Burlee Vang opened the second half of the evening. I can't decide which to share here. "Love at the USPS" reminded me of those maddening people who would have us be a safer, tamer, more manageable version of ourselves, who wouldn't mind if we happened to serve them in the process, too. I listened to him describe the first glimpse of snow as "The silence of paper shattered" ("Winter, Fresno '98") and I wondered about the "white" that fell on them, seducing them from their mother's tables. It was beautiful, sad imagery and, if I understand it, one of the rarely avoided and very painful passages in the process of acculturation. I expected maybe humor but his poem to his father's aging made me weep, remembering my grandfather's similar passage through this time of life and seeing him again in "we found him on his knees, crooning over a fallen nest, the eggshells scattered like teeth, the parents nowhere in sight." There were times last night where I wanted to applaud after every piece, rather than wait for the close of each set.
"Remember Me Book," a prose reading, had me chuckling and nearly laughing out loud at points. Before MySpace, these friendship binders were ubiquitous among Hmong teenage girls and even now, versions can be found hiding in schoolwork binders, in journals written during "openers," and in notes left behind on the floors of classrooms. "Almost as if she belonged to a secret cult of social networking," Mai Der Vang revives the adolescent memory books, and in doing so, not only exposes all of us--the ultimate and dire value we placed upon things we now know are not quite so earth shatteringly important--but shows the roots of the adult that we have become: "It was where she began to discover her love for writing, drafting mediocre love poems and eventually mastering English." She's honest; she had one, too.
For me, Xai Lee and Pacyinz Lyfoung stand paired. "A Dream in Which I'm Flying with My Ancestors" retells one of Xai's actual dreams. In it, he revisits his ancestors in an unusual way and then travels with them to their future, his present, to look and assess together. It is a wonderful message of going back and bringing things forward, a message of "no loss," inside and out. Lyfoung's "The Day I Learned to Speak My Grandmother's Tongue" also speaks to continuity between the generations of the personal work of carrying things forward. Restoring the Hmong language to herself, she describes herself "stumbling upon words like a baby, like it should be / Restoring back the balance between the ages." Having spent the last year in German classes getting back my own grandmother's tongue, for similar reasons and with similar results, and having had my own "carrying forward dreams," their work was particularly meaningful for me.
The event closed with the work of the lone film-maker of the evening. Abel Vang's "The Last Supper" was a moving short film about eating together for the last time. He is young and I'm struck by his ability to think about and convey the intimacy between an older couple, gracefully and naturally. I feel compelled not to spoil it in a public forum. So, what I will say is that if he can do that with a short film, I am waiting eagerly for more and longer. If by chance it comes on YouTube, let me know and I'll post it here.
In 1999, after having stayed home with my children for a number of years, I decided not to return to my previous profession and I began to substitute teach. I absolutely hated it. Before I could quit, however, I landed in a high school second language classroom that was virtually all Hmong, and then in middle school classrooms of the same composition. The students told me that they liked me and asked me to come back. Suddenly, I was looking forward to the job and then, inspired to complete a teaching credential, focusing on English learners. The students I first taught would be 23 and 24 today, the ages of many of the poets that read last night. As I sat there, I could not help but think of the number of times I wondered, nine years ago, how it would all turn out. I went last night hoping that they had found their voice. But, I could never have imagined that they would not only have found their own voice, but that they would express themselves with such beauty and power, and reach into my life as well.