Blesses Be #3 with Mai Doan
mai c. doan is a mixed-race poet, dreamer, and heartworker. she is the author of transgression: things i have learned from my body, self-published under Hematite Press and has performed in the National Queer Arts Festival, RADAR reading series, SPD’s Conditional Love, and more. mai is committed to poetry that is both necessary and responsive and finds comradery in works by women and queer writers of color enacting radical uses of language to create and complicate the telling of our rage, bodies, histories, and desires. mai holds an MFA from Mills College where she attended as a Community Engagement Fellow. she loves dancing, slow mornings, and warm nights.
BBF: To get us started can you tell me about what kind of making you do?
MD: I mostly work with writing and poetry. I recently have been practicing integrating more visual and performance elements into my work as a way to give a visual backdrop or context to my written or spoken work. This is something that feels like both a new and familiar practice to me. There is something about the visual aspect and using images that allows me to present a depth of a feeling or idea that maybe just text or language feels insufficient for.
BBF: Can you also share a bit about your origin story as a writer and your other interests, passions, projects and work?
MD: I started writing poetry when I was in elementary school. My dad gave me A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein and it was one of my favorite books. I started mimicking what I was reading by writing my own rhyming poems. I kind of taught myself rhythm, or, it just came intuitively to me. I used to approach it almost mathematically and write little accent marks over words that accentuated a rhythm. It was how I played, spent time by myself, took care of myself, and held myself through the world around me. And I just kept writing. Though, I don’t write rhyming poetry anymore (haha). Writing / poetry has always been something that I have just done. In the morning in bed. On the bus. At work. I moved to the Bay Area in 2004. After living here for a few years, I began to seek out poetry / writing communities. I used to go to this queer open mic at this bar on Portrero in San Francisco. I wish I could remember how I found out about it. Maybe craigslist? I forgot the name of the bar and the open mic night, sadly. I would just go alone and read and awkwardly make friends with other queer people who were writing. It was really sweet actually. Also, I took a creative writing class in the RAZA Studies Department with Alejandro Murguia at SF State while I was there. Alejandro invited me to read at Flor y Canto (this was in like, 2004 or something) and I did. It was a reading festival that took place on 24th street. From there, I came into a particular slice of the SF writing / arts community that provided me a lot of opportunities to write, teach, and share my work.
I spent a lot of time integrating poetry and writing into my work as a youth worker and organizer. I eventually got burnt out and was frustrated with the limitations I encountered in the nonprofit sector aka non-profit industrial complex. Luckily, I had friends and was in and out of social and political spaces that were asking important questions and really trying to figure out how to dismantle capitalism and white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. And who were also queer and weird and radical dreamers in lots of different ways. This was the context I was developing as a person / poet within. It was hard and weird and there was a lot of failure but also a lot of love and magic. I bring this up because it has so much to do with where I am at now and what I am passionate about and what I think is necessary and possible.
In addition to, or something like, in relationship to my writing / poetry / creative practice, I am passionate about healing work and healing justice. And thinking radically about what it means to heal or provide services under the umbrella of healing work at this time. Most of the time, it means just holding a lot of multiplicity and contradiction and things that are incredibly hard to make sense of. I guess I am always grappling with that. In and outside of (my) writing. I always think of a quote / title by Jackie Wang: “All joy lives inside of violence.” I believe this is a sad and terrible truth. And also / because of this, I believe that pleasure, joy, love, and light rooted in a desire for liberation and freedom is necessary to dreaming and visioning ourselves outside of current structures and dynamics and ways of relating. I dunno. I am passionate about finding ways to create space to do this work for myself and with others.
BBF: This interview series is interested in unpacking a queer poetics as it is determined or considered by queer writers/makers/performers/educators/activists. Can you tell me a little bit about how you might think about a queer poetics? How does it relate to your practice and themes in your work or how is it crafted in your work? Do you consider your work queer?
This is a really great and really big question. I like to believe and see queerness and also queer poetics as something that is not just not being straight or not being heterosexual. Queerness is queer because it is always evolving, shifting, and in motion. It is always contextual. As a queer person, I am always negotiating my queerness based on the context I am in. But also, queerness and the term queer is historically rooted in practices of resistance and a radical desire for liberation. There’s that super important quote / reminder that “Stonewall was a police riot” that was powerfully led and ignited by transwomen of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera. I want a queer poetics that isn’t complacent; that overturns the systemic erasure and denial of trans and queer black, indigenous, people of color power and existence; and that doesn’t center acceptance or inclusion by a state rooted in slavery, genocide, and military / police repression. I think of queer poetics as an opportunity to vision and create beyond the limitations of state-sponsored practices and narratives both materially and through language, though the words we speak and write; that has infinite room for joy and love and desire and radical care and intimacy; that is always expanding and creating more space. To me, a queer poetics isn’t necessarily about what we write, but how we are writing into the things we want to write about. And I don’t think this kind of queer poetics can or must necessarily look a certain way and that there is room, room for many ways of writing and creating.
In my most recent work, a manuscript called (for now), the book of extractions, I thought a lot about gender and how to write in spite of / outside of capitalist or American narratives around identity and history. My mom was born in Mexico and my dad was born in Viet Nam. They both came here in the mid-70s. I think mixed-race experiences lend themselves to holding and embodying a queer perspective. It was and still is a struggle to hold this and share this through my writing without having to use typical, American racial / cultural signifiers. I don’t want my work to hinge on the gender binary or nationality. I still get overwhelmed thinking about the entanglement of racial identity and queerness as it might arrive into my poetry. My work is, for better or for worse, autobiographical, even if it is written imaginatively and intuitively and I struggle with how to write myself on my own terms.
I generally consider my work queer, in that a lot of my previous work is literally about the radical potential of queer desire. But for this specific manuscript, I’m not sure. I would like to think of it as queer though it’s not the first term I would use to describe it. I guess a question this brings up for me to think about is what does it do to consider the book of extractions a queer work? I wasn’t trying to write something that would be read as “queer” necessarily; there isn’t queerness in a romantic sense in it. Still, the work arises out of a queer desire — a desire to speak and reimagine, a desire to create a space, a desire to conjure possibilities for the past and present to speak at the same time and rebel against silence, against our stories and bodies being absorbed and erased.
So I guess to me, all of this questioning and re-imagining and resisting and considering of how to not write an easy or assimilationist narrative exists in the galaxy of a queer poetics.
BBF: You shared with me this work, the book of extractions. It is so beautiful. Can you talk more about this collection? What is important to know?
MD: the book of extractions is a book-length project that I’ve been working on for the past two years. It’s a work that is trying to express something about intergenerational trauma and silence and how these things have a gendered impact; about how symptoms and sicknesses that result from trauma and silence are rooted in larger systems and histories like patriarchy and colonialism; it’s (about me) grappling with how to tell what has been passed down through not-telling. And also, something about healing. To me, I wanted to write this project as a way to process, to heal, and to survive. So, on a personal level, the work is trying to figure out and give language to “what happened.” It’s trying to do something different than carry silence until it makes me sick, until it prematurely kills me. But also, I wanted to think about what healing actually means or looks like, both on and off the page. Which is where the extractions come in.
BBF: How is extraction working in this text?
MD: The extraction element of the work came out of my experiences as an energy work client and practitioner. In energy work, extractions are when you remove blocked, stagnant, or negative energy from the physical and energetic body. I thought about the body of myself, my family, my ancestral lineage, and also the collective body. What needs to be extracted? What needs to be removed and taken out? What legacies of violence are lodged and making me / us sick? Throughout the work, the extraction pieces serve to draw connections between the personal and familial to the systemic. I see the extractions as an opportunity for imagining a healing that refuses complicity or assimilation. And I see them as big or tiny prayers towards literally extracting what they name from the individual and collective body.
BBF: Ritual seems significant to this writing. Can you tell me how ritual may be at work here?
MD: I couldn’t have written the book of extractions without ritual. Without prayer. Without a relationship to the ancestral, the intuitive, the felt. The forms and presentation of language on the page come out of intuitive gestures and expressions; I wrote how / what I felt. I feel like we are taught or socialized to refuse how we feel, to deny ourselves the experiences of our emotional and embodied experience. And yet, there is so much wisdom and knowledge and story in this space. Ritual and prayer allowed me to deeply connect and give language and expression to what needed to be extracted out onto the page. I think the writing of this work and ongoing sharing of it is a long ceremony made up of smaller rituals. It’s a ceremony of healing intergenerational trauma by giving it space to come out of the body. My body. My mother’s body. My grandmother’s body. My great grandmother’s body.
BBF: Can you describe your relationship to the occult? How might you define the queer occult?
MD: I grew up in a family that had a pretty consistent practice of ancestral veneration. I grew up around a lot of cultural superstition and stories. Both of my parents talk about ghosts. I’ve learned to queer these stories and practices for myself and use them to develop my own relationship to my ancestors and the spiritual realm / realm of magic. I believe in prayer. And energy. And dreams. And vibrations. And I believe the occult / spiritual realm isn’t some outside force but something that we hold and embody.
And I think so much of queer poetics is about the body and embodiment. And I think writing from or into or about the body from a place of desire and self-determination is an act of ritual and ceremony. I think of my writing as ritual and ceremony. And in this way, intentionality is incredibly important. When I write, I think about what the work is doing on a material but also spiritual basis. For example, if it is read aloud, what is it calling in? Or releasing? Or letting go of?
Also, there is a visionary aspect to both queerness and the occult. And when they overlap, there is a particular potency and magic to the possibilities that become possible. The plane becomes multidimensional and because more is possible when you’re working in / with multiple dimensions, both vision and possibility expand.