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A conversation with Ally Ang: Local Queer poet awarded NEA Creative Writing fellowship

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Ally Ang — Photo by Lauren Vasatka
Ally Ang — Photo by Lauren Vasatka

Self-described "Gaysian," Seattle-based poet and editor Ally Ang is being directed to pose for photos. We are standing in the Capitol Hill Library after their interview, as our photographer snaps shots of them with their bright blue hair and floral suit. Ally is a bit shy initially, blushing a little at the attention and prone to the occasional nervous giggle. Eventually, their confidence emerges as they give the camera a brilliant smile.

Ally is too humble for their own good. Here at the SGN, we'd like to fix that.

The poet has such accomplishments as being published in Queer Nature: A Poetry Anthology, Nepantia: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, Foglifter, Columbia Journal, and more. They've been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Also, add Tin House Workshop alum and 2022 Jack Straw Writers Program fellow to the list. Their newest achievement is a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Creative Writing fellowship, which came with a $25,000 grant.

This is no small sum for any artist, and this award is highly competitive. According to the NEA, nearly 1,900 people applied for the 2023 fellowship; only 36 were chosen.

Ally announced in a tweet after receiving the news, "I am honored and mind blown to announce that I am a 2023 @NEAarts Fellow! I'm getting $25,000 to work on my writing and joining a cohort of some of the most amazing poets in the world!"

Ally's poetry explores topics such as their being Asian (in their poem "Owed to My Father's Accent"), and their sexuality and vision for a better world (in "On Being Asked What Is Your Dream Job?"), among others. In so few words, they give the reader glimpses into their hard-won battles and well-deserved joys.

Benny Loy: What are your pronouns and identity?
Ally Ang: Thanks for asking. My pronouns are they/them, and I identify as Bisexual and Nonbinary, and Asian American. And a poet! I guess those are the big ones.

BL: I noticed your Twitter and Instagram handles are @TheOceanIsGay. Where did that come from?
AA: I like to believe that the ocean and the moon are Lesbian lovers, and I don't know, I just think the ocean is very Gay.

BL: So how did you start writing?
AA: I started writing when I was a kid, and I was, you know, one of the very shy, nerdy kids who was reading all the time. I started writing poetry because I didn't know how to talk about a lot of my feelings or I didn't want to talk about my feelings. And poetry felt like a way to express them.

I wrote a lot of teenage-angst poems that are really bad. And I put them on Tumblr, and I hope they don't still exist out there somewhere, but maybe they do. I only started to take my writing a little bit more seriously when I was in college.

Photo by Lauren Vasatka  

BL: Did you have an "aha" moment where you realized that this is something you could feasibly pursue?
AA: Honestly, getting the NEA fellowship was kind of that "aha" moment because, you know, it's always been something I'm very passionate about. But I never thought I could make any money, because it's poetry. Like, who makes money from poems? I never want it to be my main source of income, because that's unrealistic, and I want it to remain something that brings me joy. Yeah, but that did feel very validating, that I am pursuing something that other people will find worthwhile and not just me.

BL: How would you say your identity affects your work?
AA: I was an Asian American kid in a predominantly white town. I was also trying to figure out my queerness and didn't know what to do about that. A lot of my first poems... [were] me exploring my identity. And in a lot of ways, I think now I would look back on them as [clichéd]. But it was important for me to put it into words. It's what really sparked my love of poetry.

I didn't really care too much about the old dead white guy poets that we learned about in school. But when I discovered slam and spoken-word poets, and I saw other people of color and Queer people and people from marginalized identities writing poems and sharing their experiences on such a big stage, I was like, "I didn't even know you could write poems about this stuff and, like, have it be respected." Becoming familiar with the work of contemporary Queer poets of color really showed me that our experiences are worth writing about.

BL: How do you plan to use the grant?
AA: A lot of it will be spent very unsexily on rent and bills. I think just having a little bit more financial stability means everything. It means I can devote more of my time and energy to writing. I also just finished writing my first full-length poetry manuscript. So, I'm trying to get that published.

BL: Tell me about your work with Forward Together.
AA: I just started working with them this past summer. I'm still pretty new there, but they're a women of color—led reproductive justice organization. It's rooted in frameworks of Queer and Trans liberation, which, you know, all of those issues are very important to me. I'm a grant writer for them, so I guess my job is to tell the story of the organization to people who want to support that mission. So that's been a cool way to use my writing in a way that both helps [a] cause that I care about and also pays the rent.

It's been really wonderful. I love working at a place that is women of color led and has so many Queer and Trans people on staff. Reproductive justice, Trans rights, and Queer rights are really urgent right now.

Photo by Lauren Vasatka  

BL: What would say are the biggest obstacles to pursuing writing?
AA: I mean, capitalism! I think I have a lot more spaciousness with my job with Forward Together, but it always feels so hard to make time and energy for writing when you're working full-time and also have a social life and a cat to take care of. Sometimes it feels like it's really easy to push writing to the bottom of my to-do list, because other things feel more urgent. Sometimes I have to really make an effort to prioritize writing. Especially now that I'm no longer in school, I don't have those formal structures.

Also, perfectionism. I'm trying to be better about giving myself permission to not be perfect at everything. It's okay to be bad at things. I don't have to be perfect, I'll focus on having fun with it.

Ang is a source of pride for the community; their poetry gives a voice to those who may find it difficult to express their feelings. LGBTQIA+ people of color's work inspired them, and now Ang shares their unique story, like the people they look up to. Like when they were a teen, their work may pass down that poetic spark to someone who never considered that their words could also matter. The NEA could not have made a better choice.