By BRYAN THAO WORRA
AAP staff writer
Andre Yang is a founding member of the Fresno-based Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC), where he actively conducts and participates in public writing workshops. In the MFA program at California State University, Fresno, he is a Provost Scholar and a Philip Levine Scholar. Andre is a Kundiman Asian American Poetry Fellow. His poetry has appeared in Paj Ntaub Voice, Hyphen Magazine, and recently had work in the new Hmong American Anthology, How Do I Begin? (Heyday Books.) Asian American Press recently caught up with him:
Asian American Press: What got you started as a writer?
Andre Yang: I’ve always enjoyed reading. When I was in elementary school, my parents bought us the Childcraft How and Why library volume set and had us kids sit and read for hours… and we enjoyed doing so! So you could say my enjoyment of reading eventually led to my enjoyment of writing. I co-founded the Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC) before I began writing, because nearly none of the books I grew up reading were about or by a Hmong person – there was a series of ESL booklets that came out of a college in Minnesota, but that series was printed the year I was born. Because of this, I understood how rare Hmong literature was, and how important it was to support its growth. A year after I’d been involved with the HAWC, in my last semester of undergraduate studies, I was finally had to take the two upper division English courses I’d been putting off for fear of my not doing well in them. Fortunately for me both my instructors were creative writers and encouraged us to produce creative works for the classes. Those not-very-well-written pieces were the first I brought in to get workshopped at the HAWC. It was there that I first understood the importance of my putting my words down on paper, and from there, there was no way I wasn’t going to become a poet.
AAP: What’s been one of the biggest challenges for you as you put together a piece, and when do you feel a poem is finished?
AY: Where does this list end? I mean, there are challenges in everything about writing a poem – titles, beginnings, middles, endings, and even deciding when the poem’s accomplished all it’s supposed to accomplish. I guess because endings are mentioned twice in that short list, it could be considered my greatest challenge. I never really feel any of my poems are ever truly finished. I really can revisit my poems and feel them asking me to rework their lines, diction, endings, etc.– even in the already published pieces! This might be because I’ve seen poems published by poets that appear one way in their initial magazine publication, and differently when they’re part of the poet’s book. I guess if I have to call it anything, what I do would be considered a series of small finishes, because every time I no longer know what else to do with a poem, isn’t that a small finishing?
AAP: What’s your next project you’d like to take on?
AY: Currently, I’m working on a Heroic Crown of Sonnets, written from and about the perspective of Hmong American children who grew up in large apartment complexes that the Hmong refugee immigrant residents (and the surrounding city) have collectively renamed after the largest refugee camp in Thailand, Vinai. I know this occurred in Fresno and Stockton (California,) I grew up around both. I think it’s fascinating how a group of displaced peoples can decide to recreate a temporary refuge in a new country that’s reminiscent of another temporary refuge. My father was a boy when he and his family resided in a Thai refugee camp, and his stories about camp life very much echoes my childhood growing up around the Vinai apartments. I want to make this series of sonnets work like almost an ode celebrating the apartments/refugee camps and the Hmong lives they held within them.
AAP: What do you wish more people understood about poetry, especially within the Asian American community?
AY: This is a tough question. I have a very broad definition of poetry, and believe all peoples appreciate poetry. I understand everyone has his or her own definition of what poetry is, so I can only speaking for regarding my definition of poetry. If you were asking specifically about written poetry, I’d have to say I’d like them to understand that poetry’s intent is to connect two (or more) human lives, across time and space. It allows one person living in one culture to understand and relate to another person of another culture. It allows a poet to speak to another person who died one thousand years ago, or another that will live a hundred years into the future. I’d want them to understand that poetry aims to make us less lonely.
AAP: Do you have any thoughts for emerging writers?
AY: Trust yourself as an artist and take advantage of any and every opportunity that comes your way. I know there are mixed feelings in the literary community about MFA programs, but I needed the guidance and support of one to get to where I am today, otherwise I don’t know when or if I could ever have accomplished or achieved so much. Also, keep in mind that very few writers get rich and famous so don’t make wealth and fame your priority concerns. Just do what you love doing, write!