Interview with Diana Khoi Nguyen

by J. Bailey Hutchinson

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In section 2C of “Look,” you describe a man at the pool as “teeth-gleaming, trim, smooth-edged, two moles at the base / of his neck, water slipping off of him as it slips off / of me.” In just a few lines, you’ve so cleanly conveyed the man’s potential threat, his proximity—without ever explicitly stating such. I’m so enamored with your image work, in how vividly you craft a moment or scene without inundating the reader with detail. When you’re writing, how do you know when the image is just right, so to speak?

You’re very kind. As someone who was simultaneously developing as aggressive reader and watcher (of films) from an early age, leading up to adolescence, I think in cinematic terms. Which is to say, I am often recording live in the moment, whether I intend to or not, and of course this record(ing) is flawed (I don’t have eidetic memory). Often times, the image work in my poems is quite literal: the man beside me in the pool looked like that, or at least, I focused on these aspects of him. But the whole image is asynchronous: in the moment, yes, the teeth-gleam, fit body, moles. Later, in reflection, horror as the communal water slipping off both of our bodies, as if we were complicit not only in swimming, but being part of the same plane, same dangerous space.

In tinkering during editing phases of a poem, I allow for the logic of cadence, rhythm, sound to govern. Sometimes the truthfulness of the image has to shift to allow sound to prevail.

In tinkering during editing phases of a poem, I allow for the logic of cadence, rhythm, sound to govern. Sometimes the truthfulness of the image has to shift to allow sound to prevail. In grad school, I was told, “Tell the truth, even if it’s a lie.” Which is problematic in our current times, but maybe permissible in a poem. Because with a poem, it doesn’t matter if there are verifiable truths?

Could you speak a little bit about how you came to sectionate “Look” as you did? When did you know this piece would contain sub-sections, and how do you see those sub-sections operating on the level of form?

Yes: last summer at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, I attended a lecture by Maurice Manning, who introduced me to Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon: A Vision, which was previously unknown to me, and in my inexpert opinion, different from what I knew of Warren’s work. Audubon was haunting in a creeping sort of way, and strange, mysterious, like foggy woods. There are seven numbered (and titled) sections, and within each of these sections, sub-sections, and the organizing principle is like that of an outline: I, A, B, … II, A, B, C, etc.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Audubon, so I sat with the sections that eluded and captivated me most, and in an attempt to approach proximity, I tried out Warren’s outline-sectioning strategy, just to see if this logic-adoption would confer a different way of composing, of witnessing the world. And it did.

On a superficial level, I feel the sub-sections as kind of archival drawers in a big piece of furniture, like ones that libraries used to employ to contain all the Dewey decimal cards. The classification of A, B, C, within each numbered section allow for rhizomes to branch out, before we begin/arrive at a new (numbered) topic. Outline sub-section as an aesthetic also gave a kind of official legal-classification capacity to organizing what I was seeing; in many ways, which feels in opposition or wholly separate from the intimate, personal things I’m seeing and sharing. And this juxtaposition felt right as well.

I ask myself, how else can this end? Why end? What ends?

On a similar subject—when do you know a poem is finished? You have an incredible way with last lines.

Oh—it’s generous and funny for you to say so because I never know when or how a poem is finished, but in my composition process, I am in constant search of the gut-punch as punctuation to any extended moment of description—a practice of which I am also highly suspicious of. I ask myself, how else can this end? Why end? What ends?

Your first book, Ghost Of, is a breathtaking collection. The way erasure manifests both literarily and figuratively in the book forces the reader to engage directly with lack and longing, with the spaces left by loss. Do you think erasure will continue to inform your future work, or was Ghost Of a sort of exercise in thoroughly exhausting this subject/form from your practice so you can explore other things?

Thank you. Yes, erasure will continue to be on the forefront of my thinking about anything which is affected by time and (dis)placement. I don’t think future work outside of immediate family history will engage with erasure in the same visual-text forms that Ghost Of employs, but visual-text work will definitely continue to be a component of what I do. Erasure is also an aesthetic mood.

I’m not sure I can ever exhaust myself of Ghost Of’s various subjects or forms, as I’m quite obsessive. I’ve returned to some of the photograph-artifacts from the collection, from my family, and am engaging with them again, but in very different visual, textual ways. I’m different, so the work I am producing is also different, if that makes any sense.

Can you tell us about what you’ve been working on lately?

Earlier this summer, I was reading Lily Hoang’s Bestiary, John Cage’s lectures on silence, and Robert Hass’ Time and Materials, writing a long lyric essay-sequence exploring issues of identity, diaspora, the environment, migration, sexual trauma, memory, to name a few.

A poet and multimedia artist, DIANA KHOI NGUYEN’S debut collection, Ghost Of (Omnidawn, 2018), was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Omnidawn Open Contest. In addition to winning the 92Y “Discovery” / Boston Review Poetry Contest, 2019 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and Colorado Book Award, she was also a finalist for the National Book Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A Kundiman fellow, she is currently a writer-in-residence at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and teaches in the Randolph College MFA.

J. Bailey Hutchinson is a poet from Memphis, Tennessee. A graduate of the University of Arkansas MFA Program, she is the winner of New South's 2018 Poetry Contest, and her work has appeared in BOAAT, Wyvern Lit, Beloit, Salamander, and more. She is currently a Bookseller & Events Coordinator for Milkweed Books, and she is an Associate Poetry Editor for BOAAT magazine. Full publication and contact info is available at