Bryan Thao Worra is the Lao Minnesotan Poet Laureate and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. He holds an NEA Fellowship in Literature, a Joyce Award, and over 20 other distinctions for his creative writing. An internationally published author of 8+ books, his current book of poetry is Before We Remember We Dream.
What brought you to write speculative poetry, and what do you find to be the strengths of working within genre?
I think there were any number of avenues that brought me into speculative poetry. An early exposure to mythology and science fiction, including the work of Poe, but also seeing an absence of my own culture in the non-speculative arts. Genre poetry gave me a tremendous deal of freedom to ask “IF” and to challenge dominant assertions of what did and did not happen, and what might yet happen, and to drive a deeper curiosity at history and our understanding of knowledge, hope and the great questions of existence. This is particularly important for cultures making a transition from a monarchy to a democracy, testing our ability to embrace plurality in our various conversations, and to engage diverse voices.
You are currently the President of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, how did you become involved in the SFPA and can you tell us a bit about your work with the organization?
My journey with the SFPA began around 2013, although I’d known of their work for several years prior thanks to many of my fellow members who were active in the Minnesota speculative poetry literary scene that I’d encountered during my time at various conventions such as CONvergence, Diversicon and Marscon, who spoke highly of the work that had been done at the time. An international organization, the SFPA has been around since 1978, and oversees numerous awards and two quarterly journals as well as an annual speculative poetry contest to encourage an appreciation of the diverse forms speculative poetry can take for both writers and their audience. We also convene numerous gatherings and panels for the public to see our work, but in recent months we’ve been trying to expand our efforts with online readings, presentations and community conversations. This can be quite a challenge when our membership comes from over 19 countries and cultures.
You also teach, how has the experience of teaching changed the way you write, and read?
In working with different students across the country, I grew appreciative of how our art needs to be open to many different eyes and perspectives. It can be challenging because there’s so much I want to impart but often within a limited time frame regarding the history and traditions, but also the opportunities within speculative poetry, without overwhelming the students who are often novices to the very premise of poetry, let alone speculative poetry. Over the years it changed my approach to creating verse that is challenging but not so labyrinthine that a casual perusal can’t draw at least something from the text.
But I found myself saying, if people can learn the ins and outs of the idea of Jedi, Klingons, or the ambitions of Daleks, with effort, one can also surely learn the myths and histories of the Secret War for Laos and the ancient kingdom of Lan Xang, the habitats of the Nak, or the dangers of negotiating with the giant man-eating warrior-magi we know as the Nyak and the weretigers of Southeast Asia. In practical application, that’s a constant process of experimentation. Sometimes my community follows my lead, other times, less so. But that’s the joy in our diaspora, that in this generation at least, we get to have a literary conversation that would have been very difficult 100 years ago.
A few weeks ago in a talk you gave you mentioned the idea of poets being the eyes of the city, could you expand on this concept and what it means to you?
In the Southeast Asian tradition the classical advice given to many rulers was that poets were necessary in the culture because they were the eyes of the city. I’ve taken that to mean we must be an unflinching eye but we’re also different from “blind justice” and I think our art encourages the use of inner eyes, literal eyes, and a grander eye that can perceive both a present reality and envision possibilities at a truly epic scale. A wise poet strives to juggle all of these, and won’t always succeed, but I think we can all appreciate that very often the results can remain interesting to the audience that comes across the poet’s work.
When writing poetry how do you find a balance between timeliness and timelessness?
This is a challenge on a case-by-case basis for me. Others probably do a far better job at it, but I think at issue is my effort to see if I can “immortalize” the tiny unseen corners of our journey that might get overlooked, or that can get deepened by depiction in verse.
I differ from many in that I don’t necessarily turn my nose up at pop culture, even as I know longitudinally, the value in spending a part of your life trying to wrap some verse around something like the old TV show “My Mother the Car” is a roll of the dice. I took some comfort, however, in approaching it like a scientific process: What’s it good for? I don’t know. Yet. But I know that we have something, and we can still go from there. Maybe it’s a dead end, maybe it’s not. But the technique I used to create that poem might be helpful elsewhere.
When we look at the way the poems of Catullus were supposedly found, stuffed in a wine barrel, it reminds me that any journey towards “literary immortality” is far less certain than many people think. Compare who we read from the early 20th century today against the list of writers who were held in high regard in their time? No one was putting their chips on H.P. Lovecraft back then, and today we see a great many people who expect his star may wane in the near future.
I think it helps to become comfortable that any poet’s work will exist along a continuum of enduring and the ephemeral. We should respond to our present. Some try to do a “ripped from the headlines” approach but I think we ought to take a long-view and empathize with a reader who might have to wonder about what you’ve written the same way we might wonder about the inside jokes embedded in Dante’s Inferno today. Some sticks, some seems petty. Some create mysteries that leave us wondering like Fermat’s last theorem.
Are there any Lao poetic traditions or forms that have influenced your work, and if so, how do they differ from English stylistically?
I’m always interested in the Lao poetry forms, and have recently been in contact with many working on translating various works from our past. As is often the case there are some issues with translation where the beauty and the mystery that makes particular poems work can’t be translated into other languages well, which I find curious, but it’s a challenge to explain those. Among the fascinating parts of the process has been going through the old Catholic dictionary used to document the Lao language in the early 20th century and finding the surprises in what was preserved. The word for beauty, for example, includes many different variations, but one describes a woman’s face shaped like an egg, having the color of cooked egg white. It is unusually specific, but it entered the language enough that scholars took note.
What themes do you think will become increasingly important in speculative fiction and poetry?
This will probably come back to haunt me, but I think we’ll see expanded thematic explorations on inclusion and how we view our past, and we’ll be taking machine learning and AI to task in what may become a modern John Henry scenario. How an individuals and communities create verse that only they can create as opposed to something a well-scripted bot can produce? Will we ensconce poetry as an artform that can only be created by humans or organic extraterrestrials?
Verse that engages disparity, the environment and our sense of the Commons will become vital as poets from all walks of life and tradition try to find ways to show us options, and to warn what might happen if we fail. Even after 42 years of the verse created by members of the SFPA and others writing speculative poetry, it’s possible to see conceptual gaps that have not been covered, or else, among issues that have been discussed, refined with how we understand many issues today.
You do a lot of traveling, how has experiencing different places and peoples affected your work?
It keeps me empathetic. It lets me appreciate that any time you meet someone, it could be the very first time that they are meeting a real live poet, and possibly someone who can improve their appreciation for poetry.
Having recently returned from Laos after 17 years away, as I met different people and showed them my books in the city I was born in 47 years ago, I could see it was a bit like the monolith from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The very act of seeing a book and meeting the author, who looks so ordinary, awoke in them the idea that they, too, might have a path forward in whatever they dreamt of being. I think that is valuable. But time will tell.
What in 2020 has given you hope and what are some positive changes you anticipate?
That is a great question. I draw my hope from the resilience of so many others I see around me. These are tough times, but they are not impossible, and there are many around the world who are not afraid to share their voice and their calls for justice and equity. There have been greater investigations into our shared histories and an interest in reforms rather than blind nostalgia. Although it is not an authentic saying at all from Asia, the idea that there is an opportunity in crisis is certainly one worth considering. Any time traditional institutions stumble, as they rebalance themselves, there is a chance for us to weigh in and to effect change. In some cases, enough people will get fed up enough that they make new systems that do meet their needs, and we are in an era where even the most absurd notions imaginable have a chance of success. From a poet’s point of view, that’s GREAT news, and I hope more of us use that opportunity for good purposes, rather than petty ones.
Do you have any advice for young poets?
As always, read widely, practice daily, but lately I’ve taken to recommending poets become comfortable with “failure” and “risk” while being patient with themselves. Your first poems are so rarely the best you will ever write, and our stumbles are often what teach us the most. But I would ask young poets to explore and affirm what will keep bringing them to the proverbial table, no matter what knocks them down or seems to set them back. When you find that love for whatever corner of poetics you most adore and you want to participate, win or lose, acclaim or no, you have tapped into something special, something that may well last you many lifetimes.