A Normal Interview with Mai Der Vang by Daniel Arias-Gomez
Newly released from Graywolf Press, Mai Der Vang’s poetry collection Afterland is the winner of the 2016 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets.
Sitting down in the Laureate Lab and Visual Studio inside Fresno State’s library, Mai Der Vang gives us an in-depth look at the form and craft of the poems in Afterland.
Daniel Arias-Gomez: I want to start with a bit of a cliché question and ask about your title and about the process of putting together your book as a cohesive whole. I’m under the impression that when people think about poetry books they perceive them as a series of individual poems grouped together rather than as a single unified work. However, your book does feel to me like a unified whole right from the title, Afterland. The word “after” (along with a few other words) is repeated over and over throughout the book, and I don’t think I can overstate the importance of land within the book. I see these and many other threads running throughout the work—so that the individual poems seem to construct a greater narrative that happens at the level of the book as a whole. With this in mind, I was hoping you could talk about the process of crafting Afterland—do you, in fact, see this book working as one long narrative that runs through the poems or not? Also, did you envision it as a cohesive whole when you started working on the poems, or did you work on individual poems separately and the greater narrative started to fall into place by itself?
Mai Der Vang: When I started working on Afterland I was in my MFA program at Columbia. It was a two-year program, and when I went into it I knew that I was going to be working on something that was going to become a collection. I didn’t know exactly at that point what I was going to write about, but I knew that I was going to explore something related to my Hmong-American identity and my experience. But Afterland was not what I had set out to do initially. I would work on the poems every week, and I would also workshop a lot of them. And a lot of the poems came together through just having that time to finally be able to hunker down and write. I’d been working for years before that in the community, so I didn’t have time to devote to the craft. And when I finally got to writing, I think the work just started coming together. “Afterland,” the title poem, was much longer initially. It was almost eleven sections. And I thought, this is too long, I don’t know if anyone will understand it or be able to keep up with or follow. It got too tedious, and so I broke it down to the five sections that remain in the book, and then I moved it to the very end. And I think that, like you said, the idea of land is so significant to the work as a whole. When I was thinking about Afterland, I didn’t come up with the title until the very end. But I found myself writing all this imagery, all these landscape descriptions, and all these forgotten places, these places of desolation, this land that had fallen into ruins, and so for whatever reason I was just naturally doing that. And also, I was exploring the idea of the afterland in many contexts. The afterland of the refugee, and where does the refugee end up after they leave their home country, and what happens to that country as well. There’s a kind of afterland too that exists within that country that has just experienced war. And then obviously the afterland of the spirit. The word afterland itself was a word in the poem, “Dear Shaman,” and as I was thinking about titles I came across that word. I was looking through the whole manuscript to see if there was a phrase, a word, something that stuck out. And at the time I didn’t have a poem called, “Afterland,” but I saw that word, and I thought that it might work as a title. Finally, I spoke to one of my workshop leaders, Dottie Lasky, and she contextualized it for me: she said, it seems like you’re exploring all of these afterspaces. The afterspace of the spirit is the obvious one, but there are also other afterspaces as well. You can even see some afterspaces of a relationship too—there are a couple poems in there about that. But there was a way in which I was looking at these postlandscapes, the way in which these landscapes evolve, change, experience a kind of destruction, and I found that resonating with me, and I stuck with the word afterland. I did not set out to write Afterland. It sort of just emerged through the process. And all the landscape imagery as well was not something I had set out to do either, but for some reason I just found myself diving into the imagery and wanting to pull language from images, and so that kind of fit with the whole idea of afterland, these haunted landscapes.
DAG: Following up on the ideas of the previous question, I want to talk to you about some of the central themes of the book that stood out to me. I think that three very prominent themes in the book are the body, the spirit, and the land. And though each of these occupies its own space within the work, I think that the book is most compelling when these themes start to overlap with each other. To give an example, there are some instances in the book where we see the body as landscape. Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between these three themes within the context of the book?
MDV: Absolutely right. I was really exploring those elements. My parents came to this country as refugees from Laos in the early eighties. I was born here in Fresno, but if they had stayed maybe about a year or so longer, I would have been born in the refugee camps. And I try to deconstruct why I found myself obsessively writing about the body, and I think it has to do with the physicality of space and the fact that I never got to experience what my parents had to endure. There’s a sense in me in which I feel that I was fortunate to be able to escape the atrocities of the war and the running that they experienced. And so for me there’s a gap in that experience, and I think that’s why I think about body so much, because my body was never there. And so I look at the ways in which these bodies become a physical space. Also, when you think about the spirit, there’s always this concept of what happens to the spirit after it passes into the other world, what happens to the body. Those are questions I found myself thinking about. And I think a lot of it is rooted in my having grown up in a family that practices Shamanism. When my parents came over to this country, they didn’t convert to Christianity. They stayed practicing Shamanism, which is a very ancient and very primitive way of seeing the world but also a very wise way of thinking about the body and the spirit and the relationship between the two. And I think there’s a permanence about the spirit that transcends what the body can offer in this landscape. Hmong people do believe that long after your body is gone, your spirit will travel, will seek, and will try to find the land of its ancestors. And a lot of the poems in Afterland try to do that. There’s a way in which I’m trying to figure out that journey that the spirit takes in order to find those ancestors and then eventually be reborn again. When I was writing Afterland I was trying to think about, and research, and look into a lot of these things. So I found myself obsessing over the body and the spirit because of having grown up around that in a family that practices Shamanism and having been told that if a child falls down on the floor you have to call his or her spirit back or else that child is going to get sick. That’s something I grew up hearing all the time from my parents—don’t slip, don’t go running around everywhere—because your spirit would fall, literally and figuratively. So there was a way in which so much of my growing up was blending the literal and the figurative. I think that’s partially why those three elements that you point out figure so profoundly in the work. The vehement belief in the spirit and the afterlife was very prominent in my family.
DAG: I want to delve a little bit more into the concept of Shamanism within the context of your book, and into the way the literal and the figurative merge. As I read Afterland, the figure of the Shaman stood out to me a lot. And specifically, I started to think of the poet as Shaman because of the way in which you play with figurative language to explore the relationship between the spirit and the body.
MDV: You know, that’s a really interesting insight because Shamans are the people who mediate between two worlds—they mediate between the spirit world and the living world. If you’re a Hmong family that still practices Shamanism, and someone gets sick in your family where you need to do a ceremony to heal the family, then you would call a Shaman to come to your house. And there’s a ritual in which the Shaman stands or sits on a bench, covers his face, and uses these different instruments to help facilitate the ceremony. And he serves as a mediator, a guide. He is the instrument through which we can traverse these multiple worlds. There’s a story in my family about one of my late uncles. I wasn’t there for this ceremony, but one of my uncles passed away mysteriously. They didn’t know why he passed away, so my father called on this very powerful Shaman—she was a woman, and she was from Merced, I think—to come and do a ceremony in our house. During the ceremony she was able to travel to this other realm from which she was able to tell the family that had gathered at my house what had happened to my uncle, how he had died, and that he wasn’t going to be able to come back. And she was speaking as if she was him. All of this sounds crazy, you know, in a way, but it’s a practice that Hmong people really believe in. And if there’s some level of belief to it, and if they’ve been doing this for years, then you’ve got to believe that there’s something about it, the experience of it, that holds true for us. So I think that I saw myself kind of being someone who was trying to do that in the language, to mediate between these two realms. I didn’t set out to be a Shaman in those poems. But it’s funny that you point that out because there are a couple of poems in there where I am channeling something else, I felt like. So yeah, definitely, the experience of going between these multiple worlds, these multiple languages, this otherworldly landscape, it can be attributed to that, I think.
DAG: I want to move onto a more craft-oriented question about constructing the book. Afterland is divided into sections—but the sections are not numbered, which I think would be the conventional way to do it (perhaps to give the reader a sense of progression). Instead, the sections of your book are separated by a blank page containing a small phrase. So this is a two-part question—first, could you talk about your decision of dividing the book into sections and what the purpose of those sections might be. And second, could you talk about your decision of separating the sections with only blank space and a bit of language (which I find really important since language itself is also a very prominent theme in the book)?
MDV: I went through many, many iterations of how to separate the book into various sections. At first I did it, like you said, the conventional way—I had numbers, I had roman numerals. And then I thought, why am I numbering it? Does numbering it show some chronology? Does numbering it show some kind of hierarchy? At first I thought, okay, if I broke it into these sections and I number it, there would be a sense of chronology that ran through the whole book. And then I realized that I wanted “Afterland” to be its own section. Like I said, I originally had that as the opening poem, but then I moved it to the very end where it became the closing poem. I decided to do away with the numbers because I wanted to break out of this idea of a chronology, and hierarchy, and progression. There wasn’t a clear logical progression to how I had done the sections either. A lot of stuff was all over the place. I felt myself traversing back and forth between these sections. So I wanted to do away with the numbers. But I will say, though, that I feel like a lot of the poems in the first section have to do with the war. And I wanted to open with the war because I wanted it to set a kind of tone—I wouldn’t say an angry tone, but a kind of assertive tone. This is the place from which all of this work begins, thinking about the war and the aftermath of that war. Then the poems in the middle section are poems where I’m thinking about other issues outside of the war, and also the personal reflections of my own life. And then I feel like I close with the poems that have to do with the spirit, the afterland, the Shamanism. And so there’s no clear way to recognize a chronology in that. That’s why I took the numbers away and decided to use these little fragments of language to serve as a separator, to have those fragments of language be a thread through the book—because if you actually take all of those fragments and you put them into one poem they can be a poem. I actually had them originally as a poem, but I thought, I would love to see these bits of language as the section separators, so I tried it. It was a bit of trial and error and starting out with what’s conventional then figuring out for myself where I can deviate, where I can create a new narrative or find ways to fragment things a bit and not try to be so hierarchical and chronological, because I think that’s how experience is. There’s not a clear sense of order, and I think sometimes for poetry that can be a good thing. Sometimes the disorder and the fragmentation is what can build cohesion.
DAG: I want to ask now about your use of form. I noticed that you use couplets often (tercets as well though to a lesser degree). What do you think the couplet and the tercet offer you as a poet in general? Also, how do they work within the context of the book?
MDV: I was playing a lot with form. And I was thinking a lot about not only the form but the way that it looked on the page. And yeah, there were many poems were I simply deferred to couplets, and there are a couple of poems too were I used the tercets. And then there are poems too where it’s just really inconsistent. And again, I think it goes back to my attempt at trying to create this kind of disorder. There are poems that are neat, and tight, and clean, and the form is couplets. And then there are poems where I really didn’t want to use that. And I felt like it depended to me on the spirit of each poem. With couplets, I think there are moments where they work really well, and then there are moments where it’s just too easy to use couplets, because we naturally want to use couplets. I think the tercets are really interesting because they give a different look on the page. The way that I thought about tercets is like you have this third line that’s kind of lingering by itself, like a tag-along line, like a third wheel. And so there are poems where it’s appropriate to create that lingering last, third-line thought. So for me, I was thinking about the visual form and whether or not they spoke to what the poem was trying to say. If there was a poem that was a little bit more intense, I would try to fragment or rupture the lines a little bit more. And I would say that there’s times when you can use couplets and it’s very calm—the poem feels very calm and very tame. But for me, I think I started out with those forms because I wanted to use them as a foundation from which I could start breaking away from.
DAG: That’s really interesting because your answer leads perfectly into my next question. I want to ask you now about the ways in which you push the form of your work. I was wondering if you could talk about the way you use blank space and indentation in your poems—but also about the way in which blank space relates to your use of the stanza and the line. I ask this because I noticed that even in the poems that have a greater freedom of form, there are often couplets and tercets sprinkled all over them. For example, the poem, “This Heft Upon Your Leaving,” is comprised mostly of couplets with a pair of tercets and single-line stanzas. However, many of the lines in this poem are indented without following a consistent pattern. So I’m wondering how this all fits together in your work—how do you think about form and blank space when writing your poems?
MDV: I think a lot about form and blank space. If you look at the poems, and you look at the form, you can see the caesuras, the blank spaces between the words. When I’m thinking about where to put one of those caesuras or where to put a line break, I’m thinking about what it does to the line. What happens if I fragment the line here? How does it change the music of the line? As much as I obsess about imagery, I also obsess about sound. I’m trying to listen very carefully to the way something sounds in a line, and whether it makes sense to have that sound in the next line as well. I think there’s a way in which the effect of the poem becomes that much more haunting when there are so many moments of silence in the poem. When I’m writing poetry, I read a lot out loud—I go back and I repeat it and I read it out loud to myself. And I will spend days lingering on a couple of lines because I’m listening and I’m trying to find the right sound. It’s the challenge that comes with crafting language, the sound. And so for me, when I’m looking at a poem’s shape, I’m thinking about where the natural break in the sound might be, where it might break for me when I’m reading out loud. How I think it should sound on the page is the way that I might try to make it look visually as well. And yeah, there are moments where the form is irregular, and I think it’s really that effect that I’m trying to achieve—the way that it sounds in my mind is the way that I want it to sound and look on the page too. I’m trying so hard to do that with these poems, to make my reader hear the sound on the page visually as opposed to reading the words out loud. And I also like fragmenting a lot of the lines, creating a rupture in the lines and not having them just flow all the way through. There’s a way in which I think that rupture can create surprising moments for the reader, and it’s surprising in terms of meaning as well.
DAG: I want to move into what I think is one of the most interesting elements of Afterland—your use of the “I” in the poems of the book. I think that a big convention in contemporary U.S. poetry is to use the “I” as a kind of lens to look out at the world. It seems to me that these kinds of poems often have a very narrow scope—they employ a very personal “I” as well as very specific, small settings or moments in life. But I think that the “I” in Afterland, rather than narrowing down, extends outwards, moving from the personal to the universal, the individual to the collective, even into the mythic, and sometimes it is even more complicated than that—as the title of “I the Body of Laos and all My UXOs” exemplifies. So I was wondering if you could talk about how you envision the “I” working within the context of your book.
MDV: l think pronouns are so important when writing poetry. You have the choice to write in the first person, the second, even the third person. And for me, my first natural instinct was just to say “I,” but I felt like maybe that was just too easy, just to say “I.” It’s often the first way that you think about experiences, especially if you’re writing something that’s personal. But I was trying to think about the “I” not just as myself the “I” but to try to put myself in a different context and through different personas. I tried to do that especially with that poem, “I the Body of Laos,” to sort of reimagine what that experience and what that story and what that narrative would sound like if I wrote from the point of view of a country plagued with unexploded ordnances—what kind of voice could that elicit? I was trying to push myself to experience the “I” in other ways, and that’s how I landed on a lot of the “I” poems. Sometimes even when I wrote in the second person, the “you” voice, there was a way in which that “you” was asking the “I.” There was a way in which I saw myself as that “you” too. I really was trying to play with all these different points of view and perspectives and think about my pronoun use. And some of the poems too were written originally in the “you” form. I experimented a lot and was thinking about what’s more surprising. Is it more surprising to see this poem as an “I”? Or is it more surprising and different and disturbing to see it as a “you”? Or is it more surprising in this poem to switch the pronoun of the “he” to the “she”? It was really a question of what’s in the best interest for the poem and what would create the most surprise, offer the most disturbing perspective.
DAG: I ask this because your book reminds me of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the way in which the poet can grow to encompass more than just the self of one individual.
MDV: Exactly. I wouldn’t say that all of the “I”s in the book are the first person of my experience. There’s a way in which that “I” is the universal, or tries to be the universal “I,” and it tries to explore that “I” through other “I”s. Or the “you” is even an exploration of the “I.”
DAG: And on that note, I want to talk about the place of myth in your book. I think that one of the most compelling characteristics of the way in which you use the “I” in your book is that sometimes it seems to take on mythic proportions. What do you think is the place of tradition, myth, and myth-making within your book?
MDV: I’ve thought a lot about this. I come from a culture that does not have a definitive literary history. And I talk a lot about that when I talk to people about my writing and the book and about my history. As Hmong people, we didn’t have a written language until the 1950’s. And so for centuries much of the culture and the traditions were passed down through storytelling and oral tradition. What that meant for me was that the challenge before me was to figure out what my history was—not having this history before me, what does it mean for me as a writer to try to understand these histories? In some ways, because I didn’t have that definitive literary history, I found myself exploring the possibilities of it. And I think that’s where all of this myth and myth-making surfaces. Here I was doing a lot of this research into anything that had to do with Hmong people, especially historical research. And I found myself taking these poems and sort of inventing my own way of thinking about history and literature. And so there’s a kind of way in which the lack of something allowed for something new to come out of it. The lack of a literary history allowed me to see the beautiful ways in which I could create this tradition. And also, I think that the myth and the myth-making for me is rooted in my love for surrealism. And because I didn’t have a literary history, I also relied upon a lot of other poets who were doing really amazing things, like the Latin American poets. I was really influenced by a lot of poets from Latin America because they were doing something that I wanted to see happen in my own work. I pulled a lot of that surrealism from the influence of those poets whose history I was clinging on to because I didn’t have one myself. Because I didn’t have a literary history I found myself falling back on another community that had a really strong and vibrant one. I think that’s where myth and myth-making come into my book. A lot of the poems in Afterland, though, are rooted in stories I heard, experiences that I had growing up, in a lot of historical research, and on the act of taking that and putting it through a creative process.
DAG: I find your last answer fascinating because you touched on a subject that I was very interested in talking to you about. So I’m just going to go ahead and read you my next question.
Language is a very important theme in this book. But I think that one fact that seems to be overlooked often is that language is also a defining characteristic of the book itself. When I read the poems in Afterland, I am reminded not of contemporary U.S. poetry but of the tradition of poetry that I grew up with in Mexico, and specifically I think of Pablo Neruda. Your language, like Neruda’s, is highly metaphorical—it often works as metaphor stacked on top of metaphor until you can’t separate reality from a more figurative conception of the world (which some call surrealism, magic realism, etc.). And yet your poems (and Neruda’s) always feel grounded because of the way that you weave concrete imagery throughout them. Now, the connection to Neruda is just one that I personally made. But it made me wonder—who or what were your influences in creating the style of language that we find in Afterland?
Which is why I find really interesting that you mentioned surrealism and Latin American writers in your previous answer.
MDV: This is really spot on, yeah. Like I said, I didn’t have a definitive literary history, so I clung to the Latin American poets and to what they were doing with surrealism—Pablo Neruda, Alejandra Pizarnik from Argentina, as well as other poets that I was reading from my time at Columbia. These poets where doing something that I wanted to do in terms of craft. And I go back to the Shamanism because there’s a way in which Shamanism is surreal. It’s this literal and figurative way of seeing the world and of understanding how we exist and coexist with each other and with nature. And so I think that’s why I found myself at home with surrealism and with this idea of magical realism—because it’s something that I grew up around, the belief that everything has spirits and that we can literally make our spirits fall out of our body if we trip. I think that’s why I felt so connected and inspired by poets who were using, like you said, metaphor stacked on top of metaphor. And I realized too that there were poems where I just really weaved off into this other different place, and it just got too crazy. And for me it’s important, like you said, to ground the reader, to make the reader at least feel like they have something to hold on to as they leave the poem. But I also love moments in a poem too where I can disturb the reader, take the reader slightly off course and then bring the reader back in. And I think that’s what I loved about the work that I was reading from these poets. They were doing that, and there is a way in which they were tapping into this other sense, this other creative sense that was what I needed and what I was feeling.
DAG: I want to ask about the opening poem of the book, “Another Heaven.” This is a very interesting poem because—one, it is off in a section all by itself, and two, it is the poem that sets the tone for the rest of the book. The choice of having this poem—this speaker—introduce us to the book feels very significant to me, and I was hoping you could tell us a bit about the reasoning behind the choice of selecting this as the opening poem.
MDV: I put that poem in the opening because I was thinking about this other landscape, this other heaven. When I think about Shamanism, there’s no such thing as a clear-cut heaven. It’s about this land that the spirit travels to after it has passed into this other world in which it’s searching and traveling to find its ancestors, its literal ancestors, its grandparents, its great aunts and uncles, its family, its lineage. I thought about opening with this poem because I think the whole book is about this other post-heaven—not heaven in the conventional sense that we think of as heaven or hell but this other heaven as a place of returning to one’s lineage and one’s ancestors. Also, when I was exploring these landscapes and borders I thought too about how in our current political context there’s talk about building walls, and I think about how all of that becomes dismantled in the afterlife, and that these walls, these borders don’t transfer into these afterlives. For me, this poem is sort of like a meditation—it’s the meditation about the landscapes that exist outside the normal landscapes that we think of when we think of heaven. I don’t think that Hmong people, that my parents believe in the idea of heaven, but they believe that there is this land that you go to when you rejoin your ancestors after you die, and that’s why I think of it as this other heaven. For them it’s another heaven.
DAG: Afterland does a lot in terms of form and language, but it also explores important political and cultural themes (such as war and Hmong history). What does poetry offer you—as opposed to prose—as a medium to explore these themes?
MDV: What I love about poetry as a craft form is that poetry has the ability to shapeshift. You can take some language and infuse the historical, and infuse the personal, and infuse the collective into one space on the page. And then are moments too in a poem when you can break out into a declarative, for example, and then move away from that to offer some imagery. I’m sure that if you’re thinking about new ways to invent prose people are doing that as well in prose. But in poetry, the ability to shapeshift, to transform in order to fit the needs of the poem is what I really value about it as a craft. And going back to your question about the political and cultural, what poetry does offer in terms of being able to explore those themes is that I can do a lot of that—the voice that I can offer can be that much more assertive, and even angrier. Like I said, the declarative statements in poems can be as angry as I want them to be. Because I think that there’s still so much more to be said about this war, so much more to understand about its implications—it’s still something that people don’t really know about, but the political implications of it are still so present. And as a Hmong people, as a community, we haven’t yet had the chance to fully deconstruct and critique it. Most people, I think, are still at the point where they are just learning about it, even in my own community. Poetry is a way to be able to explore it, to deconstruct it, to have an assertive voice about it. That’s why I chose poetry. With poetry, all of the limitations of form are broken down for me, and the voice can just stand for itself—the voice can be as pure as it wants to be and as assertive as it wants to be.
DAG: I think U.S. poetry has a long history exploring and engaging in political themes, but I also think that poetry in general has been elevated to the point that it has gained the status of a very inaccessible kind of “high art,” especially for people who are not used to reading poetry. I’ve been thinking a lot about accessibility in poetry as of late. So what I want to ask is, how do you, as a poet, manage all of these elements when you write poems? How do you balance form, language, political and social content, and accessibility? How do you think it all fits—or should fit—together?
MDV: When I think about accessibility I think about the fact that we live in a country where there are certain populations that don’t have access to these forms of writing and that there is a population that does have access to it. And on top of that, within the poetry world you have your top dog poets who really are the voices and the leaders of the poetry movement in this country. And for someone like me, coming from a community of color, and as a woman, I have to think about how I am going to carve my way so that my community of poetry can also be recognized on a national scale. And I’ve thought a lot about form. I’ve thought, well, is it more important for me to make my work accessible to audiences, or is it more important for me to follow the form of what poets are doing in this country, to make my work as complex as theirs to make sure my voice is recognized on that national scale? I think both of those are really important to me. On the question of accessibility—and I speak from my own experience—when I read Afterland, there are questions that I have about whether or not my poems will be accessible. And those questions did plague me as I was working on Afterland—the idea of the audience. Who is my audience? Am I writing for the poetry audience? Am I writing for the Hmong community audience? Am I writing for the non-poetry reading audience? Or am I writing for myself? And when I finally thought about that I realized that, as much as I wanted to try to please all these audiences, I was really writing for myself in the end. And not only that but—and I’ve said this again and again—I was writing the poems that I felt were missing from the American literature landscape, the poems that I wanted to be available and accessible to people. That’s why I finally was able to come to peace with all of this and realize I want to write the poems I want to read. And I think this goes back to your question of accessibility because, you know, my worry is that I’m going to write this poem and nobody is going to understand it, especially if they don’t normally read poetry. But there’s a level in which I trust my reader, and I trust my reader’s level of intelligence to make the connections regardless of whether or not they read poetry. For example, this past weekend my sister was in town, and she has a ten year old daughter and a four year old son. My sister doesn’t read poetry, neither does my brother in law. This book is their first introduction to poetry in the contemporary landscape. And so my four year old nephew is there reading my poems, and he’s sounding out the words and asking me questions about what some of these things mean. He’d look at a poem and he’d say, is this true? Is this true? And so there’s a way in which I trust that my reader will make these connections. And because of that trust there is a kind of accessibility that I hope that my work will have for any audience.
DAG: Thank you so much for that. I feel like I learned a lot just by hearing you talk about this. And I like how you talk about it because I think you’re right—I think that just having a book like this out there creates a kind of accessibility that wasn’t there before.
But finally, I want to end in a bit of a romantic note. I mentioned that I think that Afterland feels like a very cohesive whole, and maybe a big part of that is due to your decision of putting the title poem of the book at the very end. This book really feels like a journey to me—starting with the almost mythic speaker of “Another Heaven” preparing to tell us a story, then moving through the metaphorical lands of your poems, experiencing war, meeting the people in them, moving from jungle to city, from past to present, from the concrete to the dream-like, through tradition, myth, history, until we finally reach the last poem of the book, “Afterland.” Could you talk about what this poem means to you as a work in itself? And also, could you talk about how you think it fits within the context of the book as a whole, how it works as the culminating experience for the reader?
MDV: For me, when I think about Afterland, I think that there is a way in which the speaker is already gone, has already passed into the spirit world. And the afterland is the final journey back to the ancestors. And this idea of being gone could apply to the spirit being gone, or it could apply to the refugee being gone from his or her own home country. But this poem, “Afterland,” means a lot because it’s the poem in which I had to do a lot of research about, and it is also the poem in which I took the spirit through the various stages of that journey. As I mentioned, the poem was much longer—it was about eleven sections long. And it was because I was writing out what happens first to the spirit when that spirit dies, and then what happens after that, and then what happens after that. And, you know, Hmong funerals are so elaborate, and they last for a couple of days. And it’s because the act of taking the spirit back to its ancestors is such an intricate and delicate one. One of the first things you have to do is you have to be able to call the spirit out from its current house, from where that spirit was living, where that person was living. So the first section of “Afterland” originally was that calling of that spirit to leave that original home. And then there are other phases in the journey. And these callings are conducted by someone who chants, someone who recites these chants that will take the spirit to the ancestors. So I feel like I was trying to replicate that person calling and chanting for that spirit to go through these various phases. One of those phases in the book is where you have to recite all of the different cities where the spirit has lived, and there’s a section in “Afterland” where I list all the different cities. And that’s basically taking the spirit back through all of those former lands. In a way it’s similar to the refugee too—taking it back to these lands of our history, these lands of our past, these places we have left behind. And so I found myself wanting to kind of return to these lands and be the voice that calls that spirit and helps guide that spirit to its ancestors. There are other sections too in “Afterland” where the spirit is crossing through valleys and mountains. Hmong people believe that the spirit goes through all these different obstacles in order to get back to the land of the ancestors. So much of that poem is about the return to that former land, to that other heaven. And so for me, it made sense to end on this poem. But also because I think that the last line in the last section of the poem, “Once, I was born in a bowl,” felt like a good line to end the book on. And that’s where I left it—the idea of returning back to these ancestors so that one day the spirit can come back and be reborn. And it’s funny, I never thought about the Shamanism in context with the experience of the refugee, but it is so tied to that—that there are all these places we leave behind, and all those places continue to haunt us and to haunt our spirits.
Mai Der Vang is the author of Afterland (Graywolf, 2017) which received the Walt Whitman Award winner from the Academy of American Poets. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, Virginia Quarterly Review, New Republic, and elsewhere. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. Mai Der’s work has also been anthologized in Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora. As an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle, she is co-editor of How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology. Mai Der has received residencies from Hedgebrook and is a Kundiman fellow. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California, Berkeley, along with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing/Poetry from Columbia University. She lives in Fresno, California
Daniel Arias-Gomez is a poetry student in the MFA program at CSU Fresno.
Photo credit: Foter.com