Garrett MacLean has coffee with the emerging Saigon poet and discovers more than he’d anticipated
It was a grey and rainy Friday afternoon when I sat down for coffee with Saigon poet Quynh Nguyen in Ho Chi Chi Minh City’s expatriate enclave of Thao Dien just across the Saigon River from the center of the city.
The scene before me seemed an appropriate backdrop to interview one of Vietnam’s up-and-coming young poets – a late afternoon with light, intermittent monsoonal rain and the sound of motorbikes driving by splashing potholed streets filled with water.
Rituals are more important than background. You have to sit with yourself in the darkness and sit with those demons
It has only been a few months since Nguyen published her first poetry collection When Dead Birds See The Light, an ensemble of sixteen poems interconnected by a central theme – love.
My intention was to meet with Nguyen to learn more about the book, as well as her approach to writing, along with her personal perspective on love itself.
What I discovered was far from what I had anticipated to find.
“There’s no defining moment that I got into writing,” said Nguyen when I asked about her writing background, although she does recall having a blog in her early teenage years.
After graduating from university, she started working as a copywriter in the advertising industry and has spent the last decade as a Strategy Director for VMLY&R, a global ad agency with an office here in Ho Chi Minh City.
However, it’s during her hours outside of work that Nguyen devotes herself to poetry, and when as she said, “the muse takes over.”
“Most of the time when I write poetry, it’s choosing the right words to capture the right feelings or awakenings that I have. Most people think it’s sit down and create something. I feel more like a conveyor of words that brings that feeling alive.”
As for how to bring that feeling alive, Nguyen said that for her, the process often occurs in public spaces – citing Soma Saigon in Thao Dien, a long-established coffee shop and artist hangout near where she lives, as somewhere she goes to write.
However, the space itself isn’t what fuels her process entirely.
“I don’t really pay attention to the surroundings, it’s more rituals that I care about like bringing my pen and notebook. Rituals are more important than background. You have to sit with yourself in the darkness and sit with those demons.”
In terms of background or rather origin of her debut poetry collection, Nguyen said the collection was constructed in a non-linear fashion. Poems like Anarchy and Seeing were written over five years ago but were set aside at the time with no real plan for what to make of them. The conception of the book, on the other hand, didn’t begin to take form until the writing of the poem Wordless — more on that later.
All that said, earlier this year in January, upon waking from a dream that consisted of an image of a dead bird, Nguyen awoke and immediately wrote the poem Dead Bird. My research leading up to our conversation revealed the meaning of a dead bird found in dreams to be symbolic of feelings such as discontentment, grief, failure, and hopelessness.
This was the focal point around which I assumed our interview would revolve.
Yet, much to my surprise, Nguyen didn’t intend for this symbol to mean any of those things.
“The dead bird is a red herring,” Nguyen said, “a little riddle I have with the reader. It’s about transformation, a coming of light.”
Before our conversation had turned toward an analysis of her book, I wanted to first address a more general point.
I mentioned that on the back cover of the book, it reads:
“Above all else, it is a book that encourages its readers to be brave and vulnerable and open to giving and receiving love. Always.”
So, I wondered, how do we as the readers and as people incorporate that into our lives practically?
“It starts with yourself,” Nguyen said. “It’s less about the actions you do with other people. All of that can happen authentically. A person has to face their darkness and be okay with the idea of believing in love.”
Each of Nguyen’s poems explores love in its many forms.
It is a sign of hope, but also one of pain.
It is safe, but also can be war-like.
It is both order and chaos interwoven.
It is moments in eternity and eternity in moments.
It is looking ahead to the future and looking back into the past.
It is holding on, letting go, and taking the leap all at the same time.
Yet, it is often still largely undiscovered, unspoken, and unseen.
But above all, as conveyed in the poem Seeing and the opening quote from Oscar Wilde, love is unbound.
“Not that it drains you,” Nguyen said, “but it makes you realize there are limitless ways of expressing [love].”
Nguyen was referring here to the poem mentioned earlier, Wordless, which she says was inspired by listening to the song The Sound of the Rain Needs No Explanation by the British musician Akira the Don and the philosopher Alan Watts.
As Nguyen said, “Everyone will have a different take on poetry. If you read the first poem to the last, Wordless was when the shift happens. The cutoff point of change.”
Thus, without going into further detail, I will leave you, the reader, to experience that shift for yourself.
Along with that, Nguyen herself experienced a shift as a person beyond the confines of simply being a writer.
“In a way, what changed was experiencing true love. I worked on misguided ideas about myself – happiness, fulfillment, what is love, what it isn’t, and the courage to get something out.”
Nowadays, on the other side of her transformation and the publishing of her book, one of the main messages I gathered in speaking with Nguyen is that love, much like the creation of the book itself, isn’t linear.
“A lot of times people see relationships as a transaction, a bargaining. It’s not give and take, though. It’s give and give.”
When Dead Birds See The Light is Nguyen’s debut poetry collection that, according to her, will develop into a trilogy in which she will continue her exploration into the different aspects of love.
In future works, it appears one can expect her approach to remain the same.
“I can only write about what I’ve experienced. It’s the only way I can feel authentic and do justice to the truth.”
Garrett MacLean is a writer based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He is also a podcast editor for A Vietnam Podcast, an English teacher, and is currently pursuing his Masters in Journalism online at New York University. You can follow him on Instagram and LinkedIn