Saturday, December 10, 2016

Poet Spotlight: Laksmi Pamuntjak

In 2012 I represented the nation of Laos as their Cultural Olympian during the London Summer Games Poetry Parnassus organized by the Southbank Centre. Among my colleagues were Khosal Khiev of Cambodia, and Kay Ryan of the United States, Nguyen Bao Chan of Vietnam,  Chiranan Pitpreecha of Thailand, among the other Olympic nations represented. This includes Laksmi Pamuntjak, who represented Indonesia.

Born in 1971, she's carved a tremendous path for herself as a novelist, a poet, a food writer, and a journalist who divides her time between Berlin and Jakarta these days. She was also the co-founder of the Aksara Bookstore. From 2009-2011, she served as an appointed member of the international prize jury of the art philantrophic organisation Prince Claus Fund in Amsterdam, on behest of the Dutch Royal Family.

As you can see in the footage above, the Poetry Parnassus was an impressive and ambitious gathering that brought out the best in our poets around the world. During the Poetry Parnassus in London, Laksmi Pamuntjak's featured poem was "A Traveler's Tale," which was published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore in 2012. I appreciated what she was doing with this particular piece, and I think it reflects quite well on her overall body of work and recurring themes.

Her book that caught me attention was her debut, the 2005 Ellipsis. Her publisher described it saying "In her first book of poetry, Laksmi Pamuntjak finds a space, a private sanctuary, where language can just freely be, accountable to nothing and no one. Rather, it bids her to the space of things. To the storeroom of each memory that comes to mind—a half-forgotten phrase, the edges and elbows of a song, scraps of urban legend, a mythological creature, an immediate visual experience, a sound that reverberates through a landscape—witnesses all to the fact that we do not live in a vacuum, that we do not only consist of one side, and that there is something there that multiplies our voices into other places. It is when we hear that echo that we know there is a ‘meaning’ or a value far greater than ‘comprehension.’ And thus Laksmi speaks about love in all its guises and permutations, travel to faraway places, a mother’s prayers, food and sex, mythology and music, Sylvia Plath.

She followed it up the next year with The Anagram, which marked its 10th anniversary this year. The premise was her continued exploration of the human experience and everyday life. "Of love and loss, of grief and regret, of acceptance and rebellion, of fear of the unmapped and delight in the new, of redemption and the possibility of grace. This volume also includes eight poems on Buru Island in “From the Buru Notebook”, which focuses on a period during President Suharto’s administration (1965-1998) in which the island was turned into the site of a large penal colony where approximately 12,000 accused Communists and Communist Party sympathizers were detained for more than a decade without being formally charged or tried in court." Which was a very challenging proposition to do well, but won over the praise of many when it was released.

She recently released a new collection of 49 poems and 11 prose pieces this year, entitled There Are Tears In Things, although I have not yet had a chance to read through it. The work is collected from 2001 to 2016, or a space of fifteen years. It will be interesting to see how her style shifted and changed during this time. She also released a revised US version of her novel The Question of Red.

The Question of Red centers on two lovers driven apart by one of the bloodiest Communist purges in the 20th century—the massacre of up to one million accused Communists in Indonesia between 1965 and 1968. Originally known as Amba when it was published in 2012 in Indonesian, it was a national bestseller at the time. Many elements can be seen as a reinterpretation of the family epic of the Mahabharata, and the tale moves from rural Java to Europe and to the prison camps of Buru Island of the Suharto dictatorship.

Her poetry and short story credits include Critical Muslim (Summer 2015); Asymptote (January 2015); Softblow; Takahe (NZ): QLRS (Vol. 11 no. 1, Jan 2012), Heat Literary Journal (Australia), Asia Literary Review (December 2015; Autumn 2006, Vol. 3; Spring 2007, Vol. 4; Autumn 2007, Vol. 5; Prince Claus Fund Journal (Special Edition, #12, 2006); the Anthology of Writings from the Utan Kayu Biennale Literary Festival 2007, Not a Muse world poetry anthology (Haven Books: Hong Kong, 2009); Scalar Literary Magazine (Premier Edition, April 2010); Biblio Review of Books (2007); and the Poetry Edition of the Asia Literary Review (November 2010).  

I think there are many things to look at here that we might consider as poets. What we use for inspiration, the questions we ask of one another. Where does mythology fit into our lives, the epics our families grew up with, and the realities of history. 

As I look at her poetry, I can see why she was selected as a delegate to the Poetry Parnassus in London, and I'm intrigued to see where she will appear next. She's been invited to numerous literary festivals around the world and spoken at Yale, New York University (NYU), School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS), and Ecole francaise d’Extreme- Orient in Paris. You can visit her website at to learn more about the latest developments in her literary career.

2016 Fantasy and Science Fiction Eligibility Posts

The wonderful Cat Rambo put together a pretty good list so far of eligibility posts among the Science Fiction and Fantasy fields, as well as among our poets. These posts serve to consolidate the various publications particular authors have been featured in over the course of the year in one spot. The ever effervescent A.C. Wise also gives us a good roundup of places to find amazing work, as well.

Especially as a speculative poet, it can be difficult to expect our readers to track down the dozens of disparate spaces we might have appeared, from small zines to major print-only publications. This will obviously be an ongoing list, but it's better sooner, rather than later for us to have someplace to start with. 

For poets who are members of the SFPA, you can of course go back to our member news recaps, but that feature got fired up again only recently, so we have listings primarily from SummerOctober, and November. We'll still need to look at the various journals who've published the work of non-SFPA poets both within our field and beyond.  

In no uncertain terms, as the President of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, I encourage my fellow SFPA members to put together their posts, especially for works eligible for the Rhyslings, Dwarf Stars and Elgin Awards. 

Here then is an adapted recap of the signal boost Cat Rambo provided for writers who've already posted their 2016 lists. Congratulations to all of them, and I look forward to reading many of these!

Resistance Radio Heart: Beyond a book launch

A big thanks to everyone who made it through the rain to join Margaret Rhee and Kearny Street Workshop to celebrate the release of her chapbook Radio Heart, or How Robots Fall Out of Love. It was a packed room and a packed schedule as audience members got to see performances by Debbie Yee, Oscar Bermeo, Maria Fiani, Virgie Tovar, Sean Y Manzano, Isela Ford, Jennifer Hasegawa, Annah Anti-Palindrome, and myself.

The evening was organized by Margaret and the members of Kearny Street Workshop to be more than just an everyday book launch, but to give back to a space that had given so much to her when she was an emerging writer. As mentioned in a previous post in November, they wanted to honor the legacy of Truong Tran, who played a pivotal role in the literary and cultural growth of so many in the Bay Area and beyond.

This week was the closing week for the Arc Gallery's Sacred and Profane exhibit which shares space with Kearny Street Workshop. So it was impressive to see the diverse and intriguing artworks on display during the reading. As one of the jurors pointed out, they were "looking for artists who were taking on aspects of sacred, profane and, especially, a combination of the two to create a synergic objective. The standout pieces would play with the interactions between the two in an imaginative and unique way; be it a assemblage reliquary made of everyday objects or a photograph in a commonplace setting with a supernatural, otherworldly implication. These works make the viewer question what it is that inspires reverence and what it is we consider to be obscene—and perhaps question our thoughts on both within the context of our culture."   This tied in well with the ideas Margaret had about gathering artists, activists, citizens of the Bay Area, in resistance and solidarity, particularly in light of social shifts since November.

Jason Bayani, who helped bring me in to teach my first class at Kearny Street Workshop earlier this year, helped out in many ways, including serving as the DJ providing some great listening for everyone as we waited to begin. Be sure to check out his collection, Amulet, if you get the chance.
Paul Ocampo, a board member of Kearny Street Workshop, did a wonderful job as the MC for the evening, helping to put much of the proceedings into context and keeping us all running on time. It was easy to see this evening meant a lot to him.

Oscar Bermeo was the first poet too read this evening. I first became aware of Oscar through the work of poeta Barbara Jane Reyes ten years ago. I loved seeing him perform this night. He told how much Truong Tran's teaching meant to him when he had first arrived in the Bay Area, and then presented three of his poems. Oscar was one of the poets who read during my book launch nearly 10 years ago in Minneapolis for my very first full-length book. He's since continued to be an energizing and dynamic voice in his community. He couldn't stay the whole evening, but he played a great role setting up the energy for the rest of us, although he's a VERY tough act to follow.

Each of the performers brought their own unique voice and style to the proceedings, such as Kundiman fellow Debbie Yee, who explained a line in her bio about being "your friend." Not just for Margaret and Truong, but for everyone, and how much we needed to be there for one another in the years ahead as we organize for the next steps. Musical performances by Annah Anti-Palindrome and Jennifer Hasegawa were heartfelt and touching, as were the testimonials recognizing the significance of Truong Tran's work.

It was a night where long-standing friendships were affirmed and memories shared. There was laughter, and there was fire. For some, it was their very first time reading their work before a crowd. For me, in my 25 years of performing and writing around the world, this marked only the second time I've ever read in San Francisco, so I was honored to be a part of this event. 

I read my 2013 poem, "The Robo Sutra" which first appeared in Expanded Horizons and later in my book DEMONSTRA, which won the Book of the Year Award from the Science Fiction Poetry Association in 2014. That particular poem captured many of the themes we were discussing and sharing throughout the evening, from community to technology and spirit, social concerns, and a question of kindness in a modern world. It was also one that was being written around the same time Margaret was writing many of the pieces that would eventually become Radio Heart, or How Robots Fall Out of Love.

Throughout the evening, Margaret herself was generous and grateful to everyone who helped make this possible. She brought her trademark wit and intelligence to the foreground as she read three of her poems, including her timely piece "What We Write, What We Believe. An Asian American Poet’s Manifesto" from Amerasia Journal. She read with a joyous confidence and throughout the evening embodied a spirit of inclusion and connection, happily introducing guests to one another. And as several pointed out, she wore an awesome space dress for this special occasion.

Truong Tran graciously accepted the award from CAPRE (Concerned Artists and Poets for Racial Equity) and read a touching piece he had written for his students in the aftermath of the November elections to give them strength. It was easy to see how much he continues to be respected and admired for his work in helping others, and for constantly modeling an artist's life in every aspect of his being. Whether it was donating furniture to newly arrived artists in the Bay Area or giving them a place to stay, pushing them to complete their education or just being hard on a poem that needed someone to be hard on it, he was there for many of those assembled at Kearny Street Workshop that night.

Afterwards, there was a brief reception, and people were able to see some of the specialty books from Mystery Parade, as well as a delicious cake and other delights. Some very wonderful writers, scholars, thinkers and community builders attended Resistance Radio Heart, including the award-winning poet Jennifer S. Cheng, author of House A, whose debut book I recently profiled in my post on Asian American poetry books of 2016

I appreciated the grand moments as well as the smaller ones at this gathering. As the year winds down, I hope many consider donating to Kearny Street Workshop, who goes to such tremendous lengths to build a community in the Bay Area for Asian Americans, our friends and family. They are making a difference for both emerging writers and experienced ones, and they're needed.

Notes from an Imagined Future: CTRL+ALT at Little Laos on the Prairie

This weekend, Little Laos on the Prairie has an article by M.K. Khachanh giving a look at CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures held at the Pearl River Mart in New York that was convened by the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Center as a pop-up museum. 

There's a lot to process and consider when you have over 40+ artists engaged in such a new concept, so I have been trying to determine the best way to present this to my regular readers as well as newer folks just coming by. I currently have photos from the event at Flickr, for anyone who's particularly curious to see this gathering in detail.  

The article at Little Laos on the Prairie covers many of my key thoughts on the matter, as well as those of my fellow Lao artist at the event, Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay. I'm happy that space was made to accommodate our eclectic artistic styles and interaction methods with other artists. 

I emerged with some significant new understandings of possibilities of performance and presentation. But also a question of how we in the Lao American community might rally resources for our own creative artists to put forward an interesting response to many of the issues discussed here.

Lao could easily gather together over 40+ artists in a variety of disciplines. In a way, we've been doing so with the National Lao American Writers Summits that we've been convening since 2010, and events such as the Lao Artists Festival in Elgin, Illinois. But these have been more talent showcases. The CTRL+ALT experience differs in that people were at their stations all day to share ideas at their own pace and in their own way. But it also wasn't quiet like a museum or a library. There was a buzz of conversation and exchange that really had to be witnessed and experienced.

Given a similar space and resources, could we present a cultural exhibit in our own words, on our own terms, that was as vibrant and engaging? 

At CTRL+ALT for example, they repurposed the space to accommodate a boxing ring that was more of a zone for a performance art display. What would it mean if we had a similar space for Muay Lao, as well as a stage for traditional Lao dancers and musicians as well as modern dancers and performers?

The question is compelling. We've sought to rebuild our culture since the end of the Laotian Civil War in 1975. As we head towards our 50th year in America in 2025, will we have progressed to a point where 10,000+ of us would gather together just to see what other Lao are doing artistically without it being a New Year's festival or a Buddhist boun or a music concert? 

This is an intriguing question of culture shift we need. How might we gather if it's not for a wedding, a funeral, or a birthday? In any given year, how many times do we take time out to seek out interesting Lao-centered ideas in our community and build upon them?

In the meantime, take a look at "Notes from an Imagined Future" and we'll continue this discussion soon.