Ghost Diplomat

February 22, 2022


Poetry Off the Shelf: Ghost Diplomat






Helena de Groot: This is Poetry Off the Shelf. I’m Helena de Groot. Today, Ghost Diplomat.


Vietnam. If you live in the United States, the word has almost become synonymous with war. Isn’t that crazy? You can say, “My dad was in Vietnam,” or, “The ’60s ended with Vietnam,” and everybody knows you’re not talking about a place, a country—you’re talking about a war. A war that killed well over a million people, and made hundreds of thousands of people refugees.


Among these are the poet Hoa Nguyen, who was barely a year old when she and her mother fled Vietnam. But war is not the subject or even the starting point for her latest collection, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. Her mother is. And the story of her mother is remarkable. When she was just 15 years old, Hoa Nguyen’s mother, Diệp, her Vietnamese name, or Linda, her American name, left the farm she grew up on to join a traveling motorcycle circus troupe. They would perform daredevil stunts on their motorcycles by riding on the vertical sides of a barrel-shaped arena, also called, The Wall of Death. If you can’t quite picture the glamour and danger of it all, in the back of the book, you’ll find a series of photos. One of them, Nguyen’s made into a postcard. It’s a strangely intimate thing to find in a book, like a message, sent just to you. On that postcard you see a country road, dusty and flat. And in the distance, three figures, all three with long, waving hair and matching outfits. They’re riding their motorbikes, hands off the handlebars, one leg kicked out. They look proud, fierce, invincible, triumphant, free. But is that what they felt like, too? Here’s Hoa Nguyen.


Hoa Nguyen: It’s interesting, because the gallery of photos that I include at the back of A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure are from a scrapbook that only appeared after she passed away in 2019. So, I only grew up with four of the—I don’t know how many images, 12, 18, I didn’t count—images. Two where my mother is riding inside The Wall of Death, the barrel, going up the sides, in both pictures, hands free, which was a particular stunt. One where she’s writing down the road with her knee over the handlebar, and her hand and her chin. And then another of the troop—Viet Hung was their performance name—of five women with a central figure astride a motorbike. But it’s a still. And that was for a publicity shot. Those are the four that I looked at growing up. And growing up, they weren’t prominent in the home. They weren’t, like, visible or on display. And when I would look at them, they were just these kind of relics from another time. And my mother would have very little to say about them and say, “That was a long time ago.” And so it became this sort of unnarrated lore that was potent, but also sort of unbelievable in a certain way. In several ways. You know, my mother was kind of an ordinary seeming person, immigrant in the US, English, as a second language, became very deft with English, really had shed her Vietnameseness as much as she could and embraced her American identity. Worked as a waitress her whole life in the US. Was an amazing poker player, etcetera. So this did seem like from this completely other world and life. But the unnarrated nature of it also had to do with other pressures and other silences. And that was like, understood but also unnamed. So the images that came to the surface after she died, I actually had already written much of the manuscript, so it became a kind of another message from the past in a way, the archive sort of like, revealing itself towards the end of my making the poems, these expressive objects, and joining them into a conversation. And I think that’s part of the gesture of the postcard, is that, the image itself also travels and has a relationship between sender and receiver, is moving through time and space in unexpected ways. And then there’s a poem on the back of the postcard drawn from the penultimate poem in the in the book, which is, “We Sing To.” We’ll have to record this properly, because I’m not remembering it in this moment, but it’s a three-line poem that I’d love to share with you, but it’s on the back.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: Do you mind if I grab my—


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: Okay, let me go do that. Okay, I’m back. It’ll be an opportunity, too, to share the image that I was describing with you. It’s this one.


Helena de Groot: It’s so free, you know?


Hoa Nguyen: They’re so free. I know. I know. I mean, but then who knows what they were really feeling. They might have just been like—the bikes are kind of smelly, actually, it turns out. You know what I mean, like—


Helena de Groot: Like gasoline smelly or how?


Hoa Nguyen: Yeah, because they’re motorbikes, you know, so they’re like, probably loud and smelly. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: And it’s like, probably dusty on the road. But they just, they make the landscape so beautiful. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Absolutely.


Hoa Nguyen: But I started to recite the poem, which is called, “We Sing To,” which is on the back, and it’s this:




We Sing To


wing a string

we sing to

wing again


So it also became a kind of incantation and a way for, like, story to continue, body to body.




Helena de Groot: You said in an interview once that, as a little girl, you told one of the kids in school that your mother had been in the circus, you know, riding a motorcycle up walls. But this kid thought that you were lying. Can’t quite blame her, I guess, you know? But I was just wondering, like, what it was like to grow up with a story that is unbelievable, and that your mother didn’t really give you that much material to then go and prove it? Were you ever resentful of that? Did it just make you even more proud that you had this mom who had this incredible backstory? Like, how did it make you feel?


Hoa Nguyen: I didn’t really put much thought to it. I think it just joined the many sort of unsaid things, the unknown things that generally, you know, children don’t really have access to because they’re your parents and have their, you know, mysteriousnesses. And also, you know, in my mother’s case, I think she very purposely left it behind as a strategy to move forward. As an adaptation. You know? Mutability for her was a way to survive and succeed. And fulfill herself the best that she could. So, I think I just understood it as part of a fuller picture that included lots of things that I couldn’t understand because of my privilege, because of my cultural difference. And it’s interesting, too, I mean, I was born there, but I didn’t grow up there. So, you know, there’s roots there and there’s story there, but it’s inaccessible.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: And so that becomes also a sort of space to dwell inside, because it’s part of the experience.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, yeah.


Helena de Groot: But that is so—I mean, that is such the irony of generations, too, right, that your mother knew it all, had the experiences, had the language, and tried her very best to leave it behind her, you know, forget it almost. And then in comes you, the poet, who wants to document it all, who doesn’t have the history, who doesn’t have the language, and tries to make it appear again from the scraps. And yeah, I just wonder if that was apparent for you very early on, if you were the one who wanted to save and document and unearth.


Hoa Nguyen: Um … I think it has been an impulse for a really long time. I don’t know if that’s, like, part pre-disposition, or, you know, the particular historical moment in the Vietnamese diaspora, which is very sort of loaded. And, you know, my mother also lived through French colonialist time. Often that history gets completely obscured, including like, growing up without really understanding, like, what had even happened. So that also joined the sort of the, like, the circus life is as mysterious as sort of like, what even happened, you know? What are the historic pressures? And they certainly weren’t sort of shared in a cohesive way with me. And that’s part of also, like, looking at the cultural materials, like, how does this inform that experience? And also, what are the stories that aren’t centered and featured?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: You know, I understood that intimately growing up, like, not really seeing, as I said, having access to those kinds of histories or focuses, it was always, you know, perspectives from American soldiers, you know, in terms of, in popular culture. It certainly wasn’t a Vietnamese perspective or women’s, you know, perspectives. So, I think I was always sensitive to noticing, those noticings, you know, noticing inequities. And I think that was part of my impulse of trying to narrate with a set with a sense of restorativeness, I think. And then, yeah, probably being like, the eldest, you know?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: I have a younger sister. There is something, something there. But I think it was also maybe just a predisposition, if you were to, like, look at my sort of star chart, like, which, you know, my mother talked about, you know, I was born under particular kinds of stars, and there’s a placement where Saturn is like, right on top of my Chiron in the fourth house in Pisces. And it’s a really difficult placement. But it actually, like, powers my whole chart, which is coming up out of those kinds of wounds and performing art as transformation. You know, which is kind of heavy to like, carry around.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: But it does seem to be, like, an imprint from early on. Like, I was always interested in, like, when I was a kid, I was really interested in ghost stories and haunted places all the time. I wanted to be, like, a person that worked with spirit places, haunted places, and perform acts to help them, like, transit over. (LAUGHS) I was a very, very eccentric kid, clearly. But that was my idea of, like, a really cool job, that I could help spirits in haunted places. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) It’s so beautiful. How close, actually, you’ve stayed to that ambition. It’s remarkable.


Hoa Nguyen: Kind of, truly, it’s funny to me. (LAUGHING)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHING)


Hoa Nguyen: The ultimate, like, diplomat healer. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: But it’s also the realm of folk story, too, which I’m interested in how that intersects, because folk stories often do dwell in these sort of like haunted spaces. And certainly full of treachery and supernatural sort of happenings.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: And acts of adaptation and courage.


Helena de Groot: Yeah! And they’re also very dry about them often, right? Like, folk tales just mention these, you know, spirits and ghosts, as if, you know, you’re just talking about, your slippers next to the bed, like, here they are, you know? Where else would they be?


Hoa Nguyen: Yeah, the comb turned into a hedge. And so—(LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: What are you going to do? (LAUGHS) I felt that same kind of laconic tone in so many of your poems. Like, there is this one that is a retelling of a Vietnamese ghost story. And it’s this really dramatic tale, a kind of Romeo and Juliet situation, you know, a love story that ends with both of the lovers dead. And at the end of the poem, you write about the city where, you know, one of the lovers lives, “Đà Lạt made the site on the hill into an attraction you can visit because why not.” (LAUGHS) I thought that was so—Because, why not? I feel like that sums up so much of the tone of your poems. Like you go into these haunted places, you evoke all these spirits, and then you just shrug or you go like, “Yeah,” you know, because of course, why not?


Hoa Nguyen: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Or this four-word poem, titled, “Hagiography”:


            a saint she ain’t.


Probably about your mother.


Hoa Nguyen: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: I thought that was hilarious.


Hoa Nguyen: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: Again, you know, like, there’s this laconic tone. I thought we could just read a poem. To stay with your mother for a second, the poem on page 22, “Tryouts for the Flying Motorist Artist Team, 1958.”


Hoa Nguyen: Oh yeah.




Tryouts for the Flying Motorist Artist Team, 1958



She tried          sliding

pedaled torn pants



a “test of strength”

in the Barrel.   Ride a bicycle


Are you sure: a bicycle?


A bicycle


  Push and pedal

     Climb high banked sides


to try again and fall

to try again

and fall


(running blood)


They said: ok, stop,

    enough, you’re in!


She said  “I was the darkest one

   and the prettiest”


To ‘save’ performance shoes   they trained barefoot


   She took a taste of earth

held hands on the Wall of Death


Helena de Groot: Thank you. Yeah, I love how in so many of your poems, your mother appears with a little comment or a little aside, like, “I was the darkest one / and the prettiest.” You make her really come to life. But what I was also curious about—so it seems from this tryout, this audition, that the reason they selected her was maybe not her skill on the bicycle, but her willingness to fall and fall and fall again. That that was really what they were looking for. You know, someone who was not afraid. Of danger, of pain. And your mother clearly had a higher tolerance for it. And there is another poem where you write, “A motorbike kickstand will pierce her right knee   take a deep piece of meat    Fear is not part of it.” So I was just wondering what that was like for you, to grow up with a mother so fearless?


Hoa Nguyen: She was, she was really fearless. I just knew her as this very competent, no-shit-taking person who knew her worth. Yeah, her life was deeply inspiring. I mean, she was a child when she left home. She was 15 years old when she left home. And she left home because she was like, “This is not it. There’s nothing happening for me here.” She lived on a farm, was not sent to school, was told very early that she had no role except for to serve on this farm and take care of the kids and be expected to marry at the right age and to the person that they pick. And that was it. That was your life. And she was like, “That’s not what I want.” So she—and also she had this, like, shitty uncle. And so she’s like, “No, I’m gone.” And so like, when my kids turned 15 or when I turned 15, that was very, you know, like a kind of marker, like, when I turned 27, I was trying to imagine, like, leaving my country and never speaking English again. And really not sharing English with my children. You know, learning customs of a completely other place. And it’s remarkable. She was remarkable in those ways, but also like, ordinary. So many women of her diaspora also were incredibly remarkable and often unnarrated. So, really, that again goes back to that other impulse, which—and maybe that’s also like a way of wanting to honor her, too. But it’s really also to, like, look more largely at her diaspora and the women of her generation, and the people of Vietnam who have lives and experiences. (LAUGHS) Which are generally unrepresented.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, totally. You know, I was wondering about that, too, like, once the book came out, did people come to you with their stories? You know, because you said you were interested in not just her, but all these untold stories, of the whole Vietnamese diaspora. Is there something that comes to mind?


Hoa Nguyen: Actually, what has been such a beautiful surprise and gift is people of many diasporas coming to me and saying, “Well, my mother had this whole life before she emigrated.” But also, you know, fathers, those relationships that are marked by diaspora in different pronounced ways responding to the book. In ways that I understood were not about, like, information inside of the storytelling, but this other space of the body to body experience, and how they mark relationships. And I think that we bear marks that are traumatic. And I don’t really like to center those things, because I don’t feel like those are necessarily central, but they’re certainly expressed. You know?


Helena de Groot: Yeah. This is interesting, because, I feel like your book does not—for all of the traumatic backdrop, it does not center trauma. And it made me think of this essay by Parul Sehgal in The New Yorker recently. It was an essay against the omnipresent trauma plot in our current stories, you know, whether that’s on TV or it’s in books. And she was so bored with this conceit. You know? That there is, you know, whatever, a character’s quirks and their particularities are just sort of explained away by some tragic event in their past. And she wanted to go back to a kind of storytelling where people are quirky and particular, yeah, maybe there are some tragic event in their past, but we don’t know. People usually don’t talk about that. So why can’t we just let that be unknown, and let the person be complex without trying to always reduce it to like, “Oh, this is why.” Anyway, I thought about that essay so much as I was reading your book, because of course, you center your mother and you make it very clear that she was this full, complex, contradictory person who … definitely had trauma in her past. A lot of it. You know, there’s the war. There is the fact that she had children before you and they either died or she—


Hoa Nguyen: Yeah, like, love stories that, you know, don’t work out. That are really hard. Those mark you.


Helena de Groot: Yeah! Friends who die and kill themselves. I mean, like, you know, really rough things, but you do not at any point in your book, you do not center that trauma kind of explanation or that, that is not a motor for your mother’s life. And I just was interested in keeping that complexity at every point, while there is such a drive towards funneling every story that has trauma in the backdrop into that narrow format of the trauma plot. Can you tell me about your process doing that?


Hoa Nguyen: I mean, I think I approach the work from also, like, my complex of being a diasporic Vietnamese mixed-race person of a particular time. So, you know, I also wanted to have perspectives that were many. I mean, one of the reasons why I include my mother’s voice is I have long been interested in those kinds of polyphonic spaces. I wanted to include room for ghosts. Like, literally ghost stories, stories about ghosts, but also sort of actual ghosts that are being addressed or evoked. For me, it’s never really been about sort of narrating incident of a life, single. Although certainly that informs the work, the ways in which the events unfold and time space is experienced. I mean that informs the work. But it’s not sort of an aboutness, like, my life as a, for example, in the poems. And so in a similar way, I didn’t want, like, my mother’s life to be operating in this sort of simple kind of description, narration form. I didn’t want to just describe the photographs and narrate a sort of event, but evoke.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: But, trying to kind of circle back more closely to your initial question, you know, I understood that I would manage those materials through tonal distances or tonal angles, so, or texture. So like you had noted, like, humor, that’s one way that that can operate to, like, manage difficulty or trouble inside of event or history. Also, formality, that dryness, you were saying—


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: A kind of dryness that also can impart humor, but also, it can just impart sort of declarative things. Managed also through, like, found text like the Vogue magazine text, scraps of newspaper that—actually that scrap of newspaper was found in the back of a photograph I was taking out of its frame after my mother died, and it had just been a little piece of padding that she had put in there. But it was from, it was from when she was shipping it, when she moved from Saigon to the US. So it was like, the summer, you know, that she moved.


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Hoa Nguyen: So that was the significance of that found object.


Helena de Groot: Like almost an accidental little scrap of history, like it was just basically wrapping paper or padding.


Hoa Nguyen: Uh-huh. It was just, yeah, it was just a little cushion so that the glass of the photograph wouldn’t break. I was interested in how it could provide sort of the atmosphere setting, and also withhold information. Like, in that piece, you know, it says like, these are the lucky numbers, but it doesn’t tell you what the lucky numbers are.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: There’s also ways I was interested in obscuring as also a gesture to manage the materials, but also, to be playful, you know, and also signal to the reader, it’s not really about disclosure.


Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm. I would like to ask you to pick a poem that is the least narrative, that is the least declarative and dry and kind of, you know, factual. Something that is sort of the most oblique.


Hoa Nguyen: So, I think that one of them would be this poem, hold on. It’s the poem that has that going on. It’s on page 62.


Helena de Groot: Okay.


Hoa Nguyen: “Spoken Through the Cracked Eye.”


Helena de Groot: Oh yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: Which, of course, like that title, “Spoken Through the Cracked Eye,” you know, is interested in like, language’s slippages, right? So spoke, “spoken through the cracked eye” is like, the poem is being delivered through an eye that is cracked open. Or it is an eye that has been cracked. And that is the aperture. But then also like, “spoken through the cracked eye” as this incomplete phrase is also kind of delivering its information in an open way, is part of it.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. And it feels synesthetic too, right? I mean, we usually don’t speak through our eyes.


Hoa Nguyen: Exactly. (LAUGHS) Okay.




Spoken Through the Cracked Eye


   Drink from the stars

womb-woven song



   silt gift

slit mouth spilled open

           and grain pours out


   to be free and alive


arms out like wings on either side


You’ll stab each other like needles

 said her grandfather

   with his star charts

and too many books for a farmer


           but what

  about the aborted ‘babies’


    Of course

their souls fly and help us in counsel

can cauterize memory


But what

happens     when luck happens

   her solo memento

   that photo


     an island delt a route nest

  a dragon tongue drum

and leatherette clasp purse


   “In the future even stones will need each other”


Helena de Groot: Oh, I love that poem, and I love having it read to me! I really wish that audio books for poetry was a thing. You know, that people just standard do those. Yeah, and I love the rhythm of it, too. You know, how you’re on this roll, very smooth. “But what /

happens     when luck happens / her solo memento / that photo,” and then comes in, “an island delt a route nest / a dragon tongue drum / and leatherette clasp purse,” like you can’t even string it together. Clasp purse.


Hoa Nguyen: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: Again, it’s so very physical. And even though I have no idea what you’re talking about with, “an island delt a route nest / a dragon tongue drum / and leatherette clasp purse.” I mean, maybe the purse I can still imagine. But I also sort of don’t even want to know, you know what I mean? My impulse now is not to ask you, now that I have you right in front of me, “Tell me, explain to me, what does this mean?”


Hoa Nguyen: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: I love that you just open this place of mystery.


Hoa Nguyen: I’d be like, “What does mean mean?”


Helena de Groot: Exactly, that wonderful two-year-old kind of line of questioning.


Hoa Nguyen: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Well, I’d love to actually immediately go to a poem that, to me, contrasts this as much as possible and then ask you about that contrast. It’s that poem, “Napalm Notes.” Let me find the page number. It’s on 17, page 17.


Hoa Nguyen: Yes.




Napalm Notes


Developed in secret

at Harvard     produced


by Dow Chemical

An efficient incendiary formula


perfected on Valentine’s Day

1942      A thickened


gasoline       Can be

dropped from planes


(napalm bombs)

also flamethrowers


8 million tons of bombs

in Vietnam     Burns at


1,500-2,200 (1/5th as hot

as the surface of the sun)


Very sticky        stable

also          relatively cheap



Helena de Groot: Thank you. That killer last line, “also       relatively cheap.” Yeah, I just wanted to ask you about those two poems in contrast, “Spoken Through the Cracked Eye,” and in this one, “Napalm Notes.” And I was interested in how you are going into writing these poems.


Hoa Nguyen: Yeah, I don’t know how other artists work with different materials, but with language, it’s like similar, I’m imagining, they’re just really different kinds of materials. I mean, also notes, that kind of kind of gives the form. And I tend to write notes as poems across books as well. So it’s a form that is very kind of forgiving, because it can accumulate information, it can interact with experiences. You know, it’s kind of a list form, which is a longtime form that I appreciate and has a long history that also imbues it with its, with references. And I think that that’s one of the ways in which, as I was saying earlier, like, you can manage materials that are maybe difficult, like the history of napalm, you know?


Helena de Groot: Right.


Hoa Nguyen: To put it into to that form. So that looked really different. You know, that was researched and so on. And I sort of selected the form. A sort of more open form that is inviting, you know, in conversation with sort of a space that is not tied to chronological time, or is not tied to rational time. Yeah, that looks really different. And I’m trying to remember if I can recall the exact sort of circumstances that helped bring about that poem, “Spoken Through the Cracked Eye.” But, you know, I often set up my creative zone, if you will, you know, my sort of workspace, with things that can incite my imagination, you know? So, I think that actually with this one, I might have done a mandala drawing. Sometimes I’ll do like a—I’m not a visual artist, just to make it clear, (LAUGHING) I will draw an abstract design inside of a circle. I find it really meditative. And then I will write in response to what I see and what it invites. But it’s all a form of reading, in a certain way. It’s like reading my own sort of, sort of siftings, reading my own sort of responses, and reading, like, the visual presentation that I just laid down. It also could have included, like, tarot. I have a tarot practice that sometimes helps me resolve blocks in my creative process. And also in form with their imagery and narrative aspects of the verse that then ends up on the page.


Helena de Groot: And which modality or, like, which version of you do you have the easiest access to?


Hoa Nguyen: Um … you know, it’s, they’re just, they’re so different. I’m also thinking of that that ghost story poem that you referred to earlier, which also was a referenced poem from listening to a podcast that comes out of Ho Chi Minh City and is attached to a magazine whose name I’m forgetting— The Saigoneer. Anyway, The Saigoneer podcast, and actually the end of that poem is really in large part because, like, the end of the telling of that story and they’re like, “And now it’s an attraction that people can visit.” So, “because why not.” And it also is like a very Vietnamese moment, because there’s a certain practicality that I find sort of a common thread that feels like home when I hear it expressed. So it can look all different. I mean, obviously, the napalm one, that’s pretty damn heavy. So like, I, that was like a day of like, where I didn’t have to see anybody. (LAUGHING) And I could like weep on the floor. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: But it’s all just really kind of trying different things, and sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re not. And it has to do with also, like, what’s sort of presenting itself, like, where you are in your rhythm. I certainly wouldn’t have set out to do that work if I were in a rhythm of like, kind of that opens a space where your imagination can really take form. I wouldn’t start in on a napalm poem project, because I would just go—


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: Right? I would only do that if the other thing was missing, you know, so they do feel really different. So there’s a sort of one where you’re setting up the invitation for the content of the poem, in hopes that you’ll manifest what you’re hoping will come together.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: And the other is much more sort of open-ended proposal, sort of like, I’m going to, you know, maybe just consider, like,this seashell for a minute, and think about narration. And time, which is a very different consideration, that also needs other kinds of support. So, yeah, like, I don’t listen to music, but yeah, having lots of materials around me—there’s a book that’s called Star Names and Their Lore. That’s a book that I like to keep around. I like to keep a etymological dictionary around. I like keeping a classical dictionary around. I have one that’s my favorite. It’s Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary. It’s the one that Keats had used. So I’m particularly attached to it, because he was my first love of poetry.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, your eldest son is named after him sort of, right?


Hoa Nguyen: Yeah, it is a sort of a sidelong homage to Keats. But also it has embedded in his naming a time when I, with friends and my husband, Dale Smith, we went to visit Robert Creeley when he was living in Buffalo and a hawk came and landed on a lilac bush right outside the window. And he took a picture of it, and it felt auspicious that this hawk came and visited while we were visiting Creeley. And then I found out that the name Keaton means “where the hawks go.” So I was like, well, if he seems like a Keaton, then the hawk will have brought his name. So it’s like double poetry.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. So that is you being open to the signs.


Hoa Nguyen: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: The noticings.


Hoa Nguyen: I think those kinds of things happen all the time.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, when you want to see them, right? I mean, they happen also when you don’t want to see them. (LAUGHS) But.


Hoa Nguyen: It’s true. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: You notice them less. I was wondering if you wanted to read one last poem. It’s the one called, “Durian Sonnet”, on Page 54. Before we start, for a second, I thought, oh, what does a Durian sonnet? That’s a form of the sonnet that I don’t know. So I looked it up, and I only could find references to the, you know, the smelly fruit.


Hoa Nguyen: (LAUGHS) Yes, it’s the notorious fruit that’s native to Southeast Asia. And it just really makes only a glancing appearance in this sonnet called, “Durian Sonnet”, which is also sort of a playful gesture, I think, that that has some wry humor in it.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: Yeah.




Durian Sonnet


I lost this sonnet once     I may lose it again

I wore the design described as concealment

and surprise    The split sides and hugged features

You had to lift your arms out for the poster


photograph   You had to leave your arms out

to show your Circus Daring    to say you chose this

To say you are flying     flying        fucking flying

on the small French motorbike            Hair


also flying and a glamor shot smile     I ask Diệp to tell

me who they are       the women, pictured in black & white

colorful stripes    5 in all-women motorcycle troupe

(Durian translates as “private sorrow”)     She says


Hm, I think she’s dead    I don’t know what happened to her

She killed herself          I don’t know what happened to her



Helena de Groot: Thank you. I love this poem so much. You know, the way it starts. This is a line that I thought echoed through the book: “I lost this sonnet once       I may lose it again.” Yeah, what we have, we know, you know, it’s not ours to keep.


Hoa Nguyen: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: And then again, you know, going back to like that courage that your mother clearly had, but also probably had to have, “You had to leave your arms out / to show your Circus Daring    to say you chose this / To say you are flying     flying        fucking flying / on the small French motorbike.” Ah, and then, yeah, that laconic ending of you showing your mother a photograph of her and her colleagues in the troupe. And, you know, ask what happened to them. And then she replies, “Hm, I think she’s dead    I don’t know what happened to her / She killed herself          I don’t know what happened to her.” And I’m so grateful for the way in which you were able to, in these tiny little quotes, these micro scenes, bring your mother to life. Yeah. How you do that so concisely. And your mother has passed away in the summer of 2019?


Hoa Nguyen: Yes. Mm-hmm.


Helena de Groot: And I was wondering, after she passed, was there anything that you felt differently towards? Or was there anything you felt freer to say or, or more reticent to say?


Hoa Nguyen: Um … no, not particularly. I mean, my mother never placed any restraints on my writing about her for this work. She knew I was working on it. She actually heard me read from an earlier draft of the manuscript. It was in February. She passed away in June. So, I was really grateful that she got to attend. And I showed the four photographs that I had, that I had made into projections at the end as the culmination to the reading, and it brought the house down.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Hoa Nguyen: And she was there, and she was like, “Oh, I’m so famous.” It was wonderful. And I think that her seeing like, oh, you know, I have books as, you know, like, when she saw the crowd that came to the performance, she was just like, “Wow.” It’s funny because Ocean Vuong had a similar response from his mother. (LAUGHING) His mother saw him give a reading to a roomful of people. She was like, “Oh, you’re really important.”


Helena de Groot: You’re legit!


Hoa Nguyen: And, you know, this venue at the University of Maryland is very legit. And actually, the room was full of all kinds of people, lots of students. So there are a lot of Asian American students there. And actually, that was really exciting. And there was a line to have me sign my book, which hardly ever happens. So I was like, “Oh, my god.”


Helena de Groot: Great timing for that.


Hoa Nguyen: Yes, but this was before the book that she’s in came out. So this is my previous work, but I would have liked to have her seen the actual thing. So, I didn’t really alter anything. I was concerned that the book would form a sort of elegy energy, you know, through—elegy energy, in that it would become elegiac. And not that that’s a bad thing, but I didn’t want that to predominate the book, either.


Helena de Groot: Interesting.


Hoa Nguyen: And so, it just introduced sort of this other set of, I think, tonal negotiations because there’s, you know, ways in which a woman’s writing about her mother, there’s already sort of a set up of like, it being diminished, you know, as sentimental or, you know, so there’s that whole sort of treachery. I mean, maybe I could have just not cared about that. But I felt strongly that I wanted there to be a kind of multifacedity—is that a word? Multifacetedness. So, it didn’t really change anything. Although, like, as I shared with you, there’s that one poem that I, you know, deals with a sensitive love story, gone, you know, gone poorly that I would have liked to have shared with her. I think she would have been moved. She always really trusted me. But I wish I could have shared like the response for the book with her.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Hoa Nguyen: She came to me in a dream, actually, not that long ago, after not having appeared to me all this time, to my disappointment, of course, right? You always want your dead to be present. And it was right before the book was recognized as a finalist for the National Book Award. And she just appeared just very, like, buoyant and happy. And then I knew, I was like, okay, she’s feeling it. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)




Helena de Groot: Hoa Nguyen is the author of the poetry collections A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Governor General’s Literary Award. And before that, Violet Energy Ingots, finalist for The Griffin Poetry Prize, As Long as Trees Last, and Red Juice. She received a Pushcart Prize and a Neustadt International Prize for Literature nomination, as well as grants and fellowships from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, the MacDowell, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She teaches at Miami University’s low residency MFA program, in the Milton Avery School for Fine Arts at Bard College, and as associated faculty for the University of Guelph. She lives in Toronto with her husband, the poet Dale Smith, and their two children. To find out more, check out the Poetry Foundation website. The music in this episode is by Todd Sickafoose and Eric Van der Westen. I’m Helena de Groot, and this was Poetry Off the Shelf. Thank you for listening.





Hoa Nguyen on photographs, her mother's past with the motorcycle circus, and the quiet ways to talk to ghosts.

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