The Chat: A Griffin Poetry Prize Special With Canadian Finalist Hoa Nguyen

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On June 8, 2017, the winners of this year's Griffin Prize for Excellence in Poetry will be announced. Judges Sue Goyette (Canada), Joan Naviyuk Kane (USA) and George Szirtes (UK) each read 617 books of poetry, from 39 countries, including 23 translations, to arrive at the international and Canadian shortlists. We are delighted to partner with the Griffin Prize in celebrating the three Canadian finalists over the next week. First up is Hoa Nguyen, author of Violet Energy Ingots.

According to the judges’ citation, “Hoa Nguyen’s poems tread delicately but firmly between the linear demands of narrative and syntax on the one hand and between registers of speech and forms of address on the other. There are spaces for breath, and asides hovering in parentheses. There are also the slippages in language, in the slide from, say ‘staring’ through ‘starving’ and ‘starring’ to ‘scarring.’ Everything is at once tangential yet surprisingly direct ... Violet Energy Ingots is a fully mature work in that it is confident of both its voice and its readers’ alertness. It makes its own space. It demands it and holds it.”

Born in the Mekong Delta and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Hoa Nguyen studied Poetics at New College of California in San Francisco. With the poet Dale Smith, Nguyen founded Skanky Possum, a poetry journal and book imprint in Austin, Texas, their home for 14 years. She is the author of several poetry collections, including Red Juice: Poems 1998–2008 and As Long As Trees Last. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, where she teaches poetics privately and at Ryerson University, Bard College, and Miami University.

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THE CHAT WITH HOA NGUYEN

Trevor Corkum: Congrats on being a finalist for this year’s Griffin Prize, Hoa. How does that recognition feel at this point in your career?

Hoa Nguyen: The 2017 Canadian shortlist awarded the devotion and work of small poetry presses with this recognition—it’s incredible. I’m delighted for Talon Books, Book Thug, and Wave Books. And I’m really happy for Violet Energy Ingots; that the judges selected it for this honour. To say thrilling is mild, but I’m thrilled.

TC: The poems in the collection address a range of topics: relationships, sex, the natural world, the domestic, the ethereal, the enigmatic. How did this particular collection come together?

HN: One of the images of the collection is a perennial purple morning glory, a common climbing vine that blooms after dusk. We have a bank of them; their climbing heart-shaped leaves and violet trumpet flowers volunteer as they twine and coil and offer their yearly messy beauty. They tangle next to the refuse bins; they self-seed. Sometimes they mix with dog-strangling vine. I’m attached to them even as they annoy the chain link fence.

I wrote the poems in our rental home in the Greektown area of Toronto as this re-rooting and unruly vine appeared and disappeared, bloomed and closed over the five years of the writing the manuscript. I think of them as a resonant but mostly concealed image inside of the imagination of the poems.

TC: How would you define or describe your poetic practise, to someone who isn’t familiar with you work?   

HN: My practice is one of engagement, an engagement that questions and continues what came before and also attempts an unafraid, messy beauty. I’m after poems that are both rooted and unruly.

TC: In addition to your own work, you’re also a noted teacher and workshop facilitator, having led an internationally recognized poetry workshop since 1998. Can you talk more about the workshop process? In what ways do your roles as teacher and creator intersect and inform one another? 


HN: I took my inspiration from the poet Anne Waldman, a member of the “Outrider experimental poetry community” who has lived her poetry life as writer, performer, teacher, editor, scholar, and cultural/political activist. With Allen Ginsberg, she co-founded the writing program at Naropa University. She inspired me to create my own nexus—to create my own context, start my a writing school for poetry in my living room, and take the canon on as I make work alongside it.

I’m interested in a life of the imagination and art—my workshops serve to give me a space to do the work of reading, writing, and community-making at once—a way of living with poetry and of living poetry. I wrote about it here for the Bagley Wright Lecture series as an introduction to a talk I gave for them which is archived here.

TC: What’s your own litmus test for exceptional and important poetry?

HN: I prefer poems that are sonically compelling and risk saying something. These are the poems that endure for me.

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First Flowers

Wasps out of the birdhouse
for spring     my boys shook
   out the dead wasps

New fly west
New fly west
for spring? To sip it?
Little gatherings of birds

Why does this feel like weeping?
   (snowdrops)
My friends     we love
It is two kinds of lost
that I'm lost in

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January

January long light
Janus     I see you
God of locks and doorways

two-faced looking in Capricorn
Capricious like the snowy owl
      irruption

We fear heavy body collisions

January     time of doors
time looking back on itself
     God of gates

    spelt and salt

They say when you
walk through a door

you can forget what
   you came for

 

Copyright © 2016 by Hoa Nguyen

May 25, 2017
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