Blood & Spades: Poets of the Dark Side

This month, it's my pleasure to welcome a new young dark poet to the scene. Bryan Thao Worra has been writing speculative poetry actively since 1991. A professional member of the Horror Writers Assn., he holds an NEA Fellowship in Literature and represented Laos as a Cultural Olympian during the 2012 London Olympics. The author of five books of speculative poetry, he has organized national arts conferences and exhibitions and speaks widely at conventions, colleges, and other institutions. His newest book, Demonstra, is forthcoming from Innsmouth Free Press this year. You can visit his blog at http://thaoworra.blogspot.com.

Dark Horror: Shedding Skins

Bryan Thao Worra

Welcome to May, which is National Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the United States. With the end of April, we're also just coming out of National Poetry Month, and the celebration of the traditional new year in countries like Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma. We've said goodbye to the Year of the Dragon and hello to the Year of the Snake in communities around the world.

From a horror poet's point of view, that seems like there's a lot we can work with this month. In Laos, and in many parts of Asia, much like dragons, snakes aren't seen as figures of horror the way they are in Europe and the Americas, which tend to connect them to the serpent in the Garden of Eden or horrors like Medusa.

In Asia, the snake is something that's recognized and respected for its dangerous nature, but it also helps keep the pests down, and is often connected to wisdom. Its shedding skin is a symbol of constant transformation and growth.

It's something I'm thinking about now as I finish my latest book Demonstra, which, in a nutshell is a book of Lao American horror poetry, primarily drawing upon Lovecraftian themes, reworking them to examine the meaning and lessons of fear.

I often field questions from teachers wondering why so much of my poetic work has been centered on horror, when others who escaped the Southeast Asian civil wars of the 20th century seem to be using their poetry for memoir purposes, or to wax loftily about pursuing the American dream.

I suppose I'd liken it to George Mallory who, when asked why he climbed Mount Everest retorted, "Because it's there." Or in this case, because it's not there. And to me, that's an exciting literary frontier.

Formally speaking, Lao poetry stretches back at least to the 1300s, with many major epics, such as the tale of Phra Lak Phra Lam, a Lao iteration of the Ramayana. But even as our folklore traditions are filled with stories of spirits, weretigers, titanic magic serpents, shape-shifting giants, and the like, horror poetry is almost non-existent in our literary traditions. Good has invariably triumphed over evil in the works most of our community tries to preserve.

I suppose I could go into the social implications and necessities that come from a culture developing a robust tradition of horror poetry. I think it matters that we can distinguish as a culture that to write of the horrific is not an endorsement of the horrific. That horror can be an effective way to explore the values of a culture, and like the grand trickster traditions, invert our sense of propriety and shake us out of our sense of certainties.

The Lao American writer Saymoukda Vongsay and I often debate on how Lao Theravada Buddhist precepts shape Lao culture, especially in the Americas, where many are concerned the next generation is learning to only give these ideas lip service. In her forthcoming play, Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, she asks: Would people still try to obey these classic ideals in the apocalypse, and how might they be practical?

While doing research for our projects, we watched many horror movies that were drawn from a clear-cut good/evil dichotomy grounded in Christian values and a concept of heaven and hell, sin and redemption. Which is all well and good, but it's not the only way of looking at the world. A horror poet should address that.

In a poem I'm including in Demonstra, "The Robo Sutra," I touch briefly upon Asimov's vaunted Three Laws of Robotics. The first law being "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm," I wondered, would a Lao engineer be puzzled over whether or not a robot has to prevent harm to a human in the next lifetime, as well, given our culture's sense of reincarnation.

Good horror poetry provides us some exceptional thought exercises. For a culture like Laos, which has seen countless tons of napalm, Agent Orange, and cluster bombs dropped on the countryside every day during the war and all of the horrors typical of 20th century conflict, what really is frightening anymore?

As Marlon Brando said in the film APOCALYPSE NOW, “We train young men to drop fire on people, yet their commanders won't allow them to write ‘fuck’ on their airplanes because it's obscene.”

When we see an apocalyptic world like THE WALKING DEAD, many Lao I've run into have said, "Oh, that looks just like my old town." When we see movies about campers running around in the jungles, frightened for their lives and starving, many of our elders laugh that the characters can't find food.

So, for the 400,000 Laotians living across the U.S., they can find poets and singers with optimistic cheer, wonderful journeys, and warm fuzzies, but once in a while, some of us need a poem that looks at the darker side of life that we can connect to, and that's where I and a few other poets, like Burlee Vang, come in.

Burlee Vang's chapbook, The Dead I Know, looks at the journey of Hmong from Laos as they make their way through America and into the next century. It’s hard to find a copy, but worth checking out.

Does that mean the writing of good Lao horror poetry is easy? Certainly not. And centuries from now, it may just leave people scratching their heads and write this age off as a literary detour if not an outright dead end. But as the Bonnie Raitt song goes, "Let's give them something to talk about."

The Tiger Penned at Kouangsi Falls

roars like an orphan
         her dreams flooded with running water
ambles her cool square
ready to ambush giant grasshoppers
who rub their legs to smile

at night, she’s just shadow
and a dying pyre.

above, a mango hangs his head,
an impotent heart filled with murder.

Charms

A demon root
Rests in my pocket,
A fierce-faced rattle
The old peddler asserts
Frightened
Other spirits.

Mine, for three dollars,
Cheap, to thwart fate.
She wasn’t wearing even one.

A friend looked at it
And thought of a woman
He knew from Phonsavan.

A decade later I learn
It’s just a memory of a pest,
A mere water caltrop,
Not even a decent midnight snack
While searching for shiny Plutonian fungi.

Meditation on a Wandering Arb

Krasue, Phi Kasu, or Arb? Penanggalan sanguine?

Heart, head, a life spent hovering near young men’s eyes,
Memories of her free organs, baths of brine serene.

Evenings by the walls waiting, a beauty until she smiles.
Ravenous and gorging eagerly, shy,

A ponderous omen, roaming, always reducing bodies.
Perhaps her ire reveals a riddle evolved. Hungering, mothers.

Fragment of a Dream of Atlantean Yellows

You are a mist for me, you thing of nevers known.
I weep your nameless name in my mind,
Your gaze a lightless inferno within a midnight hurricane.
You are a mist for me, you, beneath your shadow crown,
Thoughtless as steam between decrepit cogs and wind.

Trees make ready for autumn.
This city: Is that old burning Rome or Vientiane?
Clouds are savaged within the darkness,
Street lights always flashing to imagined jazz
Over concrete sidewalks, the smell of acid rain.
You are a mist for me, you, oceanic, absent

As a page in the Book of the Dead,
An asylum made of rivers and paint,
Howling, crawling without destination or intent,

A mouth of subatomic questions fluid
In its variations of impossibility
No mere human eye can taint.

("Fragment of a Dream of Atlantean Yellows" originally appeared in the Innsmouth Free Press, December, 2012; all others are an exclusive to the newsletter.)