Pins & Needles No. 30: Mai Der Vang

bad wolf
© A.T. Velazco

No. 30: Mai Der Vang

Q. In addition to “the brass orbit of a dirge” (wow), “A Mouth And Its Name” addresses erasure and anonymity. Is one state preferable to the other?

I’ve thought about how both of these ideas share similar meanings and yet serve different purposes. My sense is that anonymity is a form of invisibility inflicted by the self. It’s the self choosing to hide, to conceal, to abstain from honesty, perhaps in an effort to protect. Erasure, on the other hand, can be a deletion or eradication inflicted by an outside source rather than by the self. It’s no longer within the self’s ability to decide nor control—invisibility then becomes inevitable.

I’m deeply compelled by the idea of being erased, maybe that’s why it ends up at the end of the poem. In writing the poem, I tried to create images that felt as if they were constantly fleeting transient. Even being “marked in charcoal” is temporary because the charcoal can fade and isn’t permanent.

Q. Your images in “The Hour After Stars” are as beautiful as they are scansionable: swidden body, opal winter, latticed coffer. Do you write from more of a visual or sonic perspective?

I try to write from both. Sometimes I can tap into one more than the other. Sometimes I struggle and am unable to access either of them. I do feel that I prioritize the visual before bringing in the sonic qualities. I have to be able to see it first before I can hear it. Once the image is set, whether it’s imagining winter as an internal organ, or seeing a pair of legs that have no feet but instead have anchors for the feet, then it’s on to exploring and finding the right combination of words to convey the music—what it would sound like if that image had a voice. Sometimes this process works beautifully for me, other times, it can fail completely.

Q. Did you come across any folklore-based submissions when co-editing How Do I Begin?: A Hmong American Literary Anthology? Are you aware of any recurring themes unique to Hmong fairy tales?

We did come across a few pieces that drew upon Hmong folk stories, though not as many as one might expect. Maybe it’s because many of us as Hmong American writers are still learning about our cultural and folk history—it feels like we’re in that “passing down” phase right now. Historically, the Hmong did not have a formal writing system until the 1950s, so many of the stories and folk beliefs survived and were passed down through oral tradition.

Some themes in Hmong folktales that stand out to me are: the plight of the orphan; animals such as tigers, monkeys, roosters (some of which take on human traits); and the dilemma of courtship. Obviously there are many more themes too. But the orphan theme is particularly interesting I think because many Hmong take lineage very seriously and believe that family connections extend beyond the terrestrial into the afterlife.

Interview conducted by Fairy Tale Review Poetry Editor Jon Riccio.


Mai Der Vang’s “A Mouth and Its Name” and “The Hour After Stars” appear in The Mauve Issue of Fairy Tale Review.

“A Mouth and Its Name”

You told me north water
was not built by virga

but from suicide of the moon.

That letters could turn
into ruptured atlas,

spill off the brass orbit of a dirge.

Go on living, but never say
the names of the dead.
That’s what you said.

No muscle inside the bells.
A weapon body does not give.

I mark you in charcoal:
anonymous.

It was you throwing feet
against the glass frame.

You let me dream of sand rattling
its desert costume,

then polished coins
ripped from a string of iridescent beads.
With it, every shattered hyphen

that erased you
from your animal sign.