The Central Valley is full of hidden stories, says local poet Mai Der Vang.
“I encourage people to find a voice to tell those stories,” she said during a poetry reading last week at Clovis Community College, where she teaches English.
April marked the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, celebrated by the Academy of American Poets to encourage the pursuit and passion of poetry.
“This is the month where we remind ourselves how important and impactful poetry is in our lives,” Vang said.
Poetry has had a recent rise in the Valley, she asserted.
“When it comes to poetry, for some reason this region has cultivated and continues to cultivate a new crop of writers who are shaping the narrative and the stories of this country,” she said.
A host of “powerhouse inspiring poets” and writers have come from the Valley, Vang said, including Philip Levine, William Saroyan, Larry Levis, Andres Montoya, Gary Soto and current U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.
Vang, herself, is a lauded poet.
The Academy of American Poets honored Vang with the 2016 Walt Whitman Award. Her poetry has appeared in Ninth Letter, The Journal, and The Cincinnati Review. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.
The seven poems Vang shared with students and other attendees at a reading on April 27 were met with applause. The poems told the history of the Hmong culture while also sharing personal details about Vang’s family.
A lot of Hmong people settled in the Valley because its landscape — the farmland and surrounding foothills and mountains — reminded them of the homeland, she said.
Vang spoke about leaving the Fresno area to attend UC Berkeley, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English. She went on to Columbia University to earn a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and poetry.
But her heart remained in Fresno, where she eventually returned.
“Be proud … that you come from a part of the world where people are writing, they’re telling their story and voices are working really hard to be heard,” Vang said.
The poet said she enjoys reading the work from people who are from the Valley or who tell stories of places much like it.
“Something is happening here in this region, here, now,” Vang said. “There’s a movement of words, or some kind of birth or rebirth of writing. Perhaps, maybe, there’s an ocean of some kind of literary energy that’s underneath the ground and it’s been flooding over for the last few years or decades. Maybe that’s why we’ve been having a drought, right? Now it’s finally bubbling up to the surface and coming to fruition.”
She encouraged attendees to write their own poems.
“Just try it,” Vang encouraged. “See what comes of it. Even if nothing comes of it, at least you took the time to try.”
Peer editing is also a tactic she supports and uses herself. She is a member of the Hmong American Writers’ Club; members meet at least once a month to share poems with one another and help each other grow as writers, Vang said.
“We had to create this space for ourselves,” she said. “No one was going to come to us and say ‘we’re going to help you start a Hmong American Writers’ Club because I feel we need more Hmong writers.’”
She encouraged others who feel lonely as a writer or a poet to do the same thing — build a community and support each other.
As an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle, Vang is co-editor of “How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology.”
Her forthcoming full-length collection of poems, “Afterland,” will be published by Graywolf Press next year. Visit maidervang.com for updates on Vang’s published works and future speaking engagements.