AUTHOR INTERVIEW with Hieu Minh Nguyen
Hieu Minh Nguyen is the author of Not Here, forthcoming from Coffee House Press, and This Way to the Sugar (Write Bloody Publishing 2013), which was a finalist for both the Minnesota Book Award and a Lambda Literary award. His work has also appeared in the Southern Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Devil’s Lake, Bat City Review, and The Paris-American. A queer Vietnamese-American poet, Nguyen is a Kundiman fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle. Nguyen is a nationally touring poet, performer, and teaching artist who lives in Minneapolis. hieuminhnguyen.com
Shortly after Nguyen sat for this interview with us, he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Runestone: You are perhaps the youngest writer to be named a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. Because you were raised in the projects by a single mother, I wondered what challenges you had to overcome to earn such distinction at your age. What made you want to write, and begin to identify as an artist? What challenges did you face?
Nguyen: In middle school, I was a big theatre kid. One of those annoying theatre kids — you know what I am talking about. When I got to high school, I wanted to continue theatre, and there were two options. There was traditional theatre, which was like after-school drama club, and there was a class called Social Justice Theatre. I took that class expecting to do traditional plays, but instead we learned how to write our own stories and perform plays written by us about subjects we cared about. That is where I really fell in love with writing, performing, and reading work that I could connect to, instead of memorizing and reciting something that some dead white guy wrote.
In high school I was a really awful student. Barely graduated. Barely attended. I only showed up for my English and theatre classes; I didn’t care about anything else. So after high school — because I barely graduated, and felt like school wasn’t a space where I belonged — I got a day job and focused on my art. That was when I really realized, “I’m doing this; I’m going to try my hardest to be an artist.”
Runestone: Did your dissatisfaction with your education have anything to do with where you were raised?
Nguyen: In the neighborhood I grew up in, the only options after high school were to go to community college, play sports, or work. I don’t think I was necessarily unsatisfied with my education, I just knew that I didn’t care. I was also that kind of student, because in high school — I know, everyone has traumatic high school experiences — I was really ashamed of who I was, and was told to be ashamed of who I was. So I retreated into art and wasn’t really present with what I was learning. I definitely regret not being a better student, but I’ve gone on to learn a lot of the things I should have learned in high school. Besides, you know, math.
Runestone: Are there other poets you look up to? Could you talk about your primary mentor?
Nguyen: When I first started writing poetry in the Twin Cities, my mentors were mostly spoken word artists: Sierra DeMulder, Khary Jackson, Guante. Those were the folks who really helped me after I graduated. And there was Michael Mlekoday, who has had a huge impact on me, and taught me how to write on the page as well. I talk a lot about being “community educated” and acquiring this second-hand education from people who have been traditionally educated, and have been generous enough to sit with me and teach me things they know. But my mentors come in all different forms.
A lot of my mentors are also my peers, and I love that relationship, that I can also go to my friends for advice. One of my best friends also went to high school with me and also is a poet, Danez Smith. Danez is one of my biggest influences, and was even in high school. They are two years older than me, and used to yell at me to get to class. Danez was also in the theater program with me. They’ve always been my friend and mentor.
Some of my biggest influences — Richard Siken. He wrote the book Crush. That was one of the first books that gave me the permission to write about desire in ways that weren’t just variations of love. From him I learned to write about desire in more grotesque ways, in shocking, jarring ways that allowed me to destigmatize it.
Runestone: In the past few years, you’ve been in the position of having younger people looking up to you as a mentor. How do you navigate that?
Nguyen: I remember, four years ago, I was at a slam with Allison Broeren, the Slam Master of the Minneapolis Slam Series. There were new people there and I was acting all stank, sitting by myself and not really talking with any of the new people. She came up to me and said, “Hieu, you’re not a newbie anymore. Stop acting like this and be more welcoming. It’s your turn to step up and be the people who welcomed you into the community.” At that moment, I realized, Oh yeah, I’m not this seventeen-year old kid who’s competing in the slams anymore. I didn’t necessarily have to offer mentorship, but I had to at least be a welcoming person in those spaces. Especially because people who come to slams for the first time are so nervous and anxious. When I think about what slam has offered me, I feel indebted and want to give back as much as I received.
Runestone: What is the best piece of feedback you’ve ever received about your poetry?
Nguyen: You don’t have to write about anything if you’re not ready to write about it. I think often people’s first connection to poetry is through confessional poetry because it is so vulnerable, and a lot of these younger poets come in thinking they have to confess their deepest and darkest shames. You don’t have to put yourself through that. You don’t have to retraumatize yourself just to write a poem. I don’t remember who told me that, but it stuck with me, and I try to teach it to young people who are coming into poetry.
Runestone: You’re both a written-word and spoken-word poet. Do you think your poems lose anything when translated across these forms?
Nguyen: I think there should be a balance, but I also think you shouldn’t put equal effort into both to try not to make the poems lose anything. There are some poems that I love that I haven’t figured out how to recite. The thing with spoken word is that it’s a public literature, right? Other people can hear it, so it becomes something that’s not only about the speaker. It no longer belongs to just the writer, so you kind of have to be okay with it being more accessible.
Let me start this over. With spoken word, oftentimes you are reciting a poem once to an audience. They don’t have the poem in front of them, and they can’t read along, so you have to make a first impression. To make this first impression, a poem tends to need to be more narrative, to have something concrete for listeners to hang on to. On the page, you have permission to be as lyrical as you want. But on stage, you can’t have those inaccessible moments or make the listener work too hard to figure out your poem. On stage, it is harder to pull off a poem that isn’t immediately accessible.
(Laughs) I feel like I’ve been saying the same thing over and over again in different orders.
Runestone: We’ve interviewed people who’ve published a number of books, and you’re doing brilliantly.
Nguyen: (Laughs.) Glad I wore deodorant.
Runestone: Not only are you a teacher during the academic year, but you take time out of your summers to teach high school students at Slam Camp. Could you talk a bit about your experiences as a Slam Camp counselor and what you find rewarding about teaching poetry?
Nguyen: I love being a Slam Camp counselor! Slam Camp is probably the most emotionally draining but rewarding week in my year. So, young people who go to summer camp are one thing, but young people who go to a summer poetry camp are a whole other thing. They often come because they’ve discovered spoken word and have discovered themselves in it. They enter this world where they can write and speak their own stories. Oftentimes these stories come with trauma they haven’t dealt with, and these kids are facing it for the first time in a camp in rural Indiana where they’re asked to write about it, you know? As a Slam Camp counselor, I try to give these young people permission to not rush themselves, along with the tools to write about their life experiences, in ways that aren’t harmful to their lives.
What I find most rewarding about teaching… I wasn’t a great student. And often these young people are also not great students. I understand them. And I’m frustrated by them. But I think that, if I can get some kind of reaction out of those students who are me, who are sitting at a desk with their headphones in, it’s amazing. Also, it’s karma.
Another thing I find really rewarding about teaching is that I get to teach the thing I love, the thing that has helped me survive, in the hope that someone else will find it wonderful or helpful as well.
Runestone: How is preparing a poem for a book different than preparing it for a slam?
Nguyen: In a poem I’ve written for a book, I give myself permission not to tackle everything about a certain subject or theme in that poem. There’s other poems I can write to surround that poem, so it becomes like one longer piece. But in a poem for a slam, I try to fit as many themes as possible. Slam poems become more complicated because I want to fit more inside them. It would be different if I were guaranteed I have time to perform a series of poems, but often I know that I will only be performing once. I write a lot about intersectionality, which is a really complicated topic that I can’t cover in just one poem. Writing about and discussing intersectionality through a series of poems in a book becomes much easier, because I have the space to do it. But in a slam, the format is three minutes, so I want to offer my ideas or a narrative on the subject, and I want to be clear but not easy or super-complicated.
Sometimes slam becomes much harder than writing for a book, because I’m trying to prepare work for a three-minute time frame, and have to keep my audience in mind as well. There’s a lot of factors involved with writing for slam, which is not to say that writing for a book is easy, because it’s not. It’s just that you have to keep different things in mind.
Runestone: In the poems in This Way to the Sugar, you deal with a lot of heavy issues, such as intersectionality, which you just mentioned. I’m curious about how you mentally recoup from working with such hard material, or how you create a space where you can deal with such strong emotions and still not have to deal with the trauma.
Nguyen: Sometimes I think of poetry as a way to confess, and I believe that confession helps to combat shame. Often, I don’t think of the subject I’m writing about as the trauma itself, but as the shame. When I write about these harder experiences, I’ve already been through them, so I don’t write about them to release my feelings as much as I’m attempting to turn that shame and trauma into something productive. I don’t think shame is productive when it’s just inside you. I’m going to leave it at that.
Runestone: What was it like crafting a story arc for This Way to the Sugar? Did the book come out the way you expected it would
Nguyen: When I was writing this book, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea. I just assumed that writing it was my next step in life, you know? “I’m doing spoken word, and now I’m going to write a book.” When my first book was accepted by my press, the book looked completely different than it turned out to be. Maybe only four of the poems from the original manuscript are the same. Write Bloody gave me a year to work and said, “Don’t change it too much,” but I didn’t listen. I deleted everything and rewrote the book.
The arc. The book deals with memory, but not in a linear way. Memory isn’t linear; memory jumps. I didn’t yet know how to recognize that, and I think that shows in the way I divided the sections. One section is very external, describing my surroundings. Another is very internal. The last one is not a conclusion, but definitely about the effects of various events in my life.
No, my book did not turn out the way I expected. But I don’t think it could have turned out any other way. In fact, I don’t even know what I expected. I don’t know that I wanted to offer any kind of conclusion, but I also don’t think that I wanted to leave an audience hanging. I just tried to figure out how to gracefully exit. Maybe this book is a series of attempts at graceful exits.
Runestone: You have some titles that could be poems themselves, like “It Was the Morning He Discovered Chicken Bones under My Pillow,” or “It Was the Night I Drank, and Drank, and Drank Until I Finally Found My Keys at the Bottom of Lake Harriet.” How do you pick your titles?
Nguyen: I actually think I’m really bad at titles. Most of the poems in the book used to have a very long title like that, and sometimes the titles would take from the poem. The “Teacher’s Pet” poems used to have titles like “The Teacher’s Pet or long sentence long sentence long sentence.”
Finally, I decided that I didn’t want the narrative of the poems to be overshadowed by their titles. Sometimes I just stick with titles that don’t sound awful. You know? Titles that hint at what the poem is going to be about, but don’t completely give it away.
Runestone: One piece of advice you include on the Poets & Writers website is “Give yourself permission to not explain everything.” Can you expand on that and why you give that advice?
Nguyen: That was another piece of advice that was given to me. The beautiful thing about poetry is that it is considered the emotional translation of a moment. It doesn’t have to make sense.
When I say, “Give yourself permission to not explain everything,” I mean, “Allow the reader to do some of the work as well; push your reader to guide themselves through your writing.” Sometimes when I sit down and write a poem, I ask myself, “What am I willing to let the reader assume, and what am I not willing to let the reader assume?” The instances where I am not willing to let the reader assume are the moments I do the most explaining.
In between those moments are where I feel I am the most free, allowed to use more lyric and less narrative, allowed to let go of my narrative, and let people experience the moment in the way they experience it, and not necessarily through me. If that makes sense?
Runestone: You have this fantastic combination of image and deeply personal narrative. How are you able to find a balance between the two? Does this happen for you intuitively, or do you actively focus on constructing a relationship between image and narrative?
Nguyen: Thank you, by the way. Balance between narrative and image… I think it’s very similar to what I just said about how I ask myself which parts of the narrative I can’t give up. Those images come in the moments I can let go of my grip on the narrative. I have a desire to over-explain myself all the time, and writing gets frustrating when I’m trying to give every true detail, because sometimes the truth is boring. I need to find the moments that aren’t necessary and replace them with images.
Runestone: Would you be willing to read the poem “Buffet Etiquette”?
Nguyen: Totally! When I read this poem out loud I usually insert numbers between the sections.
My mother and I don’t have dinner table conversations
out of courtesy. We don’t want to remind each other
of our accents. Her voice: a Vietnamese lullaby
sung to an empty bed. The taste of her hometown
still kicking on the back of her teeth.
My voice is bleach. My voice has no history.
My voice is the ringing of an empty picture frame.
I am forgetting how to say the simple things
to my mother. The words that linger in my periphery.
The words, a rearview mirror dangling from the wires.
I am only fluent in apologies.
Sometimes, when I watch home movies, I don’t even understand
myself. My childhood is a foreign film. All of my favorite memories
have been dubbed in English.
My mother’s favorite television shows are all ‘90s sitcoms.
The ones with laugh tracks. The prerecorded emotion
to queue her when to smile.
In the first grade, I mastered my tongue. I cleaned
my speech, and during parent-teacher conferences
Miss Turner was surprised my mother was Asian.
She just assumed I was adopted. She assumed
that this voice was the same one I started out with.
As she holds a pair of chopsticks, a friend asks me
why I am using a fork. I tell her it’s much easier.
With her voice, the same octave as my grandmother’s,
she says “but this is so much cooler.”
I am just a clip-art, the poster boy of whitewash. My skin
has been burning easier these days. My voice box is shrinking.
I have rinsed it out too many times.
My house is a silent film.
My house is infested with subtitles.
That’s all. That’s all.
I have nothing else to say.
(Poem originally appeared in decomp Magazine.)
Runestone: In the interview on the Poets and Writers website, you said that you’ve been working on a book of poems about time travel. Could you tell us more about them, and maybe read us one?
Nguyen: The poems I’m working on about time travel are in my upcoming book, and I started them when I wanted to write about my relationship to white men, and the history that comes with that. I also wanted to understand my mother’s vision or view of white men, for context. My mother suffers from depression, and despite our relationship, which hasn’t always been good, I understand her more than I understand anyone in the world. Her life has not turned out the way she imagined. She is an immigrant who came to America, and married a man who was not the man she wanted to marry, and had a child she wanted a better life for. And this child (me) didn’t live up to that dream, and part of that was because I am gay. So this thing happened where my mother discovered that my partner was white. And the mood shifted. Somehow she became more forgiving and was more okay with my queerness, because my lover was white.
In the time travel poems, I don’t time travel with like a Delorean or a Tardis. The machine I use is a white boy. This machine, this white boy, takes me through my own family’s history, and I try to dissect why my mother … became more forgiving. That has a lot to do with history, and a lot to do with the way whiteness can be a form of safety. If a person like me can’t have safety in my brown queer body, what is the next best thing? Having this white partner. And then, in time-travel, who is safe to travel? Who can show up anywhere in history and be okay? I try to make those connections, of being safe in history and being safe as a queer person, because I think that being queer, no matter how much it’s normalized in the media these days, has been proven to be not safe. I had been writing about both white boys and time travel separately, and my friend Cameron Awkward-Rich who’s brilliant, actually one of my favorite poets in the world, told me that I should attempt to combine the ideas, then see where it goes. I don’t think he meant to make a white boy time machine, but that’s where I took it in my head.
In some of the white boy time machine poems, the sentences don’t end; they all flow into each other. Sometimes the end of one sentence is the beginning of another sentence. That was my attempt to capture the feeling of time travel — because I know, of course. I have experienced it. (laughs)
White Boy Time-Machine Software
Why did you bring me here, I ask.
The machine has a machine family
who assumes I’ve rigged their boy
to do what I want by feeding him,
The coin, fashioned with a string.
A yo-yo organ
is what the doctors called it,
when my grandmother’s heart fell out of place
and did not
return to its country hole.
But whoever does
the dinner where his parents
tick-ticked boring questions at me
“But where are you really from.”
is the wrong answer.
as a way to the pass the time,
I count the hornets
that escape their mouths.
I laid there
and pressed an ear against the humming,
I once mistook for just static,
until the stairs rose from metal water,
I hear my skin sing
and the frequency made only from laughter,
when told you speak so well
in a bar that calls to me like a grandfather clock
the machine reassures me
I have nothing.
I am who they think I am
I lace the corset tight
blend a decimated village into the hollows
of my cheeks, a dirt burlesque,
a virus that breached a fire wall
of family portraits,
darkening before the embers tear through my future
a year composed of bleached wires where the rain clouds
travel back and forth on a clothesline
I hang his skin to dry, I lay
his organs on a bed of rice.
This poem first appeared in Guernica.
White boy time machine safety tips
I understand no one
wants to be remembered
at the twenty year high school reunion
as the guy who cut off the tips of his fingers
trying to dissect a fetal pig
I really wish I could help
for winning lottery numbers
or a second chance
at something better
than a fully furnished patio
but no matter how many times I’ve tried
the town still burns
unlike a wound
Time needs no tending
because the flames will come
even if it doesn’t come
from your hands
are we done here
the machine asks
while buttoning its pants
the red metal
of its hips
cooling near a river
I see my grandfather
for the first time
he is not a photograph
I want to fall into
my favorite story
let me remember
I cannot stop him from disappearing
into the wall
I don’t know
how much ruin
I can drag through time
how much ash
a bed before history claims my name
let me tell you the problem with history
somewhere somewhere someone wants you
don’t you think I know
the rules? fasten your seatbelt,
keep your arms inside
the white boy’s throat,
a light jacket for the rain.
This poem first appeared in Ninth Letter.
A lot of the poems operate in a surreal world that doesn’t have any logic to it. Which is how I often try to discover my mother’s logic in her forgiveness. But I surround those surreal poems with more concrete narrative poems, so there isn’t always that kind of floating feeling.
Runestone: I was wondering how your experience in poetry competitions has shaped your writing. Like whether you approach it with your thesis first and or just start writing?
Nguyen: What I learned from poetry slam and brought with me to writing for page (which I think is a really arbitrary boundary, as many poets exist in both worlds and have done so for a long time) is that I know how to connect instantly with a reader or listener. That’s what we’re taught. In slam poems, you get three minutes. When I’m coaching people, I tell them that they have to hook someone in the first thirty seconds, or they will stop listening to you. I try to figure out how to make that work for the page. I have to get a reader invested early in the work.
Runestone: Before you write the poem, do you know what your hook is and write towards it then?
Nguyen: Sometimes I write the poem and read it and realize it doesn’t — if someone were to turn to this poem, right, and read it without knowing me, and it doesn’t grab them — I try to figure out what is missing, and what needs to happen in order for it to grab the reader.
Runestone: Among many other honors and distinctions you received in Minnesota Emerging Writers’ grant from the Loft Literary Center. This room is full of people who might apply for that same grant one day. What are the challenges of grant writing as a young artist? And how did you use the Loft’s guidance and support?
Nguyen: The Loft Literary Center is a wonderful resource, and Minnesotans are so lucky to have it. I have friends who want to move to Minnesota just to have access to these grants.
I still don’t feel that I know how to write a grant, but I think it is helpful to plan and be as clear as possible about what you intend to do with it. And show that you have some kind of clear direction, and why the grant is vital. The Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant from the Loft really helped me connect with different poetry communities in the Twin Cities. The literary community in the Twin Cities is huge, but it’s also very separate in that there’s not much crossover between the people who are considered literary academic poets, the spoken word poets, and the young poets. There’s also people who are active members of all these communities at once. Through that grant, the Loft opened the door for me to connect with people in different Twin Cities poetry communities. I like to talk about transcending the arbitrary boundaries between page and stage. But I feel like I can actually do that now.
I used my grant to tour full time and promote my book when it first came out. I also used it to help sustain my career: I built a website, made a network, and got tour experience. Because of that initial experience, I’m allowed to do it full time now. The grant was kind of like a career starter pack.
Runestone: What is your definition of a poem?
Nguyen: So many things are poems. Sometimes random things little children tell me are poems. Poems are when language is most surprising but also most relatable, and that can happen in many ways, you know?
Runestone: What is your favorite poetic form to work with?
Nguyen: A contrapuntal poem, which is a poem with two columns that can be read across. I’d taught contrapuntal poems, but hadn’t written many. It was rewarding to write it because I felt as if I had just completed a puzzle. I don’t write much in form, but writing a poem in form always feels rewarding. Even if the poem isn’t good, I feel as if I’ve worked out or something.
Nguyen: I often teach this quick writing prompt on intersectionality. Obviously, you can’t tackle all of the complexities of intersectionality, but one thing I like to do is create myths for myself. First, make a list of all the identities that occupy your body; then, assign each identity an animal. Then, pick from these identities two that have tension inside you. For example, the word Vietnamese-American can be conflicting for me. Take the animals assigned to each identity and combine them. Finally, create the mythology of that animal. Once, I ended up with a horse-fish, and created a myth about how the horse-fish came to be.
I got the idea for this prompt after reading a series of poems called “Fishman,” by my friend Fatimah Asghar, which were also about being a South-Asian American. I was trying to figure out how she created those poems.
Runestone: Thank you for coming in! You’re enlightening and brilliant!
Nguyen: Thank you so much for having me!