By Jackie Fender
The evening of May 1 marked a celebration and welcoming of Tacoma’s newly crowned poet laureate, Cathy Nguyen. The atmosphere in B Sharp Coffee House was near electric with anticipation. Lucas Smiraldo, Tacoma’s waning poet laureate, organized the event, which set the stage for every previous laureate of the city to gather in one space, in the same evening, to perform. It was an evening that those in attendance will not soon forget, and what City of Tacoma Art Administrator, Amy McBride, appropriately described as a “momentous event” and “testament to the [city’s] exponential talent.”
Though each poet laureate shares a common vision and admiration of the written and spoken word, each individual performance showcased how diverse and unique each of the artists are, which in turn reflects the diversity that is at the core of Tacoma’s creative culture. Nearly all emanated a magnificent charisma as they delivered prose that were sometimes joined together in matrimony by live performers or lines like, “Weiner dogs shaped like frankfurters,” sang in operatic tone.
Writer and community activist Nicci Montgomery introduced Nguyen by reading a piece written by another woman. The velvety words she spoke described a warrior woman, and Montgomery related this moniker to Nguyen, stating that she was in fact doing a “warrior’s work as a warrior woman.” Nguyen has a presence that dominates, opens dialogue and leaves audiences in awe. She spoke of oppression and feminism with words that could be considered politically charged and certainly are historically relevant with a divine matrimony of melodic lyrics and spoken word.
I reached out to Nguyen via email to learn a little more about her. Her roots. Her vision. And, what’s next under her reign as Tacoma’s new poet laureate.
SouthSoundTalk: Have you always done spoken word and poetry? When did your word journey begin?
Cathy Nguyen: In a way, yes. I grew up as a singer first, a writer second. Not long into 3rd grade, I became passionate about telling stories. I wrote short stories and poems about world peace. I also journaled, [which helped] me to connect my own experiences of pain to the vast experiences of humanity. Shortly after, I became fascinated with rhyme and began writing more poetry that incorporated rhyming schemes. This led to my love for poetry, not just as an art form, but as a tool that I could stylize, customize and wield to engage those who were reading or listening. Spoken word came later in my life but quickly became a big part of my art as I discovered the power of verbalization and the ways in which one could evoke emotion and cadence through nuanced wordplay, pronunciation, pause and volume.
SST: Some of your content can be considered controversial by listeners. Was there a certain era in your life you witnessed a transition to more eye opening messages or has this always been a theme to your art?
Nguyen: “Controversial” is really a funny way of describing my content, I think. At the core of something considered “controversial” is the intention to evoke disagreement, but I don’t write with the intention to evoke disagreement. I write with the intention to evoke dialogue. While disagreement can and does exist in many forms of dialogue, my end isn’t disagreement — it’s building community. Disagreement certainly can accompany the process of building community, but there must also be a space for connection, compassion, understanding and growth. I write to compel and to move people, and so the theme of my art tends to center on telling stories and shedding light on people’s humanity and their lived experiences.
SST: Every laureate has introduced different sorts of events and community endeavors, what can Tacoma look forward to now that you’ve been “crowned” our laureate?
Nguyen: Youth leadership and community development are the overarching threads in my life and work and I plan on continuing to foster both as the new poet laureate. As an artivist, I approach the work of building community and advancing social justice through strategies that inevitably entwine the arts and advocacy. If the foundation of justice is a connected community, we have to start by building relationships and one of the most organic and powerful ways that we build sustainable and supportive relationships as community members is to create, share and witness one another’s stories.
I have visions of organizing a live art community forum that will allow for Tacoma to bear witness to the lived experiences of people of color, invite a cross-community discussion, and engage in a shared call to action, particularly around issues of police brutality and systemic oppression. I also have a project in blueprint which focuses on queer youth homelessness that could collaborate with our city’s Coalition To End Youth Homelessness and other youth-serving organizations, to capture the stories of queer youth who have and/or are experiencing homelessness through the format of a multimedia collective monologue. These are just a couple of things I’m currently brewing in my mind.
SST: Would you like to add anything about your roots and background?
Nguyen: I was born and raised in Tukwila by first generation Vietnamese-American immigrants, so my experiences as a second-generation immigrant and as a woman of color often shape the lens through which I view and experience the world. In subtle and overt ways, these facets of my identity reveal themselves in my writing and in how I tell a story. I also identify as queer, an identity that is understood in limited extents in Vietnamese culture and which has no existence in my native tongue. Because of this unique position, I often find myself in a state of “straddling”—between American nationality and Vietnamese nationality, between rebellion and reverence, and between the normative and the aversive. As tiresome as “straddling” can become, I feel ultimately thankful to be caught in this “tango”of an existence—it’s where my desire to write rages on.
Throughout the past several years, Nguyen has “worked to infuse the arts in a variety of human service and grassroots contexts.” A few examples of this are the teen poetry/hip-hop program Nguyen started at the STAR Center in 2012, a series of programming she created at Oasis Youth Center, and the various teen support groups she leads at BRIDGES, just to name a few.
Like those before her, Nguyen brings inspirational talent to her role as Tacoma’s poet laureate. If you are interested in learning more about Nguyen or having her perform at your school, organization or event, she can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.