Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Design Notes for "The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa"

Still a work in progress, the following are some of the thoughts informing the different sections of "The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa" which will be appearing in my new book DEMONSTRA, in April 2013.

You will see many of these principles at work in my forthcoming poem "Stainless Steel Nak" coming out in Lontar next year.

A few of my students and other writers may find this helpful to see what's going on here, under the hood. And hopefully readers will find encouragement to explore the world of poetry with your own techniques. 

Fluid Laoglish 
I consider my audience a global one. I write primarily in what I consider "Fluid Laoglish." Amazingly, in some places, people freak out if a poem incorporates even a word of Laoglish. But that's where poets come in, to set the balance right.

What the use of "Fluid Laoglish" means is that in a poem, the romanization of a Lao word may change to fit the visual need of the poem in order to execute a polylingual word play. A good poem to me works well being heard or being seen. This isn't absolute, but it's a good benchmark to begin with.

A case in point regarding fluid Laoglish can be seen when making reference to the old kingdom of Lan Xang vs. Lane Xang. While it is more common to see it written as Lan Xang, in a passage where we're also writing about roads, "Lane" is the spelling I might choose.

Other words might include the Lao word for spirits: Phi, Pi, Pee, etc. which can have a different meaning in other languages.

I'm aware the more common term for Nak is Naga, but I'd encourage more Lao writers to use the Lao spelling and bring it into common parlance. And definitely don't call it a dragon. There was a time no one knew what a vampire was, or a werewolf, a zombie, or a mummy. Will Nak ever become the preferred term in the world? Who knows. But just as Aloha or Hola has joined the world as one of many ways one can greet another human, we shouldn't shy away from our own way of saying things.

It will probably be a while before Arnold Schwarzenegger says"Sabaidee, Baby," the way he says "Hasta La Vista," but if you don't offer it as an option, people don't get a chance to try for themselves.

I use italics for book/work titles, whether English or non-English. For example: Gone with the Wind or The Ramayana or Turandot.

 I don't use italics for words that are perceived as "The Other," because what's a foreign, alien word anymore? Taco, sushi, ninja, rendezvous, caucus, karaoke, avatar? If you don't italicize these, then you don't italicize Lao words except for emphasis.

Rhyme is subordinate to image and idea I appreciate my international audience, and especially the work of my translators. And anyone who's worked in a multilingual setting can tell you that it's very difficult to translate poets whose work is heavily dependent on rhyme to achieve its aesthetic.

 What rhymes in Lao loses a lot if you try to reproduce that rhyme in English, or Spanish, or German, or French or Korean. I'd rather have a strong image, a strong concept in a poem that can be translated in many different ways without some poor soul stressed that the spirit has been captured, but not the form.

However, that doesn't mean that I eschew rhyme, and in a poem like "The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa" I employ what has been jokingly referred to as TRAmbiguous rhyme, after my experience as transcultural adoptee and the ambiguities that come with such a life.

This means when the reader comes across an uncertain set of words, they can look at a nearby line to guess what the word rhymes with. But a TRAmbiguous rhyme also includes another line that allows for a nice rhyme the other way.

As an immediate example in this latest poem:
"She remembered Los Alamos just fine, but not the Axolotl poem by Arthur Sze
Or why “Traduttore, traditore” is an accepted way to betray, among the literary.
The local fungi taste funny, but why, she cannot precisely say."  

Does Arthur Sze rhyme with "literary" or "say"? Certainly for some there's a definitive answer, but for others who've never met him, it could go either way. And it won't hurt the flow. Of course, there's some linguistic purist who will probably hate this, but they can go write their own poem, then.

Allusion and Wordplay
In "The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa" you might not catch all of the allusions and references in the poem until a highly annotated version comes out. Much like George Lucas threw you "In Media Res" or "in the middle of the action," so, too, I think readers can have a fun, rollicking time filling in the blanks or googling up a term on their own time to see what they get.

You might not recognize space coyote, or H.P. Lovecraft's moonbeasts, or the appearance of certain popular vampires of the last thirty years, but as a poet, I hope to have provided just enough of a 'toolkit' that you can get what it probably is.

For example:
"There is no Wat Lao to get married in by Ajahn Elvis."  

Here, I hope you can figure out that a Wat Lao is like the Chapel of Love, a synagogue, a church, or what have you. In another line of the poem, you don't have to know how to make really dirty tom mak hung, but just trust that it's Ms.Mannivongsa's father's favorite dish.

Will you get something extra out of knowing the lyrics of "O Fortuna" or the plot of Turandot? Yes, but it's not strictly necessary to appreciate the whole of the story. When we make a reference to the creepy little girl courier on the beach in California named "Psycho Pom" in Ms. Mannivongsa's dream, you can know that a psychopomp is a mythological guide who takes you through the underworld, but you can live just fine knowing that Pom is sometimes a Lao girl's name.

 I hope you enjoyed this quick peek at the design for "The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa." This post is where I'll field any other questions you might have on the process.

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