With the start of a new year, Cleveland Public Library begins another season of Cleveland Public Poetry, the open mic poetry reading series. Since 2012, Cleveland Public Poetry (CPP) has presented some of Ohio’s most honored, established and emerging poets. A featured poet reader is presented quarterly, while every month, CPP offers an open mic to aspiring poets–and to anyone wanting to read their favorite poem aloud. It’s a wonderfully creative outlet for those wanting to celebrate written and spoken word poetry. Please join us for our next open mic event: Cleveland Public Poetry, Poetry of Love, Wednesday, February 14, at 12:00 p.m. Come share an original or classic poem that celebrates the romantic tradition of Valentine’s Day. Cleveland Public Poetry is sponsored by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library.
On Monday, January 22, 2018, Cleveland Public Library was pleased to welcome poet Khaty Xiong, who read several poems from her debut full-length collection, Poor Anima (Apogee Press, 2015). Xiong, also the author of three chapbooks, is a second-generation Hmong-American born to Hmong refugees from Laos. A native of California and currently living in Columbus, Xiong received a B.A. from Ohio Northern University and a master’s degree from the University of Montana. Her poetry has been featured in many publications, and has received an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in recognition of her poetry. Attendees of Monday’s open mic program were moved by Xiong’s voice. We also had a brief Q & A (see below). Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library thanks Khaty for sharing her work, and for letting us get to know a little about her.
Q&A with Poet Khaty Xiong
OCFB: How old were you when you wrote your first poem, and who or what inspired you to write?
Khaty: I think I was 15 when I wrote my first serious poem. It was an assignment for my freshman English class. We were instructed to write a sonnet after having studied William Shakespeare. There were a lot of questions swirling in my head back then regarding my family and our war-torn history, the Hmong’s sudden presence in the U.S., my mother’s depression, as well as my own and so on. That sonnet was the first time I explored my anxiety and depression regarding the overwhelming (intergenerational) trauma that lived within my family. I never considered myself talented or smart, especially in English. I was in ESL for a few years so I had very little confidence in reading and writing. There was something about the challenge and opportunity to write in a “foreign,” formal structure that suddenly opened doors for me. My life in the world of English changed completely.
OCFB: Do you have a favorite poetic form to write and/or read?
Khaty: I write in free verse but have always been open to all forms. I’ve never been that great at “following rules,” so formal poetry is actually very difficult for me to write, though I do enjoy reading it. I don’t think I’ve ever successfully written another sonnet since my first writing assignment in high school, but even that one I’m not so sure was successful. I’ve attempted ghazals, villanelles, and pantoums, among others, but free verse always came more naturally to me. I’d like to try writing them again though. It’s good to change things up once in a while.
OCFB: What is your writing process like? How long does it generally take you to finish a poem?
Khaty: I always wish I had something interesting to say about my process, but the truth is I don’t really know if I have one. I don’t have specific rituals or anything. I am inspired by a lot of different things that work their way into my head where suddenly I’ll find myself at my laptop writing down a few lines, or, if I’m lucky, a whole poem—all of which can take several days, weeks, or months to accomplish. I am especially inspired by nature, so if I’m looking to declutter my mind I’ll hop in my car and go to the nearest metro park so I can hike and be alone with my thoughts. I usually bring my camera along since I very much enjoy shooting nature photography. I’m an amateur birder, and while I’d never consider myself remotely close to being an amateur botanist, I am incredibly fascinated by botany. If I must attempt to say one thing about my writing process, I suppose it’s that my writing deals a lot with both the physical and spiritual act of listening. I am always trying to be mindful and observant of my surroundings. Being out in the woods, for instance, where I get to be closer to my thoughts, helps me look and listen; a lot of that experience gets translated into my work.
OCFB: When I read the title of your debut collection, Poor Anima, I thought of what that might mean for you. Can you talk a little about the title?
Khaty: The book largely talks about my complicated feelings regarding my mother’s depression and where I fit in all that mess, among other things. The strong presence of animism in the Hmong culture certainly played a role in the decision of the title. I think a lot about the state of poorness—(socio)economically, physically, and spiritually—of my family, particularly my parents. I often think about the state of my parents’ damaged spirits as they made their way from the Laotian jungles, crossing the very dangerous and heavily guarded Mekong River in order to seek refuge in Thailand when the Vietnam War came to a horrible end. My parents’ grief became ours—their tears and hardships, ours. Poor Anima reflects the ills of the immigrant refugee’s heart and spirit.
OCFB: As a second-generation Hmong-American writer, do you feel pressure or an obligation for your work to be representative of Hmong culture and history–particularly the circumstances that led your family to leave Laos and come to the United States?
Khaty: As a marginalized writer, it would be impossible to avoid the pressures, be it familial, cultural, or social. My parents have spent the last 40 years trying to assimilate and let go of what no longer “works” in a Hmong household—that is, while they themselves will always remain fairly traditional and adhere to customs and expectations in their own lives, they would be okay to let their American-born children divert from this path because of the circumstances of simply living in another country. It gets complicated because sometimes they would guilt trip you for not knowing enough about the language or traditions, and other times, they’d celebrate your successes as an educated, American-born citizen, which often did mean a form of “sacrifice” in trying to remain “loyal to your roots,” if that makes sense. I want to be Hmong, i.e., in the definition of my parents’ worldview and upbringing, but I know that being Hmong in America means I can’t be that kind of Hmong either. Both parents and children are constantly caught in the bicultural tides. The Hmong are still learning where they fit and belong in this country. As one of few Hmong women poets in the country, it’s easy to be categorized as a “representative” voice of the culture and its history, but that is not what I would like to be known for; I would never want to be the voice for an entire group of people, because our experiences are all very vast and different. Our exodus from Laos to the U.S. is a shared narrative, but the narratives in the U.S. are unique. I started writing poetry because I learned from an early age that it was the only honest and true thing in my life, and there were hardly any writers of color, including Hmong, being taught in my lessons. A lot of my work surrounds this unspoken vulnerability that embraces grief, loss, war, and trauma. I just want my poetry to bring awareness, to be part of the ongoing conversations that have long ailed (and still ails) this country and its marginalized groups. I dream of an inclusive literary America, where not only are people’s stories told, but also having a culture that cares deeply about those stories enough to teach them and talk about them for centuries to come.
OCFB: What poets do you read?
Khaty: I’ve read so many writers who have long influenced or inspired my work. Some of those writers, in no particular order, are: Du Fu, Yi Lu, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Soul Vang, Mai Der Vang, Andre Yang, Marosa Di Giorgio, Yvan Goll, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Tarfia Faizullah, Li-Young Lee, Theodore Roethke, Audre Lorde, Arthur Rimbaud, Nikki Giovanni, Richard Siken, Lucille Clifton, Agha Shahid Ali, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, and Adrienne Rich.
OCFB: Any advice for those who are new to writing?
Khaty: Read, read, read. My first lesson in writing was to read as much as I could. This lesson is still ongoing.