666: An interview with Hoa Nguyen
Installment Three | Author Three
[six words six authors six issues]
The 666 Interview Series is an attempt to explore language, the conceptual, and experimentation within the work of women and women identified writers by creating a space of vulnerability and transfiguration through engaging simultaneously with a structured and open format.
Hoa Nguyen is a poet as much as a diviner. She uses words as her medium; translation, a channeling. She is an interpreter of symbols, dreams, and everyday life.
In Spring 2014, Hoa and I spoke on the telephone for a writing consultation. The previous day, my kitchen ceiling collapsed, leaving a large hole through which honeyed morning light now seeped into the once dark space. As we discussed writing, the light became her voice. It peeled back as petals. “This poem is like the seven of swords,” she said. This is the moment I first sensed the need to know how she felt about all words, especially the language of her own poems. Her vernacular simultaneously grounds and nudges the reader off balance. Through investigation and play, her words show us new perspectives in which to view the mundane and ordinary. Her poems are also often a descent into the internal body, as well as into the space and silence surrounding the physical body itself, in an attempt at a further understanding of the overlap of self and other. We see this in Nguyen’s poem “Being” from her collection As Long As Tree’s Last (Waves, 2012) when she writes:
The dream hand wrote:
How eyes can see brightly
across great distance
Here, she views her own possessed hand, simultaneously inhabiting and being outside of her body, highlighting the acknowledgement and disintegration of the binary. This “sort of bright blackness” (Boston Globe) is also present in her recently rereleased Red Juice: Poems from 1998–2008 (Waves, 2014). By following this trace of illuminated negative space into oblivion, the veil lifts, but only for a moment, and the reader enters into the dialectic of the oracular woman.
I presented six words to Nguyen, the first word, “Limbo” was selected by Kim Gek Lin Short during the previous 666 installment. Nguyen responded to each word prompt with concepts surrounding her own writing and process. The form of this interaction creates a space of intersection for each artist’s interview to be in conversation between and among each other, as well as to create new collaborations between women and women identified writers. During a time in which publishing women is still undoubtedly a political act, it is important to create a space in which to acknowledge and investigate the vast literary value and work of women, especially those unrepresented in the cultural mainstream. It is within this safe space that we can forge connections, acknowledge failures, and create a new language and trajectory of inclusion.
Latin for hem, selvage, fringe: border, the in-between place. Not one or the other. Being Eurasian is like the selvage—hemmed together but not like the other material, bonded to itself, and un-fraying.
Too I think of language as a kind of limbo—that words are the limbo-space that exists between the act of utterance (or writing) and the referent. Words in limbo, at a distance from both the speaker and to what it speaks.
Roger Snell, a poet, printer, and father who does much of the domestic heavy-lifting in his household, once said to me:
“One thing [around the question of the “domestic” with regards to poetry] is that I’ve never really heard it raised by women writers that they would wish more men would take on the subject in their work, i.e. that the line of questioning seems just limited to women—like it is expected for you to write about sd topics: birth, chores, kids, the politics of the domestic, etc. which is almost a disservice on some level to the overall arc of the work.
I mean, Bernadette Mayer, Joanne Kyger, Alice Notley, et al have covered this ground as well, so it’s not unexpected, whereas in writers like Robert Creeley & Robert Duncan, for instance, it’s mainly about them.”
I still don’t have a response for this, except to say, “Yes.”
I’m always puzzling about the sonic possibilities of language. A song in the ear but not sung. The syllables that dance with sense.
I can’t make music as a musician would and yet I want to make music. I want my poems to emulate my favorite songs, like David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” about which critic Neil McCormick said this:
“A quite gloriously strange anthem, where the combination of stirring, yearning melody and vivid, poetic imagery manage a trick very particular to the art of the song: to be at once completely impenetrable and yet resonant with personal meaning. You want to raise your voice and sing along, yet Bowie’s abstract cut-up lyrics force you to invest the song with something of yourself just to make sense of the experience. And, like all great songs, it’s got a lovely tune.”
In my poems, I want the words themselves to pattern, song-like, to make, perhaps, a “strange anthem” with words that ask the reader to invest something of their own.
1. Cut and recut to describe irregularly shaped (yet regular) objects and phenomenon i.e. portray life.
Written after a dream communication with bees and having drawn the tarot card The Page of Pentacles.
Swell you can dream more the earth
swells seeds pop
I glance at the prize
eyes closed in the glancing
It’s not a time to run
I wear soft shoes
and it took a long time
to walk here
Insects nudge me in my dreams
like the 5 honey bees plus
the strange one
Intelligent bee glances buzzing
to say Let me out The fake
lights confuse us
confuses the source
Worker bee buzzed my neck
directly me not turning off
lamps fast enough
just open the door
to the sun
The Seer said, “You really came into this world as an orphan.”
The Seer said, “What is the holy grail, but a woman coming into her sovereignty?”
The Seer said, “You are visiting from another dimension to leave your art in this world before you return.”
In middle school in Montgomery County Maryland, we were administered a Myers Briggs personality test that they called “Jobbo”. It was designed to determine which careers would best suit our personalities. My result was three things in equal parts: artist, teacher, and counselor.
Seeing “artist” there confused me. At 13, I took this to mean a visual artist and I was like, “I can’t draw!”
And now, I realize that I’m all three. Poet, teacher, and “counselor” as a Jungian-influenced reader of the tarot.
The word I would like to leave is drawn at random from my copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: coerce.
Born in the Mekong Delta and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Hoa Nguyen studied poetics at New College of California in San Francisco. With the poet Dale Smith, Nguyen founded Skanky Possum, a poetry journal and book imprint in Austin, TX, their home of 14 years. She is the author of nine books and chapbooks including As Long As Trees Last (Wave, 2012) and Red Juice: Poems 1998 – 2008 (Wave, 2014). She lives in Toronto where she curates a reading series, reads tarot, and teaches poetics in a private workshop.
Brenna Lee received her MFA in Prose from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Her work has recently appeared in Upstairs at Duroc, Vector Press, and Something on Paper.