Monday, October 31, 2011

Apex Magazine interviews Lynne Thomas

Apex Magazine recently posted an interview with the awesome Lynne Thomas, who took over as their new editor, and was an editor for the Hugo-winning Chicks Dig Time Lords with Tara O'Shea

Her first issue will be this week, and will feature two poems of mine.

A big thanks to her for the nice shout-out in her interview. I've always been impressed by the talent in the Thomas family, including her husband, writer Michael D. Thomas. I'm looking forward to seeing more from them in the coming years ahead!

Journal of the Day: The Innsmouth Free Press

2011 marks 20 years since I began writing poetry and short stories seriously, and placing them in publications. Some have come and gone. Others are still chugging along. For the next few weeks, I'm going to look at some of those who were there for me at different points in my career.

Seeing that today is Halloween, I'll start off with one of the journals dedicated to horror and the supernatural, I've appeared in, the Innsmouth Free Press.

Established in 2009, the Innsmouth Free Press is many things, printing short fiction, poetry, and news clips in the vein of The Onion, if The Onion did horror.  They also put out reviews and commentary on topics related to the mythos and cosmic horror envisioned by 20th century writer H.P. Lovecraft.

The Innsmouth Free Press is where you can find my horror story, "A Model Apartment," about a Hmong painter who moves to the city of Arkham and what happens when she runs into the horrors of New England and the Old Country.

My poem, "The Deep Ones" will be featured in their forthcoming anthology, Future Lovecraft.

They also printed what I believe may be one of the first Lovecraftian historcal horror stories set in Laos, "What Hides, What Returns" in their anthology, Historical Lovecraft this year.

One of the things I've enjoyed about the press is its commitment to multicultural voices and their search for well-written, new perspectives. The Innsmouth Free Press has been very good about encouraging mythos fiction that reflects diverse perspectives and cultural viewpoints, which is still somewhat rare in this sub-genre of horror.

This is the journal where I've also deposited any number of short horror bits to help flesh out the city of Innsmouth, first featured in Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."  Some have been tongue-in-cheek, such as the discovery of lost Twain manuscripts that hint of the Jumping Frog God of Tsathogghua County,  while others have been efforts of mine to broaden the perception and role of Southeast Asians in Lovecraftian fiction.

A significant example is the work I've done regarding a Lovecraftian race known as the Tcho Tcho, who first appeared in August Derleth's 1933 short story "The Thing That Walked on the Wind." In that story, a character refers in passing to "the forbidden and accursed designs of the Tcho-Tcho people of Burma". Later that year, in "Lair of the Star-Spawn", co-written with Mark Schorer, Derleth expanded on the Tcho-Tcho, describing them as a short, hairless people that worship Lloigor and Zhar. Given their treatment over the years by other writers, I've felt much better work can be done handling them. We'll see, over time, what prevails in the Lovecraftian canon.

The Innsmouth Free Press is still looking for occasional and regular contributors and readers. They recently finished their Apocalypse Week series, and have many other exciting issues ahead. Check them out!

Laos News of the Week

Some interesting news items for Laos came up over the last week:

Open.Salon.Com highlighted Robert Isenberg's The Laos Project #1 as an editor's pick this week. A writer from Pittsburgh, he's traveling to Laos this November and sharing excerpts from his manuscript in progress. Among the things he addresses is Laos' status as the most heavily bombed nation of the 20th century. It will be interesting to see where he takes the book over time.

The Guatemala News features an excerpt of Daniel Swift's "Killing Space: cultural and political histories of bombing" that touches on the history of bombing in Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia and its modern impacts on the technology and policies for bombing countries today.

The Douglasville Patch has an article on veteran Hunter Park, who died bombing Ban Ban in Laos in May, 1965.

A News-Leader article discusses a new book on the life of former Missouri Senator Samuel Eagleton.  Among his accomplishments is a 1973 amendment introduced to an appropriations bill that effectively ended the war in Southeast Asia. It stated to the Nixon administration that no longer could U.S. forces be used in Cambodia and Laos. This prevented any additional funding for the bombings in Laos and effectively ended the war, for the Americans, at least.

National Geographic has an article, Two Rivers about how efforts to harness and export power from the Mekong and Irawaddy rivers are dividing Southeast Asia, especially Laos.

According to the Malaysian National News Agency and Xinhua, China and Laos are expanding a nature reserve to protect the Asian elephant. This will cover 20,000 hectares of forest in China and 35,000 hectares in Laos, expanding it to over 100,000 hectares. This could be good news for the elephants, if efforts are effective.

China and Laos have also signed an MOU to develop organic farms. Not organ farms.

According to the Fars News Agency, Iran is expanding its relations to Laos. What could possibly go wrong?

The Koreans want in on the action, too, according to the Korea Times.

In the Washington Post, Douglas Clayton, chief executive officer of Leopard Capital discussed his feeling that Bangladesh, Laos and Myanmar are good opportunities for an investor.

Switzerland is trying to help Laos preserve the Mekong River basin with over $3 million thanks to efforts from the Mekong River Commission.

North Central Michigan College will host Thongsai Vangyi on November 1st at the Petoskey campus. He will speak about his family's escape from Laos.

Laos donated 192,000 bottles of water to the Thai to assist flood victim relief, estimated at $32,000 worth, or over 256,639,812 Kip or 982,561 Baht.

And just in time for Halloween, Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome is covered in a New York Post Article, Night Terrors: Can You Be Killed By A Nightmare?

Asian American Literature Fans

From time to time, be sure to take a look at the journal Asian American Literature Fans which updates fairly regularly with some great reviews of the latest in, well, Asian American literature.

If you're looking for something you or the readers in your life will enjoy, but might not have heard of in the mainstream press, this is a good place to start.

Personally, I'm going to go take a look at Jennifer K. Chung's Terroryaki!, a recent winner of the 3-Day Novel book contest. While it's probably not as scary as the title promises, it sounds like a much needed bit of comedy in Asian American arts and letters. On another note, as we approach NaNoWriMo, the 3-Day novel challenge should demonstrate that if we wanted to we could put ourselves under much more pressure. So there!

Sue J. Kim also makes a good argument this month for looking again at Sujata Massey’s The Salaryman’s Wife (Harper 1997) and Zen Attitude (Harper 1998).the first two in Massey’s Rei Shimura detective series.

Happy reading!

Haiku Movie Review: The Thing, 2011

Just spells out too much,
But quite faithful to classic.
Unsure what it is.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Haiku Movie Review: In Time

The clock is ticking,
Theme a bit heavy handed.
Is it over yet?

Lao Steampunk Sundays: Steampunk Haunted House New York

If it weren't for the ridiculous expense of traveling to and around New York, there's an interesting haunted house that uses a steampunk theme for the third year in a row this year. But, to be fair, the tickets run around $20 to $50 depending on when you go (or $10 for students who get lucky.)

Of course, it leads me to wonder what a Lao steampunk haunted house would look like, and back again to our classic discussions of what are the roots of horror to Lao and the most effective storytelling structures to present these concepts to various publics.


"Created by Bessie Award-winning artists of Third Rail Projects, the Steampunk Haunted House is an integration of contemporary installation, dance, and performance art, and is an accessible, fun, utterly breathtaking experience. Unlike traditional haunted houses that rely on gore or graphic violence to horrify their patrons, this event chills, delights, and terrifies its audience without showing a single drop of blood." 

The premise itself is one that should be of interest to many of our Lao american artists, given their current work in speculative literature and art, dance and performance, and should serve as positive encouragement to keep pursuing these visions and to find our own voices within the genre and aesthetic.

Postcard views of Lao women

This image of Lao women from the early 20th century was from a vintage French postcard. Another postcard shows women from Siam and Laos:

It's particularly interesting how we now photograph many of them such as this postcard showing the Land of a Thousand Smiles:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

New Lao American blog: Little Laos On the Prairie!

The new blog, Little Laos On the Prairie has launched! 

Featuring the writing of Lao American writers Danny Khotsomboth and Chanida Phaengdara (and myself on Sundays), it's envisioned as a blog to meet the needs of Lao American readers and community members in the Midwest. 

Hopefully we'll be seeing a good range of articles and topics come up.

They're planning to post something new everyday, so be sure to check in regularly!


Now a member of the Horror Writer Association!

Just in time for Halloween, I've recently been informed that my application as an active, professional member of the international Horror Writer Association was reviewed and approved.

The membership requirements for eligibility are rigorous and involve being paid at a professional rate for a body of professional work. I appear to be one of the first Lao American poets and short story writers to successfully qualify.

Among the work that qualified me was "The True Tale of Yer," first featured in Bamboo Among the Oaks, and my books On the Other Side of the Eye, and BARROW.

My short story "What Hides and What Returns," in this year's Historical Lovecraft, and "A Model Apartment," from the 2010 Innsmouth Free Press, "The Dog at the Camp," from Tales of the Unanticipated's Autumn, 2006 issue also were included.

I was also able to point to numerous poems that appeared in magazines such as G-Fan, Dark Wisdom, Illumen, Future Lovecraft, and Apex Magazine, among others.

To put it all into perspective, the Horror Writer Association is a worldwide non-profit organization of professional writers and publishing professionals dedicated to promoting the interests of Horror and Dark Fantasy writers.

It was formed in the 1980s with the help of many of the field's greats, including Joe Lansdale, Robert McCammon, and Dean Koontz. The group was originally called HOWL (Horror and Occult Writers League), but quickly changed to the Horror Writers of America when they formally organized. HWA now has members and regional chapters throughout North America, Europe, Australia and Japan, which led to the current name of the organization.

 HWA sponsors the annual Bram Stoker Awards for superior achievement in Horror and Dark Fantasy.

Thai horror writer and composer S.P. Somtow has been a past president of the Horror Writer Association.

I look forward to meeting and connecting with many new and familiar colleagues of mine in the coming years ahead, and of course, continuing to share scary stories and poems with all of you.

NAFEA 2011 Session of Interest: What Remains

One of the interesting sessions from NAFEA this year was Viet Le's paper What Remains: Returns, Confrontations, Representation, and Traumatic Memory in S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and Refugee.  

Viet Le from the University of Southern California was looking at two documentaries, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and Refugee (2004).  The focus was how Khmer and others think about returns, traumatic memory and representation. And what remains. By remains, Viet Le meant "real and spectral bodies, alive and dead; as well as the traces of what is left behind, resuscitated in collective and individual memory and history."

Viet Le's paper touched on the themes of loss, melancholia, masculinity, witnessing and the politics of representation and ethics.

In this particular session, the participants also had a chance to hear from Leakhena Nou, Asiroh Cham, Chanthan Pich, Sundaram Rama, Nushin Sarkarati and Storm Tiv who focues on the Cambodian Diaspora Victims' Participation Project, which was a collaboration with the Asian Pacific American Institute at New York University and the Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia.

Writing about Laos: Views over 3 decades

Among emerging writers there's often this assumption that there's only a handful of ways to describe Laos, but in fact it's quite varied.

Today, we're looking at 5 ways writers have described the country over the course of the last 30 years so you can start getting a sense of the contrast and options you have available to you.

Bear in mind, most of the books actually go on at length to expand their descriptions and histories, and this is not exhaustive of the options people have chosen. But I think there's a lot to consider in how a writer frames Laos in their introductory overview of the country.

For example, consider:

"Welcome, gentlemen, to the Kingdom of Lan Xang-The Land of a Million Elephants," Major Garrity began. "You have stepped through the looking glass into a magical place inhabited by a gentle race sadly trapped in a life-and-death struggle not of your making. Imagine, if you will, a comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, with splashes of blood." What came next was a lyrical description of the country and its people, a capsule version of Laotian history and an honest attempt to explain the convoluted, mad-hatter politics of the place."
-Christopher Robbins, The Ravens1987

"THE KINGDOM OF LAOS: In 1960, the Land of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol, as Laos called itself, was either rich or poor, depending on how you looked at it. The kingdom had valuable forests and minerals, but few roads for reaching them. It was rich spiritually, with both Buddhism and animist religions, but in economic terms it was one of the poorest countries in the world. It was richest of all in people, with more than fifty different ethnic groups, each with their own cultures and traditions, but they lacked a common language. Some lived such isolated lives that they had never heard of the central government, and most felt loyalty only to their village or tribe."
-Roger Warner, Out of Laos, 1996

"Laos is a ham-shaped, mountain-segmented country occupying a total area of 91,430 sq. miles, roughly the same size as Britain or the state of Wyoming. Entirely landlocked, Laos is approximately 600 miles long. Its widest point is the northwest. The southern panhandle of the country narrows to a width of as little as 160 kilometers at some points. Laos sits squarely between Thailand and Myanmar in the west and Vietnam to the east, sharing the northern border with Chinese province of Yunnan and its southern one with Cambodia. Approximately 70% of the country consists of mountains, highlands and plateaus."
-Stephen Mansfield, Culture Shock! Laos, 1997

"For them, it was one of the places in the world which came closest to idealistic concepts of 'earthly paradise', 'other Eden' or 'Shangri-La'. In the nineteenth-century scramble for colonies in Africa and elsewhere it might be said that the British, with their command of the sea, were able to secure most of the economically worthwhile countries such as Malaya, South Africa, East Africa and Nigeria, leaving the French mainly with vast areas of the Sahara desert. But the French were able to pick up some of the most idyllic and charming spots on earth, including Tahiti, Madagascar and Laos. The French view of Laos may have been unduly influenced by the experiences of young district officers who, when touring their district, would be offered the pick of a village's nubile young women as companion for the night. But if the beauty and charm of its women were a major attraction, Laos had much more to offer. The landscape of forest-clad mountains and vertical limestone cliffs was often spectacular. The sparse population was mostly scattered in small villages of houses on stilts surrounded by rice fields where, in the absence of modern development, the people continued their tranquil way of life as they had done for centuries. In the few towns the all-pervading Buddhist religion, with its temples, pagodas and orange-robed monks imposed an aura of peace and tranquility. While the administrative capital of Vientiane was not a particularly attractive town, the royal capital of Luang Prabang, as I was to discover later, could have served as the setting for a Hollywood remake of Lost Horizon. And the medieval trappings of the ancient Lao monarchy, supported by a full cast of princes and other dignitaries, seemed to belong to a fairy tale rather than the modern world."
-Mervyn Brown, War In Shangri-La: A Memoir of Civil War in Laos, 2001

"Laos is a small country, about the size of Great Britain, bordered by the People's Republic of China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east and southeast, Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the south and west, and Myanmar (formerly Burma) to the west, just north of Thailand. Today, over six million people live in Laos, but the country had three and a half million inhabitants in 1973, the year my story begins. The lowland Lao, who make up the majority of the population, live in the rich plains and valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries. They are believed to have migrated to the area in the seventh century A.D. from southwest China. They initially established communities based on the cultivation of paddy rice, although their farming techniques gradually diversified to include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and the raising of livestock. Most Laotians practice the Theravada form of Buddhism."
-Bounsang Khamkeo, I Little Slave, 2006

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Dutch reach Vientiane in 1641

"They found a walled city of considerable size, protected by the Mekong and by moats on three sides. The king's palace, which was built of teak and decorated with gilded statues, was of such a size, van Wuysthoff recorded, that it could have been thought a town on its own. They were received with pomp and taken, mounted on elephants, to pay homage to the Lao king. When that monarch eventually arrived to greet the European visitors, he was mounted on a white elephant and accompanied by three hundred bodyguards and sixteen war elephants. Graciously receiving a letter sent to him from Governor van Diemen, the king pondered aloud whether he should reciprocate by sending an envoy to Batavia. In the event, he decided against this course of action because of his country's difficult relations with Cambodia. But potential difficulties or not, the Lao court was able to entertain the Dutchmen with dancing and fireworks and to reward each of the party with a gift. Reserved and sceptical though he may have been, van Wuysthoff was impressed by the apparent prosperity of the Lao court and by the temples of Vientiane which were served by innumberable Buddhist monks."

- Osborne, The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, 2000

"His mission accomplished, van Wuysthoff left Vientiane in December. For unexplained reasons, his companions were required to remain in the Lao capital for a further eight months..."

Billy Idol and Lao American poetics

I recently caught Billy Idol at the Fantasy Springs Casino in California as part of his Rocktober tour.

While we were all rocking out to 'Rebel Yell,' and 'Indio Woman,' a twist on his cover of 'L.A. Woman,' I thought about his body of work, which currently stands at about 130 lyrics, including his Generation X material.

Some time back, William Elliot was discussing Shuntaro Tanikawa and noted that some poets are recognized for the quality of their work, and others for the breadth and extensiveness. Tanikawa was a poet who was fortunate to have a good balance of both.

Walt Whitman has just one book, Leaves of Grass, which he was constantly revising and editing over his lifetime, sometimes for the better, sometimes to little effect. A century later, 'Rebel Yell' is certainly a different response to 'Song of Myself,' but then you also have poets like Otto Renee Castillo, who is often remembered just for "Apolitical Intellectuals". 

For a musician, you only get about 2 hours to perform songs from your repertoire. Billy Idol has 10 solo albums and a number of greatest hits collections (and I usually don't count those). You hit a point where you can't play songs from all of them in the time you're given.

There's a few core pieces that always go in a set during a performance, but what do you fill the remaining time with that helps show one's continuing progress as an artist? 

As poets, I think the question is even more relevant.

I frequently think of my poem 'Song for a Sansei': "We only get 5 minutes each to talk of our own yellow lifetimes."

I've been to presentations where I've had between 5 to 15 minutes to present work, and on lucky occasions as much as 90 minutes, which is quite a bit for one poet. I'm glad I've got a lot to choose from in that time, but I also wonder what's an ideal body of work for a writer to leave behind. Enough to keep people interested, but not too much to overstay your literary welcome, I imagine.

For Lao American poets, I've seen some who are well into the hundreds of poems they've written, and a few, who over a decade, still have less than two dozen if that many. In a way it's something like watching the sports pages, wondering if we'll see a book from some or if some of us will be the kind of poets who only produce a poem or two once every blue moon. 

Goodbye, Vientiane and the Filipino-Lao connection

If you haven't gotten a chance to yet, and you're interested in the history of Laos during the 20th century, take a look at the book Goodbye, Vientiane, by Dr. Penelope Flores, who has gathered together oral histories and letters from the members of Operation Brotherhood who served in Laos.

I do confess a certain bias on the subject, given that I was born in the Operation Brotherhood hospital they established in Vientiane. But I find it's a lively book and broadens our understanding of the era as more than just an American-Laotian-Vietnamese experience. We often forget there were so many different cultures and nations in the region, from Russians and Australians, French, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Cambodians and others. 

The Filipino program Operation Brotherhood was a humanitarian mission very similar to the Peace Corps.

They've also written a book, Filipinos in Laos that's worth getting a copy of. Many went on to form Mekong Circle International, continuing their humanitarian and educational work. 

Goodbye, Vientiane is a book I'd definitely recommend for people interested in the role of humanitarian and medical missions in Laos along with the books of Dr. Thomas A. Dooley, Charles Weldon, and Ed Buell to gain some perspective on the subject. 

Vince Gotera on Serial Killers, Profilers, and Poetry Imitation

Filipino American poet Vince Gotera has an interesting post on his blog The Man with the Blue Guitar. This month, he addressed Serial Killers, Profilers, and Poetry Imitation.  Here, he's going back to a 2002 poem he wrote nearly 10 years ago with his class as an exercise in poetic imitation.

He was conducting a writing exercise to ask how one chooses subjects, and how one empathizes with the creative process of other writers. This is useful, because it allows us to build our own greater, personal understanding of the techniques and moves a poet has available.

He chose to work with Louise Glück’s poem "Siren," and emerged with "Sniper, 2002," which would later be included in his 2003 book, Ghost Wars. (And I really would say you ought to check this volume out. Vince has some great perspectives that should be read with the work of Yusef Komunyakaa, especially Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau and Talking Dirty to the Gods.)

It's always a question, when we write poems so close to recent histories and search for the aesthetics within it.

As a Lao American poet, I haven't seen any of us yet widely respond through verse to Jeffrey Dahmer the way David Mura has, despite our community's more direct connection. The same might be said for Thung Phetakhoune and Ped Phantavong's killers.

The Lao American poet Saymoukda Vongsay has a poem regarding the murder of Kitty Genovese, in her chapbook No Regrets, but we wouldn't consider it a poem that identifies with the killer or makes an effort to find their voice in the conversation, the way "Sirens" or "Sniper, 2002" approach the possibility.

In my poem, "Dr. Songkran Niyomsane's Forensic Medicine Museum" I briefly tackled figures like the Chinese cannibal Si Ouey Sae Urng, who is regarded as the first serial killer in the history of modern Thailand, but I wouldn't say I linger too long with them, or put my readers into the perspective of serial killers on a regular basis.

I come close to this technique in my short horror story, 'The True Tale of Yer,' by framing a larger discussion on multiple murderers through a mythic lens. There are advantages and disadvantages to this in hindsight.

From a poet's point of view, we often hear each other discuss lines we won't cross and many saying there's no limit, it's all fair game, but perhaps, as we look at our bodies of work, we need to re-examine the truth of that. 

Not that I think many want to really engage with poems of cannibals from the cannibal's point of view every day or zombies in penguin suits.

But at the same time, Lao American poets are observing others creating poems from perspectives vastly different from their experience, but generating few examples of these themselves. Will this be a continuing trend?

Nietzsche famously warns that those who fight monsters too long eventually become monsters themselves, but by the same token, there are times we have to make efforts to understand the perspective of our enemies and those we fear. Otherwise, especially for communities in the antebellum years, truth and reconciliation becomes difficult at a personal and a national level.

This can already be seen in how Lao American and Hmong American poets have or haven't been creating work regarding UXO, Agent Orange, and other elements of the war for Laos. 

Some parts are certainly still to painful to talk about. I had a brief conversation once with Yusef Komunyakaa who said it took him nearly 14 years to be able to begin writing poems about his time during the Vietnam War. We seem to be writing at a similar pace.

In Lao American poetry on the conflict, combatants and civilians in poems about the war for Laos are frequently nameless abstractions. Even in the aftermath. Often, our poems are written in such a way that we're basically talking around the glass, but not about what's IN the glass. It's the elephant in the room, if you will. 

While as a literary device this can be useful, and protective, due to sensitivities that persist. But there are many instances that this remoteness, this abstracted 'other' and 'enemy' might as well be some space alien, and not another human being whose experiences were also a part of our history, and without whose perspective we have an incomplete knowledge of that moment we were both a part of.

Getting back to Vince Gotera's "Sniper, 2002" as a response to Louise Glück’s "Siren," I'm reminded of Catzie Vilayphonh's "You Bring Out the Laos in the House," which is a response to Bao Phi's "You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me," which is in turn his response to Sandra Cisneros' "You Bring out the Mexican in Me." 

There are elements within "You Bring Out the Laos in the House" that have strong ties to both, but then also make significant detours and divergences that are examples of what Gotera is talking about: Those moments where we find ourselves facing an all-new poem that has gone beyond the imitation of poem, but has been shown the way by its predecessors.

Admittedly, this is all just be a roundabout way of telling you: Read more poetry.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Barbara Jane Reyes and Experimental Poetics

Barbara Jane Reyes recently posted some interesting thoughts on experimental poetics in the Filipino community. I think there's a significant amount Lao American poets and writers can learn from Filipino American encounters with literature, and here she continues to vindicate that perspective.

She recounts how people encountering experimental Filipino poetics tend to respond with distrust. "I think there may be an element of distrust involved; is the writer “tricking” us or hiding something from us. Why can’t she just give it to us straight?," they seem to ask.

As she goes into her discussion, she says "I reassured them that any “difficulty” of the text is purposeful, not arbitrary, or not simply to confuse us, but to encourage us to dig a little deeper."

I love the way she closes: "I respect texts that consider our active participation as readers, rather than being spoon fed a canned narrative, that do not insult our intelligence." Definitely check this post out.

I run into Lao American readers who tell me they love poetry, but lately, often direct and simple poems. Which, I admit, baffles me greatly, given the typical Lao love for traditional songs. Songs that are riddled with subtle metaphors, allusions and figurative language. Add to this the traditional Lao love for wordplay and banter, even in simple market conversations, and I can relate deeply to much of BJR's dismay.

There's certainly a time and place for simple and direct pieces. But as a community we're shortchanging ourselves, if, given our literary and oral history, that's all we ever wrote from this point forward.

I'm not interested in writing Hallmark Cards. I want to create poems that do not just what poetry can do, but is supposed to do. As vast, nebulous and uncertain as that can seem, sometimes.

Because of sensitivities that continue during the Lao antebellum, so many narratives are told in particular styles because direct statements invite certain complications with very real liabilities. The work of Xue Di, Bei Dao and the Misty Poets are excellent examples of where poets are necessary and vital to this element of social process.

As a Lao American writer, I have a preference for experimental poetics and speculative poetry, poems that draw on elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror. You can see the intersection of these interests of mine in my poems "2019 Blues," "How to Build A Boat," and "Zhu Bajie," among others, or the more well known "Burning Eden One Branch At A Time."

This often places me and my readers in somewhat unexpected territory as a consequence. But as a community, it's essential for us to maintain vigorous engagement with the literary arts, and with a genuine sense of cultural fluency and both concrete and abstract thought. Narratives like memoirs, novels and short stories don't get to play around as much with the social and cultural fluidity of language that poetry can. But that's also getting into a whole different post.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Eileen Tabios kicks off Asian American Poetry Today series

The St. Helena Star ran a nice article "Eileen Tabios' excuse for cleaning out the basement" as the Filipina American poet kicks off the seasonal Asian American Poetry Today series. She's also donating a number of items to the Library of Congress this year.

According to the St. Helena Star, "Tabios began writing poems about her own experiences or interests, she soon gravitated to “playing with words that weren’t limited by their dictionary definitions.That was more playful to me, and more interesting,” she said. “I moved from poems about myself to poems exploring things I didn’t know. The adage, ‘write what you know’? No. No. I write to discover.”

Sound advice. Be sure to check out the article!

October calls for submissions

The following recent calls for submissions may be of interest:

Anak Sastra seeks short stories (fiction or creative nonfiction) for its 6th issue due out in January 2012. Contributors and/or story themes should have some connection to Southeast Asia. For more information, please visit:

Still Point Arts Quarterly. Deadline: January 1 & April 1, 2012. Still Point Arts Quarterly seeks articles, essays, fiction, and poetry about art, the idea of art, the making of art, being an artist, creativity, inspiration, the artist's medium, etc.

Stone Voices. Deadline: December 1, 2011 & March 1, 2012. Stone Voices seeks articles, essays, fiction, and poetry that relate to its focus on art and spirituality. Submissions may be about particular artists, art genres, the idea of art, the making of art, being an artist, creativity, inspiration, etc.

PostPoetry Magazine. Deadline: "February 30, 2012". PostPoetry Magazine is holding its 3rd call for submissions. The magazine seeks political and social critic poetry, essays, short-shorts, abstracts and experimental texts.

The New Verse News covers the news with poems on issues large and small (especially those of a politically progressive bent) by writers from all over the world. The editors seek to post each day a genuinely poetic take on a very current and specific news story. See the website at for guidelines and for examples of the kinds of poems The New Verse News publishes.

Clockhouse Review. Deadline: January 1, 2012. Clockhouse Review, published by the Clockhouse Writers' Conference and alumni of the Goddard College MFA in Writing program, seeks submissions for its inaugural issue. All genres taught within Goddard's MFA in Writing program accepted: poetry, fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction, dramatic works for stage or screen, and literary comics/graphic narrative. We encourage submissions from both established and emerging writers.

Ashland Creek Press is currently accepting submissions of novels, memoirs, short story collections, and essay collections on the themes of travel, the environment, ecology, and wildlife — above all, we’re looking for exceptional, well-written, engaging stories.

Good luck!

Guante releases new album

Kyle "Guante" Myhre is releasing a new album, an acoustic hip hop EP that's a collaboration between him and singer/songwriter Claire Taubenhaus. It's called A LOUD HEART. It's political, it's pretty, it's folky, it's hip hop. Definitely something different-- they're both pretty proud of it. Here are the release party details:

Friday, 11/11/11 at Honey in Minneapolis (205 East Hennepin Ave)
A LOUD HEART (Guante + Claire), Black Blondie
and an acoustic set from Kristoff Krane
7-10pm (early show!).

Admission is $7 at the door, OR pay $15 and get admission plus a CD.

Guante performed for the release party of my second book of speculative poetry, BARROW back in October, 2009, and many other projects in and around the Twin Cities. He brings great, positve energy and talent to the Minnesota literary scene. Definitely catch him if you can.

Laos News Week In Review

In an LA Times blog, Best of the Web, they highlight Mediastorm's Surviving the Peace:
"Mediastorm’s latest production is a character-driven piece of advocacy journalism that looks at Laos, a country ravaged by bombing during the Vietnam war and held in a state of limbo by unexploded ordnance that peppers the fields of Laos. Even though war was never declared on Laos, over 2 million tons of munitions were dropped on Laos by U.S. bombers looking to disrupt North Vietnamese supply routes. Decades later the aftermath of the bombings still affect much of Laos. Every year a few people die and fertile farmland is left undeveloped."

Surviving the Peace is a good profile of the work of the Mines Advisory Group and worth checking out. A short 5 minute version is available, but if you get a chance, see the whole thing.

Speaking of crops:

Truth-Out.Org featured an article "It's Time to Compensate the Victims: Looking Back at Vietnam and Agent Orange," which also addresses the less commonly discussed issue of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants used in Southeast Asia, including Laos, that has caused cancer, birth defects, and devastated rebuilding efforts for decades due to American chemical warfare.

According to the China Daily the China-ASEAN fund invests $50m in Laos potash plant. Potash is an essential resource for agriculture and food production. Composed of potassium chloride, it is a critical fertilizer that provides a nutrient vital to the creation of protein and growing many nations' most important crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans, potatoes, and hay.

Simply put, potash gives farmers the edge required to grow the best crops and deliver the greatest yield per acre. Potash plays a vital role in making sure that agricultural land is as productive as it can be. The U.S. imports approximately 85 percent of its potash. And now, Laos is shipping it out and exporting it to other countries to use to improve foreign crops.

One more chapter closed from the war this week:

A Pittsburgh veteran's remains were returned after 42 years since he was shot down in Laos. Air Force Capt. Thomas E. Clark, 28, of Emporium, was shot down on Feb. 8, 1969, over Laos as he was attacking an anti-aircraft artillery position. Three other American pilots on the same mission in Laos did not see a parachute or any other signs of Clark. The U.S. Air Force posthumously promoted him to the rank of major. In 1991 and 1992, teams from Laos and the U.S. identified the crash site. In 2009, investigators recovered human remains there, and recently concluded they were Clark's. Clark's remains were in a flag-draped casket met by an Air Force honor Guard and several relatives.

In Indiana, the Journal Gazette ran a story "Love Waited 40 Years" that begins with a Marine facing death on the Laotian border during the Vietnam War.

This week, the BBC has provided an updated profile on Laos, including a timeline, facts, and a photoessay. And in the spirit of Halloween, we also present the April Fool's joke in 2005 claiming the BBC had run an article about zombies on the Lao/Cambodian border.

AsiaOne featured a story that the President of Laos has urged citizens to get measles and rubella shots. "The nationwide vaccination programme will run from November 1 to December 6, with the aim of wiping out measles and rubella in Laos by 2012." 

Asia One also featured a story regarding Laos donating money to assist Thailand's flood victims in a symbolic gesture. Laos, too, is dealing with flooding issues in what has been considered the worst flooding in a decade.

Voice of America has a brief article that the European Economic Crisis is now affecting developing countries such as Laos: "Many developing countries live or die economically on the strength of their exports. Whether it is workers in India making auto parts, or those developing software, coffee plantation workers in Laos, or carpet weavers in Egypt - all have one thing in common. Their most important buyers are people in Europe and other developed regions."

A Buffalo man from Laos has plead guilty to a bribery charge and faces 15 years in jail. According to the paper, he wanted "to pass two other Laotians on an English language proficiency exam to help them obtain U. S. citizenship. Sengchanh Sengsavath, 48, and Joe Phouthavongsa, 49, also of Rochester, were accused of bribing undercover law enforcement agents who they thought were immigration officers. Phouthavongsa pleaded guilty Sept. 20, and told U. S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara, “I thought it was like my country, where you can buy anything.”

And finally, National Public Radio provided a recipe for chicken laap. Not as good as mae makes it, but go figure. This was part of a larger article on the influence of the French on Southeast Asian cuisine and has some notes on the effect of the French on Lao cooking.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

National Novel Writing Month and the Great Asian American Novel

National Novel Writing Month is almost upon us, and I wonder with great curiosity what will emerge among those of us who endeavor to write the Great Asian American Novel, if such a thing can be written.

Naturally, in itself, the Great American Novel is a controversial enough notion. It's conceived of as a novel that is distinctive for both extraordinary craft and themes. It is expected to be accurate and reflective of the zeitgeist in the US when it's written.

It's not necessarily one that won't seem dated decades from now, but it is presumed that such a novel would be written by an American in an American idiom that is grounded by their knowledge of their state, its relation to the larger country as a whole, what passes for their culture and the perspective of the common American citizen, rather than that of, say, a privileged elite or a class far removed from the national consideration.

Historically, the Great American Novel is supposed to be the American response to the national epic.

To deliberately aspire to write such a book is often met with hoots and derision today, given the deeply fragmented experiences of those living in America. I would argue this contemporary dismissal emerges at least partially from a tendency for such a novel to be either terribly boring, insipid, obvious or condescending like the film Crash, or all of the above. Or worse, it would reinforce a conception of the US that validates the privileged at the expense of reflecting a more interesting and dynamic sense of the world, not just as it 'is' but what it could be. There may occasionally be exceptions, but it tends more often towards literary narcissism. Not unheard of in America, but I'm uncertain why I'd need to read such things.

So, now looking at that, I wonder why on earth anyone would thus want to undertake the Great Asian American Novel.

As a Laotian American writer, it's one of those constant questions for me. Why would I want to write the Great Asian American Novel over the Great American Novel, the Great Southeast Asian American Novel, the Great Lao American Novel, the Great Lao Novel, or the Great Novel? Among many other possible variations on this.

But as an intellectual exercise I could see the fun and challenge within this. This would be a most audacious undertaking indeed. What would it prove? As art, would it fail if it's actually useful? All of the typical literary questions.

Of course, this also leads to part of the question we ask with the 500 Project, what of the Great Asian American Reader? Where do they fit within all of this?

I regularly run into writers of Asian heritage in America who don't want to be considered an Asian American writer, as if it's a pejorative. A classification that somehow diminishes them as literary figures in a way that being classified a Russian writer, a Beat writer, or a Surrealist does not.

To me, such designations are effective to certain points, and then they are not. If the designation helps to create an interesting discussion, so be it. If it does not, then one can discard it.

There are times when it's handy to consider me a Laotian American writer, other days a Transcultural Adoptee writer, others, a Horror writer or a Speculative Poet from the Midwest.  But in the end, there is writing. And one can choose to respond to it, or not.

But back to National Novel Writing Month.

Considering the novel has its roots as a form with the Tale of Genji from a woman from Japan during the Heian era, I think there can be a definite argument then that for Asian Americans, the Great Asian American Novel as an idea should be one of great interest to us as we make connections between our many traditions.

Should it be a work of great realism, or can we employ magical realism? Does it have to be as massive as some phonebook from Norman Mailer or full of pop culture references? Can it include elements of a graphic novel like Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel?

Should it be set within a particular decade or span generations like something from James Michener? Can it be as funny as Ed Lin's Waylaid, or does it have to be like The Killing Fields, complete with a European American protagonist so that mainstream and non-Asian audiences can connect with him?

Because this IS a Great Asian AMERICAN Novel, should it be cloyingly earnest like the old Simpson's character Tong Van Din who wrote an essay entitled "USA, A-OK!"?

Do we have to make a nod to all 60+ Asian American communities living, working, playing and getting into drama among us, or would we be content if a good percentage of them are responsibly and interestingly reflected?

Should it be innovative and try to extend the novel form, or should it be accessibly linear? Do we need to include copious footnotes or place trust in our readers' ability to use google? Do we avoid dialect? How do we confront stereotypes and cliches so that it doesn't become some hackneyed Night of the 10,000 Sweltering Peonies Ruining My Papaya Salad In Autumn

And conversely, what omissions would so severely undermine our suspension of disbelief that this Great Asian American Novel loses all credibility?

This might be why I stick to poetry and short stories. But what are your thoughts regarding how you might approach the Great Asian American Novel?

Lao Steampunk Sundays: Adventures in Ancient Lan Xang

In our continuing discussion on what it would take to engage Lao writers around the world in imaginative consideration of a retro-future and the fantastic, let us consider some of the many scenarios that might be suitable for writers, as well as for those who are creating role-playing games within this setting.

I'm intrigued by accounts that indicate that following his accession to the throne, King Wisunarath commissioned the Tamnan Khun Borom, or the Legend of Khun Borom. This was a compilation drawn from various existing chronicles regarding the royal dynasty of Fa Ngum, and would trace Fa Ngum's lineage to the mythical Tai ancestor Khum Borom.

Under the reigns of Photisarath and Sai Setthathirat I, close relations were established with Lanna, now modern-day Chiang Mai. Lanna was a realm that had a thriving literary heritage, and they had a significant influence on Lao literature that led to a Lao version of the panchatantra moral fables, and an important collection of 50 jataka tales, 27 of which are unique to Laos.

From a writer's point of view, there is a lot of room to work with here as we follow the storytellers collecting and developing each of these stories and epics. We might wonder how they learned from each other and decide which elements to incorporate, and which elements were left out.

The myths and legends of Lan Xang offer us a fascinating field of study because we have so many cultures within this realm to consider. This can be daunting but also opens many possibilities for us as we examine the many themes that emerged from these stories:

Thwarted Lovers: The epic of Phra Lak Phra Lam is centered on the efforts to recover the kidnapped Nang Sida from Thotsakane (also known as Hapkhanasouane). We might also draw inspiration from the tragic love triangle of King Phadaeng, Princess Aikham, and the Nak Prince, Phangkhi. Of course, the story of the Kinnary princess Manola and Prince Sithong also provides a good example.

Nyak (or Yak): These magical man-eating ogres are the source of many conflicts and disputes, frequently corresponding to the rakshashas of Indian legend. Occasionally they may be reasonably good, but they are often driven by their greed and hungers that brings them into conflict with any number of Lao heroes throughout the ages. There are often disputes about the extent and limits of their powers in the legends.

Contests and Riddles: The Lao New Year includes a legend of the king who lost a bet with a young man who solved three riddles, while many other traditional legends also focus on several tests, frequently seven, given to the hero to demonstrate their wisdom or their ability to invoke the aid of divine creatures. Some hear the answers to riddles by chance by passing birds or other creatures.

Kindness, Compassion: A frequent theme involves people who do good, even if doing good inconveniences them. The jataka of Phra Vet (or Prince Vessantara) is among the most prominent examples that come to mind, but there are other examples of stories among the peoples of Lan Xang are filled with those who are generous to a fault and it leads to any number of adventures and challenges.

Dreams, Prophecies and Astrology: Many adventures have been set in motion by dreams, prophecies and astrologers who were advising the heroes or rulers who would need help. In a story like Manola and Sithong, the adviser has bad intentions and purposefully misleads characters to serve his own ambitions.

Monsters: Here's where I think Lao stories are the most different from other cultural traditions. Lao mythology and legends aren't as driven by mythical creatures as other cultures. Xieng Mieng, for example, has no stories where he deals directly with supernatural entities such as phi.

The classic creatures such as nak, hong, kinnary and other entities of Himmaphan Forest are largely benevolent and supportive when encountered. There are reports in the jungles of supernatural man-eating creatures, as well as some malevolent forms of phi, but most Lao legends focus on avoiding them rather than trying to go out and slay them as you might in Greek or Norse legend.

But what are other themes common to traditional Lao stories that writers might find useful when creating new adventures set in Lan Xang and Laos?

Celebrating 20 years: Time Frames

In 1991, Rune Press, a Minnesota-based publisher released a hardcover collection of speculative poetry called Time Frames. This year it's celebrating 20 years since it was first published. It featured eleven writers and was edited by Terry A. Garey

The poets included:
John Grey
Alan Stewart 

Over the last decade I've gotten to know many of the poets and it's wonderful to see so many of them still active. Several are still releasing books and performing, particularly at conventions in the Midwest.

Time Frames is a fascinating snapshot of the work of  poets coming just a few years out of the 1980s, a decade I would consider one of the richest for science fiction cinema of the 20th century. But the 1980s are also a decade I would be hard pressed to say produced an enduring book of speculative poetry that honestly caught national attention, with perhaps one exception.

Editor Terry A. Garey points to Robert Frazier's 1984 anthology Burning With a Vision, which was still in print back in 1991. That volume featured the poetic work of luminaries such as Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Brian W. Aldiss, Diane Ackerman, Alan P. Lightman, Suzette Haden Elgin, and Bruce Boston, who recently won a Stoker Award this year for his collection of poetry. When you see where those authors have gone since, I think it would be a deep mistake to dismiss the role speculative poetry has on international arts and letters.

Many of the poets in Time Frames emerged from Minnesota, but international voices from Australia and England are also reflected, in addition to other states across the U.S.

For this collection, Time Frames defines speculative poetry as poetry that "covers a wide range, including science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and is published in magazines and anthologies big and small."  From what I've seen, it was a significant moment to have brought the many genres together under the term speculative poetry, compared to the more well-known term of science fiction poetry. 

Going out on  a limb here, "science fiction poetry" is an apt enough term. But under its strictest definition regarding the use of science fiction elements, this would exclude a great many classic works before and during the 20th century. To me, at least, this term then divorces itself needlessly from the mythic and epic poetry traditions of old. This would be especially curious since many writers embrace the forms of traditional, formal poetry such as the scifaiku (or science fiction haiku). Literary mixed messages, if you will. 

Going back to Time Frames, then, I would applaud the perseverance of the editor and poets to assemble this volume for us to examine. It allows us to consider how well bringing these varied genres together works in one volume. For most of these poems, it succeeds, and the collection brims with humor, emotion, and engaging ideas as the very best collections should.

There are some anthologists who like to kitchen sink a collection and go for breadth, but I think smaller anthologies such as Time Frames actually have stronger advantages. It doesn't overwhelm you with so many names that you lose track of who's who and a part of the collection.

Each of the poets had their own notable approaches and were very conscientious to produce work that was rigorous and artful as poems but also as works of science fiction, fantasy and horror, as the occasion called for it. That is the double challenge of being a speculative poet. Time Frames includes both free and unrhymed verse, but also verse that falls under traditional forms, including some lesser known  styles such as the toddaid, a Welsh stanza form. There are works responding to the poems of William Carlos Williams, the stories of L. Frank Baum, and Rousseau as much as to Flash Gordon and the Voyager program.

In this collection, John C. Rezmerski, for example, was given enough space to contribute a sequence of poems pondering dreams that a more space-restricted anthology would not be able to include. We get to see how Mark Rich handles both short form and long form poems, and how Ruth Berman takes on a certain yellow brick road and also her approach to astronomical bodies. Each writer is given an opportunity to really breathe here.

Some of the poems are easy to identify as works of speculative poetry by their titles, such as "Gorgozak" or "Robot Beyond the Control Envelope," while other titles might be less obvious, such as "God, Reflecting on St. Augustine as St. Augustine Reflects on God," "The City of Fat, Jolly Poets,"  or "The Drawing of a Tree."

Time Frames is composed primarily of new poems. 8 appeared previously, particularly in the journal Tales of the Unanticipated. There are only 500 copies of Time Frames in existence, and perhaps even less than that, now, in the space of 20 years.

Only one copy is on sale among the used book stores, and it's going for $35. Which suggests that those who do have a copy are really holding onto it. I can see why.

One day, it would be nice to see a reissue of Time Frames, because I think a wider familiarity with the work within Time Frames could provide many emerging poets with inspiration and a view of not only where we have been, but what is possible. And who could ask for anything more from an anthology?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Recent pieces at Asian American Press

This month for Asian American Press, I interviewed several artists and writers, including Japanese American activist and artist Patrick Hayashi:

I like his technique and approach to both arts and change in the community. One of my favorite paintings of his is Tsuru and Aka Bekko. The encounter is charming in itself, but the backstory behind it is even more poignant. I think this is definitely one of his masterworks.

There's really no shortage of great books of his to start with, but his latest one is Requiem for the Orchard. 

I particularly appreciate the work he's doing on what we might consider speculative literature with his latest project involving prose poems and the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. I can't wait to see his final results, as this is one of my favorite Greek legends, right up there with the myth of Oedipus and the Sphinx as well as the kerfuffle between Cadmus and the Serpent of Ares. Be sure to stop by his blog at

This month Asian American Press also ran an interview with Filipino American painter Edward del Rosario. You can find his work over at

Edward del Rosario's work is the kind where I'm always finding something new and interesting within individual elements as well as the whole, such as in his Aventuras II. Since running into his work, I've been examining a good number of my own poems as a result. 

And of course, don't forget to check out the interview with Filipina American poet Barbara Jane Reyes at the end of September. She's one of those rare artists where I think it's important to interview her at several different points in her life. I'd first interviewed her in 2006, and now, 5 years later, she's continued to share some great ideas and visions in her work that's at varying times ornery, insightful and innovative. 

A big thanks to these great artists who shared their time with us, and I look forward to seeing more art ahead from them!