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Hieu Minh Nguyen: The Poet Explorer

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

Hieu Minh Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American son of east St. Paul whose first book of poems, This Way to the Sugar, was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award. His poetry has appeared in literary magazines, and he has received several prestigious fellowships. He has even been plagiarized by a fellow Pushcart-nominated author.

“Prodigy, fancy chink”—all the sly scorn anyone could aim at his ego, chances are he’s already thought of it.

Nguyen grew up in the McDonough housing project, raised by an exacting single mother with whom he had a complicated relationship. She haunts his writing, as do long shadows from his childhood—the days spent terrorizing the Vietnamese strip mall on University and Western, making mischief with the shopkeepers’ kids.

In high school Nguyen was a poor student with few interests outside of theater. And because the only drama class available at Central was social justice theater and pedagogy of the oppressed, he fell into spoken word poetry, trying to spin laughs out of the angst of being a closeted, overweight Asian kid. He performed love poems to girls. He told a lot of callous jokes at his own expense.

As he got older, he learned to wield humor with precision, cutting deeper with restraint. While his personal legendarium is full of juvenile malfeasance and botched criminal ventures, of always fumbling the slim jim and getting high on his own supply, it’s delivered with the same thread of nostalgic tenderness with which he looks upon a humming Uptown street, and acknowledges a bank teller’s observation of the weather.

The confessional and flippant, innocent and cruel, play equal parts of Nguyen’s unbroken conversation with his forever-seeking self. The more he looked inward, the more obsessed he became.

“I never thought that I could have a career in poetry,” he says. “I just knew that’s what I wanted to do and what made me feel good. I accepted that I would work whatever job I needed to to make ends meet and I would make poetry when I had time. I was OK with that being my life.”

After graduation, Nguyen delivered pizzas and spun cardboard cutouts for Domino’s. He served coffee at Hennepin Healthcare and worked at a habadashery, measuring the heads of assorted dandies. All the while, he’d write and tour the country, competing in slams and hawking zines collated at Staples.

There was never a big break—just a slow hustle for the respect of the Twin Cities’ literati and the financial support of national foundations, Nguyen says. At 27, he’s a full-time poet, free to pursue an MFA at Warren Wilson College and immerse himself in writing.

Much of Nguyen’s work now speaks in images, the universal language of impressions and inflections. Loss is an empty boat smacking up against the dock. Loneliness is a long walk past a frozen orchard. Hunger is a hole the world digs in your backyard.

The words themselves are indulgently arranged, full of warmth and flavor.

“Maybe he meant the city beyond the window,” Nguyen writes about the discomfiting study of one’s own beauty. These are the perfect moments that define his rare world of creative compulsion—a litany of lingering, longing for love, waiting for epiphany. 

Click here to read other profiles from this year's City Pages People Issue.