Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Poetry and Pho: Hoa Nguyen Shares Lyricism and a Recipe

I recently corresponded with poet Hoa Nguyen about cooking and poetry, and she shared a favorite recipe of hers as well. It makes perfect sense that we’d discuss all this over Gchat: I first met Nguyen over email and by telephone, when she was living in Austin, teaching a class on reading and writing poetry, both in person and, luckily enough for me as well, virtually. Wave Books recently released a collection of her works from 1998-2008, Red Juice, which is a good way to get to know her poems, chronologically. 

There’s ever a sense of dailiness in Nguyen’s poems, which are full of life — right now as well as the past. Reading these poems one imagines her dancing around the house or office or grocery store, thinking and feeling these curious things — in the same way that, while you read them, the words arrive as if dancing along the page to have you perceive them just so. You can hear laughing, cooking, talking or sometimes yelling; you can smell, taste, and see the poems as they change. With the common basis of technical experience — our language — it’s a rare treat to read the work of a poet who is so in control and yet loves language enough to let it do new things. Even rarer is the chance to get to talk dinner with someone like this.

The cover of Hoa Nguyen's "Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008," recently published by Wave Books.
The cover of Hoa Nguyen’s “Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008,” recently published by Wave Books.

Paul Maziar: How can we think of recipes in the context of myth, song, and poetry that gets passed on from one generation to the next, and does this aspect of food (or recipe) inspire in a similar way that the poem can?

Hoa Nguyen: Your question brings to mind the mythological symbol of the ouroboros, the tail devouring snake. It is the symbol for sustaining life, infinity, cycles and renewal, and creation out of destruction. The need to eat to live.

Recipes are about taste combinations: the right proportions of flavors and textures, a mouth feel. That really does sound like what I’m after in poems and what I see in the songs I love — harmony (or discordance), layering, variety, and how it lands in the body.

I also think of recipes, and sharing them as a transference of deep hearth knowledge, hearths tended by women.

The ouroboros, which eats itself to live.
The ouroboros, which eats itself to live.

That sounds like what you’re after to me, and it’s why I thought to talk recipe with you. I’m now thinking of tradition. What have been some of the major influences on your recipe-gathering?

When I moved to Austin in the mid-‘90s, I was introduced to poet Ronald Johnson’s cookbook The American Table (Silver Spring Books: 1984). In his acknowledgements and introduction he talks about how, over decades, he had clipped recipes from little spiral-bound cookbooks, newsletters, and church gazettes or written down recipes after having been invited into the kitchens of a renowned neighborhood chef here or cook friend there.

This resonated with something that Joanne Kyger said to me years before. She said from Robert Duncan she received a transmission of knowledge on the “religion of the household,” that he “unabashedly made a wonderful magical home.” I was sitting on her porch when she told me this and remember how that knowledge settled inside of me, astonishingly. A few years ago, she recalled that moment too — that she could see the clarity of her statement reach me.

So I think of nourishing meals as that kind of magic, the magic of keeping a home hearth and consider how the hearth acts as a place for other kinds of energy transference. It’s partly why our Skanky Possum Presents reading series has been held in our home. Food is part of that scene, as are music, candles, books, conversations, laughing, and flowers.

Hoa Nguyen (l) with Joanne Kyger (r), in 2008. Courtesy of Hoa Nguyen.
Hoa Nguyen (l) with Joanne Kyger (r), in 2008. Courtesy of Hoa Nguyen.

The link between you and Joanne Kyger seems a rich one. First coming to her work, her apparent sense of dailiness is motivating. It seems like the activities of the everyday, like writing poems and cooking, are both ordinary and sacred at the same time. Do you see this as the merging of art and life? Incidentally, I just passed over your quotation from Kerouac, “swimming in a sea of English,” used as an epigraph for your “Birthday Poem,” which seems in keeping with something Kyger wrote about “bathing in the poem.”

I love how you phrase that, both ordinary and sacred at the same time. In a review of Kyger’s selected poems, As Ever (Penguin: 2002), Dale Smith wrote, “the distinctions between self, body and landscape, and God and domestic gods of place blend into the vibrant fabric of every day.” What I learned from Kyger’s work is that those distinctions are fluid (to extend the bathing metaphor). It’s part of the richness of experience and they texture the poems.

This is perfect. Trying to find the Kyger bathing line, as you go between laundry, this interview, and making dinner, I’ve come back to “The Pigs for Circe in May”:

I almost ruined the stew and Where

is my peanut butter sandwich I tore through the

back of the car

I could not believe

there was One slice of my favorite brown bread and my
stomach and

I jammed the tin foil and bread wrappers into

the stew

and no cheese and I simply could not believe

and you Never

TALK when my friends are over.

This is known as camping in Yosemite.

Already I wish there was something done.

Odysseus found a stag on his way to the ship

I think of people sighing over poetry, using it,           I

don’t know what it’s for.”

Do you memorize your recipes, going from intuition and spontaneity, or do you adhere to a guide?

You quote one of my favorite early poems by Kyger! Her use of myth in feminist modern retellings is one of the influences I cite as I think about a new project that I’m forming — this in addition to her attention to and writings on place, and her biography of Madam Blavatsky in verse.

I forgot to mention I’m also running around trying to get ready for a reading tonight in Toronto, writing a grant proposal for a project, AND making stock out of the chicken roast we had on Sunday night. I’m making ph? gà from it.

What’s the project you mention?

It’s a book of poems; part verse meditation and part documentary poetry on 1960s Vietnam. The narrative will include a verse biography of my mother, a stunt motorcyclist in an all-woman Vietnamese circus troupe, and investigate historical, personal, and cultural pressures of the time. I consider it a project that I’ve been gearing up to do for 20 years.

A photo of Hoa Nguyen as a toddler, taken by her mother in Vinh Long, Vietnam, 1968. Courtesy of Hoa Nguyen.
A photo of Hoa Nguyen as a toddler, taken by her mother in Vinh Long, Vietnam, 1968. Courtesy of Hoa Nguyen.

I’ve read a little about your amazing mother in an interview you gave last October, and I’m very excited about your biography. And I wonder, was the aforementioned ph? gà recipe handed down or gleaned from your mother?

I’m fortunate to have access to living first-person narratives and that my mother is more and more willing to share stories from this period in Vietnam and of her childhood, growing up on a Mekong Delta farm in the ‘40s and ‘50s. I also have letters that my father wrote home to his family in Minneapolis from 1967 to 1969, as well as family photographs, though some of latter are lost due to rupture.

My mother didn’t learn to cook Vietnamese food growing up, because, the story goes, when she entered the kitchen as a girl, things would break or something would burn; this was considered most unlucky! And so she was discouraged from working in the kitchen. I’ve invented all of my Vietnamese recipes based on instructions found in cookbooks or online and from experimentation guided by meal memory (and yes, intuition, as you mention earlier). Which I guess rhymes with the challenge I am facing in my developing project; when one lacks a direct link between past and present, you have to do some delving, intuiting, and inventing.

Liver-sausage pineapple, from the 1953 Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. Courtesy of Better Homes and Gardens.
Liver-sausage pineapple, from the 1953 Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. Courtesy of Better Homes and Gardens.

By the former criteria, my kitchen must be the unluckiest! The analogy between your project and recipe-invention is a good one; gleaning from history to make something now (not necessarily new) is great — a recipe for interesting, surprising results. If you and I were to sit down to enjoy some ph? gà this evening, how would you go about preparing it?

When I was a girl, I used to pore through a 1950s Betty Crocker three-ring-bound recipe book that my mother had (was probably given when she settled in her home in suburban Maryland) and especially remember this entry. I was horrified by it! It’s a liver-sausage pineapple. The recipe is here if you are tempted to try it.

When I think of the cuisine of South Vietnam that my mother left behind in 1969, I can’t help but wonder what she made of that recipe for a meat-covered jar in the shape of a pineapple!

So, here, in contrast to that meat pineapple is a picture of ph? gà:

The chicken soup recipe I am sharing is a very simplified version. I designed it as a recipe that I could make even if I was dog-sick with the flu (this soup is amazing medicine as well as being delicious).

Chicken ph? by Jaden Hair, 2009. Courtesy of Eat4Fun.
Chicken ph? by Jaden Hair, 2009. Courtesy of Eat4Fun.

The blog Eat4Fun has a great recipe that is also simple (but contains more steps than mine below) and closer to traditional. It is also the source for the photo above.

Easy Ph? Gà For What Ails You

2 boxes organic chicken broth or homemade equivalent (always superior to boxed)
Shallots or onions, minced
Garlic, minced
Cilantro stems
Fresh ginger grated
1 star of anise
Dash of soy sauce
Dash of fish sauce
½ teaspoon sugar (palm is traditional) or rice syrup
Vermicelli rice noodles prepared to package instructions

Shredded chicken
Bean sprouts
Cilantro and basil
Scallions/red onions
Hot sauces/peppers

Over medium heat, soften onions in vegetable oil (coconut oil is best); as it softens, add garlic.

Once both are soft and fragrant, add broth, cilantro stems (coriander), anise, and ginger. Let simmer on low for 20 minutes. It will smell amazing. Remove star of anise and stems — you can also pass the broth through a sieve to remove all other solids for a more elegant soup.

To serve, arrange piles of rice noodles into soup bowls. To these add a generous squeeze of lime, fresh cilantro (rau r?m if you have some), basils (Thai basil is great here), scallions or red onion, shredded meat, and bean sprouts. Ladle on the broth. Add slices of fresh hot peppers or prepared hot sauce of your choice.