Months before Ethan Chua ’21 graduated from Stanford, tragedy struck: eight lives were lost in the Atlanta spa shootings, one of many anti-Asian hate crimes fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. To process the collective mourning of the Asian American community, Chua turned to poetry.
“I found myself really wanting to take my time with the grief and not get caught up in the news cycle — the temporal dailyness of that cycle,” Chua said. “Poetry, as a form, really gave me the opportunity to do that work.”
Thus “Sky Ladders” — a collection of multilingual poems and translations dedicated to those who passed away — was born.
Chua explained that much of the work grew from a poetry workshop taught by writer Rohan Chhetri and offered by Kundiman, an Asian American writing group. Chua read myths of the underworld from various cultures and religions in the workshop. They were particularly drawn to the concept of “katabasis” — which, from Ancient Greek, means a form of descent of some kind or trip to the underworld.
Chua said the class gave them an avenue for experimentation in poetry and a community to process their grief from the Atlanta shooting: “Reading these stories and poems about visitors to the underworld made me think about new ways to reckon with ghosts, grieving and the dead.”
Both the class and Chua’s work lean on mythology and hone in on a feeling of wanting to slow down time amid news cycles filled with racially-motivated gun violence. They captured this feeling through enjambment, a poetic technique where a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.
Enjambment is “a strategy for introducing pauses into the dailyness of speech,” Chua said.
For Chua, it was a way to communicate “with grief that happens on different scales of time as opposed to just journalistic time.”
Together, these concepts and techniques lend a certain impact and gravity to Chua’s body of work.
“After reading ‘Sky Ladders’ I came away haunted, thinking about the poems and the world they illuminated for me,” wrote Chapbook Competition judge Rajiv Mohabir in a statement to The Daily. “Ritual and mystery, history and personal myth kept me reading and rereading the manuscript.”
Bull City Press co-director Noah Stetzer wrote that “we are excited to bring this talented new poet to the attention of our readers not only because of Chua’s skill as a writer but also for the powerful concerns of these specific poems.”
Chua first became involved in poetry through spoken word while growing up in the Philippines. At Stanford, Chua pursued a creative writing minor with a concentration in poetry and was a member of the Spoken Word Collective. They found the organization to be their first ever home as a poet, and a support system that provided “a communal experience of performance” — something they consider crucial to poetry as an art form.
Chua worked alongside DeeSoul Carson ’21, who is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at New York University. Carson called “Sky Ladders” a “beautiful and deeply touching collection” that paints nuanced and humanizing portraits of the shooting’s victims.
“In the work, they are still alive, they are people who loved and laughed and had flaws and could be petty and they were just as deserving of life as the rest of us,” Carson said.
Chua said they developed their style and voice during a senior year Levinthal Tutorial with poet and former Stegner Fellow Monica Sok, who also lectures in the creative writing department. They moved away from writing solely from personal experiences in a lyric register, to writing “persona poems” from more historical perspectives. Part of their process even incorporated historical research into poetry, like delving into the Stanford Library archives on the Filipino-American War. Reading the work of other writers also helped Chua imagine the possibilities of their own project.
Sok read her poetry at Chua’s launch event in New York this past August, alongside Kimberly Alidio, who wrote “Teeter,” and Emily Lee Luan, who wrote “回 / Return.” Sok said that she and Chua studied the works of Yuki Tanaka, who also won the Chapbook Contest in 2018. Some of the poems they discussed during the Levinthal are translated in Chua’s collection.
“Ethan [Chua] truly honored each individual who had been killed in this spree of anti-Asian violence,” Sok said. “Their memories are engraved in these poems, [and] Ethan’s words are a gift to both the living and the dead.”
Following the publication of “Sky Ladders,” Chua described coming to terms with relinquishing control over interpretations of their work, a conundrum they said many artists deal with.
Chua however does not want people to assume they are only writing about the victims because they are Asian: “For me, that would be missing the point, which is that it always takes work to let people into our lives, and it always takes work to understand the stakes of belonging.”