Khaty Xiong is a Hmong American poet from Fresno, CA. She is the author of Poor Anima (Apogee Press, 2015) and three poetry chapbooks: Ode to the Far Shore (Platypus Press, 2016), Deer Hour (New Michigan Press, 2014), and Elegies (University of Montana, 2013). She has received a fellowship from MacDowell Colony and a grant from the Ohio Arts Council. Her work has been published in POETRY, The New York Times, How Do I Begin?: A Hmong American Literary Anthology, and elsewhere.
Why poetry? What pulled you in, and who was the very first poet you read/heard?
Although I get asked this question a lot, I find it humbling and important because sometimes in this busy and hellish world, I forget the reason. When I do remember, the chest always burns a little. So, why poetry? Poetry has long been a form of honesty for me, a space that helps “understand the clutter” as a friend and poet once said. I find poetry as sacred as the language of my parents, Hmong refugees whose grief has taught and continues to teach me very much about the world we live in. They are the very first poets that lit the torch and taught me how to listen. I continue to hear their voices.
Your first full-length book, Poor Anima, was the first full-length book of poetry published by a Hmong American woman in the U.S. What was the experience of this first book like? Do you still approach poems the same way? Has your focus shifted, and how so?
Poor Anima entered the world quietly. Because Hmong American poetry is still taking shape, I don’t think the publishing world knew how to talk about or celebrate this book’s release. I myself continue to not really understand what space I occupy besides the fact that I am Hmong and I am writing poetry, which, as I mentioned above, is still a very new literary landscape. There’s a lot of doubt on my side because I’m not sure where I belong in the spectrum of things.
Back home, I had a little book launch in Fresno, CA, that was hosted by California State University, Fresno and Hmong American Writers’ Circle in 2015. Although the makeup was largely family and friends, it was the first time in my life where my audience was Hmong. My parents were in the audience. I read in English because all of my poetry is primarily written in English. I still think about that experience often. I wished that I was able to read or convey those poems to my parents in Hmong, but that’s every immigrant struggle, isn’t it? Language. At the podium, I remember apologizing, in English, to my parents that they would probably not understand what I was going to read. Prior to the launch, however, I had explained to them the gist of my book. They were quiet but proud because they understood one thing: that they were in it. I love my parents deeply. Their burden. Their sacrifices and trauma carried from the Secret War in Laos. I stood before my friends and family and read my poems, something that I had never done. The emotions I felt that night tugged at me in every direction.
Approaching the poems in that book was like facing all these uncomfortable truths—in my life and in the lives of my parents, the Hmong diaspora—and giving them the room to grieve, and in a way, permanently in the archival sense. Hmong history is still not known very well. The poems in Poor Anima, which discuss my anxiety of being bilingual and bicultural, are a little different than the ones I am writing today. I suppose the focus hasn’t changed too much. I’m still in the same forest—just taking a different trail, which is filled with regret and grief over the sudden loss of my mother and other members in the family. Every poem is hard. Every poem feels like a test. The biggest surprise of this journey is that I am still writing. Grief did not take poetry away from me. It brought me closer.
Are you working on a second full-length book right now or just moving poem by poem? You write so movingly, so viscerally, about grief. Would you consider that your work’s center right now?
Thank you. I am definitely working on a second collection of poetry, which deals with my grief as stated above. I suppose you can say that grief has always been at the center of my work, even before I wrote Poor Anima. As for the second book, I received a two-month residency at MacDowell Colony in 2017 that helped materialize a huge chunk of it. Still no title—though I have ideas. Since my return, progress has slowed, but I’m content with the time I’m taking to write these poems. Besides, I still have a lot of research I’d like to do before putting it out there in the world.
I have been applying for grants to help fund a trip to Laos and Thailand with my father, since he knows where much of my family lives/lived in Laos, where the dead are buried (unmarked gravesites), where the refugee camps are in Thailand, and so on. Because Laos is the missing piece in my relationship with my parents, I am desperate to see the landscape that scarred them and the families of others. It would also cement in me a kind of truth I’ve long been searching for.
I am grateful that my father has always been open and transparent about his life. When I was a kid, he spoke freely, though in fragments, about his time before, during, and after the war. Sometimes I prodded him with questions, but only when he was sharing. Seldom did I ask for these stories out of the blue unless I was trying to connect some dots in my own research. I understood that his stories were full of hurt, so I trod carefully. Many families choose not to talk about the war because of similar reasons, but I also think it’s because they don’t know or understand that they can talk about the trauma. Rather, they don’t know how. For Hmong children in this kind of household, they end up learning about the war later in their life and wonder why their parents never shared. Of course, it’s hard to conduct these kinds of projects because you never want to exploit the traumas of a people, especially when the trauma is also your own.
My father, however, has always been supportive of my work, even though he doesn’t understand poetry or the act of writing poetry. Because my father was an orphan, where his life was dictated for him by the men in his family, living under communist rule in Laos, which set him on the path as a boy soldier, he really values the freedom to speak and to create. In many of our conversations, he has asked me to make sure the world would not forget him. It is such a burden and a privilege to be in this position, to be his daughter.
If you were the last person on earth, and you pulled the last book from a pile of ash and cinders, what do you hope it would be? Why?
Oh, this is difficult. There are many books that I hold dear, and certainly many more I have yet to read. Let’s see, I need to imagine this as if I were walking through a poem. If I were the last person on earth, and I pulled the last book from a pile of ash and cinders, it would be Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The answer is complicated because the book is complicated, and it would match my despair about life, death, and the responsibilities and consequences of creation. But also, very simply, it’s one of my favorite stories of all time.
Who are some poets you’re really excited about right now? Is there anyone who makes America in 2018 a little more bearable? Who do you have on your shelf/in your ear/on your mind right now?
America is buzzing right now. Of course, there’s also a growing stack of “to-read” books in my office, both by living and dead writers. Right now, however, I am incredibly excited by Victoria Chang’s work, Don Mee Choi and her translations of Kim Hyesoon, and very recently Nabila Lovelace. I just saw Nabila at a reading here in Columbus. I was completely entranced. I can’t wait to dig into her debut poetry collection, Sons of Achilles, which was just released in June from YesYes Books.
If you could go back and say anything to your teenage self, what would it be?
“Have patience. Be ready. Find the strength to keep going.”
You can read Khaty Xiong’s work in the fourth issue of Night Music Journal, which will be released November 19th.
Presenting the cover of NMJ V.4! The featured writer will be announced November 15th, and the issue will be available November 19th!
There’s still room for your poetry, essays, and hybrid creatures in NMJ V.5, so please submit!
Crowd Surfing with God by Adrienne Novy (Half Mystic Press)
More info here.
Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems by Jennifer S. Cheng (Tarpaulin Sky Press)
Joe Milazzo is the author of the novel Crepuscule W/ Nellie and two collections of poetry: The Habiliments and Of All Places In This Place Of All Places. His writings have appeared in Black Clock, Black Warrior Review, BOMB, Prelude, Tammy, and elsewhere. He co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing], is a Contributing Editor at Entropy, and is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, and his virtual location is http://www.joe-milazzo.com.
Why do you write? How do you begin, how does your process unfold, and who or what influences your work?
At the risk of coming off as clever or flippant, I’d like to say that I write in order to figure out what it is I’m writing about. Writing, for me, is an act of perception—the first step in my journey towards understanding. This is another way of saying that, for me, writing is about discovery, digestion (or distillation), orienting (and reorienting), remembering and projecting into the possible. My process is to approach the words as Pascal did the river, treating them as the substance (surface and depth; motion and matter) of a road that takes me where I want to go. This also means that I try and approach everything as potentially inspirational or influential. In terms of subjects or interests, chief among them are consciousness, language, narrative (historical and imaginative, assuming there’s much difference between the two), and the various ways in which all these phenomena collaborate to create our sense of the real.
If you were the last person on earth, and you pulled the last book from a pile of ash and cinders, what would it be?
I would hope that book would be a book I’ve not yet read. And not necessarily one I’ve been meaning to read. If not, I’d settle for a collected works: maybe Cortázar, maybe Le Guin, or Zukofsky; Bob Kaufman perhaps, or Gertrude Stein. A companion-book.
What books do you have on your shelf right now? Anything or anyone you’re excited about?
I am currently reading Clark Coolidge’s Now It’s Jazz, his book about Kerouac and, well, jazz. A fascinating read thus far, in part because Coolidge the essayist is not all that different from Coolidge the poet. But also because I find I don’t have much of an appreciation for Kerouac anymore—if I ever did (I don’t believe I’ve ever finished On the Road). Then again, I may find that I only really like Coolidge’s Kerouac and not the genuine article. Or, that Coolidge’s idea of Kerouac is more compelling than even the best Kerouac that Kerouac could muster. That said, I am most looking forward to the second half of the book, in which Coolidge recounts his personal experience (dare I call it “fandom”?) of jazz. I’ve read excerpts from this portion of the book before and am eager to dig into the whole of its casually (coolly?) haunting ekphrastics.
To read afterward? I’ll be browsing the following:
What space does/should writing occupy, especially in this present moment?
Literature is, always has been, and always will be social practice. Even the most hackneyed “creative writing” manipulates language against the grain, “the functional”… although maybe only in America do we instrumentalize language to such an extreme degree (and our overly workshopped notions of literary excellence reflect as much). As such, the space writing primarily occupies is its own; literally, what it marks out; the parameters it establishes for itself. But only the best writing is able to acknowledge the ways in which it is ideologically compromised (in the manner of all utterances, whatever the intentions that have channeled them from mind to tongue) while simultaneously freeing itself from what my friend and sometimes-teacher Joseph McElroy likes to call “the tyranny of the anecdote”—the notion that what has been strictly requires what will be.
What was the first piece you ever had published? Are you the same person/writer who wrote it, and if not, how have you changed?
I’ve had several writing careers: “music critic,” book reviewer, for-hire content producer. But I date my career as a writer as beginning with the appearance of this story in an issue of In Posse Review. A decade has since passed, and I am definitely a changed person. For one thing, I’m not sure I have another short story in me. Less facetiously, I’d like to think I’ve broadened my range and my notions of what “the experimental” can encompass. (I am, however, still in thrall to guitar solos. I can’t rub that generational disposition out of myself.)
Which do you find the most challenging and/or rewarding and why: fiction, poetry, or prose?
If the writing requires that I write about or with direct reference to myself—not a body, occupied and occupying, but a personality or set of exegetic atmospheric conditions—I find that difficult. The much more comfortable position for me is one in which I’m cupping the shards of my subjectivity in my hands, knowing that the next choice I have to make involves selecting and fitting another handful of those pieces into the puzzle of a new persona. With the novel, this salvage-cum-invention takes a great deal of time; the relationships that bind author and character are more monogamous, if that makes sense. And plot, or at least drama: its tautness is not the outcome of efficiencies, at least in my practice. Which is not to say that novel-writing is drudgery. It’s just that its pleasures, like Kafka’s Great Emperor, are often more anticipated than received. (Until you can make yourself a relatively disinterested reader of your own novel, I’ve found, those pleasures don’t fully arrive.) Poetry I find more convivial and quicker, its forms improvisations on everyday saying. It can take me weeks to write a finished poem (whatever that is), but the end is almost always in sight, and the horizon never looks like a deadline. That scope agrees with me very much these days, which are lived mostly from 9 to 5.
What are some of the challenges you face as an editor? What do you enjoy about it?
Time is a challenge. I want to give everything I read as much of my attention as possible. But I can’t. So I try not to be too arbitrary in granting authority to my tastes and interests. That is, I try to read as much outside of my proclivities as possible. Just as I am skeptical of the edict to “write what you know,” I am suspicious of the notion that “good writing” reveals itself as soon as it’s read. The apparent aesthetic neutrality of “good writing” to me seems like a form of self-deception, inasmuch as it denies the choices that codify preferences into default positions. But reading in this way—parallel to myself—takes a good deal of vigilance. Thankfully, it’s a skill I was taught in workshop, and one I continue to relearn every time I’m fortunate enough to spend time with unfamiliar authors’ unpublished writing. To immerse yourself in the work without submerging your critical sensibilities… moreover, to not idolize craft among all of the demiurges in that critical pantheon… that’s tricky. But I’ve found the effort more than worthwhile. Doing so has kept my world from growing small around me.
What projects do you have going on right now? What are your concerns/obsessions? Anything we can look forward to?
I am currently at work on three discrete poetic sequences and a novel. The novel (title still TBD) is set in Dallas in the 1970s and is something of a coming-of-age story. But it is also very much concerned with the history of the region, a history which many outside of Texas know nothing about even as it remains quintessentially American. If Crepuscule W/ Nellie (my first book) is a “jazz novel,” this new one is a “prog rock novel.”
Field Recordings is the first of these three evolving poetic sequences. The field in question is contemporary and largely rhetorical. If these poems offer resistance—as I hope they might—they do so by way of appropriating, repurposing and recontextualizing (via various discursive strategies; that is, I have endeavored in them to preserve a thematic unity without relying on a univocality) small portions of what is most awful about the current political regime’s discourse.
My concern in the so-called “name poems” of Acrostic Aspic is with the conditions of celebrity as they are lived by non-celebrities, i.e., “you” and “me.” Or: I suppose these poems are all about minor celebrity, as their titles, borrowed from the outer limits of fame, suggest. Our subjectivities so often cohere in the back and forth between narratives intensely our own and those widespread narratives with which we cannot help but make contact, or which are in constant contact with us. But the latter narratives are so much more easily represented, not to mention “relatable,” while the former remain largely untranslatable. So this self-exchange can never be equal. Still, people live as they live, and their names mean something to them.
Finally, the numbered poems that constitute homeopathy for the singularity represent my attempts to undertake a slow study of online existence as it stands in 2017/2018.
What advice would you give to a writer just starting out?
Rejection letters are paychecks. They certify your labors. They’re promissory. They’re also bankable—that is, dependable. Keep saving them up. Keep showing up for work.
You can read Joe Milazzo’s work in the third issue of Night Music Journal, which will be released June 27.
Knock by Melissa Atkinson Mercer. Half Mystic Press (2018, 70 pages). $15, paperback. $7, digital.
Half Mystic Press’s first book, written by Melissa Atkinson Mercer, is bewitching, full of pitch and portents. One stumbles in and is caught in its spell…or is it curse? Knock uses elements of both, gathering its earthy ingredients (“my tongue is turbulent with acanthus, with bloodroot, with a pig’s mudded hoof” in “she says: these are my lungs”) and mixing them with ritual and the conjured voices of dead poets.
On the table of contents, a formula is laid out: six steps to “cure” depression (the first of which is “they cut out your tongue”), split into three parts. Braided into these steps are three definitions for knock, all verbs, all with agency: “to produce a noise,” “to gain entry,” and “to collide.”
When the tongue is removed, one must find other means of communication, and a knock can be so many things: forceful, tentative, sinister, urgent, and deliciously eerie. What is it about noise divorced from body—unexplained bumps in an empty house, scratching at a windowpane on a dark night—that gives one such a chill? That shiver up the spine lies at the heart of this collection where, behind each poem, there is an incessant, unsettling tap, tap, tap.
In the title poem, the cursed speaker says, “If I could be loud enough, if incessant, the door might truly open.” But as each section unfolds, instead of the door opening, who is knocking seems to shift. The speaker seems to exist on both sides of the door, an uncomfortable impasse. To be cursed is to be trapped, after all. Frustrated movement ebbs and flows poem by poem until the landscape seems to vibrate, and the speaker’s occasional calmness in the face of it deepens the chill. The poem “love was the thing i wanted to say” begins with a house filling with water, the speaker inside. Time passes, and the speaker eventually becomes a fish, and “the walls turned black with eyes.” Yet instead of alarm, the speaker says, almost casually, “There was nothing so unpleasant…”.
The speaker exists in a dissociative state, sometimes more beast or object than human, other times divorced from her parts, from voice itself: “I found my tongue singing in a pail of waste” (“the first cure for depression…”). The cure for the speaker’s “sickness of the tongue” is biblical (Matthew 5:30, KJV: “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee”) and performed outside our frame of view by faceless beings. Mercer’s cutting and mixing in clips and lines from poets who committed suicide feels almost like a reclamation, cut-out tongues singing through this collection like the speaker’s own disembodied tongue, stubbornly hard to silence.
The loss of voice doesn’t stop the speaker’s yearning. She projects it (knock, knock) onto everything around her. The animals take up her thirst: “I taught them, the thirsty pigs, lifting their hooves to fence posts: one, two, three & again, darlings, again” in “knock.” And as others try to tame the speaker, their shaping a form of violence, so too do images, words, and objects contain a wisp of violence: “Storms grew on the black lake, cracking it like marble. We plucked out the cotton sky” (“mother, ice storm”).
As these lines show, Mercer skillfully juxtaposes images, building tension and deepening connections. In the first poem, which is also the first cure, the mountains made from the “tongues of women buried for the sin of lust” collide with the father who “cuts the tongues from goats before the feast.” Sitting as they do, the father figure and the women are connected, the father’s violence a shadow that looms and echoes forward. The women, tongueless, become goatlike.
Indeed, the women’s and speaker’s human form eludes them: they are birds, beasts, cyclops, trees, fish, elephants. This shapeshifting (mimicked by form as the poems flow into prose and back) sometimes seems like power, sometimes curse, sometimes both. In “xiv” of “to gain entry,” the speaker says, “my sea-born blood is a cathedral’s light / dreamlike ferocity a snake skin / shimmered beneath the wet leaves.” In “oh where to begin,” the speaker asks, “Lord, preserver of man & beast, who may I ask has been tasked with my unimaginable body…?”
The speaker is often acted upon, and even when she makes the move herself, her actions are almost always self-defeating…or self-mutilating. In “what do you remember of before,” the speaker says, “I’ll dig a grave & climb inside.” This self-immolation is echoed in the recurring womb, which is “Verboten,” whether by the speaker’s choice or another’s. Perhaps the womb is the key to breaking the inherited curse: “While my own mother lives, you could not speak at all. That was the curse we chose” (“too emphatic,”). In this way, the speaker is indeed “apocalypse.”
This multilayered collection weaves the reader in with every image, every shift, until the reader is left disoriented, existing on multiple levels, an ear there, a tongue here. The reader is both the one who hears the knock and the one knocking. Also the knock itself. Also the door. Also the one who opens it. Also the one who leaves. What pieces might be left behind?
More information about this title here.
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