Interview And Poetry: Fresno Hmong-American Poet Mai Der Vang

Mar 29, 2016

Last week Fresno Hmong-American Poet Mai Der Vang was awarded one of the nation's most prestigious book awards. The Academy of American Poets selected Vang, 34, as this years recipient of the Walt Whitman Award. Each year the honor goes to an emerging writer to make possible the publication of their first book.

In an interview with FM89, Vang says she was shocked by the news.

VANG: “I was just thrilled. I actually asked if they could double check to make sure it was me.”

The honor is for her upcoming book Afterland, detailing the lives of Hmong people escaping the horrors of the Secret War in Laos during the early 70s and refugee life.

VANG:  “I think I was experimenting with this notion that there are places we go to after we experience things. The place a refugee goes  after war or the place that the departed soul goes to after it passes.”

The honor comes with $5,000 and a residency program in Italy. Vang currently teaches at Clovis Community College and says her book will be published by Graywolf Press next year.

When the Mountains Rose Beneath Us, We Became the Valley

I won’t ask why the saola came
To you, father, or of the poacher w ho

Followed, but I ask of the country
You lost, the one I never had, unlike

The midwife who sketched birth
Maps on a girl’s body and found

A rainforest in her belly. I ask why
A body is born to save money

But can’t pay to cross hell’s ferry,
Or why snow tells us heaven

Is cold. A sunken missile maddens
Radiant as firework to the eyes

Of a tribesman, witnessing for
The first time. How did an ancient

Boy drown in a homeless river. I ask
Why the warsick warrior who hunts

With claws is hiding a poem. A piece
Of paper hides a garden. What

Harrowed you most arriving at the last
Minute to catch your brother’s

Final breath on the hospital bed.
Can a unicorn kindle the night,

Haloed by its flame, torches jutting
From its head. Live on. Ask me how I’ve

Saved us. Ask me to build our temples
So rooted, so stone, we won’t ever die out.

To listen to the full interview and to hear more of Mai Der Vang's poetry click play at the top of the page.