Pinning myself like a butterfly onto the page: A Conversation with Kimberly Nguyen

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Five years ago, Kimberly Nguyen and I met on Instagram when I searched #AsianAmericanPoets, disgruntled with the lack of Asian American poets in my immediate proximity. She is a prime example of the rich talent, ambition, and community present online that many are quick to criticize. Ever since our first DM, I’ve been lucky to witness her continuous growth as a riveting poet and person.

In her debut collection Here I Am Burn Me, Vietnamese American poet Kimberly Nguyen contends with questions which orbit themes of self-preservation, grief, diaspora, intergenerational trauma, and hope. Through every poem, many of which are bilingual, she employs the kind of embers and endurance daughters of immigrants know intimately. Nguyen wrangles with her past, present, and future through mining experiences that many would rather ignore or forget. Published with Write Bloody, Nguyen’s book tactfully maneuvers through pains—familial, romantic, platonic, and otherwise—with grace, awareness, and care.

Nguyen’s collection opens with a quote from Sara Bareilles’ mighty song, “Satellite Call”; there are eight satellite calls total in the book. This is particularly apt when Here I Am Burn Me itself serves as a satellite. Through precise language, syntax, and imagery, biting truths emerge hand in hand with tenderness in each poem. “How bright this room is when you are in it” is a line from her poem “my friend and I sign a suicide pact,” which spotlights this tenderness brilliantly. In this poem, the speaker hides in the bathroom. It is a reminder that this book is not only for those who, like me, sought sanctuary in bathrooms during family functions, but also for those open to the high-octane emotions Nguyen daringly unpacks page after page.

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The Rumpus: I’ll open with a question I stole from Craig Morgan Teicher’s Paris Review interview with Kaveh Akbar: Is poetry something you feel like you need to do? Why or why not?

Kimberly Ngyuen: I attended Catholic school from Grades 2 through 12, and one thing that always struck me about Catholic education was their emphasis on each individual finding their vocation. Vocation comes from a Latin root that means “to call,” and in the Catholic belief system, we are all called by God to do one job on earth. The Vietnamese concept of “duyên” is similar, except with a stronger basis in Buddhism, and the closest English translation would be “fate” or “destiny.” “Duyên” is more about the entanglement of your past lives that have brought you to this one, so the things that happen in this life that seem irrational are the culmination of past events entangling. This is all one very long way of saying that I believe that it is some higher power beyond myself that has brought me to poetry and brought me back when I tried to run away from it. I am desperate to make a life out of poems because of how much my life has made clear to me that it depends on it.

Rumpus: I’ve met writers who have a writing routine such as writing as soon as they wake up and drink coffee. Others are nocturnal. Considering Here I Am Burn Me, how do you describe yours?

Nguyen: As a neurodivergent poet, it’s really hard for me to stick to any type of routine, and when I tried to keep to a very rigid routine, I spent more time feeling shame and guilt and punishing myself for not being able to stick to a routine than I actually did writing. I’ve also learned that art doesn’t always fit neatly into a schedule. At some point, I tried to write between ten and twelve every night, but some nights I didn’t really have anything to say and other nights, I had so much to say it felt frustrating to stop at twelve to go to bed. Now, I write when the art calls to me and when it brings me joy. This approach reframes poetry for me as something I love to do and not something I force myself to do at a certain time each day.

Rumpus: I agree. A rigid schedule doesn’t work for me either. Let’s discuss the title of the book: Here I Am Burn Me, an enchanting five words that evoke the word “ember” as I speak them aloud. The element of fire can also deploy destruction and at other times, growth. What inspired you to choose the five words, Here I Am Burn Me?

Nguyen: Every poem I write feels like I am pinning myself like a butterfly in a case onto the page. I feel vulnerable, exposed, and at a reader’s mercy. I felt this vividly when I recently met someone for the first time, and they mentioned that they looked me up beforehand and had read some of my poems. Before then, people who read my poems were strangers on the Internet that I had never met before and might never meet, and it really put into perspective how revealing writing can be.

My professor in college often began class with the question, “What does it mean to be an honest writer?” Here I Am Burn Me is my sincere attempt at honest writing. I am bringing my full self to the page, giving myself permission to be vulnerable and exposed, even if what I have to show is ugly and unbecoming. The title is a bold declaration of that honesty, that I am ready to reveal my complete self, come what may.

Rumpus: From what I’ve read from you so far, you excel at pinpointing and unpacking difficult conversations. Within this forthcoming collection, is there a poem you had the hardest time writing? Which and why?

Nguyen: Poems, I think, mirror the interiority of the poet, and the poems about my parents were the most difficult to write because the feelings were the most difficult to render. My feelings in those poems were complicated and always seemingly in opposition with one another. They pushed and pulled and tugged in different ways. I think the reader will feel this too in their experience of reading the poems. Imagine the process of writing as walking through a swamp. The poems that were easier to write were the moments where I was walking through a clearing and could see the language laid out before me all at once. The reader will experience this clarity in their reading experience. The poems that were more difficult to write were the moments where I was walking through a muggy, soupy part of the swamp, and the language was lurking amidst the fog. The reader will also experience this in how the language struggles to make itself known. The poems about my parents were the thickest parts of that swamp. They never felt quite right, and they needed a lot of time and reflection to feel the closest they could to being “right.”

Rumpus: Zooming out and considering the whole collection, can you talk a little about how you organized the poems?

Nguyen: The collection has a series of poems called “satellite calls,” which is a nod to my favorite song by Sara Bareilles, “Satellite Call.” Each of these poems calls into the void, attempting to reach an unreachable intended recipient, and the narrative arc of the collection is my repeated attempts to reach these intended recipients. Originally, all the poems about each intended recipient were nested under that person’s satellite call, but in the end, I made significant changes to move the poems about hurting closer to the beginning of the manuscript and poems about healing towards the end.

Rumpus: Can you talk about the concept behind the book cover? It is enchanting and I am curious how it ties into the themes of your book.

Nguyen: My poetry collection is space-themed, because in the conceptualization of these “satellite call” poems, I imagined myself as a lone satellite floating in outer space trying to reach earth. I wanted a cover that really spoke to that yearning but also still felt fitting for my title. That single comet in the sky amidst a lavender field did both, and it also subtly reminded me of my Midwestern roots. It really stood out among all the cover mock-ups I looked at.

Rumpus: Who is in your literary lineage? This is the idea that we each have a “family tree” of writers who—while maybe not biologically related to you—have literature that is connected to ours. For example, Danez Smith is one of mine.

Nguyen: I have a really big literary family, so I’ll just name a few. Christine Kitano, who has a wonderful way of using simple language and concrete imagery to evoke complex emotions. Bao Phi (interviewed in The Rumpus in December 2017), who gave me an image of intergenerational trauma before I had the word for it. Victoria Chang (interviewed in The Rumpus in April 2022), because I feel like we have very similar experiences with loss and grief.

Rumpus: Your book description really evokes the idea of Afrofuturism for me. I love that! For those who want to try for themselves, how would you advise a writer to un-entangle the past and present to open the possibility of a future free from its past wounds? I ask because sometimes writing about our trauma and triggers can be retriggering (which is sort of inevitable). Thoughts?

Nguyen: Empathy. Maybe an exaggeration, but I feel like 95 percent of the world’s problems can be solved with empathy. Before I expanded my capacity for empathy, I thought that my parents hurt me because they didn’t love me enough, that if they loved me enough they would do the necessary work to change to stop hurting me. This view is incredibly narrow and selfish; this view doesn’t require me to do any work or communicate my needs. To heal, I had to understand that my timeline is not the only timeline that exists, that my parents also had unhealed wounds that were snagging my timeline as collateral damage. In other words, the hurt they were causing me wasn’t personal. My expanded capacity for empathy allows me to approach the past, present, and future with more kindness and to understand that the pain that is inflicted upon me is not always about me.

Rumpus: The topic of intergenerational work is recurring in your work and is something I delve into within my own art. What is a practice you engage with to heal from work that might be triggering?

Nguyen: I go to therapy. In the middle of the pandemic, I went back to my family home for the first time since I’d graduated from college and fell into a deep depression. I had known that I needed therapy for quite some time, but this was just the event that pushed me into finally doing it. I am really lucky that my therapist is so great. I’m approaching the end of my second year of therapy, and I can honestly say that I’ve made so much progress as a human being because of it.

Rumpus: In what ways has your Instagram following positively or negatively influenced your writing career?

Nguyen: I think like most writers, I have a love/hate relationship with Instagram and social media in general. In 2022, a social media presence is necessary to have any sort of audience and recognition, and I will say that Instagram has brought many new readers to me that I might not have had otherwise. It has also been a space where I get to connect with people, to share my joy and sorrow. But I am a writer. My passion is not engagement, algorithms, or figuring out what type of content generates the most clicks. I also think that social media has created unrealistic expectations of production and consumption. I feel pressured to constantly be creating and producing more content, but that pressure is antithetical to art, which requires time and patience.

Rumpus: Finally, if you had to describe yourself as an animal, what would it be and why?

Nguyen: I just took a quiz online, and it says I’m a penguin. That checks out. They survive in harsh conditions. They feel more comfortable in water than they do in air. They huddle together for warmth. When they molt, they lose all their feathers at once instead of slowly, and I also go through very dramatic transformations like that.

 

 

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Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan


Emily Lu Gao (she/they), or “Emdash,” is the queer daughter of Chinese immigrants. Currently she is a 2nd Year Poetry MFA candidate at Rutgers-Newark where she also teaches undergraduates. Her poetry has been performed at San Diego Art Institute and Historic Filipinotown LA; it also lives in Kissing Dynamite, The Agave Review, Queer Rain, and The Good Life Review. She graduated from Pitzer College majoring in Asian American Studies which serves as her “north star.” Her work aims to heal, grow and decolonize. When not writing, she hosts and organizes a monthly open mic at WORD Bookstore Jersey City. More from this author →