Conversation with Contributors: Hieu Minh Nguyen and Muriel Leung (Issue Sixteen, Poetry)

Let’s kick things off with a series of questions from our previous featured contributor, Joel Hans. Joel asks, “If you could hand-pick or delineate the ideal audience for your work, would you? If so, is it a particular individual, a certain collective, or something you can’t quite explain? What do you think this audience, in particular, has to gain from reading your work? If you feel like you have that audience already, can you talk about how you got there, and if not, what barriers are keeping you from reaching them right now?”

HMN: Wow. That’s a great question. I’m not really sure if my poems have just one audience, but I often joke that my poems are like a bat signal for lonely people. But honestly, I really do hope there’s a little truth to that. I guess I hope my work can offer people little escapes from their loneliness.

ML: In a nutshell, when I write, my audience is queer, women or nonbinary, of color, cognizant of immigration histories, and believes in ghosts. I’m happy when the work resonates with many different bodies in the room that identify otherwise, but these are the bodies I picture. There’s a certain amount of control one does have over their audience, and a lot of it boils down to language – the particular lexicon one uses, the references, whether or not a text exists in multiple languages, etc. These decisions ensure that some may “get” the work more than others at certain points and the rest will just have to deal. I think the joy of reading poetry (or anything, really) is when you stop thinking about difference as a foreign or strange encounter, but work to learn the language of the text and the author’s position. My ideal readers, in addition to the ones who read the work already and share in my communities/identities, are those who try to read beyond the contexts of their own bodies despite occupying different spaces in the world.

I think it’s easy to absorb the blame as a queer writer of color for not writing in such a way that is palatable across the board. Critiques about obfuscation, being too sentimental, too narrative, not experimental enough, too many inside jokes requiring specific cultural contexts to completely understand—I seem to have gotten it all in writing workshops. But at some point, one realizes that what wasn’t being understood was an issue of my immediate readers’ limited purview. On the other hand, I’ve acquired such a wide bag of knowledge of white canonical writing and references—the James Joyce quote, the references to a famed character in a Flannery O’Conner short story, and the particular narrative structures of different William Faulkner novels. How is it fair that while others can scrape by reading only white writers, my education includes the study of literature of my own marginalized communities in addition to the white male canon, which I only have access to by acquired privilege of sticking it out through cycles of graduate study? I’m doing the work – still doing the work to read as widely as possible. In terms of my audience, I ask that they do the same.

What are you reading right now?

HMN: I just finished reading Carl Phillips’ Tether, and I’m still trying to recover. I’ve been thinking about some of those poems everyday. Also, I just started Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair, and it’s a stunner. Sometimes when I get excited about reading a book, I start to sweat. It’s not very cute.

ML: Currently, I’m reading several recently released poetry collections such as Kimberly Alidio’s After projects the resound (Black Radish 2016), Kay Ulanday Barrett’s When the Chant Comes (Topside Press 2016), Carolina Ebeid’s You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior (Noemi Press 2016), Angela Penaredondo’s All Things Lose Thousands of Times (Inlandia Institute 2016), and Map of an Onion (Inlandia Institute 2016). I love these books for how history creeps along their pages.

In fiction, I’m reading Dana Johnson’s In the Not Quite Dark and (finally!) Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

And the imperative read for every new graduate student – Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling.

How did you get into writing? Why do you continue to write?

HMN: In middle school I was a really big theatre geek. It was a very intense time. I really wanted to be an actor, but when I got to high school, they only offered social justice theatre classes. I had no idea what that meant at the time, but in that class we learned how to write and perform work about topics that were important to us. Writing poems just seems like a natural transition from that work.

ML: I wanted to write to invent a world where I saw myself living.

Several writers and I were talking one day and were surprised to find that we had all at some point written fan fiction. Or vampire novellas. Or some other form of writing that involved the merging into of a world that existed and was widely talked about on TV and other media at the time. I think we wrote because we were lonely and writing in this way allowed us to be part of somebody’s world, not just in the passive viewer way, but as one who can expand upon its walls. We use the word “escape” a lot for this sort of writing, but there’s a real world embodiment here. I wrote so I could feel a bit bolder each day.

I think some of those feelings of loneliness and desire to engage intimately with the world still persist now. I think the difference now is that I’m interested in creating something new that can still clearly showcase the lineage from which this work comes from. It’s comforting to hear from someone, for instance, that they can tell I harbor a strangeness derived from an equally strange childhood. I suppose I write because that part of me still lives there, even if in disguised form.

Muriel, your poem, World’s Tiniest Human, in Adroit Issue Sixteen is haunting. It hurts me in the best way and I think it’s because there’s power in what is left unsaid. Do you actively withhold in your writing process? How do you know when something should not be said?

ML: Thank you! What I find most interesting in the story of Thumbelina (the figure who inspired “World’s Tiniest Human”) is that she is considered fragile and yet she is determined to tackle the bigness of the world. I think there’s such bravery to that as well as a sense of calculated risk. I believe she readied herself for danger even if she didn’t know exactly what form or shape it might take. What a sense of survival a girl like that can learn just by moving in the world!

Withholding is a survival skill just as being perpetually open and vulnerable can be one too. I think of withholding as being watchful, as observing how others move in reaction to you being in a space. I think sometimes it’s important to not immediately divulge the story of your life if you know it won’t be in safe hands. It’s the same with writing—with good writing you can convince the reader to stay with you even if the end goal isn’t immediately clear. And that’s an act of trust on the writer’s part. For the reader too, I don’t think trust should be automatically granted to the text. Writer and reader should both be doing the work to talk to each other, and the act of reading should be a type of work that feels gratifying for the time it takes and the intimate knowledge that is revealed. I know, for instance, that after some density of prose, I often think I should offer space for the reader to breathe and take in content a different way. It takes some special consideration of how different readers might read and what my work can do to respond with some generosity.

Hieu Minh, I’m very glad I was introduced to your work through Apology, Sort Of and Commute in Adroit Issue Sixteen because you tackle heavy topics of queerness, brown-ness, and more with open defiance. You state things very clearly, almost blunt. Is that an artistic choice? What is more important: the narrative or the imagery of a poem?

MN: I’m all about sentiment, and figuring out how to get that sentiment to come across to the reader. Sometimes it’s through narrative. Sometimes it’s through imagery. I guess it depends on what I think will be most effective.

You’re both editors, Muriel for Apogee Journal and Hieu Minh for Muzzle Magazine. What are qualities of poems that have completely captured your attention?

HMN: I feel really lucky to get to read so many people’s poems. It’s my favorite part of being an editor, and as an editor, you have to read a lot of work. The poems that I am instantly drawn to are the poems that don’t make me think of other poems when I read them.

ML: I love work that does something interesting with its form, that is complicated and against hand-holding, poems about the body, poems that aim to not reproduce the infliction of trauma and violence through their reading (but poems that do work to critique the producers of trauma and violence though), poems that sometimes double as prayers, spoken poems, performed poems, poems that are a multi-headed hydra of different forms and media, work that pools together instead of divide and conquer, anti-colonial work, love notes, love is political notes, epistolary poems addressed to ghosts, writing about longing, writing about longing for a form to contain its desire, words dressed in its own fatigue, tongue-tied poems, poems with split tongues, poems that play double-dutch with language, poems that trouble and traverse the space between you and me.

Both of you are also Kundiman fellows. What is it like to be a Kundiman fellow?

HMN: Thrilling! There are secret Kundiman lairs across the country. Just kidding?? I actually met Muriel at my first Kundiman retreat! Some of my closest friendships started at that retreat. That has easily been the best part about being a fellow, meeting and building with a network of incredibly kind and generous people.

ML: Imagine you’ve dreamed of a city your whole life and you’ve searched for it everywhere you go. One day, someone approaches you and another. And another. They don’t give you this city of your dreams, but they do give you postcards of other places you have never thought to visit, but why not? When you put together those patchwork postcards, you get some semblance of something better than you ever dreamed of.

I think we dream of community in idealistic terms and we want things to fit in a certain way to fill a certain longing. It’s not that Kundiman has offered me all the answers about how my identity politics factor into my writing at all times, but I have met some amazing people—to know them in the context of a space that feels safe, inviting, and loving all at the same time. How often are we alone with our words? How often do we write alone? Kundiman reminds me I’m not alone.

In the same vein, how do you make literature your (pardon me for lifting this directly from the Kundiman site) “vehicle for cultural expression” and “instrument for political dialogue and self-empowerment”? How can we all harness literature in this way? Or is it innate?

HMN: I think I’m still trying to learn and figure this one out. But first, I think you have to want your work to exist in the world in this way. Lately, I’ve been just trying to write what I won’t allow myself to forget.

ML: I don’t think it’s innate. I think it’s about intention and awareness of how one’s voice gets read across a larger body politic. I do think we have a responsibility to each other (to the world) when we write and especially when we publish the work to be read widely. That responsibility means to not reproduce the harms we see in the world, to be cognizant of other bodies that occupy spaces different from ours, and to produce writing that checks the history of where it comes from and where it can go. That being said, I’m not too sure if “cultural expression” or “political dialogue” or “self-empowerment” quite captures what I try to do per se. For example, much of my writing is self-flagellating and flawed and sometimes too frank about self-destructive tendencies. I think they’re issues that need to be talked about—bodies that do not fit into normative categories of wellness, traumatized bodies, bodies that are continuously triggered, etc. I think the work itself is messier than what the terms can capture, but the larger goal is, yes, towards social and political awareness, to stretch the discourse of Asian American poetics beyond its current container. It has to go beyond representational politics though. It has to be critical of its own categories and be willing to shed its terms to be free moving for a while. Again, we have to try at this, especially as writers of color. We don’t have the privilege for things to be granted to us by pure accident.

I know for me, writing poetry has sometimes become a confession of sorts, an almost, “I’m still here and I’m not leaving.” Is it the same for you? If not, to you both, what does it mean to write poetry?

HMN: Totally! I might also add a, “I’ve been here!”

ML: I love that—“I’m still here and I’m not leaving.” I want to write it in the sky. I never want to leave. My mother once lamented that getting older meant you worried about being forgotten (and would she be forgotten?) I write because I don’t want to forget, especially not my mother. Especially not the many people I’ve loved and lost in my life. I’ve gotten worried, actually, that all my poems have become elegies, even my love poems. What does that say about my fear about departure? It helps to think about how memory is unreliable at the end of the day and that we remember and then we don’t. A poetry of uncertainty feels much more suitable for its form than one that proposes to know the answers. I think I write because I’m unsure and I think you’re unsure too.

All right, so can you tell us about some of your current projects? What are you doing now? What are we going to see from Muriel Leung and Hieu Minh Nguyen in the next few months, years?

HMN: I’m currently working on my second collection poetry, Not Here, forthcoming with Coffee House Press in 2018. The book is centered around my complicated relationship with my mother, and discusses how whiteness and colonialism even have effects on things like forgiveness.

ML: Yes! My first poetry collection, Bone Confetti (Noemi Press 2016) was just released and I’m eager to just spend time letting it hold space in the world. I’ve always had other projects going on simultaneously, so it’s exciting to devote time to them now. Right now, I’m working on a revision of The Little Red Riding Hood fairytale about a girl who was born half wolf and half human. There are at least five iterations of it going on now, one particularly that is an illustrated digital narrative project. I’m a little bit all over the place and it’s fun and chaotic all at the same time. I’m learning filmmaking and I’m playing with digital illustration tools. I’m collaborating on poetry and sound projects with my musician partner, Matt Orenstein. There’s more but I think it’s starting to sound carnivalesque now so I’ll stop.

Thanks so much for your time! Can you give us two questions to ask our next contributor(s)?

HMN: What excites you the most about the future of poetry? Or what are you afraid of? 

ML: 1) Is there anything you are too afraid to do in your writing but would like to accomplish in your lifetime? What do you think is the place of fear in writing?

2) How do you consider your writing in relationship to “work”? Is it work for you? And if so, how would you categorize it? Why do you think it might be important to talk about the relationship between writing and work?

Audrey Zhao

Audrey Zhao is a high school senior at Marin Academy in northern California. She was a poetry mentee in The Adroit Journal’s 2015 Summer Mentorship Program. Audrey is constantly learning what it means to be ‘Audrey Zhao’ from mistakes/successes, people, events, and herself.

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