Born in the Mekong Delta and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Hoa Nguyen is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Violet Energy Ingots from Wave Books. Her work has received favorable notice from The New York Times, The Boston Review, Publishers Weekly, and The Walrus among others. She currently lives in Toronto where she teaches at Ryerson University, for Miami University’s low residency MFA program, for the Milton Avery School for Fine Arts at Bard College, and in a long-running, private poetics workshop.
Did you read poetry when you were in high school? Is there a particular poem that you loved when you were a teenager that you remember well?
I sought out and read poetry in high school. I was drawn to Plath, Millay, and Dickinson—their fine ear for music in poetry. I read e. e. cummings and poems in anthologies. I also was drawn to folk poetries and poems by “Anonymous”, the notion that the poem endures even beyond the self.
I wish I could remember the name of the poet who came and talked to my English class my sophomore or junior year at Charles W. Woodward high school in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I grew up. He was a younger white man and he gave a presentation and fielded questions from our class. One student asked what he thought of e. e. cummings (the question carried an assumption that e. e. cummings was sort of a joke) and the poet in response talked about how he admired the poem “Buffalo Bill’s” and recited it on the spot. He completely changed the space with a poem, charged it with this other energy.
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
When I was maybe 12, I discovered an anthology of Vietnamese poetry translated into English in my public library called A Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry. The first line from the introduction read something like, “The Vietnamese people have always considered themselves poets” and it unlocked something in me and granted me a kind of permission to write poetry.
I think I always wrote poems, but I didn’t claim my life as a poet until in my mid twenties. I took poetry workshops as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland and after earning my degree in Psychology, I enrolled in a workshop at the Bethesda Writers Center at the encouragement of poet friend June Coleman Magrab. At the time, I was working as a bartender trying to figure out my next move. I knew from watching my mother’s life how hard it was to have a career in the service industry. When I told June that I was thinking about applying for a Masters in Social Work—my attempt at being practical—she asked, “Why not get an MFA in writing?” I put the thought aside as unworkable until several months later, just before Christmas, when a young woman I worked with, a friend, died in a fatal car accident. The collective grief was a horrible roar. I gave a eulogy for her at the funeral.
The experience made me realize that I needed to make the most of this life even if it meant risk and failure. And standing in front of a large group of grieving family and friends and speaking what I had written on love and loss allowed me to understand the incredible transformative power of words. That’s when I decided that I needed to claim my life as a poet.
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
To read poetry, to write poetry, to be, as Shelley says, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
What inspired you to write “My Idea of the Circus Is My Idea of the Circus Otherwise Known As: My Mother Was a Celebrated Stunt Motorcyclist, Vietnam, 1958 to 1962 ”?
I’m interested in representing Asian women outside of the typical stereotypes offered in the West in literature or popular culture. Just today I was reading this analysis on the vilified and anonymous representation of Asians in the film No Escape, an action movie set in a nameless Asian country with white people as the only central characters. The critic elaborates: “Meanwhile, not a single girl of color or woman of color speaks an important line of dialogue in the entire film. In fact, women of color remain the most indistinct group of all in No Escape. They are more likely to be referenced in relation to sex work than they are to speak. Which taps into another racist, misogynistic tradition of exotifying and hyper-sexualizing Asian women.”
This poem is my way of answering back to these kinds of stereotypes and lack of true representation and is part of a series that I am developing. Part verse meditation and part documentary on 1960s Vietnam, it is a poetic narrative that includes a verse biography on my mother, Diệp Nguyễn, a stunt motorcyclist in an all-woman circus troupe. My aim for the series is to investigate historical, personal, and cultural pressures of the period—as well as the difficulties of distance, memory and language itself.
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, which one would it be?
I would be tempted to choose Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est” a poem I encountered and fell in love with as a teen. I admire it’s formal features and how he manages to chillingly speak to the horrors of chemical warfare and talk back to the “old lie” by Horace, that it is “sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”