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.