Showing posts with label Hoa Nguyen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hoa Nguyen. Show all posts

Monday, March 05, 2012

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

When Curtis Faville’s L Press published Blue is the Hero, a comprehensive collection of Bill Berkson's poetry between 1960 & 1975, it demonstrated just how effectively Berkson had adapted the aesthetic devices of John Ashbery and turned them to an entirely different project, one with a radically different scale. That memory has popped into my head on several occasions while reading Hoa Nguyen’s Your Ancient See Through (subpress, 2002). Nguyen’s model appears not to be Ashbery so much as Ted Berrigan, particularly his use of fragments, especially within lines, combined with sharp jumps from apparent subject to subject.

Sharp is an adjective that comes to mind a lot when reading Nguyen’s poems:

I’m almost your cat’s pajamas
your topsy turvy all over
almost a pinup of yarnballs
at the rest-stop of undeclared wars
(the way Descartes faked it)
give me history or give me
a name unknown in zoology
So I can be anything but empty doll
all jammed body doll       a pregnancy
to be “natural”

A poem like this is like discovering that one of your Christmas tree ornaments is a live grenade. It concentrates all the resentment of the subaltern into that word “almost,” showing at one level a bright, multicolored surface – think of the careful but casual prosody of “almost a pinup of yarnballs” – only to reveal an old-school feminism that concludes on a moment right out of Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” the word “’natural’” in quotation marks. Writing this tight, this intelligent & this full of emotion on so many different levels is always exciting, thrilling even.

Nguyen’s poems often leave inexplicable openings into the world that give them the resonance of life, deeply lived:

Cats underwater as part of a zoo
tableau              orange tabby cats
sad wet fur                      They blink
so rarely             moldy necks
My sister doesn’t feel anything
I was wearing the old black hat
on the subway    when I saw the old lover
I think he has a “lard ass”

At one level, this is a poem with two major half-comic “events”:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>the depiction of this strange feline tableau
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>the sighting of a former lover
What rivets the text, however, in more ways in one, is the connecting line – neither comic nor ironic in the slightest – “My sister doesn’t feel anything.” It generates more than a contrast, almost a yawning chasm between the two bemused sections, an undercurrent of sadness that the poem is never fully permitted to escape.

Think of how differently this poem poses its tension compared with something like Rilke’s iconic “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” in which the radical shift of the famous last sentence, Du mußt dein Leben ändern, carries the ponderous weight of all 13½ previous lines. Nguyen’s poem actually ends on the ironically optimistic note of envisioning her former lover with a “lard ass.“ Where the structure of Rilke’s sonnet is cathartic, Nguyen’s poses a 3D universe in which depression & humor co-exist, precisely as it is seen to do in the tableau of the cats with their (not coincidentally) “sad wet fur.“ Rilke gives us a lesson; Nguyen gives us the world.

Poem after poem in Your Ancient See Through opens up to this sort of close reading, revealing an extraordinary universe, vibrant, comic, angry, both in turn & at once. Nguyen never settles for the easy road to the polished effect. One result is that I trust her instincts as a poet completely.

Your Ancient See Through is the latest book in a terrific project, subpress (the name deliberately lower case). Other volumes to date have been by Scott Bentley, Daniel Bouchard, Catalina Cariaga, Brett Evans, Camille Gutrie, Jen Hofer, Steve Malmude, John McNally, Prageeta Sharma, Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard, Edwin Torres & John Wilkinson. A note on the verso states that

subpress is a collective supported by 19 individuals who have agreed to donate 1% of their yearly income for at least three years. Each person is responsible for editing one book.

With six volumes apparently still to go, subpress already boasts an all-star line-up of mostly newer writers. You certainly would much rather your first big book come out from subpress than, say, the Yale Younger Poets. Both series may be committed to bringing serious attention to new writing, but it is subpress that delivers the goods. That name on the spine alone warrants buying each new volume as it appears. Hopefully, the subpress collective won’t disperse once the first 19 volumes come into print. And hopefully also others will take note of this approach to small press publishing – it’s definitely a winner.

Saturday, September 21, 2002

Philadelphia is just large enough as a literary scene to occasionally present the “problem” of two good readings on the same evening. Due to some fortuitous timing, I was able to scoot between venues and hear Dale Smith & Hoa Nguyen at Writers House on the Penn campus, followed by Joan Retallack & Matt Chambers at the Temple Gallery in Olde City. 

Smith & Nguyen are two San Francisco poets who relocated a couple of years back to Austin, Texas, where they publish a range of American poetry under the banner of Skanky Possum ( While there are many poets today who have become established as writers in relative isolation far from the major writing centers of New York & San Francisco (or even secondary ones such as Washington, Philadelphia, San Diego or Boston), it’s an exceptionally challenging task, especially for someone who is working within alternative or post-avant traditions. Poets such as Tom Beckett, Lorenzo Thomas, Charles Alexander and Sheila Murphy all have demonstrated that it is possible to craft a successful poetic career in such a context that is not local in its scope, but they all also can probably attest to just how difficult this can be. Or see Juliana Spahr’s comments on the blog for September 14 on the use of Chain as a mechanism for keeping her connected to the literary community “over there (continent).” Nguyen & Smith are like Thomas, in that they’ve used their pre-move literary connections wisely to keep them plugged in. And they have the advantage, historically, of the web’s erasure of physical distance – there is more connectivity, for example, between poets as distant as Ireland and New Zealand today than has ever been the case before in history. But it’s a challenge that I as a young poet would not have had the courage to tackle.

Smith & Nguyen have distinct voices and are given to working on different sorts of projects. Listening or reading to Smith, one hears the influence, say, of the late Ed Dorn, in Smith’s uses of scholarship, though not in the actual devices or strategies of the poem. That a poet under the age of 40 thinks to make use of the work of Haniel Long, for example, ought to be grounds for celebration for that fact alone. After reading from her chapbooks, Nguyen sampled fragments from a piece in progress, a narrative about the life of her mother*, that promises to turn into something fabulous.

But the problem with two readings in one night in Philadelphia is that the audience isn’t quite there to support both equally. The event at Writers House had no more than 20 people – no one at Penn is apparently teaching Nguyen & Smith’s work this term – while there were 100 crammed into the oxygen-deprived Temple Gallery** to hear Joan Retallack. Matt Chambers, a “second-year writer” at Temple (and formerly of SUNY Buffalo), opened with a piece filled with dense philosophic metalanguage, undercut by the presence of multiple tape players scattered throughout the audience that echoed elements of the reading.

Retallack has arrived at that wonderful moment in a poet’s life – she is at the top her game, completely confident in what she’s doing (& with good reason) while continuing to go new places with every project she takes on. The excitement is both palpable and contagious. Hearing her read was the perfect capstone to the evening – and made me realize that had the four readers shared a single stage, the order could not have been better.

*”I haven’t even gotten to the part where she runs away with the circus yet…”

**The Temple Gallery can be an especially difficult space to hear poetry and exacerbates this by being the only venue I’ve ever been to that lacks restrooms, drinking fountains and wheelchair accessibility all at once. This is not what Zukofsky meant by the “test of poetry.”