Magic 8 Q&A

Why Griffin Poetry Prize finalist Hoa Nguyen would never use a pen name

The Griffin Poetry Prize finalist answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Hoa Nguyen is the author of Violet Energy Ingots, a collection of poetry. (poetryfoundation.org)

Hoa Nguyen's book of poetry Violet Energy Ingots was shortlisted for the $60,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, the richest prize for poetry in Canada. The book, Nguyen's fourth collection, is about finding contemplation in everyday moments, and a reminder that nothing is permanent.

Below, Hoa Nguyen answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Barbara Gowdy asks, "If you had to give yourself a pen name, what would it be?"

I have a complicated relationship to naming and my name. Living in North America with a Vietnamese name is difficult; it is received as impossible to pronounce, unmemorable, "exotic" and foreign. My name represents a racialized group of people with a particular history. People of the Vietnamese diaspora share the representation of a Hollywood movie extra: decentered, generally lacking a story, pitched as interchangeable and anonymous, depicted as tragic victim or hyper-sexualized object — or, more often, simply not there, completely erased from view.

My full name is Nguyen Thi Mong Hoang Hoa. Standardized for North American documents and dominant cultural customs, it is written as Mong Hoang Hoa Thi Nguyen, Hoa Nguyen for short. It is a common name and a name rich in meaning and significance — and it has caused me difficulty.

I guess what I'm saying is that I wouldn't use another name. Using my name the way it was given to me by my mother is and remains a personal gesture of self-acceptance, love and defiance.

2. Rebecca Rosenblum asks, "Do you have any favourite phrases or kinds of descriptions that are always creeping into your work despite your efforts to edit them out?"

It's actually words that tend to trend rather than phrases. In As Long As Trees Last, it was the word "hand." In Violet Energy Ingots, it was the word "song" and its variants. I also tend toward monosyllabic phrasing and find that the phrases arrive in trochees and spondees.

3. Durga Chew-Bose asks, "Is there a book you constantly gift? Why?"

I like to give poets a copy of John Lemprière's Bibliotheca Classica — also known as the Classical Dictionary of Proper Names Mentioned by Ancient Authors. It is the dictionary of Greek/Roman gods that Keats used and, it is said, he had it memorized. It's a reliable resource with delicious language like this on Venus:

"She was called Cypria, because particularly worshipped in the island of Cyprus, and in that character she was often represented with a beard, and the male parts of generation, with a sceptre in her hand, and the body and dress of a female, whence she is called duplex Amathusia by Catullus. She received the name of Paphia, because worshiped at Paphos, where she had a temple with an altar, on which rain never fell, though exposed in the open air."

4. Marc Raboy asks, "What is the most helpful advice you ever received from an editor?"

When I was first writing poetry, poet and teacher Jack Collom correctly noticed that I relied on the words "blood" and "bone" — and made it clear that I was not using these words newly or interestingly — that they were not visceral, meaningful the way that I had hoped that they would be, but dead in the way clichéd metaphors are dead.

5. Matti Friedman asks, "What's the most beautiful language other than English?"

I generally dislike evaluation processes that pit one thing against another thing to measure some kind of superiority — and anyway I don't find English particularly beautiful. But as an anglophone poet, I think I'm actually always trying to find the Vietnamese language I lost as a child by using English words. This is, of course, an impossible task as Vietnamese is a tonal language while English is not, but I do find Vietnamese particularly beautiful especially when spoken by women.

6. Xue Yiewei asks, "Do you agree that some books, like Finnegans Wake, are impossible and irrelevant to be translated?"

No. All translation is, to quote Anselm Hollo, "the art of the impossible."

7. Elisabeth de Mariaffi asks, "Are you a dreamer? Do you remember your dreams — and if so, are they notions or vivid with detail? Do you have a recurring dream?"

I dream. I am, I think, a typical dreamer in that I commonly experience three types of dreams. Those that are fragmentary, elusive, somewhat ordinary and lack narrative continuity; dreams that express stress and situational anxiety (arriving late for a poetry reading and I have forgotten to bring poems to read! etc.); and, more infrequently, I experience sustained, organized dreams with insightful and instructive narratives.

Once I had a run of dreams that introduced me to my animus: one was a diplomat who united supposed opposites with language; another was a singer-songwriter of "American" folk songs who wrote songs that were both a story and not a story; and a third dream that shared that I was like Chiron, prominent teacher, both of the human world and not, wounded with the ability to heal others.

8. Eden Robinson asks, "What was the most unexpected inspiration you've ever had?"

My father-in-law asked my husband a question several years ago about our homeschooling curriculum (we were unschooling). It became the germ of the poem "Who was Andrew Jackson?" in Violet Energy Ingots.

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