Verse and Voice

A good Laotian American poetry manuscript will be capable of surprising its readers even years later. A great one will surprise its author, years later.

This week at Sahtu Press, we received several questions from emerging poets about how to put together a good book of poems for a publisher. Many of them asked similar enough questions that it seems like a good idea for us to address them collectively , especially as we get ready to release our first poetry collection, “Dance Among Elephants” by Krysada Panusith Phounsiri.

As a writer and an editor, I’m typically of the opinion that when it comes to poetry, you really can’t give blanket advice, because each poet has to ultimately find their own path. But there are a few ideas that may be helpful to keep in mind:

First, be cognizant of what others will be looking for in a text, but don’t be enslaved by those notions. When it comes to Laotian American poetry, I ask if it will illuminate many secrets of our collective journey with artistry and eloquence. Or, will it be regarded as just a crude block of pulp and ink?

You will want to assemble a collection that’s vibrant and authentic to your voice. In many cases, this is a tremendous challenge for emerging poets. When in doubt, I’d want a poet to go for depth over breadth with their verse.

Resist kitchen-sinking a text. I can’t stress that enough.

Your book really shouldn’t be encyclopedic. It must be interesting, not exhausting. The stunning collections that last the ages will often be the ones who are expansive. These are books that push our sense of the true to a new direction.

Admittedly, for Laotian American poets, I think this is a daunting task, because there are two corrosive poles we typically face. A culture of non-expectation, where no one believes we have much to say. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, well-intentioned but ill-advised people who think we should frame our words in the same pattern and cadence as other refugee communities before us.

If you insist on being obvious with your poetry manuscript, then just convert it to prose and be done with it. A good Laotian American poetry manuscript will be capable of surprising its readers even years later. A great one will surprise its author, years later. That’s one of the critical differences between poetry and prose I think we need to aspire to, if poetry is to keep its unique strengths.

I’m working on my seventh book now, depending on how you count. While I have preferred themes and subjects I work with, I would not ask other Laotian American poets to follow in the same footsteps as I did. Perhaps your passion is Lao cooking and the World Cup. If so, write to the limits of what you think you can say about such things. I’d love to see a poem along the lines of “Bend It Like Baccam” if the poet is committed to the great humor, joy and passion such a poem requires.

There is often this tension between history and biography within many of the poetry manuscripts Lao are trying to develop. To take on writing such a book often means defying many cultural norms that emerged in the aftermath of the Lao Diaspora. It can mean risking ostracization for airing dirty laundry of our community. This is not an easy thing for many writers to consider. But if we are to have a true Lao American Renaissance, we must create spaces where that risk is possible.

A good poet will also seek to build a sense of empathy, not only for their experience but those who are sharing it with them. There is a great need to avoid narcissism and excessive self-importance. What sets a poet apart is they will not only have things to say, but they will find interesting ways to say them. This takes practice. And it takes ambition. There will be painful moments, but there should also be joyous moments, if not outright laughter, if we are to be true to the Lao literary traditions before us.

A collection should be a balance where it makes sense for all of the poems to be together, but it should also be one where each poem can stand on its own. If a page is torn from the spine and found in the street, does the poet feel confident what’s on those pages, even in part, could shake someone’s world?

At the end, I prefer that a poet be satisfied with their book in such a way that it satisfies the desert island scenario. If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life with just a copy of your book, will you be able to stand it?

We’ll talk more over time here at Sahtu Press about what can be done to make an exceptional book, but I hope this can give you some food for thought, no matter where your manuscript is at in its journey right now.

Sahtu Press