Interview with Khaty Xiong
My people were not meant to live or survive after the Vietnam War. We were left behind to die. But my life, and the poetry that I write, resists the death intended for us.
We interviewed Khaty Xiong about her poetry collection Poor Anima (Apogee Press, 2015), her writing process, exciting 2020/2021 releases, and the collection she's currently working on.
KHATY XIONG was born to Hmong refugees from Laos and is the seventh daughter of fifteen brothers and sisters. She is the author of Poor Anima (Apogee Press, 2015), which holds the distinction of being the first full-length collection of poetry published by a Hmong American woman in the United States. She was recently awarded a Vermont Studio Center Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council (2020) and has held the Roxane Gay Fellowship in Poetry from Jack Jones Literary Arts (2019), the Nadya Aisenberg Fellowship at The MacDowell Colony (2017), and an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council (2016). Xiong’s work has been featured in Poetry, the New York Times and How Do I Begin?: A Hmong American Literary Anthology (Heyday, 2011), as well as on Poetry Society of America and Academy of American Poets websites, and elsewhere. In 2018, her poem, “On Visiting the Franklin Park Conservatory & Botanical Gardens” was highlighted in an immersive poetry installation at the Poetry Foundation Gallery in Chicago (June – September) centering on the conversation of grief and loss. Visit her at https://khatyxiong.com/.
RS: In Minor Feelings, poet Catherine Park Hong talks about how poetry is the most comprehensive mode of communication for multilingual people to combat English as the presumed default language. Can you talk a little bit about your thoughts on poetry as resistance/as escapism/as self-affirming/as self-flagellating?
KX: I feel like most multilingual people, or those who come from a multilingual family but can only speak in the presumed default English language, have a beautiful, complicated relationship to language—because of history, place, and or culture—which makes poetry an appropriate “vessel” for mapping the many griefs we experience. I think because writing is also an act of translation, where everything we write or “translate” does not always make it through or is carried over, we get caught in the messy web of self-affirmation and self-flagellation. In the Hmong community, written poetry is still not entirely recognized as a medium of either academic or artistic expression, at least, not in the same Western recognition. Just the same, outside the community, Hmong literature is still working on being included in academic and artistic spaces. As a Hmong poet, it’s very lonely, but I resist the idea that my voice and work don’t matter. In the publishing world, it’s so easy to be made small, to feel like your work will never reach people, to fall under the pressure of contests or fellowships. I try to remember why I create in the first place. That helps me stay focused. If there’s one thing that’s true, poetry is powerful, and remains powerful. I write to resist the narrative that Southeast Asian bodies cannot be masters of any craft. I don’t know that I write to exactly escape from the present world; I definitely write to spend more time with it, such as my grief over my mother’s death (death being timely and timeless). Poetry helps me confront other versions of myself, some pleasant, and others not so much. It allows me to be honest, and to embrace the periods when I can’t be, because grief and other losses like it can have a way with keeping you from yourself.
RS: You’re currently working on your second poetry collection that’s both extremely personal and historical/archival. Your website bio describes this book as “interrogating, as well as creating, myths around mothers, death, and gardens,” which brings to mind Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Can you talk about your thoughts on how this collection, or poetry in general, can build new literacies/vocabularies outside of the dominant narrative?
KX: I think by engaging in poetry we are continuously creating and building outside of the dominant narrative. My people were not meant to live or survive after the Vietnam War. We were left behind to die. But my life, and the poetry that I write, resists the death intended for us. I’m reminded of a really moving video chat I had with poet Natalie Diaz on the topic of generosity back in November 2019. I had asked how she has managed to navigate through spaces that don’t want people like us to succeed, in language or in legacy. She answered by acknowledging that neither of us, because of our history, are supposed to be here, but that our mere presence, and the work that we are creating, are things to be deeply considered. Adding to that, she stated “…how dangerous is it that we are sitting across each other, separated by a screen, talking, of all things, about poetry?” I haven’t stopped thinking about that. I’ve also not had a chance to read Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, but it’s a collection that has been highly suggested to me before. I’m working on adding it to my library as we speak. I suspect between that historic collection and the work I am creating, there are some parallels of deep grief, our love for the women and mothers who continue to bear us, and our search to hold them and celebrate them through poetry, among others.
It’s still very scary for me to internalize that I even have a first book and that I’m working on my second collection. Poor Anima is a book of grief, almost pre-grieving my mother’s death. Every time I look back at that collection, I’m haunted by how much I had anticipated my mother’s tragic death. With book two, I feel immense shame and sadness. Grief is such a strange and loyal subject. Strange as in time challenges memory. Loyal as in it keeps one close to the various truths of those memories, including the measurement of time inside them. I haven’t exactly figured out what grief wants me to understand, what lesson my mother’s death is supposed to teach me. My mother was a shaman, but she was also many things at once: war refugee, medicine woman, grandmother, gardener, manual laborer. My mother cared for the earth. It gave her purpose, and a new language, a language I’m still trying to learn. I loved, pitied, and envied my mother—for her strength, for her spirit, for her raging heart. Wherever this book takes me, I hope that it can give space to conversations around prolonged grief and to the children of Diasporans who carry the myths of grief. Truly, it is my hope we understand that our voices are incredibly valuable, especially when we’re told and/or made to think otherwise.
RS: Your first collection, Poor Anima, is the first full-length poetry collection by a Hmong American woman in the US. How do you navigate being a creator/artist when your demographic labels carry tokenistic expectations for a white audience?
KX: I’m not sure how well I’ve been navigating the world as a Hmong poet, especially under the eye of a white audience. I’ve often wondered if a certain opportunity or publication earned was because of sheer tokenism, or if my work shined and someone just really believed in it. A poet and writer I admire once told me that there was no use wondering over whether or not said opportunity was because of tokenism, since I would never know unless I asked. I hadn’t ever thought about asking (imagine that), but they had a point and made it easy for me to stop wondering. They encouraged me to keep making my work, to forge ahead, and to reach out to communities far and wide. Someone else once asked what kind of literary/artistic ancestor I wanted to be, what kind of work I wanted to leave behind, etc. I have a lot to think about, and a lot of work to do. I just hope I can stay focused on the work at hand.
RS: What does your writing process look like? How has it changed over time?
KX: I think like many artists and writers, my writing process doesn’t exactly begin with the act of writing itself. I often return to memory and to the physical world, relying on these places to help translate the potential body of a poem. A lot of observation and meditation happens here, which eventually spills over onto the page. Then there’s revision, where I labor over lines, images, and language; it’s truly my favorite part of writing—or as I’ve told others, it’s where the real writing happens for me. I’m not so sure how my process has changed since I’ve never really had a set ritual for how I engage with poetry. My writing process is always shifting.
RS: What releases for 2020/2021 (books/music/movies) are you most looking forward to?
KX: It feels odd to say that I haven’t thought of either music or movies in a very long time, but it’s true. I suppose I tend to revisit old releases. I’m a big Studio Ghibli fan, so I like re-watching those films, especially Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. I also love listening to their original soundtracks and will sometimes have them on loop, getting lost in the story again, experiencing the film all over again. I have no idea what’s coming out this year or next year. As for books, I’m sure there’s a big list of titles, but I haven’t caught up on publishing news. I am, however, excited for poet Michael Wasson’s collection Swallowed Light (Copper Canyon, 2021).
RS: Finally, what advice do you have for younger writers just starting out?
Take the time to read and research. Find writers that speak to you, that challenge and move you. Embrace the hard questions. Trust yourself.
This interview has been lightly edited to fit our style guide.