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Heartfelt, Queer and Wickedly Witty: How Poetry Collection 'Come Clean' Sparks Joy

Joshua Nguyen lists himself as many things on his Instagram bio — a writer, a PhD student, a boba snob. He received his MFA from the University of Mississippi, where he is currently studying for his PhD.

He has been widely published and won the prestigious 2021 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry for his debut collection of poetry, Come Clean. Like his Instagram bio, the collection is multi-faceted. Traditional poetic forms exist alongside a poem about a post-flaming hot Cheeto trip to the bathroom, for example. Yet, it all fits together in a way that is resonant and profound.

To get a feel for Joshua’s poetry, check out one of the many videos of him reading poetry on YouTube. His start in writing began in Houston through the Meta-Four Houston Youth Slam Team which comes across in the rhythm of his poetry. A 2015 video from Button Poetry of Joshua performing his poem 'Christ-like' really embodies this. There are waves of chaotic crescendo in the performance, matched by moments of slowness and intentional silence.

The poetry in his debut collection begins on the title page: "Come Clean." There is a line break between the words which are, perhaps, an invitation to come over and clean something. Or they are a confession, the author coming clean about some secret. Maybe it is instructions for a sexual act, come first, then clean later. Reading the collection reveals the title can be all of these and more. It is just where Joshua’s eye for poetry and pun begins to shine.

The collection is divided into three sections. Each begins with bracketed quotes from songs by Japanese American singer-songwriter Mitski. The song quotes are accompanied by Polaroids of the author, wearing only underwear and engaging in cleaning rituals — kneeling as if in prayer before the bathtub, sweeping a floor with a white dustpan on the ground, kneeling while cleaning a toilet. These photos are somehow simultaneously spiritual, domestic, erotic, and silly. They fit well within the collection. Marie Kondo makes similar repeated appearances throughout the collection.

When pop culture meets lục bát

Joshua's work explores a lot of themes. There is trauma. There is humor. There is food. And perhaps most prominently, there is family. The dedication reads, "for my family," and family is a constant. Even before the table of contents, there is a poem, 'Save Me, Marie Kondo.' It depicts a family gathered around a dying relative. The images are beautiful and haunting. “My father cries a sound / I will never hear again.” There is real grief in this poem. There are other family poems as well. 'My Brother Explains Driving,' 'My Father Explains Unemployment,' 'My Mother Explains Universal Healthcare,' 'My Sister Listens to Run River North for the First Time.' Family members appear in poems even when not referenced in the titles and they are one of the constant refrains the poems return back to.

Another constant is American lục bát, a poetry form of Joshua’s invention. Lục bát is a poetry form most certainly familiar to a Vietnamese audience. It is most famously represented in The Tale of Kiều. The name of the form gives us insight into its rules. Lục is the Sino-Vietnamese word for the number six. Bát is the Sino-Vietnamese word for eight. Thus, lục bát are created with alternating six and eight-syllable lines.

In the notes section of Comes Clean, Joshua sets out the rules for his American lục bát. After clearly explaining the rules, he cheekily adds, “of course, these rules may be adhered to as tightly or as loosely as one would like.” This non-strict adherence to form is what makes reading his American lục bát especially fun. Take for example, the first stanza of 'American Lục Bát for Peeling Eggs':

When you are six or eight,

come in the kitchen, take the spot

to the left of the pots—

still warm from those eggs: bought, boiled

& cooled.

The first four lines alternate between six and eight syllables like one expects in a lục bát. They follow the expected rhyme scheme as well. The sixth syllable of the first line (“eight)” rhymes with the sixth syllable of the second line (“take”). Then the eighth syllable of the second line (“spot”) rhymes with the sixth syllable of the third line (“pots). In the notes, the author notes that it is this “[the] internal rhyme that helps to drive the poem forward.”

What makes Joshua's American lục bát so wonderful to read is the spots where the poem breaks from the form in unexpected ways. In the stanza above, the last line is clearly not six or eight syllables. Yet it feels complete and right. Through breaking form, the poet has created something new, fresh, and delightful.

There are poems that feel like they hark back to Joshua’s beginnings in poetic performance. 'Marie Kondo Is My Hero: A Lesson on Clothing' feels like a poem aching for performance.

no

this does not spark

joy but more so this

is the only shirt i have where the sleeves

are shorter

The poem continues, spreading out across the page, some words massively spaced out, guiding the reader on the pace of the poem and where to let the words breathe. Then, in the poem’s final section, a paragraph beginning:

"& & & 2010 a a again all an angeles are as as as as be be black blue board boxers brother bunk bed but but but can can can can’t carpet circuit coach collapse…."

This section works through most of the letters of the alphabet, building to utter cacophony until the words fade from black to gray on the page. Then, only two columns remain on the page, one on the left, one on the right. The left one, a list of colors. The one on the right, people. These, too, are in alphabetical order.

Many of the poems deal with sexual trauma. Many also deal with humor. This seems right. It fits more with how trauma persists throughout life, how it isn’t just limited to the event. And similarly, how a life with trauma is not only a life of trauma. There are also moments of joy and curiosity. The collection portrays a well-rounded view on life as a whole.

Some of the poems are hard to read because of their rawness. However, it is their beauty that makes them worth visiting. 'Wisconsin Has a Place in My Heart & I Just Want It to Let Go' addresses trauma directly:

Thomas tells me that trauma is trite.

That to open up wounds is to bleed yourself out.

Snow, in Wisconsin, blocks the front door of my cousin’s house.

The poem goes on to show the speaker pinned underneath their cousin. It collapses until a singular bracket before opening back up again, slowly building up. The poem is quiet and solemn.

'Bunk Bed,' a prose poem, depicts the speaker, thirteen years old, receiving oral sex from a much older girl. The pain and discomfort of the speaker is clear. The collection’s titular poem, 'Come Clean,' calls back to these incidents. It re-examines them through memory and addresses a new incident — an unwanted happy ending massage paid for by an uncle while in Vietnam.

The author also intersperses this conversation of sexual trauma with Asian identity and Asian American identity. 'After I Was Mistaken for the Stripper while Delivering Barbecue to an All-White Bachelorette Party' is one such instance and an example of how Joshua often adds humor to terrible experiences. It starts: "If I had a stripper name, it would be pork loins. Marinated in my mother’s seasoning, I am mostly bone, but my butt is meaty. My neck is long, but you can still love me, if you want to brisket."

The simple act of verbing “brisket” allows for the continuation of the meat metaphor and a hilarious play on words with the word “risk it.” It’s hard not to laugh reading it. The poem ends:

Is this what being a sacrifice smells like?

Twenty-six jewel-studded cowboy boots circle me,

tongues glistening in the spur of heat.

The concrete imagery here at the end of the poem is also wonderful. The focus on the boots brings us into the speaker’s eye, showing us their head is down. It makes the reader feel the discomfort of being unfairly and unwantingly objectified. The fact that the cowboy boots are jewel-studded is an all too perfect detail placing us clearly in the South, perhaps Texas.

'Exhaustion [But Every Time Leela Rose Kisses a Random Asian Man in the Street, a New Stanza Begins & the Amount of Words between the Boxes Increase by One]' is another example of a poem dealing with sexual assault and Asian identity. This poem directly references a disgusting incident where Leela Rose, a white Internet personality, forces herself upon Asian men in Japan. She believes she is somehow helping them by showing a white woman that finds them attractive. The incident rightfully was heavily criticized online and even spurred the writing of a HuffPost think piece.

There is an understandable and justified anger in the poem about the incident. This is amplified by being in a collection dealing with the ramifications of sexual trauma. As the title says, the words between the boxes in each stanza grow. Like many of Joshua's poems, this allows the language to grow in volume.

This is one of the most powerful poems in the collection in the way it cries out in rage and pain. The poem itself is like a reaction video. It is so intimate and raw it feels as if the reader is sitting next to the speaker, listening to their pain, witnessing a relived trauma, only able to watch.

Joshua also seems interested in the more banal parts of life. 'Speak Quotidian to Me' is a list of aphorisms — some funny, some sad. Each one is a fascinating meditation on its own, but as a list they vibrate off each other, leading the reader through a journey of highs and lows. Here are three:

Threesomes are only allowed in the kitchen with permission from Táo Quân.

Pack underwear for a trip like you’re going to have diarrhea everyday.

The amount of empty cognac bottles in the house determines how many ghosts return your calls.

'Self-Portrait as the Hand Towel Which Hangs Above the Toilet' also examines the seemingly normal or quotidian. It does something magical that is true art. It takes the simplest of objects and turns it on its head in a way that forever changes the reader’s relationship when seeing that object.

As the title states, the poem is about a bathroom hand towel. However, it is not an ordinary bathroom hand towel. It has dreams and aspirations. The towels talks to us, the reader. It tells us “No, it was not my choice / to do this type of towel work.” And later, “Yes, I gaze at the most vulnerable: / the backs of long strained necks, the backs of skulls that haven’t been held, / the back of ears that never listen to my advice.” The towel admits to feeling “lonely.” And in a beautiful poetic turn, it reveals its aspiration to be a kitchen towel. The turn is unexpected. It is the type of poem that makes us feel sorry for our own bathroom hand towels. It makes us wonder, what do our hand towels think?

Joshua Nguyen performing 'My Father and I Trade Bedwetting Stories.'

The collection is interesting in that many of the poems use traditional or neo-traditional forms. There’s a haibun, a ghazal, and a duplex, a form created by Jericho Brown. There are also poems that are stunningly experimental. Among these is 'Google Calendar for My Imposter Syndrome.'

The poem shows a week of the speaker’s life, painstakingly planned out, in the form of a screenshot of a Google Calendar. It gives deep insight into the life of the speaker. There are sections on when to work out and when to call their mother. Beneath the titles for many of the activities are descriptions.

On Monday, the speaker has to attend “Intro to Grad Studies” from 6 to 8:15pm. It’s described as “How Not To Sound Stupid Talking About Dead White Men.” On Tuesday the speaker has set aside two hours at night for “Comments For Other Poets Who Are Better Than Me.” On Thursday, there are four hours set aside for “Thesis Hours.” Layered directly on top of this four-hour slot are other activities the speaker will do—“Sweep” “Vacuum” “Mop” “Organize Your Organizers.” It’s clear the speaker will not be working on their thesis.

There is a neurosis to the planning, an attempt to use scheduling as a cure for impostor syndrome. There is also a sense of deep self-consciousness. It’s also very relatable.

These more experimental poems are a welcome addition to a collection so interested in form. They are not incongruent, but instead, lend to a greater poetic world that Joshua is creating with his mix of contemporary takes on traditional forms. The collection is a huge success with a profound resonance. While it tackles many difficult subjects, it does so with such nuance and beauty that the poems ache to be read, not just once, but many times over.

For those in the US, the book is available through the publisher, The University of Wisconsin Press, as well as independent bookstores including Square Books, the bookstore in Oxford, Mississippi, where the author lives.

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