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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.