Today, August 10th marks the 15th birthday for my very first full-length poetry collection, On The Other Side Of The Eye, which had its launch party at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In the United States it was one of the first times a Lao poet’s verse had been printed in a full-length collection outside of an anthology. It only had a maximum print run of 800 copies, but it went on to be taught in college and high school classes across the country.
Unfortunately, many of those were lost, destroyed, or badly damaged in the years since, and there are no plans to do a physical reprint in the future.
But, historically, this collection qualified me for an NEA Fellowship in Literature in Poetry, which I received in 2009. It then set in motion key parts of my journey including projects such as the Lao American Writers Summit, the Legacies of War Refugee Nation Twin Cities exhibition on UXO, and my participation in the 2012 London Summer Games as a Cultural Olympian representing the nation of Laos 10 years ago.
I read selections from this at the Smithsonian Asian American Literature Festival in 2019 and other presentations during my Joyce Award activities for the Laomagination project, including Vientiane, Laos after 17 years away.
This year I was able to speak about my writing at the Library of Congress for the very first time, nearly 50 years since the end of the US Secret War.
As someone who didn’t major in English at Otterbein and who was often discouraged from being a poet at all in the beginning, I suppose I just want to say to my fellow poets who are struggling with their own sense of purpose as artists and culture builders: It’s possible.
I want to give a particular shout out to Yuk Ki Lau, who generously designed the cover for On The Other Side Of The Eye in 2007. I remember the initial pushback from someone who said it seemed like a cliche to include a “dragon” on the cover of a book of Asian American poetry. I countered that in fact, it was the Nak from the Theravada Buddhist temple in Ceres/Modesto, California that my long-lost family I reunited with in 2003 uses to this day.
For most people it’s just something from the imagination, but for the Lao community in diaspora, it’s also the very first time a Lao American mythological guardian creature EVER appeared on a book cover, 32 years after our journey as refugees began.
For most people, that and a cup of coffee gets you a cup of coffee, but for me, it was important that we be able to show that the images, the legends, myths, and our history were NOT liabilities in the publishing world. When we look at the book covers of others over the years, that absolutely has rarely been the direction most publishers took out of fear for what it would do to their sales and the bottom line.
But that’s shifting.
Back in 2017, Salik Shah’s wonderful Mithila Review published an interview with me conducted by Brandy Liên Worrall-Soriano during the 10th anniversary, and it’s nice to see the interview still holds up.
To all of my readers, friends and family who’ve been a positive part of this road with all of its bumps and uncertainties, you have my enduring thanks.