Poet Of The Week

Kimberly Nguyen

     October 17–23, 2022

Kimberly Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American diaspora poet originally from Omaha, Nebraska, and now living in New York City. Her work can be found in diaCRITICS, Muzzle, the Minnesota Review and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Vassar College, where she received the Beatrice Daw Brown Prize for Poetry, and in 2021 she was named a finalist for Frontier Poetry’s OPEN and New Poets awards as well as Palette’s Previously Published Poem Prize. She was a 2021 Emerging Voices Fellow at PEN America and is currently a 2022–23 Poetry Coalition Fellow. On Saturday, October 22, Nguyen will read at Brooklyn Poets for the launch of her collection Here I Am Burn Me.

Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan

ngủ ngon

 

what i thought i knew about language                   i was wrong

forgive me:                      i once thought home would be

wherever my first language was               but the last night

i laid with you                  we were two drops of water

under the blanket                         of a dry, yearning tongue

when you asked me                      how to say goodnight in vietnamese

i turned my whole body away                    a syllable, misfired

into the dark                    my first language—an arrow

that once grazed across my face                 the sharp edge, leaving a laceration

that became my mouth.    i don’t know how to speak

tenderness in my first language                 i caught the arrow between my teeth

and now every utterance breaks skin                    i know now

my second language is what saved me,                 a salve for a split tongue

our first languages            are also sometimes our first wounds

my second language                       warm honey on a cold, hard throat

the only language i can say                         goodnight and i love you

the only language i could cry in                  when you left me

but before that, in the chasm                                 between my back and your face,

you whispered the softest words    in mandarin—

your first language—                      a voice i’ll never hear again

i don’t know what you said                         and i will never need to know

while you slept,   i lifted the words off your lips

on my tongue                                 all i could taste was their sweetness.

 

—From Here I Am Burn Me, Write Bloody Publishing, 2022.

Brooklyn Poets · Kimberly Nguyen, "ngủ ngon"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem after a difficult breakup, intending to write a Really Sad Poem™ but as you can see, this is a poem that preserves joy. This poem is one of my favorites in the collection because of how it carried me away in an unexpected direction, and the poem that I originally intended to write did not become the poem that I eventually wrote. The actual action of this poem truly only takes about thirty seconds. A question is asked, there’s a pause and then the final word. But the way I wrote this poem allowed me to almost freeze-frame the memory and meander through it, to extend the life of this tiny moment that I felt joy. In the end, I wrote a poem that does not yearn or grieve. Rather, it celebrates.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a new poetry manuscript that explores the relationship between trauma and the body! I haven’t started yet because I’m so busy with launching this book, but I can’t wait until I really have time for it.

What’s a good day for you?

Any day where I don’t have to leave the house and I have time to do other creative things that aren’t writing, like baking or painting or a crossword puzzle, is a perfect day.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I moved to Upper Manhattan as a fresh graduate from college thinking it’d make me centrally located to the rest of Manhattan. But I lived on the 1 train line at 193rd St and that line is local, so it takes about an hour to get into Midtown. In the pandemic, my landlord raised the rent on a first-floor apartment that had no natural light, so I decided Brooklyn would not only be cheaper and brighter, but it’d actually put me closer to things.

Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

For a year, I lived in Bed-Stuy on Fulton St, so it was always so incredibly loud and busy. From my window, I saw and heard everything. It was the best way to people-watch. I saw people walking their very cute dogs, a man pooping on the sidewalk in front of my building, and even my friends stopping by during COVID and waving up from the sidewalk. I’m originally from Nebraska, so I’ve never experienced such a busy or lively neighborhood. Every single day was marked with sirens, traffic and music.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

I’m not sure if this is a Brooklyn experience, but one of those street phone-charging stations was outside of my apartment—those electronic ad signs that have a button you can push for emergencies but also an outlet for your phone? One night, someone plugged their phone into it and screamed at someone on the phone for the entire night. I remember waking up at around 6 AM to them still out there screaming, and then again at 8 AM.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?

Growing up Asian-American in the Midwest, writing was something that I did because I was alone. Therefore, I didn’t experience writing as an act of community. I experienced writing as an act of solitude. This did not change when I went to college. I struggled to relate to the other writers in my class, I felt ostracized by professors sometimes, and being alone for so long, a lot of self-doubt started to creep into my head. It was not until the pandemic hit that I understood that writing was an act of community, as writers were forced online, and I got to connect with a large number of them. Also shoutout to AAWW and Kundiman, who have worked tirelessly to ensure that writers of color, specifically Asian-American writers, are able to find welcoming community.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Hala Alyan. The New York Public Library is doing a fine job because when I went into a random branch one day and picked up some poetry, Hala Alyan’s The Twenty-Ninth Year was one of the books I picked up. I just remember being mesmerized by Alyan’s poetry, and I fell in love not only with her poetry but also with the NYPL for introducing her work to me.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Paul Tran was my assigned mentor during my Emerging Voices Fellowship at PEN America, and they really validated me as a poet, and that’s important. Poetry is hard, and I am a perfectionist. It’s easy to slip into a cycle of self-doubt when you spend so much time on a poem trying to get it right and fail day after day. Paul held me to the highest of expectations and reminded me constantly that they believed I was capable of meeting them, especially on days when I didn’t.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I read “Why I Loved Him” by Camonghne Felix recently, and it stood out to me because I am interested in media/art that takes youth and adolescence seriously. I remember feeling emotions so intensely as a teenager/young adult. Sadness and heartbreak felt engulfing. I swore I would love people until my dying day, and I meant it. Adults were so quick to dismiss those feelings as raging hormones or an underdeveloped brain, but that didn’t make those feelings any less real or intense. This poem returns to the past and validates it. It doesn’t brush off the naïveté or immaturity of young love but rather allows it to take up the full space it takes up.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I don’t want anyone to see the giant pile of unread books in my apartment while I go to bookstores looking for more. I’ve been meaning to read more poems by Vietnamese poets. Most of them are public domain and available online, and the approach to poetry is just so different from mine that it tickles my curiosity. It’s not a poem, but there’s a song in Vietnamese that asks, “How do we know that a rock doesn’t feel pain?” And I think about that a lot.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I dip in and out of books, and at any given moment I am in the middle of four to five books. I have ADHD. I can’t help it. I also keep books in different places so I can just pick them up whenever. I keep a Kindle in my bag, a few books on my desk and a book near my bed. The goal is to read more any way I can. I prefer physical books, but I hate lugging them around when I travel. So a Kindle it is. I am sometimes a note-taker. It depends on if I’ve kept a pencil within reach.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’d like to try a real form. All of my poems have been free-form, and while patterns emerge, I feel like I’m not a “real” poet until I can write in at least one form.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I love reading by bodies of water, whether that’s a quiet swimming pool, a lake, a beach. I find water calming and it helps me focus.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

This is probably sacrilegious, but I love the Atlantic Ave Target. That Target saved me so many times in so many ways when I lived in Brooklyn, and Target never misses. Also, there’s a Cold Stone in that same complex, so I could walk home with a whole ice cream cake on rough days.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate my past, present, and future,

And what I have grown in this garden of my life you will harvest the fruit,

For every blessing bestowed unto me as good I offer to you.

Why Brooklyn?

I feel grounded by Brooklyn, even though I don’t live there anymore. And I regret leaving. All my friends live in Brooklyn, and all the things I want to do and eat are in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is where I find my community.