An Interview with Ann Huang, a VCFA alumnus (14' W), poet, author and experimental filmmaker who created the tetralogy Palpitations of Dust, Indelible Winter, The Pines of Spring, and Sparse
CF: You have a new poetry collection coming out with Finishing Line Press in September! Congratulations! Can you tell us a bit about your process of writing a Shaft of Light? What was the seedling for the book? How would you describe the knot or the driving question of the collection?
AH: Thank you so very much!
I have always held a firm belief that dreams should not be thrown away as they become known to us. Although they may seem surreal and irrational to our consciousness, channeling them will guide us to find our destiny. Many of the books I’ve read about the surrealist movement have substantiated this notion.
My book’s target audience is predominantly women between the ages of 25~55 who have a deep appreciation for poetry; humanitarian efforts; public policy and civil rights; political, social, and gender reforms; world equality and solidarity; and mindfulness in global affairs. As an influential group that is so often forgotten, they have lived through significant political events and global changes as teens and pre-teens including the Clinton and Bush presidencies, 9/11, and the Iraq War. This is a generation who developed a sincere interest in politics as a result of the changing world around them. They gained the right to vote and saw Barack Obama's presidency, and then were shocked to the core in November 2016.
I started writing a Shaft of Light when one of my dreams fractured during the past US elections. China’s new president was uprising and tightening his control, causing an outlandish number of journalists to disappear across the mainland. Mexico’s newly elected presidency put on another worst kind of shows of all times. It was a very low and disappointing time for me. It reminded me of the time we got out of China during the Tianamen Square Protests in 1989, horrendous memories resurfaced in my mind and I was compelled to write about these turbulent years, where teen suicide rates and adult mental health issues had risen all at once.
This is the very first time in my many years of practicing automatic writing (a writing style suggested by the surrealist movement) that I felt a strong ‘pull’ to write about human extinction. In today’s digital age of social media and technology, we have been bombarded by outside influences without listening to our true unconsciousness about what we need and what will make us complete as human beings. We are losing our grounds to our trivial political leaders, biased social media standards, fast yet non-human-centric technological solutions; and fear of embracing one another’s racial and cultural distinctions.
Finding joy in this critical time of the century, most importantly with a life lived (and not merely consumed), is my main purpose. a Shaft of Light is about nostalgia. Its grander essence tells us the story of the dissipation of human synergies in regards to concurrent geopolitical and technological upheavals. The book asks us to look back at the times when the earth faced its biggest loss: dinosaurs. The question that follows is hollow: are we next?
Ann Huang, photographed by Greg Figge
CF: Your bio often mentions that you “possess a unique global perspective of the past, present, and future of Latin America, the United States, and China.” How do these intersections of time and space find their way into your work? Have these perspectives changed over time or through the writing process?
AH: I was born and raised in Mainland China. I grew up in a physician's family with three generations living under the same roof in a house that lacked a proper sewage system and water heater. My passion for words dates back to my childhood. One of my essays “I Saw Your Back” won numerous awards in the Children's Palace and was later published on the school bulletin board. When I was fourteen, my parents took me out of China during the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989. They were the recipients of a medical exchange program in Mexico City. There, I adopted Spanish as my second language along with the country’s inexhaustible culture.
During my high school years in Mexico City’s Thomas Alva Edison (a well-known bilingual school), I volunteered in a theater where I was exposed to many local plays and their rehearsals. The year after, I was transferred to the Baruch College of The City University of New York. New York City's raw energy at the pinnacle of the world's cultures, further enhanced my zest for American literature. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen shaped my views on femininity. Both works have protagonists who were very vulnerable at the beginning of the story, and yet they transformed to become someone they would hardly believe they would be by the end of it. The transformation during and the twist at the end of the story-telling process piqued my interests in creating works of my own.
I have always been a fervent student in the direction of time. I believe there is an order/disorder of our time that goes hand-in-hand with our memories of the past, perception of the present, and projection of the future. Therefore, the direction of time has a significant influence on how we look at our lives in phases, or integrally as one, and how we interact with the world at large. Time, in the foresight of our life and fate, has become the one true thing about our identity. And through time, we can reach out to question our existence and relive our experiences. Those are the fascinating facets that prompt me to explore my creative work on a writing page and under the eclectic lenses of cinema.
Because of my multicultural and multilingual upbringing, I have always resisted the limitations of space. I have incessantly wished the countries that I have loved and live in would share the same language and culture, with no borders or racial discriminations. And that sense of universality gives me great comfort to explore our commonalities (instead of differences), which are our shared physiological and psychological impulses.
CF: Was writing always your career focus, or did you have other interests before coming to Vermont College of Fine Arts?
AH: Over the past twenty years, I’ve been a manager, writer, poet, published author, literary translator, and auteur filmmaker. I have also been an effective problem solver and team builder in several of today’s male-dominated industries. However, my two main passions are poetry and film. Ever since I was little, I was awestruck by Alfred Hitchcock movies, particularly Vertigo, and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. In literary translation, I was immersed from childhood in classical Chinese poetry written by Li Shang-Yin (Tang Dynasty).
I published one chapbook and two book-length poetry collections. With a small production crew of just five people including myself, we adapted my published poems into four experimental films, all of which have won numerous festival awards and accolades. I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to create both the surrealistic poetry and art films while also working as an entrepreneur and seasoned marketer who helped found a therapeutic indoor light company with over a million happy customers.
CF: You are also an experimental filmmaker, and your poem-film, PALPITATIONS OF DUST, won the 2017 Prince of Prestige Academy Award for Best Experimental Film. As a multidisciplinary artist—a poet and a filmmaker—how does one art form inform the other in your work?
AH: To me, the process of writing and filmmaking is similar to alchemy. The transformation from poetry to film is the melting pot of words, chosen visually and acoustically from human psyche, psychology, myths, and dreams. Each of the sources I draw from hint at loss, pain, and desire. Throughout the learning process of completing the poetry writing program at VCFA, I had a rekindled nostalgia for my childhood days of learning Chinese calligraphy, memorizing hundreds of poems in Tang Dynasty, taking Tai Chi classes with my grandfather, and the Chinese Civil War songs my grandmother used to sing me.
The emotional core I feel under the surface of the page and on-screen sparks surprising sentiments of mingling dreams and reality. My poems and poetry films are intended to be consumed with introspection. When my audience navigates their memories with detailed attention to their feelings, they can explore the complex emotions of my films with fluidity.
I ponder the happenstances that could have taken place around us, but which have been ignored. When I consider things that could have turned out the way they were contemplated, I am inspired to create art. I believe that the value of creative activity lies in the act of making rather than the aesthetic significance of things made.
While creating my audio book for my debut chapbook Love Rhythms back in 2013, the idea of creating something visual came along. Then on my book signing night for Love Rhythms at Laguna Art Museum, I met with my art director, Eric Stoner. We became friends and he mentioned the house where he worked at and he thought it would be a great location for shooting our first poetry film. That’s when I thought I could actually bring out more of my pure lyrical poems through the process of filmmaking. That way, once a one-dimensional placeholder for my poems could transcend to be multidimensional, with visuals and sonic impressions that could accentuate the flavor of each poem’s essence. We thought it could be a huge breakthrough for showing the depth of the poems as well. They would no longer be constricted to paper and would become alive, just like the way they are in my mind.
Before making Palpitations of Dust, I hadn’t taken any film classes, but I had read film-related books and articles during my final critical thesis semester at VCFA. I was very drawn to the surrealist gestures that followed Dadaism and assimilated many of surrealists’ idolized symbolism into my filmmaking process. Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon and Man Ray’s Anemic Cinema are my all-time favorite films.
Anastasia Lincoln on set of In The Desert of Eternity, a new film by Ann Huang
I also remember when I was working on writing erasure poems (one of my favorite types of poetry) during my Master’s program at VCFA, I learned that the less you write, the more you let people think through and meditate on them. Sometimes, that is the beauty of art and poetry. I was very clear about chopping up the footage so much that every second would be meaningful and elusive enough for the audience to draw their own reactions and conclusions. Each of my experimental shorts is based on lyrical poems I’ve written. So my relaxed reflexivity and unconsciousness are already at play. The construct of my memories is a mysterious instrument I must rely on as a non-narrative filmmaker. I try to identify with my conscious self as well as my deepest, collective unconscious self at large. For instance, for the scene where Eric (male protagonist) and Tatiana (female lead) were standing back-to-back and struggling to find their true home, I didn’t have the location figured out until we were on-site trying to find a treehouse like the one mentioned in the poem. Then I had the idea of taking the surreal aspect of the treehouse and turning it into a dream house that would become a void/nightmare. It worked. It took us more time and effort to get this scene in place but we were very happy about the result. There, my film (one medium) and poetry (another medium) challenge and converse with each other’s form rather than simply echo it. That was the most magical (and surreal) moment of making a poetry film.
CF: Since this is a feature for the Alumni Magazine, I’m curious about your experience at VCFA. Who did you work with on the faculty that was particularly influential to you? Were there any other projects (lit journals, editing, teaching, reading series) you became involved with which were transformative?
AH: Before I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), I felt hopeless about keeping my creative mojo. Then I met with Jean Valentine in AWP Denver who introduced me to her brilliant work. Upon her recommendation, I applied for the Master of Fine Arts program at VCFA, where not only had I formed my network, but also discovered the foundation of my writing’s inspiration: the surrealistic gestures coupled with automatic writing processes in igniting creative sparkle.
At VCFA, I had three mentors, Ralph Angel, Leslie Ullman, and Richard Jackson, whom I worked with closely. The workflow with them was inspirational and transformative. Angel gave me advice on assembling a poetry collection when I gathered over fifty poems at one time. Ullman helped me with manuscript edits. Jackson guided me through formulating and finalizing my critical thesis. I was fortunate to have known them. Valentine’s unparalleled elusiveness and exquisite sensibilities and Angel’s pure romanticism have had a defining influence on my writing. Ullman’s surpassing support as a teacher who exposed me to contemporary painters and photographers has also helped me to expand my artistic horizons. After taking workshops and semesters with both Valentine and Angel, my writing has defined itself as pure lyricism with a twist of contrast and ‘pull’ within each poem. And alongside Ullman, I dared to delve outside the realm of poetry. With Jackson, I also learned discipline and to force myself to write one poem a day every night. I am constantly in debt to them for all the good work we’ve put together. This past March, Angel and I participated in a successful panel at AWP Portland, discussing and advocating Any Color You Like: Inspiration in the Twenty-First Century.
CF: What did you work on for your thesis at VCFA and what has the journey looked like for that particular project? Where is it now?
AH: The title of my critical thesis is myths, Alchemy, dreams (mAd) in Surrealist Poetry and Paintings. It is a compilation of the most notable works of surrealist painters and poets whose works I admire.
Dreams have a logic of their own, or rather, a life of their own. They are infused with a darkly rational truth. Poetry and paintings portray this truth through a series of words and images governed by an inherent necessity that forces them into the light. For instance, Gisele Prassinos’ memoir focuses on the surreal nature of an environment set in juxtaposed incidents that do not associate in a conventional way. Prassinos dreamed about seeing a family at her doorstep after her mother passed away. She was awakened by a surprise visit from a family that included an elderly woman who resembled her deceased mother and a younger couple with a toddler that resembled her earlier marriage. The moments seemed so surreal when the young woman was breastfeeding her child, showcasing the couple’s troubled relationship and the old woman’s disapproval. These instances took place in juxtaposition throughout time in her work, confusing the reader as to whether she was awakening from a dream or experiencing one.
When I was first introduced by Ullman (my mentor) to Rene Magritte’s painting Homesickness, I was in complete awe. In Magritte’s painting, the painter’s half-waking self with wings, the lamp post, the lion, and all of them on a balcony in the night were identical to my own dreams. I frequently dreamed about the balcony of my childhood apartment during the first year I moved to Mexico City. In my dreams, there was a lamp post and a lion, and I was hoping to climb down each time I visited that balcony. Then I realized that the dreams I was having were an indication of my homesickness for my homeland.
I spent my 35th birthday at Wifredo Lam’s house in Mexico City. The ultra-modern three-story glass structure made from surrealist art pieces, then functioning as a library during the day and a restaurant in the evening for special occasions. Lam was a trailblazer for the surrealist movement. Another significant residence I spent some time in was La Casa Azul, the house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, located in Mexico City’s San Angel Inn area. Local artisans and craftsmen now populate the community. These artists’ works and personal stories have been an indomitable source of my inspiration for my thesis. Introspectively and retrospectively, I measure my work with their works, trying to find balance within our human nature and to make peace with nature. And then, of course, Carl G. Jung, the psychoanalyst and philosopher whose beliefs and studies in Collective Unconscious overshadowed all aspects of the very foundation of my past, present, and future works.
Joseph Cornell's work on Charles Simic's poetry resembles the Jungian influence on both my personal and artistic lives. In the preface, Simic had a dream in which he and Cornell passed each other on a New York City street. Though I have yet to meet with Carl G. Jung in my dreams, the first night I started reading The Red Book: Liber Novus, I too had a dream. In the dream, I was on an excursion with a large group of women writers and a puppy on a windowless boat. In an attempt to interpret the dream, I concluded that my upcoming book needed a clear direction and also that I needed a pet in my life. It was very surreal at first, but three days later, the dream came true. The dog that sits in my lap today as I write is the puppy I dreamed of that night. If I ask myself whether it was my dream that prompted me to buy that dog or the dream that foretold what was going to happen, my answer could be both. What mattered was that my destiny was coming to its realization through the guidance of my unconscious.
Concurrently, I am working on a TEDTalk material, going much deeper (almost transcendentally) with Joan Miro’s transformative paint philosophies and values.
Tatiana Rozo on set of In The Desert of Eternity, photographed by Eric Stoner
CF: Any advice for the new class of graduated writers as they begin their post-grad life?
AH: Creativity follows and surrenders to dreams and aspirations like a thirsty fellow needing food and water. Dreams and aspirations are coupled hand in hand, like the mother and father in a household. The household needs harmony and from that, creativity is born and raised, like a child who is nourished by her mother’s passionate nature and by her father’s determination and tenacity. Together they form a strong and sweet household, building a dream-come-true world of joy and success.
That said, it takes a family (and a village) to have a creation being born and raised. And we need a community of art lovers to sustain that love we have for our art. Nurturing our art needs patience, discipline and tactics, and only an artist who needs it-- creates it.
Art mediates the perception of the world. I believe that the power of my poetry and experimental films resides in their connectivity to people who view them. They resonate with their audience's philosophies and beliefs. This allows them to be happier and better individuals in this increasingly disparate and volatile society.