Poetry Spotlight: Diana Khoi Nguyen

Ghost of, selected by Terrance Hayes as the winner of Omnidawn’s 2017 Open Book Contest, is the first book of poetry by poet and multimedia artist Diana Khoi Nguyen, and was named a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in Poetry. The book is an unflinching examination of the suicide of Nguyen’s brother and the grief that resulted. Ghost of collages lyric poetry and family photos that Nguyen’s brother cut himself out of shortly before his death. Throughout the collection, Nguyen expresses the void in her life where her brother used to live.

In addition to Ghost of, Nguyen has been published in a variety of magazines, including PoetryAmerican Poetry ReviewBoston ReviewPEN America, and The Iowa Review. She has also received awards, scholarships, and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, Key West Literary Seminars, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Denver.

Many poems in Ghost of come in the form of visual collages that combine word and image. I often liken creating a poem to layering in printmaking or painting. Do you see the formal aspect of poetry as an extension of visual art? Could you write about your experience combining the mediums? 

Absolutely. Poetry overlaps the realm of visual art in the sense that every printed (or typed) letter is a symbol, an image which signifies—letters which gather into words, words which gather into sentences, images, experiences. Semiotics meets the printing press. The use of an alphabet is very much a visual endeavor in addition to a linguistic one. That being said, I didn’t consciously think about this until I began working with text to replace the areas my brother had cut out of family photographs (two years before his suicide). Trauma and grief blurred many boundaries for me: the living and the dead, word and image, text and textile.

In some poems, gaps mirror the cut-out portions of your family pictures. Could you talk broadly about the role of absence in your work? What lives in the blank parts of your poems? Is there something in the static between words?

Silence is very much the absence of history and acknowledgement of trauma, past traumas, and this silence permeated my childhood, and to a lesser degree, moves between my family members even today. The shapes my brother cutout became physical reminders of our troubled past as siblings, as a family, but also as reminders of how trauma passes through generations—which is to say that my parents endured their own silences/silencing and traumas in their respective childhoods during wartime Vietnam.

In the blank parts of my poems, I am acknowledging the trauma of my brother’s suicide, the silence around mental health, abuse, and violence in my family; I am bluntly saying that things are not whole, because someone in the family has died, someone has cut himself out of the fabric of life.

I don’t think there is anything static between words, unless tension is a form of stillness, but even then, I think there are perceptible vibrations of heat, or emotion. So no, no static, no vacuum of say, a space like outer space.

Your poem “Gyotaku” refers to the traditional Japanese art form of cataloging and painting fish. How does this art form relate to the poems in your book? 

Yes, gyotaku refers to that process in which ink is applied to one surface of a fish, which is then pressed against fabric or paper to document “the catch,” a practice which predates photography, one not too different from those photographs of fishing persons holding their recently caught fish.

What strikes me about this process is how only the essence, the impression of the thing which is no longer alive. The dead body as a stamp, as proof of life. How the ink on the body fades with each pressing (if ink is not reapplied)—and isn’t that a kind of writing/typing, this “printing”?

After writing the “Triptych” poems, I kept returning to the texts in the shapes my brother cut out of family portraits. In an effort to be with these text-bodies, I pasted them into a blank page, and in so doing, realized I could replicate them over and over again, change their opacity, turn them around.

The poems seem to come alive when you perform them. They are visceral, and I get the sense that they take over your body. They almost come from deep in your guts and emerge transformed as some kind of spirit. Could you write a little about the experience of performing this book? Do you see the performance of the poems as an integral part of the book? 

It is apt that you use the word “perform” even though a part of me cringes as one aspect of that verb denotes a notion of entertainment; I do not seek to entertain or consider the poems as a kind of act, nor do I think this question even remotely suggests this. But to return to the heart of your question:

It is heartbreaking to read the poems aloud in public; writing the poems was intense grief-work, and reading them aloud brings me back to the moment when I wrote them, so I am reliving a very private period of my life each time I share the work live. This takes a toll, so I try to limit readings to spaces where I feel safe, and I have intro/outro (prep) rituals to help ease me emotional and psychologically into safer, calmer spaces. 

No, I don’t think the live-public experience of the poems is necessary or integral to the experience of the book; it’s supplementary. In many ways, it makes more sense to allow the book to exist in the personal, private text-to-reader experience only.

What are you reading now? Can you give us a glimpse into anything you are currently working on?

Right now I’m reading Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, and just finished Juliana Xuan Wang’s Home Remedies, two works of fiction which don’t really permit any meaningful glimpse into what I’m currently working on.

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

Interviewer Erin Carlyle’s work has been featured in literary magazines such as RuminateDriftwood Press, and is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner. Her chapbook, You Spit Hills and My Body, is published with Dancing Girl Press. She holds an MA in Literary and Textual Studies and an MFA in Poetry from Bowling Green State University.

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