A conversation with Hoa Nguyen (part 1).
photo credit: Karen Thomson 2009
Below is the first part of a conversation I’m having with poet, Hoa Nguyen. Our conversation is still ongoing and while I’m not sure how long it will continue, I figure it might be a while, so I’ll post it in segments.
Hoa was born in the Mekong Delta, raised in the DC area, and studied poetics at New College of California in San Francisco. She is the author of 7 books and chapbooks including, most recently, Hecate Lochia (Hot Whiskey Press) and Kiss A Bomb Tattoo (Effing Press). Her work has been included in numerous anthologies including Best of Fence (Fence Books) and Black Dog Black Night (Milkweed). Hoa makes her home in Austin TX where she teaches creative writing, co-edits the book imprint Skanky Possum and curates a reading series.
Reb: Your latest book is called Hecate Lochia. The goddess Hecate is associated with the moon, childbirth, magic, ghosts, the underworld and witchcraft. She’s also the Goddess of Crossroads and is sometimes depicted as having 3 heads so she can see from all directions. Lochia is the vaginal discharge after childbirth. Your title pairs a powerful goddess who was sometimes feared and misrepresented with postpartum bleeding, a topic that would make some squeamish. I read this as paying respects and honoring powerful (and oftentimes misunderstood) femininity and childbirth. Have you found that to be a common reaction to the title and the book? Have you received any “ew, gross” responses? To your knowledge, have people projected any other “interesting” ideas onto your book?
Hoa: When asked for feedback on the title for the manuscript, one poet admitted that she probably wouldn’t buy a book named Hecate Lochia. I didn’t ask her why; I figured it was just too weird and pagan sounding.
The most common reaction is not knowing how to pronounce the words.
No one has ever said ew gross about the title (to my face, anyway!)—one reader told a friend he thought I was being a “dirty girl” when he read a poem with cervical mucus in it.
I also include pussy, breast milk, nursing and menstrual blood in the poems. So what you said is right. It’s about honoring these powerful themes and positing the female body as normal, incredible.
One birth advocate made a comment about the image of a baby’s head crowning from the vagina—that if men gave birth, this image would be revered, celebrated, and plastered everywhere. Instead it is hidden and found disgusting. I mean, network TV rejected tampon commercials that included the word “vagina” and Facebook blocks pictures of women nursing their babies.
Part of my 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.
Reb: Perhaps my being raised by women who were grossed out by most things feminine has me projecting my own ideas of how people would naturally respond. I mean, my mother can’t even say “vagina.” She refers to the whole region as a “bum.”
It’s interesting, er, or perhaps I mean infuriating, that “stealing back the magical instruments” is considered to be so contentious and political. If a women does something feminine, like say openly breastfeeds her child, she’s not being a nurturer or being natural, it’s considered a defiant act or in the most ridiculous instances compared to something sexual or even scatalogical. Dirty girls, indeed.
I find nothing “dirty” in your poems, I do find them unabashedly, fiercely feminine. Even when you’re being directly political, for instance in your poem “Tuesday,” the voice reads more like that of a wise elder:
More soldiers dead
is the fittest president in history
going for a jog on vacation again
(with cute dogs as pets)
“Better times approach”
There’s certainly criticism in these lines, harsh truth being pointed out, but it feels calm in many ways. It’s difficult to dismiss, as one might dismiss a political poem or statement, as hysterical or sanctimonious. Do you consciously “temper” your poems when dealing with subjects that challenge patriarchal thinking?
Hoa: Funny you should target that poem.
I was once asked to submit political poems to a magazine seeking same and was told by the (male white) editors that they did not want to publish the poems I sent (including this one) as they sought works that were “more anonymous in their critique” of power structures.
To which I thought: exactly! To attempt a critique of power structures, how could I—as a woman—and person of color—be “anonymous?” It seemed to me that they meant they wanted poems without any signatures of identity. How could I write poems like that? I’d have to erase my being. Be more pervasive—male and white?
In a recent comment to the HL poems, one poet (Brian Teare) commented that “It strikes me that asking traditional “humanist” questions with an explicitly female, embodied voice is still radical.” Yeah, wow. I loved that. And also really?
Yeah, unfortunately, really. To be explicitly female and embodied while writing “avant garde” poems is still radical.
And my identity and critiques—well, I do prefer that they just are. Maybe that’s the “tempered.” To reside in the art as they are. Not anonymous—but there, plainly and “embodied.”
Reb: Heh, cause nothing says powerful like “anonymous”—yeah, let’s put together a political poem issue so muddled and vague no feathers will be ruffled. Goodness, here I am, my very first interview for We Who Are About Die and I picked a militant.
We’ve talked a bit here and in personal conversations about other’s projections on you and your work, have you had any of your own ingrained projections or assumptions on poetry or poets rattled or exposed?
Hoa: I love getting to know poets and their contexts. Who they are trying to reach, what audience, how they attempt that, what is their poetry doing in that context?
My rattling might be in how many poets don’t seem have these considerations as part of their approach or poetics. Or if they do, that it is not truly considered. That poets, when I dig there, seem to be more interested in establishing, instead, their place among the hierarchies and power structures, for advancement and personal gain, it seems. That disappointment.
I guess I have an idea of poetry as a vow, per Anne Waldman, to serve and continue a tradition that creates possibility and conversations relevant to one’s own time—to be placed in one’s time, with clear affinities to what has come before, with empathetic connections to beings human and otherwise, to understand these patterns. To converse there. To “turn with,” artfully, discovering.
Waldman says “Ghost is riding you. What is “this”, and “this:? What is relativity?”