An Interview with Hoa Nguyen
Hoa Nguyen is one of America's best contemporary poets that you may not have heard of. Her first full-length collection, Your Ancient See Through, was released by Subpress in 2002 and it's full of disarming little poems: on the one hand, at home with the wacky and large leaps; on the other hand, in search of mystery, gravity, and beauty all at once. Like my favorite contemporary writers, she dislodges the domestic from its normative articulations. Instead of "elevating the everyday into the transcendental," Hoa Nguyen's poems probe dailiness to divorce us from our base assumptions about how language might present the world to us. Her poems are also funny, and they strangely develop their own language games which comprise some of the most inviting lyrics I've found in a living poet. Here is the first stanza from Your Ancient See Through’s title poem:
You have your ancient see through
ways Stars sustain their axis
Orion listing like gallows
for my creepy life the pieces
of our ascending selves
And here are the final four stanza's of "SHRED":
birds collect where they will
telephone wire. the front stoop.
what days aren't pinched by absence
we are here
in our skin. destiny
is a small city
I could die today.
Featured in An Anthology of (New) American Poets (Talisman House, 1998), she is also the author of several chapbooks: most recently Poems (Dos Press, 2007) and Parrot Drum (Leon Works, 2000). With Dale Smith, she edits Skanky Possum, and has lived in Austin, Texas for the last 11 years. Born outside Saigon in 1967, she was raised in Washington D.C. I first discovered Hoa Nguyen through the poems in her chapbook Red Juice (Effing Press, 2005 -- about to go into its third printing); Hot Whiskey will release her second book later this year, which is the occasion of this interview, conducted over e-mail from July through December 2007.
I understand you're completing a new book now: what's your process for arrangement? How many years have you worked on these poems? Is there a title yet?
I'm assembling a new full length book for Hot Whiskey press. I tend toward the singular poem. That is, I'm a pretty poem-y poet and do not work toward sustained projects, as such. So I probably do the typical thing and print out all the poems and sit and sift through the pieces trying to find a poem to introduce the work, construct some kind of flow, involve the temporal in some way. I've been writing towards this manuscript for awhile. If it includes poems that appeared in the chapbook Red Juice, then it will collect poems from 2003 until the present. I don't have a working title. I actually feel like I haven't finished writing the poems.
Is this the same process as with Your Ancient See Through?
Yes, same process. I can be pretty ruthless towards the poems. In high school I remember my art teacher saying "Art is about making decisions." That has stuck with me. I watch my students agonize over poems, trying different layouts, working and reworking. I could never do that. I can usually tell if a poem is something. There is a certain liveliness about it. If not, I pronounce the poem dead and move on to the next one.
Do you think you'd be gathering these up in the same way if the Hot Whiskey editors hadn't asked for a book?
Probably not, which is typical. I don't care about the publishing part of poetry -- the biz part of poetry. I end up in little mags anyway but only because editors prompt me to send them things. Sometimes this means I get into poetry debt, meaning I have to write more poems. I'm actually in poetry debt right now. My life is really really full and I have a tiny window for concentration on poetry (two hours for reading and writing a week).
I’m interested in your “ruthlessness” towards your own work, especially because of the wackiness that some of your poems utilize; from Your Ancient See Through, lines like “I wish I had Candy Land Pants” or “all the pissy things” or even “no rain all month / now rain washing your shitty car.” What sparks the poem for you? In reflection, can you say how you usually know “if a poem is something”?
I don't dispense with the wacky! I like humor in poems, except when it's all just smart assery.
If you look at a line like "I wish I had Candy Land pants" -- there's a lot of texture there. There's the sonic (all the repeated "an" sounds), referential (the US childhood board game Candy Land as well as the colloquial expression "candy pants") and there's image and whimsy.
My friend the painter Philip Trussell (he did the drawings in Your Ancient See Through) had this to say about these works -- and he says it much better than I could, although perhaps he makes more the works than they are:
Her poems move in a homeostasis as organisms do, self regulating by feeling, free to ascend and plummet, turn and stand. They put me in mind of Olson's penetration from Quantity in Verse and Shakespeare's Late Plays:
'They are free to move, come and go, hover as they please, like aerodynes'
(This is a poor approximation from memory -- I can't find his book this morning)
The individual words are luminous with 'cellness,' seeming each to know the others, and having a way of being the whole while holding to their own grasp of place. Syntactically alarming and alerting to fresh perception, these poems set thought to new leaps, brightly. The element of Chinese characters and Mayan hieroglyphs dance concretely at these speeds.
I think I assess the "liveliness" of a poem by feel and intuition more than anything else. Looking toward a kind of energetics. If it's not there, it feels flat and I know it is not a something.
My poems are different since the Your Ancient See Through ones though; they have a different relationship to narrative now. But the sparks are the same. Usually written in response to reading poetry (I spent 2006 rereading Olson's Maximus and 2007 reading Notley's Alma -- much of this out loud). I also arm myself with materials such as Time magazine, a volume of a 1916 encyclopedia, and advertising circulars. I use dream material, random lists, meals, overheard snippets etc. I do this during that two hour window I spoke of earlier, a private workshop that I've conducted for years. I think I draw energy from the material we just covered -- a reverb still hanging in the air from the poems we read out loud -- and also from the mutual writing-energy of each other -- as well as a sense of urgency to produce in a small frame of time.
There's so much in your last answer that makes me want to return to your poems. Let's start with the longer poems: What draws you to Notley and Olson's two big books? Can we ever expect a 350-page poem from you?
I'm drawn to Olson and Notley because they pay attention to the energy of speech, to the turns of syntax, and the rhetorical happenings of a poem or poems. I'm interested in the perspectives they explore and how the poems work in a public sphere. I'm particularly drawn to Notley because of her feminist concerns.
Will I write an epic? Probably not but you never know.
How did Phillip Troussel come to do drawings for Your Ancient See Through? And do you think you'll include drawings from him or anyone else in your new book? Do you do much collaboration with visual artists?
We were introduced to Philip by Ed Dorn. When he learned that we were moving to Austin, Ed gave Dale Smith (a poet, critic and my partner) a contact name for a poet here, John Herndon. We hadn't called John yet, even though we had been here for a year; it was just one of those things. Then one morning Dorn called Dale -- and this was when Ed was very ill -- and asked had he called John yet? Which was such an act of generosity, really.
John introduced us to Peggy Kelly, a poet who had studied with Robin Blaser. Peggy introduced us to Philip as well as her partner the painter RJ Oehler. Both he and RJ had been friends with the late Harvey Brown, the poet behind Frontier Press -- Philip had drawn the cover for Dorn's winterbook that Harvey had published.
Philip is a terrific painter and has an amazing mind for poetry, anthropology, trees, hermetic traditions. He has been studying Blake and Olson for more than two decades; he studied with Frankenthaler in the late sixties, etc. So the collaboration came out of our friendship and our love of poetry and my love for him and for his paintings. We also collaborated on *Parrot Drum*; it was one of Renee Gladman's Leroy books with Japanese binding. It turned out very lovely. Right now, Anna Fulford of Macaw Macaw Press (in Tucson) has arranged a collaboration for me with the Tucson artist Mary Marbourg for a fine arts book (accordion).
I haven't thought about drawings for the next full length book.
I often get a sense that where your poems are the most playful they are at the same time disarming us for their most grave or gravely political moments. From your new chapbook Poems out on Dos Press, I'm thinking of the closing stanza of "Upsidedown Again":
A woman is the person
the first person
like a chicken before an egg
or: in the poem "Towels":
I need you I need something
I can't do it alone Papa Mama
I love you Pooh
flying on the balloon
and spitting out bees
What strikes me here is the way the poem gives this stark snapshot of domesticity -- its tenderness, even its banality -- yielding both an intimacy, and a playfulness that refract off of one another -- and all of this without any description, which is so common to contemporary poetry. I read your poems as being of-the-moment, snapshot lyrics of a "now" (there is a lively thinking that seems at home with uncertainty and the present in a line like "Could I clean them in the creek?"; it doesn't feel like a metaphor or reflection, but an actual question). In stride with this, I wonder if you write towards other poets -- living or dead -- or toward others? Or is it more of an interior space of making/working through/reflecting/positing? Does it feel like there's an audience to whom you write in the act of writing?
I'm not sure where to start with my answer. I think that I like poems that are a lot like living, like you said, tender and banal. And also complicated, playful, placed, profound, spontaneous, confused -- and more -- and sometimes all at once. Because I think about audience a lot and I want poems that I would want to read and one of those things is to risk saying something. And another is to be honest somehow. Even if that honesty is about how you and everything feels fucked up. I don't know.
I think of my contemporaries in terms friendships and free exchange. Dale and I run our press Skanky Possum on the gift economy and it's how we curate our reading series. We throw a big party and make food and invite conversation. Philip likens it to creating a hearth -- a virtual and literal one.
So I have all these conversations with my contemporaries -- some literal (letters, e-mail, face to face, attending and curating readings, editing and the correspondence that comes with that) and some virtual (through reading their texts). There are a lot of poets who matter so much to me, living and dead. I try to write to them too. But I think it's mostly an interior place that I write from, even though I give the thought of poetry readership much thought.
In terms of audience, I find it interesting (and exciting) that my book Red Juice has appealed to a lot of non-poet readers --readers that may not normally read poetry even. It was really nice to get that feedback. I have to give credit to Scott Piece of effing; his book design on Red Juice made it feel like a living thing somehow, a "real" book even though it is staple bound.
Thank you for such a coherent answer from such a brambly question. I love your sense of honesty and appealing to non-poet readers. I was just reading Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T with my students, and this great interview with Harryette Mullen (another Texan), where she says, “there is always a danger of poetry being remote, even painful” but marks this great counterpoint in an example about Thelonious Monk allowing “us to hear a greater range of possibilities in his music” -- in a sense, inventing his own audience, or asking something from the audience. I wonder how you balance this: what’s your response when (or if) people say, “I don’t get it!” or “What’s this about?!” Does that signal something negative or positive about what your poems are doing? I guess it’s a question about how you balance being “remote” and plainly “accessible”? What’s your response to those folks?
Funny, I still don't think of myself as a Texan, although I have lived in Austin for 11 years. I grew up on the east coast in Maryland just outside of DC. Ken Rumble, who grew up not far from where I did, was here last night and read in our series from his new book Key Bridge, which is a meditation on place (DC) coming out of Olson. So we had a lot of corresponding engagements with poetry and we figured out that in terms of place, our first coordinate was Bish Thompson's seafood restaurant in Bethesda where my mother worked as a waitress.
Anyway, yes, I've had people say that they didn't understand my works, especially my earlier ones where I was submerging the narrative. And I've had people, like my sister, say that they understood the same poems differently (better) when they heard me read them. Once, at a small gathering of friends, my mother read my poems with me. The poet Linh Dinh had translated several into Vietnamese (and I can't express how much that means to me). So she read them in Vietnamese and then I read them in English. Afterwards someone asked her what she thought and she said "I have no idea what she is saying." To which I just laughed. Sometimes I don't know what I "mean," too. But I don't think you need to hit people over the head with content and meaning. Whenever I encounter that in poetry, I feel pandered to, manipulated and/or bored.
I actually began writing poetry in that mode: fairly linear lyric "I," very controlled and image-filled, formulaic-epiphany-at-the-end etc. I was in my early twenties and at the time, I hadn't read enough poetry to know there was a lot more out there. I was frustrated writing this way. I felt there had to be something else. I was interested in punk, power-pop and new wave music in my youth and I realized that I wanted my poems to be more like that -- a bit gritty, surprising, earnest, agitated. Luckily (and I mean blind luck), I studied poetry at New College in San Francisco with Tom Clark, Lyn Hejinian, Gloria Frym and David Meltzer and they helped me figure it out in a huge way.
And, I’m curious, what do your sons make of this? Have they read your poems, or do you read your work to them?
My oldest son is six and a half and can enjoy poetry (he's been to many many readings). He's a big Dr. Suess fan so he especially likes it when the sound is fun. When Jenn Coleman read recently from a particularly playful poem, he laughed and said "That was funny!" He hasn't said much about my poems but he likes to stand next to me on stage with me when I read.
You mentioned Linh Dinh's translations of your poems into Vietnamese -- and I'm wondering about your relationship with that language. One bio for you that I found reads: "Hoa Nguyen was born in the year of the Fire Horse’s final phase in a town near Saigon Vietnam. As a girl entering public school, Hoa was given the name 'Millie.' She was raised in the Washington DC area, lived in San Francisco, and moved to Austin, Texas in 1997." What's your relationship with Vietnam? with the language? Do you still have family outside Saigon? Have you returned much since you moved to the States?
I was a young toddler when I left Vietnam with my mother and her husband (a white American working for the State Department). It was just after the Tet Offensive, deep in the war when sentiments in the US were not so great. It was a difficult time to be Vietnamese (or in my case, half). I could speak a few words of Vietnamese but it was never spoken in my household. My mother immersed herself in US culture, learned to speak English, worked outside of the home -- she had few family members left and severed those ties with the move -- so I never spoke it. I still do not, sadly. But the language rides on my nerves when I hear it; it stirs me in some fundamental way. I taught a workshop at Naropa one summer called "Lost Languages" -- an attempt to write toward some never-had tongue. I sometimes think that is why I write poetry. Trying to conjure something barely available, seeking to retrieve it.
I know Vietnamese to be a very musical language (it's tonal). One history of its use is in oral verse, a folk tradition that links, can be updated, repeated, shared, contemporary, historical, about ordinary things, about courtly things. When I was a girl I found and read the book "Ten Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry" at my local public library. I still remember the first line of the introduction; it said something like "The Vietnamese say that they have always been poets." That really struck me and I will confess here that I stole the book (sorry Kensington Public Library!) because I felt it was my birthright and since there were so few Vietnamese Americans in Montgomery County Maryland at the time (hence the unfortunate nickname "Millie"), I felt that I was the one who could benefit from it the most. I know I did benefit; I think it gave me permission to seek poetry.
Do all poets feel like they are the outside of the outside of the outside? I suspect they do. For me that's articulated in this remoteness: from culture, from identity, from language. In 1997, the Watermarks project sent me their rejections of poems for their contemporary Vietnamese American anthology the same week that the Talisman anthology solicited my work for their anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (a rather white context). It was a bittersweet thing. It continues now, feeling very outside of editorial gatherings of Asian American poetry in print (most recently, the "Next Generation" anthology). But I
think that's more about how I choose to engage, lineages, aesthetics. And very likely the powers of coterie. But happily, I'll appear in an exciting Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American anthology, brought out by Milkweed next year (Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover are the editors). And there again, as the only monolingual and mix-raced person, that outside of the outside of the outside theme prevails. I'm thrilled to appear there nonetheless.
I've been planning a trip to Vietnam for years. Money, time and child bearing has delayed the time line. I'm looking forward to visiting there, bringing my family, when our boys are older, can remember it and better endure the necessary vaccinations. I have to do research there in order to complete a project that includes a biography of my mother's life (which was colorful: left her rural village at 15, worked in a traveling circus as a stunt motorcyclist in an all-woman circus troupe, etc.).
I'm so curious to hear a bit more about your mother. Can you describe what she was like growing up and what you imagine for the project about her life?
My mother was raised in a small rural village by traditional Buddhist grandparents in the Mekong Delta. Her own mother split when she was young; her father left to work for the French. They raised pigs, rice, sold flowers for festivals. She recalls air raids from an early age, but she is not very forthcoming about her life in Vietnam. It's hard to piece together the details of her life because there is a basic turning away from that period. Many difficulties and terrible memories -- and yet through it she had some essential steeliness that she drew on (still does) to survive and thrive.
The project would be about how it's impossible to write about her and her life. About being a woman with a strong sense of self and pushing against ascribed roles. About myself too, probably, trying to puzzle it together and failing to do that.
Really, it might never get done.
What's your sense of "po biz," and/or the blogosphere for poetry, the way that enables, performs, or counteracts communities for poetry?
O po biz is a funny thing. It can be linked to coterie -- which is about lineages and alliances and who you are in conversation with and who is a familiar with your works. It is maybe also a problem of audience. That is, different people will receive your works in totally different ways, natch, and sometimes coteries color, dismiss, or misread it.
My sense of community is down-home: dinner parties and visiting at length.
I don't read blogs for the most part. I just can't fit them into my life much. I keep up from a distance and I'm usually amused-slash-annoyed at the possibilities for misunderstandings and the sense that people write things that they would never say to you in person.
What would be your advice to beginning poets? What do you wish you'd known when you began writing? -- or when you stole that library book!
I think my early points of reference of women poets were Plath and Dickinson. Kinda bleak prospects, in terms of outcome, you know. It seemed to me then either death by my own hand and death by isolation. I literally had no idea to live as a poet, to be a poet or that it even was a choice to be one.
I remember I used to look at the back pages of Poets and Writers in my local big box bookstore and just sink as I read all the calls for submissions and calls manuscripts. It was a big message-in-a-bottle kind of proposal. With attached readers fees checks.
I think it would have helped to hear that poetry is about engagement, not fame, not recognition. That it is most often defined by how you engage with the conversation of poetry with your contemporaries -- and with the dead -- and to do so from a position of generosity.
One very astute student poet once asked me this very question, in lieu of a close read of her manuscript of poems: how can one be a poet? It was a practical question. I suggested that she get a day job that would allow her some mind-space, access to office supplies and a computer, and where she would be more or less unobserved. I also should have added that she should take care of her teeth.
Can I add one more thing here?
Yes, of course!
My name is pronounced "Hwa Win." And I say it with an American accent.