Audio

Hieu Minh Nguyen Reads “Outbound”

March 5, 2018

Don Share: This is the Poetry Magazine Podcast for the week of March 5th, 2018. I'm Don Share editor of Poetry magazine.

 

Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: And I'm Lindsay Garbutt, assistant editor for the magazine. On the Poetry Magazine Podcast, we listened to a few poems in the current issue.

 

Don Share: Hugh Minh Nguyen’s debut collection This Way To The Sugar was a finalist for both the Lambda Literary Award and the Minnesota Book Award. His second collection of poetry, Not Here, is coming out this spring.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: In the 1980s, Nguyen’s family immigrated from Vietnam to the twin cities where he grew up and where he currently lives. As a first generation American, Nguyen says he struggled to feel like he belonged.

 

Hieu Minh Nguyen: Because my mother and my grandmother and most of my family don’t necessarily call this place home, I felt like I was the only person tethering myself to America.

 

Don Share: Nguyen says hile he feels drawn to the twin cities, he also feels stuck there, which brings us to his poem in the March issue. It’s called “Outbound”. When he wrote it, he wanted to explore the desire to leave where he comes from.

 

Hieu Minh Nguyen: I was trying to imagine all the places I know, and I was trying to navigate my way through my memory but also through the landscape towards the airport. The landmarks in the poem are actual places that I have to pass in order to get to the airport.


Lindsay Garbutt: He told us the poem was inspired by Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” which challenged him to turn the music into poetry. Here’s Hieu Minh Nguyen reading “Outbound”.

 

Hieu Minh Nguyen:

Past the congested interstate, past the long lines

outside the Dorothy Day Center, past the cheering bleachers,

the steam rising from the coach’s face, the fathers straining in prayer,

 

past the rusting letters on the marquee, the dim lights along Main,

the couples who will fuck during the movie & the couples who won’t,

past the frozen orchard, past the defaced statue of a saint, a dog

 

chews thin the leather cord around his neck. The opposite of hunger

is not satisfaction, it is birth. It is what makes a man chisel a face into stone.

It is what drives the body to lie in the fresh snow. It is what quiets the world

 

when she pulls you in close. It is the winning pass, the crowd too busy

counting down to notice. The world puts its mouth on you

& you don’t say a thing. The world digs a hole in your yard

 

& it’s up to you to fill it, up to you to find something useful

to do with your sadness. Strange, the yellow beetle, dried

between the pages of the dictionary, staining the page

 

with its flattened body — its outline, a dirty halo circling

the word pleased — please, you’ve circled the same two blocks in search

of a place to park, circled the yard howling a name that won’t respond,

 

but you still think you know enough to call that enough?

The boat smacks against the dock it’s tied to. Your mother

fixes your father’s tie before closing the casket.

 

Everyone you loved refused to die in this town

before they died in this town. The woman beside you

on the plane wants to know where you’re going.

 

Don Share: The repetition that you hear of words like “past” and “the world” and “circle” are what first get your attention when you hear the poem read, but I think when you see it on the page and think more about it, the repetitions really are just the beginning spot so that the word “past” is really meaning as you drive past something, but I think it does invoke the sense of a history of a place, and having to go past it or overcome it.

 

Hieu Minh Nguyen:

The world puts its mouth on you

& you don’t say a thing. The world digs a hole in your yard

 

& it’s up to you to fill it,

 

Don Share: It activates things that I think we get used to thinking about as passive. The passing something, there’s nothing you can do about these landmarks. There’s nothing you can do about the world, that things are circular. There’s nothing you can do about it. Even the way this poem ends, “The woman beside you / on the plane wants to know where you’re going.” It’s not just introspective, it’s not just “I want to know where I’m going”, it’s interactive, it’s a conversation. Somebody wants to know where you’re going and it’s a good question, but the poem doesn’t pose it as a question, it poses it as a fact. That somebody wants to know where you’re going, that you need to know where you’re going, but the what’s around you may not sign post it.

 

Christina Pugh: The repetition of the past in the opening made me think of Robert Frost “Directive”, “Back out of all this now, too much for us. Back in a time made simple by the loss of detail” and so on. It’s a really interesting way to get into the poem and I noticed that the main clause of this long sentence that has that kind of anaphoric repetition of past is “a dog chews thin the leather chord around his neck”. The way the syntax unfolds in this sentence I think is emblematic of what the whole poem is doing in terms of how it is directing you as a reader through these panoramas of landmarks in a way almost cinematically and then taking you down to this detail of:

 

Hieu Minh Nguyen:

a dog

 

chews thin the leather cord around his neck.

 

Christina Pugh: Chewing off his own collar like that desire to leave, to be free of where you’re from. It seems like that’s happening again with:

 

Hieu Minh Nguyen:

the yellow beetle, dried

between the pages of the dictionary, staining the page

 

with its flattened body — its outline, a dirty halo circling

the word pleased

 

Christina Pugh: I loved the way this poem moved between that sort of macro visual level and then this really microscopic vision.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: I felt like the repetition because the words were often so close together created a sense of claustrophobia, that you were surrounded and everything kept repeating itself, there was no way to break free. Like that dog you mentioned in the beginning, Christina. And that’s echoed towards the end too with “the boat smacks agains the dock it’s tied too”, the fact that this thing is also tethered to something else that can’t move. And that “tied too” rhymes with the mother fixing the father’s tie. There’s again this repetition and those two “ties” rhymes with a repeated “die” in the last stanza.

 

Hieu Minh Nguyen: Everyone you loved refused to die in this town

before they died in this town.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: The idea that being tethered to something means death. That you’re basically escaping in order to stay alive. that’s the choice that the speaker’s making at the end.


Don Share: Circularity is a kind of death too. Even the title of the poem, “Outbound”, that sense that the poem has of being bound more than out is what you have to chew on to struggle with the issues that the poem raises so well.


Christina Pugh: it seems that the speaker of the poem is going to be the exception because, “The woman on the plane beside you wants to know where you’re going”. Seems as if whoever is speaking in this poem has actually done the thing that everyone else wanted to do, or everyone you loved wanted to do, which was not to die in this town. It’s always going to be those mixed emotions of having gotten out of a town where so many people you knew lived and died in that town, some probably wanted to and some didn’t want to. I like the way that’s handled, giving that to the woman beside you on the plane without having to do it through first person feeling.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: I love that rhyme of “know” and “go” too, that the only thing the speaker knows is that they’re going. They’ll figure out the rest later.

 

Don Share: You can read “Outbound” by Hieu Minh Nguyen in the March 2018 issue or online at poetryfoundation.org.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all four March episodes all at once in the full length episode on SoundCloud.

 

Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org. Please link to the podcast on social media.

 

Don Share: The Poetry Magazine Podcast is recorded by Ed Herman and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenelosa.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.


Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.


Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.

The editors discuss Hieu Minh Nguyen’s poem “Outbound” from the March 2018 issue of Poetry.

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