How ‘8 Mile’ inspired Hieu Minh Nguyen to write poems on queerness

April 13, 2023, 9:59 p.m.

Stanford’s Creative Writing program hosted poet Hieu Minh Nguyen in the Poetry-in-Conversation interview series on Wednesday. Speaking with a small, avid audience at Mariposa House, the former Stegner Fellow discussed his most recent poetry collection, “Not Here,” and how he writes about his identity.

Nguyen’s works were heavily influenced by his gay and Vietnamese American identities. “Not Here” conveys his experiences struggling to come to terms with whiteness, trauma and belonging. 

However, Nguyen’s career as a poet began with a seemingly unrelated piece of 2000’s pop culture: the movie “8 Mile,” which was released during his teens. A semi-autobiographical film of the rapper Eminem’s life, the popularity of “8 Mile” led to rap battles on Nguyen’s school bus. Nguyen recalled having an “overwhelming anxiety” that one day his classmates would expect him to join in.

“And so I’d go home, and I would write and memorize poems in anticipation of the day I was expected to join the rap battle,” Nguyen said. Although he didn’t end up being picked on, he learned to use poetry to participate in the world for the first time. 

Many of his poems today revolve around his mother and his complex relationship with her, as she gradually comes to terms with his queerness. In the poem titled “Nguyen,” his mother’s positive reaction to his coming-out and having a white male partner completely throws him off. “What do you do with tenderness when all you expect is fury?,” Nguyen contemplates. Eventually, he comes to understand that her “forgiveness” of his queerness stems from her relief that his partner “looks like he will keep you [Nguyen] safe.”

Nguyen opened the interview with a reading of the first poem in the “Not Here” collection, “Lesson”: “Asian men ain’t shit, her voice a loose cork / Đàn ông của mìn không tốt & I think about my father […] Leave. All you do is leave.” This unstable nature of home and family follows Nguyen’s poems from childhood to adulthood. 

Nguyen’s poems somberly confront the experiences of growing up and grappling with one’s self-image. This intimate vulnerability is most apparent in the poem “Heavy.” “I want to return to my old body / The body I also hated but hate less / given knowledge,” read Nguyen. The poet presents emotions in their rawest forms, vividly transporting the reader to moments of his lived experiences.

Nguyen believes poetry can provide readers with access to a wider range of communities. The permanent nature of poetry, however, means that sometimes certain works are still out there even if they no longer represent who the poet is. Despite having poems that he regrets, Nguyen continues to push forward. 

“There are always new poems to write, new regrets to be made,” Nguyen told the audience. 

Although poetry can be messy and full of flaws, Nguyen is hopeful that it can be a powerful tool for writers to unveil more authentic versions of themselves.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Hana Dao is a vol. 264 Science Technology News desk editor. In addition to writing for the Daily, she enjoys discussing fashion and having picnics on campus.

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