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'Poetry takes risks': A daring ASU writer earns her degree

Graduating ASU student Susan Nguyen / Courtesy photo

Graduating ASU student Susan Nguyen was featured by PBS NewsHour as one of “three women poets to watch in 2018.” As she told NewsHour, she “writes poetry that ‘carves out space’ for her body and identity as an Asian-American woman” and that “her work doesn’t deal with pleasant or pretty themes.”

April 29, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

Hailing from Springfield, Virginia, Arizona State University student Susan Nguyen has called the desert her home for the past three years. She is earning her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing (poetry) here, where she served as the poetry editor for literary journal Hayden’s Ferry Review and received several fellowships from the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. These fellowships gave her the opportunity to teach introductory creative writing at the National University of Singapore and to begin on oral-history project centered on the Vietnamese diaspora.

Earlier this year, Nguyen's daring and bodily approach to language drew attention from PBS NewsHour, which called her one of "three women poets to watch in 2018."

Nguyen has begun to live out her belief that creative writing is life-affirming.“Storytelling is one way in which connections are born,” she said, and one way that “our personhood is recognized.” The importance of being recognized, of being seen and valued, is at the center of Nguyen’s writing. As she told NewsHour, she “writes poetry that ‘carves out space’ for her body and identity as an Asian-American woman” and that “her work doesn’t deal with pleasant or pretty themes.”

Nguyen received the Aleida Rodriguez Memorial Award from the Department of English for her poem “The First Language,” which was published in early February by the journal The Shallow Ends. In these lines from the poem, Nguyen unearths from the center of herself an image of a father figure, which is perhaps a memory, perhaps a wish:

He taught her that their first language was named after tadpoles, the way they moved through water: a / knife dissecting the stratosphere, a voice cutting quiet.

The poem encapsulates Nguyen’s way of approaching language: that is, to reconnect it to the physical world and to the voice.

Nguyen answered a few more questions about her writing and her future.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field? 

Answer: I grew up wanting to be a writer because I was such a bookworm. I came to love language and wanted to have the same power as the authors I read to transport readers, to educate and illuminate and delight. At first, I thought I was going to be a novelist because that’s pretty much all I was reading.  Leaving high school, I actually thought I hated poetry. When I took an introduction to creative writing course during my freshman year of college, I was surprised to find that poetry was what I was drawn to as a writer and I excelled at it more so than fiction or nonfiction.

Even though poetry was, and still is, challenging, I find it to be language at its strongest, at its utmost capacity. A lot of my research and writing is about the body. The body as it is othered, gendered, racialized, sexualized. The body living in diaspora and learning its own history and trauma. It’s not an easy task to interrogate these intersections of the body, which is why poetry is one of the most conducive media for me to explore what it means to exist in my body.

Poetry takes risks, and I want to live in that space where language can ignore margins, challenge blank space, and surpass the safe and familiar.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Learning a language is a physical act. Speaking is a physical act. Both are rooted in the body and both are difficult. I have taken Vietnamese language courses at ASU all three years that I have been here, and in writing about my experience with language and my body, I have been trying to uncover new ways to describe this process: new ways to convey how language can remain trapped in your throat, how much effort your body must expend each day to say anything, everything.

That not every piece of writing or art is meant for every reader or viewer. When I entered the program, I think I assumed artists strove to create “universal” works. I don’t think that anymore. My writing is meant for those willing to engage with it.

To be less “apologetic” about my work in terms of content, code-switching, narrative structure and form. I don’t think my work is particularly obscure, but I feel more confident now in letting my readers do some of the hard work of listening and understanding.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was excited about the faculty I would get to work with and the opportunities that the MFA program and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing offered.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Don’t be afraid to follow your passions and see where they lead you. Take classes outside of your major if that’s what interests you. The classes that I have taken outside of the MFA program, such as Vietnamese language courses and Asian Pacific American literature courses, have been integral to both my personal and research interests and have added a lot to my writing.

Also, nurture your relationships. Support others and find ways of receiving support. Once you graduate, continue cultivating those networks of support. I find this especially important in the literary community — leaving a graduate program where I am immersed in creating and talking about art has been life-changing, and it’s important to me to still have people I trust to turn to once I’m outside of academia.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The gardens around the Virginia G. Piper Center.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m still waiting to hear back from a fellowship or two … fingers crossed!

In the meanwhile, and regardless of the outcome, I will keep writing. I will keep making and exploring different forms of art (during the past few years, I have been especially interested in zine-making). I will keep participating and contributing to the literary community and the other communities I am a part of.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Making education more accessible, especially in low-income communities, so that individuals are in better positions to break out of the poverty cycle. I don’t think we can approach “solving” poverty without first tackling our education system, which also means valuing our educators and the work they do.

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