Friday, June 29, 2012

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lao Artist Spotlight: Jack Sananikone

Among the leading emerging Lao American speculative artists is Jack Sananikone of Canada.

He has aspired to become a Concept Artist in the video game industry, and presents a number of his sketches online at A graduate of Sheridan College majoring in Illustration, he has been working in the apparel industry as a Senior Graphic Artist for several years.

Hopefully we'll see more of his work in the future!

Nak legends

In Lao folklore, the guardian Nak often live in streams, and desecrating them can have significantly unpleasant outcomes, particularly in the form of sickness and diseases such as cancers, kidney problem, and skin problems. Leprosy has been suggested as a possible Nak affliction. Offenses can range from urinating or defecating in a Nak-inhabited stream, or washing one's dirty clothing in waters sacred to the Nak. Presumably, other forms of pollution would also incur their ire.

From a speculative writer's perspective, there are rich veins of possibilities to consider when writing about them. For steampunk writers, it raises some interesting questions of how the Nak might respond to industrial pollution and the introduction of new and strange materials not normally found in their waters.

However, I would also caution writers to treat them respectfully, especially writers of Southeast Asian heritage.

[Research] Visitors from Lao Hell

An interesting article has cropped up at the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute by Patrice Ladwig entitled "Visitors from hell: transformative hospitality to ghosts in a Lao Buddhist festival."

While I don't have access to the journal, for those of you who do, I'd say check it out and let the rest of us know what you think of it.

However, the abstract reads as:

"In Lao Buddhism, each year during the ghost festival, disembodied and hideous spectres are believed to be released from hell and enter the world of the living. This crossing of an ontological boundary, and the subsequent interaction of humans and ghosts, can be understood as a process of establishing hospitality in which both guest and host are transformed. The hospitality encounter can here simultaneously trigger an ontological shift of the ghost's position in Buddhist cosmology, but also contribute to the ethical self-cultivation of humans as hosts. Ghosts as guests can escape hell, receive a new body, and re-enter the cycle of reincarnations, while humans can practise a Buddhist ethics of hospitality based on the confrontation with a horrifying and pitiful species of beings."

Sounds like a great read!

[Poem] Lao Words for Imagination

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Alternate History and Secret History

There's already been significant commentary about how to read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with plenty of what we might expect in response. "It's a popcorn blockbuster, so throw out hopes for historical accuracy," although I might venture to say it's more historical than Mel Gibson's The Patriot or Air America. 

For me, the old hamster wheel is spinning as I remember that there's a difference between alternate history and secret histories. Alternate histories follow a 'what-if' proposition regarding certain conditions and a pivotal set of events that diverged to create a different world than what we have today. 

A secret history, on the other hand, would look at the modern world we have, and grounded in that, present a story of things that happen behind the scenes. A 'set the record straight' kind of tall tale. A core challenge is that as we move forward with so much documented and recorded, it's harder and harder to make a modern-era secret history, although the X-Files, Foucault's Pendulum and other works often helped give rise to the form.

Looking at the retro-futurism of steampunk, the futuristic past that never was, is a whole different set of considerations as well. 

From a speculative poet's point of view, all of it is of course a delicious challenge. A particularly grueling proposition might well be: How do you create an alternate secret history scifaiku? Can you convey a secret alternate past in 17 syllables?

But having come from a country mired in the Secret War for the better part of the 20th century, this raises questions for those of us whose histories were not as well documented, or in some cases, deliberately obfuscated. Amidst a historical climate of propaganda, disinformation and the fog of war, as Napoleon so famously coined it, Lao American writers, among others, will be challenged by these forms. Both in the research and the creating of new works.

As it is, many Lao American writers are influenced at least in part by the 5 precepts of Lao Buddhism, which includes a high regard for the truth. So writing fiction in general, when time could be spent recording the past before it's lost, can be a tricky situation. Yet, since so much of the historical record was lost as it was, those of us who write need methods to seal in the cracks to hold a narrative together. Enter fiction, and perhaps more often, secret histories.

The global readership is an interesting challenge because it seems a working knowledge of general history from a mainstream perspective is sorely lacking. Asking someone to correctly order the Civil War, World War I, World War 2, the Korean War and the Vietnam War is hard enough. What is an author to do when they want to tell an alternate history of Czarist Russia, or a secret history of Laos told from the Hmong or Tai Dam perspective?  

If I was editing such a story, you can probably guess that I'd throw it out if they just shoe-horned in paragraphs of what 'really' happened. I'm from a school of thought that says the burden is on the reader to familiarize themselves with, say, a decolonized version of Filipino history if they then also want to tackle a steampunk Filipino narrative. I dislike the idea of writers having to do double duty. 

Dr. Martin Stuart Fox discussed the importance of Laos being in the position of facing multiple histories. With over 160 different ethnic communities who live within our borders, each of them has had different experiences and memories of what were significant events shaping our society.  Wheels within wheels that sometimes contradict each other. Some are Royalist views, others are Neutralist or Pathet Lao views. One man's hero is another man's villain. But without working at even partial reconstruction, future generations won't have much of a chance to judge for themselves. But that gets into a much larger discussion for another time.

I imagine that by the end of it all, Lao American writers will probably veer to a middle ground of explaining some of what 'the truth' was, but only enough to bring us up to speed. History is written by the victors is the old maxim. But a civilized world also makes space for the alternate perspectives.

But in the meantime take your bets on the follow-up to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Personally, I'm rooting for a Franklin Pierce: Vampire Slayer story. "The Union at Stake!" or something. Or Teddy Roosevelt and the Werebears. 

Interviewed at Strange Horizons!

I was interviewed by Yuk Ki Lau a few months back and now it's come out this month at Strange Horizons In it we talk about many different things, particularly speculative poetry, the Vincent Chin case, the Secret War for Laos, Miss Minnesota and Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, among other things.

Strange Horizons is a Utah-based non-profit speculative fiction magazine established in 2000 and still going strong. Check out the rest of their articles and stories if you get a chance!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

[Poem] Pavlov's Menagerie Ruminates

Well, better this than life

In an electrified rat cage,
Hugging Harlow's wire mothers,
Getting stuffed in Schrödinger’s lethal boxes
Or getting launched into low orbit

To bathe in cosmic rays for the Kremlin
Because I couldn't sign fast enough
Or cuddle a kitten in front of a camera.

Navigating the thin-walled maze
Between best friend
Or mad moments like Cujo

I've still got most of my original equipment.
I'm fed.

One ring, and my belly goes hollow
As the average human soul.

Lately, I gnaw on memories more than substance
But I'm still not a sheep,

And no one begs for my vote.

From On the Other Side of the Eye, 2007

Poet to Poet: Rebecca Marjesdatter

Later this week my Poet to Poet interview with speculative poet Rebecca Marjesdatter will be up at: on the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

A past winner of the Rhysling Award for speculative poetry, she has been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, Tales of the Unanticipated, and the anthologies Women of Other Worlds (University of Western Australia Press, 1999), The Moment of Change (Aqueduct Press, 2012), and the new Minnesota-based anthology of speculative poetry, Lady Poetesses from Hell (Bag Person Press, 2012).

As near as I can tell, this will set precedent as the very first interview between poets conducted using scifaiku. Previously, I interviewed the speculative poet John Calvin Rezmerski, and will be interviewing several others in the near future.


Friday, June 22, 2012

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pew Center Research called out by SEARAC

The Southeast Asian Resource Action Center recently released a response to the Pew Center's research on Asian Americans:

Pew Center’s Research on Asian Americans Does Not Fully Capture Southeast Asian American Experiences

 Washington, DC – The Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) is alarmed by new research from the Pew Research Center which paints Asian Americans overall as faring better than other groups in the United States. While it is important to highlight the successes of Asian American communities, SEARAC is concerned that the Pew research on Asian Americans can do much harm by masking challenges that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) face. The Pew Research Center findings are not representative of all Asian American groups, especially since only Asian Americans from the top six largest subgroups (Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese Americans) were surveyed for the research. Working on behalf of Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, and Vietnamese American communities, SEARAC feels that additional information about these communities is missing from Pew’s research.

For example, in terms of education attainment, the 2010 U.S. Census reveals that more than 1 in 3 Cambodian, Hmong, and Laotian Americans over 25 years of age had less than a high school education, compared with about 1 in 7 of the general U.S. population. In terms of poverty status, 11.3% of Americans overall were estimated to live in poverty compared to Cambodian Americans who had a poverty rate of 18.2% and Hmong Americans at 27.4%.

Additionally, the Pew Research Center reported that Asian Americans overall don’t experience discrimination, but SEARAC works with several local community based groups that have initiatives to end racial discrimination as a direct result of experiences of Southeast Asian American youth in those communities.

Cambodian youth at Khmer Girls in Action in Long Beach, CA recently produced a report titled “Step Into Long Beach: Exposing How Cambodian Youth are Under-resourced, Over-policed, and Fighting Back for their Wellness” which discusses discrimination experienced by youth both at school and while interacting with law enforcement. In Providence, RI, the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM) is working to pass state legislation banning racial profiling because of their youth of color's experiences with law enforcement.
Furthermore, even the Department of Education has recently taken steps to act on a policy to disaggregate data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islander students by putting forth a Request for Information to gather and share information about practices and policies regarding existing education data systems that disaggregate data on AAPI student populations.

According to SEARAC executive director, Doua Thor, "After decades of working to de-bunk the Model Minority Myth—the misconception that all Asian Americans excel academically and face few obstacles—Pew’s research only makes it more difficult for SEARAC and our allies to advance equity for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. SEARAC will continue to push for more disaggregated data so that the most accurate picture of our communities can emerge, and we will be able to fully advocate on behalf of Southeast Asian Americans and underserved communities."

For more information you can visit

Monday, June 18, 2012

[Poem] Aliens

We turn our dishes to
Heaven, but

What manner of dog will come running
To lick them,

Drawn to the censored moaning groins
And the pyrotechnics of false death
And chemical love?

Fetch me a big stick to shake
At these stellar voyeurs!

I want nothing to do with them

As I run down my strange streets,
An accidental alien without
A ray gun.

From my book, On The Other Side Of The Eye, 2007

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Lao American poetry and art, bushido, and iaido

In classical Japanese martial arts, Bushido was a catchall term that evolved over time for a set of values and ideals warriors hoped to embody. Many of these cross-pollinated with zen principles, and the noted zen teacher Taisen Deshimaru wrote frequently on the subject. Today, we typically consider the core values to be an iteration of  Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, Honor, Loyalty.

But how might these be demonstrated in art, especially art that isn't going for jingoism or saccharine Hallmark bumper stickers?

For Lao American poetry, we can consider how all of these fit into the 5 precepts of Buddhism, although this is not absolute. Speaking as a writer of speculative poetry, we gain latitude in the idea that we can speak of all of these items, but, when discussing them, be unflinching regarding the deeper inner truths. At least as far as we can appreciate it. We can examine the fantastic, the mythic and the possible or far-fetched, but also probe towards something greater that conveys understanding of ourselves within an uncertain cosmos.

Beyond the legends of our Ramakien, Phra Lak Phra Lam, the Lao never elevated warriors to the level of other cultures. But there is still much we can learn from the disciplines and theories of the martial arts for our poetic practice.

In previous discussions, we examined the idea of iaido as a model for poetic practice. Although my description veers towards oversimplification of the art, the notion is: From a meditative position (whether walking or sitting meditation) mind, body and spirit become one. In a single elegant motion, one can perceive the opponent, draw the blade, in a single stroke deliver a decisive cut, clean the blade and finally return it to its scabbard. All of this ideally without even missing a beat.

In actual practice of course, it rarely goes anywhere close to as smoothly as that. So, too with poetry. But that does not necessarily mean it is not an ideal worth pursuing.

If we take the symbolism of iaido, at its core, when we practice calligraphy or the composition of a poem, it will be done within one sitting. All of the sufficient ink, paper, and ambiance of the room where we compose the word or poem are perfectly attuned to the occasion. We would successfully write a poem without need for revision on the first try, and it would be appreciated by its reader at many levels, fundamentally transforming them.

But here is where the art gets interesting, because as I've taught my students, the arts are one of the only fields where your flaws can still have merit and interest. A doctor or a lawyer who "bungles" a moment can cost a life or get someone sent to death row. That's pretty serious. Most other professions, like plumbing, carpentry, etc. also have significant consequences for imperfect practices. But the arts are curiously more playful.

True art is elusive but sublime when fully encountered. It has emotional variance and alternates between the overt and the subtle. It transforms and preserves. But a flawed work can hold as much interest and inspire new work by both the artist and others, if presented properly.

This is not to say all art is magnificent or true art, but so long as we learn from the encounter with even flawed art, there is something transformative.

The samurai have the maxim that one who has mastered an art reflects it in their every action. So, too, I think Lao American poetry and poets might embrace and embody such a principle. I imagine we all still have a long way to go. But it is also as Hermann Hesse says, a person's true profession is finding their way to the center of themselves.

Moving back to the discussion of iaido, I wonder if one might notice a difference between the poems that emerge from practitioners of Kashima Shinden, Yagyu Shinkage, Kogen Itto Ryu, or the Tennen Rishin Ryu. Not every practitioner was called to poetry, and of these, it is hard to say how many excelled at it in the eyes of their peers or future generations.

But of what we have, if it were possible to consider their works, would we see a reflection of how their journey through these arts changed them over time?

Consider for example, the ideals of Kashima Shinden. A cursory examination of their approach suggests that the repetition and practice of the art strengthens and helps a practitioner to attain a connection to the cosmos. They seek unwavering intention, perfect clarity of mind to attain fudoshin, the immovable heart. Contrast that with the methods of the Yagyu Shinkage schools, who often consider the environment: Geography, time and other factors. They have often sought to understand hidden inner secrets of conflict, striving towards adaptability and correct anticipation, analysis and decisive actions. A central tenet of the Yagyu Shinkage is said to be "Act with the mind to act with the body." So many possibilities of how these principles might exert themselves with a swordsman's poems. And vice versa.

Something I'm pondering at the moment.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pixar's 22 rules of Storytelling

Circulating widely on the internet at the moment is an animator's collection of a-ha! moments that boil down to some key rules of storytelling: Many others are finding it a great set of things to consider as they begin their stories and especially as we get in the last of the overdue material for the Lao American Speculative Arts Anthology, I hope more than a few pieces get tweaked bearing some of this in mind.

O course, I find myself wishing it was as easy to condense the practice of creating speculative poetry. But that's always the challenge of poetry, I suppose.

Photopoem: Laostronauts

Since at least 1970, the Lao language has had a word for astronaut and astronomy, per the English-Lao Dictionary compiled by Russell Marcus. If you look carefully, you can see how these two pages become a bit of found poetry. Artfulness aside, the bigger challenge I would pose to all of you is: It would be a poor thing to have a word such as nakawagat, and not reach for it ourselves.

Considering Lao artist Vong Phaophanit

Savannakhet has produced some of the leading artists of 20th and 21st century Laos, such as NEA Heritage Fellow Bounxou Chanthraphone and Bush Artist Fellow Mali Kouanchao. Vong Phaophanit is another prominent artist who was born in Savannakhet in 1961. Trained in Paris, he currently lives in the UK with his wife and frequent collaborator Claire Oboussier. They maintain their website at:

You can find his work at several acclaimed museums internationally, including the Tate Britain, London; The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Belfast; The British Council Collection, London; and The Arts Council Collection, London. He was on the 1993 short-list for the Turner Prize and held a 1994 DAAD fellowship in Berlin. In 2002 was the award winner of the Art and Work Award for site-specific work with Gensler Architects.

As we continue to build our understanding of the direction of Lao American artists, we should consider the themes he has worked with over the years. Like many Lao artists, memory has been an important theme. Bamboo, rubber, and rice were frequent materials of choice that he has employed as one of several ways to incorporate his heritage into his art. There are many Lao artists whose bodies of work we can examine where they have not always been overt in addressing their heritage. Like many of us, he has shown interest in broader aesthetic and philosophical issues.

There aren't many who do sculpture and installations. A frequent technique of his has been to use familiar materials to expose multiple layers of contradictory meaning. I'd be interested to see how much he has been influenced by the work of figures like Jean Luc-Godard. Often,  he has not translated the Lao words incorporated into his works for his audience. This is considered an effort to communicate the challenge of living between cultures.

It's interesting because so many of us, from writers to artists in the Lao expatriate community have been doing such things in our own forms. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's an innate imperative, but I've often found Lao artists do this with a particular frequency.

But what are ways you see Lao artists and writers addressing the themes of memory and the challenge of living between cultures?

Runa Islam's "Emergence"

Runa Islam has a film installation in the Art Unlimited section of the Basel art fair entitled "Emergence."

Runa Islam is a British visual artist and filmmaker of Bangladeshi origin based in London. She was a nominee for the 2008 Turner Prize. She is principally known for her film works. She attended the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam from 1997 - 1998, and cited auteurs such as Jean Luc-Godard as influences on her work.

The 'Emergence' exhibit offers an intriguing number of questions about how we might make artistic statements in the future using antiquated technology to express a moment of hope and what might have been.

Newsweek/The Daily Beast proposes we might read this particular exhibit as a statement that "Democracy is never guaranteed, and even recovering its traces turns out to be an unlikely and delicate business..."

As I look at Lao American visual art, the three artists who might have approached the subject in a similar way might be Mali Kouanchao, Vong Phaophanit, and Sayon Syprasoueth, who consistently work with mixed media and experimental forms compared to other more conventional painters and illustrators.

In the catalog, Islam's artistic statement says: 'Emergence is a 35 mm silent film that was originally shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for the exhibition Projects 95: Runa Islam in 2011. Runa Islam’s work is often presented as a cinematic experience that exposes the process of filmmaking itself within a unique architectural configuration. Emergence evolved out of the discovery of an old glass plate negative of a blackand-white photograph o f early 20th-century Tehran, found by the artist in the Smithsonian archive. As the film unfolds from its purely abstract opening shot – a crack in the center of the screen – we glimpse a sheet of paper being dipped into a chemical bath, and an image on its surface slowly appears before our eyes. Bathed in the glow from the photographic darkroom, the surrounding space of the installation makes the viewer feel as if they have entered the intimacy of the darkroom itself. The fissure we glimpsed earlier reveals itself as part of the overall picture of a group of stray dogs, scavenging the carcasses of dead horses in the dusty grounds of what could be a palace. The violence of the image is counteracted by its stark, monochromatic beauty but reinforced by the damaged glass negative the work derives from. Both poetic and conceptual, Islam’s work has been described by curator Christian Rattemeyer as inhabiting ‘the boundaries between visibility and invisibility, legibility and silence, stability and instability, syntactical simplicity and symbolic complexity.’

While I find the final bit a bit pretentious, I think the idea of creating visual art that is poetic and conceptual would be an engaging direction to take our work in the years ahead and to really push the limits of what Lao American artists address in our work.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Poet to Poet: Fres Thao

This month, I interview Hmong American poet Fres Thao for the Twin Cities Daily Planet's Poet to Poet series. I mentioned a while back that Ezra Pound felt that "poetry is news that stays news."

This interview consider the way poets are interviewed, and turns it on its head. In most publications, it's often done in a journalistic fashion, even when the poet is being interviewed by another poet. But I want to see what happens if Minnesota poets are interviewed using the forms we work in the most. Previous poets interviewed have included John Calvin Rezmerski, Kathryn Kysar, Kris Bigalk, Britt Fleming and Sharon Chmielarz. We have several other interesting Minnesota literary figures coming up in the months ahead. So stay tuned!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Photopoem: The Lao Word for Horror

New Executive Director of American Academy of Poets Named

The Academy of American Poets recently announced Jennifer Benka was named the organization's next Executive Director. She will return to New York City from San Francisco, where she was most recently the National Director of Development and Marketing for 826 National. She will assume her new role at the Academy on July 16.

Benka, according to the Academy of American Poets' release "worked for nearly a decade in New York City as the Managing Director of Poets & Writers. In her role at Poets & Writers she served as the chief fundraising and marketing officer, planning and executing a successful multi-million dollar endowment campaign and winning the organization more visibility than it had received in its 40-year history."

She has roots in the Midwest and experience in New York and the West Coast. I'm certain that she'll do a fine job and the selection committee made their decision carefully. It's a safe, responsible decision that seems unlikely to generate much protest or discontent. We'll see if she's able to replicate the success she had with Poets & Writers.

From a Southeast Asian American poet's perspective, I would still argue much work remains to be done by both Poets & Writers and The Academy of American Poets to foster an environment that meets the diverse needs and interests of Southeast Asian American poets. Many are approaching their 30th to 40th year in the United States, if not more. With over 500,000 of us in the US, we're not so small a demographic to be uninteresting, are we?

At the present moment, the Academy's representation of Southeast Asian American voices is execrable. A keyword search through their site for Cambodian, Lao, Hmong, Thai and Vietnamese Americans or their work is almost nowhere to be found. The exception is in passing mentions by non-Southeast Asian American poets. After intensive searching, you'll find Linh Dinh and Hoa Nguyen have one brief mention, and there may be a few others sprinkled in there. But forget finding U Sam Oeur, Barbara Tran, May Lee Yang, Saymoukda Vongsay, or anything by a Karen, Khmu, Tai Dam or Akha American poet. They're out there, but you wouldn't know that from the Academy.

In the interest of fairness, even among certain prominent Asian American arts organizations, active engagement with emerging Southeast Asian American is sketchy at best. They like Lao beer, but not Lao writers. Go figure.

But I think we can and should expect more from the Academy of American Poets going forward. Be sure to let them know.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans Artist Fellowships

The Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans is launching a fellowship program for APIA artists in MN.

What Can You Expect From the Fellowship:
* 10 APIA artists will be selected to join the Legacy Fellowship Program

* From July 2012-December 212, artists are expected to attend monthly meetings and training/development opportunities. Topics include: developing a 5-year plan, fundraising for artists, marketing, basic tools every artists needs, and many more.

* Along the way, you will receive one-on-one consultations about your artistic career from respected artists.

* Artists will be given a $2,000 seed grant for a demonstration project to curate an event or project highlighting their work. Up to $500 can be used for creative time for fellows. The remaining funds can be used for expenses such as space rental, event food, consultants, art supplies, etc.

The information is not available on the website yet at but the deadline is June 22, 2012. More details can be found at this link:

"No Regrets" On Display at Poetry Parnassus in London during Olympics.

Mentioned earlier in this year, my poem "No Regrets," is being included in the Poetry Parnassus in London during the Olympics as a representative of Lao poetry.  "No Regrets" was a poem written in recognition of Saymoukda Vongsay's first chapbook of the same name in 2008 from Baby Rabbit Publishing. The poem was included in my 2009 book Tanon Sai Jai.

I've recently been informed that in addition to the anthology their intention is to display a collection of poems from June to September 2012 in the outdoor spaces around the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The area is one of London’s most high-profile and visited spaces. The exhibition will also form part of the Festival of the World at Southbank Centre during the summer of 2012.

This festival has been inspired by inspirational thinkers and educators who have wanted to change the world. The poetry will be displayed as part of a fantasy landscape inspired by a collective of artists. Designers Andrew Lock and Richard Nichols have created a series of panels on which the work will be displayed.

The hope of the planners is to represent, on the Southbank Centre site, all the poets in the World Record Anthology. They will send some photographs of the exhibition after it starts on the 22 June. I look forward to seeing the results!

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Art Fairs and Lao American artists

A May 7th, 2012 article in the New Yorker by Peter Schjeldahl raised some questions I think Lao American artists should consider moving forward. Within mainstream art fairs, Schjeldahl had reached the conclusion that that the fairs open a "spiritual gulf between those who buy art and those who only love it." The long and the short was that such a process changes not only the way art is bought, but how it is made. I would question whether that rapid pace is compatible with the Lao and Lao American approach.

The current scene in art fairs creates a bewildering spectacle, but this is similar to my critique of Southeast Asian open mikes of the 2000s. You could run into plenty of people who claim they had an amazing experience seeing so many artists at once. But dollars to doughnuts, they couldn't name a single one of the artists or quote a truly memorable line that was going to stick with them past the weekend.

Considering how often Asian Americans and particularly Asian American artists have to confront the yellow horde 'all-look-alike' stereotype, I consider this problematic. That's not going to stop people from thinking six to a dozen or hundreds of artists performing is an amazing draw, but I think it's a road to diminishing returns, and I try to avoid those now.

There aren't many events that are centered on the idea of an Asian American Arts Fair. Asian American film festivals are popular, but visual art alone is not often presented in our communities, especially among the Lao in America.

Often, I'm left appalled at events where the vendors have no respect for the art they want others to buy. To them, it's just another commodity that might as well be some crude wood crate as something valuable for another person to buy and take home with them.

They don't know how to teach appreciation for a particular work or to show people the story behind a particular piece. They just set it on the ground, then scratch their heads when they have to take it back home because no one thought it's worth anything to buy.

Another dangerous scenario for our visual artists is that none of their pieces will receive serious consideration unless it is ridiculously outrageous and transgressive to the point of self-parody. 

I would lament that a good majority of capable Lao American visual artists are pandering to the lowest denominator with unoriginal perspectives and vantage points, staid, conservative depictions of everyday Lao life. Works that make no statements. They may as well be a pier caricaturist. And each year, they bring the same images to the table, so we have no sense of growth, no sense of innovation or excitement. And why should a visual artist step into that?

For Lao American arts to flourish, however demanding, thoughtful, critical consideration for individual artists and their bodies of work is exactly what we need as a community. This cannot be accomplished simply by remarking on the artist fair and festival as a whole.

I imagine this will fall on deaf ears but for future event organizers considering a Lao American artist exhibition, we need to remember that the art journalists and critics are pressed for time and will be tempted to write up the event as commercial spectacles, not as a thoughtful, carefully curated exhibition.

Bearing all of this in mind, we should be developing an approach that allows the critics and writers to engage with the artists, and to give space and coverage to what a particular piece can mean. Otherwise, we position Lao American art dangerously as a body of work whose value is determined only by collectors, and as a question of price. Sales will be considered the determination of success.

The work does not gain value because an intelligent and spirited debate has ensued, because someone has been inspired or seen the world differently from what the artist created, but because someone has decided to pay money for it, hoping someone else will buy it off of them later. This is a repellent approach to the matter.

Call for Papers: East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture

The editors of East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture are seeking contributions to a new collection on Asian American culture within a transnational context. They welcome proposals for original essays that address Asian American experience or representation in popular culture (both current and historical). In addition to work on media, literature, music, games and digital culture, fashion, consumption and popular practices in and outside the Americas, they encourage submissions that engage with science and technology, sexuality, racial identity, legal studies, sports, politics, and production/industry studies. Please send a 900-1200 word abstract to the editors (,,,) by August 1, 2012.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Haiku Movie Review: Prometheus

Such a vast, cold mess.
Very worst scientists sent.
Screams, for wrong reasons.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement 2012 issue going up.

The Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement's 2012 issue is up. There are still articles being added but at the moment you can see the poetry of Tom T. Nguyen, Sery Bounphasaysonh, Krysada Panusith Phounsiri, Anchalee Panigabutra-Roberts, Jim Vongsouvanh, and Danny Khotsombath.

On the academic side of things, in this edition, Linus Yamane discusses "Labor Market Discrimination: Vietnamese Immigrants" and Kimmie Tang and Dennis Kao are looking at "Ethnicity, Gender and the Education of Cambodian American Students in an Urban High School." Monirith Ly reviews Sichan Siv's Golden Bones: An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America.

Be sure to check it out!

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Botany: Fantome du Laos and other things for your garden.

This week I've been contemplating what plants belong in a Lao horror poet's garden.

Certainly, there's a few standby items: Snapdragons, plumeria, pumpkin, nak (naga) jolokia ghost peppers, and the cherry tomato known as the Fantome du Laos.

This last one is particularly interesting to me because the local legend suggests these particular tomatoes glow when phi or other spirits are nearby. Which is not something we really want to experiment with, but it's handy to know just in case.

Camphor plants which were used to ward off phi were suggested, and we could consider the takian tree. But a takian tree may be a bit of overkill, as these are often considered significantly prone to becoming haunted.
You often spot the old ladies at festivals trying to sell the roots of the water caltrop as protective charms. These are often known as devil pods, bat nuts, goat heads, and similar descriptors. Banana, Mango, and Bodhi trees are also interesting candidates.

There are a few plants not native to Laos that I considered, such as the Venus fly-trap and other carnivorous plants. Mandrakes and the Paraguayan Graptopetalum, also known as a ghost plant come to mind. The konjak is also known as the voodoo lily, snake palm, or elephant yam, so this seems an appropriate inclusion, although they're mostly found in Japan and China.
Would we consider the African Harpagophytum, known as the Devil's Claw? Devil's Ivy and The Creeping Devil cactus are also interesting examples, and they are plants that would be good for people who aren't good at taking care of plants.

But what other plants might make good additions to such a garden?

Lao American speculative arts organizing

The big project that's been percolating for me over the last few years is how to develop a multicultural, multimedia organization that meets the needs of Lao Americans and their friends and families interested in the speculative arts.

This emerges from a deep concern that we speak frequently in the community of preserving the past and remembering our heritage. Memoirs and children's books are constantly in development among our emerging writers. But I hear very little of people trying to express concrete visions of what our future can be. What would Lao American culture have to be like to vindicate us reaching the stars, for example?

To me, there is a significant need for a core group of thinkers and artists in our generation to conceptualize that future, and to consider our alternate histories and deep pasts. To embrace what we consider science fiction, fantasy, horror and other artistic genres that we might engage the Lao imagination and heritage.

One the essential questions to me is: How do we improve exchanges between groups and individuals who are interested in speculative fiction, both inside and outside of the traditional speculative arts community. How do we preserve the history of what's come before while also remaining committed to innovating new approaches that meet the needs of today and the next generations?

There's often talk of expanding artistic and cultural horizons, but what does that mean in practical application?

How do we create more Asimovs than Meyers, how do we create work that is rigorous yet suited for the rapidly changing speculative environment we live in today? Is the future in Lao American speculative video games? In multimedia or in old-school books? Do I want a publishing industry that hastens the deforestation of Laos' fragile ecosystem, or is it better to risk production in an e-book world? What will the demands be for the next generation of artists? How soon will it be before it makes sense to hold awards and recognition for Lao American speculative writers? What will that body of work look like over the next ten years? Who will be a part of that journey? How, too, do Lao American speculative artists create work that is responded to, rather than merely responsive?

But what are other key questions you feel we should be considering?

Centrifugal Eye speculative poetry issue

Speculative poetry is experiencing something of a resurgence as several poetry journals make efforts to include it in part or even commit whole issues to the subject lately. One of the more recent examples is The Centrifugal Eye at

What are some journals you hope will feature speculative poetry in the future? And what would be your expectations of such a spotlight? Would you want to see just poetry, or would you want to see essays and op-eds on the craft and history of speculative poetry in the Americas and abroad? Poet interviews? Illustrations, or other experimental presentation methods? And, of course, what wouldn't you want to see in such an issue?

Friday, June 01, 2012

New Speculative Fiction Journal: Lontar

A new speculative fiction journal in Singapore, Lontar, opened for submissions today on June 1. You can visit the website:

Lontar is planned as a quarterly literary journal of Southeast Asian speculative fiction in English, published and distributed by Math Paper Press in Singapore. The editors are looking for quality literary writing with elements of the fantastic, which is in some way connected with the cultures, traditions, mythologies, folk religions, and/or daily life in Southeast Asia.

While they are happy to look at works by writers outside of the region, they want to actively encourage Southeast Asian writers to submit their work.

Check it out!

Science Fiction Poetry Association Poetry Contest 2012

The Science Fiction Poetry Association announced its 2012 speculative poetry contest.

To catch newcomers up, speculative poetry encompasses science fiction, fantasy, and horror poetry.

The deadline is September 15, 2012. There is no entry fee, and the contest is open to non-members, with $50 prizes and publication to the winners in 3 length divisions, and an additional $50 prize to the best poem by a non-member. Winners also receive a year's membership in SFPA and member publications.

 The complete guidelines for the 2012 SFPA contest are posted at

Be sure to check it out!