Though published extensively, the poet Hoa Nguyen’s work has primarily been known for the past two decades in alternative literary circles and the small independent press community. With the release of Nguyen’s most recent collection, As Long As Trees Last, from Seattle’s Wave Books, her work finally reaches a greater readership.
“I’ve been a fan of Hoa’s work for almost 20 years and have asked many times to publish it. With As Long As Trees Last she finally said yes,” said Wave Books editor Joshua Beckman. “Her poetry has always felt to me to be a mix of dynamic imaginative language making and the physically present the socially humanly politically aware.”
In As Long As Trees Last, Nguyen investigates subjects ranging from debt, unemployment, climate change, and endangered species to the convergence of these preoccupations with the domestic. Traces of rocket fuel show up in the breast milk of a nursing mother in “You Can Sample.” A woman washes “unused baby blood” out of reusable menstrual rags on Wednesdays.
Elsewhere in the collection, the poet reflects on the dwindling appearance of monarch butterflies with the simple comment, “Worlds die.” In “The Vietnamese Say If You Have a Beauty Spot on the Bottom of Your Foot It Means You Are a ‘Pioneer’”—one of the specific poems in the collection that makes reference to Asian subjects —Nguyen evokes the “Dead zones / Gone bayous / Empty / shrimp nets” of Vietnamese fisherman in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast.
Rage Sonnet thinks back to a different historic moment, referencing Operation Ranch Hand, the herbicidal campaign that raged in South Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, while Independence Day 2010 invokes Nick Ut’s famous image of the “napalmed girl.”
Nguyen’s affinities and aesthetics derive from poetry associated with Black Mountain, Surrealism, Language Poetry, Objectivism, and the Beats. While her work has appeared in projects like Talisman’s contemporary poetry anthology and The Wisdom Book of North American Buddhist Poetry, it remains markedly absent from Asian-American literary projects like Language For a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond or Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation.
Nguyen’s work is included, however, in Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry published by Milkweed Editions. The poet was invited to contribute work after chatting informally with one of the editors about her experience of being born in Vietnam but leaving and losing her first language. Nguyen is mixed race, with two different white American fathers—one biological, and another that raised her. Unfortunately, Nguyen’s biography was represented inaccurately in the book, turning both fathers into soldiers—“or as the editor wrote ‘GIs,’ which they were not. It was a terrible mistake, especially in that it perpetuates a kind of Miss Saigon narrative that is very far from my mother’s biography—as well as misrepresents my fathers.”
The poet Linh Dinh has translated Nguyen’s work into Vietnamese. “We’ve been correspondents and poetry friends for a long time (I contacted him in 1998 after seeing his poems in the print magazine Sulphur)—I subsequently published his poems in Skanky Possum, a journal I was co-editing at the time with my partner Dale Smith, including some of Linh’s translations of a young Vietnamese poet.”
Since Nguyen is monolingual and only speaks English, she couldn’t offer any collaborative assistance toward Dinh’s translations.
“It was a strange sensation—my poems were turned into Vietnamese words, my first and lost language—and yet the poems were still orphaned from me.”
In addition to her writing and editorial work, Nguyen has led private creative workshops for more than 16 years.
“The format is the same for each one: We focus on a single author and one of their books,” Nguyen said. “Right now, we’re reading and writing through James Schuyler’s Collected poems.” Writers gather together to experience the poems aloud as a group, while the second half of the workshop is dedicated to writing. “I locate different writing strategies employed by the poet in the text we just shared and speak to their affects on the poem. We then respond to writing prompts based on these and other observations.”
The participants range from professors of poetry to writers who may have already published several poetry books. “It’s a very peer-to-peer kind of workshop. I consider myself a holder of the space or conductor in the private workshops.”
Since 2012, Nguyen has taught creative writing part time at Ryerson University in Toronto through its continuing education program.
“The students there are interested in writing, but are generally new to it,” Nguyen said. “There’s a certain amount of deprogramming we do together where we figure out what makes a poem and we break down language to its basic components: What makes for “good” or effective creative writing?”
Last year, Nguyen was awarded a writing residency from the Millay Colony in upstate New York to immerse herself in a research-based project on her family. Nguyen’s mother left her home in the rural Mekong Delta, when she was 15 to seek better circumstances. “She took a job at a regional circus when she was 16, washing and mending performers’ clothes, cleaning, running errands—basically whatever she could do, with her eye to qualify as a stunt motorcyclist. She made the team by the time she was 18 and in 1958, became one of five performers in an all-woman motorcycle troupe.” As the circus traveled throughout the Vietnamese provinces, Nguyen’s mother became famous and financially independent. “She once performed at a special presentation for President Diem in Saigon. She was fiercely modern; I wanted to try to write poems that could relate her story.”
So far, Nguyen has composed about 25 linked pieces towards the project. She intends to work with letters her father wrote to his family in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota from 1966 to 1969, while he was working for the U.S. State Department’s Agency for International Development in South Vietnam.
Hoa Nguyen reads during the Associated Writing Program conference at the following free offsite events:
Wednesday, February 26 at 10:00 p.m.
Bat City Review 10th Anniversary Reading
Sole Repair Shop
1001 E Pike St.
Thursday, February 27 at 5:00 p.m.
Oregon State University Cascades Reading
Red Velvet Lounge at Rendezvous
2322 2nd Ave.
Thursday, February 27 at 7:00 p.m.
Pinwheel / IO Reading
2322 1st Ave.
Friday, February 28 at 7:30 p.m.
Sole Repair Shop
1001 E Pike St.