Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Spring Conference 2016

Sahtu Press author Bryan Thao Worra was recently a featured poet at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Spring Conference. He's recently shared some of his thoughts and reflections on the weekend:

I've just returned back home from the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets 2016 Spring Conference where I was one of three featured poets, along with Ed Bok Lee and Kao Kalia Yang, both of whom I haven't seen in nearly 8 years. I also had a chance to meet the wonderful Soham Patel, whose work I look forward to seeing much more in the years ahead. 

I'm grateful to everyone who came to attend, and applaud all of the hard work and tireless hours that went into putting on such a wonderful event. As I heard so many of the members reading their poetry, I was struck by the diversity of styles and subject matter, the deep spiritual resonances, the flourishing of imagination and tradition, and the wonderful humor and musicality of the language that's very distinctive in Wisconsin poetry.

As I've discussed so often, to me, poetry isn't just about words on a page or sounds in an ear, but it's souls talking to souls, and that was fully present in Madison this weekend. It was a delight to catch up with so many people and to share in the conversations with them about what it meant to be a poet in the modern day.

I enjoyed having a chance to look at so many of the books the Fellowship has brought into the world, and there was much to this event that I will take back with me. I will be strongly encouraging Lao American writers in the future to consider this model of trust, of harmony, of community as we gather in celebration of our shared journeys.

There's still so much to process, and I'll be writing of this more in the coming months ahead, but I was happy to see a spirit of inclusion, a commitment to both formal forms and experimental ones. I extend my appreciation to Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets president Jan Chronister for her wonderful work to ensure there's space in the organization for so many varieties of poets.

Both emerging poets and established poets had a chance to have their say and to present their pieces to the entire Fellowship. It was a great intergenerational experience filled with great fun and touching exchanges.

I had a chance to meet fine poets such as Peter and Kathy Piaskoski, Kimberly Blanchette and her wife Colleen Frentzel of Pickle Barrel Press, Martha Jackson Kaplan, Sarah Sadie Busse, Paula Schulz, Joann Chang, Steve Tomasko, and so many others (please accept my apologies that I can't list you all in one post as I want to!) 

I managed to catch up with F.J. Bergmann for the second time in a year since ConVergence in Minneapolis, and it was exciting to see many of her new ventures including the debut of Jeanie Tomasko's Violet Hours. Readers could also pick up a copy of the Science Fiction Poetry Association's 2016 Rhysling Anthology to see some of the poems the SFPA have been excited about.

It's fitting that we saw the close to National Poetry Month and the beginning of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month the next day with this weekend. I was honored that so many of these fine Wisconsin poets bought my books to add to their collection, down to my very last copies. I hope they all enjoy Tanon Sai Jai and DEMONSTRA.

During the course of this year's conference I read the now rarely-performed "How To Build A Boat," from my out-of-print book BARROW, but also "Japonisme, Laoisme," "What Kills A Man," "In the Beginning," "On A Stairway In Luang Prabang," "The Last War Poem," and sections of "The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa." As I prefaced it on several occasions, my poetic concern is centered on the question of how we cultivate not only memory and spirit in our poetry, but how do we also help the next generation see a future wherein, they, too, are present.

Kao Kalia Yang read some truly stunning passages from her newest book, The Song Poet, a fine followup to her debut classic The Latehomecomer and I am reminded why I regret the physical distances between poets must be so great, so often. But I hope many more will take the time to read her words and be transformed by them.

Ed Bok Lee read a wonderful set of poems that spoke to the theme of this year's conference, "Crossing Borders," and shared inspiring words that I know all of the poets in the room appreciated. If you haven't gotten your copy of his award-winning book Whorled, be sure to do so immediately.

Tim Yu couldn't be there this weekend, but still, his immense presence was felt throughout the conference. His book 100 Chinese Silences has my heartfelt endorsement. Soham Patel stepped in graciously to moderate a wonderful conversation between Ed, Kao Kalia, and I with the Fellowship. We touched upon some wonderful questions about inclusion and participation in poetry, and who were excited about in the coming years ahead. Naturally, among those we specifically cited were the Lao American poet Krysada Panusith Phounsiri and the Hmong American poets Khaty Xiong and Mai Der Vang.

A very big thanks goes to James Roberts who invited me to this year's conference. James took me on a fantastic tour of Madison from a poet's view, and we also had a fine visit at WORT, where I had a chance to speak on air with Jonathan Zarov, discussing everything from the London Summer Games to the role of science fiction poetry in the lives of refugees in diaspora. We also had a fun conversation of cheeseteaks and brats that didn't make it on the air. But I hope all of my readers take the chance to listen to WORT whenever they're in Madison.

At WORT I also met a new fan, Kai Brito, who came to see us at the conference. I was very happy to see Kai take the plunge as a first-time judge for the WFOP 2016 Poetry Slam. He was a natural at it! Kai brings an amazing light and energy to any room he's in. I wish him well in all of his endeavors.

I'm also going to close this short post up with a quick shoutout to the wonderful sponsors of this year's conference who helped the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, including Hmong Globe, Les Figues Press, Pickle Barrel Press, Lao Laan Xang, Coffee House Press, and Sahtu Press.

I hope you all keep inspired and creating for many more years to come!

Nor Sanavongsay