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#RedefineAtoZ: Mai Der Vang, a Poet Who Is Embracing the Surprises

With her debut collection of poems, award-winning poet Mai Der Vang is using her work to express the Hmong experience.
Mai Der Vang
Mai Der Vang was selected as the winner of the American Academy of Poets' 2016 Walt Whitman Award for emerging poets.Paulo Chun / NBC News

NAME: Mai Der Vang

AGE: 35


TWITTER: @maider_vang / FACEBOOK: Mai Der Vang

How do you introduce yourself?

As a Hmong American, as a child of Hmong refugees, as a Fresnan, as a poet, and more importantly, as Mai Der.

What inspires you?

I draw from my community, family, parents, and nieces and nephews. I draw from films and the visual arts. I draw from historical research and from the stories of ancestors. I draw from nature, the animal kingdom, and astronomy. I also draw from the dark, the night, the unseen. And then there is the drawing from grief and trauma, which also inspires.

SEE THE LIST: NBC Asian America Presents: A to Z - The 26 Emerging Voices of 2017

What challenges you?

When I feel the spark of an idea, or when I read or hear about injustices in the community, country, and world, I feel the challenge set upon me to write. Whether it’s a poem or an essay, there is a voice wanting to come out, a theory or argument waiting to be revealed. And many times, especially for essays, I have felt the immense challenge to get those ideas down quickly and clearly in a way that compels and not only adds to the discourse but also complicates it in a meaningful way. I am quite the scatterbrain, as indicated, too, by the fact that I see myself as slow writer. It will sometimes take me days to come up with a first few lines of poetry.

Tell us about the biggest risk you ever took.

My biggest risk would have to be leaving Fresno, a second time, to pursue my MFA in Poetry in New York City. This meant leaving my hometown, a successful job working with young people in the community, and my family and friends, while uprooting myself and my partner (both of us sold our cars, he left his job too) in order for me to pursue a degree in a non-lucrative field of study. This was one of the most important decisions I ever made, and I’m glad I did.

What are you reading/watching/listening to these days?

Reading Chen Chen, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Andrés Montoya, and Viet Thanh Nguyen. Watching Vice News, "Call the Midwife," and "Bob’s Burgers." Listening to The Naked and Famous.

RELATED: Mai Der Vang Wins 2016 Walt Whitman Award for ‘Afterland,’ Poetry Collection on Hmong Experience

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what job would you want to have?

I am actually doing what I want to do, but if I had a choice, I’d love a job where I can take an inordinate amount time off and go places where I can just write.

What’s your motto?

Embrace the surprises! (Something I always ask poetry students, where in the poem do you surprise yourself? Your reader?)

I celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month because…

...I belong to a community whose voice isn’t often heard, so I continue to write, to advocate, this month and all year long.

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