Do Nguyen Mai — name written family name to middle name to first name — is a Vietnamese American poet and advocate for Vietnamese American progress. She is the founder of Rambutan Literary, the co-founder of CA25 United for Progress, and the author of Ghosts Still Walking, which was nominated for an Elgin Award for Book of the Year in 2017. She was highlighted in NBC Asian America’s “Groundbreaking Asian American Poets” feature earlier this year.
We caught up with her recently to discuss her inspirations and her work, as well as her advice for emerging writers. Be sure to visit her online at http://donguyenmai.com and on Twitter at @DoNguyenMai
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started as a writer? What was one of the hardest things for you to learn?
I’ve always been interested in verse. My mother is quite the singer, and I often used to read the popular Heian era works like The Gossamer Years alongside Vietnamese works like The Tale of Kieu. I know several songs in Vietnamese by heart, and each tells a different story or legend. To me, verse and the Vietnamese experience are inherently intertwined.
I started writing in middle school, but most of the poems in Ghosts Still Walking were written between high school and community college notebook pages. I never studied literature aside from reading works on my own time for pleasure. I didn’t start writing regularly because I liked it. I started writing regularly to purge myself of constant nightmares that plagued much of my vision. It’s common Vietnamese superstition to believe that dreams come from the spirits of the deceased – and I began writing shortly after my paternal grandmother passed away. I consider my writing to be half a product of spirits’ involvement and half a product of the political and social context.
What I learned in the process of writing and promoting Ghosts Still Walking is that sometimes the people you write for will never hear or understand you. Writing, like many other things in life, is often an act of trembling faith.
What’s a poem you usually suggest for a reader who wants to read you for the very first time?
I don’t actually provide this suggestion at all since I haven’t yet been asked to do so, but I think “I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag” sets a good premise and tonal foundation for the rest of my work. There’s a lot of answers to some basic questions – “Why do you work in politics?” “Why did you want to join the Coast Guard when you were younger?” – people often ask about me in that poem.
Who do you look up to as your literary heroes and heroines?
Many of my literary heroines are ancient Vietnamese female writers and political figures. They tended to be unapologetic in their existences, whether soft or harsh, quiet or loud. I don’t know if I have a particular favorite. I just generally enjoy sifting through the remnants of the old, old matriarchal culture. I doubly enjoy pulling those fragments as inspiration for my little contributions to the revival of that culture.
What inspired you to write Ghosts Still Walking? What was the most challenging of the poems for you to include in this collection?
I’ll be honest: I threw together the messy stack of poems that resulted from my dreaming and nightmaring and called it the manuscript. Michelle and Peter – the two that manage Platypus Press – did all the organizational and structural editing related to the book.
It was easy for me to include “Devour” in the collection but it was also the poem that made me the most nervous to include. I was almost sure I’d get an angry email about it or that my parents might yell at me for it. I thought about taking “Devour” out, but I knew I had to include it. Even if the accusations and implications are dangerous and perceived as traitorous, the poem – the reason I refuse to eat meat anymore, the abhorrence of the American appetite for flesh in all its forms – is my truth.
Where would you recommend someone travel to find inspiration as a poet?
Anywhere. I’m against the idea of inspiration as a niche find. There is a poem in every person, in every thing, in every moment. Just travel somewhere, even if it’s to a new restaurant in town.
What’s been on your mind these days as you contemplate the direction of Southeast Asian American literature?
I’m worried about defining our communities as particularly othered communities – whether that means as refugees or otherwise. American history and culture might other us, but that doesn’t mean we need to view and establish ourselves that way. Our songs, food, clothes, literature are not foreign to us. I really do hope we embrace and love our own cultures with less hesitation, with less of a perceived obligation to view them as others do.
What are your recommendations for encouraging more Vietnamese American poets to submit work to literary journals?
I’m not going to say what I hear often, that our work shouldn’t be about the Vietnam War. There’s a reason Vietnamese America exists, and it makes no sense to stray from interrogating this circumstance.
I will say that our work need not pander to the perceptions of the war held by many, even our own. To get more Vietnamese Americans published, it’s critical to stress that Vietnamese Americans need not be apologetic in any way.
What’s the most interesting territory you feel poets can be exploring these days?
I don’t think that’s a question I have the prerogative to answer. That’s up to each person to figure out for themselves. Anyhow, I’ve never found excitement or intrigue to be a crucial aspect of anyone’s work. What’s important, in my opinion, is what is urgent to the poet.
Is it interesting that I write as a form of mediumship? Perhaps, to some. Is it urgent? Yes, it is. That is the only way I can write, sometimes. That urgency and necessity, I think, is paramount to any other consideration.
If you could have any creature, fantastic or real, for a traveling companion, what would it be?
I’d like a cat. I enjoy the company of small, soft animals. Perhaps if I lived in a nice, big house, I’d like a phoenix, but that’s a little lavish.
What’s your advice for beginning writers who want to write poetry?
I think I might’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again and say it as often as I need to: focus on the passion, and the rest will follow.