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Wednesday
Mar042015

"Ask Me How I’ve Saved Us": An Interview with Mai Der Vang

Mai Der Vang’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Journal, The Cincinnati Review, The Missouri Review Online, Radar, Asian American Literary Review, Weave Magazine, Apogee, among other publications. Her work has been anthologized in Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora. As an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle, she is co-editor of How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology. Mai Der is a Kundiman fellow and has completed residencies at Hedgebrook.

Her poem, "When the Mountains Rose Beneath Us, We Became the Valley," appeared in Issue Fifty-One of The Collagist.

Here, Mai Der Vang speaks with interviewer Darby Price about origin-making, preservation, and how poetry can take us deeper into hiding.

Can you tell me a little bit about the origins of your poem, “When the Mountains Rose Beneath Us, We Became the Valley”?

I wrote this piece in the spirit of a poem by Traci Brimhall, a poet whose work I return to quite often. If you place my poem alongside her poem, “Late Novena,” you might notice how my lines attempt to engage with hers on a structural level. As for the poem’s subject matter, I was attempting to write a piece to explore the death of my uncle who lived out of state. Upon receiving the news, my father flew immediately to be at my uncle’s hospital bedside even though he had already passed. There was something intensely sad and innocent about my father’s demeanor as he grieved over the phone. He said to me “your uncle is gone” and the sound of his voice reminded me of the purity of sadness in a child’s voice. Beyond being struck by that memory, there are also ways in which this poem attempts to leap from the effects of loss in order to explore nuances of preservation.

At its heart, this piece seems to be wrestling with questions of legacy and history—a personal history as well as a cultural history. One particularly important moment comes at the end of the poem, when the speaker says, “Ask me to build our temples/ So rooted, so stone, we won’t ever die out.” I’m really drawn in by the weight of responsibility in those lines. Can you talk about this space or role in which the speaker finds herself or himself?

I really struggled with that ending. Sometimes when I re-read that line, I feel its vastness and how the weight of the words seems so far beyond me. I am still unsure of what to make of it, to be honest. Often, as poets, we’re told to question our writing and ask ourselves whether or not we “earned” that ending or line, or whether or not what precedes has generated enough collective heft to warrant a particular ending or line. I’d like to think I earned it. But I do feel that the overt quality of this poem’s ending can jar the language a bit. On the other hand, sometimes there’s no better way to say something than simply by just saying it. I value the way in which the closing statements function like a command, are assertive and have a kind of absolute presence to them. This effect is even more important to me as a Hmong-American writer coming from a culture rooted in oral tradition without a definitive written and literary history.  How does one grapple with loss in the face of sustaining a culture that does not have a thoroughly documented history? I feel this poem wrestles with that larger question in light of personal and family history.

Throughout the poem, there’s a blend of modern-feeling, more familiar imagery (“your brother’s/Final breath on the hospital bed”) with wonderfully mythic and unfamiliar imagery (“Can a unicorn kindle the night,/ Haloed by its flame, torches jutting/ From its head”). What were some of your goals with mingling the familiar with the unfamiliar?

Ultimately, for me, I sense that blending the familiar with the unfamiliar can help me get back to what might be familiar. And by subverting my own expectation of what I think the image should be doing, I somehow move closer to realizing the many possibilities of where I can take that image. More importantly, I’m drawn to how our imagination can distort what we know and are familiar with, sometimes doing so in ways that can disturb or enlighten in a dark manner. Strangely, at times, it is a way of challenging realism as a paradoxical means to get more real, or closer to the core of the matter or emotion. Other times, it is a type of mythmaking or origin-making that comes as a result of not having a clear sense of a documented history. In the same way that there are no real answers to the questions I pose in the poem, it feels like there are no affirmative answers to the questions I have about my cultural history. Poetry has been a way for me to ask questions and attempt to formulate my own answers. I find myself pulling from a foreign imagination, in particular, because I know most of the images don’t exist. But I like thinking that including these images in a poem allows for them to be that much more possible and within reach.

Many things are hidden in this poem: a rainforest in a belly, a garden in a piece of paper, a poem hidden with “the warsick warrior”. How does this tension between what exists vs. what is unseen or unknown play into the poem’s main theme(s)?

Good question. I don’t know how to explain it, but perhaps this may go back to the poem’s constant aching over questions and answers, what is known or unknown about a cultural past, what is revealed versus what is hidden. Like other poets, I find myself naturally gravitating toward always wanting to hide things in a poem as opposed to needing to expose everything. I can’t explain it exactly, but it’s strange how intense and intimate poetry can be that it can take one deeper into hiding.

What are you reading right now—and/or what have you just finished reading?

Right now, I’m reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Brynn Saito’s The Palace of Contemplating Depature, along with some older work by Vijay Seshadri.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

I’ve been pouring over a collection of my poems as a potential first manuscript. I’ve also been exploring the possibility of a project-based collection that will encompass the Hmong war experience. And as if that is not enough, I’m dreaming up the possibility of starting a California Central Valley-based literary journal with a few of my colleagues from the Hmong American Writers’ Circle.

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