Well, today, I have an interview with yet another amazing poet, Bryan Thao Worra. He is the Lao Minnesotan Poet Laureate and the President of the International Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. The author of several amazing books of poetry and his work has been translated into Spanish, French, German, Korean, Thai, Tagalog, Bengali, and Lao. Not to forget to mention that he holds over 20 awards for his work and represented the nation of Laos as a Cultural Olympian during the 2012 London Summer Games. His poetry themes are widely on the role of memory and the imagination in refugee resettlement, social justice, and adaptation. His influences range from ancient Southeast Asian epics to punk rock, pulp fiction, horror, and the US Secret War for Laos. I can say, in this interview, you will get to know the coolest poet of our century.
Ok, finally, here you are Brian. Let us start with when did you decide to become a writer and as a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I don’t think there was ever one single moment, but many moments where I found myself considering and ultimately understanding that writing would be a fundamental element of my journey. At one point as a youth, I was so cognizant that I was going to be a writer that I made an effort not to be a writer, looking at a possible career in the US State Department and foreign service, philosophy, possibly the Marines, truck driving, or public relations, among other fields.
But in the end, I realized it didn’t matter whether I was slinging pizzas in Ohio or working on policy suggestions in Washington D.C. I was still taking unscheduled breaks to write down poems or ideas for stories I’d finish as soon as I got home. I didn’t see writing as a hobby or a job, but as a fundamental element of my being, even more than my culture, nationality, or family. All of those could change or be taken away from me, but I’d still be trying to write at any opportunity, anyway, that’s possible, and it was no burden.
Me too. Writing is part of our existence I guess. When your first book was published and what was it about?
There are several books that could be considered my first book, depending on whether we also include chapbooks or zines. But for most purposes, my 2007 Lao American science fiction poetry collection On The Other Side Of The Eye from Sam’s Dot Publishing is regarded as my first full-length book. It largely explored the Lao diaspora 32 years after the end of Southeast Asian wars of the 20th century and where we fit in the bigger picture of the cosmos. Could we rebuild, remember, and yet still wonder deeply?
What about poetry attracts you?
Even after 30+ years, there are poems that still surprise me. I enjoy it because they demonstrate that despite so many people writing and creating around the world, there are still ideas and perspectives that have not been heard. The prose often tries to present itself with great clarity and to hem in our world with precise language, definitions, facts, and an authoritative, definitive way of expressing particular ideas. And there is certainly a time and a place for that.
Poetry, however, leaves us openings to become comfortable with ambiguities and uncertainties, and to embrace subjects requiring us to read between the lines, to accept there are questions we can ask even if they might never have an answer. Poetry plays with any culture’s language and reminds us of the power of “what if”?
When done well, poetry will shake us out of taking any word, any sentence for granted and reward us for looking deeper into something another person Is trying to tell us. It is a form robot and artificial intelligence will struggle with.
I'm in love with sci-fi and mostly my stories have sci-fi inclusion but what amazes me is how you integrate this genre into poetry. That's inspiring. You’re also the president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association was founded over 42 years ago in 1978 and has grown to almost 400 members in over 19 nations. The association brings together readers and writers of poetry influenced by science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
Over the decades we found there are many ways to approach this. Our members come from all walks of life, including scientists, professors, students, video game designers, musicians, artists, novelists, lawyers and many more. Some write exclusively speculative poetry, for others, it is one part of their creative output, but it is a big enough table for anyone to come to it.
How do we express a future we can see ourselves, our descendants in? How do we create books that dare to wander and explore our traditions and our potential? What is the most imaginative and challenging idea we can explore within a poem? For some these are everyday questions, for others, it is an idea that is opening amazing inspiration for them, and I’m happy the poets of the SFPA are helping to expand those conversations.
Out of context question, do you believe in other life forms than what we have on earth? I mean do you believe in aliens?
When we look at the myths and legends around the world, even in the traditions of Southeast Asia, the elders were pretty insistent that very unusual beings were visiting with us who do not resemble most of the humans we see around us today. I think we have to be very open-minded to the possibility.
100% agreed. Weel, do you think they're already live among us?
Alien life may not look like what we’re expecting at all. It might be microscopic, plant or fungus-based, non-humanoid, or beyond our own limited human sensory limits of what we can touch, see, smell, or hear, even with radio telescopes or other measuring devices.
We have to be prepared that despite our human egos and role in the affairs of the planet, aliens may not find us interesting to communicate with or observe, that our ways are likely primitive, uninteresting, possibly even barbaric to those who can cross the stars. We may likely represent little more than a walking vitamin gel capsule to others who may not even need us for even rudimentary nutrition needs. After nearly a century of sending so many radio signals and transmissions to the stars, I can only imagine what it must look like to anyone who’s listening.
The walking vitamin capsule inspires me to write a story! Do you think creative writers could be half aliens?
I think if they aren’t half aliens, they have to at least be alien sympathizers to really excel. A writer often serves as an ambassador of imagination and the deeper facts and truths of the cosmos. So, we have to see even the most ordinary elements of our world through a lens where we feel at least a little alien to it all. Writers need empathy with others who have never seen the world the way we do and to make our best effort to explain it to our readers, sometimes directly, sometimes less so.
Occasionally, you run into a writer who definitely makes you suspect they’re literally part alien. But alas, it’s not my place to name names here.
Haha, well. Please text me their names :) Ok, more normal questions: What do you think makes a good poem?
There’s no single standard for a good poem, these days. What’s good to you may be boring to another, or it might meet the needs of your reader in a particular moment, but still age badly as certain pop songs in a matter of months. Some might please a teacher but bore your people outside of a classroom. Some can be read at a concert or a new year festival easily, but others can only be enjoyed in a quiet moment by a river or in your apartment.
You have to look at the language used in the poem and ask a hypothetical question: How would a reader enjoy this, no matter what emotional effect you’re going for, both in the present moment and 100 to 1,000 years from now. What’s been written in a way they’ll remember it, and your particular way of phrasing it will come quickly to mind for a particular occasion?
In the end, I believe a good poem makes you want to write another good poem. A great poem makes others, including yourself, want to write more poems, and read more poems, good or otherwise. And that may seem like an odd distinction, but it’s vital to the joy of this type of art.
Wow, I'm learning a lot from you. Thanks for sharing these. May I ask how long does it take you to write a book and what inspires you the most?
My first collection took approximately 5 years of fiddling around with the overall manuscript until I found one that could interest a publisher. But once I had a handle on that, it has taken about a year for most of my books. It’s rare for more than 2 years to go by without me creating a new collection.
One development in this process has been a move away from print books compared to developing e-book collections and physical exhibits, and more of an interest in returning to the smaller chapbook format that seems to meet more of the poetry-reading needs of our community.
I draw my inspiration from the traditions of my community and culture, especially the smaller stories at risk of falling between the cracks. I’m often interested in exploring the things we normally say aren’t supposed to the subject of poetry, the things we’re not supposed to consider beautiful or interesting. I usually look for ways to approach those subjects from angles that aren’t immediately obvious or instinctive. This helps to move a poem beyond the merely documentary, giving us reasons to return to a poem again long after we first read them.
Do you have any writing routines? What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
My best writing comes when there’s no one around and few distractions, often late at night such as 3 AM. The larger question is that ideally, I have approximately 3-4 projects going at any time that I can switch to happily with a reasonable but soft deadline for getting them done. I know what needs to be filled in, and I know that most don’t require me to fit in everything except the kitchen sink to make them, so it’s easier to finish most of those on time.
It takes discipline to be effectively flexible and playful enough to write poetry and to create in a way that you are open to outcome, not attached to the outcome. It was difficult for me at first to learn that the pauses, the breaks, the wandering around are just as important to your creative process so that you can come back to each line, each poem with fresh energy. Like good cooking, some poems you can create in 5 minutes, others you must take time and watch it carefully to consistently get a good result.
What does your family think of your writing?
Like most poet families, they appreciate that I do this for a living, even if they don’t often understand why or how. But they’re happy I have something to do. And that’s a fine start.
The why and how is important. Until we earn millions, then no one wonders anymore. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your poems/prose?
A good poem surprises others when they read it. A great poem is a bit of a time traveler, in that it will fade in and out of relevance, but returns to importance across the decades and often in ways that can surprise even the poet who wrote it. This is difficult to master, but it is not impossible.
Many would be surprised how much just a few lines from a good poem change the world of that poet and their nation, even if they are not always understood the way the poet intended them. For example, look at the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” and how it achieved its legendary popularity among the people he was directing it towards. Many poems take on similar lives, but we can never be certain what will be catching fire, and what is as fleeting as a morning bird’s song.
Which of your books is your favorite?
It depends on how you count particular types of books, but generally at least 8, although many of them are out-of-print or online only. Each of them was designed to be very different from the other in terms of themes and structure, so it’s hard to easily pick one as a favorite.
BARROW (Sam’s Dot), for example, was an inversion of the idea that a dictionary entry tries to define the meaning of a word into a handful of prose sentences, so, for a change, I decided to see what happened if a word was given a full book of poetry to try and define itself through a variety of poems in different styles. My 2013 collection DEMONSTRA (Innsmouth Free Press), on the other hand, took a break from my usual style and included the largest number of long poems I have written for one book, compared to the others.
Do you have any upcoming books coming? What is it about? Where we can get a copy?
My most recent one is Before We Remember We Dream, and it explores the history and impact of the 45th anniversary of the Lao diaspora intertwined with pop culture, science fiction, time, memory, and imagination. This collection is also exploring how we use art and illustrations throughout a collection with the help of the acclaimed artists Nor Sanavongsay and Sisavanh Phouthavong Houghton. When you order it directly from Sahtu Press, you get a personalized envelope as part of a special project to push the boundaries of how do poets build a connection between their readers and community.
That's lovely. Need to get my copy. Do you have any suggestions to help others to become better writers/poets? If so, what are they?
I have many, but with poetry, it is often best presented and discussed one on one, with the understanding that over time you will change and grow and constantly need to learn and retrain yourself. That’s part of the joy and liberation of poetry. Unlike prose where there are a certain arc and expectation of monetization, poetry can change so much but you create it without worrying if it will land you a lucrative publishing deal. You write it just because it pleases you, whether you’re a prince, a monk, a professor, or a pauper.
But one of the important ideas I try to encourage for everyone I mentor is to embrace the journey of finding your own voice. You don’t have to worry about sounding like Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, or J.K. Rowling. We already have them, and the works they’re bringing into the world. What we need is you, and the verse and tales you can create when you write to the outermost limits of your imagination. Approach that with a kind and helpful heart and you’d be surprised how much you can transform that way. Good luck!
Thank you Brian for your time and for sharing this inspiring notion. If you're interested to get to know Bryan better please check: