Conversations

Alan Chong Lau, Seattle poet, visual artist, and greengrocer

Interview by WaterBridgeReview

separating wheat from chaff

Alan Chong Lau — self-portrait (copyright of the artist)

Alan Chong Lau grew up in Paradise, California and received a B.A. in Art from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of no hurry (Cash Machine, 2007), Blues and Greens: A Produce Worker's Journal (University of Hawai'i Press, 1999, 2000), Songs For Jadina (Greenfield Review Press, 1980), The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99 (with Lawson Fusao Inada and Garrett Kaoru Hongo, Buddhahead Press, 1978). Alan's poems have appeared in numerous anthologies including From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across The Americas 1900-2002 (edited by Ishmael Reed, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003) and What Book!? Buddha Poems From Beat to Hiphop (edited by Gary Gach, Parallax Press, 1998). He is the recipient of a Creative Artist Fellowship for Japan from the Japan-US Friendship Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Japanese Government, Artists Grant from Seattle Arts Commission, a Publications Grant from King County Arts Commission, a Special Projects Grant from the California Arts Council and the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He serves as Arts Editor for the International Examiner, a Seattle-based Asian American community paper, and coordinates Pacific Reader, an Asian Pacific North American review of books. As a visual artist, he is represented by Francine Seders Gallery (www.sedersgallery.com) of Seattle, Washington.

WaterBridge Review: Your new chapbook, no hurry, was hand-produced by cash machine press in a limited edition of 150 copies. How did this project come about?

Alan Chong Lau: John Marshall runs the Seattle-based all poetry-related bookstore Open Books with his wife, Christy. To my knowledge, it's one of two such bookstores in the country. Both are poets as well. I became friends with them while shopping at their store. One year Christy gave John a used letter press as a Christmas gift. He's been playing around with it ever since. He did his first letter press chapbook using the work of local poet/musician, Molly Tenenbaum. One day I was browsing in the bookstore when John asked me if I had any short poems I would like him to consider for his letter press project. I gave him over 20 short poems from my travel journals to Japan that I have compiled over the years and he edited them down to his favorites and started printing.

WBR: How long have you collaborated with soundscape artist Susie Kozawa? How do you prepare for a reading?

ACL: I think I first met Susie when I interviewed her as a writer for a local community newspaper. I think we first performed together when I was asked to read at UW's Henry Art Gallery as part of the activities to accompany a show by Manuel Ocampo over 10 years ago. We have been collaborating off and on ever since. We don't prepare so much as listen to each other. There is no specific rehearsal. I will give her the poem to read and she'll ask me questions about the mood and sounds I might be hearing for particular sections, and that's about it until we do it in front of a live audience. We have been doing it so long now that sometimes I think we can hear each other breathe.

WBR: Is there an artist or writer, past or present, who has influenced your work?

ALC: I love the sparse and subtle inference of Chinese and Japanese poetry, the freedom of the Beats, the simplicity and heartfelt emotion of folk poetry and the rhythms of music, especially jazz, blues, ethnic and pop music. For artists and poets who influence and inspire, there are too many to mention. Suffice to say I love work that is fresh and communicates to the heart and takes you to another place, whether it was done in the eighth century or yesterday.

WBR: What are you reading now?

ACL: It changes continually but right now I am reading the work of Dutch-American poet Cralan Kelder ("This poem made possible/ by a generous grant from today" from "Lemon Red") based in Amsterdam, and the London-based Australian poet/musician, David Miller ("speaking of the periphery/ listening to music/ in a room/ four flights up" from "In the shop of nothing") because I just met them recently in Europe.

WBR: What do you do for peace of mind in everyday life?

ACL: I walk and then I walk again. I keep on walking and hopefully I will hear something between the silence and the noise.

WBR: Is there a fictional hero or heroine you identify with?

ACL: The character Monkey because he was so flawed, arrogant and human just like us mortals.

WBR: Is there something you regret not knowing how to do?

ACL: I wish I was better with my hands and could fix things and build things. Instead I just watch things fall apart and wonder what I can do.

WBR: What's your best personal quality?

ACL: I hope I have more compassion than scorn but it's a day-to-day struggle to balance myself walking down this road.

WBR: What's your most aggravating habit?

ACL: My wife says I fart too much and then there's the snoring. Sometimes I tend to fall in love with the idea of doing nothing, which can get in the way of doing something.

WBR: Has anything recently made you laugh out loud?

ACL: Just seeing kids do what they do. I'm afraid it is hard for adults to be that honest.

WBR: Is there anything you consider your most prized possession?

ACL: Well, I am kind of partial to my plastic model of baseball great Willie Mays even though one arm is broken. I bought it on a trip with my family when I was a kid.

WBR: What's the bravest thing you've ever done?

ACL: Living the way you want to without succumbing to the temptations of the material world is a brave act and it's definitely something I aspire to as an ideal, as well as being totally real and honest in dealing with your fellow human beings. I say "aspire" because I know sometimes I am too tentative when I want to be brave.

WBR: What are you working on right now? What will you do next?

ACL: I want to compile a book on my relationship with Japan, editing down the prose entries and poems I've kept in numerous journals throughout the years and combining them with my sketches.