The first time I met Hoa Nguyen, I had shown up on her doorstep nine years ago to interview her and her husband Dale Smith about Skanky Possum, an Austin, Texas poetry journal they ran together. I thought she did marvelous work back then, and I think she does marvelous work now.
Her new collection As Long As Trees Last echoes something Smith had said all those years ago: “It is kind of psychotic to write poetry.” It’s not only the usual griping about diminished audiences or insular poetry culture, it’s about responding to the collapsing economy, the fracking and the deforestation, the misogyny of our political culture... with a poem.
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And yet Nguyen finds the space for her work, dealing with both atrocity and quiet domestic scene, often in the span of only a few lines. Her work is flinty but welcoming, and it has aged well into a kind of quieter wisdom. She and I talked about the financial situation of poets, the Ezra Pound problem and the point of beauty in a dangerous world.
Someone tells you in your poem that it's so hard to be a poet these days. And you count up what you and your kin are up against: unemployment, degradation of the environment, the dishes, Mayan doomsday prophecies... How does one soldier on?
I know, exactly. Poetry doesn’t make one any money, so there’s that. How can you be devoted to an art that practically guarantees that you will to make no money doing it? For so many people there is a real sense of being one paycheck from “the street.”
The poem you reference is “Rage Sonnet.” [Note: Operation Ranch Hand, referenced in this poem, was the code name for an herbicidal warfare program launched by the US Military between 1962 and 1971; it involved spraying an estimated 20 million gallons of defoliants and herbicides in South Vietnam.] In it, I include a fragment of a powerful dream that I had when I first applied myself to the art of poetry. At the time, I was studying, among other things, Charles Olson and Ezra Pound because I wanted to understand what came before me; they loomed as these important figures in modern and postmodern poetics. And I dreamt I was in the apartment Olson that kept in Washington, D.C. near Union Station—Olson, while he lived there, had visited Pound in St. Elizabeth’s in the mid 40s. In the dream, he and Pound greeted me in tears, acknowledging how difficult the economic times were for my generation and how hard this made it for us to take on the practice of poetry. They also encouraged me to continue. And I felt a ghostly (and maybe unlikely or surprising) handing-off of the practice of the art from them to me, a woman of color. I took it as a form of encouragement for me to continue the art. Which is a bit of a mighty boast, really!
So in that sonnet, I literally circled around the word RAGE and its resonance at the level of the letters R and A. These also happen to occur in the names EzRA and ChARles. You’ll notice a tight constellation and digression of letter combinations of RA and AR as in:
Rage / Rag / Wears / Shark / Ran / Large / Trays / Operation / Ranch / Ezra / Charles / Harder / Rain
I like to think of these constellations of words create a kind of sonic mathematics—that the sense of the poem can also reach a reader in a fractal or patterning way—through the ear to the mind.
I wanted to ask about your Ezra Pound epigraph, and the poem he shows up in. He's obviously a problematic dude. What remains of him, when his life has overshadowed so much of his poetry? And can you bring up his name without evoking all of that controversy?
Yes, problematic. And I learned from him. His translations from ancient Chinese. His ideas on reading and writing poetry. Reading with and against him. The epigraph “Can you enter the great acorn of light?” comes from Canto 116 and continues, in recognition of his failure:
But the beauty is not the madness/Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me./And I am not a demigod,/I cannot make it cohere.
I admire his trying and his failing and his recognition of that. That he apologized to Allen Ginsberg for his anti-Semitism when Allen visited him in Venice. That he tried and failed. That he attempted to “enter the great acorn of light.”
I have read commentary, very rarely written by poets, about how the lack of money in poetry is good for the medium, because it keeps it pure. So let's stick with Ezra Pound, who would Pound be if he had to teach at an MFA program in the Midwest just to afford to buy groceries? And what do you think the lack of money in writing has done to your writing?
I have no idea about Ezra Pound teaching in an MFA program. It’s hard to imagine that, but people do what they need to do to make money.
Me, at turns, I waited tables, worked for a “Big Six” consulting firm as a business writer, designed and ran tours for an infamous observation deck, and served as an administrator for a large U.S. university’s student center. I was lucky; I didn’t go hungry or bankrupt. But I often worked 40 plus hour weeks, taught creative writing in alternate settings and ran a successful small poetry press and reading series named Skanky Possum. Between student loans and Skanky Possum, I went into debt for poetry.
I wouldn’t change anything I did and yet I absolutely don’t recommend going into debt for poetry maybe especially now. As one of the poems in the book quotes:
It’s simpler now to retire—
you just die in the office
I think that my writing benefited from me being a poet in the world, but it suffered from not having enough time to read.
One thing I read in your book is how hard it can be to create something of beauty when there's this undertow of despair, of looking into the future and wondering what the hell. But there's also a lovely quiet to the work, finding a still space in all of that.
I think what I love best in poetry is a kind of pressing into and against the damage of the past, the concerns of present conditions and the very real worries over possible futures—while offering potentials and possibilities for something else, including beauty [and] wonder.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.