As a born-and-raised Kansan, nothing could have prepared me for a rainy-evening drive down curving Tennessee roads to a little house in a holler just outside of Knoxville.
I’d been invited to a SAFTA workshop by Luci Brown, who I met and became friends with through our MFA program at the University of Tennessee. I was new to the state, new to graduate school, and aching for more friends, so I agreed to tag along. I’d heard something about Sundress and a farm from other people in the program, but it wasn’t until we pulled up to the property that I started to get it. I was charmed by the rain-soaked leaves covering the paving stones that lead to the front porch and even more enchanted with what was inside the house – a cozy living room full of other writers excited to talk about craft and generous enough to provide me, a newbie to poetry, with feedback on my work.
The weekly workshop was the gateway to my time with SAFTA and has remained a consistent part of my weekly schedule. Even so, it was the people who kept me coming back and who pulled me further in to the community of writers connected to Sundress. I got involved in Stirring as a guest editor, with Firefly Farms as a diligent-if-untrained farmhand and professional ATV driver, and I’m thrilled to now serve as SAFTA’s reading series Coordinator.
I fell into indifference with poetry in high school because of AP English classes, but that indifference was transformed into adoration when, during my senior year, a teacher introduced me to spoken word. My commitment to poetry and writing has snowballed since then, becoming a Bachelor’s degree in English and then a Master’s in poetry. My studies informed my desire to make poetry more accessible to a broader audience; poetry is dreamy and I want to share it with everyone. Through my work with SAFTA, I hope to do just that.
When I’m not hanging out with my SAFTA pals or attempting to write poetry, I’m with my cat, Luna, who is objectively the most beautiful cat there’s ever been. I also enjoy painting, watching Game of Thrones and Parks and Recreation, witty banter, and pretending to know things about interior design and tequila.
Brynn Martin is a Kansas native living in Knoxville, where she recently received her MFA in poetry from the University of Tennessee. Her poetry has appeared in Public Pool and Contrary Magazine. She loves ee cummings and cats almost equally.
Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Lydia Havens reads “The Story” by Hieu Minh Nguyen.
Before we get into the great poem you recorded for us, what can you tell us about Hieu Minh Nguyen? And how did you first come across his work?
Lydia Havens: What I can tell you about Hieu Minh Nguyen is that a lot of his work has made me feel so much less alone. Before I read This Way to the Sugar, I was 16 and starting to remember pieces of a sexual trauma I didn’t know how to piece together. Later that year, I saw him perform at the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam. He actually performed the poem I chose to record for you, and I remember just crying in the audience and thinking, Wow, he gets it. Later, he made it to the finals stage, and he performed a poem called “Haunt Me”, which is about the repression of traumatic memories, and again, I was left bawling and feeling like someone had put it all into words. That’s when I truly fell in love with poetry, I think. That’s when I gained my voice as a poet.
To answer your second question, I think I stumbled upon his work on Button Poetry, right before his book was published. The video was called “It Was the Winter…”, and I remember just being mesmerized by it.
Sundress: This is a heavy poem and I think it does some important work. What do you think makes “The Story” so effective?
Lydia Havens: “The Story” is real. That’s pretty much the only word I can use to describe it. There are no frills, no sugar in this poem, as it should be with a poem about childhood sexual violence. I know when I first started writing about my own trauma I was so scared to just flat out say, I was lured into a child pornography ring. My parents didn’t even know for years. So when I heard Hieu say at iWPS, I never told my mother I was molested, that was what got me to take a step back and just exhale, because like I said for the first question, that was the moment when I realized somebody gets it. I think, as poets and as readers, we all have that poem that hits home on an huge level. Well, this is that poem for me, and I’m sure it’s many other CSA survivors’ poem. But even if you’re not a survivor, even if you just realize that this should not happen to anybody, it’s effective because you can realize that these “stories” follow us everywhere. To school, to work, to the grocery store, to our favorite restaurants, and all the way back home. That’s when people, the lucky ones who have never experienced this, stop and think about what they can do.
Sundress: I agree, this poem acts as a big stop sign to get people to really listen to a real problem in our society. For me, I found the second listen extremely chilling. “We all know this story,” had a more ominous current knowing now what was coming. Because, although this is true, we do all know this story, it wasn’t the story I was picturing. Nguyen played on those expectations. Listening a second time, I realized how quickly I, too, was willing to allow the narrative to end at being just a ‘phase’ or a family joke; how unaware we are sometimes of the untold stories.
How does “The Story” compare to the rest of This Way to the Sugar?
Lydia Havens:This Way to the Sugar is one of my favorite books in general. “The Story” is one of many poems in the book about childhood sexual abuse. There’s a series of poems, which are all titled “Teacher’s Pet”, which talks more in depth about his own trauma. The book also talks about racism, homophobia, and a few other topics which for some reason I’m having a hard time describing. The final poem of the book is called “Nostophobia”, which leaves me sobbing every time. It’s about how he’s not afraid of losing his mother, but rather “of no longer being a son // to have to attend a funeral // without her”. Something about that strikes every chord inside me with something incredibly heavy. It just leaves me grief-stricken.
Sundress: What about Nyugen’s treatment of language do you think makes his writing such a powerful vehicle to tell these stories?
Lydia Havens: I’ve heard lots of writers (even poets!) call metaphors “frills” or “sugarcoats”, and I just don’t agree with that at all (most of the time). Metaphors can not only enhance a poem, but also become a fluid part of it. Nguyen does this so easily. There’s a line from another one of his poems, “I’m the one who buried everything that had a face” (from “Dear Friend (for JD)”, which is in This Way to the Sugar). It is such a gut-punch of an ending for the poem, but it’s also (for lack of a much better word) effortless. I really admire how whenever I read one of his poems, I think to myself, That’s a REALLY good way to put that! Why didn’t I think of that?
Sundress: Please share your favorite Nguyen performance with us.
Lydia Havens: My favorite is actually another I’ve seen live, and is also about childhood sexual abuse. It’s called “Haunt Me”. This is from the Individual World Poetry Slam Finals in 2014 (I’m one of those cheering voices at the end):
Sundress: For those who enjoy Nguyen, which other spoken word poets would you recommend?
Lydia Havens is a 17-year-old poet and performer from Tucson, AZ. Their work has previously been published in Words Dance, Persephone’s Daughters, The Fem, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, and The Harpoon Review, among other places. They are the 2015 Women of the World Poetry Slam Youth Champion, and the author of the forthcoming chapbook GIRLS INVENT GODS. Lydia currently works for Wicked Banshee Press. They have been winging their eyeliner for over two years now, and still can’t get it even. You can find out more about them at their website, www.lydiahavens.com.