5 questions for Diana Khoi Nguyen: Poetry at the intersection of the personal and the political

Published: May 14, 2024
Outdoor portrait of Diana Khoi NguyenDiana Khoi Nguyen (Photo: Karen Lue)

Sean Brenner | May 14, 2024

Diana Khoi Nguyen’s first poetry collection, 2018’s “Ghost Of,” was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her second, “Root Fractures,” published this year, has been added to “must-read” lists by LitHub and The Millions. She’s also an assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

This quarter, Nguyen is the UCLA English Department’s author in residence. The UCLA alumna — she earned a bachelor degree in English and communication studies in 2007 — is teaching an undergraduate poetry workshop in the same classroom where she took poetry with Professor Emeritus Calvin Bedient nearly two decades ago.

Ask her when she first felt that she was really a poet, and she might hedge a bit.

“Oh, God, maybe never? Am I?” she starts. “Probably when I realized I was no longer holding onto a backup plan, when I got my tenure-track job, which is pretty recent, actually.”

Nguyen also resists the label in part because poetry isn’t her sole artistic pursuit; she also works in video. “If I could, I would feel way more comfortable saying that I’m just a person who makes things.”

Nguyen will speak at a creative writing event at 5 p.m. today in Kaplan Hall room 235. Here, she discusses her teaching approach and the meaning of her latest work.

What has your impression been of your students this quarter?

The first thing is how self-directed, hungry and engaged they are. People are filling up office hours. They’re meeting. They want to talk about their work. They’re very serious. They do the work on time. I’m really blown away by their professionalism. I’ve taught at many universities at this point, and that is not a given.

And they’re extremely talented. They’re humble. They’re kind. It can be so scary to share a poem that you just wrote, mostly with strangers. I can do my best to create an inclusive, intimate, safe framework in the classroom, but the students have to participate. And they definitely all did from the very beginning.

What’s the focus of your workshop?

I wanted to teach poets working today who are lyrically different from each other, and with a loose theme relating to highly political work. The first book we read was Layli Long Soldier’s “Whereas,” which works with the quote-apology that was issued for Native persons in the United States during Obama’s administration. If you read the language, it’s actually not even an apology, and it’s really insulting. Her project reclaims that language — “Whereas” comes from the language of the so-called apology.

And we’re reading Ilya Kaminsky’s “Deaf Republic,” which was published in 2019 and now seems quite prescient. It takes place in a fictional city, similar to Odessa, Ukraine, and when a police state comes in, the city gets together and decides to collectively be deaf to the orders of the police.

So that’s a long way of saying that what I’m teaching is the intersection of where the personal meets the political. Secretly — although I guess it won’t be a secret anymore — what I’m trying to nudge students toward is how they route their personal, emotional experience into something a little bit larger than themselves, whether that’s ethnic history, cultural history or other kinds of histories.

That seems like a perfect lead-in to talk about your latest book. Would you describe “Root Fractures” as both personal and political?

The book really looks at the diasporic Vietnamese experience. Of course, that’s me, and that’s my family. But that’s also other people. I had been doing oral histories dialogues with folks in the Vietnamese diaspora for the past six years or so, but I’m not injecting those narratives into the work because they aren’t mine to work with. But there’s so much resonance with what I know about my mother’s and father’s journeys, so I’m writing into these spaces of overlap.

I’m also documenting my own experience, as first-generation born in the United States. And casting a kind of shadow, but not an unpleasant shadow, over things is the aftermath of my brother’s suicide in 2014. So it’s really a lot of things where everything is interconnected. It’s funny, because I wouldn’t describe my work as political, but I’m sure that it is, although maybe in a more “local” sense. It really examines the ways in which siblings and other family members trespass with each other.

What does the book’s title mean to you?

I actually had a really hard time titling it. But I’m tracing so many different kinds of roots: familial roots, cultural roots, transnational roots and the fractures and fissures inherent within those root systems — between family members, but also between people and their homelands.

So, I was thinking about all of those things, and I wanted to work with the word “root.” And there was another book title that was inspiring for me, “The Rupture Tense,” by a friend and poet I admire, Jenny Xie. I loved thinking about that word, “rupture,” and that led me to “fracture.”

But when I sent the name to my editor, he wrote back to tell me that he was looking at all of these images on Google of root fractures, because it’s a dental term, which I didn’t know. For a second, I thought, “Maybe the book cover should have an X-ray image of a root fracture.”

A final question about your workshop this quarter: What do you hope students will take away from studying with you?

I’m trying to start the kindling for them to kind of rewire their brains a little bit. To know that they’re thinking and feeling people, and that I demand more on the page — and I want them to demand more on the page — than just working out your feelings. That can go in a diary.

Why should your writing be a poem for circulation, why should it be in a public space? That poetry needs to do something; it needs to be an offering in a public space, even if that public space is a classroom of 13 people.