On ‘muddiness, inventions, and slippage’: An Interview with Hoa Nguyen

Violet Energy Ingots is the first collection I read by Hoa Nguyen.

Violet Energy Ingots is the first collection I read by Hoa Nguyen. Struck by the title while perusing the poetry section at Librarie Drawn & Quarterly, I purchased the book after poring over the first few poems. I loved how mythologies are pulled from the skies and crash into the body, the warped and wandering lineages, the way Nguyen’s use of language manages to be both fluid and sharp. Since then, I’ve worked backward through her previous books, and I’ve enjoyed her brilliant recent collection A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure.

    From that initial encounter, I’ve experienced Nguyen’s writing as permission to jolt language out of kilter and work its slippery matter. Years later, I was extremely grateful to receive her mentorship as a student of creative writing at the University of Guelph. For this interview (conducted by email), I was excited to hear her thoughts on her practice. We were in different cities, but both places were being warmed by the sun after a week of non-stop rain–spring unfolding. 

    Subhanya Sivajothy: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with me. What are you currently reading that you’re excited about?

    Hoa Nguyen: I’m reading “Decolonizing the Anthropocene” by Zoe Todd and the introduction to A World of Many Worlds by Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser in preparation for a seminar organized by poet and musician Julian Brolaski and filmmaker Laura Huertas Millan for the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. I’m also excited about reading Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir by Deborah A. Miranda, Nature Poem by Tommy Pico, and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer as companion texts and look forward to discussing them with the faculty and students this summer where, over the course of a week, we will work in interdisciplinary groups, in an engagement with plant wisdom. This will be part of a collective practice that interacts with the ideas in the readings towards a “Living Glossary,” which may or may not result in a performance, collaborative presentation, or art proposition.

    Subhanya Sivajothy: One thing that I love about your poetry is the joyful irreverence as well as subversion that comes through with the way you play with words and syntax. For example, I’m thinking about the ways that you hyphenate words together such as “tree-love” and “mother-scorn.” In other places you turn nouns into verbs or warp them into different words and meanings. Have you always approached your poetry and writing this way?

    Hoa Nguyen: Thank you; I found this voice as a younger writer; one I had been looking for and encountered in the post-punk music of the 80s and 90s. But I first had to work through more conservative, less risk-taking writing styles before I was to encounter aesthetically marginalized writings to arrive there: the poetry of Negritude, Black Mountain, Umbra, the Black Arts Movement, and the New York Schools were and remain particularly influential.

    I deeply believe in creative writing’s ability to rephrase and renew ways of seeing and shape the function of creative production in social realities.

    SS: What is your perspective on teaching craft and your approach to pedagogy and mentorship? How do you balance teaching responsibilities with your writing practice?

    HN: I deeply believe in creative writing’s ability to rephrase and renew ways of seeing and shaping the function of creative production in social realities. When teaching creative writing I think it’s important to share excellent works and books with students, providing them with insight and contexts for the writing you share, and to be a good listener. I’m interested in how together we can think, read, practice with the dynamics of the creative mind and in taking part in activated community where one can solicit listening, dialogue, and exchange across barriers to locate forms of solidarity. This fall I’m excited to join the English department as full-time faculty at the Toronto Metropolitan University to teach creative writing to undergraduates as part of their creative writing offerings there, in addition to the work I do at the graduate level as co-chair and faculty of writing at Bard College.

    SS: How have you built and maintained community with other writers through your career?

    HN: Literary citizenship, meaningful relationships, and a DIY ethos are important features of my practice. Together they form the basis of building and maintaining community with others. I began as a small press publisher and editor of the poetry journal Skanky Possum, which I founded with my life partner, the poet and scholar Dale Smith. We were inspired by many things including our mentors at the New College of California and the experience of editing the journal Prosodia together under the mentorship of faculty member Gloria Frym where we learned every aspect of production. In the issue we helped edit, we had cover art by Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat and solicited and selected new writing from Alice Notley, Rae Armantrout, Kevin Killian, John Yau, Rosmarie Waldrop, Leslie Scalapino, Anselm Berrigan, Will Alexander, and others.

    Prosodia 5 issue launch, May 1995, New College of California. From left: Renee Gladman, Dale Smith, Hoa Nguyen, and Leslie Davis, editors. NCOC professor Tom Clark in background.

    Starting our own magazine and book imprint was a way to create an environment for works by friends and people we admired. By publishing, curating an irregular reading series, and participating in conversation and exchange with poets and editors from elsewhere, we made meaningful relationships and connections with artists who shared our literary commitments that remain to this day. Dale also tirelessly wrote reviews and conducted interviews for many years, and this added to our nexus of connection. You can read about the origins of Skanky Possum in a piece he wrote for the series Among the Neighbors, a pamphlet series for the study of “Little Magazines” from the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, where he details how a nexus of connection took root.

    SS: I love the way ecologies in your poem are used to bridge the mundane to the cosmos and the way it all entangles with the speaker. In A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, I’m thinking of the opening lines from your poem “Warm Rain” as well as one of my favourite lines in the collection: “She took a taste of earth/ held hands on the Wall of Death”

    I think of the poems as sites of otherwise marginalized reportage shaped by poetry’s 'upper limit' song.

    Environmental violence is also the subject of your poetry; for example, Agent Orange appears in different poems throughout your collections. There is a persistence that speaks to the persistent contamination in the biosphere but also to the ongoing legacy of the chemical’s harmful effects on millions of people in Vietnam. Has your approach to writing the natural environment in your poems changed over the years? How does it intersect in your writing with diasporic relationships to land? 

    It’s most certainly inflected by diasporic experience, writing to give expression to more than the given.

    : I appreciate this question and the word “entangles” and recall Trinh Thi Minh Ha when she writes “Displacement involves the invention of new forms of subjectivities, of pleasures, of intensities, of relations…” I think I have always written poems that speak to the particulars of ecology, feminism, class, racism, and diasporic conditions. I think of the poems as sites of otherwise marginalized reportage shaped by poetry’s “upper limit” song. I was raised dispossessed of ancestral land and language. My Anglophone poetics are that of a troubled lyric, an intentionally problematized zone. The multinational sound of ska punk and the likes of artists such as the Washington DC band known as Bad Brains who fused jazz, funk, reggae, and punk into their music and whose lead singer once sang vocals to their 1986 song “Sacred Love” into a jail centre telephone with the mouthpiece removed. I remain interested in play, odd rhythms, blurs, muddiness, inventions, and slippage. It’s most certainly inflected by diasporic experience, writing to give expression to more than the given. It is as a gesture to how poems can conjure a world between worlds, relate to mythic shapes, create new psychogeographies, and define and redefine spatial relationships.

    SS: I’m curious about whether you have rituals or rules around your writing process?

    I’m interested in border crossing, quantum time mechanics, divination systems, and consciousness and intelligence that can be shared across time and space and between other forms of consciousness.

    HN: I’m interested in border crossing, quantum time mechanics, divination systems, and consciousness and intelligence that can be shared across time and space and between other forms of consciousness. That all sounds mysterious and occult but it’s peripatetic and mostly about reading, dreaming, talking to artists who share my commitments, and allowing myself to pursue my interests. Right now, I’m collaborating with Vi Khi Nao on a project where we meet online, play each other sad songs, and then perform timed writings in a Google Doc. I sometimes use tarot in conjunction with my writing and teaching (and general tune-in with my psyche) but I’m very much not bound to a ritualized system.

    SS: Are there any upcoming projects that you are excited about?

    HN: Most recently my writing has been devoted to collaborative work with the collective She Who Has No Masters. We make work as a cohesive, yet collective, diasporic, multi-voiced, Vietnamese feminine-descended entity and see our multi-authored expression as a form of liberation. For the last several years, we have been directing our attention toward reclaiming the power of the colour yellow in an ongoing photography series of self-portraits which has evolved into a photo text series. Three of our images have been selected for inclusion in the exhibit Jade Wave Rising: Portraits of Power in San Francisco. Most excitedly, our Yellow Echo series and body-text writings will be installed in Toronto at the Remote Gallery for knife fork book’s 2023 Fertile Fest with Diana Khoi Nguyen and myself presenting the collective on the festival’s opening night on August 11.

    About the authors

    Subhanya Sivajothy is a librarian and writer living in Toronto. She uses poetry to think about ecologies, archives, and resistance. She is an MFA student at the University of Guelph. Her work has been published in magazines such as Adi Magazine and Filling Station, and has been supported by the Canada Council of Arts.

    Hoa Nguyen is a poet and educator. Her books include Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008 and the Griffin Prize-nominated Violet Energy Ingots. Her latest collection of poems, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasurewas a finalist for a 2021 National Book Award, the General Governor’s Literary Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Currently, she teaches as faculty and Co-Chair of the discipline of Writing at the Milton Avery School for Fine Arts at Bard College, and as an Assistant Professor at Toronto Metropolitan University. Hoa is a member of She Who Has No Masters, a project of multi-voiced collectivity, hybrid poetics, encounters, in-between spaces, and (dis)places of the Vietnamese diaspora and founding mentor of the collectives’ inaugural mentorship. In 2019, her body of work was nominated for a Neustadt Prize for Literature, a prestigious international literary award often compared with the Nobel Prize in Literature. She’s an Aquarius and a Fire Horse.