Q&A with award-winning poet Alvin Lau
By JOELLE BURNETTE
ROHNERT PARK CORRESPONDENT
Poet Alvin Lau will perform tonight at 7 p.m on the Sonoma State University campus in the Student Union as part of Asian Heritage Month on campus in April.
Among his many honors, this 27-year-old son of first-generation Chinese immigrants is a two-time champion of the National Poetry Slam and has been featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. After catching up with Lau at San Francisco International Airport, here’s some information about life as a poet.
Q: What’s your favorite poetry topic?
A: “A lot of my writing nowadays is in social justice issues and a lot of issues in the (Asian-Pacific Islander) community.” He listed topical issues such as civil rights, how Asians are viewed in the media, and personal questions about what it means to be Asian or Asian-American. “A lot of my work explores, what is the hyphen in Asian-American.”
Q: What is life like as a modern poet?
A: “This is going to be the fifth time zone I’ve been in three days,” Lau said while he was waiting to pick up his bags at the airport Friday. Then, after tonight’s SSU engagement, he’s jetting off to New York before flying to Michigan. “It’s adventurous…It’s a little hectic,” he spoke rapidly. Referring to the George Clooney movie, “Up in the Air,” he said, “It’s a lot like that.” He’s good at getting through airport security lines quickly and knows how to pack lightly. Currently, he’s enjoying writing a poem every day in April for National Poetry Month.
Q: What’s your advice to young poets?
A: “Read as much as possible.” Only a small portion of poets can make a living from their writing, but everyone should try writing poetry. “It’s cathartic; it’s releasing. It’s really good for emotional stability. It’s fun to create.” He also added, “Eat rice every day.” No, he didn’t offer any hidden meaning behind that statement.
Q: How did you get started in poetry?
A: “I had really terrible stage fright” to the point of getting physically ill at the thought of going up on stage. As a prank, a friend signed him up to perform as part of a poetry slam team. He and his team ended up winning a national youth competition. When he later signed up for an adult competition, he took seventh-place nationally and sixth-place worldwide. “So, I thought, maybe I should keep doing this thing.” Since then, he has placed in the top 10 six times in the past seven years. The one year he didn’t make it into top 10 he described as the worst year ever.
Q: How can you make a living writing and performing poetry?
A: He suggests writers have an alternate source of income while they are trying to make it big. He lives in Las Vegas about 10 weeks out of the year and now makes a comfortable living playing online poker; his largest payout was $96,000 in one day, but his largest loss in a day was “40-something.” Growing up, he played a lot of strategy games, video games, chess and other games. “Poker was a really good way to turn all those really nerdy pursuits and disciplines into a lot of money.” He added, “I think of poetry as the ice cubes of my life, and poker is what I just pour around them and fit into the remaining space.”
Q: What do your parents think of your career in poetry and gambling?
A: With slight hesitation in his voice, he said, “They are extremely supportive and love everything I do.” They were a bit concerned about him wanting to go to art school and getting into gambling, but not for long. Aside from the gambling, as a poet, he said, “I do okay, poetry-wise; I charge a lot.”
Tonight’s event at SSU is free to the public and will offer an open mic at the end. You can see more of Lau’s performances at his YouTube page: www.youtube.com/citizenwind.
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