Name: Vi Khi Nao
Nationality: Vietnamese American
Occupation: Poet, author
Current publication: Vi Khi Nao's The Vegas Dilemma is scheduled for this Fall on 11:11 Press. Her 2016 novel Fish in Exile is still available from Coffe House Press.
Recommendations: Jessica Q Stark’s Savage Pageant; Dao Strom’s Instrument: it has both book and music!
If you enjoyed this interview with Vi Khi Nao, visit her personal website for more information and updates.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about literature and writing that drew you to it?
I started writing when I started reading intensely. My earliest passions were the visual art and scrabble. I used to play scrabble competitively – for 18 hours or 20 hours a day. I had to ask my sister, Uyen, to block me from the scrabble website so I could focus on having a life. The blocking bore enormous fruits: I ended up producing many ontologically things that may impact others ontologically.
Literature takes time to consume, absorb, and process – unlike music -with an alacritous absorption rate. Literature is slow like a turtle or a snail, always carrying a gastropodous house of historic documents, molluskic emotions, pulmonated caverns of enormous human proportions, and slow moving, slow growing, slow forming. Despite being so prolific, I do love the turtleness of literature – how ectothermic it is – writing that is, not turtles (already self-evident) – how the writer or creator of literary materials’ aliveness varied according to their ambient milieu.
I have always wanted to be an anamniote of literature, wanting to lay my eggs or books underwater. Unfortunately, my metabolic rate isn’t high enough. I burn calories too slowly.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Emulation is nice and can be morphological, but I believe emulation should be done after an artist has produced an enormous amount of work/material already and whose form is completely in form. Producing original work even if it is not strong early on is important.
I found my voice by reading lots. And, my willingness to be an amphibian on the page: I move on land, I move on water. Writing-wise, I allow myself to be fossorial, if need be. I make sure I dig deep, excavate what needs to be excavated, gouge out what needs to be gouged out: sexually, psychically, logically. I work hard to build my own Amtrak, my own submarine, my own public/private transportation system. My voice emerges as a result of not transporting my soul through a subscription-based product called self-censorship. We can lose so much of ourselves when we adapt.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Alas, I am a product of many things: I am queer, Vietnamese, experimental, female, scrabble-able, but do these intertwining strands of aptitudes influence my creativity? I hope we, humans or not, are not that effortlessly defined, demarcated, decipherable, read. I want the DNA of a species’ existence not to be that lucid. I don’t expect my creativity to be a silhouette, nor a contour line that you can effortlessly be traced over. I don’t want my existence to be a pencil mark, easily erased either.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Getting published by a solid press was hard. But, even harder or nearly impossible is getting paid properly for my creative products. I am a minority (Asian) of a minority (queer) of a minority (female) of a minority (experimental) – to whatever power that may exist for me – & under such system, my existence gets exploited the most and quite severely.
We live in a culture that worships paying their artists, authors, content creators poorly, inexcusably, diabolically. I don’t know how this abhorrent existence was formed, but it has to stop. After being in the field for more than two decades, I still face these appalling conditions today. This is my primary creative challenge: getting paid appropriately, acutely, and accurately for the fruits of my labor.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
I value them all equally. And, depending on the project, they all can unravel or be built from ground zero interchangeably.
Form without content is like a lion without any teeth. Style without storytelling is like having a mandarin orange that you can’t peel. But, if one were to be doomed to exist in an un-calcified place whose fruit is a rock, I would choose storytelling above all. We all need parables to survive across time. I am not saying that style, form, and plot are meaningless – they house meaning when we understand the metaphors of their juxtaposition, but still – we need a story that tells us how to die. How to exit God’s cosmic, blackholed vagina which looks too similar to life.
Observation and research are often quoted as important elements of the writing process. Can you tell us a bit about your perspective on them?
Research is severely important in the daily task of a writer. Such necessary vacation homes cannot be understated. Reading a book is a type of research. As for observation – well, that is negotiable. Sometimes in order to see one must be willing to lose one’s eyesight. And, that goes for sound too. Silence is so so much more important. Silence is the ability to sit still. In a world where motion is a commodity, silence is the Ethereum or Bitcoin of the writing process.
How do you see the relationship between conscious planning and tapping into the subconscious; between improvisation and composition? When dealing with the end of a story, for example, do you tend to minutely map it out or follow the logic of the narrative as it unfolds itself?
Overpreparation is a type of failure or impotency. It’s important to be silly. Not to take oneself too seriously. Improvisation frees composition from being shackled to an idea that may appear to be working early on, but loses their potency when reality meets reason. Diversifying the strata of your consciousness and unconsciousness is a type of being awake with your work.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do writing and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I lead a very boring life.
I wake up early by waking up late. I respond to emails/tasks on my to-do list. I eat two meals a day. One at around noon and the other around 6 pm. By 10 am, I am too tired and must crawl back into the soporific riverbed of my mattress. I nap for an hour or two. If I am co-writing a book with a friend, then I write with that friend for an hour or two – that slotted time changes depending on what time zone I flew myself in.
For someone who is prolific, I don’t sit in front of a computer and type away for 8 hours straight. I write very little unless I am working on a book – then I write for 10 to 16 hours a day for a month or so. By mid-afternoon, I am reading a book or two. Then I choose one of those books to interview the artist/writer/poet. By midnight, I climb into bed.
Can you talk about a breakthrough publication in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
According to my standard or professional trajectory, I haven’t experienced a breakthrough yet. Everything has been a slow incline. At some point in the future, I will be ready to feel special.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Fortunately and unfortunately, I have extraordinary focus. I can zone out anything and everything. When this happens, I hear a ringing sound in my ears and then silence or the absence of noise. I don’t know how I come to possess such a valuable skill – it arrives to the footstool of my being without my permission. It climbs into my soul like an inmate entering a high security prison. It traps me there until the work is done, and then, it unleashes me.
I am an unwilling mistress of innovation. The downfall to this is, of course, is that I am a blindsided driver of my own creativity. In my laser-focused silence, I often do not see nor hear a semi switching lanes on my rear-view mirror. Sometimes I have found myself in a massive accident, where my minivan of creativity has created havoc on the freeway, where I have just jack-knifed a semi on its way to delivering 1,000 cases of strawberries to Wal-Mart.
Words can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for literature and poetry as a tool for healing?
Words can heal and can hurt – yes, but silence or omission hurts the most. But, the truth heals even if it hurts and when words become a doormat for truth, its prophylactic, curative value augments greatly. I try not give words that much power over me. Nowadays I try not to give anything much power over me, especially death.
Words have personally hurt me -but often amnesia comes to my rescue. Sometimes words heal me quickly, but after being healed, I get hurt just as quickly afterwards. Perhaps literature and poetry shouldn’t try to heal anymore. Perhaps they should try to fuck as many dead people as possible. Fucking is more important than healing. Not that I am advocating for literature necrophilia.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
This has little to do with art. In a capitalistic society, appropriation often leads to lawsuits. Lawsuits are the currency of consumption of today’s monetary fashion. Hard to argue oneself out of it.
Dominant culture has a master bedroom with keys that only a few people can have access to. Why would you want to enter a room that doesn’t want you as a guest? Control is a type of power and why would anyone want to lose power when they are in possession of it? Look at the recent Texas power outages, leaving millions of denizens stranded without power and when power is given, highly overpriced and inflated.
If money shapes modern or postmodern consciousness, the best appropriation is to deny its power through the denial of its existence.
Literature works with sense impressions in a different way than the other arts. How do you use them in your writing? From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I don’t know how to answer this question without negating my very heightened desire to want to rob a bank right away – clandestinely. I think writing/literature that crosspollinates the senses desire the sleight of hand. Such deception or double-dealing of the senses leads to stimulation. And, stimulation leads to engagement and interest. We don’t want to think our skin cells are dead; we still want the wolves to voraciously eat the sheep to keep the grass alive. I like to read a book with my tongue? Is that right? I like to eat ice cream with my ears. Is that right? I like to smell my doorbell. Is that right?
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Maybe these two links can answer this question more aptly:
What can literature or poetry express about life and death which other forms of art may not?
Literature and poetry can lock themselves in the bathroom for hours, days, months, and even years and won’t let you come in to use the toilet. Other forms of art just won’t let you pee in your pants.