Profile on Hoa Nguyen, with a Few Questions
In an interview with Hoa Nguyen posted to Bookslut in January 2008, Joshua Marie Wilkinson referred to her as “one of America’s best contemporary poets that you may not have heard of.” She is the author of three trade poetry collections including Your Ancient See Through (Subpress, 2002), Hecate Lochia (Hot Whiskey Press, 2009) and As Long As Trees Last (Wave Books, 2012), as well as a number of chapbooks, and her work has been included in nearly a dozen anthologies, including Not for Mothers Only (Fence Books, 2007), Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry (Milkweed Editions, 2008), For the Time Being: A Bootstrap Anthology (Bootstrap Books, 2008), The Best of Fence (Fence Books, 2009) and Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound: The Teachers of WritersCorps in Poetry and Prose (City Lights, 2009). Born in the Mekong Delta in 1967 and raised in the DC area, she studied Poetics at San Francisco’s New College in California where she earned an MFA before ending up in Austin, Texas in 1997, where she co-founded the book imprint Skanky Possum with the poet Dale Smith. The couple put the press on temporary hold when they moved north to Toronto, where they now both teach at Ryerson University.
As she says of her writing in her Bookslut interview, “I tend toward the singular poem.” The poems in her new collection, As Long As Trees Last, stretch across a rather large canvas, packing fragments into such small spaces, but all part of a singular, long line of conversation and observation on the domestic, the mundane and the political, and the fantastic hidden within. In her writing, the poem as unit of composition accumulates into a much larger shape. Talking of shaping her second poetry collection, Hecate Lochia, which was neither yet-named or fully assembled, in her Bookslut interview, Nguyen says:
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.
There is something about her poetry that suggests how her entire output so far might fit into a single, lengthy project of individual poems that respond to the immediate world around her, whether the movement and concepts of other poets she encounters, social upheavals, childbirth and children, politics and the day-to-day of domestic life. In an interview with Carol Mirakove, posted at http://home.jps.net/~nada/nguyen.htm, she expands on her statement on the singular poem:
My poems have never been terrifically long. I tend toward certain clotty beats (stress patterns) and prefer non-Latinate or monosyllabic words. I’m inclined toward words rooted in Old and Middle English — am pulled there because I write in English and, for me, that’s where the language throbs. Small and, hopefully, packed (as opposed to sense) suits my song maybe?
First off, why do you tend toward the singular poem?
I write poems one at a time and tend not to approach the page with an idea, concept or project in mind. I write in engagement with and informed by other poets. What this looks like is that I’m deeply reading a full-length volume of poetry — or a selected or collected volume; I’m noticing different rhetorical happenings in the poems, their patterns and use of language. And then after reading a section of poems aloud (this I do with a group of poets participating in the private workshops I lead), I write by inviting these strategies as I write while still experiencing their language or voice in my body and other sites of reception.
In an interview posted as part of the third issue of Evenings Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (March, 2011), you talked a bit about writing geography, that “[n]aming a landscape in all its complexity helps place one’s self in this constellation of process.” I’m intrigued by this shift you’ve made to living and working in Toronto, after an extended period of time living in Texas. Have the geographic shifts begun to resonate in your writing? How well are you learning the names of your new landscape?
I may have started with plants, especially trees. I like to understand their medical, decorative and/or food uses. I’m excited to find wildcraft nettles and red clover here — two herbs that I have allied with in my old home but didn’t have local access to as they do not occur naturally there. I appreciate distinguishing between and knowing what is a native and what is a transplant.
I am also learning the human history of use and occupation of this new landscape in addition to bird and animal life and how they shift with seasons (I heard my first loons this summer). Also the geological history (the progression from limestone to granite as you head north in Ontario) as well as watersheds.
It’s a way to engage place but also, I like to be curious about what’s around me.
Later on in the same interview, you talk about a line from Alice Notley: “What a service to poetry it might be to steal story away from the novel & give it back to rhythm & sound, give it back to the line.” You talk about appropriating and re-appropriating: “So much has been stolen — women’s sexuality, our power in birthing, reverence for the earth, etc. I am trying to steal it back.” In a review of the same book you’re discussing, your second poetry collection, Hecate Lochia, Daniel Casey writes of “the days that Nguyen intertwines lyrical meditations on political concerns with the domestic perils of the everyday.” Would it be fair to describe your newly-released third collection, As Long As Trees Last, as extending and expanding this central idea of stealing back, or reclaiming, a degree of humanity from those who would attempt to limit it?
I think the stealing is a kind of truth telling: exposing the lies or the hidden or maybe even the obvious — not so much about reclaiming humanity.
The lyric poems in As Long As Trees Last seem sharper than the ones found in Hecate Lochia. More drought, more resource contraction, more keen compression.
I’m fascinated by the fact that you run not only writing workshops, but an occasional reading series out of your living room. What first prompted these, and out of your home, as opposed to doing the same from a library, bookstore, café or pub space? How difficult is it to invite strangers into a private space?
Both the workshops and the readings started out in public spaces.
I first held the workshop in a cultural arts center in Austin, Texas — but after awhile, the workshop outgrew the space in different ways. I also had my first son in 2001 and this made it so that I felt more comfortable at home — less to and fro-ing — and easier for covering our family’s needs. It also felt like a natural progression as my workshop grew by word of mouth (not from the arts center’s catalogue); I had many repeat students. I grew to count them as friends and a non-institutional backdrop just felt fitting.
The readings were held in public venues, settling for a time in a bookstore in Austin named 12th Street Books. But the conditions of their space changed and we ended up having people back at our house for a gathering after the readings anyway, so it only made sense to begin to host all the readings with a gathering as part of the evenings. We’d have food; it was festive; people could bring stuff to drink, hang out, buy books, and stay late. I was influenced by Robert Duncan via Joanne Kyger; she told me long ago that Duncan kept an unabashedly magical home. Kyger’s home is like this as well. I took this piece as a kind of permission to celebrate the hearth and home by offering it as a gathering site for other potentialities.
I have been thinking about your question and there is a way that I think that my poetry echoes this a kind of collapse between private and public spaces. How a single reference (the maker of the poem) may create a context to speak to a larger public circumstance.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.
Photo of rob mclennan by Stephen Brockwell