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Language, the Metaphor: A Biography of Hoa Nguyen

Alexandra Mathieu

Tenzin Kunsang

Gabrielle Melo-Moore

Malden High School AP Literature

Ryan Gallagher

15 February 2011

1. Brief Introduction

Tenzin Kunsang

In an interview with Reb Livingston, Hoa Nguyen talks about how she was interested in poetry ever since she was a little girl. "As long as I can remember, I was drawn to and wrote poetry. We weren’t a book-rich household but I did have access to and encouragement to seek out the public library. As a girl, world myth, fairy tales, and stories of historical hauntings and ghosts fascinated me.” (“Question One”, par. 1).

Hoa Nguyen was born in Vinh Long, Vietnam in 1967 during the middle of the Vietnam War. She lived in Vietnam for her early stages of life and then immigrated to the United States, specifically to Washington D.C. when she was three years old (Wilkinson).  As she grew older she found it difficult to unravel her identity due to the clash of her two very distinct cultures: Vietnamese and American. “Even though my name isn’t typically associated with ‘American’. My English is American English and I speak with an American accent. And, I really do not pronounce my name ‘correctly’. I say it like an American . . . stripped of its original accents” (“Question Two”, par. 3). Living in the States for most of her life, Nguyen became more familiar with American culture than her native culture and slowly forgot her mother tongue.  

Nguyen is influenced by places that have a meaning to her. She’s “interested”, she writes in an email, “in where places, people, languages and cultures meet. The great bilingual magazine Mandorla represents this with the almond shape that is formed when two circles overlap. ‘Mandorla’ means almond in Spanish. I’m interested in what happens within that almond shape,” (“Question Two”, par. 5). She continues later in the interview, “I think it is important to know the landscape, the rocks and aquifers beneath you, the forms that live upon it, their habits and interfaces, the stars above and their names through time, how they whirl. Throughout human history, poetry and naming are deeply linked. It traces the relations,” (“Question Four”, par. 5).

2. Motherhood & Family

Gabrielle Melo-Moore

Nguyen’s writing frequently celebrates women and mothers with a style that is “informed by relations between specific conditions, inner and outer.”  She continues, “I value art and poetry that has relationships to the world —the active engagement with the forms and structures all around—to reveal and assess present situations” (“We Who Are About To Die. Interview, part 2.” par. 4-7).

Aside from being a poet, Hoa Nguyen lives in Austin, Texas with her husband Dale Smith and their two sons. Nguyen’s poems often cover pregnancy, birth, fertility, and motherhood. The principle of motherhood has influenced Nguyen because, as she stated in an email, “growing a child (pregnancy and nursing) and birthing… mires you in the present; it places you in an order of ancestral history; it’s profound and ordinary” (“Question Five”). Being a woman and a mother, Nguyen places her roles in society within relations to writing her poetry.

When a mother gives birth to a child, that child enters the world automatically faced with challenges that lay ahead. However, when a child is born, the parents are faced with the responsibility of raising that child. Nguyen often uses the concept of child birth and fertility to signify a new beginning and  “the awareness of patterns—patterns of knowledge, human power systems, history, nature” (“We Who Are About To Die. Interview, part 2.” par. 14). Nguyen’s husband Dale Smith also reflects on the topics of child expectancy and the nursing of a child by his or her mother. In his book, Black Stone, the first thing Smith mentions is the birth of his second son. Nguyen and Smith are evidently family oriented as well as commonly capable of defining themselves within the US society, while contrasting their own lives as parents of their individual family.

3. Poetic Influences

Alexandra Mathieu

In an interview with the monthly web magazine Bookslut, Hoa Nguyen stated, “I'm drawn to [Charles] Olson and [Alice] Notley because they pay attention to the energy of speech, to the turns of syntax, and the rhetorical happenings of a poem or poems” (Wilkinson, sec. 6). In reading Nguyen’s work, one can see the influences of the two great contemporary poets; the spaces and the breadth of Nguyen’s poetry are reminiscent of both poets’ work.  Also, Nguyen has stated that punk rock and grunge rock have helped shaped her work as well; their influence is noted in the breadth of the poem as well as in the musicality and the percussive quality to her short, staccato poems.

Charles Olson was an active poet in the 1950s-60s with a unique style; he was an advocate of “projective verse”, a style of poem that Olson described as “energy transferred from where the poet got it…by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader”. The poem, Olson argued, had to be high in energy from beginning to end and “correct” structure was only an extension of the content of the poem. In essence, Olson’s opinion on poetry was that the traditional conventions that writers have placed “on syntax must be broken open as quietly as must the too set feet of the old line” (“Charles Olson”). Charles Olson himself was controversial since he had such a negative opinion on academic poetry, which, at the time, was the complete opposite of his style of open verse. This was translated into his poetry, like the Maximus series, which exemplifies his open verse, his disregard of traditional poetic customs and format, and his attention to the breath of a poem. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer stated that Olson's style tends towards the “juxtaposition of a very abstract statement with a practical, jocular illustration of what the statement might imply” (qtd. in “Charles Olson”). More so, Nguyen appreciates what Olson writes about than how he writes. “Olson I love for his investigative poetics—he offers strategies for how to include the trajectories of human history (personal, local, cultural) in the work,” (“Question Three”, par. 1) Nguyen stated in an email interview. Nguyen commented in an interview for Read Me Magazine of Poetics that she “read[s] Olson's Maximus a lot, sit[s] with it on the porch and scatter[s] [her] way through” (Mirakove, sec. 1, par. 4).

Alice Notley is a Californian born poet, who takes a feminist approach to her poetry, often commenting on the domesticity of women in society and modern gender roles. Notley’s writing style is similar to Olson’s in that she does not adhere to traditional poetic structures, however she follows the “stream of consciousness” style that many writers, both prose and poetry, started to embrace in the middle of last century. Joel Brouwer, a reporter for The New York Times, stated in an interview that the appeal of Notley’s poems “stem not from what they talk about, but how they talk, in a stream-of-consciousness style that both describes and dramatizes the movement of the poet’s restless mind, leaping associatively from one idea or sound to the next without any irritable reaching after reason or plot” (qtd. in “Alice Notley”, par. 1). Notley, when writing, cares more about having her writing consistent with the way the mind works: scattered, sometimes incoherent, going from thought to thought so quickly it is almost hard to keep up. She, as well as Olson, is not restrained by poetic convention and, at times, throws conventions out the window for the purpose of having her writing flow. Hoa Nguyen comments on Notley’s book, REASON and OTHER WOMEN, “As with dreams, it's sometimes hard to tell how memory and experience are known.  Notley maps the mind in an art that is fearless, plunging. The syntax tangles; it transports you. Reality, not language, recombines as dream-logic, and forms the intuition of the images of one's time” (sec. 2). Nguyen’s admiration of Notley extends so far that she even dedicated a poem to Notley in her book Hecate Lochia, entitled “I Can Extract Myself/ From That Emotion”.

On several occasions, Nguyen has discussed why she admires Olson and Notley as writers and in comparison of each other. “I'm drawn to Olson and Notley because they pay attention to the energy of speech, to the turns of syntax, and the rhetorical happenings of a poem or poems,” she stated in the Bookslut interview. “I'm interested in the perspectives they explore and how the poems work in a public sphere. I'm particularly drawn to Notley because of her feminist concerns” (Wilkinson, sec. 6). Taking both writing styles into account, Nguyen stated, “I admire how [Olson] and Notley are interested in the long project, poems as a series of poems, to be considered and received as series, poems in conversation with one another. I also love how they engage verse with a distinctly American idiom, one that is speech based—I like the immediacies that rest there” (“Question Three”, par. 1). The lure for Nguyen to these two poets is exactly how Brouwer described it to be: the way the poems “converse” with one another.

Other poets are not the only source of inspiration for Nguyen; she has claimed that specific music genres like “of garage and punk rock, post-punk and power-pop” have affected the style and structure of her work, “a kind of folk music that is based on the breath-line, from and of the body, issuing from the percussive of the heart, and informed by the unruly twists of experience and urgency” (“Question Three”, par. 2).  This is evident in the spaces and abrupt line breaks found in nearly all of Nguyen’s poems. Music, it seems, has played a large role in Nguyen’s writing; two of the best compliments she has ever received concerning her work were that 1) someone compared [her] poems to the music of The Pixies [and] 2) someone compared [her] poems specifically to the song ‘Paper Planes’ by M.I.A. (“Question Three”, par. 3) The rhythmicity that “Paper Planes” showcases in its south Asia inspired beats and the eclectic sound The Pixies create are, however unintentional, clearly translated into Nguyen’s work. Nguyen even considers her work to be a “song”, a flowing of words and meaning on paper. In the first part of a two-part interview with Reb Livingston of the online organization named “We Who Are About to Die”, Nguyen commented, “I think my song is influenced by power pop and punk, the three minute hooky song that surprises one with turns, noise, quiet, humor, heart break, political commentary” (sec. 5, par. 2). One of Nguyen’s favorite songs is “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians, which exemplifies what Nguyen has commented on.

4. Mythology and Astrology

Alexandra Mathieu

In several pieces of her work, Hoa Nguyen makes references to Greek mythology and Western astrology. In the second part of the “We Who Are About to Die” interview, Nguyen commented, “I feel invested and strongly connected to life, to love, to the green world, to song. I love to study the archetypes through different lenses: Tarot, myth, the I Ching,” (sec. 5, par.1). Mythology and astrology are just different lenses that Nguyen uses to view the world and create new opinions and new observations with.

Greek mythology discusses the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses who control the world and whose actions shape the world. Nguyen’s book Hecate Lochia is named after the Greek goddess Hecate, goddess “of the cross-roads…supreme, both in heaven and hell” (“Hecate the Goddess of Witches”, par. 3). Hecate has three faces: that of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. With these three faces, Hecate can be the representation of the transitions that women go through in their life: when they are young, when they are matured, and when they have aged. As Hecate Lochia deals mainly with the many roles that women, herself included, have to play, this title and its symbolic representation work well. Nguyen believes that Hecate is “the representation of female instinct and intuition, the guide that can help one choose the best direction (at a metaphorical crossroad) via the gifts of the unconscious” (“Question Six”, par. 2). Nguyen also recognizes that as far as goddesses go, Hecate is one of the most powerful since Zeus, the king of the gods, “did not take away her privileges or anything that was her portion… instead she was [allowed] to keep what was her own…This means that Zeus, Poseidon and Hades have no power over that which is hers whether it resides in there Kingdoms or not” (“Hecate the Goddess of Witches”, par. 4). Therefore, no man is in control of Hecate’s property be it physical or mental; she is in complete control of what is hers. Nguyen has stated that this was the main purpose in choosing Hecate for the title of her book: “In the book, she represents something I am trying to steal back and put into its rightful position of power” (“Question Six”, par. 3).

Although Nguyen emphasizes Greek mythology in her work, she has many references to other mythologies and to astrology as well. The poems “I Said Apprehend to Seize’ and “February 2, 2007” both mention Aquarius zodiac sign which deals with philanthropy and moving forward (“Aquarius Sun Sign”, par. 1); “Full Moon is Scorpio” refers to the Scorpio zodiac sign which deals with power and learning the secrets of others (“Scorpio Sun Sign”, par. 1); “Big Heart Small Heart” refers to both the Hindu deity of destruction in the physical sense and of the ego, Shiva (Gruenwald and Marchand, par. 1) and the Egyptian god of pharaohs rulers and men, Horus (“Gods and Goddesses”); and “Great Mother of the Gods” refers to the Roman goddess Cybele, mother of all the gods and the goddess of the “Earth in its primitive state” (Smart, par. 1). Nguyen’s poetry is an allegorical narrative as it uses symbols to represent broader topics and specific ideas that help Nguyen to give her perspective on the world, to write about the world as she sees it.

5. Feminism

Gabrielle Melo-Moore

    As a woman, Nguyen uses poetry to libertae her perception on feminism within society throughout her writing.  In a recent email interview, Nguyen states, “… so much has been stolen— women’s sexuality, our power in birthing, reverence for the earth, etc. I am trying to steal it back.” (“Question Five”). The fight and devotion for equality among men and women has been a struggle over many years. However, Nguyen’s writing is a public awareness of justice, equality, and respect. In an interview with Reb Livingston, Nguyen declares,

I don’t consider audience when I write, but after, in between. I think of different contexts that my poems might reach or in which they may appear (to other Hapas, mothers, women, people who also dig the green world, fathers, men, bird folk, Jungians, other artists, feminists, mythologists etc). I want to reach people and not just other poets—although I wouldn’t mind a few animal, plant or insect readers (“We Who Are About To Die.” Interview, part 2.” par. 2).

Women have courage and independence, and should be honored for what they have gone through and prepare to go through. Nguyen recollects “a meditation [she] used to prepare for labor and birth. [She] thought of every woman in [her] human chain of being, the warrior courage they used to bring forward, protect and nourish the life that they led, ultimately, woman to woman, to [her] life” (“Question Five”).

Nguyen addresses this courage in her book Hecate Lochia, with her focus on the human body, which many people view as “gross and disturbing”. In an interview with Reb Livingston, Nguyen states that “Part of [her] project is to piece the lost female body back together and put it in its rightful place of power—wanting to steal the ‘magical instruments’ back from patriarchy” (“We Who Are About To Die. Interview, part 1.” par. 9).


Works Cited

“Alice Notley (1945- ): Biography.The Poetry Foundation. n.e. n.d. 30 Jan. 2011

“Aquarius Sun Sign - Zodiac Signs.” iVillage. NBC Universal Company. n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2011

Arseguel, Benjamin. Photo of Hoa Nguyen. Photograph. n.d. Big Bridge. n.e. Web. 15 Feb. 2011

"astrology.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2011. Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 31 Jan. 2011

“Charles Olson (1910-1970): Biography.” The Poetry Foundation. n.e. n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2011

Gruenwald, Christine and Peter Marchand. “Shiva (the destroyer).” Sanatan Society. n.e. n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2011

“Hecate the Goddess of Witches.” The Old Religion n.e. n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2011

Livingston, Reb. Interview with Hoa Nguyen. “A conversation with Hoa Nguyen (part 1).”  We Who Are About To Die.  27 May 2010. Web. 7 Jan. 2011.

---. Interview with Hoa Nguyen. “A conversation with Hoa Nguyen (part 2).” We Who Are About to Die. 27 May 2010. Web. 7 Jan. 2011.

Mirakove, Carol. Ed. Gary Sullivan. Interview with Hoa Nguyen. “Hoa Nguyen Interview.” Read Me Magazine of Poetics. Issue 2. 2000. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.

Nguyen, Hoa. “Question One Re: Malden High School - AP Literature Poet Research Project: Questions.” Message to Tenzin Kunsang, Alexandra Mathieu, and Gabby Melo-Moore. 18 Jan.2011. E-mail.

---. “Question Two Re: Malden High School - AP Literature Poet Research Project: Questions.” Message to Tenzin Kunsang, Alexandra Mathieu, and Gabby Melo-Moore. 18 Jan. 2011. E-mail.

---. “Question Three Re: Malden High School - AP Literature Poet Research Project: Questions.” Message to Tenzin Kunsang, Alexandra Mathieu, and Gabby Melo-Moore. 19 Jan. 2011. E-mail.

---. “Question Four Re: Malden High School - AP Literature Poet Research Project: Questions.” Message to Tenzin Kunsang, Alexandra Mathieu, and Gabby Melo-Moore. 20 Jan. 2011. E-mail.

---. “Question Five Re: Malden High School - AP Literature Poet Research Project: Questions.” Message to Tenzin Kunsang, Alexandra Mathieu, and Gabby Melo-Moore. 20 Jan. 2011. E-mail.

---. “Question Six Re: Malden High School - AP Literature Poet Research Project: Questions.”     Message to Tenzin Kunsang, Alexandra Mathieu, and Gabby Melo-Moore. 20 Jan. 2011. E-mail.

“mythology.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2011. Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 13 Feb. 2011

“REASON and OTHER WOMEN.” Chax Press. n.e. n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2011

“Scorpio Sun Sign - Zodiac Signs.” iVillage. NBC Universal Company. n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2011

Smart, Dr. Anthony E. “Cybele.” Encyclopedia Mythica. MCMXCV - MMVI Encyclopedia Mythica. 26 Apr. 2005. Web. 13 Feb. 2011

“The Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt- Horus.” Tour Egypt. Tour Egypt. n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2011

Wilkinson, Joshua Marie. Interview with Hoa Nguyen. "An Interview with Hoa Nguyen." Bookslut. Issue 104. Pub. Michael Schaub, Jan. 2008. Web. 6 Jan. 2011.

Image citations:

1. Thomson, Karen. "
Untitled photograph of Hoa Nguyen, 2009.)We Who Are About to Die. 3 May 2010. Web. 16 Feb. 2011.

2. Dinh, Linh. "Hoa Nguyen and Dale Smith at home in Austin, TX." Detainees. 19 Nov. 2009. Web. 16 Feb 2011.