My Idea of the Circus Is My Idea of the Circus Otherwise Known As: My Mother Was a Celebrated Stunt Motorcyclist, Vietnam, 1958 to 1962

Very loud    a mad frenzy    The wooden

barrel she rode would have roared


(I first wrote “road”)

Left home to join the circus: 15 years old


You enter at the bottom and wind upwards

in spirals    the bike climbing the sides


You enter the barrel on a Peugeot

with automatic tied down handles


I mean the kind that you can peg

so you can ride hands-free   


arms out like wings on either side


Sometimes she fell

tremendously (50 feet, more?)


This is insane   no helmet

or other gear like it


Ripped pedal pusher pants

Maybe the watchers above


(all men in the picture)

pulled their lips   sent and leapt


or wanted to    to throw themselves

and stop your flying hair


The howling and the howling

Your smiling     riding   your falling


and rising

Dive in
  1. What is the story in this poem? Who is telling the story?
  2. How does the poem’s structure mimic the speeding circular movement of a stunt motorcyclist riding up and around the inside of a barrel? (Hint: look for the use of repetition, etc.)
  3. How is sound used in the poem?
  4. The title suggests that the speaker is describing events from the past, and yet there are moments where the language shifts to present tense (“You enter”, “This is insane”) — how does this change the mood of the poem? What does it say about the speaker’s relationship to the past?
  5. If you were going to recite this poem, what tone would you use? Where would you speed up or slow down?
  6. Write a poem in which you imagine an event from the past that you did not witness, maybe a story that one of your parents has told you that you want to try to understand better. Do you have a favourite photo of your mother taken when she was very young? You can also use a photo of your father or any important older person in your life. Imagine the world around the photograph and write the story as if you are there.




Wall of Death Motorcycle Circus Stunt Show:


In an interview, Hoa Nguyen describes her mother’s life (as it relates to this poem): “She left home at 15 and joined a circus and became a motorcycle stunt-woman in Vietnam in the early 1960s. She did these amazing things contrary to what her position as a poor woman, born in 1942 in the Mekong Delta, should have been.” Read the full interview here:

Bibliographical info

Hoa Nguyen, “My Idea of the Circus Is My Idea of the Circus Otherwise Known As: My Mother Was a Celebrated Stunt Motorcyclist, Vietnam, 1958 to 1962.” Copyright © 2014 by Hoa Nguyen. Reprinted by permission of the author.


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