Monday, October 03, 2011

Lao American poetics: Musings

The nuckawi was once a treasured member of the cities of Lan Xang.

This is not to say they were perfect in the execution of their duties. But they were considered "the eyes of the city." Such a role should not be taken lightly, but neither should it be taken so seriously that the nuckawi loses their humor and optimism in the bigger picture.

For the Lao American poet, in which direction do we go with our own work? The question is similar to those asked during the journey of Lao poets in Laos, as well as significant work being written in France, Australia, Thailand, Japan and elsewhere.

I live, and I write. And in a few lucky moments, the two are indistinguishable. And in the best of these moments, I feel truly free. As many other writers have felt.

As a Lao American poet, I try to hew close to Lao principles of moderation in most of my poems. I try not to be too simple, nor too baroque and esoteric.

I believe in the importance of experimentation and finding ways to see the world in those ways less seen. Once in a while, I can feel fairly confident I've seen it in a way no one else has. And I temper that statement because nothing is absolute.

I've said a poet's duty is to see the transience, the chaos and uncertainty within our world and not be paralyzed by it.

We try to find words for those moments in life where there seem to be no words, at least, none that truly suffice.

To me, our best expatriate artists aren't writing in a vacuum, churning out soulless Pollyanna doggerel. They're taking risks as only poets can, extending both our language and the language of our host countries.

When we see a film like Nerakhoon: The Betrayal, it's significant because we are taking a chance to bring that word forward into the rest of the world. Nerakhoon. It already comes with significant, deep meaning, but here we also have a masterwork that has now added to its original meaning, and I think gives it more power.

I've heard many of the arguments and debates within Asian American and Post-Colonial poetics and literature within our own community, but I admit there are moments where I just have to quiet those in the back of my head. I roll the dice and see what comes up. Sometimes it's a keeper, sometimes it's not.

When I look at my poem, "Khop Jai For Nothing, Farangs," on the website of the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm conscious that I've set precedent. I've given the American public the opportunity to consider if these are words they might one day introduce into the broader American vocabulary.

Will khop jai catch on the way gung-ho, abracadabra, or sayonara has? It's not really for me to say. Who could have predicted the word caucus would catch on when we borrowed it from the Native Americans? Or rendezvous instead of meeting? Or avatar?

But within that moment, and any moment a Lao American poet makes an effort to bridge languages, I feel we present a choice. An opportunity. Some will take us up on it, others will stay with their tried and true idioms.

I recently had a chance to review a number of Lao American poems where I'm disappointed to see writers making no effort to have a genuine dialogue within our languages and cultures. Not a word in passa Lao, not even a description of a concept or a way of thinking that we might recognize as particular to our own journey. In other disciplines we refer to it contemptuously as covering or masking. Or at least, those are the polite terms.

As earnest as the sentiment behind such poems are, the poem may as well have come from a love-struck Russian or a Yanamamo teen, as from a nuckawi.

There are some people who think poetry is best when it is absent of the world's particulars. I think the poems become more interesting when we can see the world's particulars and we're allowed to appreciate them.

I'm NOT saying a Lao American poem has to ALWAYS have Lao language, Lao objects or geographical place names incorporated into them. Or that they have to be about boun, karaoke dramas and leftover Heinekens. But I'd also pause if a poet didn't consider writing about them occasionally.

The fact is, it's ALWAYS nebulous. as it should be.

But when we have read each other's work long enough, it's clear there are approaches that are more elegant than others in their execution. Some deliver far more interesting results than others.

But what works for you?

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