Chancellor's Fellow

In their own words: Paul Tran discusses their WashU experience, the publishing journey and the role of poetry

Written 3.19.21

Paul Tran, MFA ’19 and Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow, is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and a Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Their work appears in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Good Morning America, NYLON and in the RZA-directed movie “Love Beats Rhymes” (Lionsgate). Tran won the Howard Nemerov Prize, Dorothy Negri Prize, and Norma Lowry Memorial Award. They have coached poetry slam teams at Brown University, Barnard College & Columbia University, and Washington University. Paul was the first Asian American since 1993—and first transgender poet ever—to win the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam, placing top 10 at the Individual World Poetry Slam and top 2 at the National Poetry Slam. A two-time winner of the Rustbelt Poetry Slam, Tran has served as Poet-in-Residence at Urban Word NYC and head poetry slam coach at Urban Arts Alliance in St. Louis, which won the Brave New Voices Grand Slam Championship in 2019. Tran has received scholarships, residencies, and fellowships from numerous organizations including the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis and the National Endowment for the Arts. Tran’s debut collection, “All the Flowers Kneeling,” will be published by Penguin Poets in February 2022.

After earning an MFA in poetry from Washington University in 2019, where you were a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow and Senior Poetry Fellow in The Writing Program, where has poetry taken you?

I’m currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, where I teach poetry and creative nonfiction for the Levinthal Tutorials, and I’m a visiting faculty in poetry at Pacific University’s writing program. Last summer, the Summer Writers Institute at WashU invited me to teach a workshop, “Autobiography & Poetry: Revenge on Circumstance,” which I’m thrilled to facilitate again this upcoming summer. Most of my energy, as of late, is being directed at the production of my first book, “All the Flowers Kneeling,” to be published by Penguin/Random House in February 2022 as part of their Penguin Poets Series. We have everything to do from selecting the cover to copy editing to solidifying the book tour. My goal is to orchestrate events in every state, to reach that version of myself who, growing up, would’ve needed such a book. 

How would you describe the book and the entire process to get to a finished manuscript?

The book emerges from my experience as a rape survivor, though that word, “rape,” is not used anywhere in the book. The book, instead, is about survival, and it’s about whether the acquisition of knowledge—that there’s no right way to survive, that a new life is possible—makes any difference in the formation of that new life. I don’t know how many books like this are out there, written by someone from where I come from, but it’s my belief that a poem must say what only that particular speaker can say. And a book should do the same. This book began as my graduate thesis in The Writing Program, under the mentorship of Carl Phillips, Mary Jo Bang, and francine j. harris, and it took me almost until the end of my studies to assemble it. I didn’t know, for the longest time, my purpose as a poet: how I wanted to write, what I wanted to write about, what I was truly after. I came to WashU believing I had to document my family history. Among the things I learned was that representation isn’t enough. I had to make an argument about what poetry is and can be with every poem. I had to find a way into the mind, the heart and the soul, what my teachers taught to me as “interiority.”

I had, on March 6 of my graduating year, 16 usable pages for my thesis. I wrote entirely new poems and turned in a thesis of 75 or so pages on April 1. I was so grateful my teachers saw something in that thesis and invited me back as the Senior Poetry Fellow in The Writing Program, during which I revised and rewrote the thesis into my first book manuscript. I sent that manuscript to my agent, who guided me through several rounds of revision, and then we pitched it to about a dozen publishers for auction. The education Mary Jo Bang and Carl Phillips cultivated at WashU resonate in all I do because it wasn’t about publication or the achievement of prestige. It was about ascertaining for myself the life I want not only as a poet but also as a person. They taught me to more honestly and critically investigate human experience, to use everything I have in order to doubt, to live with doubt, and to learn more. They taught me to make my own path, and that path led me to the poems that constitute this book.

How have you been celebrating the overnight fame of the National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman?

This quarter I have the honor of TA-ing for one of my favorite poets, Ada Limón, and I celebrated in class with her and with students not far from Amanda’s age. I remember, moons ago, in high school, watching Elizabeth Alexander deliver the poem for President Obama’s inauguration and analyzing that poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” as part of my history class. I couldn’t imagine, then, that I’d meet Elizabeth Alexander in person, that she’d tell me “the most whole heart is a broken one,” and that I’d carry that message with me to this day. Therefore, to see the spotlight on Amanda Gorman, to be reminded of the function poetry serves in our lives, and to witness the fire that she lights in young people who, like her, are resolved to use their voices for social justice is at once phenomenal and almost indescribable.

What is next for Paul Tran?

This summer, I’m looking forward to being the Peter Taylor Fellow for Carl Phillips at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and reprising the “Autobiography & Poetry” course for the Summer Writers Institute at WashU. I love teaching. Even more than writing, I draw my love for poetry from the instruction of it and from the challenge of making with students something, hopefully a poem, that had no way of existing before. Teaching is my form of activism. It’s how I dismantle received ideas and investments. It’s how to pay forward the gifts given to me—the gift to think critically, to speak boldly, to dare imagine something else. My professors at WashU, in ways that reveal themselves to me even now, every day, rescued me. They helped me, yes, learn how to write and, most importantly, how to transform. I see the teaching of poetry as a way to help students change their lives by changing their minds and the very language with which they articulate their mind to the world. I’m also at work on new poems, what in dreams appear to me as a new book, about the nature of change and the cost of transformation—what one will and what one won’t sacrifice for their own happiness—and it’s thrilling, and agonizing, to be at the beginning of something mysterious again.

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