Queer Vietnamese-American poet and performer Hieu Minh Nguyen said his most recent collection of poems “Not Here” seeks to answer two questions important to his identity to an audience at Liberty Hall Tuesday, March 5.
“What does it means to leave?” Nguyen said. “And what does it mean to stay?”
Nguyen spoke Tuesday, March 5, as part of a campus and community lecture series sponsored by The Commons and The Raven Book Store.
Nguyen is a Kundiman fellow based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is also the recipient of the 2017 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for poetry and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. At Tuesday's event, Nguyen read poems from “Not Here” along with other new poems.
Nguyen often used humor to start his poems during the event, but the poems usually ended on a more serious note and tone. Nguyen said the audience and readers of poetry have to be active participants to be engaged with the pieces. He said humor and surprise are great ways to engage with those who hear and read his poetry.
Kudiman fellow and poet Hieu Minh Nguyen is set to speak at Liberty Hall on Tuesday, March 5, at 7 p.m.
“I think humor is a great way to do that,” Nguyen said. “When you make someone laugh, it creates a bodily reaction. That’s a great sign that you’re connecting with your reader.”
Nguyen performed a poem called “In Defense of Moist” after asking the audience how it felt about the word — reactions were mixed.
Nguyen started the poem humorously, substituting words for moist to describe food, such as “damp cake” and “wet cookies.” He then transitioned into a more personal topic near the end of the poem, connecting the word moist to embarrassing words in the Vietnamese language for him.
“I know what it’s like to want to replace the words that embarrass you,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen also performed poems about his mother, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. Nguyen said he has a complicated relationship with mother, and he performed poems relating to her struggles with depression and adjusting to life in the United States.
“She is the person I understand most in this world,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen said during an on-stage conversation with The Raven Book Store owner Danny Caine that he first got started in poetry by doing slam and spoken word in high school. Nguyen also recently received his M.F.A. in poetry, so he’s been able to combine the two communities of poetry. Nguyen said getting his master's, however, didn’t teach him to write better.
“It just taught me how to recognize what I was already doing,” Nguyen said. “It gave a name to the techniques and the different strategies I was using to write.”
As a traveling poet, Nguyen performs his poetry around the country. During his speech, he performed a few poems about how traveling affects his friendships and personal relationships. He said traveling makes it hard to build meaningful connections.
“It’s a weird job to tell your Uber drivers that you’re a traveling poet because they’ll always try to make you read a poem,” Nguyen said. “I feel really lucky, but sometimes, it can feel also very isolating.”
Rachel Atakpa, a senior from Belle Plaine studying English, said Nguyen’s performance was another great installment of The Commons’ and The Raven Book Store’s campus and community speaker series. Atakpa said Nguyen engages the audience well through his use of humor and sharing of his trauma and history.
“I really appreciated this reading because of the ways that humor was incorporated,” Atakpa said.
Near the end of the event, an audience member asked Nguyen during a Q&A session what the poet hopes people take away from his work.
“I think tenderness,” Nguyen said. “Finding tenderness in cruelty or the ways to access tenderness from people who are cruel to you.”