the highway. I put the album together during the early months of the pandemic. Most of the music is from first takes and spontaneous recordings, collaged together in a way similar to how I assemble poems, piecing fragments from different personal archives of content, which is why I think of them as “song-poems”. 

As for how to listen to them, I think I leave this up to the reader/listener. My hope is that both book and album can stand independently, and/but that they may also interweave and complement one another. There is (for me) a correlation between how the book is laid out, visually and graphically, and how the album’s tracks transition into one another. The interplay of text on the page with some poems definitely reflects sonic aspects in some songs; some of the poems/songs have both textual and musical versions. This multimodal reading/listening/looking journey is there for people to experience if they wish to. But I’m also aware some people might have more inclination toward one type of “voicing” over another, so I leave space open for those ways of approach, too.

Your book We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People also has an album companion piece, East/West. What first moved you to take your work off or beyond the page?

I’ve been writing songs almost as long as I’ve been writing prose and, I realize as I say it, longer than I’ve been writing poems, actually. Before We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People, writing and music were separate endeavors for me, but somewhere in there (notably: after receiving repeated rejections for the prose attempts I was making) I began to experiment. I’d always had a hard time fitting inside the forms — narrative prose or narrative songwriting — I thought I was working in, so the deviation toward a hybrid intersection was probably, in a sense, a natural course for my creative life to take. The East/West songs are folk songs at heart, but they also play with the format and bring the subject matter of Vietnam into the mix: ruminations on war, diaspora, elements of Viet folktales, all mingled. The ‘West’ songs explore a mythos about western landscapes, in my way. One of the things I struggled with a lot over the years, in trying to write “about” Vietnam, was how polarizing the politics and language can be, how I would continually come to an impasse at how to navigate or how to present these divides. With music, I could be more plaintive and straightforward about things like the sorrow I felt, and just stay there, in the space of a song. The songs of East/West are where I began to understand how sound can address (though I wasn’t pointedly thinking of it like this at first) a level of our beings, our bodies, where trauma resides — and where there might not be language in the form of words for what is being felt, because it has not identified or even acknowledged itself. Music resonates with the body in ways that literary writing does not, I think is at the heart of it for me, even as much as people talk about the “music” in writing, and such. I consider myself a writer, but I also write with different parts of my mind and body, and this is what the hybrid space allows for me. I wrote the songs for East/West and began recording them before I put the Gentle People book together, so the layout and chapters of the book actually follow the “course” of the songs. Similarly, though I was working on music and poems simultaneously, with Instrument and Traveler’s Ode, the book and text-image poem layouts somewhat follow after the songs. The music is a guiding force in this hybrid process for me.

“How sound can address… a level of our beings, our bodies, where trauma resides — and where there might not be language in the form of words for what is being felt.” Yes! In Instrument, for me at least, I see this most clearly in your use of brackets, parentheses, other punctuation in general. The absence of words that actually holds so much sound and feeling. It makes me think of when you hold your ear up to a seashell, for example, you hear the ambient noise instead of silence. Can you speak more about the brackets in your book? Are these like the sonic textures you are talking about in Traveler’s Ode?

Yes, certainly, sonic textures represented visually, as silences, as lost/unspoken/unsayable spaces, echoes… all of that is definitely at play for me in my use of punctuation marks. By this time, I’ve sort of developed my own relationship to punctuation marks, what they each represent for me, how and when I use them, what they evoke for me internally, etc. In previous work, I had actually worked out a system for myself, where placing certain fragments inside parentheses, or in double parentheses, or inside these marks < >, was a way of organizing different currents of “voice” I was trying to delineate in my writing — under voices or inner voices or etheric voices, of a sort. With the brackets, I had in mind how they are used in contexts like the fragments of Sappho — where the brackets actually indicate lost regions of a poem, an actual hole or tear in the papyrus — the idea of source pieces that are long lost and unrecoverable. Obviously, this is resonant for me in terms of my own relationship to language and elements of the past, but I also wanted to dwell within (or beyond) the space of those brackets more, and make my own kind of music from them…

The text-image section in Instrument where brackets feature heavily was initiated by a video I first made for a Fonograf performance, in 2018 (opening for Douglas Kearney’s “Fodder” live recording performance). I animated a tangle of brackets appearing and disappearing as a visual accompaniment to the song “[i stayed]”, which is built on a process of chopping up and randomizing vocal samples. I spent hours editing brackets, an absurd and tedious exercise to engage in, if I think too much about it. But these processes have also gotten me to engage with language — the actual shapes of it — in a way that, maybe, both erodes and amplifies its meaning associations.

You mentioned that you wrote Instrument between 2015 and 2020. At the time of writing, were you imagining the poems to make up one whole book or were you writing them as separate from a project and just seeing where the poems took you? Or perhaps, a bit of both? Similarly, how do you know when a book is “complete”? (Though, I use “complete” loosely here — is a work ever complete?!)

The process is very organic for me. I write sort of all over the place, then at some point I begin to assemble things into a sequence, into a book. It takes awhile to know where the writing is leading, what the “shape” of a book or project wants to be, which pieces will fit. I’ll have rough idea of themes I’m working with, but these sort of evolve and bleed into each other, from project to project. For me, it is very much a process of listening and surrendering and allowing myself to not know. At some point the idea of “Instrument” as a title came to mind; I can’t remember anymore if this was after or before I’d written the poem titled “Instrument” (which was not actually titled that to begin with). The concept of “instrument” as a theme that could be explored in different ways, that resonated with what I wanted to do, especially in regards to hybrid work, eventually became more and more compelling to me. I also have to credit Fonograf and Antiquated Future, for their part in enabling this project to actually come into being. Shortly after the Disjecta “Fodder” performance in 2018, Joshua (of Antiquated Future Records) reached out and asked if I’d like to turn the songs I’d performed at that show into a recording; at about the same time Fonograf Editions had asked if I’d like to publish a chapbook with them. Initially, I was going to focus this on just the “Traveler’s Ode” song and poem, and then the concept expanded into a full-length book and album. I’m really thankful to Jeff and Justin and Joshua for holding open that door and being encouraging of my concepts. The actual assembling of the book and songs occurred over a period of a few months. Once I was able to visualize a first page and opening images, then I knew it was time to begin sequencing the collection. Alongside this process, I was still also writing some new material.

I agree that “complete” and “done” are not fixed points. Each project, for me, sort of grows out of the project before, and some elements get repeated or revisited. I think of each book as being just another step on the creative journey, a long process of processing sometimes the same memories over and again — like echoes — but deepening and refining, maybe also decaying, the thought processes around them over time.

In March 2021, I attended the Accented with She Who Has No Master(s) virtual reading, with you in conversation with Hoa Nguyen, and it was so grounding to hear you both talk about the role of tarot in your (writing) life. What are some of the practices and/or rituals that help ground your writing?

I use tarot and astrology, lightly, on an at least weekly basis, to check in with myself, sometimes to ask questions about a day, or a project, or an aspect of something I might be wrestling with. I say that I use these practices lightly, because I also believe in letting the creative process be mysterious, and sometimes a struggle, sometimes hard or tedious or digressive, which also for me means there is a lot of time when I don’t feel at all grounded within it. I try to be okay with whatever the process is, in short. On a very mundane level, being able to have quiet and alone space, drinking coffee in the morning and having time to sit and think, are simple rituals I probably need more than I admit. I also need to have some days where I can let things be unstructured, where I just explore and feel, whether that’s through writing or playing music. I consider things like tarot to be a good tool for getting in touch with intuition. I also believe we can have moments where we have access to that level of intuition, with or without tools, if we are so lucky as to be able to hold ourselves open to those vibrations. Things like yoga and meditation, singing (for me), can help too.

How have you been taking care of yourself lately?

This is a great question and something I’m always in process on, admittedly 🙂 Very simple things: yoga, eating healthy, letting go of stress, accepting things (and myself) as they are, working on saying no to things I don’t really want to do, trying to enjoy the little things. I enjoy very much hanging out with my cat and my son. One maybe most salient thing for me, in regards to the very combative and anxiety-ridden energies in the world of late, has been to work on cultivating a centeredness for myself that is not and does not need to be in reaction to things happening or being said around me. I am fortunate, I know, to have space and security for this level of contemplation. As the “post-pandemic” world opens back up, I’m also trying to be mindful about how I engage, what I choose to let in or let back in, what the work is I really want to be doing.

Woogee Bae writes poems and edits the ecopoetics journal Snail Trail. Her work has appeared in Afternoon VisitorP-QUEUETagvverk, and elsewhere. Find her @qodnrl and www.woogeebae.com.

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