PhD student Diana Nguyen’s hard work is starting to pay off. Not only did she win the 92 Y “Discovery”/Boston Review poetry prize, but she also won Omnidawn’s 2016 Open Book Poetry Contest and is finishing all the edits for her upcoming book which will be published in April 2018! While we eagerly await her book release we’re excited to share with you Diana’s thoughts about her work, winning the 92 Y Discovery prize, and experiences as DU a grad student.
Current Writing- I recently completed a manuscript of poems, Ghost Of, which won Omnidawn’s 2016 Open Book Poetry Contest and will be published in April 2018. My “Discovery” poems are included in this manuscript; the manuscript explores personal and family histories, trauma, and grief. It also touches briefly upon my parents’ flight from Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon.
At DU, I’ve worked with professors Bin Ramke and Eleni Sikelianos (who are both poets), and have also been inspired by my time with professors Eric Gould and Selah Saterstrom. For my dissertation, which will comprise the bulk of my next manuscript, I hope to explore the exodus of Vietnamese refugees from Vietnam at the end of the War; this project aims to examine refugees and children of refugees in various diaspora communities of the U.S., Cambodia, Australia, France, and elsewhere. I will be traveling to these communities to conduct interviews and listen to other families’ histories and stories.
Winning the 92 Y “Discovery” / Boston Review Poetry Prize- My submission was a collection of multimedia poetry that works through my grief process; poetry that also explores spaces in which I consider the past, present, and future—for myself, and for my family. This work emerged after the death of my brother who died in 2014 at the age of 24. Two of my poems, Overture and Gyotaku, are currently featured on the Boston Review’s website.
Biggest Challenge- It has been difficult to find a way to be inclusive in my personal grief, and create bridges to others (family, friends, strangers) via my work—in a way that feels new to me. As if anything could be new these days…
Advice for DU Grad Students- I urge everyone to find what it is they care most deeply about—and excavate that thing in all the ways they can imagine (and haven’t yet conceived of). Don’t worry about publishing—pursue what is the core of you, get lost in the search/discovery, and publication will follow later.
Here’s one of Diana’s poems that will be included in her forthcoming collection. An audio of a live reading is available at the end.
The night before their youngest child is born, a man and woman watch Oliver Twist (1948), name their only son Oliver. The family rejoices and for several years indulge their newest member, even though they are industrious refugees who previously celebrated nothing, even though they also have two daughters.
The eldest daughter resembles her brother until she wakes up one morning from a dream in which he was a tyrant. Soon after, her hips widen, one lone hair grows in her armpit. Sometimes the daughter feels like a son and sometimes the son feels like a shadow—like hosiery, alienable—he says to his first grade teacher: “You can’t draw inside the body. So why try to draw what’s inside the body at all?”
If one has no brother, then one used to have a brother. There is, you see, no shortage of gain and loss.
Let’s admit without embellishment what we do with each other. When the daughter begins to walk, it is apparent that she ambles pigeon-toed. A doctor tells her alarmed parents that no surgery is needed, just some rollerskating. Each day after work, the father helps his daughter stay upright on her skates.
If you have a father, then you also have a son.
A child has difficulty weaning from nursing bottle to glass of milk. Concise in her expression of impatience, the mother pours a gallon of milk over the girl’s head.
A tiger came across a donkey and having never seen a donkey before, mistook it for a god.
After everyone has gone to bed, an eldest child hoists her younger brother over her shoulders, then a sheet over his shoulders, and they sway as one into the middle sister’s room.
Who is weak and who is weaker and what does relativity have to do with it?
Let me tell you a story about refugees. A mother and her dead son sit in the back seat of his car. It’s intact, in their garage, and he is buckled in; she brushes the hair behind his ear. This is the old country and this is the new country and the air in the car is the checkpoint between them.
Let me tell you a story about seat belts. While driving her children to the local pool, a mother enumerates to her children their failures.There was a mother, she says, who put her children in a car, sewing their seat belts so they couldn’t unbuckle them, who drove them off a seaside cliff.
A boy on a unicycle goes round and round a lighthouse, dodging tourists, ridicule, and awe. He doesn’t go up, he doesn’t fall down.
Son, says the mother, meaning child not her husband. Son, says the father, whose name is Son. Sister, says the son, lying in a coffin. To hell with family, says the rest of the family.
A brother is a brother when he has at least one sibling. The brother believes he is not a brother but one in name only.
When the brother meets a couple his parents’ age, he takes the time to tell them he’s an only child and an orphan. The three of them agree that one must not be without family, that there must be at least two in a family, that three is even better. They embrace and the couple encourages the brother, the brother waiting for the other shoe to drop. Whose shoe? His or the couple’s?
Five pairs of shoes dangle from the pole of a traffic light. Over time, birds make a nest in each hollow, each separate space.
Put yourself in someone else’s bird nest.
“Your hat is Mexican … ?” asks a sailor in Côte d’Azur.
“No, it’s Moroccan.”
“Are you from Japan?” asks a Moroccan shopkeeper in Marseille.
“No, I’m American.”
Is belonging and fulfillment possible without family? No. Is it possible with family? No.
You cannot connect if you keep answering no. You cannot keep your brother alive if you keep your mouth shut. You cannot keep your brother alive.
At camp, some counselors take the kids on an excursion into the woods, leading them in a game of hide-and-seek. One boy, a deaf child who was also going blind, hid so well that they couldn’t find him and he didn’t find his way back. He had done everything right—
Nabokov says, “The lost glove is happy.”
Is the lost brother happy?
A man lies in an open grave after a body is taken out of it. This practice is said to lengthen life expectancy. The brother imagines his bed is a nest in which his body is removed.
There’s a story about a man galloping by another man who asks, “Where are you going?”
“Ask my hearse,” says the man.
“I was never lost in the jungle,” says a father, “just looking for a way out.”
“Ghost Of” retrieved from The Poetics of Haunting in Asian American Poetry. Reprinted with permission of the author.