Poet Hoa Nguyen on Counterpath Press, tarot readings, and the poet as an oracle
As a poet, Hoa Nguyen writes concise, lyrical poetry that mimics the quality of music, reflecting on grand themes of planetary grief and experiencing the numinous. Her other pursuit, as a reader of tarot cards, deals in many of the same archetypes and patterns. Nguyen will be in town Saturday for a reading of her poetry at Counterpath at 7:30 p.m., but also to give fifteen-minute tarot readings from 1 to 5:30 p.m. to people who buy two books from the local small press and event space. We caught up with the Ontario-based writer in advance of her trip to Denver about her most recent book, As Long As Trees Last, and the role of the poet as an oracle and pattern reader.
Westword: Can you talk a little bit about how you got involved with Counterpath and what you'll be doing at this event?
Hoa Nguyen: I'm a poet and the poetry world is really a small community if you look at the big picture. So I've been familiar with Julie Carr, her press and her work. My third full-length collection As Long As Trees Last came out in September of this past fall, and so my book is being taught at CU Boulder in a creative writing class so I'll be doing a performance and classroom appearance there. And then Carr of course has this amazing event space and press and so I'll be doing a promotional event and then I'll be reading from my work.
Counterpath is really a kind of mom and pop industry, and I like to support those kinds of DIY outfits. I'm a reader of tarot cards--I've been a student of the tarot for going on 20 years so I suggested that I do a promotion where people could get a free 15 minute reading with me with the purchase of two books from the book store as a way to support the event space.
How did you first become interested in tarot?
I used to live in San Francisco and there was a great little cafe in the early to mid-90s called Mad Magda's, and at Mad Magda's their theme was sort of this Russian tea house and they would have different fortunetellers also offering readings. So they had a rune reader, a woman who read stones, and different tarot readers, and so my friends and I would go to the cafe and we sort of on a lark got our fortunes read. There was a woman there, her name was Michelle, and she read my tarot and it was mind blowingly amazing and accurate and really helpful. So I went back several times and I noticed the deck that she had, it was called the mythic deck and it's based on Greek myth. The tarot cards are the same but their images can be presented differently, and so this one happens to be based on ancient Greek myth. And as a poet, I was particularly drawn to the Greek myth. It helped me learn my myths better, which is important in terms of references in poetry. Those are often touchstones in literature. So my then-lover, who became my husband, bought me the same deck that this woman Michelle had used and then I just worked with them through the years, sometimes taking a break and not touching it for a while, but my interest has deepened in the past six years. I'm really interested in the archetypes, the patterns, and being a pattern reader as a poet also.
Do you think that your experience with tarot has influenced the way you write poetry?
That's interesting, I hadn't really thought of that. I think of them as sort of parallel kinds of practices. I mentioned reading patterns and interpreting patterns. I don't pretend to be a psychic at all, but I'm very very interested in seeing patterns. So as a poet I might see patterns like, I don't know, environmental degradation for example, and have that enter the writing. And a lot of times with poetry, I think Alice Notley makes a statement that poets are generally the oracles. We will present information and three to ten years later the patterns that are read come to the fore. So I guess to answer your question, the parallel with the tarot is sort of reading these large scale patterns--the personal and the transpersonal, which is I think very similar to my poetry. Sometimes I use the symbols of the tarot to spark a piece. Sometimes the imagery or the meanings of cards will enter into the vocabulary or the language of a poem but it's not necessarily a chicken and egg kind of thing.
What do you hope people take away from one of your tarot readings?
What I appreciate most about giving readings is that rather than talking about the weather or a television series, people go really deep really fast talking about the big shapes in their lives. By doing that, you're plunged into this space of considering the overarching patterns of a life--birth, death, journeys, successes, failures, starting over again. And so my hope would be that people have access to that space of considering the big patterns and possibilities in those patterns and learning from them.
I find it really helpful. Like, I did an interview with someone who was asking me about the situation of place and environment in my works and so I pulled a card to help me answer the question. There is a symbiotic thing that happens, I think, between my study of the tarot. It's just like everything, it's like what I eat, what I dream, what I read, it's just another form of engagement that goes into the art.
Do you think that the tarot deck has a kind of magic in it? Do you think that it can predict the future?
I don't really approach them that way. I know readers that do, that will say, you know, your son is gonna do this so go do this thing. And I don't read cards that way. The deck is ancient, and the symbols are deep. It's really a special language and so I approach them with a kind of solemn respect and I don't take it lightly and I don't think of them in a frivolous way. As far as predicting, sort of going back to this idea of patterns it's really about presenting the patterns. Like, the card I drew before I moved from Austin, Texas to Toronto, Ontario was the Tower, which is one of the major arcana. It's this image of edifice and all of your scaffolding falling down and that you're just, like, stripped and revealed and bare and raw. It was a really accurate card for this transition that I was making where I lost all of my community and had to start over again and figure out who I was again. So in other words, the Tower didn't predict anything particularly. I knew I was moving. But it did help me sort of frame a state of being. Like, I'm laid bare, the things that were protecting me but also restricting me are gone and I have to deal with this sort of rubble. So it was helpful in terms of framing and sort of coming to terms with or understanding a particular place or phase.
Can you talk about your most recent poetry collection that you'll be reading from?
I'll probably read both from my last collection, which is called Hecate Lochia and then my current book, which is As Long As Trees Last. I'm a strongly lyric poet, so I tend to be drawn to the musicality of language, again, the patterns of music that accrue in a poem. I tend to be a kind of compressed poet, so not lengthy. I tend towards the musical phrase and I write toward issues around current conditions, future potentials that have to do with planetary grief, historical grief, personal grief, and also sort of the revelation of the numinous, the gorgeousness of the universe as well, and again sort of very songlike lyrics and form. I'm really interested how in language without musical accompaniment and singing, how laying speech-like language can transform into a song while dancing with knowledge, the dance of the intellect.
Is there anything else you want people to know about your reading or what you're going to be doing in Denver?
Well, I'm incredibly excited to be appearing in Denver at Counterpath in particular. My hope would be that people would know about Counterpath and how incredibly lucky the city of Denver is to have a venue like that and the programming that they have there. So I guess I would hope that the tarot promotion would draw attention to the fact that there's this amazing gem in the city of Denver, and check it out and maybe hear some poetry and come out feeling different.
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