Some writers invoke Erato, the ancient Greek muse of poetry, to find inspiration. Joshua Nguyen, however, calls upon Marie Kondo, Netflix’s Japanese organizing guru.
Kondo is a recurring character in Nguyen’s debut full-length poetry collection “Come Clean,” recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press. On Jan. 29, Nguyen will appear at Friendly City Books, alongside C.T. Salazar and Thomas Richardson.
A Ph.D. student at the University of Mississippi, Nguyen won the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry for the manuscript that led to “Come Clean.” He was also a featured author at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium at Mississippi University for Women last fall.
Like the Marie Kondo series, many of Nguyen’s poems blossom from unexpected places and situations. A walk through his collection reveals uniquely titled works such as “After I Was Mistaken for the Stripper While Delivering Barbeque to an All-White Bachelorette Party,” “In the Bathroom after Eating Flaming Hot Cheetos” and “Google Calendar for My Imposter Syndrome.”
But not all of Nguyen’s references are so current. Notably, Nguyen revives a traditional Vietnamese poetic form called the luc bát. The luc bát, which dates back hundreds of years, consists of alternating lines of six and eight syllables with a particular rhyme scheme.
In an interview with The Dispatch, Nguyen talks about how he developed an English-language version of the luc bát, which he calls the American luc bát, as well as his path to Mississippi.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
You competed in poetry slams throughout high school and college. What are some memorable moments from that time?
I grew up in Houston, Texas, where I was a part of the Meta-Four Houston youth poetry slam team, and I got to forge close connections with artists all across the city. When I got to college, I was part of the University of Texas Spitshine group, where I grew as a writer in a very intimate setting.
My UT Spitshine team won the collegiate national poetry slam in Boulder, Colorado, in 2014. I was so shocked. I remember standing outside in the cold, staring at the mountain, and calling all my Houston mentors so I could thank them.
How has slam poetry influenced your writing career?
I grew up doing competitions where I would go on stage and be judged on my poem immediately, using a numerical scoring rubric. I remember getting a 4.2 from a judge when I did a very personal poem about my grandma.
For better or worse, competing in poetry slams gave me thick skin. I know that some writers are intimidated by poetry workshops, or submitting, but all of that feels like smooth butter. I can handle rejection really really well. It kind of sets me free to take risks in my own writing.
What advice would you give to someone interested in a creative writing graduate program?
When I was thinking about applying to creative writing programs, [my friend] Julian Randall posted on Facebook about his experience with the program at UM. He said that the closeness that we both felt growing up, being surrounded by a loving, literary community, was the same closeness he felt at UM. So I applied, got in, and I do feel that intimacy here.
My first semester was still rough. I was adapting to the town of Oxford after living in Houston and Austin my whole life and I had intense imposter syndrome (still do).
But after talking with Julian, and with my professors, I came to my own realization that we were all there for a reason. And I double-downed on the fact that I would walk into a classroom and be excited to learn something new. I basked in the enjoyment of knowledge. If my peers already knew something that I didn’t know; that just meant that I got to experience that new knowledge for the first time.
How did you come up with the idea of creating the American luc bát?
I learned about the luc bát through talking with my parents at a restaurant in Houston’s Bellaire Boulevard. It was the first time I had a lengthy conversation with them about poetic form and I learned that the luc bát was the main form they grew up learning. I was fascinated!
I remember going home and trying to google any contemporary versions or any versions that were in English — and there were none. So I took it upon myself to adapt the rules for the English language. It might be selfish, but I wanted a way to connect with a Vietnamese literary history that I don’t really know. I also wanted to bring a Vietnamese form to the forefront of contemporary poetry.
Have you considered writing in other genres?
My first love of literature was short stories. During the pandemic, I leaned into writing short stories as a way to make myself laugh and take a break from writing my poetry.
My next manuscript will be my collection of short stories, tentatively titled “Ghost of Color.” It takes tropes you might find in scary movies and mixes it with the hilarious and absurd. Think Bryan Washington meets Flannery O’Connor meets Samantha Irby.
Emily Liner is the owner of Friendly City Books, an independent bookstore and press in Columbus.