What it Means to Stay: A Conversation with Hieu Minh Nguyen

*This interview took place at the 2018 Miami Book Fair.*

Bri Griffith: Yesterday, I was at the “If They Come For Us: Four Fierce and Tender Debuts” panel, and the poets [Fatimah Asghar; Marcelo Hernandez Castillo; Tiana Clark; José Olivarez] ended their reading with thoughts on slowing down, learning how to be human. What are your thoughts on the feeling, or need to constantly be producing or working? I know this book [Not Here] was published this year; how do you go about slowing down, taking time to celebrate this book and other accomplishments?

Hieu Minh Nguyen: I agree with that completely—slowing down and being patient. Personally, if I’m not creating something, I feel very anxious. I don’t think I could ever slow down in making work, but I think for me, the slowing down is not putting pressure on the art to become something. To stop thinking of art as some kind of product to later be sold, or later be distributed—to make the thing first, instead of making it with the idea of it becoming some kind of commodity, or some kind of capital. Making the art as a human rather than making the art as a profession. Though I do think writing is work, I think the slowing down is also finding the joy in it. If I wasn’t being published, if I didn’t have a book, I would still be writing. What would that work look like? What would that process be? Trying to remind myself even though it’s difficult because you can’t really go back, right? Trying to rediscover that process without the pressure of capitalism.

BG: I feel pressured sometimes as well to be doing stuff all the time, but also like you were saying, I don’t often like to do “nothing.” Writing is work, and I try to fit it in as much as possible.

HMN: Sometimes it feels like things are happening so fast. But also, if you think about how much time and effort it took before it became public, it changes the story. It’s not happening fast. Just because we are reading a poem, we don’t consider all the work that went into it.

BG: I noticed your poem “The Ranger” ends with the words: “Not here.” I was wondering where the title Not Here came from, if it’s connected to your poems about time travel, or your mentions of memory and thoughts on remembering things [throughout the book]?

HMN: I had a difficult time trying to come up with a title for this book. There were a lot of different titles, some of them I pulled from the actual poems. I came up with the title during the manuscript book camp with Fati [Fatimah Asghar]; I think she asked: “What are these poems trying to communicate?” For me, that question just led to another question, and I think all of my poems are attempts to answer: “What does it mean to stay? What does it mean to leave?” It was so much about space, and not necessarily physical space, but also mental and also about belonging—feeling like you don’t belong in physical spaces, or the context of the world, or sometimes even in your own body. It took a lot of stumbling, but eventually it got to Not Here.

BG: I think it’s a good title, and I think it’s a really beautiful book. There are so many good lines in here; there’s also, throughout your book and other poems of yours, thoughts of beauty and being beautiful. There are lines I really like in [your poem] “Staying Quiet”: “Sometimes I don’t / believe I exist until someone calls me beautiful.” Also, “Monica West is Moving to Omaha, Nebraska” is a great poem; I’ve heard you read it before and thought: “This is such a power poem.” There are lines in that poem that I really love: “Show out. Show up. Show the fuck up to a country that / uninvites you to the parade. Show up anyway[.]” While you’re writing, do you come across some lines or even some words where you’re like: “Fuck yeah, this is really good; this needs to go somewhere?”

HMN: Yeah, I think I have those moments where I’m like: “Oh, I really loved how I said this thing.” Sometimes it’s like, you’re trying to communicate a thought in the most condensed, efficient way you can, and oftentimes it takes me a long time because I go the long way before I can narrow it down to the right set of words to say what I want to say in the most accurate way. Not grammatically, but what’s closest to the thing I’m trying to say? Sometimes, when I feel like I get it, I’m really excited about it. Sometimes, those lines aren’t the ones people love the most, or people talk to me about the most, or get the most reaction, but I think they’re the ones that sometimes I’m most proud of because it took a lot of work.

BG: At the “If They Come For Us” panel, Tiana Clark talked about, sometimes while reading a poem, that there are certain lines you put in a poem maybe for yourself, but hearing other people react to them gives her a sense of: “You’re getting what I’m saying.”

HMN: Sometimes you think something only makes sense to you.

BG: Are there poems in here you don’t read very often?

HMN: Yeah, the long poem in the middle: “Again, Let Me Explain Again.” Sometimes I’ll read one section of it and incorporate it into a reading set, but sometimes I think I like what the poem does all together, and finding the time in a reading to read them all together is hard.

BG: Are there poems that make you more nervous to read than other poems, or poems where you question: “Should I read this?”

HMN: Sometimes I enter spaces and I’m uncomfortable reading some poems because I don’t know who’s listening. For safety reasons, or if I don’t feel comfortable reading it, I won’t read it. But also, sometimes, those spaces are the ones that need it the most. You have to ask yourself: “Is it worth reading this?” If you’re comfortable reading this you should read it in a space that needs it, or if the space needs it but you’re not comfortable, what do you prioritize? Sometimes you make that mistake, right, of reading a poem that you’re not comfortable reading in a room and the payoff is harm to yourself rather than a benefit to the room. None of the poems in the book I’m afraid to read out loud, generally. If I’m in a room and I feel comfortable I would read all the poems. Before I put it in the book, I had to be comfortable with it being in the world.

BG: When I first started writing poetry more seriously, I found myself writing imitation poems after other poets. What are your thoughts on writing imitation poems as a way of finding your own creative voice?

HMN: I think those are great, as long as you do find yourself. It can’t be mad libs: “These are things I’ll take out and I’ll throw in my own.” I think the imitation poems are the poems that you do inspired by somebody else, and there has to be a moment where they transform into you. I love it when I read a poem that is after someone, and I can’t figure out what is the part they were inspired by, if it’s just one line or even just two words, or even the sound of something, that’s what I love most because you can see how someone was inspired by something rather than trying to write their own version. I do think the imitation poem can be fun in discovering how you would approach something. I think the risk is when you want that imitation poem to do something for you out in the world, if you want to turn it into a product, you have to realize: “Maybe this isn’t really actually who I am.” To figure out where the inspiration isn’t necessary anymore, to cut that away, to see what’s left when the inspiration is gone, and that’s where you are.

BG: One thing I love about reading poetry is seeing things I would never think to do, have never seen before, and the way poems look on the page, [like] Diana Khoi Nguyen’s book [Ghost Of] and the filling in of space and the use of pictures, and Fatimah Asghar’s [poem] “Microaggression Bingo.” Visual poems are inspiring, seeing what a poem can be, what a poem can look like, that’s one of my favorite things about reading poetry and getting new books.

BG: I know you’re a BEOTIS Creative, and a Kundiman fellow. I was wondering if you could talk about the importance of being a part of a literary community or communities, celebrating other writers, and what it’s like working alongside people you love and who love you back?

HMN: That’s always been really important to me. After high school, I didn’t go to undergrad. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I was just a really poor student. The problem with figuring out what you want to do really early on is that you don’t care about anything else, so I just didn’t care about anything else other than poetry. I kind of just became obsessed with it and was happy working at a pizza shop during the day and writing at night, and being a part of poetry communities. Being a part of those communities, that’s where I learned, that’s where people who were traditionally educated taught me things. Every grant or artist statement I write I talk about being community educated, and how I got this second-hand knowledge. Maybe to some people [it] sounds bad, but I got a really hands-on, intimate education in poetry through people I already trusted, through people who knew my work and knew what I needed to learn rather than sitting in a classroom and trying to filter out what I need to learn vs. what I already know. I was really lucky to have that community. My desire to know more has led me to find other communities, and that’s why I applied to Kundiman, because I wanted to learn from other Asian Americans. BEOTIS is a little different; it’s a speaking agency, although a lot of people on the roster are a part of my community.

BG: I have two last questions. I read an interview you did with the Adroit Journal in 2016 where they asked you for two questions for their next contributors. You asked: “What excites you the most about the future of poetry? Or what are you afraid of?” I wanted to ask you those same questions.

HMN: I’m afraid of a lot of things. Sometimes it feels hard to think about the future when California is literally on fire, and children are being separated from their families. It’s hard to think about the future, but the future is happening, so you have to be a part of it. There are also a lot of things I’m excited about. I’m just excited to read more. Every day I’m discovering a new person to read, even though I’m discovering people I should’ve been reading so long ago. When I think about the future of poetry, it’s not necessarily the future of poetry in the worldly sense, but my future in poetry is also discovering older writers, or writers I haven’t discovered yet who already have work out. I don’t always think that we should think of the future of poetry as a linear thing, but we can always go back and study all the things that have been out before. I was really bad at rejecting what I was told is the canon, which made me only focus on the contemporaries, but I also think you can create your own canon. What is canonical poet to you and not necessarily your professors?