Sing Forward Again: A Conversation with Hoa Nguyen

May 13, 2021   •   By Vi Khi Nao

BEFORE MY EXPOSURE to Vietnamese poets such as Dao Strom, Diana Khoi Nguyen, and Stacey Tran, Hoa Nguyen, who lives in Canada, was the first Vietnamese “experimental” poet that I read here in the States — and the first poet, period. I was living in South Bend and couch-surfing at a stranger’s home whose small library had Nguyen’s chapbook from Ugly Duckling Presse, Tells of the Crackling. Of course, anytime I saw “Nguyen” on a book I immediately read it. Needless to say, I was enthralled with Hoa’s unapologetic expression of beauty and her short lines that break like haiku, communing with the poet Hồ Xuân Hương from the Lê dynasty.


After two years of living in Las Vegas, I returned to Iowa City with Hoa’s A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, which contains a postcard, the book’s personable, bold gift. The picture on the front is of her circus stunt-performer mother on a motorcycle with her other Hùng Việt motorcycling stunt colleagues. Hoa’s wild and risk-taking mother is at the center of the collection’s defiant and ghostly environ. The poems maintain the same intimate quality of haiku that I’d remembered from my days in South Bend. Here, Hoa unravels the inaccessible, the ghastly, and the ordinary. She transports the Tân Nhạc (“New Music”) of her mother’s existence, the “silent” atrocity of the Vietnam War, her mother’s personal history, and a durian sonnet into the 21st century with her own blend of limber poetry, which feels like a type of punky Tân Nhạc music in itself.


I read Hoa’s book just before witnessing her Zoom conversation with Diana Khoi Nguyen through the Black Mountain Institute. Over Google Doc live, Hoa and I discussed her new collection and her dauntless mother at the center, who, like Hoa’s poetry, moves like a horse on fire.


¤


VI KHI NAO: The Vietnamese word “Hoa” means flower — it’s a noun for all flowers. If you desire specificity, which flower would this “Hoa” connote?


HOA NGUYEN: I recently had a half-waking dream or kind of dream visitation of a flower that delivered specific information to me. I mean, it appeared very simply as a lotus showing me the root system and its movement through murky water, how it regulates and rises above sifting muddiness, pink and radiant. It sounds sort of trite, lotus as enlightened flower, communication, and emblem, but there it is. A different flower, yarrow, similarly showed up (with an instruction for medicine, but a different kind). I guess it’s hard to say a single flower.


Did your wild and audacious mother name you?


Yes, she drew my name from her favorite book — and it was one that she very defiantly learned to read and defiantly read (and got caught reading by her mean uncle and punished). I gathered it was a romantic novel inappropriate for a teenage girl and it starred a female lead who had my name, but it was in Chinese, so she translated it into Vietnamese. That’s how the story goes.


How was she punished? What was the title of the novel? 


She didn’t elaborate on how: I know there were whippings or beatings and other forms of punishment — this was in the 1940s. My mother, when I asked her, couldn’t remember the name of the novel. She said it was a series and very popular. Her description of it sounded like what we might call a romance novel or romance adventure novel. She loved the name of the novel’s heroine so much she used it twice (the full name is Nguyen Thi Mong Hoang Hoa and it never fits on forms). She named her first daughter this name and then, after the first Hoa died, she gave it to me.


Your mother has a way with naming things in one place through anotherlike her fruit stand named Mexico, which came from the name Minh. If you were to name a flower stand, what would you name it?


Hm … This is reminding me of the time when I was a child and my mother tried to adopt a very beautiful cat, one of those pedigreed Persian grays. My mother went by the name Linda when she moved to the United States. When she tried to adopt the very beautiful cat, she gave it her Vietnamese name, Diep, and had a collar made for the kitten with “Diep” debossed into the leather.


I think I would have to name my flower stand after bougainvillea, which is another flower that I could have said from your earlier question.


I almost thought you would name the flower stand after her cat “Diep”which recalls the word “Đẹp” which means beautiful in Vietnamese. Your full name reminds me of an opera song as if your mother wanted you to be sung out into existence. 


My sister and I couldn’t say the diphthong sound in the name Diep and so would call the kitten “Dippy” for short, which our mother did not like. Ha!


In an interview with Shelley Feller, you said, “I love density, hooks, edges, and blurslike poems as a three-minute post-punk song.” In A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, are most of the poems born from three minutes? Some of them feel very punky to me.


I came of age in the mid-’80s and grew up in the Washington, DC, area where I was exposed to punk and post-punk sounds via small radio (WHFS which was in Bethesda, Maryland), friends and their older siblings, live shows, etc. Ska punk, and mod ska, and alternative music of that era inform my ear, aesthetic gestures, and modes of storytelling.


One of my favorite lines from this collection is, “This rain reminds me of rain.”


I love the line, “The rain reminds me of rain,” which is a kind of hook or edge or abruption (in that punky way) but also in collaboration with, mothered by, a line by the songwriter Trịnh Công Sơn. His line was, “This rain reminds me of rain long ago”


My mother loves Trịnh Công Sơn. She was in her 20s when his work became popular. Is he one of your favorite Vietnamese composers/musicians?


I’ve had to encounter Viet music/composers at a distance, as a kind of purposed research, because I didn’t grow up listening to it. I love hearing the recent gatherings of ’60s/early-’70s rock from Saigon including CBC Band, that band made of siblings with the female lead with the incredible torchy voice.


I know ghost stories dominate one of the primary consciousnesses of Vietnamese culture, and I was very happy when your work explored such phantomness with detached sorrow. Have you seen/met a ghost before?


I have felt presences but never met a ghost in the classic sense.


If your mother were to read A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, which poem of yours do you think would appeal to her sensibility the most? One of the circus performers was injured — one of her co-performers — and later pursued a life in singing. Did your mother ever talk about her own injuries?


I shared the poem that is a poem for her naming; she loved that one especially. I wish I could have read “Mexico” to her, but she died a few weeks after I wrote it and I didn’t have a chance.


Yes, she talked about her injuries: a handlebar end puncturing her leg and taking a chunk of meat with it, wiping out and landing directly on knees. Once she performed with her team for President Diem and wiped out and dramatically got back on her bike, bleeding, and completed the performance.


Your mother suffered physically and otherwise for her career. Do you feel that you are like your mother in some ways in this regard? Do you think poetry has the same equivalent of injuries, in which we suffer tragically, severely, dramatically on the page and yet still complete our performance each day?


My mother taught me perseverance for sure. Her circus days were before I was born and seemed to belong to another world. In a way they did. I think that my poetry is a way to sing forward again, to sing that beingness, untied from injury or despite injury.


More than a decade ago (2008 to be precise), in another interview, you said your life was pretty full, and you had a “tiny window for concentration on poetry” — two hours for reading and writing a week. Is that still true? This tiny window? And, if you still preserve this full life, how do you sing through a tiny window? And, if your window could be larger, what kind of voice/sound would you imagine producing?


My kids are older teenagers now, so my labor is distributed differently. I have a little bit more time but I’m typically still working too many jobs (three currently in addition to parenting). When I said that in 2008 I had never been on a residency before (because I worked a non-academic full-time job) but since then I’ve been on two residencies. And in both I was able to accomplish work specifically aimed at the poetry that’s in A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. In the first one at Millay I was able to start it, and in the second one at MacDowell I was able to write the body of it (even as it would undergo dramatic change). The time/space meant that the channel was larger, dynamic, and super-charged.


Which poem of yours from this current collection do you think is the most circus-like in its risk and boldness. Which poem do you think moves most like your mother’s flying motorcycle tricks, where it feels both disciplinary and risk-taking and freeing?


Also, during performances, the riders can reach out to take money from the audience. I would nominate the poem “Spoken Through the Cracked Eye.”



And, will you break down this poem for us? Where were you when you wrote it? If you drank tea (cold or not cold), what kind was it? How did it arrive to you? What image came first? I uploaded the poem — please ignore my fingers.


I like your fingers there on the poem’s page.


This poem has many echoes and versions — I see poems constellating from other poems into this poem, sources merging. “Arms out like wings on either side” is a poem that I wrote first, but I didn’t bring that poem into the book, only this line, which is an attempt to describe the image of her riding on the side of the Wall of Death hands-free. There are lost spirits, another line from Trịnh Công Sơn, an astrology reading from my mother’s grandfather, and a kind of mythic perspective or atmosphere.


What does “In the future even stones will need each other” mean? I love this line. I think it means even things that are autonomous and self-reliant and autodidactic will need the unsurmountable support of a community to just be — a solid mineral among other minerals — capable of demarcating boundaries. Is this how you read it too? And, where or how did the phrase arrive to you?


Yes, and an acknowledgment of the livingness of rock, not as walled off against itself. I was drawn to the line in my study of the period that was so critical to my mother’s young adulthood in Vietnam, even though, as it turns out, she didn’t listen to Trịnh Công Sơn in Vietnam. I was thinking about what we mean by seeking a peaceful heart. It also sounded like a line of divination.


If you were a fortune-cookie maker producing one-line poems to insert in the ear or heart or belly of a fortune cookie, what would you write?


I would insert the lines “an island delta root nest / a dragon tongue drum.”


The most powerful part of your poetic collection, the three lines that I return over and over again are: “she gave the son to Minh’s / wife   and then she was free       and didn’t see / him again.” Do these three lines leave such a lasting, aching impression on you as they do me? I love how nonchalantly your mother (or your narration) views motherhood. Would you like to know what became of your half-brother? Have you met him?


And, can you speak to these lines, “How old was she? Early 20s / after her sweet Hoa died,” and the Hoa before you?


My mother and my sister saw a very famous local psychic, a white woman named Betty who would take appointments and see people starting at 8:00 a.m. until noon. She lived in rural Maryland, and you had to sign up to get a reading starting as early as 2:00 a.m. Anyway, when my mother went to see Betty she asked to get information about her “two daughters” (my younger sister and I) and Betty replied, “You have had five children,” and this freaked my mother out that she knew she had had more children than that. And Betty told her that her son by Minh (not his name, he doesn’t deserve to be preserved in the retelling by his name) was alive in Vietnam. And he did, indeed, grow up to be tall.


She had told me about the first Hoa and how she died of an upper respiratory infection. She told me about another baby, a boy, who died at a few months old. Three children before me: two dead and one, perhaps, still living. I think of poems as a way to interact with ghosts, the past, to travel and dialogue with ghosts.


Why don’t you think Minh’s name shouldn’t be preserved in the retelling? And, what do you make of the contradiction?


It’s a way of withholding honor — is that petty? Because he manipulated my mother; a revenge act of the writer-daughter, a way to right something.


Hardly. It seems fitting, practical, and almost poetic, the substitution.


Well, it’s a little petty/punky but I’m okay with that. [Laughs.]


I assume your sons are Keaton and Waylon. I love both their names. What do you make of the relationship between motherhood and poetry?


Their names are entwined with poetry as our lives are — K’s name came to me via a hawk that landed on a lilac bush while on a visit with Bob Creeley over tea in Buffalo with their father Dale Smith (who is also a poet) and our poet friends Roberto Tejada and Rachel Levitsky. The name is a sidelong homage to John Keats. Waylon is for the outlaw country singer Waylon Jennings and a rhyming homage to the American Buddhist poet Philip Whalen.


And, what do they think of your poetry? And, what does the year of the Fire Horse mean, the year you were born? What happened in that year — I wonder — historically? Astrologically?


They don’t think anything of my poetry. Ha! Well the Fire Horse year is supposed to be a bad luck year to give birth especially if you have a girl — they will be too independent, hard headed, and hard to marry. Double fire, Red Horse. It’s supposed to be a year of great cultural disruptions too. I love it as an emblem, Fire Horse, blazing.


¤


Vi Khi Nao’s work includes poetry, fiction, film, and cross-genre collaboration. She is the author of the novel, Fish in Exile, the story collection A Brief Alphabet of Torture (winner of the 2016 FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize) and of four poetry collections: Human TetrisSheep MachineUmbilical Hospital, and The Old Philosopher (winner of the 2014 Nightboat Prize).