Conversation with a poet | Lisa Kwong (Part 2)

Mitchell L.H. Douglas recently spoke with author and Affrilachian Poet Lisa Kwong. She is an adjunct lecturer in the Asian American Studies program at Indiana University in Bloomington. This is…

Mitchell L.H. Douglas recently spoke with author and Affrilachian Poet Lisa Kwong. She is an adjunct lecturer in the Asian American Studies program at Indiana University in Bloomington. This is part two of their conversation about identity, the Asian American and Appalachian experience, building community and growing as a poet.

Douglas: You have a longstanding commitment to providing spaces for people to publicly share poetry in Bloomington where you live and teach, specifically as the former organizer for the Fountain Square Poetry Series from 2012-2018; co-organizer for Speaking from the Middle, an all Asian American reading in 2018; and most recently, the event director for IU Themester’s two-day symposium, The Affrilachian Poets on Identity and Transformation, in 2022.

When did you know Bloomington needed these outlets and how did you go about making it a reality?

Kwong: Before moving to Bloomington, I had organized annual readings for my local writing group in Virginia and in college, I had been part of a spoken word club called Lyric and organized readings for Appalachian State University’s annual Diversity Celebration. I didn’t intend to organize events during my MFA experience (2011-2014), but in 2012, there was an opening for an event coordinator for Fountain Square Poetry Series presented by Writers Guild at Bloomington. 

I did it for much longer than I ever expected until unforeseen circumstances brought the series to an end in 2018. I had two goals: to bridge the gap between the university and local writing communities (“gown and town”) and to include voices of color and other voices of diversity. I believe I succeeded in both goals during my time as coordinator. I did have other coordinators from the community and MFA program, and I am grateful for their time and efforts as well. 

In Fall 2018, I was asked by a fellow MFA alum, Danny Nguyen, if I would be able to help him co-organize an Asian American reading to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the IU Asian Culture Center. He lived out of town, so he needed someone local to get things going on the ground. We were able to feature a mix of community folx and current MFAers at the time. It was raucous and celebratory. It was also a dream come true for someone like me who didn’t get introduced to the work of Asian American poets (Li-Young Lee and Marilyn Chin) until college.

After 2018, I “retired” from event coordinating after having done it for nearly 15 years. I loved doing it, but I’ll admit that it took away time from my own writing, and coincidentally, 2018 is also when I first attempted to layout poems for Becoming AppalAsian.

As you know, I was inducted into the Affrilachian Poets Family in 2022. Around the time I got my acceptance letter in May from Frank X Walker, I also saw a call for proposals for IU Themester: Identity and Identification in Fall 2022 with a deadline of June 1. I knew we were PERFECT for this theme, but I needed help with the proposal. Frank suggested a two-day event with a screening of Coal Black Voices, a masterclass, a panel discussion, and reading. 

This was definitely the biggest event I’ve ever organized in my career! This was my first time working with event budgets and fundraising. I got to meet and work with campus units I had not previously collaborated with. It was definitely a team effort, but I was the person that everyone came to for all the details and decisions. I learned to delegate, something I had struggled with in the past. 

I’m still processing the magnitude of what we accomplished and how I was able to organize that event over 5-6 months while also carrying one of the heaviest teaching loads of my career thus far. I was happy that people became more informed about Appalachia, but I was most happy to give back to the Affrilachian Poets because you all were some of the first people to embrace me as Appalachian, no questions asked. I wouldn’t be AppalAsian without the APs!

Douglas: What is it like to live and create in a small town that understands the value of the arts, specifically writing? 

Kwong: First, Bloomington isn’t a small town to me compared to Radford, but I also know it’s not a large city either. I lived and worked with my parents at their restaurant for six years between college and grad school. There were not a lot of opportunities to attend readings or even peruse bookstores. I organized an annual National Poetry Month reading for the local writing group I belonged to, and sometimes Radford University had a few readings. Nearby Virginia Tech, with its newer MFA program, also had readings, but it was harder for me to attend due to my work schedule.

So living in Bloomington was a huge change. If I had to choose one word to describe the arts scene here, it would be ABUNDANCE. There are multiple bookstores and many opportunities to attend readings every month, sometimes every week! Morgenstern Books, the largest independent bookstore in Indiana, hosts multiple events every week, and Writers Guild at Bloomington has a few monthly series and stages the Spoken Word Stage at the annual Fourth Street Festival of the Arts downtown. And of course, the IU MFA Program brings in its share of visiting writers, including alumni. I’m grateful for all the local opportunities to hear and read poetry. 

Douglas: Introducing your first book is an exciting (and sometimes scary) time for an author. What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned during this process?

Kwong: Wow, tough question. One lesson would be to not have expectations and let whatever happens happen! My book has succeeded beyond my imagination, especially for “only” being a chapbook! She’s held her own with the best Asian American poets on Amazon, and I’ve also been honored by the readings and speaking engagements I’ve been invited to do.

I would say that this process has also affirmed some lessons that I frequently impart to students and whoever else is willing to listen.

  • To be successful, you must be true to yourself.
  • Focus on making genuine connections instead of networking. See people as human beings, not opportunities. 

So many people tried to tell me that my writing wasn’t good enough. Several poems in the book took many submissions until they were finally accepted. With the latter, I believed in those poems enough to keep working on and sending them out. In terms of the readings and speaking engagements, I didn’t seek them out; they found me.

Douglas: Do you see your voice changing as a poet and new ideas for poems presenting themselves along the way?

Kwong: Yes, I will always be evolving! I recently did a workshop for Writer’s Digest University called “Second Lives: Writing the Familiar with Fresh Insight”, and that was eye-opening for me, to see my own progress and growth as a writer over the last 20 years. The goal of the workshop was to show participants how returning to the same subjects in different ways or at different times in our lives can yield interesting results. 

I did a deep dive into my archives, all the way back to the first poem I ever wrote in Beginning Poetry at Appalachian State, an imitation of George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.” Aside from some cliches, sentimentality, and abstractions, I had a good sense of imagery and detail even in that first workshop. It was fascinating to see the foundations of themes that would later appear in my chapbook. Very full circle moment for me.

In terms of new ideas, I think about potential poem ideas every day. Sometimes I’ll take pictures on my iPhone that could have come out of a book of prompts. There’s one prompt-worthy picture in particular I can think of off the top of my head: an abandoned disposable mask on a stairwell in Ballantine Hall at IU.

I’d also like to further explore my potential as a nature poet and persona poet. Plus, there’s still so much to learn about different poetic forms!

Douglas: With the first book project completed, what’s next for your writing? What subjects do you find yourself drawn toward and what’s different about writing this time?

Kwong: My debut chapbook was the culmination of a decade’s worth of work, and I had to do it while working two teaching jobs during half of that decade. So I wasn’t sure when I would finish until I unexpectedly got a little more spare time during Spring 2021 when we were still in lockdown (or at least I was!). Therefore, working towards my next poetry collection feels more urgent. It’s currently another chapbook but who knows, it could turn into a full-length. We’ll see!  I don’t want it to take another decade, not because I need to rush, but because I’ve seen what I’m capable of accomplishing when my teaching load is maxed out or when my schedule is wildly busy.

The next poetry collection will continue some of the themes from Becoming AppalAsian (family, community, identity), but will also dive more into my religious and spiritual experiences, because that journey hasn’t been linear either. Another project in very early stages is a memoir about my experiences in education as a not-model-minority Asian American student and as a multidisciplinary educator.

Douglas: Your poem “Declaration” begins with the speaker’s sign of growth:

I used to believe the rumors of who I was. 

The smell of ripened bananas. A clumsy kite. 

An elephant running into trees and beehives.

Douglas: What did you used to believe about herself and what do you believe now?

Kwong: Wow, another loaded question. From about fifth grade to my early 30s, I did not like or love myself. I was and still am an overweight Asian American woman, but I now understand myself better in a lot of ways, and I’m continually working on being kinder to myself. I used to be the girl who couldn’t take or believe any compliment that was given to her. Now I say thank you and believe in my worth more.  

Douglas: What growth or lessons about yourself has poetry made clear? 

Kwong: Poetry is where I’ve always felt like I had a voice, especially when I’ve felt I didn’t have one in real life.

Poetry is where I’ve learned that giving and receiving feedback are two of the most important life skills a person can learn, another lesson I frequently share with my students.

Poetry contributes to another role I now play in my family: a documenter of family history, teller of our stories. I am the bridge between China and America as the first American-born, the middle child. 

Poetry has shown me what it means to love, to persist even when I feel I can’t go on, that love can be hard AND beautiful. After college, I went through a time I thought I would never write again. I wrote terribly but I kept writing through that challenging time.

Poetry has given me courage. It is always the best adventure! 

Poetry has helped me connect with people who would never pick up a book of poems. 

Even when I have been focused on other things (playing clarinet, teaching), poetry has always been there for me. I hope to write poetry for a long time.

Douglas: Finish this sentence: If I didn’t write poetry…

(fantasy) I would be a pop star!

(reality) Life wouldn’t be as fulfilling. I’d probably still do something creative, though. I’ve come to enjoy fashion a lot, so I think I would be a decent personal stylist. I do enjoy putting outfits together that match someone’s preferences. In fact, I have done this a few times for friends just for fun.

This is part two of a two part conversation. Read part one here.

Lisa Kwong is the author of Becoming AppalAsian (Glass Lyre Press, 2022) and a member of the Affrilachian Poets. Born and raised in Radford, Virginia, Kwong identifies as AppalAsian, an Asian from Appalachia. A first-generation college student, she earned her B.A. in English from Appalachian State University and holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Indiana University (IU). Her poem “Searching For Wonton Soup” was Sundress Publications’ 2019 Poetry Broadside Contest Winner, and her work has been nominated for the Weatherford Award in Poetry, Pushcart Prize, and Best of the Net. Her poems have appeared in About Place Journal, Women Speak, Best New Poets, A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Still: The Journal, Naugatuck River Review, Appalachian Heritage, Pluck!, The Sleuth, and other publications. Kwong is also a multidisciplinary educator. She has taught courses in Asian American studies, creative writing, English composition, and student success at IU and Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana.

Read more about her at https://linktr.ee/lisakwongwriter