An Interview with Hoa Nguyên

Kore Biters
A monthly interview series that highlights the writing and literary activism of
women writers who are transgressive and transformative.

by Arisa White and Rosebud Ben-Oni

Being projection-able


What was your last bite?

A nugget of raw cacao with blue green algae and dried goji berries. My older son just declared it “hippy candy.”

Tell us about the origins of “Skanky Possum” Magazine.

In 1996, my partner Dale Smith and I had moved to Austin, TX, from San Francisco where we had met in graduate school at the now defunct New College of California. We wanted to continue in the small press tradition, inspired by Dale’s previous magazine Mike and Dale’s Younger Poets—which was in turn inspired by Amiri Baraka and Diane di Prima’s Floating Bear and other small presses by poets of that era and beyond. Its aim was to extend conversations in poetry. We named it after a possum that visited us on Higgins Street, made hand-painted covers with the help of friends, and funded it out of pocket, on credits cards, and in the tradition of la perruque.

“Swell” is an incredible poem. What inspired it?

I wrote it alongside fellow poets during a long running private workshop I lead. Together we read through a large body of work and then we write in response to the poems and strategies of the text, plus other prompts of my original design.

When I wrote “Swell,” we were reading and writing through Alice Motley’s Selected Poems. The poem is informed by her poetry, a dream of mine, a tarot card I had drawn, and the sonic possibilities between words.

Who are some of your biggest influences? 

Many, ongoing; so many poets I’ve met in books. My teachers. My life partner Dale. My contemporaries and friends. My mother. A coven of women poets I have read deeply and consider models (because they made it their own way): Joanne Kyger, Anne Waldman, Gloria Frym, and Alice Notley.

We really dig your words in the “Talking About What We Don’t Talk About” roundtable on Harriet, especially when you affirmed: “I’m at a place (age?) where I won’t play nice—and yes, I think this will make me a target. But hell, just being an Asian American woman who is confident and claims space has made me—trying to be “nice” or not.” Tell us more.

I call it “being projection-able.” By target I mean the experience of being suddenly and utterly rejected because I have not behaved in keeping with the ideas of how people want me to be, not following the script, not being what they deem as acceptable.

So when insisting on being otherwise, as having my own trajectory, of being messy or complicated—and on top of that, being bright and visible, well, it can get ugly. It has led me to some really horrible interactions with white intellectuals and artists: men and women both.

I don’t let it get as ugly any more because I can see more clearly when it is happening and speak. Or I just walk.

Do you ever struggle with speaking your truth? When do the words not come?

Yes. In the flight or fight moments. I have collapsed. I have froze. I have also punched a man in the face before.

Of course sometimes I think of all the things I wish I had said in a moment of conflict. Sometimes I put my words on hold because the timing doesn’t feel right and sometimes I regret that.

But you know what? I have found that what they say about cold revenge is true.

So you punched a guy in the face, why? What was your breaking point?

Fatigue, rage, mixed with youth. It was a long time ago: undergrad party at Georgetown, on campus; a close friend invited me (she went to school there, I did not). Upon entering, I end up crossways with one of the hosts, a young white guy—I don’t remember what it was about. Sports? Me not smiling? The brand of beer? Anyway, I’ll call him G. It was a crowded party; I got a beer and found a spot on the stairs. The (white) people below me are passing a piece of paper around and it’s coming my way—was, actually, designed to be delivered to me. It’s an advert from the back of a magazine with a photo of a woman and the caption reads, “Asian Girls! Asian Girls! Asian Girls!”

I went through the line of people and sourced the sex advertisement to G. I asked G if he sent this to me and a smug “Yeah” came out of his face. So I socked him on the jaw. And then I ran away and cried on a picnic bench.

I sometimes wonder how he remembers that. Like does he think, “I remember that time I put the one Asian girl at the party in place by reminding her the we sort of just think of her as a joke and an object for sex. That was funny until she punched me. Ha, ha.”

How would you answer the following question, posed by Adrienne Rich, in the essay “the hermit’s scream”: What teaches us to convert lethal anger into steady, serious attention to our own lives and those of others?

What teaches us? Experience, examples, failing, discernment, struggling.

In the spirit of Halloween, what truly scares you?

My children inheriting a poisoned world.

What place is truly home for you?

Wherever I make a magical, intentionally lived-in hearth: any home in which I currently live.

What are you working on now?

A suite of linked narrative poems, a verse meditation on Vietnam, with a focus on the 1960s. It includes a verse biography of my mother, Diệp Nguyễn, a celebrated stunt motorcyclist in an all-woman circus troupe.

Kore Biters Womanifesto: Please add two-three tenets for transgressive and transformative behavior that you believe every woman writer should abide by or incorporate into their lives or writing practice.
1.) Claim space. Make things happen. Be bold. Don’t play it safe.

2.) Act as an independent scholar and dig in.

3.) Do some kind of service to poetry: curate a reading series, review books, translate, start a press, do archival recovery work, conduct interviews, create broadsides.

Come up with a prompt that helps us get our “Sweater Weather” on.

Here is a writing prompt adapted from a workshop where we were reading and writing through Charles Olson’s, “The Maximus Poems.” If you want to attempt it, try combining as many of the elements below (as many as might serve your writing session)—attempt at least two tries using some or all of these suggestions:

  • Consider the poem as creating a “mappemunde” that includes your being
  • Take notes and language from a reference text on a goddess of your choice
  • Consider writing an epistle by writing “a letter” that isn’t necessarily recognizable as such (does not start with “Dear ____”)
  • Consider creating the poem as working with tessarae: apply words and phrases as tiles that are similar but have variation—create patterns with them, building and applying until a larger “picture” emerges
  • Include aposiopesis breaking off in
  • Include dream matter

Redact, obliterate or strike through language