LEADING WORDS ACROSS TIME: CONVERSATION WITH HOA NGUYEN

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”.