Vi Khi Nao
In Conversation with Cynthia Atkins
Vi Khi Nao was born in Long Khanh, Vietnam. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University, where she received the John Hawkes and Feldman Prizes in fiction and the Kim Ann Arstark Memorial Award in poetry. Her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. She is the author of two novellas, Swans in Half-Mourning (2013) and The Vanishing Point of Desire (2011), a poetry collection, The Old Philosopher (Nightboat Books, 2016) and the forthcoming, novel, Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016). She lives in Iowa City, Iowa. In this conversation, she discusses the link between mother tongue and the idioms of language, the sensual and the sublime of the writer, living and interacting between cultures, and aesthetic choices in the poem-making process.
Cynthia Atkins: In your new collection, The Old Philosopher, you seem to be interested in embarking on territories that are at once both spiritual and material. The poems expose the collisions and intersections of the world of the flesh, as well as the world of capitalism and commerce—our wants vs. our needs. So I am wondering, Vi, how you see these worlds in the scape of your interior imagination, and how these subjects filter into the poems, as in “you stir the seeds of civilization/ in light or in water.”
Vi Khi Nao: My poems are my interior imagination. I don’t have an exterior imagination other my physical existence on this earth. We can talk about the obstructive nature of my physical body in a visual plane of reality, which has the ability, if one is willing to imagine, to omit my existence. Alas, when I am not writing about everything that is life, which is my life outside of my life and inside of other people’s and inanimate objects’s life, I feel like I am leaving my laptops or personal belongings unattended at the library. As readers, you should be able to walk away with my poetry, whether they have been defined by commerce or capitalism. I have always wanted to be a writer, but instead, I am just an elite bank robber. You should rob me whenever you can. Aesthetically. I want the kind of poetic heist in which the intellectual police would want to come after me—with a bandwagon of flashlights and sunglasses and one roasted pistachio.
CA: I was taken with the narrative in your poems, as well, a post-modern sense of the experimental, via deconstruction, form, and paired with images that are very tied to a personal history and narrative. Also, I noticed the exuberance of the language, because of the torques and turns of meaning. Can you expound on your process and what you refer to yourself in a recent interview as a “Linguistic Klutz”—as well, how you feel you are a vessel for these subjects?
VKN: write regularly in a regular fashion and irregularly I find myself, if not frequently, not writing as irregularly as I would have liked to as writing irregularly in an unregular way allows me to break the pattern of writing, though it seems that the best way to write is to write regularly in an unregularly way. Habits building can be monotonous. Grammatically speaking, most writers who are skillful with English walk very dexterously on the tight rope of language. They get away with being right, banal, and sanitary. My grammar has a broken toe and falls everywhere wherever language travels with me. At the intersections between speed and desire and the need to express myself urgently and with alacrity, I bump into words and I, inadvertently, twist the tongues of idiomatic English. In fact, if my grammar were on a motorcycle, it would run over children—which are the tenses. I smash into the past tenses all the time. I try, in this interview, not to run over children.
CA: I connected on a visceral level to your subjects, and especially this notion of ‘God’—and the poems looking at the proud and the profane from many angles and views—ironic, sarcastic, sublime, material, spiritual. I was wondering if you could speak to the nature of God and the spiritual life and in your work—how this connects you (or doesn’t) to your own origins, history, lineage—how your ancestry has influenced your identity and how that plays a role in this book.
VK: God loves postmodernity and visits me often in the sanitarium of my imagination. Whenever God visits me, God brings me flowers called yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and I smell God’s flowers and I try, my best, in my writing, to engage with God’s ephemerality. I would like to think that I could throw God’s flowers into the trash bin and call it poetry, but alas, I grew up in a little village in Vietnam where hunger allows one man to tear the ear off of another over a loaf of bread for my eyesight to see. My mother loves the elbow of the baguette and I love nothing more than to give it to her. The Old Philosopher is born from nothing, which is the history I give myself when I am 80 kilometers from Saigon. What is nothing? You might ask. Nothing is a child of exile. Nothing is being born in Vietnam with 100 years of French domination and 1000 years of Chinese occupation. It means that I like to wear a white áo dài in my poems and it sets me apart from a shopping cart at Target, which also wants to wear an áo dài too, but doesn’t know how to with wheels as its feet and with metal frames as its stomach. Based on God’s lack of preference for Adam’s rib, I had a feeling God would love phở.
CA: “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” When I read your collection, The Old Philosopher, I thought of these words of Roland Barthes, in that I felt a palpable sensuality in your language and subject matter. Will you speak to how you navigate the cerebral vs. the sensual in your work and life?
VKN: I navigate it by not navigating. I am geographically dimmed. I ask strangers how to get to places. Perhaps this is how I handle sensuality in my writing. Being blind allows me to be carnal, sultry, and epicurean. Being retarded takes my intellectual breath away.
CA: These lines from “My Socialist Saliva” spoke to me in the gut, “There were times though when the Viet Cong / Came through my grandmother’s grapevine / And took my mother’s sewing machines…” I wonder if you could expound the lineage and history and how living in two very different cultures has shaped the voice, tone, and identity, voice and intention in your poems?
VK: If I didn’t grow up speaking Vietnamese, I wouldn’t have written the poems that I have written. My childhood culture, Vietnamese in all of its striking essence, pummeled, thrashed, and whacked the diacritical marks onto the body of my Western influenced voice—giving it a poetic oscillation, a kind of scar and pain, that could only vibrate and vanquish the superfluous, which is the voice which doesn’t have to be, but is and have been. I borrow hay in order to whip myself back into hay; I borrow rice in order to whip myself back into rice. Would you make a bird’s nest, if all you had was air and fire?
CA: You are an intersectional artist—using visual art, film, words—how do you feel the other genres and mediums inform one another. What is your process, are they separated out, do you work on all mediums at the same time, or separate? In this cross-dressing of art forms, how do you use the tropes, images, ideas differently, are you looking at from various angles, perspectives? How do they inform your prose and poetry?
VKN: Sometimes I feel like a sectional sofa in which you can reorient my body around my own body to create a bigger body. I feel like readers can get really comfortable sitting on me, lying on me, but I am not sure if I can tolerate being stood on. Moreover, I don’t know if there is a drag party or a drag performance in my writing, but if anything could be a transvestite, it would be my ability to cut the wings off other butterflies and make them my own metamorphosis. Genres don’t come to my creative party as strippers at a bachelor party in single file waiting for instructions on how or when to perform. They come like Medusa’s hair : all at once!: primal, polypoid, tentacular, sexual, excited to interlace, to commingle, hoping to turn everything that gaze upon it into stone that will cry and can cry.
CA: As a culmination our discussion, I wonder if you could possibly pick a passage from The Old Philosopher and talk about your aesthetic choices with regards to language, subjects, identity, place (landscapes and interiors) how the process happened, and with regard to any thing we mentioned above. And lastly, where are you going with your next project and artistic endeavors?
VK:“Despotic Hush”—the sexy poem on page 36 of The Old Philosopher—has many people asking if it is personal. I think what they wish to ask me more accurately is: is the narrator me? I want to say “yes” I am that highly tabooed Muslim woman who has fallen in love with a Jewish damsel—thus our orgasm born from the Israel-Palestine conflict—couldn’t be anything but geopolitical. I want to say the fantasy isn’t in the fucking—the lovemaking has already been manifested or has already come true. The fantasy is that the baking on grass could last and can last. Like most things in life, the landscape of the language happened because the sun that rose inside of my desire has to set at some point. And, Sapphic it be because I love women. My previous published manuscripts have the ability to tell you why, perhaps, if you are excited enough to explore. The language is carnal and lush because who has ever used Sol LeWitt’s “Incomplete Open Cube” to depict lavished sexual intercourse and eroticism? With regards to the last question, I don’t want to make God laugh.