Born in the Mekong Delta, Hoa Nguyen was raised and educated in the United States and has lived in Canada since 2011. She is the author of several books of poetry including As Long As Trees Last, Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008, and Violet Energy Ingots, which was nominated for a 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize. An experienced and popular teacher of poetics, Hoa teaches for Miami University’s low residency MFA program, as co-chair of writing in the Milton Avery School for Fine Arts at Bard College, as associated faculty for University of Guelph, and as a popular poetics workshop leader in cyberspace and Toronto. Hoa’s anticipated book, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, directs poetry toward history, hauntings, and diasporic experiences and includes biographical verse of her mother, who once rode stunt motorcycles in an all-woman Vietnamese circus troupe. A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure will be published in April 2021 by Wave books.

Hoa Nguyen, 2020. Photo by KT Nguyen Smith

Salome Kokoladze: These past several months I have been thinking about how the root of language and poetry is immediacy, emerging out of the desire for communal gatherings, the desire for togetherness. Dreams also often have been interpreted in different cultures as the “soul’s” need to wander and expand beyond itself. What happens to language/poetry/dreams as we are deprived of immediate physical connectivity during the Covid-19 pandemic? Have you noticed any shifts in the way you write, speak or dream?

Hoa Nguyen: During the pandemic I am finding collective communication to take a muffled quality. Incomplete without the bodies of togetherness, without an embodied interactivity and energetic exchange of sharing space. Maybe that is why language as poetry is a place we find intensity and intimacies, because the language of poetry can create an energetically charged space.

Of my 2020 dreams that call for closer attention, the kind that help organize the psyche into a new pattern of understanding these have featured rage and violence. Disturbing dreams during a disturbing time. One, memorably featured a beloved departed one; together we formed a group of women who participated in a communal plan to kill a villainous agent using a bell-shaped weapon and hard strikes to the head. The blows reverberated in violent tones that echoed in our arms. I came to see the dream as a reading of this moment and cultural transformation, an urgency and need for communities to break through, speak boldly, depose despots, take charge, deface, dissemble, replace what is malignant, and not be afraid: asserting, forcefully, to do so.

The bell shaped weapon is an interesting inversion. Instead of the tool of the hammer that strikes, we value the container, the cup, the bell that sounds, what is held in collective listening, and associated with awakening. It’s beyond language, really.

SK: We often talk about a poet’s cultural heritage and its impact on their work. I am curious about how poems themselves have “motherlands”, emerging out of a specific object or a place. (I keep thinking, for example, about the cave image that opens Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, and the ways in which that cave holds both the poet and the work.) What are some images/places/objects that have “mothered” your latest poems?

HN: When I began writing my book A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure I turned to the I Ching, a book I found in my teen years along with the Tao Te Ching. I had arrived at my first ever writing residency at the Millay Colony (Millay was also a poet I read as a teenager) and began to write towards the poems that would become A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. It was in Edna St. Vincent’s old barn. My writing studio was on the upper floor with a view to a meadow, also cave-like. Three times in a row, I threw hexagram 51 (Shock, Arousing Thunder) and it grew into an emblem inhabiting/animating the whole book, linked later in the image of tarot in The Tower.

I Ching Hexagram 51
The Tower Card of the Aquarian Deck

SK: In a Q&A for diaCRITICS you mention that “the Vietnamese people have always considered themselves poets” and that this knowledge “granted you an essential permission to write poetry”. To feel deserving to create something (or anything at all) seems inseparable from being human; yet so many of us today feel undeserving or not yet deserving to call ourselves creatives. I also think about my own culture and folklore; for Georgians poetry had been inseparable from everyday life. Poetry used to belong both to the royalty/elite and to “common folk”. Today we have individual poets, but communities, nations at large do not call themselves poets. How does the loss of the shared poetic consciousness affect a poet? How does it affect you?

HN: The denial of creativity was not so about me feeling that I was undeserving (undeserving as a self-held belief) but as a mirrored expression. I literally did not feel afforded a self that I could recognize much less a future self that could also be a poet. As I mentioned earlier, some of my earliest reading of poetry were anthologies with Edna St. Vincent Millay and in her I saw, at least, a 20 c woman writer who could act with independence and claim an outward bohemian life of poetry.

The anthology A Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích included poems by Anonymous that is a voice of the folk culture you speak ofand reminded me of the outside-of-timeness that poetry directs, a perspective of reality outside of how it is typically constructed. Our shared kinships as music in meaning. Or as fellow first decan Aquarius Jack Spicer put it, “Words must be led across time, not preserved against it”.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of three novels and two nonfiction titles, and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies. Her new book, The Freezer Door, described by Maggie Nelson as “a book about not belonging that left me feeling deeply less alone", will be published by Semiotext(e) on November 24, 2020. Sycamore’s most recent novel, Sketchtasy (Arsenal Pulp Press 2018), was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018. Her memoir, The End of San Francisco (City Lights 2013), won a Lambda Literary Award. And her most recent anthology, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform (AK Press 2012), was an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s voice, in her latest book The Freezer Door, touches, traces both pains and joys many of us have not yet named for ourselves. To follow the map of the body means to find yourself in a city. The illusion of moving forward, upward that traditional narratives tend to carry, is taken over by turns and twirls that have no one trajectory. These are the paths to dreaming.

You can pre-order The Freezer Door from Elliott Bay Book Company.

Sycamore will be on a book tour for The Freezer Door starting November 19, 2020. For the event schedule and tickets follow this link.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Photo by Jesse Mann

Salome Kokoladze: Your latest book, The Freezer Door reminded me that desires and dreams are located not just inside the body. To dream in the city and to dream are predicated by or inseparable from dreaming of the city. How do we keep dreaming/desiring if cities are constantly strategizing against its own inhabitants, especially marginalized inhabitants?

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: To me, the dream of the city is that you will find everyone and everything that you never imagined. But our gentrified cities of today foreclose this possibility more than they allow it. People walk around with gates in their eyes instead of an openness to experience or surprise or that sudden moment that might change everything. I still want that moment to be possible. Those moments, I want them all. But I worry that the density of urban imagination has instead become a walled-off mindset, a suburbanized way of looking at the world that doesn’t allow us to dream, or not to dream wildly enough. But I still believe in the city if we let down our guard and allow the unexpected in. I think this has happened with protest during the pandemic, right? To hear a sudden cry of Black Lives Matter and rush outside to join in, to scream with our neighbors every day at 8 pm in support of essential workers, or to yell Abolish the Police, or just to yell, to sigh, to let it all out, to join one another, to breathe, to expand the possibilities for connection in spite of everything that wants us to disappear, this is the dream of the city.

The Freezer Door excerpt, page 60

SK: As I was reading The Freezer Door, I thought about plant seeds and branches my mom collects around my hometown, Batumi. She has grown trees in plastic containers from what she finds and by now she has so much of the vegetation of our parks (variety of palm trees, olives, etc.). The yearning to propagate outdoors into indoors, external into internal, public into private, can involve a sort of an inherent failure (caricaturing), but it can also be essential in resisting isolation. What I see in your work is this, but also a reversal of the process: taking the most intimate parts of ourselves and attempting to propagate them outdoors, into the public. Can you talk about what this process means to you and why this sort of “propagation” is essential in countering the suburban fears that seize the urban environments?

MBS: One of my favorite things about Seattle is the trees. Something that would just be a bush somewhere else, it’s this giant thing. There are so many huge trees behind buildings, towering above. I feel such a closeness to them, and I think that plays a role in The Freezer Door, right? As well as the sex that happens under cover of the trees, when I hope it will connect me to myself, when it does and it doesn’t. But this isn’t the fault of the trees.

I believe that desire should be a public force, not something private or privatized, not just an individual feeling but a collective act. The city to me means what happens outside with other people, not just what happens inside. I’m always in search of those sudden moments of connection—across identity, beyond routine, outside of the scripted. And yet so often this kind of intimacy feels impossible in our current gentrified cities. But at least in Seattle, when people let me down, I always have the camaraderie of the trees.

Seattle, Photos by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (@mbsycamore on Instagram)

SK: When I first came to the US one of the points the queer-feminist discourse emphasized that inspired me was the necessity to get paid for the labor that went unnoticed as labor before. After a while though I couldn’t stop feeling that this demand sometimes led to saying “capitalize on everything you do”. Is this belief a survival strategy in a country that lacks adequate social programming, or is it a belief that maintains the status quo of privatized aspirations and prevents relationships that are borne out of desire, rather than opportunism?

MBS: Obviously there’s so much wealth in this country, and it goes to so few people. And it goes to the military and weapons of mass destruction, policing, surveillance, prison profiteering, and every other horrible exploitative institution or industry. So it’s clear that we need redistribution of these resources so that everyone can thrive. Even if we cut the military budget by half, we’d have all the resources we need for universal housing and healthcare, free public transportation, healthy food for everyone, and on and on. I say this first because the issue is a structural one. And also it’s about value—to take one example, artists in this country are not valued unless we are commoditized, and once your work is commoditized it’s dead. So I would say that we all have the right to make the work that gives us meaning, that helps us to survive, and that we should not be forced to economic desperation in order to do that. Paying people for marginalized or stigmatized work can be a crucial tool for individual autonomy and survival, but the larger solution has to be a structural one if our goal is communal care. Let’s work to abolish all the institutions that oppress us, so that they don’t continue to destroy lives, and drain resources from everything that matters. And, at the same time, let’s create alternatives to support one another on our own terms, not just the sad terms that the brutal world around us demands.

Seattle, Photos by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (@mbsycamore on Instagram)

SK: There is a moment in The Freezer Door, where you connect nostalgia with hope (61). You resist or don’t trust either of them. When I first learned the word nostalgia, it was in a literature class, reading short stories by a Georgian writer who has emigrated from the country. I always thought migration and nostalgia were inseparable. Nostalgia cradled the incessant longing for home. The state of nostalgia is the state of denying both the past and the present, because they are too overwhelming; the denial gives birth to hope. I understand why it is important to keep the past raw, to cultivate honesty, to find new strategies to look the present in the eye. But do you think we should always resist nostalgia? Can nostalgia sometimes be a way to not give up on places/spaces/people we have left behind?

MBS: I would never suggest that anyone give up on a survival strategy that is working, and you describe nostalgia as it relates to migration so beautifully here. I believe we need to honor and mourn and remember the past, not a romanticized or simplified version but the actual experience in all its nuance and complication. And I think nostalgia doesn’t allow this. Nostalgia offers a mythology of a past that never existed, and as long as we are stuck in that imagined past, we can’t create a future that works. I think when you say the denial gives birth to hope, I would say that if hope is predicated on denial, it isn’t really hope. Denial prevents change, prevents meaningful connection, it prevents accountability. I like to think that the antidote to nostalgia is truth. If we can truly face our experiences in all their messiness, trauma, depth of feeling, impact, frustration, devastation, and possibility, then maybe we can actualize our dreams.

Mike Hoolboom began making movies in 1980. Making as practice, a daily application. Ongoing remixology. Since 2000 there has been a steady drip of found footage bio docs. The animating question of community: how can I help you?

Salome Kokoladze: I first met you in the Winter of 2013. You came to Baba Hillman’s class at Amherst and as you stepped in the classroom, you turned the lights off. You said something along the lines of “this way our faces soften; it is easier to have a conversation.” I feel your work has this similar function, acting as a reminder that seeing a person and being confronted by a face might need effort, takes time or some sort of quiet/softening. Can you talk about the process of building intimacy through images and how or if this is possible?

Mike Hoolboom: Your question reminds me of how many people I haven’t met, especially after seeing them. Last week a friend and I took a stroll, trying to fill the hole between us with words. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, had fallen out of the habit of each other, so in place of hugs and confidences, there was a new distance. Later in an email she linked this unmeeting with others here in Canada (a new pal assured me: when I first came to Toronto, I learned to cook for one) because of her race (Latinx) and accent.

Levinas says that ethics begins with a face-to-face encounter. But sometimes a face is not a face. Many friends would die for their cat and dog familiars, but think nothing of eating cows and pigs by the galore. Some faces are our pets, while other faces are for eating. How to create soft enough lighting to admit the strangers we keep turning into?

Incident Reports. Mike Hoolboom. 2016.

SK: In Soft Landings for Capitalism you mention “horizontal intimacy”. What does this term mean to you and how is it different from more “domesticated” or formulaic understandings of intimacy?

MH: Intimacy summons a touch, doesn’t it? Even on the subway, when I feel a warm flush at the back of my neck, I can feel someone’s look as a touch. Though in the underground it arrives from far away, at a safe distance. What if we were close enough to hurt each other, which also means close enough to love each other, or at least, to open a door, to say hello, lay down a new welcome mat?

The pal I mentioned who learned to cook alone came from the Middle East. She assured me that if you’re making a meal for two, you might as well make enough for twenty, because no doubt the neighbour will stop by, and a kid hungry from too much football, and your sister’s friends. She was describing a culture where doors were the beginning of community. I don’t come from that place. I grew up in the suburbs, where we made a point of not seeing our neighbours, and every face was a threat.

Soft Landings for Capitalism. Mike Hoolboom. 2020.

The horizontal intimacy conjured in Soft Landings arrives from the living room art events of Alexandra Gelis and Jorge Lozano. The personal is not only political but cultural. What if culture was about taking care of basic needs like food and relationships? Every evening starts with a free home-cooked meal before the artist opens a conversation, as we slouch over couches or sprawl across the floor, close enough to be touched. Let’s remember that we have bodies together. We make a meal of each other’s words and appetites. What could be more intimate than to be eaten? Didn’t Freud suggest two childhood responses: yes and no, either eat it, let it become part of me, or else reject and keep it outside of my body. Somehow, by transplanting their Colombian roots into this Toronto living room, Alexandra and Jorge open the door, and allow us to feel again.

SK: It is interesting to rewatch Buffalo Death Mask or Positiv during this pandemic. These works not only address how to deal with loss, but also how to be alive. How to be alive when death is an imminent threat for all, how to be alive in isolation, or how to be alive alongside the traps of nostalgia. I also see these earlier works as conversing with the pieces you have made during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Skinned, one of the narrators says, “the virus did not take away my future, it took away my past.” How was collectivity and the maintenance of collective memory possible during the AIDS epidemic and what can we learn from it today?

MH: I remember a moment at a fledgling ACT UP meeting in Vancouver in 1990. We melted in the heat of a stranger’s backyard that was overflowing with white men, and the disorganized organization meant that there were a lot of opening statements, beginnings, preludes. It was like coming for a meal and being served snacks. And then Hank stood up from his wheelchair and said “I haven’t come here to talk, I came here to do something!” He slumped back into his chair as everyone grew quiet, and in that moment of silence we made a turn together, we became a group. Part of what I hear in your question is: how do we make that turn?

Buffalo Death Mask. Mike Hoolboom. 2013.

We were dying, and had only our bodies to offer as protest material, bodies that had already failed us in so many ways, but they would have to be enough.

There was so much fear that afternoon, and fear became the flipside of anger. Why have a Pride Parade if there isn’t so much shame? We had been gifted our fear by doctors and employers and former best friends, and Hank helped us to touch that fear in our bodies, and turn it into the anger we needed to create change. He had to stand up without legs into order to turn this fear and anger into something else. You might call it queer rights, art, waking up, health care activism or beauty. But in order to go on living, we had to show, to make a public demonstration, of the dying place.

If there is a downhearted feeling of anxiety in the pandemic, maybe it’s because our isolations too neatly mirror neoliberal strategies of isolation and addiction (why don’t we just call the internet: heroin?). But the feeling of suspension, holding up the old flows, invite questions. I learned them from the everyday heroes who gathered in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. Instead of police: what makes me feel safe? Instead of school: how do we learn? In place of governments: what do we need to change right now? What is the most important thing? And how can I find out about the most important thing by talking with you about it?

SK: “I don’t see orange, I am orange, I’m an orange drape,” says Donna Washington in Scrapbook. That moment reminded me of the poet Sayat Nova’s lines, “You are fire, your dress is fire” used as a mantra in Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates. While I do not want to romanticize experiences around mental illness or the internal struggles of a poet, I feel as though both voices point to something essential that we might be losing as humans. This loss is well questioned in Incident Reports, where the main character asks while watching a dog eat a bone, “Where is my bone? Where did my bone go, my daydream, my body, my beautiful animal life?” As an artist myself, I find experiences like Donna’s or Sayat Nova’s elusive in the contemporary world: to be redundant in the world, to dissolve into the most mundane of objects, to desire and suffer from this experience at the same time. Do you also feel this? How do you deal with this sort of loss on a daily basis as an artist, as a person?

MH: I’ve spent many years sick in bed, granted a passport to “the other country” as Susan Sontag put it, which is forgotten as soon as you leave. If you’re lucky. Illness returns me to my unwanted body and slows the flow so that I can notice what is actually happening right now. How many times have I staggered outside after a bout of convalescence and felt every sunbeam and blade of grass, listened to the wind rustling through the leaves?

Scrapbook. Mike Hoolboom. 2015.
The Color of Pomegranates. Sergei Parajanov. 1969.

But sickness is a hard taskmaster. Far easier to invest in a couple of “clippy” microphones, thumb-size devices that run into a tapeless tape recorder, and step back into a world where every sound is suddenly and dramatically amplified. The swirl of water in a drain, or a boat dock moaning, or the wings of a swan I watched yesterday charging a bridge. It is only pleasure. And even better, there is no end to it, no decisive moment to attend to, instead, an always opening world invites me to attend, to listen to the song of rustling jackets and bicycle wheels ticking. Because there is no place, not even an anechoic chamber, where silence is possible, the city offers an ongoing collage filled with unexpected juxtapositions. Who has time to listen to the music?

SK: “You are a mother, Ma. You’re also a monster. But so am I — which is why I can’t turn away from you” [1]. I kept thinking about this line when watching 23 Thoughts About My Mother, especially the moment in which you describe your mother slapping you and your brother, followed by your realization that in that moment your mother was “somewhere else, in another country, finally able to take her revenge.” We are so deeply connected to the wounds of our mothers. What does it mean to experience cruelty while understanding and being conscious of the origins of your mother’s pains and actions? Does this help you be gentler towards yourself, towards her?

MH: I didn’t think of the beatings as cruelty, instead I was receiving exactly what was deserved. I had earned the right to receive, I had worked for it, and this was the fruit of my labours. I learned so much while we were in that room together, though these lessons, like all intimacies, came with unexpected costs. She taught me to listen with my whole body, or better: to receive her with my whole body, to attune. It was simply a matter of survival. I could feel her pulse racing as if it was my pulse, I could hear the words squeezed out of her voice box. What else? I learned how to leave my body and forget.

23 Thoughts About My Mother. Mike Hoolboom. 2020.

The Japanese internment camp she lived in when she was a kid was beyond even her formidable language. It couldn’t be stored in that house, so she passed it along to her kids as an inheritance. I don’t think it’s unusual. Is that what led Lacan to say that every gift is unwanted? I can understand it, but I can’t stand it. I can accept the explanation, but my body can’t leave that room, or it can’t stop leaving me, so I am still longing for the death in life that I met in those long nights, when she touched me with the irresistible force of invasion and history. What could matter after that?

Ocean Vuong writes: “Memory is a second chance.” I’m not sure how he has managed to put down the armour so that he can write his perfect sentences, not after the choir of his mother told him, night after day, what he could never be. It’s not unusual. What is unusual is his response. Not only does he manage to hold onto the gift of his vulnerability, he can find a shape for it that allows him to offer it up to others.

Sharon Salzberg says that western culture has created an imaginary body that many inhabit. This body has a strong front and a soft back. A spineless body filled with fear that has to protect its heart. Yoga might help reverse the flow, creating a strong backbone and an open heart. Ocean is my yoga.


[1] Vuong, Ocean. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. New York: Penguin Press, 2019.