Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Nguyen’s book, As Long as Trees Last (Wave Books). Recorded May 29th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Can we start with the title? As Long As Trees Last perhaps once signified a spacious, secure span of time. Now it suggests something more conditional, as if it could be so long as trees last.
Hoa Nguyen: Yeah sure. The title can impart an open, hopeful sense, but also could provide more of a warning. That line comes from a poem. I like its monosyllabic percussiveness. I tend toward monosyllabic rhythms for their sense of pulse and urgency. Multisyllabic words tend to be more Latinate and more the language of administration. And there are a lot of trees in this manuscript, returning tree characters, not really—but as though they were.
AF: Your work long has offered these compressed, monosyllabic verbal clusters, which often track evanescent modes of experience. The line you just mentioned reads as follows: “Too fast / a bird that goes and sends a net // I hide or flee / who finds the fossil pieces // Beech-tree white // a candy for a hearth / as long as trees last.” The rhythms and idioms seem recognizably your own. With this particular book, however, I sensed a more ominous undertone to that characteristic focus on speed and precision. “The Soul They Say,” one of the concluding poems, quickly ends on the phrase “Worlds die,” then gets followed by “Cassandra Poem.” Has your attunement to the unstable, immediate moment taken on new significance here?
HN: Perhaps more poems contain multiple layers of critique (self-critique, critique of humans, critique of oppressive institutional structures). A couple pieces reference the war in Southeast Asia, in Vietnam, where I was born. And within both the U.S. and global landscapes, many events do cause concern. You’ve probably noticed I’m a poet who tends to write from a singular moment, rather than towards some sustained, book-length project. Patterns I construct have more to do with the environment in which I find myself, which includes poems that reference the tsunami and nuclear problems in Japan, or the earthquake in Haiti. I’m not saying life suddenly got worse, though the poems kept bringing me there.
AF: Writing the poems prompted these reflections?
HN: Yes, because I don’t sit down and say, I’m going to write a poem about ecological disaster. Something just surfaces, part of the environment—partly from what I read, partly from dictation.
AF: As you describe your compositional process, I remember tiny moments of linguistic mutability. The poem “Intimate,” for example, opens with the parenthetical “(intimate).” This seems to accentuate the multiplicity both of that word and of your poetics, which presume a great deal of intimacy with their subjects, yet also imply a more suggestive mode of inchoate intimations. So “Intimate” puns and plays on that word, pointing toward both the familiar and the never fully known. Or one poem’s critique of U.S. citizens redirects its symmetrical scrutiny to “us” citizens.
HN: “US,” it’s called. I took that from a Time magazine. My lovely mother-in-law sent us a subscription. It arrives every week and I flip through to see its particular read on the world, which includes pictures, cultural things, and little blurb-like factoids. One of these stated that the United States contains more televisions than people. That appears in the poem, along with this mirroring device, as if the study had flipped itself.
AF: Again, with the mirrors and punning—perhaps it was just my mood while reading but this book seems to present a quite menacing sense of equivalence. Contamination creeps in. You’ll describe breast milk that yields rocket fuel. Dangerous or false substitutions keep happening.
HN: You can find rocket fuel in lettuce, also.
AF: In Wyoming I think we’ve got a lot.
HN: I think articles I read about this focused on Wyoming.
AF: You’ve said your work tends to get organized around shorter units, and I definitely hear in it the elided idiom of Charles Olson, Lorine Niedecker, Larry Eigner, Alice Notley. But when I read “Exercise #3 from Colloquial Vietnamese,” the abstracted concordances struck me, with all those lines hinging on “and,” which brought a sense of dreamy duality.
HN: That’s actually a found poem, in the way that found poems can become quite purposeful when they get re-purposed—especially here with the conditional phrasings. In terms of Alice Notley and Charles Olson: I’ll take what they do, but try to make it super compressed.
AF: And they’re already pretty compressed.
HN: I guess I’m picturing their longer projects. Alice Notley’s bigger project has been about the epic for some time, and a kind of narrativity, too. That’s part of what interests me regarding influence, and this might relate to your previous question about my poem which starts “(intimate).” I’ve taken from Olson, as many people have, his model of the poem as a transference of energy, a transmission on the page, a transmission to the reader through the mind and ear and the syllable, the heart, and the line’s breath. I’ve tried hard to internalize what that could mean for me. I’ve learned a lot from Joanne Kyger, who has articulated so elegantly similar concerns with a kind of constellated energetics, with keen attention to how you breathe the sounds. Pound, whom I quote for this book’s opening, says at one point about rhythm: “Rhythm is a form cut into TIME, as a design is determined SPACE.” That suggests still another way for organizing one’s relation to the music and language.
AF: Though your work tends toward shorter, discrete units rather than expansive plans or projects, I do often sense book-length continuity. Here it comes, I guess, from oscillations regarding fertility, in relation to menstrual flow and drought. I’m not looking for an allegory, but seemed to find this Wasteland/Fisher King thing. There’s the meeting at a dry river bed, which soon just becomes “the bed.” There’s even the phrase “grail jewels.” Then the final poem, entitled “Swell,” presents a worker bee buzzing and begs: “Please / just open the door / to the sun.” I did sense a very compressed, very minimalist, but nonetheless book-length circulation of meaning.
HN: That’s great. I think that happens with my method, which is just to keep writing while staying informed by your environment. Central Texas, where I lived for fourteen years, went through a cycle of drought. Meteorologists suggests this is a trend. And of course the zones of gardening there (officials decide which trees can get planted in a particular zone) have shifted and changed. I’d read a New York Times article about Chicago now planting completely different types of trees.
AF: I always quote that article. They now plant trees from Baton Rouge.
HN: During our drought even native trees grew distressed and started dying. Then this terrible uncontained fire blew through. So the book ends up tracking local environmental and global monetary disaster, with appropriated quotations like: “‘It’s simpler now to retire— / you just die in the office.’”
AF: Which is pretty common where I am in Japan, I think. But on drought, specifically the Texas drought, I felt, perhaps incorrectly, that droughts have appeared before in your work, with now a more pointed focus on a particular threatened prairie ecosystem.
HN: For the fourteen years I’d lived in Austin, this drought went deeper and deeper. The lakes continue dropping and dropping. So yes, my second book also included drought. It makes it so that you become very aware of your water usage and your neighbors’ water usage. Watching someone soak the sidewalk and so forth, with sprinklers, gets maddening.
AF: Soon I’ll head back to Wyoming, to a high plateau surrounded by brown dead trees because of pine beetles that survive the warm winters. I used to read about this on the Times’s editorial page, while living in Brooklyn, but didn’t have any concrete sense what it meant. So I’m curious about your ongoing engagement with the local. You and Dale have spoken eloquently in many contexts about attending to the local. But here, as you addressed local conditions with global implications, I wondered about your relation to your audience. Does your attention to a particular local have an informative purpose for distant readers? Does it stay attentive to its local situation as a model that others could apply to their own?
HN: I hope that poetry in general can expand one’s attention or imagination about place and relation to place. I’m not sure I’m so much instructing. I’ve lived on the border between the Edwards Plateau and the Blackland Prairie, and gone through the ecosystem that way, in essay form. Then I attached poems to it, as a way to speak to my relationship to place. But in terms of audience, I would just hope my poems provoke some continuities of attention, I suppose.
AF: Well I’m intrigued by your cagey mode of political critique. As you said, many layers of critique appear.
HN: I like that you called them “cagey.”
AF: The title “Rage Sonnet,” for example, offers a potential oxymoron. And the book’s first four poems address the BP oil spill, a poisonous “Operation Ranch Hand,” unemployment, Agent Orange. Yet each remains characteristically spare, elliptical, collage-like from line to line, or within the line. So do you start with straightforward-seeming sentiments of outrage, though then wind up with something more polyvalent, more complex?
HN: I’m usually deeply engaged with another poet’s work. For the Agent Orange poem you mentioned, I’d been reading Emily Dickinson. I think she appears one other time in that sequence. And when I enter this relationship with another poet, her strategies, I learn a lot. I’ll write through those strategies as well. In this particular poem, I quote her. I’ll absorb then try to discharge that same poetic energy. Her incredibly compressed lines have so much fire to them. I remember, once in class, someone saying Dickinson’s words felt like knives and I thought, yeah, I want my language to pick up that kind of pointedness. That was the occasion for this poem.
AF: When you immerse yourself in a preceding poet’s strategies, does that also somehow redirect energy to your own historical present?
HN: Yeah. I think partly what brought me to Dickinson was her writing during the worst part of the Civil War—yet pointing to the artifice that she’s writing a poem. So for my “Rage Sonnet,” I tried to place myself in a sonnet. I always appreciate poems that let me as the reader admit, hey, here we are, in a poem. That feels more honest somehow.
AF: On this question of artifice: your work often provides a compressed synthesis of mundane physical fact, yet takes on metaphorical intimations. One of my favorite lines from this book is, “Kind of day: beans on toast.” You have these physical, sensual, suggestive spare lines, but then your collagist sense of how to juxtapose tone, idiom, subject-position remains just as striking. And those tendencies toward collaging seem to get thematized as well, in “So Obvious,” for instance, when you say “I mix / these pieces seeing inside & / outside and cutting cutting / the cutting of two / the woman cut into two to make / the earth and the stars / two worlds that is one world.” I’m used to modes of serial production that involve lots of repetition. Collaging together short, singular, discrete lyrics seems more difficult and, like her fascicles, more Dickinsonesque.
AF: But do you end up discarding tons of material? Can you recycle it elsewhere? Have you honed processes for collecting and organizing and sifting through these short units?
HN: I just was thinking about that. When I mentioned Dickinson’s fire—I’m trying to conjure that in my poems. I have to access that state or else the lines stay in my notebook. Of course on occasion a phrase or mood will totally change and enter some poem of the future. But generally speaking, as I write, it’s very much an application of available forces. It feels almost architectural. Maybe that’s too wooden. Maybe it’s more like I have to put pieces together so that they can constellate a dynamo sense of themselves.
AF: I’ve thought a lot about Joe Brainard’s approach to additive and subtractive construction. Those terms come from art criticism. For subtractive construction, this is like a corny formulation you hear in high school, that Dostoyevsky splits up the Russian soul into three distinct characters: Ivan is intellect; Dmitri is impulse, etc. But for additive construction, no original, overall meaning exists, which then gets parsed into smaller units. Global meanings only arise as local elements get placed beside each other.
HN: That reminds me of something Ted Berrigan discusses, that what he’d learned from painters (probably including Joe) was the compositional theory of push/pull.
AF: From Hans Hoffman.
HN: How do you lay down—though he meant in terms of language—how do you lay down pigment to construct dimensionality? Things bleed or pop out or have this texture, even though you only see two dimensions. Berrigan applied that to language. I thought that a smart way to talk about the energetics of a poem’s different parts, which have to do with their sound and rhythm and form on the page. How do you arrange these compositional elements to produce their own gestalt, their own sense of being?
AF: On these questions of compositional strategy or architecture, architectonics—I’m assuming we could apply them to the collection as a whole.
HN: You mean the various poems placed together? Sure. I’m trying to remember how I did it. It felt kind of thematic, with departures and returns and moods. Often that includes a chronological component. I know the order in which I wrote them, and definitely didn’t order them according to strict chronology, but did pay attention to…like I wouldn’t want the seasons to switch back and forth within consecutive poems.
AF: Throughout your mom remains hovering nearby, sometimes as an invited guest, sometimes more a talisman, a symbol.
HN: We’d spent much time together over the course of my writing these poems, with her on extended visits. She lives in the D.C. area and would spend the winter wanting to be around family. Her health is a little compromised, and she’s this amazing figure for me of endurance and strength and cunning and modernism. She was and is incredibly modern. She left home at 15 and joined a circus and became a motorcycle stunt-woman in Vietnam in the early 1960s. She did these amazing things contrary to what her position as a poor woman, born in 1942 in the Mekong Delta, should have been. So she does serve as a figure here. I like that word you used—a talismanic or sometimes symbolic figure, sometimes literal, sometimes offering incisive commentaries. She said something helpful when we saw images of Haiti, which reminded her of war destruction. There’s much dream matter about her in the poems. I did a lot of dream work for this book.
AF: Will we ever hear more details about your mom’s motorcycle stunt career?
HN: I keep hoping to write that project, to get funding for it. I need to visit Vietnam and do some research. I’d like to write both towards my mother’s biography and towards the impossibility of this project—but with me in the project as a part of her. I’ve also thought about this in relation to the political, social, environmental aspects of the place where I was born and raised. We have these amazing photographs of her motorcycle stunt stuff, and people say, you need to write that book. I know.
AF: You’re making me realize I had this diving-board failure dream last night. Do you want to discuss your dream work?
HN: I’m not sure what I would say.
AF: We could consider recurring dreamy motifs from the book, like Chinaberry. How and why did Chinaberry keep coming up?
HN: I developed a relationship to this tree. Our last residence in Austin stood on level with a Chinaberry. We had this deck that backed directly to the tree’s crown. It is a feral Asian tree—considered a trash tree. When I first lived in Austin I had a negative relation to one. One at our first place fell over and got messy. Year later, when I lived so closely to this other Chinaberry, I was offered a different view, a close view where I could observe its cycles more carefully. Something shifted. Partly that had to do with like…OK, this was imported here. Communities actively introduced them in a lot of places that have low water, because they survive droughts. It’s Asian, OK, and introduced to this environment, so it became this other symbol, too. And it still got stressed in the drought. It grew really droopy. But the berries that I used to consider nuisances, that used to drop on the car, now hung in clusters. Then fruit-loving birds, Cedar Waxwings, came during our last years there and swarmed on this eyelevel Chinaberry. They ate its fruits and got kind of got drunk from fermented fruit. Butterflies would come through when it flowered. And I didn’t know Chinaberries had a delicate lavender fragrance until I’d moved this close to one. So the tree became a figure again in my writing environment, a figure in terms of its relationship to its environment, and became also me, and not me.
AF: Did you say one tree fell over?
HN: Our first place’s backyard had an old Chinaberry with a vine wrapped around it. During one storm that all fell over. But I was like, good riddance. At the time I had a very different approach. In fact, I wasn’t dealing with the tree at all. Then I realized I’d developed a relationship and Chinaberry references started surfacing, the way that happens: you look into the Chinaberry’s history and other references happen.
AF: I like how all of this relates to your title, too, to all the different ways that trees last. You’re definitely a poet attuned to your environment, both ecological and social. So anything you want to say about moving to Canada, how that has altered your relationship to physical, cultural, political landscapes?
HN: I can’t yet say much. I’m still getting my bearings. We’ve been here less than a year, but it’s interesting. I’ve started seeing differences articulate themselves in many different ways. It’s really exciting to feel a part of one of Toronto’s numerous poetry contexts. We’ve found great people. There’s so much going on. I’m trying to become sensitive to this environment. We’ve already hosted a few readings and brought poets from the U.S. to pair with local poets. Bringing those two communities closer, getting them speaking to each other in an informal living space—our home—has been fun and generative.
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, TX where they lived for 14 years. The author of eight books and chapbooks, she currently lives in Toronto, Ontario where she teaches poetics in a private workshop and at Ryerson University. Wave Books published her third full-length collection of poems, As Long As Trees Last, in September 2012.