Saturday, April 7, 2012

Introducing Community Activist/Poet/Playwright Bryan Thao Worra

Part of the series for National Poetry Month:
First let me introduce Bryan Thao Worra by telling you that the first time we met, his book On the Other Side of the Eye was about to be released and we were reading for the Open Book Gallery CafĂ©  poetry series. I was impressed by Bryan’s style and ability to be flexible when I asked if he minded interweaving our voices. His book release party was a full-blown fiesta, with guest poets, a book cover cake, and door prizes. He is known in the Twin Cities for his engagement with poetry on all levels: not only a prolific writer himself but mentor, networker, promoter, and gatherer of like-minded spirits. His reflections on contemporary issues of identity and finding a voice are profound and throught-provoking.

Bryan Thao Worra was born in 1973 in Laos during the Laotian civil war. He came to the US at the age of six months old, adopted by a civilian pilot flying in Laos. In 2003, Thao Worra reunited with his biological family during his first return to Laos. Today, Bryan Thao Worra works actively on issues of community development, refugee resettlement and the arts.

A poet, short story writer, playwright and essayist, his prolific work appears internationally in anthologies, magazines and newspapers, including Bamboo Among the Oaks, Contemporary Voices of the East, Tales of the Unanticipated, Illumen, Astropoetica, Outsiders Within, Dark Wisdom, Hyphen, Journal of the Asian American Renaissance, Bakka, Whistling Shade, Tripmaster Monkey, Asian American Press and Mad Poets of Terra.

He has a unique impact on contemporary art and literature within the Lao, Hmong, Asian American and transcultural adoptee communities. Thao Worra curated numerous readings and exhibits of Lao and Hmong American art including Emerging Voices (2002), The 5 Senses Show (2002), Lao’d and Clear (2003), Giant Lizard Theater (2005), Re:Generations (2005), and The Un-Named Series (2007). He speaks nationally at colleges, schools and community institutions. You can visit him online at

Q: How has your family story influenced your poetry?
I grew up as a transcultural adopted child of a pilot from a country few had heard of. Few knew our convoluted history as the most heavily bombed nation of the 20th century. This taught me how words shape identities. Some call Laos a quiet, peaceful Shangri-La, a tiny landlocked Eden, but Laos is also the size of Great Britain and bigger than Minnesota, whose conflicts left more Lao living outside of Laos than within it. So make of that what you will.

I’ve said an adoptee’s life must always be written in pencil, never ink, because at any moment, everything you know about yourself could be changed. Yet, as Hermann Hesse said, a person’s true profession is finding their way to the center of themselves.

This affects my poetry because there were so many barriers in finding out who I was, who my families were, what intersected, what was alien, certain and merely possibility of ‘truth’.  I often tell students to experiment writing a summary of their lives with a word processor. Gazing at the finished results, how much is underlined in red? How much do you have to train your own computer to stop seeing the names of your cities, your family and friends, your food, your greetings, your word for ‘love’ as a mistake?

Much of my poetry can’t employ the narrative approach and subjects that others use easily. If I wrote a poem about my father’s death during the war, what happened to the truth of that poem when I discovered him very much alive, living nothing close to the life I was told for thirty years he’d led? If I wrote about the man I met in Laos who claimed he was my father, what happens to that poem when my mother reveals, no, he’s just a monk who was once her best childhood friend? This doesn’t mean I don’t still make efforts to write such things, but I approach it with a particular consciousness of uncertainty.

Q; Do you have a warm-up writing practice?
I approach it with a zen consciousness: A waking, writing meditation where I examine the object before me, and in a single burst attempt creating a condensed verbal snapshot in ink. A sense of mind, body, spirit, ink, breath, paper, subject and time as one. After a few of these, I begin working towards creating more layered, deliberate works. To be fair, though, this does not always work. But art is one of the only callings where even 'failures' can still be interesting.

 Q: What has been your greatest joy in mentoring Asian-American poets?
Understanding that we’re creating something that has not been there before. Watching something unfold, particularly among Southeast Asian-American voices, that would previously only have been created by and for ruling elites of many of their societies. But now, the people themselves are speaking, connecting themselves to one another because they choose to. They found something they want to express to others. After nearly a century of wars that stole generations of voices, the brutal erasure of dreams and memory, I think the journey of Asian-American poets to recover and rebuild is a joy to behold. I’ve been privileged to mentor many of them as they discover art’s potential to transform lives.

Q: The discussion continues about the future of poetry, the debate about ebooks, language being influenced by texting and sound bites, and page poetry and/or stage poetry (slams etc). Where do you think poetry is headed, what do you envision in say, 10 years?
 We’re going to see more experimentation and diversity being reflected within collections and classrooms. There will be new technologies and experiences, but I suspect we’ll also see a greater emphasis on a return to a tactile, physical participation with poetry and the world. This will emerge from burnout regarding constantly plugged-in lives, a surfeit of reality media and social networking, a constant barrage of images that’s inducing synesthetic disconnect.

We’ll also see more literary voices from veterans as they come to terms with their experience. Shorter forms will reflect the influences of twitter, texting, and the ongoing compression of available time for artists and their audiences to share with each other.  Spambots will start putting together even better poems that will give flarf, fluxus and found poems a run for their money.

All assuming we’re not in the middle of a war with the newts and salamanders or something like that. Then all bets are off.

 Q: What do you think is the poet’s responsibility in turbulent political times?
 What a poet’s responsibility has always been, to serve as a mechanic of language and the soul, exploring the uncertainties and chaos of the world, but not be paralyzed by it.  To be more than an unflinching eye.

 I’d remember Brecht, who said, “In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” Or note the example of Otto Rene Castillo, who, in his poem “Apolitcal Intellectuals,” believed poets will be asked “What did you do when the poor suffered, when tenderness and life burned out of them?” One should write prepared for such a question.
Q: What is your next project?
I have few books of poetry I’m putting together. One is set in haiku format, reviewing classic movies while also serving as a memoir of my experience as a transcultural adoptee, while another examines intersections between the Japanese and Lao American experience.

I’m interviewing Minnesota poets in verse for the Twin Cities Daily Planet centered on the premise that when poets interview other poets, it’s done journalistically, rather than in the form poets work in most, which struck me as peculiar.

I’m also finishing edits on an anthology of Lao American speculative art with another Lao American writer, Saymoukda Vongsay, to examine how imagination, memory and technology intersect with diaspora and reconstruction in the Laotian antebellum.

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