Learning to Love Lao Poetry

A love of Lao poetry isn’t exactly the most intuitive passion one might grow in their lives, when confronted with the great legacy of arts and letters of so many other well-known societies and civilizations. Do we truly dare to compare our poems to those of Shakespeare or Li Po, the Epic of Gilgamesh or the poets of the Mahabharata? Who will we read alongside Basho or Li-Young Lee? And yet, here we are.

For many Lao, we have lived in diaspora for nearly half a century, shortly after the end of Laotian Civil War in 1975. Many of us grew up as refugees in the 1970s and 80s, and there were nearly no books about the Lao experience, particularly books of poetry. We would do well to consider that there are also over 160+ ethnicities in Laos, such as the Hmong, Khmu, Tai Dam and Iu Mien. Many of them have only just begun their journey sharing their poetry with the world.

Among our greatest efforts to retain our poetic tradition was the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project which began in 1995. They convened 7 national conferences of Laotian writers  from around the world, and produced five grassroots anthologies of Lao writings including poetry up until 2002. This was remarkable, and our next generation of Lao must not forget the success of their efforts was never a given.

Today we can celebrate the award-winning work of our young poets such as scholar and activist Saymoukda Vongsay, spoken word artist Catzie Vilayphonh, and Phayvanh Luekhamhan, the first Lao American Kunidman fellow. Oscar-nominated Emmy-winner Thavisouk Phrasavath has been sharing his touching poetry with the world. Bryan Thao Worra represented Laos during the 2012 London Summer Games Poetry Parnassus, and was the first Lao to receive an NEA Fellowship in Literature. In Canada, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s poetry has been turned into films, and she recently won the prestigious Trillium Award. Krysada Panusith Phounsiri has become an internationally-published poet, an astrophysics major and champion B-Boy. He recently chaired the third National Lao American Writers Summit in San Diego in 2016, continuing the tradition of the SatJadHam conferences. In 2016, the Hmong poet Mai Der Vang won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. But this is just the start for us.

We must appreciate that for 600 years we had many opportunities to not “be Lao.” We faced civil war, occupation, Lao flung to the farthest corners of the world, yet time and time again, we chose to remain a people.

Often, however, a certain toxic mindset has taken hold among refugee families who’ve been conditioned to think their stories aren’t of interest, or their English isn’t good enough, or they don’t speak Lao well enough or understand all of the Lao traditions. We must reject that thinking, that somehow, we don’t have permission to try and tell our stories if we don’t have “perfect” English or an encyclopedic knowledge of Lao culture. We need to see the importance of trying, of daring to risk, to create something, anything. Giving ourselves permission to make “mistakes” and to learn from those. We need a generation with the courage to dare to say our memories, our dreams, too, matter.

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