There’s a sort of awkwardness to using someone’s surname when you’re in their living room. It’s not a place for professionalism but closer to an intimate and private space. Though it might be one you share and invite people into. Sometimes they take things with them when they leave, like some extra tomatoes or a borrowed book, other times they bring things like loukoumades. They’re spaces we decorate to show off a bit of ourselves. Where we welcome talking with one another about what we’re doing, what’s happened, and what we might do. Fortune-telling and forecasting, personal tidbits and gossip. It’s where we celebrate and cerebrate.
In Hoa’s “Living Room” lecture, she quotes Joanne Kyger, saying “poetry is about continuing poetry” (00:01:22-00:01:24), to which she adds, “But I guess the question is how—how can we continue poetry?” (00:01:27-00:01:32). This question is at the root of Hoa’s (now two-decades-long) reimagining of the workshop model, with the goal of extending its poetic possibility. Offering her home as a hearth, Hoa conducts a twelve- to thirteen-week workshop where participants, virtually and in person, read out loud and in turn from a selected text, consider the text together, and then write in each other’s company based on those considerations.
What, in the prevailing workshop model, might be seen as inconsequential or incidental is, in Hoa’s living room, present and capable of poetic intervention. As giving to the process as are the assigned readings, supplemental materials, and participants themselves. A photograph of Diệp Anh Nguyễn and her motorcycle; a Pilea peperomioides; broadsides of Joanne Kyger, Robert Creeley, Amiri Baraka, Philip Whalen, and other poets; Carl Jung’s The Red Book on the fireplace; Philip Trussell’s Opening of the Field
hanging over the mantel; other paintings; records and a record player; shells; stones; owl figurines; and of course, books. But most importantly, in the corner, there is Hoa’s writing desk, where she writes poems. In our company and in expectation of their readership, those cherished others whose presence is generative.
Reading in turn, it’s easy to stumble on a word, to mistake it or over-read it. A participant might backtrack and repeat themselves or slow down. Sometimes I’d make a note of those mumbles, notice my own, and even begin to notice them in Hoa:
I walk I wal—
I walks down sometimes
why the advi—
abide the advice was
not “Fair better”
but “Fail better[.]” (Violet 2)
There is a process that occurs in reading text aloud. The reader encounters sites of reception, the skin and ears of fellow participants. In being read out, made into sound, those sounds inform a rendering of the text in our own way. The participant finds themself embedded as an active part of the meaning’s continuum. This process with regard to our own sense-making is something of a mirror image of what is experienced in Hoa’s workshops. They make room for the ways in which our readings receive, interrupt, and revivify the texts we are engaging with.
“Perform an instant acrostic” on a word: whenever “you get stuck,” look up the page, select a word, and perform an acrostic on it. E.g. “sky” becomes “said ‘Kill yesterday.’” (Nguyen, “Writing”)
This is a note from one of Hoa’s workshops, and the following is a selection from one of Hoa’s poems: “She said, ‘What do you know about Vietnam?’ / Violet energy ingots Tenuous knowing moment” (Violet 8).
These traces of the workshop appear directly in the text as part of the poetics, keeping one unstuck and moving through tenuous relations that breach their presence with history, silence, and the other. These traces inform a poetics with an expanded notion of intertextuality that disturbs horizontal or vertical renderings. It moves, perhaps, in a spiral or in widening circles. A constellation or a ball of elastic bands. An intertextuality that encounters, invitingly, the other as a text one lives with rather than works at or on.
“I live with this photograph of Amiri Baraka taken by Pat A. Robinson at Woodland Pattern in 2003.” This citation is from the transcribed version of Hoa’s “Living Room.” Where someone else might say, “I have a photograph,” Hoa says, “I live with.” That preposition, I think, is important.
Nguyen, Hoa. “Living Room.” Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry, 15 Apr. 2016, bagleywrightlectures.org/post/142861711135/i-live-with-this-photograph-of-amiribaraka-taken. Accessed 20 Aug. 2021.
—. “Living Room.” Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry, 15 Jun. 2021, bagleywrightlectures.org/hoanguyen.
—. Violet Energy Ingots. Wave Books, 2016.
—. “Writing after James Schuyler’s ‘Hymn to Life.” Hoa Nguyen: Poet, Speaker, Facilitator, 17 Apr. 2020, www.hoa-nguyen.com/news/writing-after-james-schuylers-hymn-to-life.
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