Yia Lee: You are the first Hmong-American writer in this country to publish a poetry collection, your chapbook Where the Torches are Burning (Swan Scythe Press 2001). How did you come to be a poet?
Pos Moua: My maternal family lineage was filled with uncles who had beautiful voices, who were sought-after singers, song-poets, and orators of traditional ceremonies back in the old country. They were singers of the dead and singers of new births, of love and marriages. Unlike them, I am a hiatus in this lineage of great singers: I am shy to sing, so I took to poetry at an early age to fill my innate desire to sing. The movement of words, placed into rhythm, churns and rages within me. Early in my life, I was drawn to great poets of the past--T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, e.e. Cummings, and other canonized poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman. They sing to me. For what must the heart do, if not to sing desires and love and life through some outlet, some poems, when the heart can not utter beautiful, melodic, yet subtle sounds?
YL: Pos, I am also drawn to the imagery in your poems. Nature and landscapes play a significant role in your book, particularly mountains. Mountains seem to be a comfort, a physical and spiritual anchor to your life, threading across themes such as loss and renewal. You grew up in the karst mountains of Laos, and in the United States you live by the mountains of the Sierras. What keeps you going back to the idea of mountains as an inspiration/power you draw on?
PM: Nature, and that includes mountains, has captivated me since my young days, and I feel comforted when I am near mountains, those gigantic, geological beings. I think we sentient beings experience that human awe, when we stand next to their sheering heights. I continually return to circumambulate the Sierra mountains because they glue and sustain me, spiritually, and they mentally transport me toward a deeper understanding of time, to grasp antiquity, for it returns me to my ancestors’ days in the sun and out in the wild. In my adventurous desire, I yearn for Mount Kailash; I yearn for karst mountains; I want to look upward, standing at their foot-bases; and I yearn for the feeling of being near the fringe of their grandeur, to feel utterly miniscule and insignificant, yet, still connected, poetically. In my interview with Brigette Bowers (Merced Sunstar, 4/19/2019), I reiterated the idea that mountains “live in deep time the way I do not,” and “they are a testament to how, even from and in the darkest places, blossoms can eventually occur.”
YL: Yes, I appreciate how you say mountains can connect you back to your ancestors. But on the other hand, your poem “Days with Sunlight” explores the idea of combining western literary poetry traditions with Hmong experiences. As a Hmong writer, you know the written Hmong language was not created until the 1950s. Coming from an oral culture, from people who traditionally farmed and lived closely with nature, how did your stories change when you arrived in America? How do you write within two cultures?
PM: Writing in general can be very formal and yet creative. Creative writing cuts straight to, and travels beyond, the heart. This creative moment involves the poet’s sincerity in living life so that, when his pen is set, each of his words may form rare verses. With poetry, I feel that I didn’t often have to adhere to an “advanced” or sophisticated American-English writing standard. Unlike narrative prose, fiction or nonfiction, which require some elements of formality and restrictions, poetry seems to be more liberating because it provides a free, open canvas to do that, to accentuate each short verse with a language of boundless imageries; however, this may only be limited by the scope of the poet’s worldview or understanding of the land and landscape, animals and people. Like Gary Snyder said, “No Nature”. Nature has always been in me and I am a part of Nature, so my poems, in every measure, remain an integral connection with Nature.
Linguistically, I have lived a dual world, in both Hmong and American-English. Although I grew up early without a written language and learning the new language was hard at first, once I knew the tools of poetry and writing, I continue to write in ways I am fluent in.
But because my readers are more versed in American-English, that is the language I use. I write fluently using the Hmong Romanized Popular Alphabets (RPA) too. If there is a demand for it, I will turn towards that direction. In either language, the subjects of my poems usually originated from my own experience, which isn’t always culturally or ethically centered, and are usually about human struggles between love and desires—things we run to and from, things too difficult to say, feelings too sad to talk about without letting long tears stream down cheeks.
YL: Yes, I can see such emotional depth in your poems. I also think being bilingual adds a depth and richness to both languages you speak; adds new concepts or layers to one and the other. I loved your poem “Daim Nplooj/ The Leaf;” it is the only poem in your collection fully in Hmong with the English translation following. So I read it out loud in both languages. I thought the sounds in Hmong were so very rich, so rhythmic. I really enjoyed the English translation, too (and I also must admit I am a better reader in English). This made me curious, how did you work the translation?
PM: You will also notice that the translated lines in American-English are not quite line to line translation with the Hmong version. It is a poem in practice, demonstration of being fluent in bilingualism. Besides the poem’s theme of love and its speaker’s yearning to be loved, to be with his love, I think it is about language and translation of rhythm and lyricism more than the literal translation between the two languages. I got some ideas from reading the poet Francisco X. Alarcon’s own bi-language poetry. “Daim Nplooj” you mentioned here was first written in Hmong before it was translated (re-written) into American-English, not the reverse.
YL: The contributors’ poetry adds a special element to Karst Mountains Will Bloom. I love how your collection is like a mini-anthology, it is amazing to read other Hmong American voices along with yours. Whose idea was this, yours or your editor?
PM: No, it wasn’t my idea. I dreaded it at first because it was like an eulogy to a living poet. But, if it were for me to redo, I would reconsider and push to be more inclusive of the contributors’ poems.
YL: I want to talk a little more about the contributors’ poetry in your book. I particularly love the movement at the end of the book--the last three poems written by you, Mai Der Vang, and Jer Xiong. These three different voices combined to mourn, and yet to also hope for the future. It made me cry. How did you decide to arrange your collection?
PM: I work with spontaneity and instinctual intuition, letting flow wherever the wind of the poem takes me. This usually works well for me, depending on the subject of the poem, the intended audience, and the environment in which the poem will speak eloquently to the reader.
YL: I have heard you read “Open Hands and the Man with One Leg Shorter.” It is a powerful and touching, but the story of the elderly Hmong man left behind to die is also difficult to read. You have other such intimate poems that also take a hard look at fleeing a war-torn country. I would like to say, thank you for sharing. How do you approach writing when you draw from very intense and emotional memories? Are there some stories too difficult to tell?
PM: The poem you mention above had been stowed away inside my heart for so long, when it came to be, it did so profusely like pouring rain, like God’s salty tears, on the pages. To live in poetry is to be honest, and to be honest is to dwell into the tearful, personal realms of the poet’s heart and soul—the internal, hidden palace where the poet isn't always comfortable but is forthcoming in letting dormant secrecy and latent truth emerge into stories. That is all I have: to be human and to share the hard pains of living, which is why it is hard for most good writers to do, to be intensely personal, cosmic, and universal.
YL: On that note, I think the Hmong people in particular have many such intense and personal stories. Our history as refugees of war and immigrants follow us. As a pioneer of Hmong American literature, what is your vision for the future of Hmong American literature?
PM: Not to be modest in any way, but I don’t think I am a “pioneer” in Hmong American literature. When I first began to write, there were not very many Hmong American writers because we did not have the language tools essential to write well. The road of this kind of honest writing had not been traveled often by many of our people, and almost no one Hmong else followed the writing path because of language and economic barriers and because of our limited connection to the publishing world—besides, how would one live by verses alone? I turned out differently because after high school, I chose a different, more uncommon path: I yearned to sing in English verses, whereas almost all my Hmong contemporaries considered literature and writing their most difficult huddle and veered away. It is like traveling through the dense woods. In the woods of our literary world, if no path has yet been paved, the lone traveler must muster up certain rare fortitude to cut through the dense brushes with the tool he had at his hand, perhaps more so with his pen (which drew forth the tears in his heart) than with his machete (which he wanted to use to violently cut down his own anger, frustration, and isolation).
I think Hmong American literature is yet to become more vibrant, when the younger generation turn their ears and hearts to the literary arts, which demands two things: a willingness to enjoy reading and, above that, a burning passion for writing. The new Hmong American writers have in many ways risen like mountains, and, certainly, the future for writing and our literature will continued to be filled with brilliance, creativity, and profound stories.
YL: I think you are modest indeed! You are a great inspiration to me and other Hmong writers that I’ve talked do. For me as a young Hmong writer, the road I traveled used to be lonely, too. But now I believe that Hmong American literature is on the rise, with authors like you, Burlee Vang, Khaty Xiong, HAUNTIE, and Mai Der Vang publishing in recent years. Do you have any particular advice for younger writers?
PM: My observation has been that artists are rare, and perhaps even rarer are poets and writers—beings who transport our imagination to many realms, or beings who remind us with epiphanies, of human kindness and agonies, love and separation, and hunger and fulfillment. It is essential to know the nights so that the days so long aren’t so hard to live in; it is love—yes, one must dip one’s quill in the ink of love and sorrow and loneliness to compose human verses for the human hearts. And yet, each verse, if it is to be risen alive, if it is to speak to the world, it must come from the poet’s unequivocal honesty to himself or herself and to the world in which he lives. Write onward we must because, without human stories, the long nights are hard to endure.
YL: Pos, thank you for your time and for your beautiful book of poetry.
Pos Moua lives in Merced, California with his wife and five children. He has been an educator for over 20 years, and he is a member of Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC). His chapbook Where The Torches are Burning (Swan Scythe Press) gives “an account of love, family and identity in the poet’s new land.” His poems have appeared in Tilting the Continent: Southeast Asian American Writing and How Do I Begin?: A Hmong American Literary Anthology.
Yia Lee is a Hmong American creative fiction writer in the Fresno State MFA program. She lives in Fresno with her family and works as a writing tutor as well as an editorial intern for The Normal School.