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Threads of Compulsion, From Basement Workshop to AAWW

Jessica Hagedorn, Kimiko Hahn, and Kyle Dacuyan talk about the funky, raw arts spaces we need

Editor’s Note: As the Asian American Writers’ Workshop celebrates its 30th anniversary, we invited current and former editors, writers, booksellers, community members, and workers to make new meaning from the Workshop’s archive. Together, they have awakened AAWW’s print anthologies and journals, returned to the physical spaces of the Workshop starting from our basement location on St. Mark’s Place, and given shape to the stories from within AAWW that circulate like rumors, drawing writers back again and again. In revisiting the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s history, we hope for insight into the ever-changing landscape of Asian diasporic literature and politics and inspiration to guide us forward in our next 30 years. Read more in our AAWW at 30 notebook here.

Tsismis is what happens at the table around cards and food—a Tagalog word for gossip, or not quite. Or not only. It’s the shifting, many-authored account that sneaks around official record. I love how immediately this conversation with Jessica Hagedorn and Kimiko Hahn leans into it. For the 30th Anniversary of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, I thought we might have a discussion about the Writers’ Workshop’s origins, the relation to Basement Workshop, a NYC countercultural arts space that emerged out of the Asian American movement, and the principles and vision that have evolved this community and work in such original and unprecedented ways over time. But it is always richer and truer to bring ideas forward in story and in atmosphere—and I find the wonderful, generous surprise of this conversation is how intuitively Jessica and Kimiko bring us there. What did the room feel like? The meetings, the readings, the events? What happened and with who? 

The Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and Basement Workshop before it, have been vital, expansive spaces for a breadth of Asian American writers and literature. These overlapping communities have also insisted upon artist-centric models of culture work. And those models frankly begin with pleasure and gathering: it has to be fun. As we reflect on the vast imprint of Basement Workshop and the Writers’ Workshop—and the ways AAWW has come to more thoroughly sustain Asian American writers—we also embrace the importance of contact, unexpected encounter and collaboration, uncontainability.

—Kyle Dacuyan

Kimiko Hahn, Kyle Dacuyan, and Jessica Hagedorn (Left to Right)

Kyle Dacuyan

I would like to begin our conversation by just remarking how incredible the occasion is—that we’re celebrating and observing the 30th anniversary of Asian American Writers’ Workshop. The Writers’ Workshop has been so vitalizing and courageous and transformative across this period of time, and I feel very personally grateful from my position in this present, for all of the ways the Writers’ Workshop has endured and evolved.

This present context for Asian American literature feels so richly connected, including in solidarity, with other movements and literatures, and there is such an enormous breadth of work happening right now. I think that has been made possible, in large part, through the opportunities and imperatives you have pursued over time, Kimiko and Jessica, and of course, all of the ways that this has culminated and flourished through the imprint of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.

Before gathering us for this conversation, AAWW’s editor in chief, Jyothi Natarajan, had shared with me this really special 1994 piece from Kimiko in the appendix to Quiet Fire, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s first anthology, and in it Kimiko is remembering these spectacular readings that happened at Basement Workshop. I love, particularly, this part she quotes from Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other:

“Power, as unveiled by numerous contemporary writings, has always inscribed itself in language. Speaking, writing, and discoursing are not mere act of communication. They are above all acts of compulsion. Please follow me.”

I thought we could start by talking about compulsion, and hearing from you, Jessica—what were some of the threads of compulsion in the air around the time you got involved with Basement Workshop? What do you think made up this impetus for an Asian and Asian American literary space at this particular time?

Jessica Hagedorn

The impetus to create cultural hubs like the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Basement Workshop comes out of need and desire. If we’re not going to be invited to sit at the table, then let’s just go ahead and throw our own fabulous dinner party! No waiting around to be validated by someone else.

My first experience with Basement Workshop took place in 1977 or ’78. It was a winter night and I was there to give a reading with Ntozake Shange. Basement was housed in a large and gritty loft at 199 Lafayette Street—amazing how that address has stuck with me all these years. It was very rough, but it was roomy and welcoming. Basement was quite ambitious then, because they had space in that building—there were martial arts and dance classes, a theater workshop led by guest artist Frank Chin, a silk screen collective, and poetry workshops. It reminded me of the multidisciplinary arts scene at the Kearny Street Workshop in San Francisco, which was run by a similar collective of Asian American artists and activists. Everyone volunteered their time, energy, and expertise in whatever.

So, yeah. I had just left San Francisco for New York, and being invited to read with Ntozake at the legendary Basement Workshop was an honor. The event brought out this huge audience of artists and readers and writers from all kinds of worlds. Ntozake was fresh from her Broadway success with “For Colored Girls….” The atmosphere was festive and the audience was listening hard, all bundled up in their winter coats. Talk about hot! I’m trying to remember it because I want to write about that moment, when we went up those narrow steps and this crowd was in this big, open space. We stood and read our poems in the middle of the crowd—I don’t remember Basement having a podium or anything resembling a stage. Did we use a mic? Maybe we just shouted our poems. It was incredible, exhilarating.

I met these dynamic and creative young artists associated with Basement Workshop that same night: Fay Chiang, of course; visual artists Tomie Arai, John Woo, and Arlan Huang; filmmaker Victor Huey; and performer Tzi Ma, who went on to have a successful acting career on stage and screen. It was a pivotal, life-changing moment.

Basement was still a very grassroots organization, but what they did with nothing was impressive. Fast forward to 1980 or 1981. Fay Chiang took over as director of Basement and moved the operation to a smaller space in Chinatown: 22 Catherine Street. She hired me to run the reading and performance series. Fay’s bare-bones staff included choreographer Teddy Yoshikami and artist John Woo. We all worked part-time. Nobody had health insurance. I don’t know if Fay ever drew a salary.

Earlier, Jyothi asked about the ties between Basement Workshop and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and whether we were forcing a connecting that wasn’t there. I’m here to say there definitely is a deep connection. How could one exist without the other? Do things just suddenly come up out of nowhere? Yeah, maybe, but. One thing for sure, we need those spaces to exist no matter how raw and raggedy, in order to be compulsive and impulsive and creative.

We stood and read our poems in the middle of the crowd—I don’t remember Basement having a podium or anything resembling a stage. Did we use a mic? Maybe we just shouted our poems. It was incredible, exhilarating.

Jessica Hagedorn

KD

Kimiko describes the atmosphere of Basement Workshop in that essay in Quiet Fire as “hot,” and I got a real sense of, just like, temperature, social energy, drama. I really feel that in what you’re describing, too, Jessica.

JH

It was hot, 99 percent of the time.

KD

I think what has felt so exciting and encouraging for me, spending time with the archive of Basement Workshop and with this incredible new anthology from Primary Information around the Asian American arts collective Godzilla, is that when I think about my childhood and my self-identity as an Asian American person, and the presentations of Asian American identity that were directed at me when I was younger, you know, it’s often these images and narratives of different kinds of passivity and quietness and subordination, and I love that that is not the energy at all that is in the fabric of Basement Workshop and Godzilla. This is actually a really frictive, combustive, hot, vocal community of writers and artists.

JH

And everyone didn’t have to get along all the time or agree on how things should be done. You learned how to fight for things you really cared about, you learned how to negotiate.

Kimiko, did I meet you at Basement? You and your sister Tomie walked in one night or something?

Kimiko Hahn

I definitely remember Lafayette Street.

JH

It must have been Catherine Street in the ’80s, because that’s when I worked at Basement. I remember asking if you were a painter. And you said no, I’m a writer.

KH

We really just all crossed paths in those in those days because that’s where you would go. I mean, it really was hot, you know?

JH

Speaking of hot, I think we take it for granted that there are a lot of Asian American writers these days who are being published by mainstream presses. But in Basement Workshop’s era, the Fay Chiangs and Kimiko Hahns of the world were few and far between. That’s one of the reasons I started pairing Asian American writers with other writers of color at Basement—there just wasn’t a large enough pool of Asian American writers on the East Coast to draw from in 1980. I mean, I’m serious. We couldn’t afford to fly in well-known writers like Lawson Inada or Shawn Wong from the West Coast, much less put them in a hotel. So it was really about the local scenes and who might be coming to town. Plus, we were definitely limited by the racism of the public publishing industry. They weren’t interested or invested in Asian American writers back then. So we’re sitting there going, oh my god, how do we create a unique and thriving reading series at Basement? My solution was to mix it up. Invite Frances Chung to read with Pedro Pietri, for example. These writers brought diverse audiences to Basement, which meant there usually was a nice crowd in that small space. That was my compulsive driving force.

KH

Compulsion… My boyfriend at that time who was Asian American had been a part of the early Asian American political scene in the 1960s and ’70s. I think that Basement actually did start in a basement, and it was very much part of the political scene at that point. In my memory I visited once, but I wasn’t a part of that scene yet, because I wasn’t in the city.

It wasn’t until Lafayette Street that I met Jessica, and then I got to know Jessica a little bit more because the American Writers Congress, which was held by the Nation Institute that runs the Nation magazine, was held in 1980. I just had a couple of poems published in journals, but I asked if I could do a panel on Asian American writers. It was called something like, “Memory” or “Amnesia,” something like that. I asked Jessica to read, I asked, was it Frank Chin and Luis Francia, maybe? It was an amazing reading. And that was kind of my foray into that scene. Jessica then invited me soon after, I believe, to read at Basement with Sekou Sundiata, who was, I mean—

JH

Is that not a hot billing?

KH

To be the warm-up act for Sekou, oh my god.

JH

That was a really powerful reading by the two of you. I had fun, coming up with these unexpected pairings.

KH

And when I think of Jessica, I think of the word fun, because I remember we were in a horrible meeting once, one of these institutional kind of meetings by Columbia or NYU. And Jessica, this is not verbatim, but you just sort of looked around and said, “Can we just have some fun?”

JH

Oh my god.

KH

But fun was part of the compulsion. No, it really was. I mean, there was definitely art and politics. And part of the compulsion was the blend of art and politics, because until that point it was separate. Real art was not political, which of course is bullshit. But it was very front and center in the movement and in Asian American writing. That compulsion was a rejection of that dichotomy.

When I think of Basement during Jessica’s time, I think of her aesthetic as being a natural blend—it wasn’t like, “oh, now I’m gonna write a political poem.” No, it was all of a piece. And I think of that as Jessica’s aesthetic. I think of her curating aesthetic as being completely diverse and mixed and mixed up, and that’s another thing I loved about Asian American writers especially in Basement. Back then, in the mainstream, there were different schools, right? You were a language poet or you were an Iowa Writers’ poet, or you were a street poet. But when it comes to groups like gay writers or Asian American writers or Black writers, even at the risk of being pigeon-holed, those poets span different schools. So you had Jessica, who wrote nothing like Fay Chiang, who wrote nothing like Frances Chung, who wrote nothing like Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, who wrote nothing like John Yau, or me, but we were all brought together in Basement.

JH

You sort of just named a bunch of writers that I think I invited in one year. I remember Frances died unexpectedly, but she was one of the first poets I scheduled because I was so thrilled there was a New York poet people actually knew, and she was available and eager and she was kind of a Basement person anyways. It was a relief to be able to pay her. I can’t even remember what it was—$50 or $75? I remember by the end of my term at Basement I was paying honoraria up to $100, and feeling so professional. But that was it. You couldn’t fly people in, you couldn’t even take them out to dinner. It was pathetic, you know? But people were so happy to read at Basement, so generous with their work. When Audre Lorde came and did her book launch for Cancer Journals, it was of course packed. She sold all those books, signed them, and had a great time. And I’m happy to report that Audre’s friends took her out to dinner afterwards. Hellelujah!

Part of the compulsion was the blend of art and politics, because until that point, real art was not political, which of course is bullshit. But it was very front and center in the movement and in Asian American writing. That compulsion was a rejection of that dichotomy.

Kimiko Hahn

KH

I was going to extend the reading series at Basement when Jessica decided to move on, but there was some discord about continuing the name Basement, so I started Word of Mouth, and that was funded by Third World Newsreel.

JH

I didn’t leave Basement Workshop because I wanted to leave, Kimiko. I left because Fay had decided to close it down. She was burned-out from all the fundraising and administrating; we all were. I thought, but somebody should continue Basement’s reading series, and you had ideas, and you got the funding, and it was great. Then we were told we couldn’t use the name Basement. I’m glad you didn’t forget that bit of information, Kimiko.

KH

Yeah. No, now I’m recollecting very sharply what happened.

JH

There was a little bit of tension there about carrying on with that name, which took me by surprise. But hey, I’d already moved on. We respected Fay’s decision.

KH

Since I couldn’t use the Basement name, I called it Word of Mouth, and I was in the Chinatown Public Library, on that top floor. Libraries used to have apartments for the custodian and their family. At that point, there was no one living there, but there was one big open floor space. At one point, there was a writer who was reading really loud about sex. It was all open, there were no walls, there was just a big stairway from one floor to the next. We were on the third floor, and I thought, oh, there goes the library, won’t be able to read there anymore. But they loved us, and what they did was they soundproofed with plexiglass, so the children’s floor below us wouldn’t be hearing all this stuff.

At that point, the way you found Asian American writers was through Poets & Writers directory. I remember going to pick up the directory and meeting Elliot Figman in their first office near Columbus Circle. I mean it just goes back and back and back. And then you just, keep your ear to the ground. I mean, I found Li-Young Lee because I was looking to see who won awards that year. And he had won an NEA. Not that many writers of color were getting the NEA.

JH

An NEA fellowship used to be life changing. Back in those raggedy days, you could actually use the prize money to live for a year.

KH

That was it. That was like the mountain peak, you know?

I got funding for Word of Mouth, I don’t know if it was enough money for flight and hotel room, but we did have people come from out of town at that point. We had Hisaye Yamamoto, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Ai. I think Ai used her money to stay at the Plaza.

JH

Around that same time, I went to the Asian CineVision (ACV) office on East Broadway and spoke to Bill Gee about sponsoring a quirky series I wanted to host with Alvin Eng and Daryl Chin. We called it “Talk N’ Cheap.” For $2 you could come hear a filmmaker or a writer give a talk, then be interviewed by Daryl or Alvin or me. NYSCA (New York State Council on the Arts) funded the series—again, on a modest scale. It was fun and pretty relaxed. The film angle was related to ACV.

By the time Asian American Writers’ Workshop opened, a steady, loyal audience had already been built from all of this work cumulatively. There was a growing list of serious poets and fiction writers coming up, eager to share their work with the public. Funding for the arts was fairly robust in the late ’80s and early ’90s, despite Jesse Helms and his boys. The stage was set for AAWW.

KD

I wonder if we could talk a little bit about resources coming forward, and their relation to forming and being a part of an institution. Because something else that I’ve been perceiving is that this moment when Basement Workshop existed seems like a real inflection point in the ways that artists related to institutions and the ways that artists related to one another. In the 1970s and ’80s, there’s this real flourishing of organizations that come together that are newly artists-centric and that are not operating under the usual kind of stuffy, constrained, administrative institutional paradigms.

But of course, there’s also eagerness for organizational stability. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about those early days of Basement becoming an organization, becoming a place that can sustain and pay for artists and, you know, operate on more than a shoestring budget.

JH

I was grateful that Basement had people like Teddy Yoshikami, and Fay, and John Woo who knew how to write grants and could balance a budget. I would not have taken the job if balancing the budget was up to me.

Fay, Teddy, and John were veterans of utilizing the language of grant speak, New York style. They were good at math. I learned a lot from our meetings in the office.

KH

I think I said that it was through Third World Newsreel that we got funding, but actually it was Asian CineVision. As a parent organization, they didn’t just do work around films. They were able to sponsor other entities, so they had someone to do the grant writing. Again, me too, I would not have been able to do it. But they had a vision.

JH

You get really clever and strategic when you’re a grassroots organization trying to stay afloat—it’s like pirate radio. You can’t just go and apply for a grant directly as an artist, you have to have a sponsoring organization. And that’s the thing with Asian CineVision and Third World Newsreel—they were solid nonprofit organizations that could back you up, and it was good for them because they got their 10 percent and had to do all that yucky work, administrative, budgeting, all that crap, right? It’s worth it. But I had to learn. And when I started sitting on NYSCA panels, I’d argue, “Why can’t we just give the artists the money directly? Why does this artist have to go find a sponsor?” Why?

When I started sitting on NYSCA panels, I’d argue, “Why can’t we just give the artists the money directly? Why does this artist have to go find a sponsor?”

Jessica Hagedorn

KD

I’m curious about how you balance those operational, material needs with the ambition of a different kind of organizational culture—an organizational culture that puts artists at the center, that values the leadership of artists, that eliminates a lot of the kinds of bureaucracies that you’re talking about. You know, I think part of the imprint of Basement Workshop has been offering this other kind of model for a literary organization, one that doesn’t work like a museum, or a more academic institution, but instead offers some other idea for what cultural work can be.

JH

But you still have to play by those rules, or you can’t survive as an organization. I remember those “site visits” at Basement. Teddy and Fay would go, “So-and-so from NYSCA is coming today,” and we would be like, oh my god. Let’s mop the floors! But, you know, don’t you think that that’s a form of, “Are they fucking up, or misusing the funds?” How could we even misuse the funds? What we received was always pitiful.

We got good at keeping the funding coming because we were getting more ambitious about the projects Basement wanted to get behind. Collaborations with well-known cultural spaces like The Kitchen in Soho, for example. We didn’t want to keep doing the same old thing. I thought an important thing to do for the communities downtown who were hungry to learn more about writing and also performing was to be able to invite someone like Ping Chong and pay him what he deserved. Ping did a four-week workshop and brought his actors to help teach it. That was exciting. And I think it was a sexy enough idea that we got the funding we asked for. Ping had never been invited to Basement, which was shocking to me. He grew up around the corner, you know.

KH

Basement, as I said, with Jessica really expanded, in my mind, the aesthetic—it was much broader than the sort of old school organizations. You can see how, with funding, organizations became more sophisticated. I think with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop generation, that’s when things became very professionalized, to the point where I initially thought, oh, look at all the money, look at what they’re paying there. At first it was shocking, and I thought, oh, they’re going to lose something. They’re going to lose something in that mix. But the Writers’ Workshop started on St. Mark’s Place in the basement where Jimi Hendrix had lived. I mean, they started in a real funky spot, and then moved on, but that’s when things became much more institutionalized, with that generation of organizers and curators. I had never heard of the word curator until then.

JH

That’s today’s fashionable word, but back then.

I remember that original AAWW space. The Gap was upstairs and we could hear people’s heels click-clacking as they shopped at night. And I’d go downstairs to either attend a reading or do a reading. It had that familiar feeling—a funky, raw arts space that was welcoming. I don’t know. I’d love to hear from Jyothi. Do you want to bring the Workshop into the conversation? I don’t know how professional they’ve gotten. Please—don’t get rid of that couch on stage!

Jyothi Natarajan

I hope we don’t get rid of the couch either.

I think AAWW has aspired to hold on to some of that raw energy, but I think there’s a kind of tension there, between the desire and also pressure to grow as an organization and how growth is defined by funders today.

There are a lot of ways in which AAWW continued to be a little raw—in the way art and politics have been brought together. And hot, too. Our A/C was broken for a couple of years, and at one point we bought a bunch of handheld folding fans and had them available for people who packed into the space for events.

JH

Frankly, spaces like the Center for Fiction can leave me a little cold. It’s nice to have an elevator, spacious rooms for book events, baristas making espresso, and a cool bookstore. We all deserve a bit of macchiato doppio, don’t we? But somehow, there’s something a little too polished and MFA going on. I hope that the future of writing isn’t just about television, that it isn’t too careerist.

KD

I think that something a lot of people working within cultural organizations are thinking about more and more, and something I hope funders are also thinking about more and more, is whether we might reorient or change growth as the central measurement or question. There’s a lot of merit in staying small, in staying local. And we keep talking about spaces, physical spaces, and how important it is for spaces to make different kinds of encounter possible. People need to bump into one another and have conversations. A lot of what makes the experience of the reading important is not just the work that’s being read. It’s also the conversations that happen before and after and during the reading. I think it’s been meaningful to revisit that in the context of the pandemic, when so much is happening in this other kind of remote way. It has felt exciting from my place at the Poetry Project that the pandemic has actually forced us to think about accessibility in new and more expansive and more complex ways. So many people who weren’t able to access our readings before, from a disability perspective or from a geographic perspective, are now able to be a part of the kinds of reading spaces that we’re making.

JH

I think that was one of the most important breakthroughs from our pandemic isolation. I hope that people who run cultural spaces keep that access open, and always offer a streaming option.

KH

And you can bring in writers from other countries, not just from another state.

I wanted to go back to a word that you mentioned, Jessica, and that is the word careerist. So for me, there’s been a veering towards career and away from compulsion. You’re doing something for your career, you’re not doing it because you have a calling. I mean, I started to teach late, in my late 30s. I started to teach because I wanted to have time to write. Nowadays, honestly, people write books because they want to teach and have the teacher’s lifestyle. So it’s totally turned around. And then they get tenure and they stop writing. It’s like, really? Jessica and I, neither of us have an MFA, and fortunately New York at the time was cheap, also dangerous, but it was cheap to live in then. If you found the right areas and spots, you could have an apartment and just work part-time. You could be the curator at Basement Workshop.

We keep talking about how important it is for spaces to make different kinds of encounter possible. People need to bump into one another and have conversations. A lot of what makes the experience of the reading important is not just the work that’s being read.

Kyle Dacuyan

KD

What kind of counterweight do you think a grassroots cultural organization like the Writers’ Workshop can present now to the threat of careerism? Why do you think these sorts of community literary spaces continue to be so important, or what can they do right now to intervene against that threat?

KH

So it’s not just networking? Like, who’s gonna be there so I can publish with them or get a blurb from them?

JH

I think keeping the energy of what I have seen at the Writers’ Workshop, keeping that going. And keeping those hilarious and innovative ways of bringing in air, like folding fans—I think that is so brilliant on so many levels, and I hope they were good fans. You don’t have windows you can open in that building, so it is important to pretend there’s fresh air. I think you should just keep handing out the fans regardless of whether you have an air conditioner fixed, because it’s part of the AAWW aesthetic, and it keeps things from becoming too serious. I feel like there’s room for both the slick designer showroom and the no-frills arts space. There should always be room for both.

If we’re going to continue relying on this kind of funding, where every year you have to beg for money from these funding sources, then I hope the funding sources also become inventive and compulsive and don’t penalize places for being small and grassroots-y and funky. Give them as much money as they need, so if they want to bring out so-and-so from Paris, they can. It’ll be funky. It’ll be hot. It’ll be sexy. But they can bring out this artist and treat them with respect. You know what I’m saying? I never saw the justice in giving, you know, Basement their little $100,000 to pay the overhead and staff and do artistic programs for the year, and then giving a fancier place millions of dollars to do the same. It’s sort of keeping us down forever, you know? And you’re designed to fail, because who won’t burn out without health insurance or enough money for the rent, right?

Like, let’s say if Basement Workshop could have gone on for a few more years and Fay could really have gotten health insurance and a decent salary, and Teddy, too—why not? They had a passion for what they were doing. But they couldn’t afford to stay there. So my hope and dream for all arts organizations, big and small, is that they get the same amount of money. That doesn’t mean you have to renovate or expand. You should just expand your programming and be able to pay the artists better and give yourself some health insurance so you can stay in your job.

KH

Also, collaborations between organizations—that, to me, is an interesting way to expand. To do something between a reading series and, say, Center for Book Arts. I know they already have their own reading series, but something like that. I mean, all of you know I’m crazy about chapbooks. And chapbooks are still, I think, a kind of outlaw space. There are some that are a little professionalized and so forth, and diehard people like Matvei [Yankelevich] from Ugly Duckling might not consider certain products real chapbooks, but that’s where a lot of frictive stuff still is. I think streaming and Zoom and all of that, I think that might maintain some frictive energy.

JH

I think what we do is very hard. No matter what, it’s always a struggle because we have to go ask for money. It’s not our money. And therein, we have no control. It’s just plain ol’ hard work. There is a turnover thing that happens, and I think all of those things are built in.

But, hey I’m loving this conversation. It’s very moving to me.

KD

I think there is something about literature—literature is so much more difficult to fund than other artistic disciplines. It’s so much more difficult to fundraise for literary organizations than it is for performance or visual art or music, and at the same time I love, Kimiko, that you use the word outlaw. Precisely because there are so many financial and commercial obstacles, there are ways that literature still gets to occupy a kind of outlaw space even as there are all kinds of forces from the publishing industry to MFA industry to nonprofit industrial complex. There are all sorts of forces that are trying to professionalize literature. But, there are still opportunities for literature to just circulate for free. I mean, the space of the reading is super democratic. When we do the New Year’s Day Marathon at the Poetry Project, and I see people sitting on the ground, shoulder to shoulder to listen to poetry, that fills me with encouragement. And when I think about chapbooks and mimeographed fold-up pamphlets circulating, it just reminds me that in a lot of ways the work is still determined to find its freedom, whatever that avenue is going to be.

KH

Yeah, I like that.

JH

And I think it’s part of the path to keep this going, to support the Matveis of the world and to find ways to collaborate with the Ugly Duckling presses and bring back mimeo machines and hand-sewn books as a specialty—it’s outsider art and insider art and it all can coexist and it’s exciting. There’s no room for snobbery in this world. It really is about having a fresh kind of take on the old and the new and keeping them going and vibrant.

KD

And I think the passion that happens at these micro levels radiates out into the culture in all kinds of huge concentric ways.

Chapbooks circulate like a gift. Those words, that expression circulates like a gift. I love that about chapbooks, I love that culture that you’re giving something away.

Kimiko Hahn

KH

It does radiate out. The chapbook, for example, is oftentimes, not always, a part of that gifting culture. So, going back to the Trinh T. Minh-ha quote, the chapbooks circulate like a gift. Those words, that expression circulates like a gift. I love that about chapbooks, I love that culture that you’re giving something away.

JH

Let’s not forget broadsides.

KD

There are ways that we even carry language beyond the beautiful printed object. You know, that’s sort of what makes literature so special, is that someone’s words that strike us in a really impactful way, we can carry that cargo in our memory. The printed object is important. The physical space is important. But at the end of the day, we’re exchanging language with one another, and there’s something very free in that.

JH

And I think it’s the energy of the space, no matter how humble it is. On really great nights at Basement, you could feel it. It’s sort of like what you’re talking about with the New Year’s Day Marathon, that energy of people just still believing, “I’m going to find the Poetry Project and feel the ghosts of all these writers that have been here and who are here now,” all the young people that are there eagerly soaking it all up. You have to keep that energy up. That’s what’s the most important—find ways to keep stoking it, it’s like a fire that must never go out.

KD

I want to ask a question and to kind of end us there. What would you like to say to encourage continued support for a community literary space and organization like the Asian American Writers’ Workshop? Why is it necessary to continue to support this organization?

JH

Because without these organizations that nurture and fuel and inspire and offer a place for us to fall on our faces, too—it’s a place where you can make a fool out of yourself with new work or old work, and it should feel like that, like you can try things out, and maybe it’s not successful, but that’s okay. How are you going to know unless you read it in front of people or perform it in front of people for the first time? That’s how you grow as an artist, and I think art is as important as oxygen.

It’s not a professional performing arts presenting space, it’s a nurturing space. It’s a place where people can work, intern, hang out. I think the hangout thing is important. A place people feel comfortable to browse the books. I really liked the fact that the Writers’ Workshop got to have bookshelves, which we could never have at Basement. There was no room for anything like that. We couldn’t have a permanent library for people to look at and sit there and read. Those are what make you grow as a writer. You learn how to be a writer just by hanging around and eavesdropping, for god’s sake. When people ask, “How did you become a writer,” it’s thanks to all these workshops and these great raw spaces that made me feel I could try things out. Experiments and play. Laboratories. We need that.

Someone’s words that strike us in a really impactful way, we can carry that cargo in our memory. At the end of the day, we’re exchanging language with one another, and there’s something very free in that.

Kyle Dacuyan

KH

We need these spaces, too, for writers, in this case Asian American writers, to find new audiences. Those audiences might be young people, they might be older, who knows? I teach in the CUNY system, and so many of my students are first generation college. Many of them are immigrants. Where are they going to hang out and hear these writers? So it’s a question of access as well. And to meet artists—because they don’t think I’m a writer, I’m their teacher. “Do you have any books?” they ask me. Yeah, well, actually, I do. They don’t know who I am. But I can point them in the direction of a place like the Workshop, “Oh, you want to hear a real writer? Go hear Jessica Hagedorn read at Asian American Writers’ Workshop.” And that is so thrilling. To meet somebody.

JH

That’s me when I was a teenager wanting to be a poet. I met somebody. And you have to keep these spaces freewheeling so people can have these encounters and rub up against each other—one day, hopefully soon.

It’s not just about having new audiences. It’s also for the writer, no matter how accomplished, to get new ideas. Writers are very solitary people. I mean, we’re much more social, right, Kimiko? But writers really like their solitude and the workspace and all that, but when you’re out and about, it’s a space where you can also interact with other writers. What I remember from my time at the Poetry Project was so many writers coming to hear the writers who were reading that night. A large part of the audience were fellow writers, and they could be very critical.

I also think these spaces are good to make you more discerning, so that you can hone your craft—and I think it’s good for the writer, too, who’s appearing, that there isn’t this big divide. That, “Oh, I already made it and you’re the audience over there.” It’s as important for that writer to be there. You know, it’s an exchange.

KD

I think this is a really meaningful place that we’ve gotten to.