Interview and questions by Anh Nguyen
The following interview questions were crafted with Calista Ogburn’s previous interviews in mind. For more context on the author’s responses, go to https://www.calista-ogburn.com/ to check out all of her features in articles and interviews, as well as to support her work.
Calista Ogburn is a Korean and Vietnamese American college student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County studying Public Health with a minor in Asian Studies. She has studied at International high schools overseas which has given her a global perspective. She reaches her readers by sharing her feelings and experiences through poetry. Calista considers empathy and compassion as important values in creating her poetry and touching her audience. She relates her poems with women about identity and gender oppression, body image issues, and building the foundation of self-worth.
Q: You published your first poetry collection, a splash of yellow, last year. Did you have any concerns about your first self-published poetry collection, as well as your most recent one?
I would say my biggest concern was wondering how people would react to it. What would people say to my poetry? What would people think about the content I was writing about? I’m definitely one of those people who loves to please others. I am a people-pleaser. Whatever decision I make, the things I talk about, or the poetry I write, I want to make sure that other people will enjoy it, or [that I will] at least not get backlash from it. But, essentially, it’s really hard to write anything in this world without getting some sort of backlash for it, in my own personal opinion. I would say for a splash of yellow, it was that fear of people [not] liking my writing, and once I got over that fear [and] once I published it, it didn’t do too well in the terms of . . . [getting] asked for a lot of interviews or . . . [being] in a lot of articles. I really published the book for myself, so I knew for my second collection, this is it, I wanted to take it a step further and have more people reach out, have more people have access to the book, [and] know about the book. Knowing that more people would know about it scared me a little bit because that mean[t] my concern [wa]s just going to grow bigger, but it’s a risk that I wanted to take. So far, the overwhelming love and support has been amazing.
Q: Writing is often a preservation of the emotions and events of a certain time period. this is it acts as a time capsule of the emotions and events of 2020, especially from your viewpoint, which is a reflection of many Asian Americans’, especially those most affected by increasingly xenophobic and racist sentiments perpetuated by the current president. If readers were to pick up your poetry collection ten years from now, or even one or two years from now, what do you think you would want them to take away from it? What is it from this time period that you want them to be reminded of? Or rather, what do you need them to be reminded of?
I really love how you’re thinking about the future already, because for me, the future doesn’t even seem attainable at this point. I think there’s just so much unpredictability, almost a[n]. . . “end of the world” aspect to this pandemic. So, I think your question really touches on this importance of literature [and how it] has always been proven to be a huge part of history. Especially marking moments in time where a huge thing like a pandemic happens — what was the literature from that? It never crossed my mind that someone years from now would read my book from a different time period. I think when I wrote the book, I was thinking, “I want to write this right now and for people to read it right now,” and as you asked me this question, it reminded me of how no matter what, no matter if it’s even 30 years from now, and you found the book on the ground, for example (I don’t know why it’d be on the ground), in that moment, I would want someone to feel almost confused, almost like a “someone wrote about these?”
Because I think what’s been happening with the rising hate crimes, the xenophobia, and the racism against Asians and Asian Americans is that it’s not — I don’t feel like it’s a very universal topic. I feel like I know about it because, you know, I’m within the community, and I purposefully follow a lot of accounts that focus on it. I purposefully look for news in there, but you don’t see it on major headlines across the world. Usually, it’s within specific cities, specific states, specific countries, but it’s not a ‘everyone needs to know about this right now.’ The conversations I had with people right now, who are living through it with me, don’t even know about it, unless they’re as versed with it as I am.
So, I think [for] someone years from now, or even just two years from now, I’d want them to read that author’s note . . . [and know] the context of where I’m writing these poems from and what it felt like, and this is what Trump called it. I think, in that moment,
[I] also [want them to know] that this book is a personal book, and . . . that my experiences are not every Asian’s and Asian American’s experience, and also [recognize] that towards the end of my book, I focus on a little bit of hope for the future, hoping that everything works out well, and if not, I’m your best friend, and this book is here for you.
If someone read that years from now, after the pandemic is over, it’s almost like a little laugh. ‘This poet didn’t know that this was going to happen and the result of it.’
Q: In your interview with Stories Empowered, you mentioned how one of your poems has a deeper meaning, especially regarding differences between Korean and American cultures. I felt you were hinting at the individualism that separates Western culture from many Asian cultures and our collectivism. So, how do you think the pandemic has affected the world, specifically America, culturally?
Yes, that poem does hint at the individualistic culture and the collectivistic culture [of America and Korea], talking about how, in America, it’s always seen as this thing where it’s like every man for himself. ‘I’m here for me and only me, and I’m doing whatever I can for myself,’ and I think that really changes your perspective on how you do things, like when you go to the store, and you see these funny meme videos on Facebook or Instagram of a white woman lashing out about how she doesn’t want to wear her mask. And you see these funny jokes about this “Karen,” and you see how the culture that we’re in now is laughing at these things where you really need to consider wearing a mask. When you take those instances, I noticed, especially with our generation, we like to take serious moments and turn them into heartfelt or sometimes funny moments. I think with the poem I was trying to focus on — I’m gonna be honest — that even happened before the whole “Karen” thing happened. I was writing poems before the end of April, and the “Karen” videos really didn’t start trending then; they were trending right after. Obviously, I didn’t have a chance to write any funny poems about that, but I’ll save that for another time.
I thought it was really interesting how I was already recognizing these different things, like how my friend, my illustrator, Hannah Lee, for the book, she was in Hong Kong and Korea beforehand, and she was like, “I’m not having any of that here. Everyone’s abiding and everyone’s wearing their mask. It’s almost rude if you don’t wear your mask.” It’s because it’s such a normalized thing there, so when you take something in the United States specifically, ‘You have to wear your mask,’ it’s like, ‘Why?’ ‘I don’t see physically what it’s doing to help others,’ and I think that’s where it comes in, into the difference of culture. I think culture is really hard to be like, ‘Hey, you’re wrong,” and then expect everyone, or every American, to be, ‘Oh okay.’ It’s really hard, so learning how to, Western culture specifically, how do you navigate that? How do you tell them, ‘You should wear a mask,’ without attacking them? [It’s] understanding that this is just not what they’re used to, and it’s understanding how to navigate and strategize ways to do so.
Q: In they ask us why we do not speak up, [a poem from this is it], you referenced Confucian values that are often present in East and Southeast Asian households. How do you toe the line between respecting those values that our parents have instilled in us while pushing their own, especially with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement?
I would say it’s definitely been challenging. I think I’ve always been this person who does not speak up in terms of many situations, even if it affects me. Not only do I not speak up, for example, in a classroom setting, to answer a simple question, [but] I [also] do not speak up in terms of ‘I encountered a racist situation.’ Someone said something to me, and even if it’s directly to me, and I’m upset and sad about it, I still won’t say anything. When I wrote this book, I think it was a strong message to myself: I was like, ‘I feel more empowered than ever,’ because I was just so angry. I was so angry at everything, so what I first started doing was I would make these little Instagram stories of me just going off. I would greenscreen a tweet, and I would react to it, or I would talk about, on my stories, ‘Do you think it’s okay to do this or this?’ ‘Do you think it’s cultural appropriation?’ I would do polls, and I would react to them, and I would educate people. I would have many people in my direct messages telling me ‘This is really helpful!’ ‘I had no idea this was cultural appropriation.’ ‘I had no idea that this was offensive to Asians.’
That not only empowered me even more after I wrote my book, [but] it made me realize that I was doing a lot of speaking up on social media, and that meant that I need to do it in my personal life.
When Black Lives Matter rolled around after I had written the book, it was before I published it. I delayed publishing my book because I really wanted to focus on the movement, and the movement is still very important right now, even when I did publish my book, but I wanted to set that time open for social media people to see only in their timeline about Black Lives Matter topics. Not that Asians, in my book, did not matter, it was just, right now, this [Black Lives Matter] is what we need to focus on and that we need to come in solidarity and community, recognizing that we’re not just doing performative activism, you know? Just posting a cool graphic about Black Lives Matter on our story? What are you doing actively within your friends and family circles?
Not only did I delay my book, I was like, “Okay, I need to do more.” It was more than just putting Instagram stories, it was like, ‘Now I need to talk about,’ like, a lot of people were asking me about, ‘how do you talk to your mom and dad about this?’ So, on my Instagram story, I talked about, ‘Here’s how you talk to and feel held accountable to talk about these things with your parents.’ And one of the things I discovered was, I would put the news on, and I would show the protests and be like, “Oh this is really serious,” and if my mom had said, “Oh they’re just doing it for attention” or all these negative backlash comments, I would rebuttal. I researched a lot of ways to rebuttal, ways on how to say, “No, actually, I think it’s this,” and it’s not coming out of a place [where] I was screaming or really upset. I was calmly saying, “I really feel like it’s about this instead.” “I feel like they want to have their voices heard, and they’re really tired and really exhausted.” She’d be like, “Why?” “Well there are multiple reasons and things that have happened recently, of the murder of [Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others], and showing her the evidence of these murders and saying how they were really unnecessary. She was like, “You’re completely right.” Not only was that one of the few times when my mom told me I’m right, but I think it was amazing that [that resulted through] approaching situations with a calm demeanor, which kinda sucks, but it’s also necessary with enough evidence, especially for knowing that within an Asian household, it can be really difficult to push back. But, pushing back doesn’t always have to be in such an aggressive way that we think it is.
Q: As a Public Health major, do you still see yourself publishing poetry in the future?
I would like to think so. I would like to think that maybe I will post, oh I don’t know, maybe ten or twenty more? As much as life can handle. I think self-publishing — it sounds weird, but when people hear that I’m a published author, you think, ‘Oh you must major in something within that field, or you want to do this for the rest of your life.’ That’s really hard because I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. I don’t create books for money, and I don’t create books to be popular or be the next upcoming poet, which would be amazing, but I don’t strive towards that because I have multiple passions and multiple interests. Especially since we’re going through this pandemic, I think my major matters more than anything right now. I think I always considered poetry as my best friend. It was never a, ‘I want to make a career off of you.’ It was more of a, ‘I will publish you maybe once a year, maybe once every two years, and see how people react to it.’
Q: This pandemic, which was your exigence, as you discussed in your author’s note, along with many other events this year, revealed an uglier side of the world that was lying dormant. I think many of us have been negatively impacted emotionally and mentally because of this, but is there anything positive from this year that you think we should remember?
I think, as everything has been happening and crashing down around us — I’m not even kidding, like every day I wake up there’s something wrong with the world, and it is the most depressing thing ever. How do you expect me to wake up in the morning and want to be productive? I don’t want to do anything. I want to be part of the world crashing. So, this positivity that we crave for — but we don’t want it to be a toxic positivity, where we see the same thing, as like, during this unpredictable and unprecedented time — it’s like, no, what is actually positive about what’s going on right now?
My main thing that I would have to say for my perspective is community. More than ever, I’ve seen people come together, specifically people of color, with some situations here and there, which we’re not quite there yet. But, it started this really strong conversation where it was on all social media platforms where you were learning about something that you had done in the past, and you had to unlearn the biases you’ve learned from school or from friends and family. It was a sort of slow beginning to educating the entire United States, but also parts of the world and to the point . . . where in different countries there were protests and marches [for Black Lives Matter]. That’s a statement, and that’s a movement.
We can look at all the negatives that sparked it, but the positive of it is that it’s happening. We’re having these conversations, and we’re having a sense of community more than ever. It’s not a community with your friends; it’s a community from people all over the world. I was having video calls with people: high school friends from Korea and Vietnam, and I was like, ‘you see what’s going on in the news?’ We would have this conversation about, ‘I’m learning a lot about my privilege and my biases that I’ve had in the past,’ and I think that’s really important. I think that’s all we can hope for more years down the line and that this doesn’t disappear.
‘That pandemic was terrible, but more than anything, I’ve learned so much from that.’
Special thanks to Calista Ogburn for agreeing to be interviewed with us. Once again, if you would like to support her most recent poetry collections, the links to purchase them on Amazon are here: