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Reality Represented Through Poetry

Spring Visiting Writers’ Series: HOA NGUYEN

Hoa Nguyen

Hoa Nguyen


On a chilly Wednesday evening in the middle of April, Hoa Nguyen begins reading from her various books and collections of poetry in a room on the top floor of the CUE building on the WSU campus. The audience is mostly a mix of students and faculty members who eagerly wait to hear the work that this poet will bring alive in her reading.

Hoa’s writing is daring and blunt—she’s not afraid to use words that others might shy away from, or discuss politically charged current events. Her slightly sarcastic, yet intelligent delivery is compelling and leaves the audience grounded in reality; her verse is rooted in gritty images that leave listeners thinking about world issues that many would rather avoid.

After Hoa concludes this powerful reading, I pull her aside for a quick interview about the inspiration and experiences that influence her work so powerfully.

Angela: Out of all your experiences, what would you say inspires your writing the most? Is there one specific experience or time in your life that’s the most inspiring?

Hoa: No, I don’t think of writing that way. I think just life, loving, and being curious [informs it]. And that includes reading poetry, figuring out the name of that little purple star flower that’s blooming right now [and] what the name of the creek is, and where does it flow. I think it’s more about being an active participant in being-ness.

Angela:  So you would probably say that where you grew up (Washington D.C.) didn’t really influence your writing that much, or did it?

Hoa: Oh, sure, I think your life is all of those things. When I grew up in D.C. certainly influenced how I received that experience of being. Growing up in a place that’s really political [and] very international definitely influenced my worldview. Growing up with The Washington Post as my daily newspaper [and] having conversations, regardless of where I was [that] would often gravitate towards international politics. I think that [these things] probably did politicize me at an early age. The access to pretty good public schools and libraries certainly didn’t hurt at all. If I’d grown up in a place that was impoverished or [in] a different class of neighborhood, it would’ve completely had an effect on my poetry too.

Angela: Do you think that if you had grown up somewhere that wasn’t quite [as] diverse as a big city, you wouldn’t have been a poet at all, or do you think you still had that in you?

Hoa: It’s hard to say. We can only speculate. I really always did feel like a poet. I know poets that grew up in small towns that also had the same sort of pull towards poetry, towards a kind of compression, a kind of song, a kind of concern towards verse. I’d like to think maybe I would just be the same and it would just be informed by different things.

Angela: You talked about how you were the co-editor of the poetry journal. How has that influenced your own writing?

Hoa: Hugely. In a lot of different ways. First, when you’re an editor of a magazine, you get tons of submissions and you become really quite adept at identifying what poems you are interested in. We got lots of submissions especially towards the end when we were at the pinnacle of our popularity.  At one point we were getting 30 submissions a week, which is a lot for just a little mom ’n’ pop kind of place. It was because we had been recognized in this yearly called The Best American Poetry and everybody that saw that issue wanted to be in our magazine because they thought [they could] get in The Best American Poetry. It kind of crushed us, actually. It ended up being the demise of the magazine. But earlier, when I was able to really absorb the work, what I found was that I could read a stanza and immediately make a decision [about] whether I wanted to continue to read the stanza. [This] made me interrogate my own poetics. What is the [energy] of this stanza that makes it something that I want to keep reading? I just naturally applied that eye to my own work, so it definitely informed it.

Engaging in the process of being an editor [also] put me in contact with editors across the United States who were doing similar projects. Suddenly you have these nexus of connection [where] you can see what other people are doing in their magazines, what that editor’s aesthetic is like. It really just kind of expands your worldview of what’s happening on the ground right in that moment. An amazing benefit is that editors would understand that you’re a poet and [say]: “Hey, we’d love to see what you’re up to, send me some poems.” It became this way that you could actually take part in your own creativity and be part of those journals and presses.

Angela: Your poems talk about the environment and world issues that are really negative. Do you think that poetry is a more effective means of communication than a news article online? Do you think poetry reaches people in a different way?

Hoa: My hope is that the poetry impacts people’s imaginations and the possibilities of engagement. There’s no poem of mine that’s going to really make a difference in the oil spill in the gulf, but my hope is that it creates an opportunity for an imaginative possibility that can then extend beyond me, beyond the page, beyond that poem, and live and carry out in other imaginings and other possibilities. The multi-facetedness of a poem can actually reach other interiors that just reading a fact might not.

In the World of Ngrams, Cougs Beat Huskies

The news desk of WSU Discovery has been having more than its share of intellectual fast food this holiday season with the introduction of Google’s new Ngram viewer, which shows the relative frequency of words and phrases in the massive Google Books database. Researchers at Harvard University say the tool offers great promise in a field called “culturomics,” a quantitative view of human culture and society.

The Google books database shows mentions of Cougars pulling ahead of Huskies around 2002.

That sounds like a new major to us, so we ran the notion by Patty Ericsson, associate professor of English and thinker in matters cultural and digital. Her response:

“This is an interesting machine.  As you might guess from my scholarly agenda, I’m a little wary of machine-produced data that doesn’t have smart, knowledgeable human interpretation.  So I think that this word-crunching machine is great as a tool to aid analysis—political, literary, sociological, and more.

“In the hands of someone who knows something about political history, an analysis comparing occurrences of the words “Hitler” and “Nazi” might be worthwhile.  In fact the differences in the results in German and American English appear fascinating to me, but I can’t make any conclusions because I don’t know enough.  In the hands of someone who knows little about such history but tries to make causal links, the results might be misleading.

“In the literary world, this kind of machine-based word crunching has been going on for decades.  A colleague of mine at Dakota State University was doing computer-based textual analysis of Jane Austen and Dickens in the early 1980s.

“I’m also cautious about the data based used for this research.  Any use of the data produced would have to carefully consider the texts included in the database.

“I wouldn’t consider a major on the topic of Culturomics specifically.  It’s too narrow.  But we do have a major in Digital Technology and Culture at WSU and a course in it is the “Rhetorics of Information,” which considers the widespread uses of databases and data crunching.  I’d include the Culturomics machine in that course if I was teaching it.”

For further reading and a tour of popular ngrams, check out the growing list of Twitter #ngram hashtags. And let us know your favorites in the comment box below.

Potatoes Rout Carrots

Meanwhile, here’s an Ericsson favorite:

“I love potatoes and hate carrots,” she says. “Obviously, the rest of the world agrees.”

Tod Marshall: A contemporary poet and his work

Visiting Writers Series, Installment #3—November 4, 7:30pm

It is Thursday evening, November 4, 2010, and the skies are clear with that definitive chill in the air that indicates it is fall in Pullman.  WSU faculty and students gather into Kimbrough 101 to listen to a reading given by Tod Marshall, the last visiting writer of the fall semester to participate in the English Department’s Visiting Writers Series.

Tod Marshall is the author of two books of poetry, including Dare Say (University of Georgia Press 2002) and The Tangled Line (Canarium Books 2009). These two books are filled with unique poems bearing titles such as “Describe KFC to Icarus,” “No Nightingales in Kansas” and “St. Jude and the Tomatoes.”  He has also published a book of interviews that he did with contemporary poets—Range of the Possible (EWU Press 2002)—as well as an anthology of poems by these same contemporary poets, which he edited—Range of Voices (EWU Press 2005). Tod received his Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in 1996 and currently resides in Spokane, Washington, where he is an English teacher at Gonzaga University.

Tod gives an hour long reading from his books, interspersed with some insight into the background and inspiration behind his writing.  He finishes the evening by reading from some newer poetry that he is currently working on.  Afterwards, I meet briefly with this local poet to get some insight into the creativity behind his writing.


Angela: Do you purposely go out into the world to experience unique things, or do you just let things happen to you? Where does the majority of your subject matter come from?

Tod Marshall

Tod Marshall

Tod: Well, I don’t think that I do anything exotic in order to go find poems out there in the world.  I think if you looked at my life on the outside you’d [see] kind of a boring life.  But I think it’s important not to turn down new experiences.  There’s that Eleanor Roosevelt quotation: “Try something every day that you’re afraid of,” or something like that.  So, I think that that’s important just to remind us that we’re alive, and to keep us fully alive. A lot of my poems come out of[a] combination of the normal things that I do and reading and things that I read about.  I steal things that I read about and blend them together so it’s all a blender that mixes those things, and hopefully comes up with something interesting.

Angela: In your book The Tangled Line (2009), you did a lot of juxtaposing of really bizarre things that don’t seem to go together [“divorce and martinis,” “custody and omelets,” “fly fishing and Marie Antoinette”].  Why did you decide to do that exactly?

Tod: The first reason I decided to do it is because I had just finished my first book and I was kind of stuck getting going on new poems, so I did it as an exercise.  I’m going to give myself this template that I’ve got to write poems within—“describe something to something else” [as in, “Describe divorce to Martinis”].  Eventually, after lots and lots of failed attempts—probably fifteen, twenty poems that just never really went anywhere— I started to find commonalities and threads. In the course of that book they describe a historical book.  I also think that description can be a form of containment—if we’re trying to describe something, we’re trying to get control of it.  Life doesn’t usually let us do that, so there’s [an] artificial control in [the] section of the book that has to do with Daedalus the maker. [He is] the grand artificer wanting to get control over all these circumstances that are really beyond his control.  There are lots of riffs there on different types of violence—from the violence of our country at war to the violence that happens in a custody fight over a kid.  You try to find ways to control your life when it’s out of control, and one of them is through coming up with a template.


A Father, a Son, and an African Horse: William and Samuel Miles

Visiting Writers’ at WSU – Second Installment (October 7, 2010)

Cover of My African Horse ProblemTraveling many miles across the United States from the east coast, William F.S. Miles and Samuel Benjamin Miles, a father and son duo, agreed to come to Pullman for the second presentation of the Visiting Writers’ Series on October 7 and read from their memoir My African Horse Problem (2008).  William is a political science professor at Northeastern University in Boston, volunteered in Niger with the Peace Corps from 1977-1979, and has written nine books.  He is a Fulbright Scholar and also received an American Philosophical Society grant in 2001.

Samuel, who is of Franco-American ancestry, is a senior who is studying in the Ethics, Politics and Economics program at Yale.  He speaks French and spent his early life studying in Martinique, Mauritius and the Lycée Français de Jerusalem.

The memoir tells of the trip that William and Sam (only ten years old at the time) made to West Africa in 2000 to resolve a dispute concerning who should inherit a particular horse.  It weaves the voices of father and son together, and this is exactly how they read from it during their performance.  Before they begin reading, however, William starts things off on a humorous note by completely changing his clothes from a normal suit into a traditional African-style outfit.

Samuel Miles

Samuel Miles

But then the two get down to business, and William narrates the more complex, adult perspective of the story, and Samuel, staying true to his ten-year-old self, reads the entries that he made as a fifth grader in a foreign country.  To accompany their reading, Sam and William have put together a PowerPoint presentation with photos. The two work well together, and procure many a chuckle from the attentive audience.  The performance is unique in that the two authors alternate between reading their work and responding to questions asked by WSU English professor Peter Chilson.  At the end of the reading, members in the audience ask more questions, and I follow up with the two authors afterwards, asking them each a few questions separately.

Reading by Samuel and William Miles

Peter Chilson (to Samuel): Do you consider yourself an author?

Samuel Miles: I like to think that I’m half-way there.  There’s also a question of intent.  Was I writing to be published?  Was I hoping to reach an audience? The nature of the things I wrote were a bit more personal at the time.  I wasn’t planning on having this talk right now, ten years later.  What it did do was start me on a writing path, showing me the importance of writing, and the power of it. So, I kind of do [consider myself an author], not necessarily because of this book but because what this book gave me was a mentality of someone who writes to be read and the knowledge that when I write it’s powerful.  It’s something to be taken seriously for myself.

William Miles

William Miles

Peter Chilson: How [did] you work this out collaborating with your father?

Sam: [The writing of the book] was done mostly when I was in high school. So it would happen late at night. I would come home and lay it on the ground and have all these different pieces of paper with all my notes from current memories and writings from my journal. And we would piece together the things that we thought would flow.  There wasn’t exactly an equivalency—I was in high school, and he (William) had published six or seven books at the time, so there was a power imbalance there. My version would’ve included a lot more pictures with dinosaurs or something.  It was actually kind of easy and fun because it’s my dad, and we were doing a really good project together.  The tension was mostly that I was tired and didn’t want to do it.  But the writing process itself was unique, nothing I had ever seen anyone do before.  In that respect it was more fun than anything.

Peter Chilson: Whose idea was this? How did this idea come about? Did Dad just come home one day and say “you’re writing a book with me”?

Sam: Well actually it started with Mr. Foley [Sam’s fifth grade teacher]. I was a ten-year old at the time, in fifth grade in Massachusetts.  I was being pulled out of class, my dad called me and said, “Listen, we’re going to Niger” and I said, “I have school.” So I went to my teacher, Mr. Foley, and I said, “So, I want to go to Africa. Can I not do my math homework for awhile?” I don’t know what kind of process went through his head but he said, “Sure, keep a journal, and that will count for your homework.” [This] was awesome for me, because it really started me off on a process of writing in general, and I [continued] keeping a journal after that. To this day, I still do. It’s a lot of fun, actually.  That was my assignment.  That was how I got out of doing math problems: [by] recording my thoughts and [a] perspective my father couldn’t get.  When I came back, I showed it to my teacher and that was how I got away with skipping school to go ride a horse in Africa.

William: I should explain at this point why it was that I had a horse in Africa in the first place.  That makes me have to go back to my last year in college, when I was a senior and I had the good fortune to be rejected by every law school that I applied to, because I didn’t really want to go to law school. That’s what the parents said I should do; what any social science major would be doing.  I didn’t get into any of those elite schools, [but] I did get into the Peace Corps. I didn’t even know that Niger existed as a completely different place from Nigeria.  It shares five rivers [and] it does share part of a river that flows through called the Niger River.  It’s a former French colony, it’s got a tenth of the population of Nigeria, and it was fortunate that there was a civil war that weekend in the second choice [of country] that they were giving me, which was Zaire.  I chose Niger, instead.

My biggest obstacle was this lady (referring to the picture of his mother on the slideshow).  To say that I had an overprotective Jewish mother would be an understatement.

(reading from memoir)

Mine (his mother) was absolutely horrified that, instead of going to medical or law school after college, I would join the Peace Corps and go off to live in the middle of Africa.  (For that matter, I ought also to thank those half dozen élite law schools that, by rejecting me, rescued me from a post-Vassar life of jurisprudence.)  When she could no longer resist my ultimate expression in youthful rebellion, Mother implored me to heed three warnings.  Remember that my leaving for Muslim Black Africa, in 1977, coincided with seemingly frequent Palestinian hijacking of U.S. and Israeli airplanes as well as an upsurge in other anti-American and anti-Semitic terrorism.

“When you’re over there,” my mother intoned, “do not say you are an American.”

“Yes mother.”

“And do not,” she continued, “reveal that you are Jewish.”

“Yes, mother.”

“And lastly,” my mother implored, “never tell them that you are white!”

[Audience laughter] (more…)