Kimiko Hahn at the Asian American Literature Festival

Kimiko Hahn (credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

This Saturday, July 29th, the Library of Congress will host the concluding day of the first-ever national Asian American Literature Festival. In anticipation of the Festival, we asked poet and Poetry Society of America President Kimiko Hahn—who will deliver an intimate lecture and read from her work on Saturday—a few questions.

The last time you were at the Library was for the National Book Festival in 2011; now you’re coming back for the Asian American Literature Festival. What’s it like to come back to Library for this particular event? What are you looking forward to?

I was and am honored to be included. At the NBF, I loved reading science-prompted poems under a big tent. We were all in a kind of poetry steambath.

For this Festival, it’s thrilling that writers are a part of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center launch!  I am very taken by the concept of a “cultural laboratory,” “that curation can be a form of community organizing.” This mission is both radical and a sign of the times: back to the grass roots. The mission is also a push-back to today’s immigration issues.

What am I looking forward to? A student recently asked me a related question: i.e., how do I feel about being categorized or labeled or considered an “Asian American poet.” Although I’ve addressed that issue over the years (decades!), I realized that this is still a question for writers. I look forward to addressing this in the context of my community, among various generations and backgrounds. No tokenism in this room.

On Saturday, you’re delivering a lecture entitled “Angel Island: The Roots and Branches of Asian American Poetry.” Can you give us some background on what you’ll be addressing?

Angel Island is the West Coast equivalent to Ellis Island and there, between 1910-1940, Chinese detainees carved poems onto the walls to express their frustration and fury. Hundreds of the poems were lost but many saved and translated. In a similar need to express, Japanese internees in the Wartime Relocation Camps wrote poems and some of these have been translated and published. I believe these are two hardy roots of Asian American poetry. Even for those who have never been exposed to the work, or exposed later in their lives, there are connections to immigration and incarceration, real and figurative.

We hear you have a surprise prepared for the event. Can you give us a little teaser?

I hope my surprise is in the spirit of “experiential friction” (a great phrase that I’ve plucked from the Asian Pacific American Center’s Culture Lab Manifesto!).

Is there anything else you’d like to add in advance of the Festival?

We know that libraries play a crucial role in the lives of immigrant and working class families. Both libraries and museums are stepping up to meet the urgent circumstances—including digital access for information, but also as a means to connect with the past and organize for this moment on. Japanese poetics are based on kokoro and kotoba: i.e., heart and word. Here we are with our desires and promise.

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Asian American Literature Festival. Saturday, July 29, at 11:00 a.m. LJ-119, Library of Congress Jefferson Building. Free tickets required. Full festival schedule available here. Presented in partnership with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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