There are poets who address deeply personal issues in a way that crawls under your skin and sticks with you, in a way that even if you can’t relate to the story they’re recounting or the experience at hand, you walk around thinking about the work and the voice behind it for days after seeing their performance. These are poets who move you in the moment but, more importantly, glide with you over your next several days. These are poets who lay themselves bare so that you have that experience. Hieu Minh Nguyen is one such poet that the Twin Cities are lucky enough to have on hand. I’ve seen him feature at countless slams and book releases, and every time was a new experience — even if it was a poem I’ve already heard! Nguyen has performed all over the country, in fact, and he has been featured on the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Guernica (to name just a few). Anytime poets are known for their frankness and radical thought, I’m eager to chat with them. Here’s what Nguyen had to say in his own words.
Hello! Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start with an introduction to you and your work.
My name is Hieu Minh Nguyen. My pronouns are he/him/his. My poetry is often described as “confessional poetry” or poetry that is auto-biographical and often touches on subjects like identity, trauma, and desire.
What does poetry mean to you, and why is that the medium you’ve chosen as your platform?
I might sound weird, but I was immediately drawn to spoken word because I was a really bad public speaker—actually, I was bad at speaking in general. Every time I was asked to speak or got called on in class, I would immediately tense up, and my tongue would go limp and fall down the back of my throat. So I really admired how poets and public speakers were able to deliver their message. I’m also a person that needs to think about what I’m gonna say before I say it, or else I go on unintelligible rants trying to say what I want to say. Poetry allows me to say everything I want to say. Nothing more. Nothing less.
One of my favorite things about your work is how authentic and unique your artistic voice is. How do your identities affect that voice?
Well, because I live and occupy my body, all of my writing is influenced by my identities, and how they intersect. Being queer, being Vietnamese, being American, being a survivor of sexual assault, being raised in the hood, being a Gemini—all of it. All of it, even if it’s not apparent, is present in my work.
How do you develop or write your pieces to ensure that?
I think rather than ensuring my pieces reflect my voice, the question I ask myself is, how do I make sure my readers understand my voice? Or, does it matter if my readers understand? The answer to this question is always changing.
How do you think your voice has matured and evolved with ever changing artistic and political climates?
One way I think I’ve matured, which I don’t think I fully understood when I was fifteen and just started writing, is that I know now how powerful language can be. And because I know now the impact of language, I try to be as intentional as I can with my words, which means, if I hurt someone with my words, I have to hold myself accountable. If what I want is to be heard, I have to make sure my words enter the world intentionally.
But I don’t know if that has anything to do with the political climate. I think to anyone who comes from a marginalized identity, this urgency is not new. There is nothing surprising about the political climate. But sure, I think there is a lot of clarity happening. Some folks are being impacted by clarity more than others. Some folks have seen the world for what it is for a long time. In my writing I try to celebrate the brown and queer bodies of my loved ones, and if someone considers that more radical now than they did before, that has nothing to do with me. I will always celebrate us. I will celebrate us when it’s “radical,” and I will celebrate us when people forget, and goddamnit I will celebrate us even when it becomes redundant.
What are you most proud of in your body of work?
Pride is a strange thing. I’m pretty self-conscious about most of my work. And this will totally sound like a pageant answer (but I mean it, I swear), but what I think I’m most proudest of is the work that comes from my students. I’m a camp counselor at a poetry slam camp for high schoolers, and it’s one of the highlights of my year.
What is your hope and vision for the poetry community over the next couple of years? How is your own life and work affected by that hope and vision?
I think it’s important for me to clarify that many smaller communities exist inside the larger poetry community. I think right now I’m just trying to make sure the people I love, the folks inside my community, are staying hydrated, and laughing as much as possible….even if the laughter is at my expense.
Any words of advice for aspiring poets who want to create as much of a life and name as you have?
Beyond the poems, beyond the readings, it also matters what kind of community member you are. It matters that you show up and support readings that you aren’t part of. It matters that you also sit in the audience, and that you are known as a community member on and off the stage.
Where can we see you live?
I will be performing on April 1st at Honey Mpls for Aaron Coleman’s chapbook release party.
For performance inquiries folks should go to BEOTIS.com for more info