RUSTY TALK WITH HOA NGUYEN
W]hat matters to me in poetry is when poetry risks saying something and addresses the complicated mess that is modernity.
Jacqueline Valencia: I remember first seeing you read at Maggie Helwig's Bread and Honey series. You read a couple of poems about your mother and mentioned how protective you are of her photographic images and her history. I'm empathize because I'm wary of writing about my daughter for similar reasons.
When you are inspired by the personal? Is there a way you go about writing your poetry with it? Is there a process whereby you try to be conscious of the subject you are writing about or do you allow it to flow?
Hoa Nguyen: I guess I do both. I'm writing simultaneously about my mother's life and about Vietnam as a place. Vietnam and Vietnamese women tend to be portrayed as a stereotype and a one-dimensional monolith in the North American imagination (both often serving to center European experiences)—I'm writing in response to these conditions.
One way I get into my process for this series in particular is to work with the I Ching. It also involves many source texts including a small arsenal of Vietnamese folk tales, myths, and children stories—and research.
JV: On social media you're very outspoken when you see an injustice and are willing to take a public stand. It's fearless. What drives you to that fearless place? What matters to you in poetry?
HN: I've always been a champion of and rooted for "the underdog"—probably from my experiences with xenophobia, stereotypes, and ordinary racism. Maybe I'm a bit of a fighter by nature. Nothing makes me see red faster than an injustice.
I've come to think that this, my temperament and resilience and willingness to address things head-on, helped to ensure my survival—that I managed to persevere in part due to sheer grit, despite the disadvantaged circumstance of class and race.
I guess in a related way, what matters to me in poetry is when poetry risks saying something and addresses the complicated mess that is modernity. In poetry, I do not care for the cutesy or exploitive sentimentality or ironic posturing or empty abstraction.
JV: So much in your collection Red Juice spoke to me. Motherhood, contrasts of parental homelands with the American experience, etc. One poem in particular felt like a bridge of childhood and adulthood (“Untouched Bubble Gum Me”). You experiment with experience in it, a playfulness mixed with a keen analysis in just a few words. What excites you about poetry today as an expressive and experimental medium?
HN: Thanks—I'm fond of that poem, too. I love when poems disrupt expectations, are dissonant, cut and bend in unexpected ways, are sonically interesting, and allow me as reader to participate in the meaning-making of the poem.
JV: What are you working on now?
HN: I'm trying to work myself out of a stall on my linked narrative project (mostly that looks like avoidance, ha ha)—and writing each week in the workshop I have run for the last 17 years. Right now, I'm writing through the collected poems of Frank O'Hara (we are in the Lunch Poems section of the work: so great). I'm also prepping to write through the poems of John Wieners—so lots of related reading: essays, his letters and journals, etc.
Meanwhile I'm preparing for a couple of talks, one at Hamilton College, where I'm revising and updating a talk I gave at Naropa's Jack Kerouac School in February that Bhanu Kapil wrote about here. The other talk is on pedagogy of teaching poetry to be delivered in Seattle for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry. And some consulting work in there: reviewing a graduate thesis and a poet's rough manuscript.
JV: If you weren't a writer or a poet, what you like to do?
HN: I think I would be a healer in the Green Witch tradition and continue to read tarot. As someone who is drawn to and has a knack for teaching, I would probably also run workshops for both pursuits.
HOA NGUYEN'S MOST RECENT BOOK
Description from the publisher:
Red Juice represents a decade of poems written roughly between 1998 and 2008, previously only available in small-run handmade chapbooks, journals, and out-of-print books. This collection of early poems by Vietnamese-American Hoa Nguyen showcases her feminist Ecopoetics and unique style, all lyrical in the post-modern tradition. Nguyen's poems are swift, conversational, playful, funny, angry, fully present and self-aware.
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