Q&A with Joshua Nguyen, author of Come Clean

Joshua Nguyen is the author of Come Clean (University of Wisconsin Press), winner of the 2021 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. He’s also a co-editor of The Offing‘s Wit Tea department. Q&A conducted by Gauri Awasthi, Editorial Assistant.

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Gauri Awasthi: Opening your book to the proem “Save Me, Marie Kondo” laid out horizontally on the page opens up the reader’s expectation to this world of possibility you are about to build. Could you speak some toward that choice, stylistically? I also loved the doubling of the boxes in your opening poem.

Joshua Nguyen: I opened up the book with “Save Me, Marie Kondo” because I wanted to begin with this idea of messiness on the page. It takes up a lot of space, and when people read the poem, they are unsure how to read it from left to right, which I think is a productive tension. Moreover, there is also this idea of messiness from the past, trauma, and memory. I want to start off messy if the book is about coming clean and what clean means to the speaker. Also, I think one recurring theme in the book is the idea of fragmented and refragmented memory. In the first poem, the same memory happens three times, which is a little different each time in each section. I love that you mentioned the brackets, and I intentionally used brackets a lot throughout this piece because I saw brackets as a way to show breath and a gap. Whether it is a gap in memory, in what could be said, or as a way for readers to fill in space. Especially coming from a background of Asian Americanness, there is always a constant need to fill in gaps, especially from history you do not know. So the brackets do that and can do all of that.

GA: I love that you mentioned this need to fill gaps. Almost sweeping through these gaps in memory, there is a deep sense of cleaning and working in the domestic space in the book. This thread ties Come Clean so smoothly for me. Moreover, as a woman raised in South Asia, it is not something I commonly associate with the masculine. I see in the speaker identification with the mother in the book. What reflections led to that?

JN: I did feel there is a lack of domesticity or the lack of the quotidian from male-identified Asian American writers. I love cleaning, cooking and organizing. I wanted to see how I can complicate masculinity by embedding a speaker into that—furthermore, showing that much of what a male-identified Asian American or Asian person learns comes from female-identified Asian American women. That is why I wanted to pay homage to Asian American women in my life and writers, which is why there is Mitski. And a lot of “afters” for Asian American writers. I wanted to mix and complicate masculinity by infusing the speaker with domesticity and quotidian and embracing it.

GA: Speaking of Asian literature, this was my first experience reading Lục bát, a form you have translated of the Vietnamese Lục bát, that so aptly echoes the concerns of your writing. What were some things you were thinking about translating this form for a primarily American reader?

JN: I learned about the Lục bát from having dinner with my parents in Houston’s Asia town. I do not think we talk about our different experiences with literature, but they grew up in Vietnam, and my parents randomly told me that the main poetic form they studied was the Lục bát. I was immediately excited to talk about this new poetic form with them because I had never really had a long conversation with them dealing with literature. They are both avid readers but read in Vietnamese, so I cannot talk about the books they read. After they told me what the form was, I went home, and I tried researching from Google and JSTOR and could only find classics like pre-1800 Lục báts. It is such an old form, and I realized there was no contemporary Lục bát, and I saw this as an opportunity for me. As someone in the diaspora, to try to connect with Vietnamese history and the lineage of Vietnamese literature. One thing I did not think about was that Vietnamese is a tonal language. We have like seven different diacritics, have different accents, and the Lục báts form has the rhyming pattern, the inner rhyming pattern which I have detailed in the book at the end, but it also has a tonal pattern. I knew that I would write it for a majority of English-speaking audiences, and I write mainly in English because I am not that fluent in Vietnamese, so I had to leave the tonal pattern behind, but the rhyming patterns stayed the same. Because in Vietnamese, each word is one syllable. So all I had to convert for the American Lục báts was to include polysyllabic words of the English language, which was cool because when I included polysyllabic words; the rhyme scheme in the American Lục báts was more hidden. You still have musicality, which is the essence of the Lục báts, but now the rhymes that came off rhyme could be slant rhymes, hidden more within the form. The broader idea of me trying to bring this form to contemporary American literature is in what it means that I called it “American Lục báts”, which I sometimes regret because calling it American has violence. But I think that the American Lục báts is like my bridge to Vietnamese history and lineage. Moreover, it shows that the form is like a bridge. If it is a bridge, it is like the hyphen in Asian American, and I am constantly thinking about that. So when I know now, I think about the form, I think about the in-between and how I am constantly trying to embrace where I am now as an Asian American and also try to embrace a past or a history that I do not know much about.

GA: There seems to be a deep sense of memory dictating the world of these poems. Fragmented memory, like you, mentioned earlier. For instance, in “Toast/Butter/Sugar/Haibun,” a young speaker is dictating our reading. I loved the play of the older speaker addressed directly in the poem. Could you talk about the process of reaching into memory and writing?

JN: This might be a spoiler alert, but I just watched Nope, the movie by Jordan Peele, and in it, there is a flashback, which I think spells too much. But there is a flashback where Steven Yeun’s character has something traumatic happen, but during the chaos, Steven Yeun’s character focuses on this blue shoe floating in a weird, ominous way. I think when I am writing, particularly in this book, when I was writing and pulling from memories (not all of it is like from memory, but a lot of it is) and trying to organize and compartmentalize what memory can be, it gave me the freedom to think about memory. I thought I would write about it this way or from this angle. Then when I returned to it, I thought of how can I edit it in a way where it is different again because once you reflect on the memory multiple times, it can change depending on higher feeling, what music you are listening to, etcetera, which is just a lesson in perspective and a lesson in seeing all sides or every minutia of something, even a memory. And doing that, I could see what nuanced emotions can be at play for a young speaker. When you recall a story to someone, you do not tell every little thing; you still curate some of it to an extent. I think that is what I thought about when writing about memory.

GA: In the vein of perspective, your book visually treats each section with photographs that represent the speaker. Could you tell me about that decision? Both the choice to use Mitski and photography as a medium outside of writing?

JN: I use Mitski because she does a good job of including lines of the quotidian and being able to express a sentiment or feeling without sacrificing the production of a song. That is why Mitski is a huge influence, particularly in her song “Last Words of a Shooting Star,” which has a lot of lines and references to cleaning a room, and how to leave a space. Mitski is an aspiration for the speaker because Mitski can organize and do all that through her songwriting. With the Polaroids and the pictures throughout the book, I thought a lot about this idea of what is beyond the aperture. We were reading a lot of Natasha Trethewey, who really thinks about this. And if you look at Natasha Trethewey’s work, there is a bunch of ekphrases. I forgot who, but someone was thinking that she goes beyond what is still in the photograph and talks about the context, history and the power between who is taking the picture and who is in the gaze. The photographs in my book are used to further think about the Asian American body and what it means to have a gaze, usually a white, upon the Asian American body. It is a way to further envelope an Asian American speaker visually in acts of the quotidian. If you look at the progress of the photographs in the book, it opens up. We see a lot of the back, and then by the end, we see most of the face and the chest opened up. So through the photographs, there is the progress of an opening up for the speaker, and it feels positive, like an incline.

GA: Your Vietnamese American lineage is encapsulated in this work’s language and specific food and family-building experiences of this book as you delve into moments of physical and mental trauma. As someone who contemplates the inheritance of trauma from my family, I am deeply interested in how food came into play for you.

JN: I worked in the kitchen for a long time. I worked in the back of the kitchen for a restaurant; I worked tough football weekends and football weekend brunches and served a majority white town. When I think of food, I think of labour and going back to the influential Asian American women in my life. I think about my mom who went to work and then came home and cooked for a whole family and was fine with it, and never held back on the time it takes to cook as well. I think at the time when writing the book, I was thinking about food and foodways and how a lot of the food writing people turned me to, or food writing I read is romanticized, which I think has its place. And I am grateful for it because it has helped me like connect with my Vietnamese, my Asian heritage, but because I worked in the kitchen and I have seen my mom stressed out over food, and I have seen the chef I worked with like get super stressed over food; I also wanted to show the labour involved and the labour of love involved in making food. I think going back to the Lục bát, I use the Lục bát when I want to connect or write about my personal experiences with Vietnamese heritage, and so in those poems is where you do see much food employed. One of the poems that begins the second section is about being mistaken for a stripper when you are just delivering food. I had delivered food at intense hours at night for undergrad to make ends meet, and the number of scary encounters I have had and the number of uncomfortable experiences because I was like an Asian American body delivering food, was eye-opening. In that particular poem about being a stripper, food was just another way to think about the white gaze and to think about what it means to be Asian American male. Especially when there was a lot of like Asian American maleness of like “we want to be attractive,” “we want to have sex appeal,” which is fine, I mean a little overplayed and done wrong sometimes, but what happens now when there is a speaker who gets that? But it’s not consented, it is not in a comfortable way. Food is a medium to talk about the gaze, who is consumed, and who is the consumer.

GA: I love that observation of predator and prey in your food observations. There is also a sense of humour when the speaker gazes at themself in these poems with food; I especially love it in “Dim Sum Depression.” Could you speak about the role humour plays in the book and your writing practice?

JN: Speaking of humor, I first started writing in spoken word poetry settings where you want instant positive feedback from the audience. So I learned that I was not the greatest performer, although my teammates might say differently. But I feel like I knew how to try to be charming, funny, and honestly disarm the audience in my poetry. So I think this happens a lot when people start writing and try to put humour in it. Typically, you have the beginning, the joke, the setup, etcetera. I think what some people tend to do and what I used to do all the time is I would rely so heavily on whatever joke or humour I put, in the beginning, to hide or mass like the feelings or the purpose of the actual poem, which is fine. I think that every poem has to be written immediately. I think you write the poem when you are ready to write the poem. But after writing for so long, ten years, I realized that I did not want to hide behind the humour so much, and I wanted to get to some of the points I wanted to make or some of the intense feelings I wanted to express. So in this book, I tried hard to balance the setup, which can still disarm you. When you get disarmed, you open up your heart to all feelings. So I think of the show Fleabag because the great thing about it is that the jokes are so funny and you tend to laugh so hard. To laugh very hard is vulnerable. Laughter gets you in a very vulnerable spot. In Fleabag, you are laughing and suddenly crying because the laughter opened you up to feel everything else. So in this book, I think it is what I was trying to do and dim sum depression; a lot of my funniness, I think, comes from wordplay, I am a pro pun advocate, and many of my titles are puns that are just funny takes on sayings or words. That poem came from a funny title, and then I explored, okay, this is a funny, cute title. How can I make it kind of seriously explore depression a bit? That was like the inspiration around that poem. In many of the poems in this book, the juxtaposition between the title and the expectation of what the poem is can add to a lot of the humour. Many of my titles are funny because I want to disarm them immediately. But then, I want the poem’s content to be more than just humour. So here comes first in the title, and then everything else comes, and all the possibilities come.

GA: You have recently joined The Offing as the Wit Tea editor. How essential is editing to your writing practice? And if you have any advice on editing in general?

JN: I am happy to be a part of Team Offing! The Offing was one of my first ever journals; I loved it. I loved the clean aesthetics, and this was where one of the first poems ever to be accepted was published. It was that stripper poem we talked about earlier; The Offing took the stripper poem in its early drafts. And thinking about editing, or that journey, I like to quote my friend Ariana Brown in both my personal and writing life. Ariana Brown has a poem where she says, “the work is never done.” There is that saying that the poem is never done. Even when you publish it, people can write palinodes to it and respond to it. People can like to do erasures to it. So even when the poem is published, the work can still work and still be had upon it. I think that editing is a valuable tool because I believe in conciseness, and I have been told I am a very direct person, which might be why I write poetry. I want to get the sentiment across quickly. Editing and revision are where you can have fun, play games with your poetry and remember why you started writing in the first place. I always turn to poetic forms, and I think of poetic forms as a game. It is a game with rules. You can adhere to the rules, tweak them, find the loopholes, and then contort the poem to your own rules, your variation of the rules. So many of my poems come from just here is what I am trying to do. Here is a draft. How can I change the shape or use a form to better emphasize what I am trying to emphasize? There is a unique way my brain works when I am presented with a challenge. Thus, in the challenge of the poetic form, if you are like, here is a 15-line poem; let us make it a duplex or a prose block and make it like a villanelle; I love the challenge of that because I am very competitive. Editing is just a game. Moreover, you can make your own rules or follow the rules, just have fun!

GA: In the line of competitions and contests, your book won the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. Could you speak to our readers about your submission process and submitting to contests?

JN: Winning the Felix Pollak prize was wild. I did the math, and the number of people who won the four prizes with the submissions was less than 1%. It was wild to think about the math involved, like luck and all that stuff. Nevertheless, I know everyone does not do the book contest model, which is fine. I understand that doing the book contest model can get expensive. I submitted Come Clean for two years, like to book contests and stuff. But I had to work a kitchen job to pay those submission fees. So there was a lot of labor involved in the submission fees, and there is a privilege involved, too, if you can get that kind of money to submit the submission fees. However, if you do this, I like to tell my students that submitting to journals or book prizes is like a casino, which I love. I grew up in casinos. There are games in casinos where you have a better shot at beating the house. Moreover, there are games and casinos where you have no shot at beating the house. And to apply this metaphor to submitting, you know, there are journals and presses where you should study and understand where your style or aesthetic fits in, you can look at the roster of authors they have had, you can look at the judges.

GA: That is helpful advice for sure! I often skim for past winners and the writing styles of poets judging these contests. I haven’t won a contest yet but like you said it’s all a gamble! Lastly, what do you want the readers of Come Clean to take away from the book?

JN: Some things I want people to take away from Come Clean is the idea of fragmented memory and how it can persist or evolve over time. There is also this idea of how to fill in the gaps or the breaths or what is unsaid in those memories. I want people to think about Vietnamese and American writing in an elevated sense. I come from a long line of Vietnamese American writers, and I want to put Vietnamese American writers on the map. I want to show you can be experimental and still adhere to traditional forms. They can both go hand in hand for the same purpose. I want to bring nuance to Asian American masculinity in my own way. That is something I am even doing for the next project. It is funny, I was teaching at a summer writing camp last week, and we went to the local bookstore here, and a student found my book and flipped through, came up to me and said, “Wow, Mr. Joshua, your book is sad!” I was like, “I am sorry.” All to say that if some of the experiences affect you, I hope that it is cathartic and the book could be an escape, or it could be, hopefully, a way for whoever to think about their past, memory and try to compartmentalize themselves. Much of life is reflection, and reflection is painful, and I do not know if we can all completely heal. I went to a talk with Carolyn Forché, and she was like, no one heals; you live in the aftermath. So I hope that in your aftermath, you are doing what you need to stay strong and stay healthy. Moreover, I hope the book is just one of those stepping stones in the aftermath of your life.

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In Praise of my Threaded Eyebrows

A seed that gave birth
to a legacy worth each bruised
palm from each time you lose
your grip
& fall to roots or feet,
bare feet.