​​“Peering through the lens of a camera”: An Interview with Ha Kiet Chau

“Early burials on the first/of spring, the poet inside me aches/for all things gone. In woods,/

covered in cinder and ash, I walk and walk,/dreaming of home, roads and roads away.”

-Ha Kiet Chau, “Eleven Miles to June”

Eleven Miles to June by Ha Kiet Chau (Green Writers Press) came onto the poetry scene in July. The book is Ha’s first full-length poetry collection, and it is full indeed with themes of family, nation, history, destruction, and womanhood. In each of 62 startlingly candid poems, Ha paints a picture of characters from her Chinese-Vietnamese heritage as well as her life in Northern California. She draws on her artistic expertise to craft colorful imagery rooted in urban and rural landscapes alike. The book is divided into three sections—starting with the deeply personal “Close-Up,” veering into the sexy and dangerous “Wide-Shot,” and closing with the quiet and pensive “Fade-Out.” The book spirals in on itself, circling around the same questions of belonging and home. This is a collection with a fresh poetic vision of the world.

Hi, Ha! First, I’d love to get to know you a bit. Your bio says that you teach art and reading for youth organizations. Does your work with children influence your writing?

Yes, working with children has definitely influenced my writing. I come from a large family with eight nieces and nephews who are very creative, offering a fresh perspective on life. Around them, I’m noticing little details like the shape of clouds and the colors of a rainbow. I admire how children express emotion and truth without hesitation. I try to take this approach when writing poetry. 

You’re also an artist as well as a writer, and that comes through in this book. You include original paintings, the sections have very visual titles, and you use a lot of color imagery, for example. How do your artistic and poetic practices coincide for you?

Similar to art, I use words to paint a mood, a scenery—evoke an emotion. I’m fascinated by colors and the way they make me feel—green soothes, blue liberates, orange warms. Colors stand out to me, help me recall specific details: a pink sky, a black raven, a yellow tulip. 

Speaking of the sections, how did you determine the organization of this book, both the concepts for the sections and which poem goes where?

My book is divided into three sections: close-up, wide-shot, and fade-out. When I write, I imagine peering through the lens of a camera, capturing a moment, magnifying it through a series of images, etched into moving words. Each poem is like a scene from a film.

In terms of organization, I grouped the poems from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood. The final poem, “Halfway Home,” concludes with the line, “You can sleep now.” Stay tuned. There may be a sequel to this collection.

Now, getting into your poetry, which is very personal. How do you balance the voice of the speaker in each poem with your own experiences?

I usually write from the perspective of a character in mind. Some poems are based on personal experiences, but most are written purely from imagination. It would be fun to meet some of these characters like the 50 Tallulahs, Mr. and Mrs. Lee, or Blanche and Cruz in real life and share a conversation with them.

What about form? Most of your poems are free verse, without much structure that’s apparent to the reader. How do the words come to you? 

Free verse allows me to be the most creative. Words pop up at random hours of the day, even in dreams. I’m observant, constantly jotting ideas on a napkin or notepad. I’m drawn to numbers, colors, and music—the sound of rain dripping, leaves rustling, hearts pounding. I find poetry in silent movies, in black & white films, in my parent’s stories, and old photographs. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been writing and honing my craft for many lifetimes. I’m never done learning.

Your book is being published by Green Writers Press, an environmental publishing press in rural Vermont. You’re writing from a big city on the opposite coast, yet natural imagery still shines through in many of your poems. How do urban and rural environments inspire your work?

I have immense fondness for nature—willow trees, ocean breezes, bluebirds, and rain clouds, but I also love the glow of city lights, especially strolling through the busy streets of Manhattan in the evening. I tend to weave locations in my poems, including places I’ve never visited like Shanghai in the 1930s. There was something spectacular and gorgeous about the aura and style back then. I’m forever mesmerized by trolleybuses and pagodas.

The first section of your book is extremely focused on inner life, while the second section expands outwards. What historical, cultural, mythical inspirations did you draw on for these poems?

My mother is a great storyteller who lived through the merciless Vietnam war. She is a strong, brave woman who has overcome so much. At 78, she is blind, her vision impaired by war fumes. My mother would often tell me stories, recounting specific details, her childhood in Haiphong, her firsthand accounts of war, witnessing B-52 bombs plummeting from the sky, running while 8 months pregnant, and sheltering in underground tunnels.

I wrote “A Woman’s Warfare” from her perspective and experience of war. My mother has a vast cultural knowledge of Vietnamese and Chinese history. Through her, I learned about different Asian mythologies like the monkey king, the jade rabbit, and the moon goddess, inspiring me to pen the poem “A Man Kissing a Woman Kissing Honey.”

The final and most prevalent themes I noticed in your book were belonging, family, and home. Your family recently lost your physical home through a tragic fire. Has this experience shaped your perception of these themes?

The aftermath of the fire still feels unreal. My family and I appreciate help from our neighbors and the community as we begin the process of rebuilding. My parents immigrated to America in 1980, losing their home and belongings during the Vietnam war. When they arrived in the USA, they did not speak English, but looked forward to starting over in a new country, a new journey.

I have tremendous appreciation for those who have the courage to begin anew in an unfamiliar place, despite hardships and tragedies. Life is unpredictable with ups and downs. After the fire, my parents managed to keep going, to remain positive, to rebuild. They are true survivors.

There are so many poems in this book! What was your process for writing all of them?

One of the first poems I’ve written was, “Feeling More at Home” in the 10th grade. The first draft was originally published in my high school literary magazine, Oak Leaves. Years later, I found myself revising it with a new title: “At Home with Confucius.”

I enjoy writing about epic love, the kind that spans centuries. Here’s a cool story to share. Two weeks after the fire, while tossing out things that were damaged, I discovered an old, crinkly handwritten love letter a boy had given me when we were 15, still in good condition, boxed up in the closet. I was overjoyed to find it again.

Moments like this inspire me to pick up a pen. My process of writing usually begins in the early mornings or late at night when it’s tranquil, and I can ponder, sort out my thoughts. Currently, I’m working on a verse novel.

Who are your inspirations as a writer? How did you get into writing?

I’m inspired by great talents like Wong Ka Kui, Marguerite Duras, Jeff Buckley, Maya Angelou, Arthur Rimbaud, Marc Chagall, and Emily Dickinson. Their lives, art, songs, and words intrigue me.

I started writing stories on scratch paper with a sparkly purple pen in the 5th grade. Over the years with the encouragement of teachers like Georgeanne Ferrier, Chris Weidenbach, and Laurel Bogen. I kept writing on a daily basis, diving deeper, living and breathing nothing but poetry. Teachers inspired me the most because they offered advice, let me borrow books, and supported me when I didn’t have the resources.

Who do you hope will read this book and what do you hope they will take away from it?

I wish to see my book translated into many languages. It would be awesome if someone came across Eleven Miles to June in a bookstore somewhere in Saigon or Hong Kong or Paris. It would be great if I could inspire people, especially youth, to think creatively and outside the box. I love the book The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, particularly her piece “Four Skinny Trees” and the phrase, “who grew despite concrete… who reach and do not forget to reach.” 

When I feel like I don’t belong, these lines teach me I can thrive and survive anywhere as long as I don’t give up. My book focuses on themes of women’s empowerment, especially strong women who overcome challenges despite gender barriers. I am very inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.” In the future, I hope a young student can say they remember a line in one of my poems, and that it gave them inspiration or motivation to do something positive in life.

Ha Kiet Chau is a Chinese-Vietnamese American writer from Northern California. Her poems have appeared in 80+ literary magazines in the U.S., UK, and Asia. She is a recipient of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Scholarship and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and Best of the Net. Her chapbook, Woman Come Undone, was published by Mouthfeel Press in 2014. Ha teaches art and literature in the San Francisco Bay area and helps several youth organizations promote reading and language arts for children.

Greta Hardy-Mittell is a student at Carleton College and an intern for Green Writers Press. She writes journalism and poetry which confronts the climate crisis, celebrates both human and more-than-human worlds, and envisions a just future. Her work is published or forthcoming on Planet Forward, Force of Nature, and Carleton’s literary magazine, the Manuscript.