An interview with poet Do Nguyen Mai
By Bryan Thao Worra
AAP contributing writer
Vietnamese American poet Do Nguyen Mai recently released her second book of poetry, “Battlefield Blooming” Sahtu Press. A community activist from Santa Clarita, California, she attended College of the Canyons from where she received her associate degrees in history and the liberal arts and sciences. Earlier this year she was elected as an Assembly District Delegate to represent California’s 38th Assembly District to the California Democratic Party. Her 2016 debut poetry collection “Ghosts Still Walking” was nominated by the members of the international Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association for an Elgin Award for Book of the Year in 2017, We had a chance to catch up with her recently about her poetry and community work.
Battlefield Blooming is your second book of poetry. What are some of the big differences you see in the collection compared to GhostsStill Walking?
The changes between the two books are the same changes happening to me personally: instead of reimagining only the past as I do in Ghosts Still Walking, in Battlefield Blooming, I’m more interested in examining and reimagining the present and future. While the past continues to haunt me, my family, and my community, there’s still very real violence inflicted on us daily. Mentally ill, often elderly or very young Vietnamese people are being gunned down by police officers. Southeast Asian refugees are being deported for even the most minor infractions that they’ve already served time for. Too often, we view our history as starting and ending with being refugees in the United States, but our history spans millennia before that and will continue as long after. I grew up having to grapple with the intergenerational trauma of fractured memory, of having to assemble a personal and family history where there is hardly one. Now, I have to confront another kind of intergenerational trauma: piecing together a present and future using a shattered past. They’re two very different conflicts that I’ve witnessed many other young Vietnamese Americans undertake in their own lives.
Tell us a little about yourself. What was a pivotal moment that drew you to art and literature?
My mother sings a lot, and she taught me a lot of Vietnamese songs as part of my Vietnamese language education. Learning these beautiful – but usually tragic – lyrics drew me to poetry and music. To know that it’s possible to vividly outline a geography I can’t always physically touch or that it’s possible to recover a moment forgotten by photojournalist cameras using only words and sound was comforting for a young child of Vietnamese refugees. To know that there’s a throughline of song that connects me to my first ancestor – that really keeps me going. I even wrote a poem about it (“Ca Dao,” in Battlefield Blooming).
What has one of the most difficult skills for you to learn in your artistic process? What’s one of the most unexpected skills you’ve developed?
Variety. Being a queer child of refugees often means that I’m stuck in a cyclical pattern of thought related to relevant traumas, and the work that comes out of that is overly similar to one another. Over time, learning how to pick apart what I’m experiencing into specific and distinct experiences – because they are truly individual experiences woven together into one piece by the threads of intergenerational trauma – has been crucial not only to my writing, but also to my personal growth.
My history and political science sides certainly show themselves when I say that an unexpected skill I’ve developed has been my research skills. I’ve recently taken to working with declassified CIA documents from the Cold War (à la Mai Der Vang). One of my most recent poems, which was featured on the diaCRITICS website, is based on a presidential daily brief delivered to President Johnson the day after a young Buddhist nun self-immolated in 1967.
Who are some of the first Asian American writers you read?
Rice without Rain by Minfong Ho was one of the first books I read by an Asian American writer. It was one of the only books by an Asian American writer in my middle school library. As a young teenager, I was obsessed with Lisa See’s novels, especially Peony in Love. My parents also gifted me a copy of Kien Nguyen’s The Unwanted to read when I was in high school, and I still remember almost crying while not-so-sneakily reading it in my freshman biology class.While I didn’t get to read too many Asian American writers before adulthood, I was at least able to engage with a sufficient breadth of Asian American literature for someone that age.
What are some of the missing perspectives in Asian American literaturethese days?
There’s a lot of ethnic and gender disparities at play in who gets read in Asian American literature. East Asian Americans’ longer history in the United States has allowed their communities to produce more work, which isn’t a bad thing. It just means there’s a purely quantitative disparity that should be addressed in literary spaces. If we’re building “Asian American literary spaces,” they should elevate South Asian and Southeast Asian voices with this disparity in mind. Among Southeast Asian Americans specifically, I’d like to see more Khmer, Lao, Pinxy, Thai… anyone that’s not a Vietnamese man. Sokunthary Svay, a Khmer poet from the Bronx, is one of my favorites, although I’ll provide full disclosure and let you know she’s also a personal friend. Sophia Terazawa, a Vietnamese-Japanese-American poet, is also someone whose work I really admire.
What poem in Battlefield Blooming would you recommend for readersseeing your work for the very first time?
I’d recommend a poem that I’ve read at nearly every single reading I’ve participated in for the past two years: “I pledge allegiance to the flag.” There’s a lot of explanations about me, my work, and my various careers embedded into the poem.
When are you most satisfied with a poem?
I should probably lose my poet card for this, but honestly, I go by the sound – whether it sounds like a complete small melody. I was taught poetry through its sound, so that’s how I gauge whether I feel like a poem is done.
What’s an unusual topic you’d like to explore with your next collection?
I don’t know if it’ll become a collection, but something I’ve been thinking about for a few years now has been the connection between Vietnamese refugees in California and their new homes. What does it mean to flee war and to flee a home associated so deeply with water – we even use the same word to reference water and country – and to settle in a land perpetually ablaze? What does it mean to be people of the Mê Kông and experience its loss in real time halfway across the globe? As a younger Californian, it’s hard not to contemplate the impending climate catastrophe. I grew up in the Santa Clarita Valley, where the nation’s largest landfill by volume continues to operate and harm the surrounding communities of color while the corporate management and the majority-white neighborhoods a bit further away gain short-term benefits from the landfill’s operation. That, in addition to the increasingly frequent fires, filled my childhood with dust and ash. My experience as a child of Vietnamese refugees, as someone who is perpetually suspended in liminal spaces yet is deeply connected to the land and water, only heightens the pain of watching this global disaster unfold.
What parts of California life are the most inspiring for you?
California is beautiful. It’s a huge state, and the geography is as diverse as its people. I don’t have to leave the state to experience a completely different place. I just have to drive an hour in any direction. No matter where I go, almost everyone I meet is fiercely passionate about improving the conditions of our communities. This isn’t to say that California is a paradise as it’s often portrayed on television – it’s far from it. There is an ugly underbelly to even the most idyllic of places, like my hometown, which is considered one of the safest places to raise a family. Places, like people, are never perfect. That doesn’t mean we won’t keep fighting for them and fighting to improve them every day. That’s what California is: a fight for a clear sunrise, unhindered by smog, smoke, or the fog of war.
Do you have any advice for emerging poets?
Poetry is often a painful endeavor. Take care of yourself.