Karisma J. Tobin interviews Texas Review Press author Thomas V. Nguyen
Thomas V. Nguyen is a medical student at Texas A&M University College of Medicine. He graduated from Columbia University with an MS in Narrative Medicine and studied neuroscience and poetry during his undergraduate years at UT Austin. His poetry has been featured in Frontier Poetry, Nashville Review, Tinderbox Poetry, and Bellevue Literary Review, among others.
How are you keeping yourself busy during social distancing?
Fortunately and unfortunately, school has been doing a lot of that work for me (I officially finished my first year of medical school today!), but I try to read when I can and FaceTime friends and family on the weekends or after exams.
What are some of your ‘comfort food’ books, the books you keep coming back to when you need encouragement or escape?
I’ve read Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds and Eula Biss’s The Balloonists at least five times each now and still have not gotten over my fascination with them. I still feel the same sense of awe and longing that I did when I read them the first time.
What’s your all-time favorite book?
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. I am so appreciative of her story, both from an artistic and literary perspective but also from a science and healthcare perspective (I’m thinking about pursuing psychiatry!).
When reading for pleasure, what do you read?
I read new and archived issues of my favorite literary journals: The Adroit Journal, Foundry Journal, Thrush, Tupelo Quarterly, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Blackbird, Copper Nickel. They usually have a mix of different writers and voices, so it’s a great way for me to get exposure to a variety of writing styles and to find writers that I’d like to read more poetry from.
If you could have a conversation with any writer living or dead, who would it be and what would you ask them?
I would ask Sylvia Plath, “what do you think is the relationship between creativity and illness?”
Are there any classic books you feel like you should read but just can’t?
Sometimes, I feel like I should have read more of the poets that everyone usually reads in high school: Shakespeare, Frost, Dickinson, Yeats, Keats, Blake. At that age, though, I just didn’t have the same captivation with poetry that I do now, so I read those “classics” for school but never touched them again.
You are organizing a literary dinner party. Who do you invite?
I would invite all of my favorite writers from different periods of my life: Virginia Woolf, Charles Bukowski, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Ocean Vuong, Eula Biss, Layli Long Soldier, Ada Limón, and John Sibley Williams.
What piece of writing advice has really stuck with you? Do you agree with it?
One of my poetry professors in college introduced to me to the idea of “gimmicks” in writing. He told me that he had sat on admissions committee for MFA programs and over the years had seen many attempts to cover up bad writing—from outlandish line breaks and spacings to even using different fonts and colors within the same piece.
I had never thought of using form to conceal before, and his words made me think more purposefully about why I choose certain line breaks, stanza forms, capitalizations, and even punctuation when writing a poem. That’s not to say that I think every poem should be written in the classic couplet form—and I certainly do believe in experimenting with different forms and styles—but he taught me that one’s words should always come first when writing a poem and all of those other things after, and I wholeheartedly agree.
Do you have days where you feel like a failure as writer—like your work isn’t worthwhile, or the books you want to write are only every tarnished by you as a conduit? What do you say to yourself on those days? How do you keep going?
I am fortunate to constantly be traversing a line between science and poetry, and when I am feeling inadequate in one, I spend time with the other. Writing poetry can sometimes be frustrating when I spend hours at my desk and am still faced with a blank sheet of paper. Or when I’ve changed a line so many times but am still not happy with it. There’s a certain ease with studying science in that you don’t have to constantly wrestle with your inner thoughts but can just focus on learning. I find that when I take a break from poetry and switch to science, I come back to it more hopeful and inspired.
How do you approach a book-length project? Do you plan it out ahead of time? Do you figure out what it will be as you write it? Have you ever had a project change entirely from what you set out to create?
Permutations of a Self was never intended to be a collection of poetry but came about when I realized that I kept gravitating toward themes of family, memory, and loss in my writing. By that point, I already had enough poems for a chapbook and it became a matter of deciding which ones to include and then editing them. I think in some intangible way, intention does change the piece—when I made the decision to submit these poems as a collection, it just felt different when I was editing them, though I’m not sure how or if my writing changed.
What does your revision process look like? Do you ever reach a point where you feel like a piece is perfect? If not, how do you decide when to stop revising and start submitting?
I never reach a point when I think a piece is “perfect,” but there does come a point when I feel that a poem is complete. I think the only true indicator is time. I write most of my poems in bursts of productivity. So much of my time is spent reading for inspiration and thinking about what kind of poem I’d like to write, that to get the skeleton of the poem down on paper doesn’t take that much time at all because I’m “in the zone” when I do so. Of course, the next few days are usually spent furiously editing, changing words and crossing out words and then doing it over again. But there comes a time, usually weeks from when I originally drafted the poem, that I will read a poem and not have anything to change—that I will read a poem and still feel the same emotion that I felt when I was writing it, or when I read it for the first time after writing it. That’s when I know a poem is complete.
Karisma J. Tobin grew up in the mountains of New Mexico and Alaska. She is an MFA and MA candidate at Sam Houston State University. Her work appears in Plainsongs (forthcoming), THAT Literary Review, Beacon, and Leonardo, and she is currently Assistant to the Managing Editor at Texas Review Press.