Interview with Jane Lin


An Interview with Jane Lin


What has been the SW’s biggest challenge to you as an Asian American and a poet?

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and as far as I know, there’s nothing special happening in Los Alamos except for the usual federal holiday closures. I’m not surprised. The US Census Bureau website reports only 2.5% of New Mexicans are “Black or African American alone” and in Los Alamos only 0.7% compared to 13.2% nationwide. When a black friend visited me in New Mexico for the first time, he said he would feel uncomfortable living here.

There’s a different kind of diversity here. New Mexico is known for its pueblos and Native American artists. With its Spanish colonial history, nearly half the population is Hispanic. Scientists come from all over the world to work at the two national labs in the state. Which is not to say that diversity means equality. But in my mind it helps when you’re not the only minority.

The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the grand jury verdicts disturbed me greatly though they had little impact at the time on my remote mountain town. That disconnect challenges me. I could easily keep my head down and ignore the rest of the world, we are that isolated (there’s a reason why Oppenheimer picked Los Alamos for the Manhattan Project). So I make a conscious effort to be informed and stay connected. At the same time, it’s easy to feel helpless. Which is where poetry comes in. It’s a medium that allows us to respond to the myriad experiences of life including tragedy and injustice. When we share our poems, we participate in the conversation.

Months before Ferguson, police shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless man camping in the hills of Albuquerque. It was videotaped by police camera. People protested it as the latest in a series of fatal shootings. This month, Albuquerque made CNN when the DA filed murder charges against the two police officers involved. New Mexico is part of the national dialogue after all.

It surprised me when people said they couldn’t understand the response to Ferguson. How often are we frustrated when the systems meant to help us fail us instead?

After the Verdict

Because my mother preferred to help than be helped,

she kept her cancer secret.

Which is to say I tell myself today, do not despair

though our country remains unchanged after each shooting.

We all have our ways of coping.

My fumbling, stumbling out of silence.

Which is to say, dear reader, I don’t want to go it alone.

My mother had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Which is to say there is nothing right about children shot dead.

The circumstances of her death, their deaths,

fill me with anger and grief.

Black lives matter. As in equally, yours and mine.

How has your Kundiman experience changed your life as a Southwesterner?

I was lucky to meet Arthur Sze not long after moving here in 1998. Previously I lived in New York and California. Perhaps because of his long established presence in the area and many years of teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), I never felt unusual as an Asian American poet in New Mexico. He was in fact the first poet laureate of Santa Fe. I have always felt respected and treated for who I am as an individual by other people here. Though I have to admit that an Asian American artist in Sante Fe told me someone mistook her for me!

What Kundiman gave me last summer was a door to a larger community which made me feel less isolated. This very blog allows me to participate still. The diversity of the fellows, faculty and staff and their art expanded my vision of not only poetry but of life. And most of all, I have found connection with my fellow Kundiman Southwesterners Heather Nagami and Sharon Suzuki-Martinez even though they are 500 miles away and I’ve never met them in person! Maybe that’s the magic of poetry and of Kundiman - we can celebrate both difference and commonality.

What is the poetry scene like where you live? Where’s the best place to go for a poetry reading?

Los Alamos has a great public library which hosts Quotes: The Authors Speak Series highlighting New Mexican writers. Unquarked, a new wine tasting room, plans to hold monthly poetry readings.

Down the hill, Santa Fe is home to the Lannan Foundation which hosts an inspiring array of writers and cultural thinkers in its Readings and Conversations series at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, a beautiful restored theater down the street from the 400-year-old Santa Fe Plaza. A few blocks away is a terrific bookstore called Collected Works which hosts the Muse Times Two series curated by Dana Levin and Carol Moldaw. This series pairs a regional poet with a nationally known poet.

There is always something going on in Santa Fe, not to mention Taos and Albuquerque. Other SF venues include IAIA, Santa Fe University of Art and Design, Teatro Paraguas, and op.cit. Teatro Paraguas specializes in bilingual theater, and it is a real treat when they produce performances of Spanish-language poets. Also, IAIA has a low-residency MFA program, and you do not need to be Native American to apply!

Talk about the most inspiring place in or near your home. Send a picture.

Los Alamos sits at the tail end of the Rockies. I can walk a few blocks from my house and be in a canyon or on a mountain trail, but my favorite is Deer Trap Mesa. I drive 10 minutes past houses, park at a dead end. The asphalt crumbles past a guard rail. Dirt gives way to tuff, volcanic ash become rock. Quickly the land narrows, drops off into canyons on either side. Scrambling down to the right would reveal small shallow caves with sooted ceilings. I pick my way forward along a fragile path – grooves first shaped by the footsteps of Ancestral Pueblo people 500 to 800 years ago. Down there is a rectangular hole – an ancient deer trap. Up again the finger mesa continues, widening with scrub, grasses, low-lying cacti. This is high desert. The path winds among junipers and pines hiding the view until I come out at the tip. Suddenly I can see for miles—valley, mesas, Taos, Santa Fe, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the tremendous sky.