Mai Der Vang
Mai Der Vang is the author of Yellow Rain (Graywolf Press, 2021), and Afterland (Graywolf Press, 2017), winner of the 2016 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. The recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, she served as a Visiting Writer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, Tin House, the American Poetry Review, among other journals and anthologies. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, espnW, and elsewhere. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State.
This interview was conducted via Zoom by Interview Editor Anna Narin. Of the process, she said, “It was an honor being able to have a face-to face conversation with Mai Der Vang on Yellow Rain. Her dedication to uncovering and sharing the truth is a true gift to the reader.” In this interview, Mai Der Vang talks about her extensive research spanning over 10 years, integrating that research into her poems, and what it’s like to be a Hmong American writer.
Superstition Review: The one thing I'll start with is my impression of the book. I was taken aback. Not only did you take a traumatic history and turn it into a beautiful piece of art, it’s the way you went about doing that through the use of innovative devices such as document integrations, text variations, and white space. I felt an overwhelming sense of appreciation because the history that you talked about, it was not meant to be uncovered; not meant to be shared. It was definitely meant to be kept a secret. Could you discuss your composing process with this book in particular?
Mai Der Vang: Thank you so much for your comments and just for engaging with the book. I know that the book isn't the easiest to start with because of how thick it is for a poetry collection and that can be somewhat unusual. I think that working on this collection and really bringing to the surface the issue of yellow rain has been a really meaningful experience overall. Working with a lot of the documents, too, really helped to enrich the process of my writing of a lot of the poems in the collection.
I did a lot of research for this book. It took me almost 10 years to be able to produce the book as it is now, and I spent a lot of those early years reading through declassified documents, digging through government reports, learning about yellow rain, and trying to find out as much as I could about the topic of yellow rain as it stood in the archive.
I was really interested in knowing what the government was saying about it. I was really interested in finding out what the declassified documents would reveal and what they wouldn't reveal because a lot of stuff that I didn't cover was also redacted, and so that meant that there was always going to be a part of the archive of yellow rain that would be gone from the written history of this collection, and from yellow rain itself. I spent many years reading through a lot of those documents, before I felt ready enough to really write the poems.
When I began to write the poems, I was very conscious of the idea that I had to compartmentalize my process. Otherwise, I don't know that I would have been as organized or been able to approach the work with as much coherence as I tried to do, simply because it was just so much. I was inundated with information and the last thing that I wanted to do was to inundate my reader.
I did accumulate over the years numerous binders of papers after papers and just documents and things I knew that somehow had to end up in the collection. And so that's what I worked on years later after I did a lot of the reading. I worked on figuring out which of the documents needed to be included, and figuring out also ways in which I could then explore, including the documents, maybe not as a poem, but as part of a collage.
And then the last couple of years I spent just on writing the poems themselves. And just going very hard at it and really focusing and dedicating myself to trying to get these poems written.
SR: Wow, 10 years. That brings me to my second question, and that has to do with the research and you did describe your research process which, I can't even fathom having to go to all those archives. Those documents and obviously running into the redacted ones that you won't be able to recover. Just a little about myself; I’m Cambodian and you know Monica Sok which is interesting because we come from similar backgrounds. We share that tragic history of The Secret War and secret bombings in Southeast Asia. In an interview with Tricia Park for the podcast, “Is it Recess Yet?” you mentioned that your parents didn't really tell you much about the history. You had to piece together those stories, histories, yourself and that was evident in your research process. So, if you were advising another person, say me, on how to do similar research what would you say?
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MDV: That’s a great question and Monica is a good friend of mine. I was lucky to be able to do a reading with her a few weeks back where we had the chance to be in conversation about yellow rain. Advising a student or any interested writer in pursuing the work of research or figuring out ways to explore the world of docu-poetics, one of the things that I would advise someone to be able to do is the age old approach of having a question in mind and that's often one of the obvious things that you can do.
I think it really did help me to have something that I was pursuing or have something that I was working towards or have a goal that I wanted to try to accomplish through this process. Even if it wasn't in the shape of a question, it was in the shape of a concern that I had. The shape of a thing that didn't feel right to me. Just this notion that something doesn't feel right about yellow rain, and the willingness then to trust my gut and my intuition and to follow that is often the hardest thing to do because throughout the process you begin to doubt yourself, you begin to say, “Am I going in the right direction, what am I trying to uncover. This feels hopeless. This feels futile.”
One thing I would advise anyone is to have that question in mind. Have that concern in mind. And don't be afraid to follow it, as far as you need to go; keeping your own safety in mind. Be willing to pursue that wherever it does take you.
I learned through the process that you have to also be willing to follow the tangents and then the unexpected trajectories that the research might take you into. So be willing to kind of go down those other trajectories as well even though it might feel like a rabbit hole and you're sort of just continuing to dig. With yellow rain, it really did take me into surprising areas of study that I hadn't or wouldn't have anticipated going into otherwise. So, yeah, I'd say, be willing to follow the concern or the question, or the curiosity that brought you to the work, and then be willing to follow the tangents, or the distractions, the obsessions that bring you to it and see where it leads you.
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SR: I really appreciate that I think that is really moving. Not just resilience, but the ability to continue on until you uncover what you sought out in the first place. And you said 10 years that's really, I think that's like, about the same time it took for my dad to emigrate to the US which, looking back at it doesn't sound like a lot, but during the process, it can feel really tedious so I applaud you for that and I thank you for the advice.
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MDV: And one thing I would add to that is that even though I had spent almost 10 years doing this work, at the end of the process you think that you might happen upon a grand answer to whatever the question was that you had. And it may not happen that way. It may not happen that you arrive at that ultimate grand finale of an answer that you were searching for when you started this work, or your answer might shift through the process, or the poems that you thought you would write aren't the poems you actually want to write anymore for the book. You just have to be ready to anticipate those possible trajectories within your research, and take them. Go with that. If that's where the gut is telling you to go.
And I think for me, maybe in the end, as much as you might have wanted an answer in the way that I wanted an answer. It may be that the book itself can be part of that answer. Whether you find that definitive answer or not, that whatever you produce out of it is part of the answer that maybe you were looking for all along, and so that's kind of what I have thought about with yellow rain.
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SR: I think that's really wonderful advice because it is easy to lose sight of what you started off with. I think the ability to adapt and be flexible with changing your question or changing the course of your research will definitely help with that. So thank you. And I guess on the topic of, you mentioned docu poems, or docu poetry. I think that was the number one thing I found to be common and all the poems I would read from POC, Asian American poets, was that they were uncovering a history that was meant to be buried. It's not like the other problems that I've read about nature or other types of genres. It was always specifically about the hardships that they had to deal with in getting to the US. You're one of the few writers I discovered that write about events that I can relate to on a cultural and personal level, similar to Monica. So my question is could you recall the first time you read a piece from a person of color, writer, whose story resonated with you. Who was it and what did that moment do for you?
MDV: There were many many writers who helped to shape my path, as I look back on when I started writing poetry and when I started to discover poets that I felt an affinity with. There was a poet that I found early on in my time as a writer, and not even when I was like a young child but much later in my life, maybe, undergraduate. This poet, Haunani Kay Trask, is a poet who is not only an educator and an activist, but also as someone who really advocated and pushed for greater remembrance of the history of colonization that impacted the island of Hawaii. Being from Hawaii herself, this was a topic that she wrote about in a lot of her poems, wanting to call out that history of colonization.
When I found her poems and especially when I found her book Light in The Crevice Never Seen, I just loved that title, and it really spoke to this idea of being invisible almost in some ways of not being never seen and yet still having the light that can be the way forward some way somehow, even if it's just a hint of light. And many of those poems in that book I love so much. I turn to that book quite a bit when I'm feeling the need to have that push. A lot of them are exploring the histories of racism and continued histories of racism, and the history of colonization that has impacted the indiginous peoples of Hawaii and other areas in the Pacific Islands too.
Reading those poems really opened up for me, a new voice, a new way of thinking about how poetry can be part of reshaping narratives and how much we can play a role in how we rethink what narratives can be as they pertain to particular communities of people. It really opened up my eyes to how I as a writer can be part of shaping that narrative, of re-modeling what the dominant narrative might be saying about who I am and my community, and then being able to have the to offer my role in reshaping that narrative.
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SR: I definitely relate so much to that because part of the reason why I want to be a writer is because aside from Monica, who I discovered not too long ago, I didn't know any other Cambodian writers who spoke about the horrors and the tragedies that happened to us. And so I thought I would be one of the voices to tell our stories, and keep traditions and histories alive.
I want to go back to when you said invisible. Invisible reminded me of the same interview with Patricia Park and it reminded me of when you said, “I have to be twice as good to be given access to be heard. And so, in your opinion, does that seem to be getting better at all? And then what will it take for us as a society to give POC writers an equal opportunity?
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MDV: That’s a great question. It's exciting to think about the potential of what this whole area of literature can offer to the larger landscape of literature. That is the work of POC writers. What’s really exciting for me is the work of Southeast Asian poets like yourself, and Monica, and poets that come from communities that have not always had that visibility or not always had that access. It's given me a burst of inspiration to see all of the emerging Vietnamese American poets like Susan Nguyen, Joshua Nguyen, Sophia Terazawa, just to name a couple people, who are writing and working towards building careers as writers by publishing.
One of the key things that we have to continue to push towards as writers of color, as writers who haven't always had that access or that visibility, is that we have to publish. We have to keep continuing to send work out for publication, to put ourselves in competition with other writers so that we have just as much of a fair chance to get published as anyone else does.
And, going back to what I shared in that interview with Trisha Park, I think that this idea of having to be twice as good is, it's sort of true even though I wish it wasn't the case. I wish it wasn't the case that any writer would have to work twice as hard.
First of all, your life as a writer is tough as it is because you're having to hustle and push yourself to get published right and then to be able to survive and make a living at the same time. To be a Hmong writer is even more sort of doubling down on this anxiety because few people know who among people are. You're constantly having to retell yourself to people. You're constantly having to explain your history. We offer the narrative, but you're a version of that narrative.
The work can often be twice as much for writers who are not as a part of the landscape as writers who are already visible and thriving within the landscape. One of the key things is that we have to continue to publish, we have to continue to write, and we have to continue to support writers. We have to continue to support young writers up and coming emerging writers from all communities. I'm especially excited to support writers from Southeast Asian communities like yourself and from my own community as well. Nurture these new voices and this next generation who can help continue the work and help to carry it forward.
SR: Being a writer and making a living just stuck so hard with me because that's the main thing my parents often talk to me about because they emigrated here. They came with just the clothes on their back. They built a foundation for me; that way I can go off and create a future for myself here and be successful. So when they heard I was going into writing they were a little scared, but I think now that you mentioned that it just made me think about how important the telling is. I know it's important to be successful and make a living out of your profession, but storytelling, keeping traditions alive, keeping stories alive goes a really long way. I definitely agree nurturing young writers and new voices is just something that we have to continue to do and yes the publishing, I will get to that for sure, and I will continue to look past the 100 rejections and look at the one acceptance.
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MDV: I want to just add a little bit more to that. Don't get too bogged down by the rejections. We all get rejected. I wish that wasn't part of the process for what it sort of takes to become a writer. It does happen, and it happens to everyone no matter how great of a writer they are.
I would also add, in addition to publishing, I think there's this conception that you have to pursue an MFA program in order to write. I would like to encourage people to know that you don't. If you take the path of pursuing an MFA program, it can support you in the process of being able to be intentional in your writing and produce a thesis that could become a book. It doesn't mean you have to take the route of the MFA in order to become a writer.
I would want all writers to be able to know that and that every path to writing will be different and what will be very exciting is to see how future generations of writers take those paths up or whatever paths they choose to take to get to where they need to go in order to write and publish. It will be very different. There are many options to choose from. I think that's something to keep in mind is don't fear the process too much. Don't fear the rejections and if the MFA is the path for you then it is and if it isn't then it isn't.
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SR: Yeah, heavily noted, I'm in my third year right now and I haven't thought about pursuing an MFA but then I know that most writers do pursue one and that definitely makes me question whether or not I want to do it. Hearing that established reassurance that if I really wanted to, I could just write without having to continue my education, but that's also a possibility. Yes, thank you. And now I want to shift our focus to the pieces themselves, especially, “We Can't Confirm Yellow Rain Happened, We Can’t Confirm It Didn’t.” That was the most moving piece, a lot of these pieces were really moving, but that one stood out to me because it was the response to statements issued by eight scholars and government officials. I feel like the integration of statements documents make the piece feel distant, but the response afterwards is what engages with the readers because it’s an expression of how you feel. I want to ask what was the idea behind going back and forth between the two?
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MDV: That was a poem that I had to try to figure out how to write because I wanted it for the collection. There are eight source documents that I pulled and extracted. Some texts serve as an epigraph. Eight epigraphs to preface this poem is quite a bit. You rarely ever find a poem that has eight epigraphs. That's rooted in the reality that there were so many documents that I came across. The common response was that we don't really know if it happened, it might have happened, it might have not happened.
To be able to continue my research and come across more documents that were offering the same outcome. “We don't know if it happened, it might have happened but maybe it didn't happen.” That was just an alarming commonality that I caught as I was doing the research. It really spoke to negligence to even find out what really happened, or to make an effort to really do the due diligence that was needed in order to find out what really happened with yellow rain. I think that amongst the Hmong elders, there is a version that I support which is the idea that something happened. Whether the government wants to really acknowledge it, whether the scientists want to acknowledge it or not, something went down there in the forest and in the jungles.
Writing this poem was a chance to just show my reader how many people were flip flopping so much between what happened and what didn't happen. Stuck in the middle of all of that were the Hmong people who were either called as liars or who were either used as pawns to advance the agenda for developing more arms. There were scientists who said, “no, Hnomg people are lying about yellow rain because it was just the bees,” versus “no, Hmong people were telling the truth about yellow rain, and because they're telling the truth, now we have to develop our arsenal. We have to spend more money on bombs to protect ourselves because look at these people, they're getting attacked.” That was the constant political battle that was happening as yellow rain was happening and as the Hmong people were stuck in the middle of these political agendas that either were swaying one way or another.
This poem is an attempt to offer the fact that there is injustice rooted within how unfair it was to not have the sense of an answer. There are a couple of lines in this poem, such as “perpetual chasm of in between immortal vacillation of now and to never, never there, nor hear, nor live accepted or rejected fled nor home.”
I was trying to show the precariousness of having an answer and not having an answer and being thrown back and forth. Maybe it did happen, maybe it didn't happen. Recklessness, negligence, and the lack of due diligence, to be able to offer something that could speak to something that was more definitive. For a lot of Hmong elders, yes it did happen. I wanted to represent the political battles that were happening that underscored why yellow rain could not be discovered. Why we never found out about yellow rain was because of the political battles that were happening behind the scenes that were then impacting the ability of scientists to really find out what happened. Thank you for bringing up this poem.
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SR: Thank you, Mai, for going in depth with your process behind that. And I want to bring up another poem. “Agent Orange Commander Lava,” also these titles are beautifully written, I love them. I really enjoyed this one because it was complex. The complexity, and I keep going back to the reports and documents, but you weave actual reports into the poems, and that was what enthralled me the most, because it made me wonder, what was the drafting process like for the poems that had reports incorporated into them?
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MDV: I have a lot of the poems in this collection open up with an epigraph; an epigraph that I have extracted or excerpted from the source document. The epigraph is there at the most practical level to provide contextual information to the reader. It prepares the reader to understand what it is that I'm attempting to do with the poem. It gives just that bit of historical context.
There were a couple of poems, like “Agent Orange Commando Lava” in which there is no epigraph but a lot of that information is directly implanted into the actual poem itself. This one was really fascinating because I pulled from multiple documents. I really wanted to look at the history of Agent Orange in Southeast Asia and its use and its impact on not only human health but also on the environment and the devastation that it wreaked upon the land.
I wrote this one with the intention of drawing out some of that information regarding the impacts and the fallout of Agent Orange. I also looked at some other really unknown things that were happening in Laos; this soil destabilization project where the government was trying to create mud. That way it would hinder the trucks from being able to drive through successfully.
The government was also trying to manipulate the weather patterns in Southeast Asia and in Laos so that there was more rainfall, so that it would extend the wet season. Their hope was that it would hinder your enemies ability to fight back against you. I was just appalled when I found out that so much of this experimentation upon the earth, upon the planet, upon the weather, upon the dirt was happening as part of the war efforts in Southeast Asia. That was just devastating.
This poem is my attempt to show that as best as I can. Pulling snippets of language from the source documents, but also then offering my own critique as well on the government's experimentation. I think we are still very likely experiencing the consequences in the aftermath of all these chemicals being used on the land there in our bodies; the bodies of people there are probably still experiencing residual consequences whether anyone realizes it or not. That was my attempt with this poem to show that if the government is capable of doing all of these various things to the environment and to the people, then they're just as capable of doing something like yellow rain.
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SR: Yeah. That last part really hit me really hard because people like to trust the government. Like you said they are capable of these things. Look at the horrors that they did to Southeast Asian countries just to get what they want. It seems as though nothing really matters as long as the outcome is in their favor. Yellow Rain has five compositions, and with the corresponding poems in the compositions. So, I want to ask what was the process for organizing your poems because order is one thing I'm always really curious about. “Why did you do it like this? Why did you do it like that?” What was your process behind that?
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MDV: The compositions in the book are a moment for me and for the reader to be able to step away from the texts of the poems and to then be immersed within the visual of the documents; seeing the visuals as their own kind of texts in some ways. Being able to provide those compositions was a real chance to do something that was outside of the poems.
I had so much information that I had accumulated through my research, I couldn't put them all into poems. So, there had to be other spaces that existed within the collection in which I could continue to offer what I came across in my research but not necessarily need to do that in the format of a poem. The compositions are a way for me to do that. To offer these neutral spaces that were not necessarily part of the poems, but that could then offer another retelling also of the events.
When I was working on the compositions, I was trying to think through ways that those spaces could tell their own story. I was pulling parts of language from different pieces of documents and figuring out their relationship to each other on that page. If I put certain words together from different documents and applied them onto the same page, what was the effect of that? You can see that in some of the documents where I'm thinking through that kind of process.
I'm really intentional about what happens when the words come together on a page where you normally wouldn't see those words come together; the kind of effect that can be achieved when you place language from different documents together. This offers another perspective on yellow rain. That was my hope with just the compositions and also their chance to to breathe away from the poems. I also wanted to explore the speciality of the page with the compositions and they gave me the chance to do that; to really see the spaces of the page as another way of telling the story. Pulling language in from various documents was a chance for me to retell another version of the events.
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SR: I really appreciate that: The language pulling language, putting them together and taking them out. I don't think I've ever heard or seen anything like that before. That's really neat and as for the poems, the poems are a lot but that's just how it is. That's what we're given, like we were talking about our history, in particular. You keep stuff like that buried, and then the stuff that's going to come out it's going to be even a lot more to unpack. Stepping away from that now I think I'm gonna step into influences. You teach at Fresno State, correct? So I want to ask how your experience teaching at Fresno State influences your writing and can you describe the literary community in your circles such as your department, town, in your state, and in the US?
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MDV: Fresno is my hometown, and this is where I grew up. I'm very fortunate to also teach in an MFA program in my hometown so there's that natural connection that happens for me. I love being able to work with students as they're thinking through their craft; as they’re thinking through the assemblage of their thesis manuscripts, and as they're hoping to get published. Being able to support students through that process has been very rewarding for me.
I've been very lucky to work with students who are just amazing. They bring their own passion, their own curiosities, their own obsessions, and their own hopes and dreams for what they want to see out of their writing. Being around that productive energy, when it comes to creative writing and poetry, it's definitely contagious for my own book; contagious in a good way.
As I work with students, it really does encourage me to continually encourage me to ask the kinds of questions to myself that I would ask my students about writing. I worked on most of Yellow Rain before I started the job at Fresno State. I was still doing a lot of the follow up work for the book and doing some of the editing. It's interesting to be able to to work on a project like this. You're doing it kind of in secret, because you come back home and you're just still chipping away at your poems and then you're going to go teach class too.
It was exciting to be able to finish most of this book before I started really diving into my teaching at Fresno State. Being part of the writing community of Fresno State has been really rewarding.
One of the groups that I was very lucky to find early on in my time as a writer is the Hmong American Writers Circle. This is a group that has helped me feel a sense of groundedness when it comes to being part of a literary community in which I feel a certain level of affinity with. I was very happy to find this group just because the encouragement to publish was promoted through a lot of the fellow group members. We worked on an anthology that was also published by Heyday books in 2011. There was this really encouraging system of workshopping poems and getting published and really supporting each other to get published.
I don't know that I could have seen that this was the path I would have taken if it hadn't been for this group who I found early on. To encourage me and help me pursue the path and take it seriously. I think a lot of times we say “okay, we'll be writers, but we'll do it as a hobby or we'll do it on the side.” What needs to happen for writers is you have to then take it seriously. We have to wake up one day and say, “Okay, I'm really going to make the effort to be intentional to really pursue a career as a writer, which means I should publish, which means I should continue to right, which means I should seek out literary opportunities to do residency, or fellowships.” Like you were saying earlier, if it's the MFA then it's the MFA for certain people.
I think that communities are extraordinarily important when it comes to being able to find one's path as a writer, because again, writing is so lonely, but at least you can be lonely with other people, right? If you find a writing community that fits what you're looking for.
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SR: That was beautiful. I think being lonely but being lonely with other people definitely was a great way to put it. And you touched upon this; that is your answer for that question. You know, being an assistant professor of English and creative writing. Your work, you mentioned, that you started working before your job there. But then you said you had to work on it in secrecy. If you wanted to explain more about your work schedule, when you're writing the book and how you made time to write, especially when you like you said, the next day, you had to go teach.
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MDV: It's just a constant balance. Being a writer is being an eternal student for life. There's always going to be homework. There's always going to be something you should be working on. There's always a poem that's waiting to get written. There's always something you can go back and revise. There's always something you can send out. The work is never ending but it's the kind of work that keeps you going, and continues to push you up along your path as a writer.
You may have years where you don't write anything. I've had moments like that, being both a teacher and instructor, but then also being a poet is that you go through moments where you go months where you write nothing. Maybe you spend that time mostly reading books of poetry. Maybe you shift away from poetry at some point in your writing a literary essay of some kind. It's nice to have these variations in the flow of your work patterns so that you're not constantly feeling like you have to write.
That was what was helpful when I started my teaching job. I had already done most of the work for Yellow Rain. I think that if I had had to collapse the two at the same time it would have been extra challenging and being able to find the time to really devote myself to these poems. I was lucky enough to be able to have that time off before I started teaching and that time off allowed me to really focus and dive into the book.
I think for anyone who's trying to find that balance it's just about finding out what works for you. A lot of students ask me this question. How do you find time to teach, or to write poems if you do have to teach? If you have to make a living. If you have a family and you have to support your family. One of the things I like to tell students is that it's okay to do your writing in smaller chunks. It's okay to take it one stanza at a time. You don't have to sit down in one sitting and write a whole entire poem. You can certainly wake up and write a couple of lines and then the next day write a few more lines. It doesn't all have to happen magically in one moment. Although when it does happen, that's great. Otherwise, don't put that pressure on yourself to have to write it perfectly in that first attempt.
That can create the kind of pressure that forces you to write something that maybe it's just hurried or rushed, but being able to take your time, letting your mind wander. Taking care of your emotional and mental health is really important to me as a writer. It's not something we often do that is self care, which is so important in this day and age.
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SR: Well, thank you for that beautiful message. I think you made several great points, definitely. It’s definitely going to stick with me for a really really long time. And I am noticing that we are nearing the end of our interview so we like to end with a really nice question so the last question I'm going to ask you, Mai Der, is what does your writing space look like as of right now?
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MDV: My writing space, because I'm a creature of comfort, I like to be cushioned by pillows. I have to feel comforted and surrounded by softness. I write in my bed. So I'll be honest and say I like to write in my bed. And of course I just surround myself with pillows. Just having a space where I feel that I can be safe can allow me to write the poems that are risky, or a little outside of my safety zone. Being cushioned is really important for me.
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SR: I think that's really interesting. I can't write on my bed. It just gives me the opportunity to just fall asleep right then and there. I have to be sitting upright, nothing around me. Thank you, thank you so much for participating in this interview and thank you for giving me, and the readers, such amazing advice and strong messages that I know that will stick forever.
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MDV: Thank you for these fantastic questions, Anna. I really appreciate them. And I appreciate you for taking the time to read the book and to engage with my work.