Thursday, April 29, 2010

Laotians and Immigration Reform

Over at the Twin Cities Daily Planet is a new commentary of mine regarding immigration reform and its meaning for Laotians and why we need to make certain our voices are present within the emerging dialogue.

Obviously, there's much more that can be written, and many places we could have started from, but these are just a handful of the concerns we, and many other communities in similar situations, need to address.

Great Twin Cities Poetry Read

If you're in town on Friday, April 30, be sure to check out the Great Twin Cities Poetry read, featuring exceptional poets from across the Twin Cities at 7:30 p.m., Rm. C1095 at Normandale Community College (9700 France Ave S, Bloomington, MN 55431).

The evening will feature new, fresh, and “unclaimed” poems that will soon be published in the anthology of poems, Poetry City U.S.A, Vol. 1. There will be at least 32 poets reading in addition to opportunities for audience members to read their own work as well if the time is there. It's a great way to close out National Poetry Month.

A big thanks to Matt Mauch and everyone else at Normandale Community College for bringing everyone together!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cha in South China Morning Post

A big congratulations to the editors of Cha who were featured in the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. It's always wonderful to see them getting coverage, because they've worked really hard to create a fine space for poetry, art and literature overseas, something that's ridiculously difficult anywhere in the world.

One of my favorite poems that I've written, Zelkova Tree, first appeared in Cha's premiere issue. Cha holds the distinction of the first Hong Kong-based online quarterly journal dedicated to publishing quality literature and reviews written in English, and photography and art. They've been generously open to publishing the work of established and emerging writers/artists from around the world. This month's cover is particularly beautiful and I'm glad they're continuing to hold themselves to very high standards.

The Kartika Review has also put out a new issue, with some great work in it, including a few poems of mine, as well as work by Barbara Jane Reyes and an interview with Ed Lin, who has a great new book out. And finally, The Lantern Review is also up and posting some fun posts now, and I expect that they will become another great journal to submit work to in the future.

April is National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Month

While we spent most of April highlighting some great Asian American poets and celebrating Lao New Year, let's also not forget that April is National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Month.

And while I find it patently offensive that there are grilled cheese sandwiches for over $6 in Minnesota, I salute those who can make a truly fine grilled cheese.

In the spirit of the month, here is a scene from Benny and Joon:

I promise, it's not how I make MY grilled cheese sandwiches. Often.

April 30th Reading: Claire Light, Ed Lin, Joel Tan!

In Berkeley novelist Ed Lin and poet Joel Tan will be reading with Claire Light on Friday April 30, 7:00 pm at the acclaimed Eastwind Books at 2066 University Ave. Berkeley, Calif. This is a great lineup if you can catch it.

Eastwind Books of Berkeley has been serving the book reading community since 1982. Their titles encompass: Asian American Studies, Asia Studies, Martial Arts, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Language Learning (including Chinese Mandarin, Japanese, Thai, Khymer and Korean). They also promote through special events the latest works by Asian American writers and writers about Asia.

And the last time I checked, you can also find copies of my books there, too. ;)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Writing a Southeast Asian mystery novel

If someone wanted to write a mystery novel set in Southeast Asia, what might I suggest?

There are already too many tropes we've overused in fiction emerging from the region. So here are some tips to consider:

I'd avoid tourist murders and tourist murderers. It's overdone.  There's plenty of Thai on Thai or Lao on Lao murders, thefts, scams and hustles in the big city and the villages that have taken place in real life or that can be written plausibly. A story shouldn't be interesting only because a falang was involved.

Avoid country mouse/city mouse stories and old world/new world East/West stories.

The supervisors and officials on the take is getting old. Which isn't to say it doesn't happen, but everyone's written about it. if you can't find a way to make it really interesting, leave it be.

Shamans, witch doctors, fortune tellers are colorful enough, but stop making them so integral to solving a case. This also applies to crimes during new years, major festivals, holidays or other special events.

If I wanted a cookbook, I'd get a cookbook. The same goes for primers on Buddhism and differences between East/West philosophy and politics.

And investigators really have to stop being the reincarnation of someone else important or significant to the plot, or using the supernatural to solve the crime. This isn't to say it's not a part of the culture, but it's really tiresome to see detectives who are doing no detecting, who would somehow be incapable of solving the crime except for divine intervention, coincidence or deus ex machina.

A Lao or Thai murder mystery can be a simple affair: Someone has gotten killed somewhere by someone who knows how to make it difficult to identify the killer's identity and motive. The outcome should usually be the victory of the investigator, using logic, reason and perhaps a little luck to identify, confront and apprehend the criminal and get back to doing whatever it is the investigator does at the beginning of the story.

This is a simplification but I think it's important to discuss the basics and encourage more Lao and Thai to write good mysteries and push ourselves to work that relies less on ornate and exotic trappings, excessive use of the supernatural and more on crime, law and the effort to bring order to their society.

Southeast Asian mystery novels...

Though it's only starting to arrive in the United States, over the years there's been a growing body of work featuring detectives set in Laos and Thailand  by expat writers. Most quickly leave readers with a jaded sense of "seen-one, seen-em-all," frequently covering the same territory.

This particularly concerns me because we may grow tired of Southeast Asian mysteries before native Thai and Lao writers even get a chance to fully explore our own region and all that might be accomplished within the mystery and thriller forms on our own terms.

Several writers have gotten a lot of traction out of Thailand and Laos. The big five of mystery writers tend to be considered Dean Barrett, Christopher Moore, Colin Cotterill, John Burdett and Stephen Leather. And there are several interesting books between them. But they often bring an unmistakably falang take on the countries their mysteries are set in.

John Burdett's made a name for himself in recent years. His primary character is the philosophizing smart-ass Thai detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a leuk krung. The majority of Jitpleecheep's adventures take place in, near, or relating to the red-light districts, with lots of exotic deaths and kinky eroticism.

Christopher Moore has been one of the very first to successfully write in the genre, creating a recurring character in Bangkok, Vincent Calvino, who's half Jewish and half Italian, an ex-New Yorker who became a private eye in Thailand, abandoning his law career and acting like Sam Spade with papaya salad near Patpong.

And then we have Colin Coterill, who sets his series in Laos with Dr. Siri Paiboum, a Paris-trained physician and aging widower who is also the country's only coroner in the 1970s. And apparently is a reincarnated Hmong shaman.

Dean Barrett writes books like "Murder at the Horny Toad Bar and Other Outrageous Tales of Thailand." The title alone should give a sense of the field's challenges. Very rarely do we see writers like S.P. Somtow or others getting much acclaim, encouragement or introduction to readers beyond Southeast Asia.

The very nature of mysteries and thrillers is to examine the underworld and to present an image of a corrupt society, and the hard-boiled noir detective novel requires a look at the 'worst' of a society. But most of what we've gotten so far leaves me wanting something more, and to see how native Thai and Lao writers would write about solving crime in their own countries.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mali Kouancho featured in Asian American Press

I discussed Lao American painter Mali Kouanchao in a recent article for Asian American Press.

Asian American Press is the first Asian American publication in Minnesota. Founded in 1982 as Asian Business & Community News, and renamed to the Asian American Press in 1990, and has continued to be a supportive part of the community. They've been doing a lot lately to redesign their website. Be sure to check them out.

I'll have some interviews up there in the coming weeks ahead with some great figures such as Joseph Legaspi, the head of a great Asian American poetry organization known as Kundiman, and Dr. Franklin Odo, who is head of the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Program. The poet Ching-In Chen, novelist Ed Lin and the science fiction writer William F. Wu are also coming up soon.

Friday, April 23, 2010

[Asian American Poet Spotlight] Barbara Jane Reyes

I look at the work of many Asian American poets, but the work of Barbara Jane Reyes is one I truly enjoy reading. I consider her writing and her journey through the world of modern letters personally essential for its peculiar parallels and divergences from my own. I may not always know what she's going to do next with her work, but whatever she chooses, I know it's well thought-out. And she cracks me up on a regular basis.

Born in the Philippines in the city of Manilla, she grew up in California in the San Francisco Bay Area. Eventually she graduated with a BA in Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley, where she also began getting her feet wet in literature. Her two main books so far are her 2005 collection, Poeta en San Francisco and the much more difficult to find Gravities of Center from Arkipelago Books, from way back in 2003. Her newest book Diwata is coming out this year, barring sudden cataclysmic catastrophes in the publishing world.

Barbara Jane Reyes' blog always contains interesting perspectives, opportunities and a no-holds-barred commentary on her work and the work of others, and how we might approach literature in the modern age. It's a rockin' read. I may not always agree with her, but I listen to her, and there are many reasons I requested her to write the forward to my first book, On The Other Side Of The Eye and to read at its launch in 2007 at the Loft Literary Center. She's one of a handful of exceptionally key influences on my work in the last decade.

Her approach isn't for everyone. It's brave and takes real risks. In my book, that counts for a lot. Here's looking forward to many, many, many more books from her.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

UXO, Legacies of War and Twin Cities Daily Planet

The Twin Cities Daily Planet just posted my op-ed regarding UXO: Our Legacies, Ourselves.

It opens with:
Growing up in the Midwest, I always heard “You break it, you bought it.”
35 years after the secret war for Laos, when America was the proverbial bull in the china shop, we’ve still got a lot of pieces to pick up. Technically, 78 million dangerous pieces called UXO, a catchy shorthand term for unexploded ordnance.

Over 9 years during the Vietnam War, America secretly transformed a neutral nation the size of Utah into the most heavily bombed spot on earth. Guided by covert CIA paramilitary advisors, we dropped 260 million bombs on Laos, more than on all of Europe in World War II, or in Iraq and Afghanistan...

Meanwhile, in Washington D.C. today, Channapha Khamvongsa of Legacies of War and others testified about cluster bomb clearance in Laos to the US Congressional Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment about this terrible legacy we’ve left behind. Here's hoping they were able to shed light and convince the powers that be to do more to secure funding for UXO removal in Laos.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lao Magazines?

Over the last decade it feels like we've seen a lot of magazines come and go for the Lao community.

When larger mainstream magazines are giving up in the age of the internet, I admire that we still have many aspiring publishers who believe Lao will read about our own community. That's great faith and trust, an optimism I hope we never lose, even in the toughest times.

Sometimes I wonder if some of our magazines tried to be too many things for too many. Some try to be hip and traditional, or try to be flashy and documentary, or try to create change without causing offense. But that's not what the best magazines do.

A good magazine is unafraid of having an opinion. It goes forward into the world knowing their point of view will be appreciated by only a small segment of our community. But for that part of our community, those readers will find what it's looking for.

We need many magazines, to offer many perspectives. That's healthy.

Maybe someday, we'll see a few Lao Golf Magazines, or a magazine dedicated to Lao beverages, from rice whiskey and BeerLao to cocktails and drinks in a bag.

Given the rise of Lao designers from Be Inthavong, Nary Manivong, Nithaya Somsanith and Chloe Dao among others, a magazine dedicated to Lao fashion, textiles and accessories seems only a few years away.

I see so many Lao who want to write children's books that a magazine for them is not improbable.  A magazine on best practices for Lao Buddhism and sustaining a wat will eventually come into being.

The commonality? Passion. A specialization.

Will Lao Basket Weavers Quarterly ever make someone millions of dollars? That's hard to say. But I hope in the years ahead we will not be afraid to take risks. That we feel free to put ourselves out there and share what we're deeply passionate about. Only then, can we build our society. Only then, can we start a discussion that lets us be the very best Lao we might be.

A quote from Henryk Gorecki

"I do not choose my listeners. What I mean is, I never write for my listeners. I think about my audience, but I am not writing for them. I have something to tell them, but the audience must also put a certain effort into it. But I never wrote for an audience and never will write for one because you have to give the listener something and he has to make an effort in order to understand certain things. If I were thinking of my audience and one likes this, one likes that, one likes another thing, I would never know what to write. Let every listener choose that which interests him. I have nothing against one person liking Mozart or Shostakovich or Leonard Bernstein, but doesn't like Górecki. That's fine with me. I, too, like certain things." -Henryk Gorecki

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Poem up at NEA website

Well, it took a little while, but one of the poems that I submitted for my fellowship with the United States government's National Endowment for the Arts last year has been posted: Khop Jai for Nothing Farangs, along with an artistic statement I included for them.

Thanks again so much for all of your support, everyone! It was an amazing year, and I'm glad to see so much we've accomplished together since then!

[Asian American Poet Spotlight] Shweta Narayan

Shweta Narayan is one of the emerging voices of the Asian American poetry community, and one of the few to be actively and regularly producing work that we would consider speculative poetry. Her more professional work has been appearing since about 2007.

In her bio she states "I was smelted in India's hot summer, quenched in the monsoon, wound up on words in Malaysia, and pointed westwards. I surfaced in Saudi Arabia, The Netherlands, and Scotland before setting off to California, where I live on language, veggie tacos, and the internet." And in many ways, I think that says almost all you need to know to start getting into her work.

Shweta has been a part of the Carl Brandon Society and attended the famed Clarion writers workshop program for those interested in speculative literature. She also maintains a blog at and shares some of her visual artwork from time to time at

I first became familiar with her work through her poem Apsara and she also does work in flash fiction, prose poetry, and forms that occasionally defy easy or conventional definitions. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we see a full book-length collection from her.

Rhysling SF Poetry nominees announced

The Science Fiction Poetry Association announced the 2010 nominees for the Rhysling awards.

As a quick recap, the Rhysling Awards are the top distinction for poets writing speculative poetry- poems that involve science fiction, fantasy, horror or other similar genres.

The nominees for each year's Rhysling Awards are selected by the membership of the Science Fiction Poetry Association.

Each member is allowed to nominate one work in each of the two categories: "Best Long Poem" (50+ lines) and "Best Short Poem" (0-49 lines). All nominated works must have been published during the calendar year for which the present awards are being given. The Rhysling Awards are then put to a final vote by the membership of the SFPA. The winning works are regularly reprinted in the Nebula Awards Anthology from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., and highly regarded by those in the field.

Among the top short poems that have my attention this year are Shweta Narayan's Apsara and Matt Betts' Godzilla's Better Half. Neil Gaiman's got a piece nominated this year as well: Conjunctions. It should be very interesting to see the final results.

But in any case, congratulations to all of the nominees, and I look forward to seeing more of your work in the future!

2 New Poems in Kartika Review

Two all-new poems of mine appear in the newest issue of Kartika Review: Home Is To Box As To Leave Is To Free and Projections Through A Glass Eye on pages 153-154.

The theme for this issue was Meditations on Home.

This issue also includes the work of several other amazing writers including Elmaz Abinader, Peter Bacho, Alexander Chee, Justin Chin, Tess Gerritsen, Porochista Khakpour, Don Lee, Min Jin Lee, Yiyun Li, Ed Lin, Shawna Yang Ryan, Lac Su, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, Thrity Umrigar and Sung J. Woo.

Kartika Review launched in September of 2007 as a national non-profit journal in support of the Asian American literary and arts community. They focus their efforts in 2 main directions: first, on challenging writers to bring forth innovative work that transforms preconceived limitations of "the multi-culti narrative" and second, on presenting creative writing that will cause readers to reconsider those preconceived limitations of "the multi-culti narrative."

I look forward to seeing more of their work in future issues!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Emerging Asian American Women Writers:Thursday, April 22

Identities and Influence: A Panel of Emerging Asian American Women Writers
Two novelists, a short story writer, and a poet discuss what influences and inspires their writing and how they negotiate their identity as Asian American Women writers. If you're in San Francisco, check it out!

Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, Philippines, and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She received her BA in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley and her MFA at San Francisco State University. Reyes is the author of Gravities of Center and Poeta en San Francisco, which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. Her third book, entitled Diwata, is forthcoming in 2010.

Anita Amirrezvani was born in Tehran, Iran, and raised in San Francisco. For ten years, she was a dance critic for newspapers in the Bay Area. She has received fellowships from the National Arts Journalism Program, the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institute for Dance, and the Hedgebrook Foundation for Women Writers. Amirrezvani’s first novel, The Blood of Flowers, skillfully interweaves culture, romance, and art.

Kathryn Ma’s stories have appeared in the Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, Southwest Review, Threepenny Review, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. Ma won the 2008 David Nathan Meyerson Prize for Fiction for her title story and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices. A lawyer and a Bread Loaf Scholar, she has taught Creative Writing in the MFA Program at the University of Oregon. All That Work and Still No Boys is her first book.

Shawna Yang Ryan was born in Sacramento, California, the child of parents who met during the Vietnam War when her father was stationed in Taiwan. Ryan graduated from UC Berkeley, and received an M.A. from UC Davis. In 2002, she was a Fulbright scholar in Taiwan. Her novel Water Ghosts was a finalist for the 2008 Northern California Book Award.

Marianne Villanueva (moderator) is the author of the short story collections Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila and Mayor of the Roses. A third collection, The Lost Language, is forthcoming. Villanueva currently teaches writing and literature at Foothill College and Notre Dame de Namur University.

Co-sponsored by the USF Asian American Studies Program and the USF Center for the Pacific Rim. Call 415.422.6066 or email for details and parking information. Thursday, April 22, 2010. 7:30 pm Program at the University of San Francisco. Fromm Hall. Free and open to the public.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

[Asian American Poet Spotlight] Soul Vang

California has produced a number of Hmong American writers of particular quality. Consider Burlee Vang and Pos Moua, the author of the book Where the Torches Are Burning, printed by Swan Scythe Press a few years ago. One particular standout to me is the Hmong writer Soul Vang.

Soul Vang’s poetry has appeared in Tilting the Continent, How Much Earth, Bamboo Among the Oaks, and the Central California Poetry Journal. Like many, he was born in Laos and came to the U.S. with his family as a child after 1975, with a year in Nongkhai, Thailand and Hawaii. He also served in the U.S. Army and settled down in California. He received an M.F.A. in poetry from CSU Fresno.

While he and I might disagree occasionally on some formatting issues in poems, he always has my respect for a serious and rigorous style of poetry that is true to our experiences without exoticizing them. He often takes on his journey as a soldier to discussing current events to occasionally, "simply" settling back down into his backyard. You can visit his blog at where he shares some very fine poems, such as "Afternoon at the Long Cheng Café."

To date, he and I have never met in person, but I would consider any discussion of Hmong poetics incomplete without a discussion of his work.

Monday, April 12, 2010

BARROW influences: Blade Runner

My latest book of poems, BARROW, is heavily influenced by the film Blade Runner, responsding to both the film and the source novel, science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? There's something about this story that really speaks to Laotian American artists like myself and the singer Ketsana, and several others of us who arrived at almost the same time Blade Runner first came out.

BARROW was written with some subtle and overt nods, such as my poem "2019 Blues," and other verbal references, including modified cityspeak. The book adapts many of the motifs and techniques of both the film and novel. Like Blade RunnerBARROW is at many points a noir work, the majority of poems set within urban settings where you will find few mentions of the environment and nature without lurking  human science, a realm where the humans here struggle with questions of mortality, technology, legacies and artifice.

The late Phillip K. Dick opined that throughout the story, the protagonist becomes progressively dehumanized while the protagonist's formal targets appear to be becoming more human. Dick thinks the protagonist "must question what he is doing, and really what is the essential difference between him and them? And, to take it one step further, who is he if there is no real difference?"

As I wrote BARROW I gave significant consideration to the Cartesian maxim, Cogito Ergo Sum: I think, therefore, I am. These days, it's getting hard to tell, how much must I think, to truly be, in an age of information?

As a transcultural adoptee, I find myself able to relate to the replicants of Blade Runner, who come into the world with suspect narratives of who they are, and who have their 'futures' dictated to them. What is the means of expressing yourself into being?

Of course, BARROW draws on much more than just Blade Runner, but I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss some of the connections at some point.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

[Asian American Poet Spotlight] Barbara Tran

It's been a little while since we've last heard from Barbara Tran, a Vietnamese American poet born in New York City. In 2002 she released her first poetry collection, In the Mynah Bird's Own Words through Tupelo Press, and was a finalist for the PEN OpenBook Award.

She was a coeditor of the 1998 anthology Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose, published by the Asian American Writers' Workshop. Barbara Tran also served as a guest editor for a special issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review entitled Viet nam: Beyond the Frame. Many became familiar with her as a subject in the documentary Between the Lines: Asian American Women's Poetry by the filmmaker Yunah Hong. Her other credits include poems in Ploughshares, Women's Review of Books, The New Yorker and MANOA,Two Rivers: New Vietnamese Writing from America and Viet Nam

Interestingly, she's also a certified dog trainer in Vermont, a graduate of Pat Miller's Peaceful Paws Academy. Some have suggested she may also be working on a second book of poetry and a novel.

But while we're waiting for these to show up, we can look at poems of hers such as Fire or Phu Nhuan. If you can get a copy of In The Mynah Bird's Own Words, you'll find she's combined prose poems with more traditional work, mostly opting for very compact forms. Most of those who've read it find her long poem Rosary to be the framing piece. It's fair to suggest that in the space of the 12 poems she includes within 32 pages, she's accomplished a great deal worth keeping an eye out for in the future.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

[Asian American Poetry Spotlight] Kundiman

Not a poet, but a tradition, and in the United States, an organization specifically committed to Asian American poetry. Since 2004, Kundiman has been dedicated to the creation, cultivation and promotion of Asian American poetry. They sponsored the Kundiman Poetry Prize, and once sponsored the Vincent Chin Memorial Prize Chapbook competition. Today, their key programs are readings and the acclaimed Kundiman retreat. They're still going strong and you can visit them at

They worked to create a space that would "facilitate the creation of new work, create mentoring relationships with established Asian American poets and address the challenges that uniquely affect Asian American poets." And by most accounts, they've succeeded very well in less than a decade already.

Among the 200,000 in the Lao American community, Phayvanh Luekhamhan is the only poet to have ever attended their retreat, (in fact, she's attended several to complete the whole program) and Andre Yang is the only Hmong poet to have attended so far. I would consider it a significant distinction, and look forward to seeing where their future efforts take them.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

[Asian American Poet Spotlight] Lee Herrick

2007 was something of a banner year for the poetry of Asian American transcultural adoptees. Several of us released our very first full-length books, including myself and Lee Herrick, who was eventually able to join us in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the Loft Literary Center to celebrate those releases.

His book, This Many Miles From Desire, is still on my main bookshelf and it provides an interesting insight into our approach to contemporary poetics. I'm not usually a fan of Ars Poetica poems, but his is a fine exception from the 21st century.

He's currently teaching in Fresno City College in California. He's quite a traveler, with adventures in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, as well as Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, and many examples of his poetry reflect that. I would say the far greater influence on his work has been music. Any day now, he's also supposed to be wowing us with a second book of poems.

Lee was born in Daejeon, South Korea and adopted at ten months. With poems published in ZYZZYVA, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Berkeley Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Many Mountains Moving, The Bloomsbury Review, MiPOesias, and others, Lee keeps active. You can find his work in the anthologies Seeds from a Silent Tree: Writings by Korean Adoptees, Hurricane Blues: Poems About Katrina and Rita, and Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California's Great Central Valley, 2nd Edition.

He's got a good heart and a good sense of humor, and a strong sense of Asian American activism. He's a blogger and an essayist, with publication credits that include the Minnesota-based Korean Quarterly and college textbooks. He's been good enough that he's been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a 2000 Los Angeles Poetry Festival Award finalist. Check his work out at  

CAPM 2010 Guest Speaker: Dr. Franklin Odo

The state Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans recently announced their keynote speaker for the Annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Dinner, the acclaimed Dr. Franklin Odo, director of the Smithsonian Institution's Asian Pacific American program.

This year the event will be held Saturday, May 15th at Crowne Plaza – Riverfront Hotel (11 East Kellogg Boulevard, St. Paul) with a Dinner Program from 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm followed by dancing and celebration.

Having met Dr. Odo before, I'm excited to see the Council has selected such an outstanding speaker and activist for this year's celebration. The Smithsonian is the world's largest museum complex and research organization composed of 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo. They also put out a really great magazine. :)

Dr. Odo is a Japanese American author, scholar, activist, and historian. He has served as the director of the Asian Pacific American Program at the Smithsonian Institution since the program’s inception in 1997. As the director of the APA Program, Dr. Odo has brought numerous exhibits to the Smithsonian highlighting the experiences of Chinese Americans, Native Hawaiians, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Korean Americans, and Indian Americans. He is also the only Asian Pacific American curator at the National Museum of American History.

Tickets to the event are $40. If you have questions or want to RSVP: contact David Zander at 651.757.1742 or

Lao artist profile: Prince Nithakhong Somsanith

In 2006, as part of the ASIAALIVE program at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco visitors had an opportunity see the extraordinary work of Prince Nithakhong Somsanith who gladly shared his artistic skills with the community.
He is one of the last gold thread embroiderers in the ancient traditions from the former Lao royal capital of Luang Prabang. Among the highlights was instruction in gold leaf stenciling for architectural decoration.

Traditional materials include mulberry paper, gold leaf, lacquer, chisel, wooden mallet, and nails, and involved selecting a pattern, drawing the motifs and cutting the images, followed by placement and finally applying gold leaf. Visitors got to try their own hand at the art form. The page at provides more information.

The acclaimed Lao Heritage Foundation works in partnership with the prince to share his skills with the community and the next generation. Hopefully he will be presented with many more opportunities in the coming years ahead to present across the country, and others will take the time to help him document his craft and process.

You can also visit his website:

Monday, April 05, 2010

Reflecting on 30 Years

For many of the Southeast Asian refugee communities, this marks 30 years since we began arriving in the US from the various refugee camps of Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Indonesia. During the late 1970s this was an era of immense uncertainty as we had to determine what to keep and what to leave behind.

We've since seen families scattered across Europe, Australia, Canada, the United States, even French Guyana, trying to rebuild their lives. And tragically, we've seen many stories lost.

The poet Souvankham Thammavongsa recently released a book of poems, Found, which was also turned into a movie by filmmaker Paramita Nath. The impetus for this book was the story of her discovering her father's notebook that he had kept in the camps, filling it with doodles, addresses, postage stamps, maps and measurements. And nearly 30 years later, he threw it away into the trash, and it was only by chance that she discovered it and recovered it. And from that, she also felt the need to respond to it, creating a body of poems that needed to be heard.

But I know, around the world, there are so many other families who've already thrown away these markers of history, our past, our heritage. They considered these relics, and by unspoken extension, themselves, of no value. It's an annihilation of the deepest significance made all the more ironic by their almost uniform insistence that we preserve and maintain our culture and traditions.
This year we've been in overdrive in the United States during the Census 2010 trying to count our communities. I've also been busy trying to write grants, presentations and articles that will help support our understanding of who the Southeast Asian refugees among us are today. My work is often centered around the idea that we do not all fall into the 'model minority' or 'model immigrant' success stories. But also that our stories are not clean-cut narratives, a 'Theater of the Tragic' or notorious 'Atrocity Olympics' where we're trying to one-up each other by measures of suffering.

Because people love anniversaries divisible by 10s, we're seeing many conferences and spectacles organized around our experience in 2010. So it goes.

And this might be unremarkable, except I've found the current thrust of narrative we've been taking troubling.
Too often, I'm seeing efforts that are inexplicably trying to streamline the story to make it 'understandable' and to reduce the complexity of these moments. They neglect to discuss the role of Australia and Koreans during the wars of Southeast Asia.

Regarding Laos, it's often reduced to a story of the Hmong, Lao and clandestine American paramilitary advisors fighting against the North Vietnamese and Lao, when the reality is, there were MANY ethnic groups involved, including Khmu, Tai Dam, Mien, Nung and Thai, just to name a few.

In Vietnam, US special forces organized the Bahnar, Jarai, Koho, Manong, and Rhade among other tribes collectively referred to as the Montagnards to advance South Vietnamese and allied interests.
It's been 35 years since the war officially ended for the US on April 30th, 1975. I've been honored to hear the stories and reflections of many of the veterans and families involved in these conflicts. I've seen their extraordinary contributions and generosity to the United States and understanding of that era when so much was deliberately obfuscated or classified. I've watched their children grow up, many surmounting extraordinary challenges and discouragement both from our own community and externally.

As I watch the arguments unfolding over the Texas textbooks that seek to functionally deny the contribution of our communities in defending the lives of American servicemen and our roles in shaping the present world, I understand the intentions of some who think history is best served with a compact narrative that simplifies our collective heritage. But I disagree.

I dissent, and I encourage all our communities to present their stories as they truly are. After 35 years, those who've survived, those who remain have surely earned the right to be what we all fought for. Free, without shame. Called what we wish to be called. Names, not abstract numbers.
As I look at the images of the anonymous victims of the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the majority of whose stories we shall never know, never recover, justice, reconciliation and healing to me requires an honest accounting, a restoration of identities.
In the past, there are those who've feared 'Balkanization' and the disintegration of national identity by people's unwillingness to relinquish their roots and surrender any claim to their past. I think the greater conflicts, the more tragic loss emerges from our deliberate blinding of ourselves. When we taint the record in the name of expedience, for convenient economic gain, we commit the deepest of betrayals, an unforgivable affront to truth.

I would not wish to face our descendants who will ask: "What did you do to our heritage?" if we continue on a systematic destruction of our own true story.

[Asian American Poet Spotlight] U Sam Oeur

Thinking about the recent release of the late monk Ly Van's book, O! Maha Mount Dangrek, leads me to think about U Sam Oeur, one of the few survivors of the Killing Fields under Pol Pot's regime.

I'd met him briefly a few years ago at the Loft Literary Center and he was a quiet but colorful man who writes with deep honesty. The main book he's known for is his bilingual Sacred Vows, which has established its place among Cambodian arts and letters, printed by Minnesota's own award-winning Coffee House Press.

Coffee House Press also printed his memoir, Crossing Three Wildernesses.

Born in 1936, he grew up in a farming family in the rural Svey Rieng province of Cambodia and studied in the United States. He became a government official and part of the Cambodian delegation to the United Nations.

During the time of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot was trying to systematically murder and eliminate anyone considered an intellectual or part of the previous regime.

U Sam Oeur, along with his family, survived this terrible period by faking illiteracy and hiding his intelligence while serving in the forced-labor camps for four years. He had to destroy the manuscripts of his literary work or he would have been tortured and shot. Even after all of this, he still risked death at any moment due to the randomness of violence under the Khmer Rouge.

Eventually, he escaped and now lives in Texas, where he continues to write poetry and is also translating the poems of Walt Whitman into Khmer. He holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from the Iowa Writers Workshop.

With his poems, it's often difficult to separate the history and significance from the aesthetic quality and meaning. The poems of Sacred Vows are largely unflinching and honest to a fault.

U Sam Oeur's poems rarely descend into political polemic or indictment, or banal romanticization of the past. They reflect his perspective and what he remembers and treasures of his society with careful consideration and a sense of tradition.

U Sam's tale reminds me of the power of literature and the journeys many of us struggle through. To go through so much and still believe in art and the insistence that the human voice must express. Something we should all remember as we create our own work, remembering the tragic ease by which almost an entire society's voice might be lost in an anonymous, bloody field.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Northography Returns

For many years now, the Northography site has sought to create a way for Minnesota writers to share and exchange new work based on a given stimulus, usually presented once a week. Occasionally, they've also held readings and other programs in the community, which I applaud, given that it's been particularly effective reaching out to those outside of the immediate Twin Cities area.

Northography has proven to be a great way to jog the creative juices and flow for many in Minnesota. It may not work for all writers, but I think the community of writers involved are well-knit. Some of the work I've posted at Northography has gone on to be part of larger projects. It took a brief hiatus in 2009, but it's back now and I look forward to seeing what's contributed in the future!

[Asian American Poet Spotlight] Sandy Tseng

With the AWP conference in Denver just around the corner, it's a fine time to highlight one of Colorado's Asian American poets, Sandy Tseng. I interviewed her last year during the release of her first book, Sediment.

photo by Mark Chen

Sediment was released by Four Way Books, collecting her work for the very first time.  Tseng's poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Crazyhorse, Fugue, Hunger Mountain, The Nation, Third Coast, and other magazines. She has also been anthologized in Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves (Deep Bowl Press, 2008).

I particularly enjoy her poems City View and The Bypass. There's good control within them and lingering imagery.

She's also received The Nation's 2006 Discovery Award, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Vira I. Heinz Foundation. As you can see, she's been active, and also participated in residencies from the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She teaches writing at Metropolitan State College of Denver. You can visit her online at

BARROW for the classrooms

I have a very limited number of review copies of BARROW available for teachers interested in considering it for use in poetry and literature classes. If you're interested in considering it in whole or in part for your curriculum, let me know!

Released in October, 2010 BARROW is a collection of speculative poetry exploring language, tradition and myth and where the narrator fits within those words and worlds. It includes some of my work that has appeared previously in other journals such as Whistling Shade, Northography and Tales of the Unanticipated. BARROW also features many all-new pieces debuting for the very first time. Some, such as My Autopsy, Thank You, were written during my first years at Otterbein College. Which was refreshing to still feel confident about such pieces even after so much time had passed.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Cambodian monk's poems released posthumously

Ly Van survived the brutal communist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and later led the Glory Buddhist Temple in Massachusetts for 20 years until his death in January 2008. As his peers were going through his effects, they discovered his manuscript of poetry, which no one even knew he'd written.

The book, entitled "O! Maha Mount Dangrek," is a collection of two lengthy poems: one an autobiographical piece on the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the other about a friend's story of love in the time of genocide. The title in English means "Oh Mighty Mount Dangrek" and refers to the mountainous plateau between the Cambodia-Thailand border refugees were forced to climb to escape the Khmer Rouge.

A 14-city tour is now planned to promote the book with readings and accompanying musical performances by  young Cambodian artists. The tour began April 1 at a Middlesex Community College reading and will now continue with stops in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Paul,, and Long Beach. The publication of Ly Van's work, printed in its original Khmer and in English, completes a two-year project by followers.

A quick note on my 2010-2011 availability

My schedule for visiting schools and other programs is very limited this year due to coordinating events in Minnesota for the Refugee Nation and Legacies of War program in October, as well as the upcoming Lao American Writers Summit. There are still some dates open in September, but the best dates are now between January, 2011-March, 2011.

During most Aprils, I am typically in California near the Bay Area, but the rest of 2011 is still open, and I'm always happy to come in and speak to students, artists and other members of the community, and my rates are flexible to meet your budgets.

In the Innsmouth Free Press

In case you haven't spotted it, in recent months I've been posting a number of short bits over at the Innsmouth Free Press, an online journal somewhat akin to The Onion meets horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, if he'd had multicultural sensitivities.

Formally, "Innsmouth Free Press is a fictional newspaper publishing faux news pieces – lovingly called Monster Bytes – in a Lovecraftian/Cthulhu Mythos universe, as well as original short fiction stories."

As a collaborative effort, they're seeking readers and writers to help them map out and flesh out the fictional city of Innsmouth and the surrounding haunted New England area. So you'll spot news stories, op-eds, lifestyle articles through metafiction.

Most of my material to date is appearing in their Monster Bytes section, but I imagine I'll be expanding articles into other areas as well. Each writer is taking their own approach to Innsmouth, from what I've seen to date but it's meshing nicely with some good editing and occasionally enough pay to buy a cup of good coffee. Who can ask for anything more?

[Asian American Poet Spotlight]: Adrienne Su

So, for National Poetry Month, I'm going to highlight Asian American poets out there,with a focus on living ones I really enjoy.

We'll open up 2010 with Adrienne Su, a professor tucked away at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.

Since 1997 she's had a great level of output as the author of three books of poetry. My personal favorite is still 1997's Middle Kingdom from Alice James Books, but her books Sanctuary (Manic D Press, 2006) and last year's Having None of It (again, Manic D Press, 2009) also cover some fine territory.

I've interviewed her a few times for Asian American Press and always found her to be a friendly and delightful subject with great honesty and humor. It's a pity we don't seem to catch her touring around the country as much to give readings. Hopefully this will change in the future.

One of my favorites from her collection Middle Kingdom is the humorous Miss Chang Is Missing. I think it's one of the best introductions to her work and style.

Adrienne Su has roots in Atlanta, studied at Harvard and received a 2007 NEA Fellowship in Literature for her poetry. She's been anthologized in The New American Poets, Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation, Best American Poetry 2000, and the 4th edition of Literature and Its Writers: A Compact Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama.

Check out her work if you get a chance.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Hyphen highlights Mai Neng Moua!

Hmong American writer and pioneer Mai Neng Moua was highlighted recently on the Hyphen Magazine website! As one of the founders of the Paj Ntaub Voice Hmong literary journal and the editor of the ground-breaking anthology, Bamboo Among the Oaks, she is one of the key instrumental figures of Hmong American literature, helping to create a viable space for their community to express their perspectives creatively for the first time in almost 4,000 years. As I've often said, if she isn't exactly the mother of Hmong literature, she's at least its big sister.
Although it's been some time since we've last seen an issue of Paj Ntaub Voice, if it's now defunct it still played a historic and lasting role in the Hmong community. Even, arguably, for all of the Southeast Asian American refugee arts. Although I think they've done one too many issues on variations of the gender question, they still took the Hmong narrative and extended it far beyond our traditional expectations. Here's hoping they or someone else resumes the mantle in the near future!

CASTING IN OUR TIMES: A Discussion, 4/5

Mu Performing Arts is one of the key voices in Asian American theater, and they've recently reasserted their position as an organization committed to racial and gender equality with a new mission statement: "Mu produces great performances born of arts, equality, and justice from the heart of the Asian American experience." 

In February, they conducted a panel discussion about the presentation of Asians in television, film, stage, and print in conjunction with the opening of Yellow Face. It was one step towards growing as a leader in the Asian American community, not only as a performing arts company but as a voice both within and outside of the arts.

On April 5th, they will collaborate with the Children's Theater Company for "Casting In Our Times," a public forum that highlights the contemporary challenges of casting and producing multicultural and multiracial theater productions. The Children's Theater Company took a lot of heat this season for some of the most insensitive casting of "Mulan" the nation has seen in years.

The event will be moderated by MPR's Marianne Combs with a diverse panel including Mu's own Rick Shiomi and Randy Reyes, Peter Brosius of Children's Theater Company, and artistic directors Faye Price of Pillsbury House and Michelle Hensley of Ten Thousand Things. Considering an incredible wave upcoming Asian-themed theater productions from Twin Cities companies, including M. Butterfly at the Guthrie, Mulan at CTC, and and The King and I at Bloomington Civic Theatre, this discussion is needed more than ever.

"Casting In Our Times" is free and open to the public with a reservation. April 5, 2010 at 6 pm.Admission is free. Please call the CTC ticket office at 612-874-0400 to make a reservation. It will be held at the McGuire Education Center of Children’s Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Av. S in Minneapolis.

Welcome to National Poetry Month!

I know, I know. Every day should be National Poetry Day, but in the meantime: "Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is now held every April, when publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets around the country band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture. Thousands of businesses and non-profit organizations participate through readings, festivals, book displays, workshops, and other events." 

Most of them, pretty good! :)

My approach to poetry obliges me to recommend trying to read at least one new poem a day, but even better, write one and read one aloud. Buy a book of poetry, or at least check one out of the library. Why not also subscribe to a journal of poetry or attend at least one reading in your city?

Among poets I consider significant early influences: Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, Yusef Komunyakaa, Heather McHugh, Adrienne Su, Leonard Cohen, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra and Shuntaro Tanikawa.

Books of poetry from recent few years I've particularly enjoyed are Jeffrey Yang's An Aquarium, Cathy Park Hong's Dance, Dance, Revolution, Barbara Jane Reye's Poeta En San Francisco, Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth, Oscar Bermeo's Palimpsest and John Calvin Rezmerski's What Do I Know?

I wish it wasn't hard to get copies of most of them, but that's the hazard of our craft.

As always, for writers looking for journals to submit to, I recommend looking at the journals listed in They're excellent places to start. Don't be afraid to contribute to local poetry journals either, or even start your own!

In 2010, I think a poet to watch is Katie Leo. She's been doing some great work and I'll really be looking forward to seeing a full book of hers come out one day. And big congratulations as well to Julian Hines, who recently released his new chapbook!

I expect 2010 will continue to be a great year for poetry. Keep writing!