Lunar Notes: An Interview with Featured Writer Khaty Xiong

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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 youre 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.

Lunar Notes: An Interview with Featured Writer Joe Milazzo

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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:

  • Susan Lewis, Zoom
  • Sesshu Foster, City of the Future
  • Gisèle Prassinos, The Arthritic Grasshopper: Collected Stories
  • David Sudnow, Pilgrim in the Microworld
  • Bilge Karasu, The Garden of Departed Cats
  • Jena Osman, Public Figures
  • Adriana Widdoes, Allison Conner, Emma Kemp, Johanna Hedva, Mady Schutzman, Orenda Fink, and Suzanne Scanlon, Rockhaven: A History of Interiors

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.

Lunar Notes: An Interview with Featured Writer Anne F. Walker

April 29 2017

Photo by Jamil Vallis-Walker

Anne F. Walker completed an MFA at Mills College and a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. She taught at the University of California, Merced, for six years and has been directing the graduate writing program at Holy Names University since 2014. Her full-length published poetry books include Six Months Rent, Pregnant Poems, Into the Peculiar Dark, and The Exit Show. when the light of any action ceases is her recent poetry chapbook.

Why do you write? What pulls you into the page, and who inspires you?

I have written since I was little. When I was six my family moved from Berkeley to Toronto, Canada. We crossed the continent and national border in the old Ford van that had the engine between the driver and passenger seat. The beige van where the beige vinyl back seats left imprints like train tracks on bared skin. I drew pictures of places we passed, the lakes and farms and the Great Canadian Shield. My mom put the pictures into a book and wrote brief narratives I dictated for each. She created the blue-purple lined stencil reproductions. We folded them and sent them to family members. Something about the break from one life, from one country, to another, propelled me to writing. It became a safe space for me, a way of connecting to my more inner self.

After that I know I wrote poetry. When my oldest sister, Juanita, passed to cancer in 1994 she had a poem of mine on the cork board in her room. My mom sent it to me. I had written it at about seven to nine years old and it was about wolves. It end-rhymed. The only time I have not been writing was when I failed out of high school at 15 and hitchhiked around North America for about a year and a half. I was so disconnected from myself I had no words, or perhaps no way inside, no safe space. I found my way into York University just before turning 18, and I started writing again, taking classes with bpNichol, Frank Davey, Eli Mandel and Susan Swan. Often poems come to me when I am in motion, biking, walking. Sometimes I need to move around to jog an idea or word sequence into place.

bpNichol was my first poetry teacher, and he inspired me. I studied with him at York University 1982-86, and he continued to mentor my work before his passing. He had already been winning national and international awards with his concrete poetry. Once I asked him what a concrete poem on his office door meant. It had the words “frog,” “pond,” and “glop” interacting, and it really didn’t seem to be what I understood poetry to be. He said that when one writes in perfect syntax, with correct punctuation, one is working with the established power norms. He said “fucking with language is fucking with power.” I understood this. His teaching remains impressive to me. Even though he was a rock star in the poetry world he never tried to form replicas of himself. Rather, he had a capacity to deepen individuals’ understanding of their own works and capabilities. He reached into a student’s capability for understanding, in my case knowing that the idea of fucking with power through language would speak to this 17-year-old girl. He was a rock star.

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?

It would be the book by Pablo Neruda that has “Naked You Are As Simple As One Of Your Hands.”

What space does/should writing occupy in todays climate?

In answering this I pull words from W.S. Merwin and from Audre Lorde. I pull from them because they have started to articulate something I feel and barely know how to say.

I interviewed W.S. Merwin in March of this year, asking: “if you were speaking to poets coming up now, poets emerging right now, what would you say? In this world, in this crazy, crazy place that we’re in.” He answered, “Well, don’t think of poetry as being something else from what, from what you’re doing. What you’re reading about is just this [thumps chest] all the time, it’s just exactly this. It’s about the real world. The real world actually isn’t what we’re looking at. Do you think having that guy in the White House is the real world? It’s a lot of mistakes tumbled together, you know?”

In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” Audre Lorde writes: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless—about to be birthed, but already felt.”

Especially now, it seems to me essential to write, to encourage others to write, to recognize that writing is not “something else,” that it is not only about the real world but part of creating how to understand this world. It gets to something inside, something that is the world and is part of its song. Creative works are crucial in today’s climate. And it is crucial that we support each other in writing, narrating, singing, that which we are going through.

What was the first piece you ever had published? Are you the same person who wrote it, and if not, how have you changed?

Again, this story leads back to bpNichol. He had suggested that I start sending my work out saying it was as good as anything out there being published. I appreciated that he gave me that worker among workers, poet among poets, vision. I decided to send work to Contemporary Verse 2, put together some poems, a cover letter, and put it in a Toronto red post box. This was back when everything was snail mail. I remember the rush of putting it in that box. Shortly afterward I remember seeing bpNichol walking from the Fine Arts building over toward the Ross building, the central campus structure at that time. I hid behind a small tree and jumped out as he came by. I’m not sure why I did that, but I remember him laughing and we walked together. I remember telling him about the adrenaline rush of sending off that package. He said, “And someday there will be the rush of acceptance, and then of people asking you for your work.” I loved that man. Contemporary Verse 2 published “Mother Love” and “Knife Dance” in Summer 1985 (Volume 9, Number 1).

I seldom jump out at professors from behind shrubs these days, and I am a much happier person generally. My work is more open in terms of voice. Then I was still intent on a poem being something of small animal prints left on the page. Imagistic, symbolic, or minimalist poetry felt perhaps more secure to that me who was used to feeling unsafe. I believe it was a way to get a lot on the page and still feel protected. I found that when I moved back to California my voice changed. When I heard a colleague at Mills College, Andrea Adolph, read her poetry I could hear the central valley in it. In her words and intonations. I started to let a longer line emerge, a longer thought, longer sounds…the only way I can describe it is like a metal brush being played over a taut drum. There was a slide and a let-out to the language that started a new direction of growth. I still love to experiment with form, to learn new models and new integrations of poetic shape.

Do you find poetry more challenging to write or prose? What inspired the shift from poetry to prose for your manuscript if a book is a map: grief, recovery and hurtling forward, and what was your writing process like?

if a book is a map: grief, recovery and hurtling forward was the hardest writing experience I have had. Where my job as a writer is usually to stay open to the muse and stop to record when she sings, if a book is a map: grief, recovery and hurtling forward involved so much staying with pain. I did not have the anesthetic quality a lyric creates for me. Instead I had to pull myself to the page day after day, to make it discernible to readers.

if a book is a map started as a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project. At the end of October a friend told me she was going to write into NaNoWriMo and I stepped into it too. The first day was two days after my fiftieth birthday. I fished around for where it might go, pulling images from around me and from imagination, writing seventeen hundred words. The second writing day I did the same in the morning. Then I got the news that my dad died. Like the film technique where sound goes down to nothing in an explosion, his death hijacked the writing into memories of him, recovery and hurtling forward, while articulating my process of grief. Seventeen hundred words a day came in through the first twenty-eight days of grieving. I used to turn to my dad when something big was up. His death was something big, and I kept wanting to turn to him, and he was gone. It was a kind of human animal loss that really went deeper than what I had felt before.

My dad had been writing short memoir vignettes for a few years. He took a class at Ryerson in Toronto, enjoying the writing and the camaraderie of it. It occurred to me that woven in and out of if a book is a map I wanted to see if I could use some of my dad’s recollections from his memoir class.

I had been in collaboration with my father’s stories, as a way of understanding the world, since I was little. When my oldest sister, Juanita, had been dying in Toronto twenty years before, my mother had taken care of her. My father was support for my mother and I listened to my father in long distance phone calls. I was getting an MFA in creative writing at Mills College, and my son was only two.

My father would tell me things, like the doctors were: irradiating the top of the brain pan to alleviate horrible headaches from the tumors. But radiation makes the brain swell, she’s had one of five — she’s in hospital through emergency from not eating and barely drinking five days.

He would say: Between Sunday and Tuesday she lost cognitive ability.  Ione’s in tears because Nita can’t remember.  Talking to her.  She wants to die at home.  Not caught in the fucking machine. And I would write it down. I couldn’t hold what he was saying, but I could write it down. I would integrate it with my poetry. The poems became a book. They integrated into Into the Peculiar Dark.

May 24, almost six months after he passed, twenty five years after my son was conceived, my brother-in-law emails me that he is sending me some of the ashes and all documents, photos, writings from all computers. May 28 the box arrived. I rearranged the house around it. Cleaned dust from under every piece of furniture I moved, but could not open the box.

At first I thought that I would be telling Papa’s story, or perhaps a story of my family, but as I edited, it quickly became clear that I was telling my own story of mourning. I was telling my story of skimming over surfaces of life, of some of the deep pockets I fell into, telling some part of the story of my recovery, telling a story of myself as an artist and of myself as a becoming being. I hope it reaches out and is of service and hope to someone who reads it.

I found I had an insecurity writing the book that I had never had before in writing.  Maybe all the insecurities I have about me came up. I would be workshopping it and barely want to read the words, they kept curling back, wanting to curl back, but I did push forward. I got it through to the fifth draft before I felt like I could send it out. Now I’m looking for a publisher, which is a whole different animal of fear of rejection, and actual rejection, that I have to pass through.

What books do you have on your shelf right now? Who are you reading? Anything or anyone you’re excited about?

On the digital shelf I have Carl Philips and David Tomas Martinez. I love the lyric evocative qualities in Philips’ work. Martinez grabs my attention with his use of space on the page and varied pockets of micro narratives. Lorna Cervantes “Freeway 280,” always a favorite. Her freeway as “a raised scar” knocks me out every time. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “the mother” from A Street in Bronzeville was published in 1945. It begins “Abortions will not let you forget” and goes on “I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children. / I have contracted. I have eased…” It seems to me an incredibly brave moment in women’s writing. She just stared it all straight in the face and didn’t blink while writing. She is my hero. Incarnadine by Mary Szybist and Garden Time by W.S. Merwin are on my nightstand.

What advice do or would you give to a writer just starting out?

Write. Keep writing. Let the process of publishing be a whole different animal. Let all the weight of rejection be on the rejecter, none on you. Learn and push forward. Keep writing. It is resistance. It is staying to the core of who you are. It can be truth and beauty; however ugly it is. And however ugly it is, it can still be beauty. Keep writing.

You can read Anne F. Walker’s work in the second issue of Night Music Journal, which will be released May 15.