Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Sticky Mess and the DEMONSTRA release party: Monday, December 30th in Minneapolis

Innsmouth Free Press posted the announcement for the DEMONSTRA release party on Monday, December 30th, along with Nor Sanavongsay's Xieng Mieng: A Sticky Mess! A big thanks to the Lao Advancement Organization of America for lending us their space at the Lao Cultural Center in Minneapolis! The reading is free, family-friendly, and goes from 4:30 to 6:30 P.M.

We know it's going to be a rush for some folks to get there straight from work so the first hour is just mingling and reception, with the formal readings anticipated to start at 5:30 PM until 6:30 PM.

I'm still finalizing the set of poems I'll be reading from DEMONSTRA. (I'd read them all but that takes about 6 hours at a fast clip.) Most likely this particular reading will include several of the poems that were written in response to a 1-day flash contest I had earlier this year: 10 poems would be included in DEMONSTRA based on monsters of my readers' choosing. As such, this will include winning poems suggested by Jeff Skrenes, Catherine Lundoff, Moira Manion, and others.

Also likely to be read: "The Robo Sutra," set in the future Laotown quarter of North Minneapolis, and "In the Fabled Midwest." I considering presenting some of the shorter selections from "The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa," especially the Minnesota leg.

And at least one or two of the zombie poems. Or Phi Zom, as the case may be. (Or Phi Dip if you want to get old school about it.)

Nor Sanavongsay will be reading his children's book premiere, A Sticky Mess, the prequel to his forthcoming Xieng Mieng series. This will also be chance for you to hear more about Sahtu Press, the future of Xieng Mieng, a preview of upcoming titles from Sahtu Press and Innsmouth Free Press, and discussing the Kickstarter process for Lao Americans.

As for Saymoukda Vongsay, she says she's going to surprise us!

See you there!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora

Troubling Borders is out. An anthology that showcases creative writing and visual artworks by sixty-two women of Southeast Asian descent. Edited by Isabelle Thuy Pealud, Lan Duong, Mariam B. Lam and Kathy L. Nguyen, the collection features "compelling storytelling that troubles the borders of categorization and reflects the multilayered experience of Southeast Asian women."

Will this be a collection that goes the way of Tilting the Continent, The Big Aieee! or Charlie Chan is Dead? Bamboo Among the Oaks or How Do I Begin? As we get closer to 2015, there are a lot of expectations for this anthology. In a nice break from most Asian American anthologies, several Lao writers were included.

I haven't had a chance to look at a copy of the book, but I value the principles driving its creation. At $50 for a hardcover, but one with full-color illustrations, it has the work of several of my favorite writers and artists, but I am afraid it might also put the book out of the reach of many of our most vulnerable readers.

At that price point, it's not a casual decision to bring it into your house. Considering the significant number of Southeast Asians who live below the poverty line, and others for whom bringing in a book of art and writing is a relatively new experience, it will be interesting to see how this book does.

Personally, among the writers I'd keep an eye out for are the pieces by Phayvanh Leukhamhan and Souvankham Thammavongsa, Barbara Jane Reyes, and Davorn Sisavath. It look like there are many other excellent writers and artists to discover in the collection when you review the Table of Contents. I hope to find there are writers and artists from more historically underserved communities such as the Akha, Karen, Montagnards, Lahu, Lisu, Tai Dam, Mien and Khmu, to name a few. It would be particularly interesting to hear from those who are coming from "non-traditional" experiences we've been encouraged to expect from Southeast Asians in diaspora, such as those who are living with disabilities, religious and political minorities, or the GLBTQ community. .

It's never an easy thing to put together an anthology, and there are so many different directions one can take, as well as so many constraints, which haven't necessarily been solved by the rise of digital technology. As we approach 40 years since the major Southeast Asian diasporas began, this book comes at a timely point, but there are also so many more discussions we need to be having.

[Film] Doc U program receives NEA Funding

$12,000 was awarded to the Doc U program to support film-making classes for low-income adults in St. Paul. A great program, but like always, I think we could all benefit from a program like this getting an increase in funding. Doc U, a documentary filmmaking program for low-income adults. Recognizing how little representation of minority communities there is in traditional media, SPNN created Doc U to help people from these communities tell their own stories.

Since 2012, Doc U has enrolled 12 low-income individuals annually in an intensive documentary filmmaking mentorship program, with over half the participants being women and/or people of color. The filmmakers create documentaries on a topic of their choosing, with past films on topics as diverse as a Tibetan monk in Minnesota; antique bottle hunting; the search for a kidney donor; and more. 2012 participant Theresa Crushon’s film about local jazz legend Irv Williams won a Hometown Media Award for Best Documentary from the Alliance for Community Media, a national media organization.

There are a number of angles we could take on this issue, the most immediate being how might this be replicated in other countries, other states. A democracy flourishes on plurality, and on hearing other voices, even potentially unpopular ones. When a program like Doc U enables civil discourse, we can see positive adjustments and transformation to realize the best of the various visions our founders intended.

When you can train voices who have been historically disadvantage by reason of economics, for example, you move us closer to a scenario where our media outlets can return to delivering quality content for the public good. There are a number of aspects we need to consider in supporting such programs authentically. Are you promoting freedom of expression? Are you building not only an understanding but a commitment to professional and ethical standards? Do you have body of journalists emerging who will serve as ethical watchdog who are committed to hearing diverse voices and helping all of our society move forward? Will we be able to go beyond technocrat mob media, where the voice belongs only to the one with the cameras and the computers?

Our technologies are evolving rapidly to enable democratization in zones where historically, that hasn't always been implemented perfectly. There are different barriers that can be cited but this is why we must continue a march forward to enable those voices. From a community level we must do our best to ensure a stable network of financial support, because there are points where things have costs you can't get around. We have to encourage the fostering exchanges of expertise among countries and regions. We can work with each other to establish constructive international contacts, and sometimes we also have to be prepared to advocate on behalf of local media institutions.

This is a great development for SPNN and the Doc U program, but now all of us need to participate in ways that make it possible to help ideas like this reach their full potential.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

[Film] Telling stories for Lao American audiences

Over at Io9.Com they had an interesting question: "Why does every story have to be an Earth-shattering epic? They were responding namely a certain sense of sameness in most of the major films coming out now. It goes well with their other discussion The Reason Why So Many Movies Seem So Similar. I'd also point out their article, 10 Lessons That We Hope 2013 Has Taught the Entertainment Industry.

It's important to me as we start seeing an increase in the number of films coming out of Laos, particularly from the work of the Lao New Wave Directors such as Anysay Keola and Mattie Do, and the infrastructure the Luang Prabang Film Festival and the Vientianeale International Film Festival are building. I think it's vitally important that Lao cinema first be by our community for community, and not merely pandering, trying to cash in on the curiosity of foreigners.

To build an international audience is laudable and should be kept in mind, but not at the expense of telling ourselves the stories we want to hear. To narrate our perspective in our own words, on our own terms. This last matter is a particularly egregious failing of one movie currently making the rounds this year, where we would be hard pressed to call it an authentic Lao movie despite being supposedly set in "Laos." One can argue there are several such films already in the pipeline trying to Lao stories without actually embracing the Lao who must still be Lao long after the filmmakers have gone back home to wherever they hail from.

With well over 400,000 Laotians in the US, Canada, France, Australia, Japan, England, Germany, and elsewhere, we are presented with a very interesting market and opportunity for the aspiring Lao film-maker in Laos. There are spoken and unspoken constraints regarding what will fly both within Laos and abroad. There are some conversations we can't have. But there are many others we should not neglect if Lao culture is to realize its full potential.

How can Lao cinema embrace the best principles of democracy while being artistically innovative, not only for world recognition, but to create a wondrous legacy for the generations of Lao yet to come?

The folks over at Io9 are making some great points I want to highlight because I think they can apply not only to movies of the fantastic or the futuristic, but to all genres.

They made note of one screenwriter's frustrations with the current Hollywood process. "They all seemed to have the same notes. 1) the main character has to be the only person who could possibly be the hero of this script. They have an epic destiny or a very specific set of skills that make them perfect. Gone are the days when a protagonist could be an anybody who happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. 2) the stakes have to be raised. No matter how high the stakes are now, they need to be higher. This can't be about one small town, it has to have the possibility to leak into the whole world. It can't be about one man or woman saving their child. In the process, they also have to stop the villains from taking over the government."

There are stories for which this is appropriate, but can Lao cinema, in its present nascent state sidestep this largely formulaic and overexposed model regularly to create its own distinctive voice? Can it do so while remaining enjoyable and coherent entertainment? If you ask an audience to watch something for 90 minutes to 2 hours in this day and age, there should be a pay-off that's transformative for them. As I have counseled so many other writers, the point is not to sound like the authors we have, but to forge our own distinctive voice, wherever that may take us. This is not to say we blind ourselves to the work others have done, but it must still strive to be a unique participant within the grand conversations.

As a writer, I always remember the old reviewer who half-jokingly remarked that his criteria is: "Is this film more enjoyable than watching a film of the same actors sitting around talking about how they made the film?" That's a good baseline for success, but not the only one, of course.

IO9 made some great points, such as "Some stories are better smaller. The truth is that some stories are folk tales, not sagas; a tighter focus doesn't make them inherently less worthy, and their stakes are no less crucial to the story for being closer to home."

I also appreciated their points that no one, and that means -no one- is coming out to films for generic pretty or cool anymore. We also see a lot of receptiveness towards female leads.  This is all very compatible with both Lao values and Lao resources for making films. I think we can easily build upon that.

We should not seek to merely imitate, but innovate. The Japanese writer Yamano Koichi suggested, there are three phases to building a literary tradition. It's like building a house, the apex of which is Yamano's third phase, Putting Up A New House ( or "creative departure"). It's here that Yamano contends a country has found it's own original voice, one that eschewed Anglo-American models. At this point, the artists are presenting work informed by their own traditional and contemporary culture and worldviews.

So, for Lao in the US, in Laos, and anywhere abroad beginning to tackle this issue, we must go at it with a risky abandon, a love and curiosity about our heritage, and a sense of engaged voices that don't reinforce what we think we know about ourselves, but instead create plurality. Lao cinema must embrace our diversity and find a way to be comfortable within that.

But what are stories and trends you see emerging that you'd like to see more of, or less of?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Superstitions of the Lao tradition

Lao tradition is filled with a variety of superstitions, and with over 160 different ethnic groups there are likely thousands of prohibitions one could run afoul of. A number of these influenced the direction DEMONSTRA took, but it would be almost impossible to include them all. Still, as we did with the beginning guide to phi and other entities, we can try to collect more of them together in one place so that we have more of an understanding of our rich traditions.

A special hat tip to Ketmani Kouanchao, Kelly Bornt Phoninsan, Mattie Do, Chanida Phaengdara Potter, Saengmany Ratsabout, Nor Sanavongsay, Theek Smith, and Saymoukda Vongsay for additional research and a few laughs along the way gathering this all together. So here we go:

One common one is the belief that if you step over someone older than you, bad luck will arrive. Or that women should never ride on top of a bus above male passengers. Lao architects insist stairs must always be odd numbered.

You'll find elders who tell you not to point at the rainbow or you will lose a finger. This becomes interesting because the Nak are connected to rainbows, per myth, so I wonder if there's a connection there. There seems to be a growing belief that if you eat snake by the Mekong, you inviting death, particularly by "drowning." Most likely you offended a Nak, who would also be inclined to do you in if you're partying and frolicking in their clean and tranquil waters.

But let's get to the good stuff. There are numerous superstitions connected to phi and other denizens of the spirit realm, especially at night. Here are a few that people have discussed.

If you see your child is talking to someone who isn't there, you should set food out and show respect if you know what's good for you.

Don't whistle at night or you summon phi and other spirits, especially out in the jungles. Also, don't sharpen a blade at night, or a phi will visit you in your dreams. When dogs howl at night, they see a phi. If you put the tears of a dog in your eye, you will see phi, too.

Don't play hide and seek at night, because phi will hide you from human sight. Some accounts say that they will have a price for 'helping' you out. Interestingly, owl hoots are an omen of death for someone close to the person listening.

If you eat by yourself at night while it's raining, a VERY specific type of phi will come. I won't name it here, but it's the one everyone really hates, who's always going on about how huuuuuuuungry they are.....

You don't eat pumpkin or pumpkin seeds at a funeral, or the deceased will get up and eat them with you. The accounts are unclear how many times this has happened in the past, but it has happened enough that it's now frowned upon.

Never look between your legs or you might see a phi behind you.

If you comment too loudly about something you spot on the road, it will follow you home. And if you hear your name being called and can't find where it's coming from, you do NOT want to answer.

A significant number of superstitions are very specific about how you should sleep. You shouldn't sleep in a big bed with unused pillows, or the phi swing by to make themselves at home and use the pillows and space you aren't. Further, if you put your hands on your chest at night as sleeping you're inviting phi to enter into you.Supposedly, sleeping with a knife under the bed will keep many bad spirits and nightmares away.

If you dream of touching poop, money is coming soon.If you dream that someone asks to come live with you, you're pregnant. If you're dreaming of a snake (possibly a Nak) this often means a man really likes you, possibly a future husband. If you have a nightmare, you're advised to go to the bathroom, whisper it to your poop, then flush it away with the aid of the Phi Kee.

Back in the waking world, if your foot itches, you need to kick someone's ass.It's ok to compare kids to cute dogs, but not to monkeys in many families.

In the kitchen, a number of taboos have been passed on from generation to generation. For example, Soaking sticky rice too long until it has turned blood red is bad luck. And it could make you ill.  Also, you don't sing in the kitchen or you will marry an elder. If you don't cover your thip khow sticky rice container, you won't find a spouse. Or you might get divorced.

Never step on, or sit on a bag of rice. It offends the spirits and brings bad luck. Don't sleep after eating or you'll become a 'snake.'

You shouldn't wash dishes at night because you'll wash away your luck and money.If you don't wash the dishes properly, you'll get ugly kids. Young girls are encouraged to wash dishes for beauty. Also known as the oldest trick in the book.

Don't eat out of the pot or else you will have a hard time giving birth. Which leads us to a few of superstitions involving babies.

Never say anything bad about other people's children while pregnant or it will manifest in your own child.When a baby smiles at you, you might lose hair.Don't show a baby their reflection or their teeth won't come in. It is also said that if your newborn pees on you in the first few days, they will love you all of their life. On the other hand, touching a baby's cheeks will cause them to be fussy over their next meal.

An interesting number of beliefs are connected to hair. Cutting your hair on your birthday shortens your lifespan.Cutting your hair in the middle of the week is bad luck. If you cut your hair at night, you will shorten your parents lives. (So, in short, never cut your hair on your birthday midweek at night!) Finally, after you cut your hair, burn it or someone can use it to cast spells on you.

Lao custom says you shouldn't play with your shadow, or your shadow will choke you when it gets the chance. This may explain why you don't often see Lao shadow puppetry.

Don't try on wedding outfits for fun or you'll never get married for real. Related to this, you don't want to be a bridesmaid too many times either for the same reason.

Somewhat randomly, don't look at stray dogs rutting, or you will get pink eye.

For the photographers among us, if you take a picture of 3 people at a time, if they're close or related, they will wind up moving far away from each other.Don't take pictures at night outside or you will get 'things' you don't want...

So, that's a start that hopefully encompasses a good variety of options for writers to consider for possible stories, whether horror, fantasy, or historical. What are some of the traditions and superstitions that you know?

Lao American Artist Spotlight: Manola Suvannarad

Ketmani Kouanchao interviewed Lao Minnesotan artist Manola Suvannarad for Little Laos on the Prairie recently and they had a chance to post the interview up. Be sure to check it out if you get a chance! It's brief, but it captures some very interesting perspectives of a Lao artist's journey. I hope to see more of their work in the future.

Suvannarad is currently taking a hiatus, but a good set of her work can be found at: Among her subjects have been Oprah, Phil Jackson, Truman Capote, Margaret Cho (as Kim Jong Il), and Punxsutawney Phil.

Vientiane, Laos in 1930

An unknown photographer took these amateur snapshots in Laos in 1930. They made their way to England and are presently being sold off individually to private collectors. But this gives you an interesting sense of the past from almost 80 years ago.

Images like this helped to inspire many of the poems in my book DEMONSTRA from Innsmouth Free Press. I'll let you figure out which ones.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Kundiman 2014 Retreat applications now open

In order to help mentor the next generation of Asian American poets, Kundiman sponsors an annual Retreat in partnership with Fordham University. This year's deadline to apply: 2/1/2014. No pressure.

During the Retreat, nationally renowned Asian American poets conduct workshops with fellows. Readings, writing circles and informal social gatherings are also scheduled. Through this Retreat, Kundiman hopes to provide a safe and instructive environment that identifies and addresses the unique challenges faced by emerging Asian American poets. This 5-day Retreat takes place from Wednesday to Sunday. Workshops will not exceed eight students.

A nationally renowned Asian American poet facilitates each writing workshop. Workshops consist of writing exercises and group discussion on fellows' poems. Fellows are expected to workshop new poems-- poems written at retreat. In order to help foster relationships between fellows themselves, fellows are assigned a home group for the duration of the retreat. The faculty rotates in the work-shopping of each home group.

Your faculty this year will be: Marilyn Chin, Eugene Gloria, & Michelle Naka Pierce.

To date, since its foundation, Phayvanh Luekhamhan is the only Lao poet to have attended the program. Will this be a year we see another Lao poet apply? Or see one from the Khmu, Tai Dam, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Mien, or Montagnard communities? As our communities approach 40 years since the Diaspora began in 1975, now would be a good time to see new voices emerging! Give it some consideration!

DEMONSTRA reviewed on Hellnotes

A great review of my new book of speculative poetry, DEMONSTRA, was posted up recently at Hellnotes. I appreciate K.H. Vaughan taking the time to read through it and to appreciate what had gone into composing the book. As my third major collection of speculative poetry, it's one that has also had me wondering how easily readers could get into it, especially since this is the first text to really introduce the phi of Southeast Asia, a class of spirits that are a little different from what most outside of Asia would consider ghosts.

From their review:
"It took exactly seven lines for me to decide I was onto something special with this new release from Innsmouth Free Press. This book is just that good. In Demonstra, Bryan Thao Worra presents an unusual collection of speculative poetry, filled with references to popular horror tropes, traditional Laotian folklore, and Buddhist musings in striking and unexpected combinations..."

Hellnotes began in 1995 as a weekly email newsletter with a hardcopy component and a paid subscription base. Since then, it’s gone through a number of transformations and today delivers the same horror genre news and information several times a day for free. Hellnotes, owned by JournalStone Publishing, is dedicated to bringing you the best information on the internet, covering horror movies, horror fiction, horror comics, horror writers, and more.

K. H. Vaughan is a refugee from academia with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. In his other life he taught, published, and practiced in various settings, with particular interest in decision theory, forensic psychology, psychopathology, and methodology. He is an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association and a member of the New England Horror Writers. He lives with his wife and three children in New England. You can visit his website at:

Be sure to check out their other offerings, and tell them I said hello!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Laomerica 40: Proposing new voices

Over at the Twin Cities Daily Planet this week I have an article regarding a recent project a foundation declined. In a nutshell, it would have been an original community-learning project working with historically underrepresented voices in the Lao American refugee community.

I had "sought to focus on those from smaller populations such as the Khmu, Tai Dam, Iu Mien, Lahu, and Lua." Between 2014 to 2015, this community-learning project would have developed almost 30 new voices in three key zones where Lao refugees have no meaningful regular access to sustained, culturally appropriate literary training and access programs.

For those of you in other states, the outline of this proposal may be helpful for you as you consider how you might want to develop a program to meet the artistic needs of your community whether it is for Lao refugees or other emerging populations such as the Karen, Montagnards, Kurds, or others.

I cover most of the territory I wanted to cover in the piece over at the Twin Cities Daily Planet but let me know if you have any other questions!

Reflecting on the National Lao American Writers Summit

We're beginning final discussions about the National Lao American Writers Summit for 2014, contingent upon funding.

As a recap, a few people were under the mistaken impression that the Summit was something that was going to be held every year, but that was never really the plan. The Summits are convened when it makes sense. The larger idea was that it would be a pivotal free-form gathering where Lao artists and writers would meet, many for the first time in 40 years.

Is this an effective model? Let's consider the first one, which was convened at the famed Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

For those who attended, they were able to have unrestricted time to talk with writers like Oscar-nominated Thavisouk Phrasavath, who went on to win an Emmy literally days later, the first Lao to ever hold such a distinction.

People met Mali Kouanchao, the award-winning artist who had just received an Asian Pacific American Leadership Award and a prestigious Bush Artist Fellowship, and the artist Youme Nguyen Ly who wrote and illustrated the children's book, Mali Under the Night Sky, based upon Mali Kouanchao's childhood.

The musician Ketsana's song would soon reach an international audience as it was featured on Project Runway to highlight the final collection of Andy/Ari South. She would also become part of the 50th Anniversary SEA Games.

Participants trained with award-winning actor Ova Saopeng and Leilani Chan of TeAda Productions in Los Angeles who would bring their acclaimed play "Refugee Nation" to Minneapolis just a few weeks later. Spoken word training was led by Catzie Vilayphonh of Yellow Rage and Saymoukda Vongsay, who would go on to write the acclaimed play "Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals."

Phayvanh Luekhamhan went on to become executive director of Montpelier Alive. She is the only Lao American who has ever been a Kundiman fellow. You had a chance to meet with Dr. Adisack Nhouyvanisvong, one of the founding members of the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project (first established in 1995) and his family.

Bounheng Inversin, who translated Outhine Bounyavong's Phaeng Mae: Mother's Beloved, shared her advice, and later interpreted for Hillary Clinton in the first visit of a US Secretary of State to Laos in 57 years. Joy Panigabutra-Roberts is now the Head of Cataloging and Metadata at the American University in Cairo and her work has been featured in the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement and Eye to the Telescope.

The Lao Minnesotan painters Aloun Phoulavan and Kinnary Phimpadubsee were there to share their experiences and hopes for the future. Thouni Seneyakone would go on to volunteer against human trafficking in Laos and Southeast Asia.

Mali Phonpadith went on to produce the show Tea with Mali and to promote her book A Million Fireflies. Viliya Ketavong went on to have her short story published in the anthology A Rainbow Feast, and became part of a historic cohort of Lao emerging playwrights in San Diego who had their work performed at the Old Globe Theater.

You also had a chance to meet Lori Phanachone, who made headlines in Iowa by standing against a ridiculous school policy. Participants met the organizers of the Lao Artists Festival of Elgin, Illinois, like Aloune Khotisene and Maniphone Khoxayao.

Chanida Phaengdara Potter went on to found Little Laos on the Prairie with Danny Khotsombath, and it is regularly spotlighted at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Many of our volunteers became part of the first Lao Leadership Institute cohort, and many of volunteers eventually became president or officers of the Lao Student Association.

Nor Sanavongsay went on to publish his first children's book, Xieng Mieng: A Sticky Mess! after 14 years in development. I went on to the London Summer Games as a Cultural Olympian and my work is currently part of the Smithsonian's first traveling exhibit on Asian Americans.

Personally, I'm happy to see how much our writers and artists have accomplished over the last 3 years, going on four. I think the results have been diverse and breathtaking. And I think it can also be said that this last gathering really helped to strengthen many of our relationships to one another and to see the many different ways one could be a Lao writer in the world.

In all, the National Lao American Writers Summit cost just a little over $13,000 for three days, including $10,000 from the Minnesota Legacy fund. But I hope this demonstrates the international breadth and reach these funds are capable of enabling within just 3 years. We learned a lot from this process, and we hope that many others will have similar opportunities in the decades to come.

As we approach the 40th year of the modern Lao diaspora, a good case can be made that another convening is in order. But what do we want to see happen within such a gathering of Lao from across the country?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Call for Presentations: Radical Archives

Convened by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU and its 2013-14 Artists-in-Residence Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani, Radical Archives is a two-day conference (Friday, April 11-Saturday, April 12, 2014) organized around the notion of archiving as a radical practice.

An international contingent of archivists, artists, artist-archivists, activist archivists, theorists, and scholars working within a range of archives and archival practices will be invited to present and discuss archives of radical politics and practices; archives that are radical / experimental in form or function; how archiving in itself might be a radical act in certain moments or contexts; and how archives can be active in the present, as well as documents of the past or scripts for the future.

The conference will be organized around four major themes (Archive and Affect; Archiving Around Absence; Archives and Ethics; and Archive as Constellation), include a number of presentation formats, and be supplemented by / documented through an online catalogue. They are calling for contributions relevant to these themes. Proposed formats could include panels, roundtables, individual papers or artist talks, performances or performance-lectures, screenings, interactive screen-based projects, or live participatory projects. Proposals are due Friday, January 10, 2014.

John Sexton's Offspring of the Moon

Over at Amazing Stories, Diane Severson Mori has a great review of John Sexton's new book, Offspring of the Moon, from Salmon Poetry ( It was easily my favorite book of speculative poetry this year, and I'm glad to see Diane had such a high opinion of it as well. She also provides some great recordings of six poems that give you a wonderful sense of how readable he is, and the fascinating territory he covers with his verse. I've always enjoyed talking with him, because he has a great sense of poetry, where it can go, and where we can be better.

The ideas in his work are vibrant and imaginative and all of his books have my strongest recommendation if you can find a copy. But I'll go into more detail about what I enjoy about his work later next year.

The Catullus Conundrum

Catullus was an ancient Roman poet whose life holds significant lessons, ok, warnings, for other poets.

While he enjoys a significant readership after death, he lasted into the modern world of letters not so much as an outcome of intentional effort but undignified happenstance. The legendary account, which may or may not be true, as always seems to be the case with poets, is that his work was discovered as a stopper in a barrel of wine in some medieval basement. Egad.

There are no reports over whether it was a particularly good barrel of wine, at that.

Bear in mind, there are plenty of Roman poets whose beloved words were deliberately kept intact by appreciative audiences, scholarly and otherwise. But I keep the legend of Catullus in my mind that we can never be truly certain our work will survive into the next age. Nor can we be certain how it will be discovered. This can be both dreadful and reassuring, the chaos of the poet's calling.

Some people get a bit manic and testy, saying as a writer, you shouldn't be concerned about the longevity of your work. They argue it hamstrings you, it takes you out of the present and you lose a certain dynamic and value to your voice if you're just trying to become famous and widely-read. Every writer treads a line between quality and the mercenary, trying to keep one's self and family fed without gauche pandering and compromise.

If you're a writer, and one with a very finite lifetime, you should be taking your craft seriously enough to be of use and entertainment to others, even as you appreciate that fate is arbitrary and whimsical. Obviously, looking at my own body of work, that's not a belief that all of your subjects are supposed to be serious, but when you write comedically, you need to be writing the best comedy you can.

For all of your accolades and honors, it is entirely possible within a century, and even more so in the centuries beyond, that if you do survive, it will only be a fraction of your output, and what future generations find compelling may well be that which you least expect.

You may find your work in the H.P. Lovecraft scenario, where no one gave his work much attention while living.  Consider the issue of Weird Tales where his classic, "The Call of Cthulhu" appears first. The editors thought Elliot O'Donnell's "Ghost Table" would be the one that moves copies that month. Lovecraft wasn't among the ones editors expected to have a great readership years or even nearly a century since his death. I guess you could call it "The Last Laugh of Cthulhu."

My best advice on this is to write as well as you can, whenever possible, because you don't want to be that writer where you have a body of amazing, soul-searing work, but the only example that survives into the next century is your "Ode to a Skanky Possum."

There's another tale that in the old days, a Roman general had a servant constantly whispering in his ear, "Memento Mori." Even on the days of his greatest triumphs, he was constantly reminded he was mortal and could be brought down by anything in the world. Catullus, on the other hand, reminds us as poets that in our art, anyone can survive, both the high and the low. So try to leave a good body of work behind.

Or at least make friends with people who keep cellars filled with barrels of wine for centuries. Something.

Monday, December 16, 2013

MarsCon 2014 Announced: Time is the Key

MarsCon 2014 in Minnesota has been announced. It will be March 7-9, 2014.
Their theme will be Time is the Key.  

 The planned Guests of Honor include:
*Actor: J. G. Hertzler — General (later Chancellor) Martok on ST:DS9
*Author: Esther Friesner
*Artist: Mickie Erickson
*Costumer: Rae Lundquist
*Fan Group: IKV RakeHell
*Music: Henry Phillips
*Prop Masters: Dave Duca & Michael Glielmi
*Science Guest: Bridget Landry of NASA’s JPL

More details to follow. MarsCon is one of the few major science fiction conventions in the Midwest (and arguably, the country) to have actively programmed Lao and Southeast Asian-themed panels proposed by and presented by Lao and Southeast Asian Americans.

We're considering what we can present within this year's themes for sure. It seems fairly obvious to do a panel on decolonized time, based on many of our previous discussions on the subject. But what else might we consider?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

25th Winter Book Release Party: 12/14/13

In a special partnership with publisher Milkweed Editions, Minnesota Center for Book Arts 2013 Winter Book Minidewak reproduces four selected readings from Braiding Sweetgrass in a limited edition, handmade artist’s book.

As a botanist and professor of plant ecology, Robin Wall Kimmerer has spent a career learning how to ask questions of nature using the tools of science. As a Potawatomi woman, she learned from elders, family, and history that the Potawatomi consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. These two aspects of identity combine in Kimmerer’s recent book of essays, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

Under the direction of MCBA Executive Director Jeff Rathermel, Minidewak was produced in two editions, each letterpress printed by master printer Monica Edwards Larson, with the assistance of Winter Book interns Ian Kolstad, Dan Shearen, Evelyn Miller and Shark Shredder. All illustrations are by Nate Christopherson. Both editions include letterpress printed text and imagery on Arches Text Wove, with titles set in Cresci and text set in Granjon.

Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is an Associate Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). She is the author of numerous scientific articles, and the book Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. She is Potawatomi and combines her heritage with her scientific and environmental passions.

The artistry, sumptuous materials and craftsmanship of each Winter Book makes it an avidly collected series, included in museum and rare book library collections across the country and around the world. Minidewak is produced in extremely limited editions (200 Standard, 26 Deluxe).

A respected and dedicated champion of the field, Minnesota Center for Book Arts is the largest and most comprehensive center of its kind.

They celebrate the book as a vibrant contemporary art form that takes many shapes; Their mission is to lead the advancement of the book as an evolving art form. MCBA is committed to book art, artists and appreciators. That mission is achieved through quality programs that support a broad continuum of creators, learners and admirers. They lead the field by promoting innovation, sustaining traditions, educating new enthusiasts, inspiring creative expression and honouring artistic excellence. From the traditional crafts of papermaking, letterpress printing and bookbinding to new methods of art-making and communication, MCBA supports the limitless creative development of book arts.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

5 Flavors debuts at Expanded Horizons

My poem "5 Flavors" has officially debuted at Expanded Horizons this week, along with "Molting Season" by the poet Anne Carly Abad, who writes poetry and stories when she’s not training Muay Thai. Her story, ‘Sage’s Reckoning’ recently earned an honorable mention in Q3 of The Writers of the Future Contest (2013). Her work has appeared or will appear in Magma Poetry, Dreams & Nightmares, and Strange Horizons. Find out more about her at

Additionally, the short stories "Swallowing Saturday" by Catherine Batac Walder and "Daughters of the Air" by Gail Labovitz are included in this issue.

Maria Mitchell also provides a great interpretation of my poem "The Robo Sutra" that appeared earlier this year at Expanded Horizons. A writer and illustrator, she wrote the short stories "The Mermaid Promise" at Flashes in the Dark, "Song of the Catherine Clark" in Cthulhurotica, "The Kadath Angle" in Future Lovecraft and "Second Coming" at Dead Man’s Tome. Her poems have been published in the gothic anthology Candle in the Attic Window, The Absent Willow Review, Yester Year Fiction, Sage Woman #80 and the horror anthology Ugly Babies Vol. 1. She illustrated her poem, "The Last Son of Circe," in Ugly Babies Vol. 1 and is the columnist of Slicing Score at Innsmouth Free Press. My poem, "The Robo Sutra," is the first poem by another writer Maria has illustrated, so I'm honored by that. She’s also an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association.

Because I think it can be handy for poets to give a little behind the scenes glimpse at their poems:

"5 Flavors" is a meditation on the phi of Laos, much in the same vein as "No Such Phi" forthcoming in Lakeside Circus later this month. This particular poem also takes into consideration the classical Lao principles of cooking, and five key flavors that a chef endeavors to balance and experiment with: Sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, and salty. These principles are also found throughout other parts of Southeast Asian cuisine.

The poem originally came up from a question over why so many Southeast Asian ghosts and spirits seem determined to take it up a notch from Western ghosts. When you compare mythologies, it seems the spirits of the region are far more likely to try and eat you than those in the U.S. or Europe. There, you have banshees, poltergeists, and largely intangible entities who linger. They may scream, they may throw things around, they may try to frighten you, but eating you in part or in whole is a pretty rare occurrence. On the other hand, in Laos and Southeast Asia, you're relieved if banging things around is the worst they do.

As I did my research for my book DEMONSTRA from Innsmouth Free Press, there were an interesting number of phi who were considered female spirits, and whose particular modus operandi involved food, viscera, consumption, etcetera. And so, "5 Flavors" began to coalesce into its present form you see at Expanded Horizons.

"5 Flavors" takes place at an actual Lao restaurant in Sacramento, the Sabaidee Thai Grille, which is tucked away on 8055 Elk Grove-Florin Road. If you get a chance to, stop by and see the owners. They have a particularly extensive collection of contemporary artwork by the Lao American artist Sompaseuth Chounlanmany, who is also from Vientiane, where both the artist Vongduane Manivong and I were born.

"5 Flavors" also makes reference to the traditional Lao buddhist rite of Boun Khao Padab Din. Observed in September, the festival comes from a belief that the guardians of Hell (Nalok) let the souls of at least the human dead to return to earth for a day. They're famished, so the living are obliged to lay packets of hot rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. The spirits, however, can only eat the vapors. They then proceed to visit various family members and friends until they're called back to the underworld. For some families who lost a relative in the previous year, remains are often exhumed, cleansed then cremated, with gifts presented to the monks who chanted the funerary rites for the deceased. A relatively readable scholarly article on the subject can be found in Patrice Ladwig's "Feeding the dead: ghosts, materiality and merit in a Lao Buddhist festival for the deceased."

But take a look, and see what you think.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

5 Years of Winter Ink, 25 years of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts Winter Book

This week, December 13th, 2013 marks the 5th year since the release of Winter Ink, the 20th Winter Book from the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. It's very rare to find a copy today, because as a hand-crafted art book, it was produced in a very limited edition.

Under the direction of MCBA Artistic Director Jeff Rathermel, three editions of Winter Ink were produced, each letterpress printed by award-winning master printer Paulette Myers-Rich with assistance by numerous artists, interns and volunteers. The text was set in Optima. The Chapbook edition sold for $30, the Standard edition sold for $150, and the Deluxe edition sold for $475.

There were only 26 copies of the Deluxe Edition. I signed all of them. This edition was designed and bound by the amazing Jana Pullman. It is composed of letterpress printed text and imagery on kozo paper with French folded pages bound in green silk and presented in a threefold wrap around case covered in poppy Asahi book cloth.

I recently updated my friends and colleagues about what has happened since we last left off in December, 2008. Back then, I had just been informed that I was the very first Lao American to receive an NEA Fellowship in Literature for my poetry. This was followed up by my subsequent receipt of a 2009 Asian Pacific American Leadership Award in the Arts from the state Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, as well as recognition from the Mayor and County of San Francisco during the first International Lao New Year.

I and my colleagues Saymoukda Vongsay, Catzie Vilayphonh, and Chanida Phaengdara Potter convened the National Lao American Writers Summit in 2010, where we gathered over 100 Lao American writers and readers from across the country, many meeting for the first time in 40 years since the end of the civil war for Laos. Many had a chance to stop in to the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and were amazed and inspired by the exhibits there.

In 2011, I made a transition, splitting my time between Minnesota and California where I continued to do research on the Lao Diaspora, and to reconnect with my long-lost family members who were now living in Modesto. I also had my work in the media arts with Lao youth recognized by the University of Minnesota's Human Rights Center that year.

Significantly, in 2012, I was selected as a Cultural Olympian to represent the nation of Laos during the Poetry Parnassus convened during the London Summer Games. I also helped to establish Lao Minnesotan Artists Heritage Month, recognized by the Governor of Minnesota. My poems have since been translated into Spanish, French, German, Korean, Thai, Tagalog, Bengali, and Lao.

This year, in 2013, my work was included in the Smithsonian Institution's first exhibit on Asian Pacific Americans, "I Want the Wide American Earth," which has been showcased at the National American History Museum among other institutions. And, as many of you have seen, I am now also in the middle of releasing my latest book of poetry, DEMONSTRA, from Innsmouth Free Press.

Among the poems that were included in the collection were some of my readers' favorites like "The Spirit Catches You and You Get Body Slammed," and "Wisdom," which appeared in Bamboo Among the Oaks. My personal favorite was the original poem "Ink: A Recipe," which was later reprinted in Hong Kong in 2012. This was the cover for the Standard Edition:

When I composed the poems for Winter Ink, I pondered the significance of words in the world, and how much we can change with even an inch of ink, no matter where we were.

There is something deeply powerful in the hand-crafted approach to creating books, one that I hope none of us ever lose sight of. As I often tell my students, we must all see that books are more than just ink upon a page, but souls talking to souls, each infinite in potential.

I feel blessed to have been a part of this wondrous undertaking, and I hope the members of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and their many supporters will see that they make a very unique difference, shining light and opening doors for artists the world over.

Traditional Lao Nak designs

Three examples of traditional Nak designs found in various Lao communities around the world, although the research suggests there are many possibilities and configurations. These three in particular give an example of the variations they can have for the discerning eye. Unfortunately, as is often the case, information regarding the specific significance for many of them is hard to come by. In DEMONSTRA, they figure frequently in many poems in both conventional and newer techniques of representation.

A Slice of the Southeast Asian Underworld and Spirits of Laos (2012)

Back in 2012 I did a quick write up on the supernatural in Laos for the Halloween Haunts blog feature of the Horror Writer Association. The Internet being a persnickety thing from time to time, I'm reproducing that post here for posterity, and also for the convenience of new readers just starting to examine Lao horror, especially if you've recently picked up a copy of my new book DEMONSTRA from Innsmouth Free Press.

“When the water rises, the fish eat the ants; when the water falls, the ants eat the fish.”
- Traditional Lao Proverb

Laos isn’t the first place people think of when it comes to international fear and horror.  But whether your tastes are for the supernatural or otherwise, Laos has many surprises for those willing to look, from secret wars to eerie ghosts and weretigers.

Laos is a country of 6 million people, the size of Great Britain and a little bigger than Minnesota. But from a literary standpoint it is still largely terra incognita. Many readers became familiar with Laos through writers such as Colin Coterill, whose mysteries feature the Lao coroner Dr. Siri, or non-fiction accounts such as The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.

Once known as the Realm of a Million Elephants, Laos traces its roots over 600 years to the ancient kingdom of Lan Xang. Laos has since gone by many names to many different travelers.

During the 19th and 20th century, “tranquil” Laos was involved in numerous bloody conflicts, including a byzantine Secret War involving a covert CIA army supporting the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and their allies. By the end of the war, more tons of bombs were dropped on Laos than on all of Europe during World War 2. Countless people drowned in the Mekong River trying to escape reprisals at the end of the war in 1975.

Over 80 different ethnic groups reside in Laos, each with their own cosmological traditions. While many are Buddhist, others practice variations of animism and ancestor worship. In October, while Americans and Europeans celebrate Halloween, the Lao celebrate Awk Phansaa during the full moon. During this time, families observe the custom of lai hua fai, fashioning small boats adorned with candles, incense and offerings to the spirits, setting them adrift down the river.

While many connect Laos most to the Mekong River, the rest of Lao geography lends itself to intriguing stories. Over 70% of the countryside is jungle or mountain. In the aftermath of the US Secret War in Laos, over 30% of the countryside remains contaminated with over 80 million unexploded cluster bombs. Laos is home to the mysterious Plain of Jars, filled with ancient, massive stone urns built by an unknown culture for an unknown purpose. There is also Xieng Khuan, the Spirit City, a bizarre concrete sculpture garden built by a priest-shaman blending Buddhism and Hinduism. One of the most prominent Buddhist stupas, That Dam, is said to be built over a slumbering ancient being who rose up to defend Laos against invaders in 1827.

Among the creatures Lao encounter in traditional folklore are the Nak, known in other traditions as Naga, or more crudely, as dragons, although that would be a very poor understanding of these beings.  Although they are shapeshifters, their most common form is as a mammoth, often with many heads. They’re reputed to dwell in rivers or beneath the earth. They’re associated with magic and water, including the rain and floods, but also with fertility. Some accounts maintain that the Nak are snake deities who converted to Buddhism and now protect the teachings of the Buddha. They are generally regarded as benevolent, but their vengeance is greatly feared. They are depicted most frequently on the balustrades of Wat Lao, (Lao Buddhist temples).

In Laos, the term phi is applied as a catchall term for the hundreds of ghosts who live in the cities and wilderness. A Phi Kasu, for example, is a floating woman’s head with her entrails and viscera dangling below, ambushing victims at night. Other phi include the hungry ghosts of Buddhist tradition, the ghosts of women who die during childbirth, and at least one being whose presence turns chickens inside out and causes pigs to explode. There is no one comprehensive catalog of Lao phi to date.

One book of interest on this subject is Lokapâla: génies, totems et sorciers du Nord Laos, first printed around 1954, by Henri Deydier. This text examined the beliefs and superstitions of Northern Laos, and recorded Deydier’s trip by foot and horse through the jungles.  At the age of 32, Deydier, alas, died in a plane crash in Laos just shortly after publication of this book. Although it was published in French and German, no edition in English has been published.

Man-Tigers, or Lao weretigers show up in the folklore of many of the tribes and minorities found in Southeast Asia. Among the Lao Soung tribes in the mountains of Laos, weretigers are one of the most supernatural concerns over many others. The Akha, Lisu, Hmong and Lahu in particular are on guard against these beings. The Lisu believe the weretigers are capable of possessing others, including family members. This has affected the courtship practices of Lisu youth, who avoid courting people who are from villages where someone had been reputedly possessed by a weretiger. Among many of the cultures in Laos, during funerals, many are concerned about the arrival of weretigers interested in the deceased and their corpse.

With over 400,000 Laotians living in diaspora in the US and around the world, many brought their traditions and beliefs with them.

While much of the 600 year Lao history and culture has focused on transmitting a message of harmony and friendship, like any society, there is a dark undercurrent of stories that have just begun to be learned outside of the borders of Laos.