Dr. Tran shares poetry, encourages students to “find joy in dark times”

The up-and-coming poet read from his first book, “The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer”


Tran read from his recent book of poetry in Northen Auditorium. Photo by Brenna Womer, visiting assistant professor of English. 

Emma Malinak

On Tuesday, Nov. 9, Washington and Lee University hosted its first in-person poetry reading since March 2020 and welcomed Dr. Eric Tran to read award-winning work from his first book of poetry, “The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer.” 

The poetry collection, which is “loosely about the suicide of a dear friend,” explores the complexities of depression, grief, and ultimately Tran’s personal experiences of being a gay man of color.

“In thinking about sadness, it is impossible for me to not think about being a queer man of color,” explained Tran. “The best thing we can do is invite grief in.”

Tran said his unique perspective gave him the space to unapologetically explore emotions that are often unpleasant, yet still an important part of life that cannot be ignored. Tran used his platform to share the fact that it is natural to have conflicting emotions when faced with crisis, saying that feelings are never “either/or” but rather “yes, and.” 

Tran’s poetry gives audiences a chance to reflect on their own experiences and become comfortable discussing sadness and searching for silver linings. For Tran, poetry is “a mirror to see our grief amplified… the longer we can sit in sadness and not turn away from it, the more we can find joy in dark times.”

Tran’s poetry explores depression, grief and his experience as a gay man of color. Photo by Brenna Womer, visiting assistant professor of English.

The success of this collection was evident to professional critics, who named Tran as the winner of the 2019 Autumn House Press Rising Writer Prize. Professors and students at Washington and Lee enjoyed the work as well. 

“I was really struck by how Dr. Tran, as a queer Asian man, insisted on taking up space,” said Pamela Steimel, ’22. “Having speakers that are of a minority group helps students of that minority make themselves more seen on this campus.”

Lesley Wheeler, professor of English, also reflected this sentiment, explaining that Tran’s reading was important to “educate some students and support others who want to feel more visible.”

Later in the program, Tran, who said, “I manifest being a better poet by reading better poets,”  read poetry outside of his own work, including “Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World” by Katie Farris and “Elegy for my Sadness” by Chen Chen.

This inclusion of other authors illustrates Tran’s mission of bridging multiple perspectives and experiences to present a unifying, accessible message.

Tran himself offers different perspectives in his professional life. While serving as an Associate Editor for Orison Books and writing poetry, he is also a resident physician in psychiatry at the Mountain Area Health Education Center in North Carolina. 

Truly embodying the “yes, and” dynamic discussed at the beginning of the presentation, Tran is “yes” a poet “and” also a mental health professional who can discuss topics such as depression with true understanding and expertise.

Nadeen Kharpulty, visiting assistant professor of English, who met Tran in a Shakespeare seminar in college and has stayed in touch with him throughout the development of their careers, said she thinks that Tran’s dual perspective is important.

“It shows people that poetry doesn’t have to exist in one single space. Understanding the openness of possibilities is really sacred,” Kharputly said. 

Wheeler agreed and connected Tran’s unique point of view to the climate of Washington and Lee.

“I think his dual commitments to medical practice and poetry make him an especially important visitor to a liberal arts college where people are looking to make those interdisciplinary connections,” Wheeler said.

At the end of the reading, Tran explained that his feelings of sadness and openness to vulnerability motivated him to write a second book, titled “Mouth, Sugar, and Smoke”. Tran shared selections from this collection before ending the presentation to answer questions and sign copies of his first book.

Kharpulty recommends “The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer,” even if students were not able to attend the reading or don’t have a specific interest in poetry. 

Tran’s work is salient and accessible for students, with everything from X-men and Stranger Things references to the universal message that it is possible to find hope in difficult times and find success within multiple paths and perspectives.

Leia Barrow, ’22  said that without poets like Tran, “we’re not going to hear narratives that are outside of the normative academic, white, cisgender-centric narratives that we have on campus and in academia as a whole… These are stories that students who are minorities can very much relate to.”