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How to live more creatively, according to a Pitt poet

A portrait of Nguyen in front of a body of water

For Diana Khoi Nguyen, poetry means possibility.

After reading e.e. cummings in fifth grade, Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, discovered a space beyond the expectations of her strict upbringing.

“I saw that poetry could be playful,” said Nguyen, now an assistant professor in the Writing Program in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

“I was delighted to see cummings breaking all the rules and grammar I was taught in school — his words scattered across the page felt organic. It liberated me,” she said.

Today, Nguyen reinforces the same sense of expansiveness and freedom in the classroom. Though she teaches poetry classes, she says her focus is teaching poetics as a way of being in the world.

“When I say poetics, I'm referring to the practice of making poetry, which is not necessarily a poem on the page. Poetics is the consideration of attention, listening, noticing and perceiving the world. It asks what's going on in your mind and your body. What decisions will you make as you create?” she said.

Nguyen is a multimedia artist and the author of the poetry collection “Ghost Of,” a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the 2019 Kate Tufts Discovery Award.

Her debut book plumbs generational grief and reckoning, her parents' displacement from Vietnam, and the death of her younger brother, and asks questions about the cost of survival. Her text is interspersed with renderings of family photographs with her brother missing from the image; two years before he died by suicide, he methodically sliced himself from the pictures hanging in her family home.

In her poem “The Exodus,” she wrote:
Maybe you’d forget / why you were here, that you / didn’t belong / that just because it was like life, / didn’t mean it could be life, / that you could come back to life / but not return to living. / And if you bypassed a war, a war / wouldn’t bypass you                                   

Growing up, Nguyen never considered a life in the arts because no one in her community pursued that career path. She said only after her debut book’s wide acclaim did she begin taking her writing seriously.

“I didn’t know you could make a living doing something you love because I’m a child of refugees,” she said. “My parents lived very practical lives.”

In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Pittwire asked Nguyen to share how she helps create space for students to write the hard stuff and about her forthcoming book, “Root Fractures,” which will be published in early 2024 by Scribner.

Tell us about your next book.

I wrote a portion of “Root Fractures” while attending the Willapa Bay artist residency, where I took daily walks at night. It was then I found myself reflecting on my mother’s time in hiding by a beach for a year as she tried to get out of Vietnam. My mother doesn’t explicitly talk about that time.

There was something about feeling my toes in the mud and the sand and thinking about her toes in the sand of Vietnam during her time of hiding that made me ask — what did it feel like for her body during that year she waited to leave — the anticipation and the not-knowing of what would happen?

I do teach folks how to write poems, but even more than that, I teach them to consider who they are and the artistic decisions they make.

Diana Khoi Nguyen

“Root Fractures” picks up where the last collection leaves off, which is continuing to think about family. In this book, I’m tracing histories within both my maternal and paternal sides. I’m thinking about my family in the context of the larger Vietnam diaspora by tracing decisions, memories and moments within my family, whether I was alive to witness them or heard the stories secondhand. I’m also still working with photographic archives and tracing my grief process.

The title is a nod to thinking about the origin roots — where we come from — not just the physical space but from whom we descend, of the generational tensions and decisions.

I’m thinking of the fractures that I noticed across families and how that might relate to the history of the people of Vietnam, not just within my own family but within family systems.

How does being raised by Vietnamese speakers influence your relationship with writing in English?

Being raised by Vietnamese speakers makes me attuned to the sounds of English and the ability of words to be paired or juxtaposed intentionally with other words. In my head, I hear the phrasing of my poems in my parents’ halting English.

Vietnamese is a tonal language with diacritical marks attached to vowels that tell you what to do with a sound, it’s almost like sheet music. How your voice modulates — goes up or down, wavers and deepens — changes the word's meaning.

Your first book explores some heavy subjects. Is there a connection between what you learned writing your book and how you help your students write about difficult feelings and topics?

Navigating my way as a student in workshop settings transformed how I approach teaching, create writing prompts and facilitate peer sharing within the classroom. My goal is that writers retain agency in terms of protecting and caring for themselves and creating safe boundaries for us to engage in an honest way.

I learned that if you model it, they will follow what you do, whether conscious or not. Talking about my own process of working through childhood abuse and the suicide of my brother gives them permission for their journey in trying to write.

The books that I assign are going to broach difficult subjects, and they are going to activate, inspire and also trigger different things for each writer. My prompts are always oriented not around subject material but more toward elements of craft. However, sometimes in the process of writing, a student's personal experience and sometimes even trauma will emerge.

From the very first class session, I talk explicitly to my students. I say, “Listen to yourself, to how you are feeling. If you start to feel not well in any form, step away. Take a break.”

I’m not the professor that will drill you after you’ve read hundreds of pages. I’m not going to give you a quiz. What I want is for you to feel things and for you to notice things.

When students bring in work, we need to know how they want the class to engage with it. Do they want to hear descriptions of what the piece is doing? Are they looking for more critical feedback? It’s for the student to decide. With that knowledge, I can guide the class to engage safely.

What might a student find surprising about your classes?

When teaching graduate-level classes, I encourage students to manifest work across genres. I’ve had students produce audio pieces, visual work and even a video poem. My students cross-pollinate, and they learn from each other.

For example, I might have an MFA [Master of Fine Arts] fiction student in my class that has no interest in writing a collection of poems, but what she learns in my class is to better home in on descriptive language in her stories. She learns how to apply the lessons from a poetry collection we study to enhance her fiction writing.

One person's poetics could help them generate poetry, but another person's poetics could have them generate a film or an installation. I do teach folks how to write poems, but even more than that, I teach them to consider who they are and the artistic decisions they make.


— Nichole Faina, photography by Apple Chua