Book Talk: 5 questions with Joshua Nguyen, author of ‘Come Clean’
Some writers look to Erato, the ancient Greek muse of poetry, for inspiration. Joshua Nguyen, however, appeals to Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizer guru of Netflix.
Kondo is a recurring character in Nguyen’s debut collection of poetry “Come Clean,” recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press. On January 29, Nguyen will appear at Friendly City Books, alongside CT Salazar and Thomas Richardson.
A Ph.D. A student at the University of Mississippi, Nguyen won the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize for the manuscript that led to “Come Clean.” He was also a featured author at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium at the University of Mississippi for Women last fall.
Like the Marie Kondo series, many of Nguyen’s poems bloom from unexpected places and situations. A walk through his collection reveals works with unique titles such as “After I was mistaken for the stripper while delivering barbecue to an all-white bachelorette party”, “In the bathroom after eating Flaming Hot Cheetos” and “Google Calendar for My Imposter Syndrome”. ”
But not all of Nguyen’s references are so current. Notably, Nguyen revives a traditional Vietnamese poetic form called luc bát. The luc bát, which dates back hundreds of years, consists of alternating lines of six and eight syllables with a particular rhyme scheme.
In an interview with The Dispatch, Nguyen recounts how he developed an English-language version of luc bát, which he calls American luc bát, as well as his way to Mississippi.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
You participated in poetry slams throughout high school and college. What are the memorable moments from this era?
I grew up in Houston, TX, where I was part of the Meta-Four Houston youth poetry slam team, and was able to bond closely with artists all over the city. When I came to college, I was part of the Spitshine group at the University of Texas, where I grew up as a writer in a very intimate setting.
My UT Spitshine team won the National Collegiate Poetry Slam in Boulder, Colorado in 2014. I was so shocked. I remember standing outside in the cold looking at the mountain and calling all my mentors in Houston to say thank you.
How has slam poetry influenced your career as a writer?
I grew up doing competitions where I would go on stage and be immediately judged on my poem, using a numerical scoring grid. I remember getting a 4.2 from a judge when I did a very personal poem about my grandmother.
For better or for worse, participating in poetry slams has given me a hard time. I know some writers are intimidated by poetry workshops or submission, but it all feels like smooth butter. I can handle rejection very well. It kind of frees me to take risks in my own writing.
What advice would you give to someone interested in a graduate program in creative writing?
When I was thinking of applying for creative writing programs, [my friend] Julian Randall posted on Facebook about his experience with the program at UM. He said the closeness we both felt growing up, surrounded by a loving literary community, was the same closeness he felt at UM. So I applied, walked in, and I feel that intimacy here.
My first semester was still difficult. I was adapting to the city of Oxford after living in Houston and Austin all my life and I had intense impostor syndrome (still do).
But after talking with Julian and with my teachers, I realized that we were all there for a reason. And I doubled down on the fact that I walked into a classroom and was excited to learn something new. I bathed in the pleasure of knowledge. If my peers already knew something that I didn’t; it just meant that I got to experience this new knowledge for the first time.
How did you come up with the idea of creating the American luc bát?
I heard about luc bát while talking to my parents at a restaurant on Bellaire Boulevard in Houston. It was the first time I had a long conversation with them about poetic form and I learned that luc bát was the main form they had learned growing up. I was fascinated!
I remember coming home and trying to Google all the contemporary releases or all the English releases – and there weren’t any. So I took it upon myself to adapt the rules for the English language. It may be selfish, but I wanted a way to connect with a Vietnamese literary history that I don’t really know. I also wanted to bring a Vietnamese form to the forefront of contemporary poetry.
Have you thought about writing in other genres?
My first love of literature was the short stories. During the pandemic, I leaned into writing short stories to make myself laugh and take a break from writing my poetry.
My next manuscript will be my collection of short stories, tentatively titled “Ghost of Color”. It takes tropes you might find in scary movies and mixes them with the hilarious and the absurd. Think Bryan Washington meets Flannery O’Connor meets Samantha Irby.
Emily Liner is the owner of Friendly City Books, an independent bookstore and press in Columbus.