Hoa Nguyen on remaining inside mysteries and the alien alphabets of dreams.
Hoa Nguyen’s poems might appear fragmented at first— like pieces of broken china—as in “Bread”: “Next time I’ll crack/more pepper also knead/more cheese in there//(insert involuntary/ psychic activity)//I don’t believe the self-immolation tale/Can’t stay.” But after spending time with one of her books, the pieces of image and story that make up her poems prove to be more particle than fragment, each integral and necessary. The space between these particles is as meaningful as the space between stars. The poems move according to an order that reveals its presence slowly, offering humor and beauty as rewards along the way. Listening in on her particular language, a complex system can be heard at work; a way of being with thought and sensation as fully alive, unpredictable entities.
Nguyen’s lines often economize multiple senses into a single dense unit and feel effortless. Like pomegranate seeds, these poems attract the both the eye and the tongue: “What justice foreigns for a sovereign/We doom in nation rooms” (“Agent Orange Poem”) or “Hold and blow tough as night/Hope-bow tugged tight” (“After Sappho”). A pragmatic streak appears amidst of these jewels. Household errands and everyday vernacular intersect with the ecstatic:
Mash the sea
(from “Rain Poem”)
Like Lorine Niedecker’s, Nguyen’s poetics are intimately involved with the Earth and ecology. Reading her poems, I get a sense of continuity between the language and the material place where it lives. As Long as Trees Last posits a world where nature is reality—not a utopian ideal, nor cruelly indifferent, but infinitely happening. In their quietude and boldness, these poems confirm what Walt Whitman wrote in “A Song of the Rolling Earth”: “… the truths of the earth continually wait, they are not so concealed either,/ They are calm, subtle, untransmissible by print…”
I had the pleasure of corresponding with Hoa about the making of these poems.
Iris Cushing Dreams and dreaming are mentioned often in the poems in As Long as Trees Last. Can you speak about the language, logic or diction of dreams as they appear in your poems?
Hoa Nguyen I find dreams compelling. Sometimes my dreams are dreary things; other times they are instructive. When an animal appears in a dream I pay special attention.
Alice Notley talks about using dream material and how dream logic does more than recombine language; dreams recombine reality. She writes of how they are “fleshly vivid and real.” I think I internalized the strategy of using dream materials from Notley and also Joanne Kyger, who uses everything—dream life, eating life, reading life, what’s out your window, what’s in the news.
In The Red Book, Jung writes, “Dreams are the guiding words of the soul. Why should I henceforth not love my dreams and not make their riddling images into objects of my daily consideration?”
When I was writing As Long as Trees Last, I dreamt I was giving a party and showing a wizened old man about my home. There were fluid metal sculptures on every wall, like lively alien alphabets, and I commented, “Isn’t it amazing that all this art has been left here for us?”
I think dreams can act as messages, as alien alphabets, that provide access to the apprehension of life’s grand patterns—and help me see me beyond me and into greater recognition.
IC The image of “alien alphabets” seems perfect. Your poems create the sense of an underlying order that doesn’t follow expected patterns, but clearly exists nonetheless. I notice ways in which the environment—animals, plants, oil spills, drought—appears in your poems, and wonder about your relationship to the ecological “order” of our planet.
HN I have pulled a tarot card to guide the response to this question, and received the nine of Wands.
The nine of Wands is a card also called Strength (not to be confused with the major arcana of the same name); it corresponds with the moon in Sagittarius and represents persistent movement powered by dreamy moon moxie. The card symbolizes change and suggests that the most effective defense against potentially devastating change is one that is imaginative and mobile.
I like to think that my poems behave in that way—that the poems which address global disruption can act as mobile defenses or responses in the face of catastrophic change.
I am reminded of the song “World Destruction” by Time Zone” circa 1984. A song you can dance your ass off to. How is that for mobile?
The lyrics are painfully applicable even now:
The rich get richer.
The poor are getting poorer.
Fascist, chauvinistic government fools.
and also “Mother Nature is gonna work against you.”
IC Your work urges me to read a runic or mystic significance into situations and stories. In the poems in ALATL, that quality emerges as direct telling (as in the poem “Seeking,” which both explains a phrase and interprets its possible literal meaning). A kind of mystic guidance also seems to occur in the way the poems are made. That is, they seem to come from a place of listening and recording what is heard, in terms of sound quality and the images you’re creating. I’m thinking specifically of something like “Tree Poem”: “Who me—who me—it’s me and a rare/ ear turned.”
HN Robert Duncan talked about writing out of the mysteries. He writes “We do not understand all that we render up to understanding . . . I study what I write as I study out any mystery.” Which also brings me to Keats in his Negative Capability letter to his brothers where he suggests that poets should remain inside of mysteries without any “irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
I think that one of the ways I remain in that place, inside Negative Capability, is to be open to the coagulation of sound and to remain available to meaning as it accrues in the body of sound. I love how Justin Helms puts this in his recent review of the book:
[The work in ATATL] opens the door to the coincidences of English, and so uses the energy of chance to convert music into sugar . . . . not meaning, but a stored potential for meaning and intention. Something prior to and necessary for meaning and intention; something that I can carry around with me that will drive the synthesis and movement of my interactions with the world.
IC I’m curious about the actual process of “remaining available to meaning as it accrues in the body of sound.” Is there any sort of pre-planned procedure that creates that openness for you, in terms of making your poems (such as “chance” or “non-intentional” means of writing, a la John Cage)?
HN I use poetry to advance poems. It looks like this: I engage a text, study his or her writing moves and employ them. This engagement can include outside assignments that are contemporaneous to the creation of writings.
While I welcome chance, in terms of synchronicity, it is more about sitting in a place using the senses, mental energies, and unknown forces. I’d probably name this as coming after Spicer via Lorca. Or to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, writing for me feels like visiting a place outside of me to retrieve songs that I can’t exactly call mine.
Iris Cushing is an editor for Argos Books. Her poems have appeared in No, Dear, La Fovea, and the Boston Review, among other places.