Mai Der Vang’s poems “A Mouth And Its Name” and “The Hour After Stars” appeared in The Mauve Issue. She speaks with poetry editor Jon Riccio about her debut collection Afterland (Graywolf Press, 2017), in addition to fairy tales, lists, and the aesthetics of concealment.
Jon Riccio: I’m listening to Bach’s d minor Solo Violin Partita as I write this. It’s in five movements, whereas Afterland exists in six sections if we count “Another Heaven” as a prelude. Bach’s Partita takes about thirty minutes to perform, an endurance test for any artist. Speaking of stamina, how did you pace yourself throughout the composition of Afterland with its 57 poems, each fully realized of tone and intent?
Mai Der Vang: I worked on the book over the span of two years. It felt longer than that, perhaps because some of the poems were already brewing in my head long before I sat down to write them. I also wrote most of the poems during my graduate years at Columbia so I was able to pace myself with at least a poem a week. It seemed that a week was just enough time for me to engage in a poem, which meant meditating on it, immersing myself within the world of it, and then writing and editing it before moving on to the next poem. I could have also spent more time on each poem, and I did for some, but it was important not to linger too long in the interest of trying to complete the collection as a whole.
Riccio: Did giving one of the book’s earliest poems (“Dear Solider of the Secret War”) an epistolary title and the ‘you’ that follows make it easier, or more difficult, to address the torture that befalls the brother-combatants that unfolds with
It was scalpel that day they captured
you both. They sliced off
and boiled his tongue,
forced it down your throat.
and in the subsequent poem “Tilting Our Tears on a Pendulum of Salt” (“Passed the troops / Who have set our forest table / With tracheas.”)?
Vang: I think it did both, made it easier and difficult. From a craft-approach, it was easier to write the poem because the “you” served as a guide map and allowed me to feel grounded knowing I could direct my language and imagery toward a particular individual. On the other hand, with such defined individuals, I needed to push myself into their traumatic psyches and mind-sets, which was difficult and exhausting. There are a couple other poems that do take on a similar epistolary format, and initially, I had thought about assembling these particular poems into a series of some kind, but that never came to fruition; however, I did scatter them into the collection.
Riccio: There’s a resolve in “Transmigration” that sings the poem’s “I/you” through a multitude of carnage that includes half-decayed corpses “Among the foliage”—
Spirit, we are in this with each other the way the night geese
in migration need the stars.
When I make the crossing, you must not be taken no matter what
the current gives. When we reach the camp,
there will be thousands like us.
How does the concept of deliverance factor into your work?
Vang: It seems to me that Hmong history has always been so fraught with loss, a sense of political captivity, and a kind of powerlessness. So the idea of ever having been definitively rescued or delivered by another entity has never truly entered my sense of the Hmong imagination. If anything, so much hinges on our ability to deliver ourselves. Poetry is that deliverance for me, and it’s interesting you point out this particular poem in relation. Here, it’s unclear whether or not the spirit and the speaker ever really make it to safety, and sadly, it feels like there is no clear deliverance.
Riccio: I love a list-ending to a poem where the stakes are highest, as in “Beyond the Backyard”—
Rusted sedan, wire zipline
to stapled roof, retired
shopping cart missing wheel.
My parents fled for this.
What are some craft elements that enable you to incorporate others’ trauma?
Vang: You’re right about the risk of assembling a list near the end of a poem. In this poem, the tercet originally came earlier. But that changed during the editing process when I realized the ending needed more to match the opening. Using a list in a poem can be helpful. There’s space to offer an array of images and voices in one stroke. Lists can also change the pace of a poem in a good way if it’s inserted at a pivotal moment. I think subversion and the undermining of language and ideas are additional craft elements to consider when integrating traumatic perspectives. Along with that, I think the poem should attempt to empower its reader with new information and descriptions in order to shed a different angle of light on the experiences it conveys.
Riccio: As an essayist, you’ve appeared in such venues as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. How does poetry influence your essays; how does essaying influence your poetry?
Vang: I sometimes feel like I have to pull from different parts of myself when I write an essay or a poem. I don’t feel like they come from the same place, so their influence on one another is not always obvious to me. The essays to me are always more deliberately argumentative, leading up to some large point, so a clear assertion and progression of ideas feels more essential there. On the other hand, poetry has a way of becoming something of its own by taking on other voices, venturing into the unexpected, or just being weird, so when I write poems, I’m drawing from somewhere else and it doesn’t always make sense to me but I’m okay with that.
Riccio: “Last Body” features an “angel trapped inside the bullet,” an “exit wound trapped inside the angel.” These interiors are contrasted with
I’ll palm cotton between my prayers
Until the universe has passed,
Waving down jellyfish
To volcano hours.
Exteriority or interiority—which is your preferred terrain? Is revision your happy medium?
Vang: As an indecisive Libra, I will always opt to have both if I can. The world of the interior is so highly impacted by the exterior, and vice versa. It’s hard to give one up. So much of my work is driven by landscapes so I need the exterior to process what’s happening in the interior, or with the spirit. Another way I’ve considered this is to simply do away with the boundaries that separate the two geographies and find ways of encouraging their coexistence, especially in a poem and in places like you’ve cited here. And absolutely, revision for me is so much about getting closer to achieving a poem’s happy medium!
Riccio: Time to get eponymous. But first, another round of congratulations for winning the Academy of American Poets’ 2016 Walt Whitman Award. Would you describe Afterland as Whitmanian?
Vang: Thanks, it’s an incredible honor! Whitman was one of the first poets I ever read in high school, so that’s quite the observation. I’ve not considered Afterland as Whitmanian, but I love that notion!
Jon Riccio: “When the Mountains Rose beneath Us, We Became the Valley” tells of a “midwife who sketched birth / Maps on a girl’s body and found / A rainforest in her belly.” It ponders “How did an ancient / Boy drown in a homeless river.” while a warsick warrior hides a poem. Let’s do away with the rhetorical triangle for a minute (logos, ethos, pathos) and address the trifecta of LCD—location, concealment, and displacement. How does Afterland adhere to the tenets of each?
Vang: LCD—how clever! In crafting the poems, I did do away with the rhetorical triangle, at least the logic part of it. Assuming you made up the LCD concepts, it’s interesting to place the poems within its framework. I can see how Afterland might fulfill the criteria of each. First, I think location is important because the collection is obsessed with geographies of both the spirit and terrestrial worlds and how these landscapes intersect through histories and the present moment. It’s never quite definitive but the idea of place feels ever-present. Second, I’ve always attributed the act of hiding or concealing things to survival during wartime, and that was often the case for the Hmong, many of whom fled into the shadows after the war in order to escape. It’s quite keen of you to excerpt these lines that depict the “hiding” of a piece of paper. Lastly, I think displacement is so much about feeling jarred, startled, or uprooted from a place or position of stability. And yes, many of my lines are meant to unsettle and disturb.
Riccio: Part of the Whitman Award includes an all-expenses paid six-week residency in Italy’s Umbrian region. What are some of your goals during this time?
Vang: I’m so lucky to have this time to write. Not only that, I get to live in a preserved medieval fortress dating back to the 15th century! How’s that for fairy-tale? My hope is to use this time to start exploring and working on a second collection while catching up on some reading.
Riccio: In addition to the Mauve Issue where you appeared as a contest finalist, you’ve contributed to both our Pins & Needles and Fairy-Tale Files series. You’ve also said “If it weren’t for fairy tales and a willingness to believe in the thrilling and possessive power of our imagination, I might not be writing poetry.” It’s great to hear how empowering this genre is for you. What would you say to younger lovers of fairy tales contemplating a life in the literary arts?
Vang: I’d say keep reading and keep writing! Give yourself full permission to be weird in your poems. Bend. Risk. Distort. Create rupture. Trust your imaginative gut. Listen to the tangents in your mind. Do the opposite of what’s expected. Shape-shift. And always revise.