Friday, November 29, 2013

"Full Metal Hanuman" read at Strange Horizons

Recently, Julia Rios did a great job reading my poem "Full Metal Hanuman" for Strange Horizons: Be sure to check it out, as well as many other great pieces they have online at Strange Horizons! They're a great publication doing a lot to ensure we have diverse voices and diverse readers to consider in speculative literature. Here's to many more years ahead for them!

"Full Metal Hanuman" also appears in my new collection DEMONSTRA, available now from Innsmouth Free Press!

Celebrating 2014: 60 Years of Lao Independence

So, sixty years ago, 1954 was the year Laos formally achieved independence. That's a diamond anniversary. How will the Lao communities across the country and abroad celebrate the occasion? Will we even consider it something to celebrate, or has our sense of our collective history atrophied to the point that we cannot take the time to remember those who came before us? That there are no moments to reflect on what they dreamed and fought for, what they sacrificed, and what they wanted us to remember?

My personal recommendations would be to organize a series of events that bring all of the diverse aspects of our experience into focus. Readings, performances, exhibit displays, concerts, and community forums are all within the capacity of even the smallest communities in the US. It doesn't always have to be an elaborate production. Give yourselves something fun to bring out the best of Lao independent spirit, independent voice!

For many of the community organizations I'm advising at the moment, I am working with the following template to help them organize their planning. Try to focus on at least one event a month, even a simple one, and you can grow a great audience and bring more of the Lao journey into greater focus and clarity:

January: Most of us are recognizing the Western New Year. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is this month, and it's a great time to reflect on the Civil Rights Movement and how it affected all of us. It's also National Hobby Month, National Soup Month, and National Hot Tea Month. Since we're getting a bit short on time to plan something super big, this year, it's a month where I'd recommend you open it with something fun and simple. Maybe a showcase of your favorite Lao soups, for example.

February: February is the month many of our communities hold Valentine's Day concerts. So, it's a nice month to do something like host a relationship workshop or community arts performance of popular Lao love songs, love poetry, and other expressions. February is also National African American History Month and it would always be great to see the various ways the African American community and the Laotian American community have collaborated over the last 60 years. February is also Chinese New Year and Vietnamese New Year, so this is a good time to recognize the relationship between these communities and ours, as well.

March: National Women's History Month. The Lao society has many amazing and inspirational women who've been leaders and key figures in our politics and community building. Take time to recognize them.

National Poetry Month, and the traditional Lao New Year. A great occasion to hold a reading or performance. This year it will be the Year of the Horse.

National Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. It's a good time to have a class or workshop on the Lao American journey and to participate in many of the other Asian Pacific American Heritage Month celebrations happening in your state.  May is National Teacher Day, so it's a good time to thank Lao American educators and those teach Lao Americans. Official Events Local Events Gala CBW Committee Voting May 12-18, 2014 is National Children's Book Week. It's also National Barbecue Month, so you could certainly take the time to hold a great cook-off to demonstrate the best Laobecue your state has to offer.

World Refugee Day is Friday, June 20th, established by the United Nations to remember the world's refugees. Lao community members around the world can certainly connect to this occasion. It's also the month many of our communities celebrate Boun Phra Vet, so it may be a good time to plan fundraisers for your local non-profits and volunteer organizations.

The 4th of July or American Independence Day makes this a month where you can find ways to talk about your community's appreciation of the occasion. It's also National Anti-Boredom Month, so I'm certain you can come up with an event to address the occasion. You could also use this as a season to highlight the traditional rocket festival of our community.

This is the month when the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions went into force, in no small part because of the Lao experience. It's also the month of the Laotian American National Alliance Conference and Laotian American Artists Heritage Month. This is the month we encourage you to set up exhibits and performances for the community. I would also advise your organization to help Lao residents participate in National Night Out events.

This is back-to-school month for many. More interestingly, it's also Classical Music Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, National Courtesy Month, and Self Improvement Month. All things that have interesting possibilities for our community.

The natural thing that comes to mind for October is Halloween, and taking the time to have a session of traditional or contemporary Lao ghost stories and folklore. The first Friday of October is National Smile Day, so Lao community members should have that one locked up.

This is National Novel Writing Month, National Adoption Month and Thanksgiving. There's a lot to encourage during this time, and holding a reading reflecting on what we're grateful for at your local libraries, schools or other community centers is certainly a great way to mark the occasion.

This is the month Laos formally achieved independence. It's also the big holiday season and a great time to discuss the meaning of gifts and community of course. It's also National Write A Friend Month. I suggest observing that. The second Sunday of December is World Children's Day, and there are some great occasions on December 10th and many other days worth checking out.

But I hope this gives you all some ideas of where you can start planning your ideas. What else would you like to do this upcoming year?

2014 Professional Artist Consultation Rates

As many of you know, I am available for consultation as an artist. I advise primarily in literary disciplines, although I take a very limited number of clients in traditional dance, folk arts, film, theater and the visual arts.

These consultation sessions can be used to take a closer look at you and your work, assist you in identifying your professional goals and opportunities, and develop strategies to attain those goals along a realistic timeline. My regional specialization is the Midwest but I've successfully provided guidance all across the United States.

For individual artists, my standard consultations cost $75/hour. If you anticipate needing more than 10 hours or more of consultation time a retainer rate is available. For small informal groups and small non-profit organizations, my standard consultation rate is $100/hour or $300 for one day, although additional charges may apply depending on the complexity of the project. These prices will remain in effect until December 31st, 2014.

The following credentials may assist you when considering whether to retain my services:

I hold the distinction of being the first Lao American to receive an NEA Fellowship in Literature in 2009 for poetry. In 2012, I was selected as the Lao delegate to serve as a Cultural Olympian during the London Summer Games. My poetry is presently on display at the Smithsonian's national traveling exhibit I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story.  
I'm cited for my writing in over nine national and international textbooks including the 2012 edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics and Wenying Xu’s Historical Dictionary of Asian American Literature and Theater. 
Among my 20 literary, academic and professional awards, I hold an Asian Pacific American Leadership Award in 2009 from the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, and a 2002 Many Voices Fellowship from the Minnesota Playwrights Center.

I am the author of 6 books and my work appears in over 100 international publications around the world including Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, Germany, France, Singapore, China (Hong Kong), Korea, Chile, Pakistan, as well as across the United States. I am the first Lao writer to hold professional membership in the international Horror Writer Association and the Science Fiction Poetry Association.
As in previous years, I only take on between 5 to 15 clients at a maximum, following a brief portfolio review. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me directly at and we can look over your specific needs and how we can best work together.

Sacred Ink: The Sak Yant Tatoos

Over at Ink Butter, they have an artistic look at the tradition of the Sak Yant tattoos you can find in Southeast Asia. Cedric Arnold put together a collection of over 45 large-format images that examine the different elements that go in to the culture, asking who gets these tattoos, and why. In my forthcoming book DEMONSTRA, these tattoos come up from time to time, although I can see I may have to commit another book of poetry to the subject in the future. There's a lot of material to explore.

Vanishing Tattoo's article "Tattoos of Indochina: Supernatual Mysteries of the Flesh" has one of the best articles to date for the layperson to get an introduction and overview on the subject, from a Lao perspective. By most accounts, northern Thailand tattoos employ Shan, Northern Thai or Tai Lu scripts, while the Lao tattoos often use the Lao Tham script.

You don't just go to a tattoo artist on the corner for a tattoo like this. Normally, a sak yant tattoo is applied by a wicha practitioner or Buddhist monks, who use a mai sak, a long, sharp bamboo stick or a khem sak, which is a long metal spike. Often, the script is inspired from Pali incantations, but many designs come from visions that different masters received while meditating. I would recommend you get a consultation when the master is in a good mood, yet not feeling particularly whimsical.

It's possible to find yantra designs incorporating figures from pre-Buddhist animist beliefs, particularly animal spirits and other legendary beings. Lao don't often engage in this anymore. These tattoos are presently falling out of practice in Cambodia, although the tradition has its most legendary roots there. This is partially a consequence of Year Zero which erased many of the artistic and spiritual minds from Cambodia in an effort to reboot their culture.

However, it's possible we'll see a resurgence in the tradition in the next few decades, but also a number of charlatans who will not be qualified in the traditional sense to apply these tattoos.

Traditionally, one doesn't go to get one until one has a consultation and the monk decides you need one, over other karmic remedies available. To make a mark upon a human's skin is a very serious statement, from the traditional point of view of the region. As author Frank Chin once explained to me, "Your skin is your first gift from your parents, why would you make a blemish on it?"

But if it comes down to needing a tattoo, sometimes you need a small one, sometimes you need a very elaborate design. It's typically a very unique tattoo customized for your karmic need, rather than just walking in and shouting "I need a bad-ass tiger for protection!"

A sak yant tattoo is definitely not something where you want an amateur doing it, someone who gets the letter wrong in the wrong place, undermining its protective value.

The Snake-Eaters and the Yards

At Slate this month, Rebecca Onion has a good overview on "The Vietnamese tribesmen who fought alongside American Special Forces won the Green Berets’ admiration—and lost everything else."

As with most communities, I think the journey of the different members of the Montagnards is a complicated one that we're only now beginning to fully understand. There was a deep bond between the Green Berets and the cultures they left behind. Did we learn from this as we went into conflicts elsewhere around the world?

As we look at the Pashtuns, the Kurds, and others, I think we'll need to keep a close eye on the Montagnard journey as well, to understand the possibilities and implications.

"Despite the isolated efforts of some former Green Berets and of the government ministers appointed to help ethnic minorities, the Montagnards suffered in postwar Vietnam. By the time the hostilities between North and South Vietnam ceased, according to historian John Fredriksen, around 200,000 Montagnards had been killed and 85 percent of their villages leveled. Known to have fought with the Americans, the Yards entered a new phase of repression under the Communists. Many of their remaining leaders were thrown in prison or escaped across the border to Cambodia. There, the Khmer Rouge imprisoned and killed those it could find."
I can only imagine what it must have been like in those chaotic final moments near the end of the war where running across the border into Khmer Rouge country seemed like a sensible option for survival.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Lao American Crowdfunding: I Am Amarai

Over at Indiegogo this month, they're doing the final 2 weeks of a funding drive for Amy Chanthaphavong's I AM Amarai: Episode 2: Modern Laos, where they've currently raised 8% of the $65,000 budget she feels she needs to tell the story properly.

The "big picture" goal of I AM Amarai is to:
  •  Capture compelling stories of people who are overcoming obstacles in a brave effort to pursue their passions 
  •  Through the telling of these stories, she hopes people are inspired to chase their dreams and positively affect their own communities 
  • Spread messages of hope worldwide

With a little over 2 weeks left to raise those funds and clearing just 8% of her budget needs at the moment, she could use a boost if she's going to make it. As usual, any little bit helps:


DEMONSTRA: The Deep Ones, an overview

We're counting down the days until my new book DEMONSTRA starts shipping, clocking in at nearly 170 pages of Lao American speculative poetry from Innsmouth Free Press. So, as promised, one thing I'm doing until January 1st is discussing the different poems and their inspiration, including some of the images and sources that went into composing the poem.

"The Deep Ones" is one of my more frequently republished poems, first appearing in Illumen in 2007, and my book On The Other Side Of The Eye (Sam's Dot Publishing, 2007) in that same year. It was also included in two editions of Future Lovecraft from Innsmouth Free Press (2011) and Prime Books (2012).

I decided to include "The Deep Ones" in DEMONSTRA because it fits in thematically with the other poems, and because  On The Other Side Of The Eye is harder and harder to come by even on the reseller's market. I think it is a particular key to adding an extra dimesnion to some of the other poems in the collection, including "The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa."

 Interestingly, Asian American poet Beau Sia had a poem, "I'm So Deep," that made the rounds on Russel Simmons' Def Poetry Jam a few years back, but I hadn't run into it in the years leading up to "The Deep Ones," which I would say had been in development for a few years, most likely between 2004-2006, based on the notes I've found.

We can argue "The Deep Ones" has its foremost roots in the first time I read "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and when I began playing the old Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. This would have been around 1987, because I'd started with Chaosium's 3rd edition (1986) and Del Rey's 1987 collection The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre.

Formally, H.P. Lovecraft described them in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" by writing: 
"I think their predominant color was a greyish-green, though they had white bellies. They were mostly shiny and slippery, but the ridges of their backs were scaly. Their forms vaguely suggested the anthropoid, while their heads were the heads of fish, with prodigious bulging eyes that never closed. At the sides of their necks were palpitating gills, and their long paws were webbed. They hopped irregularly, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four. I was somehow glad that they had no more than four limbs. Their croaking, baying voices, clearly used for articulate speech, held all the dark shades of expression which their staring faces lacked ... They were the blasphemous fish-frogs of the nameless design - living and horrible."
I've mentioned before that I have a particular dislike for frogs and toads, so the horror of these entities resonate with me. You can see one cinematic interpretation of the Deep Ones in Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon's Dagon. 

In some ways, "The Deep Ones" takes a big cue from my 2001-2002 short story, "The True Tale of Yer," which debuted in the Minnesota Historical Society's Bamboo Among the Oaks. The key device being inverting the antagonist to reconsider things from the perspective of The Other. It also has some influences from the poems I'd been writing like "Before Going Feral," inspired by H.G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau. 

The challenge with this and other poems in this vein is that I want to be true and consistent with the source material, while expanding our sense of it. At the same time I was intrigued to see if we could create a great poem where someone can come into it without any familiarity with the work of H.P. Lovecraft.

Would "The Deep Ones" in such a context simply be read as an abbreviated version of T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men"? In the writing process, I often considered Eliot's hoary line "We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men. Leaning together. Headpiece filled with straw," which was alluded to in the climax to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

Is there value in connecting the Lao experience to that of Lovecraft's fictional Deep Ones? Should we question this process? Many Americans and others have no conception of Laos yet. Arguably, there's no prevailing idiom or turn of phrase they can readily connect Lao to, the way they might connect communities like the Vietnamese to the term "Boat People" or the Cambodians to "The Killing Fields." It would be quite a stretch, considering the Deep Ones are fearsome oceanic beings, while Laotians come from a landlocked-nation. If someone seriously considered Lao the Deep Ones of Southeast Asia, well, I think there are other problems in place with thought ought to be dealt with. But for an idle thought exercise, I think it's an interesting argument, and hopefully will prod other Lao writers and artists to keep pushing the metaphors that might more aptly apply to our community.

At the heart of it all, I hope our language stretches, our imaginations take us to places we might not have previously thought we'd be, whether it's a Nak at the supermarket, a Lao on the moon, or a Deep One in a Vientiane guest house.

In the aftermath of our wars that left more Lao living outside of Laos than within it, I think, from an artist's perspective, we have more than enough impetus to say all bets are off, but who do we become, mingling with so many other cultures, so many other ways of being.

Steampunk Alternate History Research: A Burmese map of the world

An old Burmese map of the world, showing elements of medieval map-making techniques, according to the 1906 text, The Thirty Seven Nats. A Phase of Sprit-Worship prevailing in Burma, by the wonderfully named Sir Richard Carnac Temple. 

In many ways, this text feels like something of an almost Lovecraftian tome. For those creating literature or games set in an alternate history or secret history setting, I think this certainly gives a great reminder that the European powers weren't always the center of everyone else's concepts of the world. Consider how we might present it to our audiences.

Steampunk Alternate History Research: Burma

Continuing our look at some of the imagery that might inform a Southeast Asian and Lao approach to steampunk, here are a few engravings from the 1700s and 1800s from Burma. Many of these should certainly spark some ideas of where we could go with this in the histories that never were:

State Barge King of Burma, 1875 

 Emperor's Carriage, War Elephant, 1855. 

Idols on the bank of the River Irrawaddy, Burma, 1880 

 Rangoon, principal port of empire, 1852 

 Shipwreck of the VOC yacht named Cormandel, near Arrakan, present day Burma in 1660

"A temple and idol of large size seen" Dutch reported this temple in Arrakan, Burma. ca. 1660.  

View of the 5 yearly appearances of the King of Arrakan / Burma 1660

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Rakshasa Mask: Bali

The Rakshasa is often considered to be the root of the Lao entity known as the Nyak. They come in a good variety of large shapes and sizes. Some interesting examples are found among the Balinesian interpretations, such as this one:

Being auctioned off at one point, it was descibed as: "An expressive mask of a Rakshasa - demon head presenting a dominant expression of enormous and staring eyes, surrounded by finely decorated borders and centered with a fine delicate nose with a knob-shaped protruding section to nose bridge presenting golden painted volutes, on forehead above a flaming medallion. Finely and intricately crafted protruding eyes with golden painted adornments. The mouth presenting sharp and arched tusks and a smaller one centered to the top lip. Moveable lower jaw, eye-slits carved beneath eyeballs. Braided goat pelt creates a wild expression."

I always think it's interesting to consider what the Balinese considered horrific features, and how to present those in their art. I think a piece like this speaks to something primal and universal, where one does not need to be familiar with the legends behind the entity, but you understand it is something to fear and loathe.

I find myself thinking many of our Lao artists around the world have gotten away from this, and perhaps it can be argued they have not yet fully mastered it. But perhaps we'll see exceptions, soon.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Contemplating Lao Dance

How do we cultivate and grow an interest in Lao traditional dance? In many ways, there's little research on it that I am tempted to say we also have some latitude to innovate and take Lao dance in new directions now, completely distinct from our South and Southeast Asian roots. But this is always a scary proposition to some. I think it will become increasingly essential if we are to remain a global people.

But let's take an interesting cue from the Thai scholar Mattani Rutnin, who noted in 1993:
Thai dancers, in both the folk and classical styles, hold their bodies straight from the neck to the hips in a vertical axis and move their bodies up and down with their knees bent, stretching to the rhythm of the music. Indian dancers, on the other hand, often move their bodies in an S curve. The arms and hands in Thai dancing are kept in curves, or wong, at different levels, high medium or low, and the legs are bent with the knees opening outward to make an angle called liem (lit., angles) ... The grace and beauty of the dancer depends on how well these curves and angles are maintained in relationship with the proportion of the whole body.
How might we characterize the movements of Lao dance then?

The Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website also noted: 
"Furthermore, Mattani adds that the Indian mudras are simplified in Thai dance to a few basic hand gestures, which when combined with dance gestures (phasa ta), can denote the actions and, especially, the moods of the characters. She also notes that the foot movements of Thai dance are generally slower than in India and, furthermore, that in Thai dance the toes are mostly curved upward or kept flat at an angle with the legs, but never pointed, as they sometimes are in Indian dance. These differences may be interpreted as signifying that the Thai adopted their dance tradition, not directly from India, but from their neighbours, the Khmer and the Mon, in an already localised form."

Unfortunately, their material on Lao dance is very limited and more work needs to be done:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Laos and Le Tour du Monde

In the late 1800s, the French magazine Le Tour du Monde featured different articles with engravings regarding travelers' experiences in Laos. A few have been making their way to auction recently and showing up online. An interesting find showing how the French tried to present things in the old days:






Vietnamese rebels vs. the French

During the early 20th century, the French found themselves in conflict with a number of Vietnamese "pirates" such as those depicted above.

At least one collector has amassed a particularly impressive collection of postcoards that had been made chronicling the fight between French marines and their local support troops, and the pirates. Many of the images are very graphic by today's standards, showing beheaded pirates and prisoners, but if you've got the stomach for it, it's an interesting look at a bygone era.

One incident in 1908 when a group of Vietnamese attempted to poison an entire garrison drew a particularly strong response judging from the number of postcards created presumably not only to document the incident but to serve as a warning to others who might consider it. You can see the collection at:

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thank you, Fireroast Cafe

A big thanks to everyone who came to join me at the Cracked Walnut reading at Fireroast Cafe on Friday! It was a great reading and good to catch up with so many of you! :) Please continue to support the great artists and community organizers who help to make events like this possible!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

MELUS CFP for Special Issue Refugee Literature: Forty Years after the Vietnam War

From  MELUS guest editors Marguerite Nguyen and Catherine Fung:

"As we approach the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, scholarship on refugees of the war continues to flourish. This special issue of MELUS proposes the notion of “literary refugee studies” as a field through which to reassess the current state of Vietnam War scholarship and refugee studies. We have seen historical, sociological, and political research on refugees that delineates the overwhelming power that national and international institutions and policies have to shape refugee experience. Examinations of cultural texts by and about refugees,which usually operate within existing rubrics of American, Asian American, and postcolonial literary studies, often treat the refugee as a subject determined by established teleologies of nationhood and citizenship. Thus as scholars including Thomas A. DuBois and Yen Le Espiritu point out, refugees remain relatively “passive” figures, if not of policy, then of our scholarly gazes that reproduce the refugee as an object of investigation.

Building upon Espiritu’s call for a “critical refugee study,” this special issue of MELUS seeks papers that begin to theorize the refugee as a cultural figure and refugee cultural production as a body of work that intervenes in the ideological and teleological underpinnings of existing approaches to narratives about the war and/or the refugee experience. We seek essays that examine the refugee as an active participant that uses aesthetic means to inform, push against,and redefine the mechanisms that construct him or her as a subject. In so doing, we propose Literary Refugee Studies as a discrete field from which to develop new theoretical paradigms and methods of inquiry. In considering the “refugee narrative” as a representational mode, we ask what narratological strategies authors use to represent refugee subjectivity. In considering the“refugee aesthetic” as a form, we ask whether refugee culture can be identified not only in thematic terms (displacement, trauma, survival, belonging, etc.) but also in terms of formal elements. Finally, we ask what might define “refugee literature” as a genre and what its relationship to existing generic categories might be.

We welcome papers that explore:
  • what comprises a “refugee aesthetic” in terms of literature, drama, performance, film,television, music, art, photography, etc.
  • the relationship of “refugee literature” to existing generic categories of American literature, ethnic American literature, postcolonial literature, world literature, diasporic literature, etc.
  • the heterogeneous trajectories of migration to the US, which includes not only Southeast Asian refugees or nations but also refugees from other countries displaced by the Vietnam War.
  • various Vietnam War refugee spaces such as the transit camp, the sea, the ship/boat, the prison, the urban landscape, etc.
  • how cultural texts represent the “problem” of refugees, war, genocide, forced migration,resettlement, deportation, etc.
  • different dimensions of refugee subjectivity, including the carceral, violent, victimized,grateful, etc.
  • the refugee’s relationship to regimes of state violence (authoritarian, humanitarian, racial,or neoliberal).
  • how refugee spaces and times disrupt the space-time of the nation-state.
  • the spatiotemporal dimensions of refugee status and subjectivity—whether one is
    perpetually a refugee or ever ceases to be one.
  • generational dynamics of refugee literature.
Please submit papers of 7,000 to 10,000 words (including notes and works cited) to: Catherine Fung ( and Marguerite Nguyen ( All submissions will go through MELUS’s normal refereeing process. Papers under consideration at other journals or previously published in any form will not be considered.

Deadline for submission is: June 30, 2014. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cool Jerk Customer Appreciation Party: November 23rd

Mali Kouanchao and Mike Davis, the founders of Cool Jerk, the Lao Minnesotan beef jerky company, are inviting community members to be their guests at their first ever Customer Appreciation Party, Saturday November 23rd at CO Exhibitions, 6-9pm.

Try all four flavors of Cool Jerk, win door prizes, and hang out with some of their favorite jerks in town. Help their Facebook page get up to 1000 likes before the party! Spread the word / share their page and who knows... you just may win something at the party!

Reading at Cracked Walnut Friday, November 22nd

I'll be reading on Friday, November 22nd as part of the Cracked Walnut Reading series at the Fireroast Cafe at 3800 37th Ave S, Minneapolis! The reading begins at 6:30 and I'll be reading approximately 10 to 12 minutes. It'll be great to see you there!

My fellow performers this time will be:

Matt Mauch
Matt Mauch grew up in small Midwestern towns between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, in the snow and wind-chill belt. He is the author of Prayer Book (forthcoming from Lowbrow Press) and The Book of Modern Prayer (a limited-edition chapbook forthcoming from Palimpsest Press). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in NOÖ Journal, DIAGRAM, The Journal, Willow Springs, The Squaw Valley Review, The Los Angeles Review, Sonora Review, and elsewhere. The editor of Poetry City, USA, Volume 1 (forthcoming from Lowbrow Press), Mauch teaches writing and literature in the AFA program at Normandale Community College, and also coordinates the reading series there. He holds an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and lives with his wife in Minneapolis.

Ross Nervig
Ross Nervig is a writer living in Minneapolis and a founding editor at Revolver. He also thinks that he’s a musician, a visual artist, and an all-around good guy.

Addie Zierman
Addie Zierman is a writer, blogger and recovering Jesus freak. Her first book, When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love and Starting Over releases October 15th. Addie blogs regularly at, where she’s working to redefine her faith one cliché at a time. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Andrew, and their two young sons.

Cheryl Wilke
Cheryl Wilke is a poet and writer of children’s stories with works performed on stage and published in magazines, e-zines, newspapers and anthologies from Bemidji, Minnesota to Tallahassee, Florida.

Hawona Sullivan Janzen
Hawona is a Saint Paul based poet and non-fiction writer. A native of Shreveport Louisiana, much of her work focuses on the emotions inherent in the human experience: grief, loss and love. She has performed for Cracked Walnut and at the St Paul Almanac’s Lowertown reading Jam.

Monday, November 18, 2013

DEMONSTRA: Idle Fears, an overview

We're counting down the days until my new book DEMONSTRA starts shipping, clocking in at nearly 170 pages of Lao American speculative poetry from Innsmouth Free Press. So, one thing I'll be doing until January 1st is discussing the different poems and their inspiration, including some of the images and sources that went into composing the poem.

But I also want to make sure my readers understand that what I'm presenting in these small discussions should by no means be considered the definitive 'meaning' of the poem. A poem means what it means to the reader. An author has ideas and things in mind when they write it, but a true poem is a living thing whose interpretation can change when it goes to different countries and different eras.

For example: A zombie in an earlier era was a thing to be pitied, a slave created against their will with no hope of recovery. That was the root of the horror for those beings. A zombie in a later era became a metaphor for mindless horde consumerism. So poems which feature zombies written in one age may have a very different reading in another. Some authors may object to that fluidity of interpretation, but I do not. I'm open to outcome, not attached to outcome, whenever possible.

But let's take a look at my poem "Idle Fears," which first appeared in 2012 in the Buddhist Poetry Review, along with "The Buddha of Bombies" and "A Koan of 32 Kwan." I didn't include these other two in DEMONSTRA because I felt that much of the territory they covered was addressed in other poems. I don't like belaboring a point too much in a poetry manuscript. You can revisit it in another book, certainly, but don't imbalance a text through overtalking. Granted there's no hard and fast rule about this, like "5 poems is one poem too many about Topic X!" but you get a feel for it over time.

I chose to open with "Idle Fears" as the gateway poem in DEMONSTRA. It embraces the Laoglish and many of the themes that I explore throughout the rest of the text, but it's also brief enough that someone picking it up can determine quickly enough if this poet's going to be someone to stick with. Or, someone whose book "should not be put down gently, but hurled, with great force."

The opening line frames our setting, a Cali wat Lao, and opens questions of how we use language to navigate the vernacular and the unfamiliar.  Overall, "Idle Fears" stayed in much the same form as its first draft in 2012, which is something of a rarity for my writing process.

The recurring figure of Ajahn Anan is first introduced in this poem. He was inspired by a few young monks I met in Southern California. Although this specific conversation never took place, similar conversations have, although I'm taking some poetic liberties here. Many of the poems in DEMONSTRA are originally designed to ask us to consider how we might hope our monks, our families and friends might talk with us in our communities.

The Rakshasa Sutra is one of the first imagined books that will get proposed in DEMONSTRA. In the White Lotus Sutra, there are tales of Rakshasa daughters who pledge to protect the dharma of the Buddha. They swore to inflict great harm on those who corrupt his teachings. You can find numerous anecdotes that suggest the Buddha lectured to various gods, demons, and other personages throughout creation, not just humanity, and that each of these might have unique routes to enlightenment that other species do not. And perhaps unique perils. So, the Rakshasa Sutra is a hypothetical text that outlines the Buddha's lecture to them, but it is also most likely not meant for human eyes.  The Rakshasha legends form the root for the Nyak of Laos, but I think a study of the extant literature suggests Lao storytellers often ignore or alter some of their powers, personalities, significance, and other characteristics from time to time.

As we wind our way through "Idle Fears," we have the question “Does a zombie have Buddha nature?” This is an iteration on a classic zen koan, a riddle for Buddhist meditation "Does a dog have Buddha nature."  In contrast, we have another 'undead' entity, Frankenstein’s Monster, coming into play in "Idle Fears." Is he a candidate capable of enlightenment? As a composite entity, Frankenstein's Monster might have a very unique perspective on attachment, and also a sense of re-attachment. I wondered how that would affect him if he were to give up seeking revenge and instead turn towards a Buddhist route.

I often joked of "An American Werewolf in Luang Prabang" as opposed to one in London or Paris. This poem is one where, like many of our Lao writers, I examine the interpretations of the five Buddhist precepts. We often repeat them, but I think more can be done by every generation to meaningfully explore the challenges in observing them.

This poem also takes on the notion of‘Wat Lao Robobuddharam,’ a play on the way many Lao temples are named in the US. Later in DEMONSTRA I experimented with more science fiction in the poems, notable examples including "The Robo Sutra" and "Full Metal Hanoumane."

"Idle Fears" isn't an encyclopedic demonstration of all of the techniques and themes I address in the rest of DEMONSTRA, but I consider it a playful enough sample that it made sense for it to lead into the rest of the manuscript.

Scenes from MNSpec Writer's Showcase November 17th, 2013

On Sunday at high noon, the MNSpec Writer's Showcase came together at Acadia Cafe on the West Bank. It featured a new play by Eli Effinger-Weintraub, and fiction by Joel Arnold, Kelly Barnhill, Michael Merriam, Rob Callahan, Terry Faust, Catherine Lundoff and other terrific local writers. A big thanks to everyone who participated!  

Many of them were experienced authors and performers, but newer voices attended, too. There was a good mix of humor and the fantastic, the horrific and the intriguing.