Selvage, Diaspora, and Lingual Processes: a Conversation with Hoa Nguyen

National Poetry Month 2020

By: Savannah Trent

I sat down, well more accurately sat down and logged into google chat, to talk to poet Hoa Nguyen to ask her about identity, belonging, and the diasporic experience.  Nguyen, whose 2016 book length collection of poems Violet Energy Ingots was shortlisted for the 2017 Griffin prize in poetry, is a poet whose work is known for its melodic quality, weaving rhyme, non sequiturs, syllabic play, and references to Sappho and Shakespeare among others. Born in the Mekong Delta, she was raised in the Washington DC area during the time of punk, post-punk and the Reagan presidency though she now resides in Toronto where she teaches creative writing and serves as a mentor to Miami University’s low residency program in creative writing. She is also the author of Dark (Skanky Possum 1998), Your ancient see through (AA Arts 2001), Hecate Lochia (Hot Whiskey 2009), As long as trees last (Wave 2012) and Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008 (Wave 2014).

 Savannah Trent: Ok, I think this should work. Where would you like to start?

Hoa Nguyen: Did you want to talk about selvage?

ST: I would actually. I was interested in the concept because 1) I’d never come across the word before 2) it seemed like a clever way to describe your work.

HN: I’ve been thinking about selvage from an interview I gave for 666 with Brenna Lee on Gesture Literary Journal. Then later I wrote about it for an introduction to The Best of The Best Canadian Poetry in English: Tenth Anniversary Edition (Tightrope Books 2017)that I curated. It means, etymologically, self + edge. The part of the material that is different from the rest. Essential but not meant to be used or seen.

ST: So like seams?

HN: By “seen” I don’t mean totally absent, but not structurally intended to be part of the object you make out of the fabric. No. The selvage is the end of a piece of woven cloth. It holds it together. When I introduced the anthology at an event, I said this:

In my introduction to the anthology, I share a childhood fascination with the selvage edge of the bolt of material my mother later used for bedroom curtains. The selvage is far edge of material, a densely woven band often folded over itself, produced to prevent the fabric from unraveling. It’s part of the making (stamped by the maker) and, typically, kept out of sight. It preserves the pattern. The word selvage, etymologically: self + edge. Isn’t a poem like selvage, then? Not made to be “used”—and yet essential. Preserving a woven pattern, language as dynamic object, a made thing of a made thing. My hope is that the poems in this anthology act as such: structural cohesions that encode experience, perception, reflection, knowledge, facts, and events. That the poems gather polyphonic threads of potency, challenge, play, understanding, and awareness. My hope is that—like the poems here—poetry gives shape to what can be imagined and reimagined, engaging us as they occasion shifts in perspective.

ST: Ah. I’m trying to look for a better way to put into words how that might apply to writing. I feel as if my work has little to do with this concept as it’s “consciously anxious.”. I’m also reminded of the sarai I wore to a friend’s wedding  and how I thought my blouse was cut from the end of the cloth since there was a name stamped into the fabric.

HN: The selvage was showing.

ST: It was indeed. Are certain poems more inclined towards selvage?

HN: Language is hard—I mean, it’s a system used to describe our perceptions and experience of the world. All it can do is point. My saying that poems act like a selvage is metaphoric. It approaches the thing I’m trying to describe but isn’t the thing so it falls short. How would you describe a poem?

ST: I would think it depends on how you gather the threads of a poem. A colleague of mine is writing about millefleur tapestries and is very much interested in the ordinary. Her poems focus on sound play, repetition mimicking sewing, natural and domestic scenes. I’m currently teaching English 226: intro to creative writing. When I talk about poems in class, I mention patterns, syllabic play, rhythm, image. But I don’t think of these things consciously when I write. I’m also thinking about a Seamus Heaney quote where he says poetry creates space. So poems create space and allow us to name/describe things we don’t have the right words for.

HN: Yes, it is all those things. And it is a made thing. I guess that’s why I landed on the word selvage, because of its relationship to materiality. Poems gather the threads into a structural cohesion encoding experience, perception, reflection, knowledge, facts, and events.

ST: I’m also curious about the energy of a poem and how, perhaps, the energy of the moment imbues the poem. Poems seem to harness and thrive off a nervous energy—babble. Yours, on the other hand, seem to speak to collected potential. So perhaps the question is how do you prepare to write a poem?

HN: I love the notion of poems as collected potential. My process varies—mostly it comes through deep engagement with encountering sources of knowledge which are are many: reference books, experiences, memory, pop culture etc—but importantly other poetry. The shortest way of describing the process is that I collect materials. I sing into them and arrange. I retrieve messages from elsewhere. I allow for synchronicity.

ST: I like the idea of messages from elsewhere as the work that I’ve encountered speaks to muses, history, astrology, etc. How does elsewhere inform your writing?

HN: Allowing the wildest or weirdest parts of my creative self to speak on the page—it includes managing resources of sound—which is literally elsewhere: vibrations that enter my perceptive field from ‘out there’. But then out there becomes inner. Also, ghosts.  Ghost languages, literally ghosts, the what-has-come-before (history). I think that the diasporic experience means being haunted.

ST: In my workshop, we’ve been talking a lot about the local and what that means, where that means, who that means so I suppose this type of thinking naturally finds it’s way into my work. So I want to ask: where is your local?

HN: The hearth I make is my local. Where my hearth is. Right now, in Toronto. Dish with One Spoon Territory. Don River Valley watershed that drains into Lake Ontario. Major bird migration corridor. Greektown, named after the most recent European arrivals. Our power is sourced from a nuclear plant north and west of us (near Kingston, I think). I build my creative life around my lived life. But that can include my dreams at night. It seems to me an issue of attention. Giving attention and practicing perception.

ST: I hardly ever write about dreams. Do you interpret/record yours? Also, I would agree that the diasporic experience is haunted. Perhaps we can talk about that a little? I’ve also been thinking quite a bit about what it means to be Asian American especially when those two identities don’t want to meet.Sometimes I think of dual identity as something that is neatly split, but, of course, that isn’t true. On most days I feel 90% American.  

HN: I pay attention to my dreams when they feel especially potent or instructive. I had a dream recently that was one of those and had to do with recognition around my experience with being racially marked in a world organized by white supremacy. Dreams, to parse Alice Notley, do more than recombine language (the way a poem can), they recombine reality (the way the best poems do). I love using dream materials in my poems, but I don’t keep a dream journal. I am altogether rather undisciplined to do something that regular. Yes, let’s talk about the diaspora experience. Can I ask you about your sun sign and lunar sign? I’m a Fire Horse and a first decan Aquarius. 

ST: I am not sure. I know I’m a Taurus and a dog.

HN: That’s a nice combo. I love Taurus women especially. And Dogs are the sweetest.

ST: I might be an earth Taurus though it’s been a while since I looked at a zodiac calendar.

HN: Yes, you are an earth sign. You would have to look up your lunar sign to see what kind of Dog you are. Taurus are fixed earth. I am fixed air. It means we tend to be focused/driven. There was an article circulating about language in utero. I lost my language around the time I left Vietnam to the US, when I was 2 years old. But it haunts me. It even haunts children who are adopted trans-nationally. In utero exposure to language makes the brain of these children.

ST: I guess I’ve never thought about language in utero. I speak English and took five years of Spanish—typical high school experience. When I think about language, my first thought is about writing. How would my poems be different if I knew even a smattering of Mandarin? I’m curious about your experience with language. How are you influenced by it? Does a loss of language translate into loss of culture for you? I know you went back to Vietnam fairly recently for the first time.

HN: When I hear Vietnamese, I feel it in my body. My mother never spoke it but I always have a nervous system response when I hear it. When I went to Hanoi, my body knew that it wasn’t “my” Vietnamese (the southern dialect, which is very different than the northern). Vietnamese is tonal. I think that I’m a poet to try to write English into a more songlike shape, to echo into tones. And I am drawn to the monosyllabic (rather than the poly) as a sonic preference. I learned rather embarrassingly recently that Vietnamese is… a monosyllabic language!

ST: My sister had a friend from Vietnam stay with us over the summer and it was interesting to hear different tonal registers when she called her parents.Does English tend to lend itself to songlike qualities?

HN: It’s all in how you manage the language, I think. No tones, but accented feet. Alliterative and such. Assonance especially, maybe. And sound similarity.

ST: Are there Vietnamese writers and artists you are influenced by? Is being a poet in Vietnam different than being a poet in say the US or Canada?

HN: As an anglophone writer (and monolingual person), I am drawn to writers working in English as their primary source. I’ve happily met VN American writers in the last five years. We are later diaspora, the Vietnamese—I feel like we are finally finding our way into writing (in English) and each other. I’m also a little late to this, on account of being Eurasian. I have felt a bit like the outside of the outside. I feel like that in Canada too, maybe doubly so, as being “American” makes me suspect to most “Canadians.” I am putting scare quotes in there as I’m starting to question constructs of nation the longer I am in Canada. At the same time, I feel like my person and expression of my person are deeply inflected by place—by the region of the continent that I grew up in for example (just outside of Washington DC) as well as the historical time period of my upbringing). Arriving while the war in Vietnam was ongoing, living here in its aftermath, living in a rich county near the nation’s capital, coming of age during the Reagan years, during the AIDS epidemic, and marked by punk and post-punk music.

ST: In our emails, we talked about longing/belonging. Is that something that makes its way into your work? How are you thinking about these concepts at the moment?I have a few more questions specifically about the Asian American experience as a writer and about your current project. Perhaps, if we have time, we can get to one of them.

HN: Every diaspora has a different expression of longing/belonging. One common feature might be formation of “home”—the original home or source—and that return is always already foreclosed. There’s no way to return to some original place and the romantic longing is like falling in love with the moon. I’m currently writing about the diasporic experience for myself, my mother. I’m interested in offering a narrative/non-narrative expression to add to what Viet Nguyen names “narrative plenitude.” Because the AsAm experience does not have enough stories. So part of my narrative includes rupture or the foreclosed and having to reach after. To remain in uncertainty, as Keats might put it.

ST: I’m drawn to the words ongoing and returning. I’m interested in how these words encapsulate what I and other readers might think of as the AsAm experience. Do you feel as if you’ve always been writing about that? And of course, thank you for answering some questions and giving me your time.

HN: Yes, I think I have always written about these things conceptually or in a side long way. I expressed this in an interview once as being interested in the blur like in music when you hear the guitarist bend strings over a fret. It’s that materiality again: listening to music I realized I love the songs that sort of scream and stretch. Falling over songs. Sad and happy at the same time songs.

ST: That’s a lovely way to put it!