Prac Crit

To Seek

by Hoa Nguyen

Interview

by Natalya Anderson

Hoa Nguyen’s voice is so soothing, so peaceful, so pretty, that when it throws me off balance it’s nerve-wracking and exciting. The colour, movement and sturdiness of her words – both in conversation and on paper in her latest collection, the Griffin Poetry Prize-nominated Violet Energy Ingots – play together so strangely that it’s impossible to steer the conversation. But this is not a childish game. Hoa’s observations are those of a loving and powerfully intelligent artist. Her use of musicality in her work merely entices a reader to engage with a poem. What follows is a freefall into a new, frightening, always exhilarating world. In this precarious space, Hoa considers love, sex, domesticity, feminism, racism, political corruption, and environmental destruction.

Born in the Mekong Delta and raised in the Washington DC area of the United States, Hoa studied Poetics at New College of California in San Francisco. She is the author of As Long As Trees Last and Red Juice, published by Wave Books. Hoa has lived in Toronto, Canada for six years, and her most recent collection, Violet Energy Ingots, also published by Wave Books, is shortlisted for the Canadian authors’ category of the Griffin Poetry Prize. This year’s winners will be announced 8th June.

Whether speaking publicly or conversing in an intimate setting, Hoa insists that we reach out and hold onto a thought, a feeling, a responsibility, for more than one moment – to feel things fully, without escaping discomfort or fear. At times one feels lost in a mythological kingdom, a dark fantasy that we must decode to return to the comfort of reality. Here Hoa tells us that we’re not listening: surrendering to the sounds, rhythms and energy of the poetry is our only way out.

NA

The title of your book is a good place to start. It’s colour; it’s how the body moves; it’s the weight of something, all in one place. Reading your poems, I always have a really hard time. I don’t feel educated. I don’t feel like a writer. I feel confused and startled. The only way I start to let it wash over me is when I think of it in terms of how I might dance to the words as they appear on the page.

HN

That’s awesome. I love that part where you said that you understand it when you go to the place of your imagination-practice as dance. I do think of the poem as having moving parts. The writing that I like best is vectored and textured so that the registers hit, tonally, in ways that are alerting. I think of the poem as a kind of organism, of how I keep it aloft as organism. For me that looks like all the things that feed any art – to live in a way that’s perceptive to the field. The present, the history, the possibility. Patterns – which includes history.

NA

When did you become interested in writing poetry?

HN

It’s interesting to look back and see the pattern. A kind of patterned assignment seems to be part of it. But a piece that we didn’t mention was sound. That’s one of the capacities of language. I don’t have a guitar to play or drums to play, nor am I dancing, so how do I create that? Sound, and the rhythmic possibilities and the sonic possibilities. My theory is that I was born in Vietnam and I left very young – I was a toddler, a little shy of two years old when I came to the US. It was a time when immigration from Vietnam was pretty non-existent. There was a really unpopular war going on. My mother was already rather modern, and she was interested in trying to assimilate. Speaking Vietnamese would mark one negatively. It was already negative being Vietnamese. To speak English became the priority. So, I lost my language, and Vietnamese is a tonal language. You can say a single syllable, and say it six different ways and it means six different things. There are all these different registers and tones. My theory is that I’m always writing towards this ghost language. I think it predisposed me to be drawn to poetry because of that particular genre’s attention to sound.

NA

How did you begin to move and work towards that ghost language?

HN

I loved music as a child, the way children often do, but I was pretty preoccupied by music. I wasn’t trained in music, but I always listened with what I now recognize as the attention of a poet. To sound and the possibilities of sound.

NA

Was it a strange move on your part, to become a writer? I recall your mother’s vocation being rather far from the quiet, solitary place of a poet.

HN

My mother was a stunt motorcyclist in a circus. She was like Elvis Presley in one of his movies during that era, Roustabout. He played a carnival motorcycle stunt person. There’s an Irish movie that’s linked to that movie called Eat the Peach, after the T.S. Eliot poem. In the movie the protagonists, who are Irish, see Roustabout on the TV in the pub, and they go and build a wooden structure in their backyard. That was my mother. That was her big stunt – she would ride the wall of death, which is this barrel, this wooden structure. We settled in the States. We had a brief period with my father’s family in Minnesota while my father got a job and a place to live for us in the DC area. That’s where I was raised, the Washington DC area.

NA

How did you carry your family history with you as you were growing up and figuring out your own place?

HN

The American War in Vietnam led to many things including a refugee diaspora – and the difficulties related to that, the weight of histories, how it’s articulated in terms of how people receive or perceive you. You internalise that. I think many, many, many people who have had similar experiences in different diasporas, class differences, etc., understand that. It was also fine – good times, family struggles, good friends, and I got to read books, go to the library, think about poetry. Even as a kid I would do that. My father worked for the state department. He would bring home these reams of old printer paper. Remember the kind that had the little tabs on the side and they were all perforated?

NA

Oh, right. The old, eee-eee, irrrk-irrrk printers?

HN

Exactly! When they phased out the Dot Matrix printers he was able to score these big stacks of paper and he’d bring them home and my sister and I and my best friend, Laura, would make books. We would be storytelling. I was very occupied with making books. There’s something about the book as object, as creative site, that I was always drawn to.

NA

When did it become apparent that this was a career?

HN

It stayed with me, but it wasn’t something that I thought was available to me. There wasn’t anyone that I read that looked like me. And the models for women were, like, Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath. Actually, I liked Edna St. Vincent Millay. I thought she lived in this great way of the life of the word. But then again it didn’t seem like a practical thing. I was practical, especially coming from a household of not always ‘having’. So, I thought I would study something that was practical, but maybe keep my writing practice on the side. I don’t know if I think of poetry as a career, but maybe as a kind of… devotion? I don’t know if that’s the right word. There’s a religious thing about that, I don’t know if I like that.

NA

When you said, earlier, that I had a practice of dance, and you have a practice of writing, I wondered if it was something that centred you, or if it was something that pulls you off balance but you want to do it anyway.

HN

A practice… You know, walking could be your practice. Or, if I played guitar, that would be my practice. But I don’t play the guitar. It’s a place you go.

NA

You had your practice in the background, that place you returned. When did you find other writers that you connected with?

HN

I think like any young woman, you know, we read everything. For me it was Keats. I wasn’t necessarily thinking in terms of gender. More, like, ‘Oh, I wanna fucking be Keats.’ I’ll read Shakespeare and be, like, ‘Shit. This is what you can do.’ You read widely and as deeply as you can. I didn’t know what was available to me. I didn’t understand that I could seek out bookstores that were different. I was a constant visitor to our public library. But like bookstores, poetry sections can be unevenly curated.  I thought E.E. Cummings was really interesting. The lower-case thing – I was never crazy about that, but I liked what he did with sound, with arrangement. I liked Edna St. Vincent Millay. My favourite section of the library was the mythology and folk tale section. It seemed to me that, in terms of the narrative, the fantastical can happen in the narrative. It didn’t necessarily have to look like a novel. Prose can tell lies. I felt like the mythological and the folk tale and the fairy tale were more accurate somehow.

NA

I came to you for a tarot card reading last year and found it so interesting. How did you weave your childhood interest in mythology and the study of tarot into your writing practice?

HN

I look back on my kidhood, and I was really interested in ghost stories. So, there was the mythology section, folk tales, fairy tales… but not, like, Aesop’s Fables. That was too, ‘Oh, they’re trying to moralize us.’ I liked folk tales from around the world. But then, I don’t know if it was next to this section in the library or if it was just my curiosity, but cosmology became interesting. I knew I was a speck in the middle of this black void. It’s the philosophical pursuit of a person. What are our cosmological stories? I loved reading about different cultures – how the world began and how humans came into being. The story can be that it was a woman moulding figures out of spices and earth. And then I became interested in ghost stories. And then, somewhere along the way, the occult. And occult just means hidden knowledge. Along the way I came across the I Ching, which is one of the oldest books that we have. It just fascinated me as a teenager. And it led me to the Tao Te Ching. So, somewhere along the line… I don’t really separate occult knowledge or hidden knowledge – these pattern systems – from astrology or the tarot. These are all pattern systems. Which seems to me what a poem is.

NA

Did you connect this, at the time, to your mention earlier of seeking out your ghost language? Did you ever want to learn Vietnamese, or to return to visit?

HN

It’s a difficult language to learn later in life for a monolingual Anglophone. There are barriers economic and emotional. I always have too many jobs! And we don’t have any people left in Vietnam. My mother never went back. Plus I am mixed (Eurasian) and to many people do not “look” Vietnamese. To go back would be like being that orphan: of trying to go home and not being home.

NA

What does that feel like?

HN

Normal.

NA

What does that normal mean, insofar as you can explain it? I’m thinking of the writer or artist like myself who, no matter what I think I’ve ‘suffered’ as a woman, as a woman with a history of childhood abuse, or whatever else I ‘use’ in my art, still lives in a world of privilege because I am white, and I am a white person living in Canada.

HN

I think a shared experience – in my experience – among people of colour of various racialized categories, is that we understand whiteness. White people don’t understand whiteness. Because whiteness is a category that has been confirmed by systems – not by individuals, but by systems that serve individuals – that are many centuries old as the category of people who are considered to tend to have more wealth; who tend to be represented in books, movies, comic books, ballet troupes, fashion magazines, in art, and other visual representations. The subject experience of being a white person is generally well represented, and thereby reinforcing the supremacy of whiteness in terms of looks. What that means is that the sort of default human being’s set up is well understood by people of colour. We get it because we have to operate around that space. We really understand whiteness. My experience is that white people, because they’re part of that fabric, they just take it as the default. Much in the same way that men cannot get what it means to fear sexual assault every day that we are alive.

NA

How do you bring that (unimaginable) experience into your work, or into this poem?

HN

In any poem, there are registers of experience and of perception. That’s the ground, as conduited through the poet. The writer is the speaker or isn’t the speaker, but is the voice through which this is being laid down on the page. Their fields of perception are being laid out on the page. I’d like to think that poems include all of our being. But I don’t think of my poems as being about things. I hope they ‘are’, in that organism way I was trying to say earlier.

In this poem, ‘To Seek’, in the fifth line there’s the empty parentheses so that it looks like an ‘O’ void. Later we see something in parentheses and the language in that says ‘crying in the house’; it’s a kind of aside, or reference outside of the text. On the line above, it’s preceded by, ‘What is a Cry House for?’ which is capitalized as though it were a proper name place. The ‘O’ void then becomes absence of crying in the house, but then also it’s this shape. Then there’s this reference to morning glories – ‘My glories are morning and purple’ – and then ‘Marvin Gaye would sing’ is sort of another morning glory because you have the ‘m’ and the ‘g’.

The word ‘sing’ and its variants – like song or sung or sang – appear in this collection, I think, about fourteen times. Clearly there’s something about singing that I’m trying to get out here. I think the other thing about this piece that I am trying to embed, articulate, let the poem say, is a kind of disturbed subjectivity – a questioning of its own subjectivity as a poem. Like, when I wrote, ‘I forgot why I wept / last night                it was children / & dark               I wear a silk / camisole               do I // and a cheap black / tunic’… The moment that the speaker says, ‘do I’, is it the self questioning whether this is true, or is it the self asking the reader ‘is it true’? Is the poem true in the literal sense? How are you seeing the speaker? It troubles that relationship in a way that I admire in pieces. A shift in perception.

We experience that more in other mediums, I think. Visual mediums, where something will be like the hands will suddenly blur and be like a claw. I’m interested in what that does to how we receive information. So, when it gets to ‘Here is a brown pastel scribble / and should be shamed’, it’s weird and interesting, right? Because you’re in this sort of troubled space and then the speaker is trying to present you with an object and then gives you the evaluation, which is intense. There is something that is complicating and self-complicating.

NA

Do you have a purpose or an intention for a poem, or do you just let it go where it wants to?

HN

My intention is to be ambitious for the poem, and part of that ambition is to be present for the poem. To reach an audience, auditor… to receive the poem. I think about the relationship, but it’s not intention-al, right? It feels more like making something, and seeing what happens. And then playing with it, and seeing if you can make the thing that you think is happening buoyant… aloft. There’s something slightly hovering in the poems. There’s something about a hovering poem or a poem that can occupy its own space that I find satisfying for me as a reader when I encounter them, or as when I listen to a song. There is craft and there is decision making. Art is about making decisions. I think about that a lot. Going back to the tarot: the swords suite – that’s a strategizing, making decisions element. I have a lot of air in my charts. I’m an Aquarius.

NA

I am too.

HN

What’s your birthday?

NA

January 27th.

HN

I’m the day before you!

NA

Shut the front door! Get the hell out of here!

HN

I love January Aquarians! We are really rare.

NA

I thought we were water. Are we air?

HN

No! We are air. It’s confusing because we’re called the water bearer. We are presented as waves of water in our symbol, but we’re not water. Because we’re the water bearer we have this vessel and we pour the water from it. It’s related to this ancient goddess, Nut. She was a celestial goddess but she also controlled the floods. The reason Aquarius is the water bearer is because the rains came in our time in Egypt. That’s when the Nile flooded and we were the water bearers. But we have nothing to do with water; we are all about the brain. Our brain gets us into trouble. We always think too much. It’s interesting that you’re a dancer. I think it’s good for Aquarius to have a dance practice. I love to dance. I ended up being the captain of our dance team in high school. We did coordinated dances at half time for the football and basketball teams.

NA

I can’t escape the dance, Hoa.

HN

Actually, I read ‘To Seek’ last night at a dance presentation called ‘Body Brake 8.0’. It was a program where I was the only poet and all the other performers were forms of dance. It was interesting because the audience was so present, I think in part because the presentation had no stage hand. Sometimes a performance would appear on the big stage, sometimes it would be in this other space. Audiences were sort of organizing around where the performance was happening. It was very intimate. Also, I think there is something about it having been so alert, in the moment. Sometimes I think people think that with poetry they should be able to decode the language. In the same way that we’re asked to decode language all the time, to read a map or a recipe. It’s a decoding activity. But poetry is of a different order so your attention has to be different. It’s not about decoding. It’s about being receptive to this creative moment. Because the audience was so alert to the possibilities of creation, a number of movement things and singing, that they were able to engage with the poems in ways that I found quite surprising.

NA

Sometimes the only way to approach art that you can’t understand is to get up and move.

HN

I’ve read a few statements about the work – my work, and other work too – that its surface is inaccessible or something difficult. I think it’s that tension between the expectation to be able to decode what it is. And then having to be very alert. It demands a lot of attention. That’s one of the reasons why poetry is more difficult. Like, I can sit on a bench and look at a painting in my own time, but a poem demands something else. It’s a demanding little art.

To Seek

by Hoa Nguyen

To seek too much attention etc.
To be careful and mouth all the words
My glories are morning and purple

You too like a vine cling and closing
blue violet            ()

Marvin Gaye would sing

What is a Cry House for
(crying in the house)

I forgot why I wept
last night        It was children
& dark        I wear a silk
camisole        do I

and a cheap black
tunic

Here is a brown pastel scribble
and should be shamed

Can glitter? I show
off all the time

              Should start
dinner          and the surface is scored
the impressions trying too hard

I want the root of the words
not the fucking use
made purposed and stupid

Many any root feet be
May my root feet be

From Violet Energy Ingots (Wave Books, 2016). Reproduced with permission.