Carol Mirakove

Hoa Nguyen

[Hoa Nguyen lives in Austin TX where she teaches creative writing in a variety of settings. Her work has been published in An Anthology of New (American) Poetry and will be included in the next issue of How2. She edits the poetry journal Skanky Possum with her husband Dale Smith. Her next collection of poems, Parrot Drum, is forthcoming from Leroy Press.]

Carol Mirakove: As you assume the roles of editor, teacher, and community member, there are a number of issues we might discuss here. I want to start by talking about your poems, though. I’m not alone in the opinion that DARK is one of the finest books of poems to be given to us in 1998. It is for me truly joyous, yet also ferocious, funny, and complex. I have to think that the length of your poems, which tends to be quite short, lends to their power—your lines read quickly and intensely, and there’s a sense of immediacy in them that I value. The poems feel for me to be discoveries, and very tangible. I had a professor in grad school who said every poet is looking to write The Poem—that no poet feels s/he has come into her or his own until that l-o-n-g poem is written. I disagree with this, as such a statement would have a single poem be a necessarily grand enterprise—rather than as an event, like—well, when you think about how long an orgasm can possibly last … What are your feelings about length in regards to your poems?

Hoa Nguyen: My poems have never been terrifically long. I tend towards certain clotty beats (stress patterns) and prefer non-Latinate or monosyllabic words. I'm inclined toward words rooted in Old and Middle English—am pulled there because I write in English and, for me, that's where the language throbs. Small and, hopefully, packed (as opposed to dense) suits my song maybe?

I'm restless with my poems right now but not because they're small. I probably need to read and write more. I've been reading Olson and Blake lately and thinking about the 6 aspects of poetry as outlined in Ed Sander's essay "Creativity and the Fully Developed Bard" (phanopoeia, melopoeia, logopoeia, mythopoeia, tromopoeia, noopoeia). Thinking about balance. And Olson's "Curriculum of the Soul."

Actually, I read Olson's Maximus a lot, sit with it on the porch and scatter my way through. (I was lucky to take a brilliant class on Olson with Tom Clark, a master teacher). In light of your question, it's funny—I turn toward Olson's epic and write these tiny poems.

CM: See, now this is fascinating—I never would have anticipated you to answer this in formal terms, maybe because I’m less conscious of those elements & more conscious of the social implications of the idea of The Poem as superior. It frustrates me when "little" poems are too quickly dismissed than say a poem like Paterson because the dismissal seems to suggest that bigger is better. And I really want to dismantle the idea that the traditional epic is of greater value.

You use the word packed, which is nice. I’m not sure why the long poem is supremely valued, but I suspect it has something to do with a work ethic, or an ethic of suffering (wow, this poet worked hard on his/her opus). So to say that Maximus isn’t necessarily more valuable in a cultural sense than [Love is a purple angel] … then I think we might be onto something. Are these issues of interest to you?

HN: Yes, but I do not agree that the Maximus poems are less valuable than a single poem of mine! I sometimes read poems in Maximus as singular poems.

CM: That’s great, but their literary import (culturally speaking) has much to do with the size of the thing. Anyway, I didn’t mean to imply that the Maximus poems are less valuable than a single poem of yours. What I’m trying to get at is the point that a single poem of yours affords beauty and brilliance that the Maximus poems do not, and vice versa. & so to value differently, on different terms and for different reasons, would be the take I’m after, as opposed to the long poem being across the board more admirable.

HN: Perhaps the long poem is valued because it can be difficult to write; it requires sustained devotion and study. I’m thinking of Clark’s Empire of Skin (Black Sparrow 1997)—Tom’s series of poems on the Pacific Northwest trade in otter pelts. The poems are fabulous and instructive; they present a complex political history of trade between Europeans, Native North Americans, and Asians. He writes poems that use historical documents, anthropological information, and environmental study; he writes poems that explore human greed. Some of my favorite poems in this book are from the otters’ viewpoint. I think this is important, for poets to get outside of the specific me. An investigative project is one way to do that; Alice Notley’s incredible epic The Descent of Alette is an example of another way of doing it. But this is not an original thought of mine (John Keats’s Negative Capability).

Maybe serial or project oriented poems lend themselves to academic or personal study because they are already organized; they announce their intent. A group of little poems cannot depend on that kind of structure. Rachel Loden and I were just discussing this too. How, when approaching your collection of various small (and "contained" poems), it becomes challenging. You ask yourself: how are these related and how do they correspond? As you arrange them, you often start to see flicks of theme and content; there’s a flow and a story or multiple narrative threads.

Actually I am thinking about a project to write towards but it’s not because I’m concerned that my wee poems are dismissed (although that probably happens). I’m not sure that a sustained project suits me as a writer so I am hesitant to name my intent. But I like thinking in terms of a 20 year project, the notion of going that deeply into something. And regardless, I try to have "devotion and study" as a student of poetry and poet of small poems.

CM: As I briefly mentioned above, I am struck by the simultaneity of beauty and ferocity in your work. One of my favorites is your [MEAN SUDDENLY BITCH WOMAN]:

Mean suddenly       Bitch woman
scolding the kids cutting through
the yard      Stick out your arm
for the fuck you salute      Bend into
duck lips      I scratch little
rivulets      Shake it little sluggard
Dress me in a watermelon green
I want to dance putrid      shout
rub out the Y dividing line

There’s quite an array of vocabulary, tone, and mood here. To have dance next to putrid, for example. The juxtapositions turn over the grotesque, or the underbelly of things, and make them strangely celebratory ("Shake it little sluggard" is another good example of this). You have "fuck you" almost on top of "duck lips." Maybe you can answer one or both of these: do you care to comment on your process, i.e., how often are you writing with just you and the pen and how often are you more formally experimenting?

HN: I have to agree with Spicer who is to have said something like "Someone saying that they like my poems is like someone saying 'You have a famous brother.'" Thank you for your praise. You know, Rachel Levitsky also pointed out the presence of these contraries in this and other Dark poems. Maybe it stems from my interest in meaning and connotation—I'm guessing here—it could also have to do with my attention to balance and dualities in nature. But I don't think I differentiate between "me and the pen" and "formal experimenting."

I always pause before explaining the impetus of poems. Does it ruin a poem to explain how it was made like a magician giving away the secret to the tricks?

CM: I don’t know. There’s a lot of attention to process in contemporary reading and writing. I guess the question of whether or not the poem is "ruined" as a result of being taken behind the scenes depends on the reader. For me, I can say I wouldn’t see the poem as "ruined" because I wouldn’t suffocate it with the knowledge of its process. The fact of the poem and the fact of the process are both interesting, I think, as long as they aren’t made to overwhelmingly inform each other.

HN: Well, "Mean suddenly …" was written in response to a mandala meditation—an abstract circle drawing that I tried to get inside and embody somehow. My undergraduate training was in social sciences; Jung's writing and theory interest me, particularly his theories on the collective unconscious. The literal story: one day in my creative writing class we drew mandalas. I was writing, but felt blocked and slightly disturbed. Mush was all I could muster. Well, that happens. So I got up and went to use the bathroom. On the way back, I passed some teenagers banging on a candy machine. For some reason, I was enraged and sternly told them they were going to break it. I was really pissed off and it was ridiculous. Once back in my chair I realized that my mood probably was connected to my mandala. When I gave into that, I could write from it and this poem came out. Or at least that is where it started; I edit and craft too. (I am also interested in making poems as pieces of art.)

CM: Now you’ve opened an enormous can of worms. What, for you, would be a poem that isn’t a piece of art? (Is a procedural poem that isn’t afterwards crafted not a piece of art?)

HN: I added the wormy bit because I was worried that my explanation sounded like this poem mystically popped out completely formed. Or that I am only interested in "pure" expression. Sometime poems arrive with little or no editing and when that happens, it can be artful.

But I like the notion of will in writing, that the maker of the poem applies pressure. Pat Booker once led me on—how can I say this—a spirit journey?—where, among other things, I experienced a ladder between the place of one’s will and the place where one is connected to the universe. A giant conducting circuit. The last image I received was of an owl—Athena’s totem of knowledge and wisdom.

So, I’ve come to realize that I want poems that conduct and transmit, use knowledge/experience of the species, and are generous to the reader. Sometimes procedural poems (or highly theoretical poems) fail to do this. Poems of all different stripes, including my own, fail to do this.

To borrow a formula from Dave Hickey: I like poems that make you go "Huh?... Wow!" rather than "Wow! … Huh?"

CM: Dig it. I wonder if we can segue now into a discussion about Hoa, the teacher. One of the reasons I wanted to do this interview is to talk about the teaching experiences you’ve had, which seem to me incredible, and rare among poets. You’ve taught in the WritersCorps program; you’ve conducted a Virtual Poetry Workshop; and most recently, you’ve led a workshop for young women who are mothers or soon-to-be mothers—women who have walked a hard road.

How do you approach your classes? How do you convince your students they shouldn’t be afraid of your "weird" spaces and such, and to instead freely engage the poems, to enjoy them? Or, how do you open them up? What have your students discovered during these courses? How have your teaching experiences informed your own poems? Or, what have you gained?

HN: That's a lot of questions!

There are several models of poets as teachers, a tradition that is recorded in Teachers & Writers publications like The Whole Word Catalogue. There's California Poets in the Schools and other writers-in-the-classroom projects—poets leading poetry classes with inmates, in shelters, in rural schools. I've gone to these predecessors as resources, to get ideas for writing activities.

I've also been a student in poetry workshops, so I have figured out what I don't want to do. I took a lot of Iowa-style workshops as an undergraduate where poems are critiqued by the teacher and the class. I found it frustrating and useless to me as a writer—micro-managing the poem so that it "works." So when I got the opportunity to lead a class, I designed it to be the kind of workshop that I had wanted to see as a young writer.

I bring in poems arranged loosely around a theme like "sound" or "form." The poems often surprise participants as they don't resemble what they usually encounter in poetry. I read them out loud and we may talk about them. Then we'll write from an assignment I've given the class. With younger writers, I'll always include a sample of poems written from the assignment to encourage them, if possible, ones written by poets their age or younger. In the virtual workshop, I'm not able to present poems so I give them a writing exercise and always include my attempt at the assignment.

People often have very specific ideas as to what poetry is or how it should sound—pouncing rhyme, archaic inversions, "poetical" subject matter. The assignments try to open up the possibilities. I sometimes encounter resistance to them because folks have the idea that poetry, like other art, should come from sudden inspiration and not a "word game." But they always try—because I'm a little dictator and make them (ha, ha)—and they're often surprised by the results. Sometimes, this means that their approach to poetry and writing shifts.

Many of my poems begin from a class assignment. I don't have a lot of discipline; the workshops keep me writing. They provide a dedicated place and time for it. Plus, I figure things out as I teach; as I try to explain an aspect of poetics, my understanding deepens. For this, I owe a lot to my students; they bring me their energy, excitement, and perspectives. Many of them are terrific writers. They keep me humble and in love with poetry.

CM: You and Dale [Smith] have been editing Skanky Possum for almost a year now. With so many poetry magazines in circulation, what was your approach to making Skanky Possum special (aside from the amazing uniquely hand-painted covers!)? I certainly appreciate the sense of humor you bring to it—it’s refreshing. But what about the aesthetic? How do you locate poets you want to publish for the magazine and for Skanky Possum books? Meaning, what are the criteria?

HN: Skanky Possum was named after a sad but funny looking possum in our neighborhood—it turned out to be a good name for the project. It's down-home, street level, serious but funny at the same time, and personal. The personal part is why we paint each cover—we invite friends over, listen to music, talk, and paint possums all day. It's also a kind of political gesture, a reaction to a mechanized and increasingly administered world.

So Skanky Possum is about relationships—literary ones between dead and living poets and friendships that extend out into a living community. We don't use a business model for the press; we don't have a mission statement or marketing strategy. Submissions come to us through our relationships, word of mouth, magazines listings, and the unknown attractions of the slush pile. The books we publish come from our relationships and our engagement with poetry. Each has its genesis.

Carl Thayler's book Poems from Naltsus Bichidin came to be because of personal affinities with the work coupled with the coincidence of discovery. Our friend Kent Johnson put us in touch with Carl. When Dale read the manuscript, he knew why—Carl has incredible poetic powers. That he has been wrongfully neglected (and a bit out of fashion) led us to want to publish a selection from the manuscript.

Leslie Davis is a good friend of ours; her manuscript Lucky Pup is one I have long wanted to see made into a book. It's powerful and perfect. Next we will be releasing Cold Spring by Tom Clark, our long time mentor and friend. It's an intense series of poems with accompanying images. Our poet and printer friend Roger Snell is going to letterpress the cover; it should be beautiful with stitched signatures.

So we don't seek out manuscripts. But we are considering a renegade production of Robert Duncan's HD Book, something that deserves presentation and publication as a complete book. Right now, you can only read it in excerpts in hard to find small press magazines. It's "not yet scheduled for publication" as a volume in the Collected Writings of Robert Duncan by the University of California Press—Robert Bertholf has been sitting on his work for years. Perhaps if we brought it out (or just proposed to), the book might actually happen.

CM: Let’s hope. Thanks, Hoa.

Hoa Nguyen Work Online

Ten poems at Duration
Nine poems at The East Village Poetry Web
Poem at Fence Magazine
Poems at Idiom
Poems at The Poetry Project
Poems at Readme
Poems in "The Bestiary" at The Transcendental Friend
Write Net: Virtual Poetry Workshop

Carol Mirakove Work Online

Poems at Readme

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