Letter to Hoa Nguyen

bizcardimage-300x225Dear Hoa Nguyen,

Life is strange. A few years ago I did not know your name, and then I knew your name but had not read your work, and then I purchased a book of your poems but it troubled me and I struggled with it. And then something happened, what happened, not only did I know your name but your name I called teacher, and your work I called teacher, and I returned again and again to spend time inside your poems. Your poems which continue to trouble me and struggle me, but which also light up my mind and language and sound in ways I’ve come to need.

And then (to continue my life is strange is story…) a professor (M Zapruder) wrote to let me know about a course you were teaching on James Schuyler and I wrote to you and you responded. Now your name, your poem name and teacher name, were in my inbox and every time I saw your name in my inbox I laughed. Because how wonderful your name in my inbox, along with emails from my daughter’s school letting me know about the latest fundraiser or emails from my love asking about a charge on the most recent credit card bill or linking to an article he thought I might enjoy or emails from facebook letting me know I’d been “tagged”. Your name in the electronic hubbub of my life. And then I was your actual student, virtually joining your other students in your Toronto living room on Sunday afternoons to read James Schuyler’s Collected Poems and look out your living room window into your Toronto snow while the Southern California sun beamed down on me in my airless den. Life is strange.

I just read over the above paragraphs and now I’m cringing that maybe it’s too much, the repetition of your name, the word “need”, the “I” and “you” over and over again. I’m well aware that one’s literary heroes are available on the page more than in “real life”. I’ve also learned that just because you love a poet’s work doesn’t mean you love the poet, even though sometimes the distinction becomes blurry. And most importantly–familiarity, intimacy with a poet’s work should not assume intimacy with the poet. So I cringe at all of the above, not knowing how you will receive it, if it is too much or if you will be bothered by it, but I’ll forge onward because your work and your teaching has had a significant impact on the way I read and write. I’ve been your student as a reader of your work and as a participant in your living room salon; I’d like to tell you a little bit about what it has been to be your student.

If you don’t mind, I’ll share with you a piece of a letter I wrote to my current poetry teacher, Anthony McCann, in which I discussed my initial response to reading As Long As Tress Last:

“I can’t stop thinking about the following line in Cage’s Indeterminacy lecture: ‘…all things—stories, incidental sounds from the environment, and, by extension, beings—are related, and that this complexity is more evident when it is not oversimplified by an idea of relationship in one person’s mind.’ God, that idea is enough to keep me grinding my teeth for the next six months because I think I don’t allow things to stand on their own in my poems without connecting dots or establishing relationship. How does one do that? Perhaps it is only true artists (poets) who have that ability and vision?
I think I saw idea this “in action” numerous times in both Minnis’ and Nguyen’s work. Two examples immediately come to mind. First “The Problem” by Hoa Nguyen:

The Problem

The problem of money soap dish
Want to make a soap dish out of a flat
rock Need a new notebook
And what does it mean to not want

A bouquet of planted succulents
with preserved moss (dark)
Using cotton panties
for a poetry bookmark

What. The. Hell. I don’t get it. But it makes me feel and helps me look at “the problem of money” (and lack and desire) in a completely new way. I have no idea what the relationship is between the various components, but somehow it doesn’t matter. And I can’t get out of my mind the image of cotton panties wedged into a book of poetry. Strangely perfect.”

In that letter, I also wrote:

“There were several instances in reading Nguyen’s work that I felt unable to enter into the poem, to grapple with it or live in it. Take for example “Dirt-Under-Nails Dirt”.

Dirt-Under-Nails Dirt

Green bathroom floor
rug and the yellow mug
you loved Cutting stop
Stop her there like a
yield color

Long hair when mine is
short

We love are

We love are folds
around the stripes of being

Can be

We can We love
are slung nests
Vireo eye masks

Reading these lines feels like ice-skating over a smooth, unbreakable surface. There’s no cracking into them for me. It bothers me a lot when I feel unable to enter a poem. I feel bad not “getting” it and I feel bad not knowing what makes this a “good” poem. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I did experience a shift in perspective while reading Nguyen’s collection. Around page 28, I started to notice my unfortunate tendency to question the relation between each line (“what does this have to do with this?”). I immediately returned to the Cage passage I began with: “…this complexity is more evident when it is not oversimplified by an idea of relationship in one person’s mind.” This realization feels very important to me: I am constantly trying to establish the relationship between each word and each line, oversimplifying, instead of letting each line simply be therefore allowing its natural complexity. By page 28, “Absence And A Cushion,” I began to read each poem as a miniature Joseph Cornell box. This was an exciting transformation in my reading. Perhaps this is not the “right” way to read a poem, but letting go of the need to “understand” relationship or establish it for each line of the poem makes me feel giddy with the possibility of what this might open up.”

I wrote the letter above not too long ago, actually, about 8 months ago. Since then, I’ve spent virtually all of my creative time exploring “the possibility of what this might open up” and the shift in perspective I experienced reading your work has remained–not only has it remained, it has completely altered my experience and pleasure of poetry. I dwell in your poems for the sounds they make, the world of moments they let me inhabit. Now I think I’m no longer satisfied with thinking of your poems as a miniature Joseph Cornell box—as much as I appreciate the work of Joseph Cornell, your poems take me to a different space, a different location of experience and perception, and forcefully resist framing/possession: I can enter your poems, submerge myself in their liquid and dirt, feel held or carried by them, but I cannot “keep” them the way I might keep a talisman, a work of art hung on my wall, a line by Hopkins “Glory be to God for dappled things—“. Your poems feel to me as if they are happening in the present moment I read them in, constantly moving and changing like a river. Even though the words are the same each time I open one of your books, they change. They are a different color each time, a different song, a different taste. Or am I the one who has changed? But not all poems move with me, or move me (that is, my consciousness) the way yours do.

Your poems have made me want poems to work harder. I don’t want narration. Poems stuck in single time with chronology that moves in a single direction make me cranky. Is there really such a thing as moving directly from point A to point B? I don’t think so. I think poems exist in compressed space and time, in pendular or circular or jagged movement. I’m curious to know how you see the time and space of a poem (and of life).

Your poems have given a rhythm and a sound and a feel to the way life unfolds and encircles. I return yet again to the strangeness of life. I resist the laziness of explanation, the desire we all have for reason. Reason as in the way I first read your line “Thus began my habit then/of stealing certain things from men”: ashamed to admit I thought, “oh, she stole from rich men because she was poor” and also a judgment “Hoa Nguyen stole?”. This line for me now hums with resonance and I don’t need to know whether it is autobiographical or symbolic or both—it just is. My tendency is to want meaning, reason, to see things as I want them to be, not as they are, and if I can’t do that to disavow their existence. Your poems have given me the ability? eyes? language? spirit? desire? to be with the world and name it as it exists, at the very least in my writing, if not my life.

Thank you, Hoa, for making my life stranger and thus more beautiful.
With sincere admiration and affection,
Your student,

Lizi Gilad Silver

Lizi Gilad Silver holds an MFA from UC Riverside’s low residency program. Her work has appeared in Amethyst Arsenic, A-Minor, burntdistrict, The Rumpus, Weave, and others.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Hoa Nguyen» Blog Archive » Letter from a Poet from the Poetry Workshop

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