A frequent commentary chronicling the creative and intellectual
excitement of discovery at Washington State University.

Brought to you by Washington State Magazine

Posts Tagged ‘reading’

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.

Further Thoughts on Google and the Active Brain

To continue on the question of whether Google makes us smarter:

Last week we noted new research showing that the brains of veteran Google searchers have more active neural circuits and brain regions while searching than novices.

The poster of the item added this smart-aleck remark—“I’m no neuroscientist, but it sounds like Google is making them smarter.” An actively thinking reader agreed, at least on the “no neuroscientist part.” She then added, “You can’t judge the quality or depth of thought by mere ‘brain activity.’ Indeed, a calm brain is often the sign of a thoughtful brain.”

From the desk of WSM Discovery

So which is more thoughtful–a calm brain or an active brain? For an answer, we returned to an actual neuroscientist, WSU’s Jaak Panksepp. His bottom line: It’s all good food for thought.

“Yes,” he wrote in an email, “abundant brain research does show that experts can proceed with a cognitive task by using their brain more efficiently, which is often reflected in less brain arousal than exhibited by novices.  Of course, the fly in the ointment is that each type of cognitive task needs to be taken on its own terms.

“With regard to the Internet, one could imagine that greater recruiting of diverse brain networks is a sign of sophisticated thinking.  However, this is just an interpretation rather than an established fact.   In this same vein, it may be worth noting that expert Zen meditators exhibit massive arousal of frontal lobe regions compared to novices.  What all these brain ‘correlates’ mean remains open to multiple interpretations.  As usual, correlates are not easily translated into causes, although they provide useful raw material for creative thinking about such ultra-complex BrainMind issues.”

But wait…does this mean we’re smarter on Google?

Readers of the recent not-off-the-presses, Internet-only edition of  Washington State Magazine will know that yours truly recently spent some time wringing his neurons over the fate of magazines, reading, and thinking in the digital age. Much like this whole Internet revolution of the past 15 or so years, it’s a fun and wild ride.

The piece at one point alludes to Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which contends we cease to think deeply if we power-browse and skim. Editor Tim Steury also did a drive-by of Carr’s thinking in his piece on how libraries are changing in the age of Google and pulled this Google-eyed viewfrom the book:

“The more pieces of information we ‘access’ and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.”

So which is it? When our noses are pressed up against the screen, are we thinking better or worse?

One intriguing piece of the answer came in an interview with Jaak Panksepp, a WSU neuroscientist, who explains in the video above how an Internet search activates the ancient, general purpose part of the brain involved in seeking things. A classic evolutionary analogy would say this system was used for hunting down prey, but Panksepp explains it’s also involved in  looking for water, sex, companionship, and, in the case of us information-age types, knowledge. You need not have hunted to know what this actually feels like. Think of chasing down a must-have item of clothing in a mall, or strolling in search of a good restaurant. It’s exciting stuff, and you can practically feel your medial forebrain bundle tingling.

Now comes more exciting research in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Using brain scans of web searchers, researchers found that the brain activity of novice Googlers was similar to someone simply reading, while veteran searchers used more than twice as many neural circuits and brain regions involved in complex thinking and decision making.

I’m no neuroscientist, but it sounds like Google is making them smarter.

More brain food can be found in the summer issue of Washington State Magazine.