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IU's own 'AppalAsian' -- poet Lisa Kwong shares her inspirations, writing processes and B-town love

Apr. 18, 2013

I AppalAsian up this Midwest
college town, eat chicken feet,
mac-n-cheese, celebrate butts
and ancestors.  
-- excerpt from “An AppalAsian in Bloomington, Indiana” by Lisa Kwong

As Lisa Kwong read her poem “Where I’m From ” at the kickoff reception for IU’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in March, the room became quiet.

Flickers of recognition, laughter and expressions of understanding crossed the faces of the attendees at the event in the Presidents’ Room at the IMU, a mix of men and women, university administrators, students, faculty, alumni and staff. By the time Kwong read her second poem, “An AppalAsian in Bloomington, Indiana,” she felt like an old friend.

Lisa Kwong

Lisa Kwong's love of music finds its way into her poetry. 

Kwong is a creative writing master’s student in the Department of English (College of Arts and Sciences). A self-described “AppalAsian” (an Asian from Appalachia) born and raised in Radford, Virginia, she tends to write about her life in a way that translates to a universal human experience.

“I think the challenge of poetry -- or any kind of writing -- is to be objective or detached enough from your experience to see it in a new way so you can communicate something to the reader rather than just write for yourself,” Kwong said during an interview with Inside IU Bloomington.

She chose IU’s MFA program in poetry based on its reputation and diverse faculty and student body. “What I appreciate about Bloomington is that it’s such a literary community,” she said. “There are readings going on almost every week. We didn’t have that where I grew up.”

A two-time Frost Place scholarship recipient, Kwong was the 2011-2012 recipient of IU’s Neal-Marshall Graduate Fellowship in Creative Writing. She coordinates events for Bloomington’s Fountain Square Poetry Series, is a member of the Writers Guild at Bloomington and acts as the MFA rep for the Department of English Graduate Student Advisory Council.

Now in the final weeks of her second year in the creative writing program, Kwong will spend the next year teaching and completing her master’s thesis, a poetry collection that she hopes will be published as her first book.

A love for writing came early and naturally to Kwong. Her first poem was an acronym of her elementary school’s name, published when she was in fourth grade. The following year, she wrote a serialized story that she read aloud weekly to her English class. “The big craze at the time was ‘Fear Street’ by R.L. Stine, so I wrote some fiction, in imitation of that series, which included my classmates, and every week I would read the next installment.”

Participation in her middle school literary magazine and encouragement from English teachers throughout high school kept her writing muscles working, but Kwong chose to study music at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

She was a clarinet major for three years before switching to focus on writing (her eventual degrees: bachelor’s in English and clarinet performance minor).

“It was funny -- even as a music major, one of the first things I would tell people when I met them is ‘I write poetry.’ It’s always been a part of me.”

Ten years ago, she took her first poetry workshop, an experience that changed her life.

“Before that, I would never speak in class,” she said. “In that class, I actually spoke up. I felt confident in myself, and the poems I wrote in that class surprised me because I didn’t know I could write like that.”

The poetry workshop helped her to see the possibilities that could flow from working within a set pattern. “Poetry is about creating music with words, so there are sound devices like alliteration, rhyme, consonance, assonance … sometimes we let the sound propel the poem rather than the narrative,” she said.

Her writing process varies. Depending upon how quickly the words are coming, Kwong will type or write her poems (with a “good pen” only), usually first thing in the morning or after she’s home for the evening.  She uses the “cut and paste” method of revision, constantly editing herself as she works and saving each draft so she can go back and see what she changed from the previous draft.  “I’ve come to learn that even the layout of the poem on the page creates meaning,” she said.

When she’s not writing autobiographical pieces, she’s writing about one of her not-so-secret obsessions: office supplies.

“I’ve always liked shopping for school supplies,” she said. “Every writer has their obsessions. I’ve written poems from the perspective of a thumbtack, a love story between a hot pink pen and a pair of red scissors … the most recent one I wrote was about a stapler.”

Adrian Matejka, one of Kwong's professors and a new IU faculty member, calls her a poet of great imagination and emotion. "She is a brave storyteller whose poems about family, history and Asian-American culture resonate with everyone who reads them," said Matejka, a visiting assistant professor in the department. "Just as importantly, she's a generous person. Our MFA program -- and the Bloomington arts community -- is fortunate to have her here."

When she goes back to look at poems she wrote early in her career -- like “Where I’m From,” the first poem she read at the Asian American Month event, she’s not tempted to revise them much. “I don’t think most people would read aloud something that they wrote 10 years ago. A lot of people are like, ‘I can’t believe I wrote like that! It’s so bad!’ I see it as a certain time in my life. The reason I chose to read that is to show contrast and what my idea of a poem was then versus now.”

Now, when she writes about the autobiographical, Kwong tries to push herself to discover something new about the experience rather than relating exactly what happened, which can mean fictionalizing parts of experiences. Since commencing her MFA program at IU, she has pushed herself in her use of diction and image.

"I'm trying to use language in surprising ways, rather than relying on familiar or cliche language," she said. "I've also been trying to work on saying more about one event rather than trying to encapsulate too many different experiences into one poem."

To help her students find their own voice in writing, she tries to encourage self-confidence.

“One of the hallmarks of my teaching philosophy and also part of the reason I came to poetry is because in poetry, I always felt like I had a voice,” she said. “It’s about establishing confidence in themselves and knowing that they do have a voice -- and writing in a way that’s natural for them, rather than trying to take on this highfalutin persona. I think it starts with knowing what you want to say, saying that plainly, and then layering that with metaphor, image and music."

Lisa Kwong will read her work tonight, April 18, at 7:30 p.m. at Rachael’s Café, 300 E. Third St.

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