Fresno got yet another boost to its burgeoning reputation as a fertile ground for poetry Wednesday when Mai Der Vang, who teaches English at Clovis Community College, won the prestigious national 2016 Walt Whitman Award.
The award is given by the Academy of American Poets to someone who has never had a book of poetry published. Along with a $5,000 cash prize and a six-week residency in Umbria, Italy, Vang’s submitted manuscript – titled “Afterland” – will be published in April 2017 by Graywolf Press.
“It’s a huge honor for me,” Vang, 34, said. “I’m surprised they picked me, but I’m really pleased.”
Vang, who was born and raised in Fresno, is Hmong American. Her book is a collection of poems about the Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War era, a defining event in the history of the Hmong diaspora to the United States. Some of the poems have been published individually, while others will be new to the book.
“I tried to infuse some of the trauma of the Secret War into my poems,” she said.
Vang earned a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a master of fine arts degree at Columbia University. While at Columbia she won the Corrente Poetry Fellowship.
Her poems have been published in Ninth Letter, The Journal, The Cincinnati Review, The Missouri Review Online, Radar and Asian American Literary Review, among other publications.
Many of the poems for “Afterland” were shaped and transformed during Vang’s time in graduate school. After graduate school, she wanted to come back to Fresno from New York. Along with a part-time position at Clovis Community College, she works as a writing/creative consultant.
“The Valley is my home,” Vang says. “I decided that if I wanted to work to build the visibility of poetry, it would be here.”
By Mai Der Vang
It’s come to this. We hide the stories
on our sleeves, patchwork of cotton veins.
Scribe them on carriers for sleeping
babies, weave our ballads to the sash.
Forge paper from our aprons, and our
bodies will be books. Learn the language
of jackets: the way a pleat commands
a line, the way collars unfold as page,
sign our names in thread. The footprint
of an elephant. Snail’s shell. Ram’s horn.
When the words burn, all that’s left is ash.
(Originally published in the The Cincinnati Review, Vol. 11, No. 2)