Alan Clinton on Tsering Wangmo Dhompa Reading at Santa Clara University

Who: Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

What: Poetry Reading

When: 4 pm, Oct 13, 2011 (already past, but as Dhompa writes, “I leave today and will see you yesterday”)

Where:  Santa Clara University

Life of bows
                    --Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

The plan to keep contained within easily defined needs.
The forms we aspire to. The bow as a source
of accomplishment (if you are a hunter). The bow
on a wall, without a specific task is malleable content.
A singular sigh may yet uproot all. But here we are
stacking sentences like a nervous habit. Now rising,
now sinking within the cordiality of our defenses.
The indentations of tongue made and then given
to lose in such and such a pursuit. But ah, memory
to secure at will. And poetry before the hour of silence.
Your aperçu making trees grow taller. Actor and spectator.

                                 (from In the Absent Everyday)


There is a moment sometimes when, on a walk, you go for a little longer than you should (because of the weather, or because it is “useless,” or it will get dark soon, or because the streets suddenly become unknown----which can happen in a single block!) and that is the space Dhompa’s poem “Selvage,” indeed all her poems, puts me in. At the end I feel like I’m at the turning point of that walk and want to turn back, but I’ve forgotten where to turn, and feel completely exposed and invisible simultaneously, like I need to find a voice, which won’t be there, or won’t be mine. I think it is a good place to be, to start a new year, the familiar key of entering the uncomfortable space of selvage.


Dhompa read an assortment of selections from all of her major works to give the audience of around 50 students, faculty, and members of the community a sense of her poetic career to date.

Tsering’s first book, Rules of the House, which is the most biographical of her works in form if not content, gave the audience a sense of the Tibetan poet’s communities in India and Nepal where she lived as a refugee before moving to the United States. Dhompa’s next two works, especially her most recent book My rice tastes like the lake, explore more philosophical themes related to temporality and selfhood, though they are always grounded in everyday experiences, especially the things she overhears or that people say to her. The new “style” works in two directions, towards disorientation and towards the essay.1 This duality allowed for a sort of wandering that left the audience intrigued, just unanchored enough. It also helps that, unlike many poets who write “avant-garde,” paratactical, or digressive work, Dhompa reads her poems slowly, so that the audience can linger on the phrases and so that their afterimages can layer themselves onto subsequent lines and leave the reader moving along in the particular essay poem she happens to be reading. One of the reasons this layering is important is that it creates a “de-sequencing effect” that allows Dhompa to truly render her poems as explorations, so that while My rice tastes like the lake is divided into eight titled sections, the individual poems are neither titled nor even numbered. I commented to her after dinner that this allows the poems to be experienced like clouds, the sequencing uncertain or potentially simultaneous as they float off the page into a an exploration with no specific starting or ending point. Dhompa, generous towards all interpretations, enjoyed this one.

This generosity was extended in a “question and answer” session that followed the reading. At first it had not occurred to me to have one because the reading was so hypnotic that I felt it should just be what it was, but when Dhompa asked me if we should open things up for questions, I thought, “Of course.” The questions were diverse and perceptive, and Dhompa’s answers were illuminating. Often she answered as if someone were helping her think about her work in a new way, an attitude which never seems contrived in Dhompa. “We” talked about everything from gender to culture to using initials instead of names to her use of various levels of colloquial and “high” diction to the difficulties she personally faces as a writer. In retrospect, I am not surprised at the number and range of conversations that arose in response to Dhompa’s reading.

As Dhompa and I packed our things and she caught up with some of her Tibetan friends who had come to the reading, a student had run (she must have literally run) across to the bookstore to buy Dhompa’s latest which, of course, our bookstore does not carry (SCU memorabilia more important than literature), and met us on our way downstairs asking Dhompa if she would sign her poetry journal. I don’t know what Dhompa wrote inside, but she signed for me, on Oct. 13, “To be continued,” a humorous allusion to the difficulty of knowing how to sign a book on the spot. But I think, if this student’s response to the reading was any indication, “To be continued” will take on a more literal reading for those present.

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa was raised in India and Nepal, and has received MA’s from University of Delhi,
University of Massachussetts and her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She is the author of three books of poetry available from Berkeley’s Apogee Press: Rules of the House, which was a finalist in 2003 for the Asian American Literary Awards, In the Absent Everyday, and most recently, My rice tastes like the lake. Tsering worked for the American Himalayan Foundation for 10 years, then quit to finish her memoir Imagined Country (forthcoming from Penguin) which, as she notes, “is not a usual memoir really. . . It’s sort of like talking about Tibet, through my mother. It traces my mother’s journey out, and my journey in, and the nomads themselves, the culture of the nomads. . . the way they think, how they see the land, and really also discussions of politics in terms of identity as seen by a nomad, as seen by me. So all those discussions happen within the book.”

1. I plan to undertake a more extensive analysis of Dhompa’s more recent work in its relation to the genre of the essay in a subsequent review of her latest book.

As Reported By: Alan Clinton

Alan's Bio:
Alan Ramón Clinton is a poet, novelist, and scholar of poetry and writing pedagogy who lectures at Santa Clara University in San Jose, CA. Clinton is the author of the monograph, Mechanical Occult: Automatism, Modernism, and the Specter of Politics (Peter Lang), a volume of poems, Horatio Alger’s Keys (BlazeVOX), and a collection of short fictions entitled Curtain Call: A Metaphorical Memoir (Open Books). His novel, Necropsy in E Minor, published by Open Books in June 2011, was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize.

Second lesson

The newspaper showed a boy drinking from the sky. Water rested
in his clavicle.

M said he was not the kind her daughter would marry. Tashi
wanted to know if rain had harmful elements in it. M said decent
girls stayed clear of rain.

When it is hot, undress in the dark. Go to the roof. If the monsoon
clouds appear, wish farmers well.

Mothers teach their daughters to pick the best tomatoes. Shy to
the touch. Surface of cement. Tashi asks if husbands are picked the
same way.

Sunspot on cheeks. Wash with rose water. Pluck under your arm.

S held his penis and ran around the tree saying he was blessing it.
The elder roared with laughter and said he would grow up to be
a 'wild' one.

S was blessed. Free from the cycle of female births.

M taught us to peel an apple without disturbing it, saying time and
again how important it was to concentrate on the knife.

This is an example of a good woman:

(from Rules of the House)

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