Between souls


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Between Souls is a free e-chapbook providing an introductory sample of 16 recent poems and additional information for those interested in my work.

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Between souls

  1. 1. B e t we e n S o u l sPoetry by Bryan Thao Worra 1
  2. 2. CONTENTSOn a Stairway in Luang Prabang 3Leuk Lao 4Surprises in America 5Khop Jai for Nothing, Falangs 6Jaew 8E Pluribus Unum 9The Spirit Catches You, and You Get Body Slammed 10Democracia 11A Wat Is To Temple As To Escape Is To Survive 12Today’s Special at the Shuang Cheng 13New Myths of the Northern Land 14Insomniacafe 15An Archaeology of Snow Forts 16Libertree 17Zhū Bājiè 19One Day 20 ***About the Author 21Selected Awards and Recognition, 1991-2011 22Partial Publications List: 1999-2011 23Selected Performances, 2005-2011 27 2
  3. 3. On a Stairway in Luang Prabang Step as you will through life,A thousand ways, a thousand places. Carry a home in your heart Or spend years seeking the doorWhere your soul will always smile. Do you ease the way for others, Or just yourself? Do you climb great mountains Just to leave them unchanged?One day, the heights of holy Phu Si Will lay as soft valleys. We, only memories. But our children’s children?Will they, too, have reason to smile, Like those dreaming strangers Who finished their stairs for us? 3
  4. 4. Leuk LaoWe meet on the roadBut once and I cannot tell youIn the time we have:"We are one.""Whats left, what survived, what remainsOf old dreams, old wars, old loves."We share atomic lives:Small, brief, unpredictable orbits,Curious flurries of motion and smiles.Who you become after I go,I can only guessExcept by the photosOf occasional touring strangersIn which I watch you grow,While you remember an eye,A camera, a wave goodbye. 4
  5. 5. Surprises in AmericaIt took me by surprise that Hitler was a vegetarian.Rudolf Hess, too.I remember reading about them as a boy.I remember the outrage when someone asked us to forgive themBecause the two would pet their dogs before night.It took me by surprise that "Soldier of Fortune" offered a rewardFor Idi Amin.Paid in gold.Dead or alive.It was a lot of money.What does it say when mercenaries set bounties on tyrants heads?It took me by surprise that we werent always the good guys.What couldnt we buy in the land of the free?Why couldnt we go where we werent welcome?It struck me by surprise that many people didnt believeI was an AmericanWhen I had lived here all of my life.(Except for that two-day trip to Toronto.)If they had told me instead that my mother had died,I dont think I would have been as surprised. 5
  6. 6. Khop Jai for Nothing, FalangsThe bomb popped in his faceWhile he was digging a fire pitFor his family squattingOn the old mercenary campIn Xieng Khouang provinceSo notorious for its UXO.“They live there for the American plumbing,”Our host said flatly,Watching volleyball games by the airstrip.This was wholly routine.The ruined grounds were frozen.Explosives, dormant blooms belowCan be mistaken for ice and rock easily.And he screamedThe whole while as we loadedHim into the back of our rickety planeTo Vientiane that 6
  7. 7. Lao Aviation picked up fromThe Russians when everyoneThought the Cold WarWas going somewhere.The California girl on holidayWas aghast and found itQuite unscenic.What a pall on her search for highs.In Wat Inpaeng,A monk named SoukConfided discretely:“We really hate hippies.” 7
  8. 8. JaewGoes in hot. Comes out hot.But this may be more than the casual studentWill want to know.Mom’s grinding chilies for me in Modesto.Red, green, a dash of fresh cilantro,Fermented shrimp sauce and a pinch of saltBetween her mortar and pestle.Dabbing a sticky ball of khao nhioInto the tiny ceramic saucer, I knowShe’s a sorceressIn her kitchenTrying to find a way to sayShe loves me, hoping my prodigal tongueIs still Lao enoughTo understand what her broken English cannot convey.My eyes are cisterns of tears after 30 years.I should say “mak phet” and grab some cold milkBut with a smile through the pain I stammer“Saep lai, Mae, delicious, Mom. Saep lai, hak Mae lai lai.”“Don’t talk, just eat,” she says between her tears. 8
  9. 9. E Pluribus UnumYoua tells me a story over the hot hibachi:How she went to LaosTo see her lucky sistersFor the first time in two decades,Since the country has loosened up enoughTo let tourists like us in.“Isn’t it beautiful?” she asks me,Then says she gave her sister Mayli $50To help her family.When Youa returned to the Twin Cities,She learned her sister had been murderedFor the moneyBy Mayli’s ex-husband, who’d heardOf their family reunionAnd thought the cash rightfully belonged to him.“Did you give your relatives anything?”She asks.“Yes,” I reply. “$500. But they say they need moreTo get to America.” 9
  10. 10. The Spirit Catches You,and You Get Body SlammedI came to Missoula to ask himAbout the inner workings of ua neeb.To understand the symbolic significance of split hornsAnd spirit horses who trace their noble smoky pathTo turns of an auspicious moon above ancient Qin.My tape recorder at the ready,My fountain pen freshly filled with indigo ink,My ears, my eyes, my heart:All were humbly waiting forThe wise shamans wordsTo impart to the next generationOf youths who sought this fading voice.He spoke, and my interpreter said:"Whos your favorite wrestler?"I wasnt certain Id heard properly."Grandpa wants to know who your favorite wrestler is."My interpreter turned back to the shaman, speaking Hmong.Rising with a stately elders grace, the shaman confidently said:"Randy Macho Man Savage!" and struck a macho pose.Smiling, he then offered me a cup of hot coffee.I was too stunned to say anything moreFor the rest of the afternoon.Years later, I still have dreams of shining Shee YeeSmashing writhing demons into blue turnbuckles,Watching next to a hundred smiling shamans in the audience. 10
  11. 11. DemocraciaFather was a tigerGround beneath the wheelsHis fat was burned to light a torchBut there’s no liberty hereOnly the ashes of the villageThat couldn’t evolveWhere ghost grandchildren play with ghost grandparentsAnd the parents are nowhere to be seen at all.Where have they gone? Where have they gone?A delay of a day for an idea, a delay of a lifetimefor the dead upon the ground.Look, what remains-This hut hasn’t the ambition of OzymandiasThese craters were once a rice fieldThis ox was no man’s enemyAnd what we have left to say could explode any minute. 11
  12. 12. A Wat Is To TempleAs To Escape Is To SurviveAmong the many stone BuddhasA young monks almond eyes stood outA bare-headed boy, slender and sereneClad in saffron, caught seconds before the next prayerWalking towards nirvana with a precocious smile I wondered if someday in a distant century we would see a statue of him paving the way for my children. 12
  13. 13. Today’s Special at the Shuang ChengCoated in caramelized salt:the suckers of a squid tendrildiced into impotencebetween my chopsticksand bakedthey once clutchedat an oceanwrithing with lifeholding on to each precious bite.What will worms useto hold my bony handsif i dont let themthrow me into theseaa handful of dustwith a hint of squid flavoring. 13
  14. 14. New Myths of the Northern Land“Dream,” I said,“Aren’t you tired of making new legendsThat no one but I ever hears?”“Bones,” she said,“Aren’t you ever tired of asking questionsThat only I can answer?”I went back to bed,Waiting for the new king to arrive,His talking mirror filledWith dire pronouncements of flame. 14
  15. 15. InsomniacafeIf God with his hundred sacred namesmust caper aboutlike a young child full of infinityhiding among a blade of field grass,grey cathedral cornerstonesor the wizened hands of a stranger in Calcuttaovercome with kindnessin a cosmic gameof peek-a-boo,how can he hold a grudgeagainst those honest enough to say"I dont know if Ive really seen him lately?"Lording over a cup of cappuccinolike an Italian monk on watch at midnight,I wonder briefly if the faithful will have to sitin a corner of paradise for a whilefor perjury.With another sip,eyes wide as Darumaor some crazed cartoon cat,I wonder if Ill ever get to sleep this way... 15
  16. 16. An Archaeology of Snow FortsThere’s not much left to be saidThat some well-washed stone hasn’t heard before.History is composed of broken walls and bad neighbors,Just ask these chips from Berlin, the Parthenon and CathayOr these cool magma hands of Pompeii, dark and grey.If you listen carefully in the right placeOn University Avenue, you will learnThere is a minor wall near the Yalu RiverDancing on the hills of Qin for the moon,Who knows exactly what I meanIn every tongue worth mention.She’s moonlighting as a curved garden serpentCoiling around old Laocoon,The Suspicious One with his astute eye,Crooning with a sly wink,“Come, touch true history.”And how the moon must laugh when she spiesThe tiniest hill in Minnetonka,Where the small hands of the earth have erectedA magnificent white wall,A snowy miniature MaginotRaised some scant hours before,Already melting into a hungry, roiling riverWho is not yet finished eating Louisiana for brunch. 16
  17. 17. LibertreeThe tree of liberty devours the loyalGrinding them between burning flag teeth and a ton of open doors.Blue lakes formed in the footprints of BabeWhile the trail of tears formed a bloody river.Washington had a thing for breaking cherry trees and raising hempThat was good for strong ropes to bind us all togetherIn a frenetic world of neckties and necessities.No one knows the names of Afghan heroes or Hmong veteransWhose fathers raised opium crops now littered with landmines.Few can tell you where Russia is, even after fifty yearsOf cold wars in tropical nations they “never vacationed in, personally.”They would be unable to tell you how many of our allies areIn an impossible debt, negotiating a cost-effective betrayal.But they can tell you about "Friends" and Miss October.Miscellaneous documents outliningIlliterate farmers with $200 anti-tank weaponsHave surfaced to air our missile mania,A culture where no one sees the ironyOf naming a million-dollar cruise missileAfter a tomahawk, while defanged reservations copeWith under-funded schools. 17
  18. 18. People laugh as immigrants report stories of American giantsWho press you beneath their green thumbs stained with dollarsWhen its time to eat.Cannibalized ideas and epics lay exhausted, scattered apple-seedsIn urban canyons formed by alien policies of war and leverage.And a great love of sequels.Half of the nation has never seen an orchard,Only the recycled city papersThey are being ignored in as usual.Somehow, the Cubans managed to preserveThe purity of baseball and cigarsWhile we still cant imagine the rules to Canadian curling,Despite our open borders.And strangely, when a laughing yellow cab driverWho was a former engineer from Iraq tells me aboutUS chemical weapons and acid rain,Im just not as surprised as I wish I could be.His last words rang like a cracked bell outsideOf a smoking capitol of conspiracies:"When theres a new war, watch.A refreshing new ethnic restaurant will open in your neighborhood soon…” 18
  19. 19. Zhū BājièTian Peng Yuan Shuai wasThe honored Grand Admiral of 800,000,Marshall of the Heavenly River.Under his proud hand,The enemies of the empire met doom by sea,Sinking beyond eye and history, or dying in mud, forgotten mayflies.To each their duty. Names for the victorious only.What his foes fought and died for, their societies of tools and song,Could be of no concern. Only tomorrow and blood, blade and command.For centuries there were no Chinese autobiographies.Only their commentaries on the words of war and stateApplied.Paper and ink were holy here.All he truly saw, lost in the bureaucracy of testimonies.During his final peach banquet among the heavens, Chang’e,Goddess of the moon,Was a beauteous guest before the splendors he preserved.Who would not be a fool before her?Who would not risk all for her attentions?To her, he was just another drunken butcher the empress rebuked.In apology, the admiral, abashed, resigned.To earth descending, to be a better legend.Later on some savage isle,The Lord of the Flies makes a meal of a boar’s head,Knowing nothing of Tian Peng Yuan Shuai,The lives he ended or the lives he led.One December morning,A poet waits for April in MinneapolisThinking of a pretty girl, a moon, a pig. 19
  20. 20. One DayMother-in-law threw out the paper plateI wrote a poem on.“What was it doing there in the first place?”Was her first question.The next was: “How good could it be,If it fit on just one?”Too late, the trash-man has come byLeaving behind only an empty bin.Breakfast today was a McDonald’s McMuffin,Her treat,As she eyed my wrapper suspiciouslyBetween bites. How delicious it was! 20
  21. 21. About the AuthorBryan Thao Worra was born in 1973 in Laos during the Laotiancivil war. He came to the US at six months old, adopted by a civilianpilot flying in Laos. Today, Bryan Thao Worra has a unique impacton contemporary art and literature within the Lao, Hmong,Asian American and the transcultural adoptee communities,particularly in the Midwest. In 2003, Thao Worra reunited withhis biological family after 30 years during his first return to Laos.An award-winning poet, short story writer, playwright and essayist, his prolific workappears internationally in numerous anthologies, magazines and newspapers, includingBamboo Among the Oaks, Kartika Review, Tales of the Unanticipated, Astropoetica, IllumenOutsiders Within, Innsmouth Free Press, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Hyphen, Bakka,Whistling Shade, Journal of the Asian American Renaissance, and Asian American Press.He is the author of the books BARROW, On the Other Side of the Eye and Winter Ink.In 2009 he received an NEA Fellowship In Literature. Thao Worra curated numerous readings andexhibits of Lao and Hmong American art including Legacies of War: Refugee Nation Twin Cities(2010), Emerging Voices (2002), The 5 Senses Show (2002), Lao’d and Clear (2003), Giant LizardTheater (2005), Re:Generations (2005), and The Un-Named Series (2007).He speaks nationally at colleges, schools and community institutions including the Loft LiteraryCenter, Intermedia Arts, the Center for Independent Artists and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.He has worked as an arts and cultural contractor for the Minnesota Historical Society, theHennepin County Library System, the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, and theMinnesota State Arts Board.Thao Worra is working on his next books and several personal projects to reconnect expatriateLao artists and writers with their contemporary counterparts in Laos following over 35 years ofisolation.You can visit him online at or e-mail 21
  22. 22. Selected Awards and Recognition, 1991-2011 2011 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative . 2010 Literacy Award, Lao Professionals of Illinois. 2009 National Endowment for the Arts, Fellowship in Literature for Poetry. 2009 Asian Pacific Leadership Award, State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. 2008 Artists Initiative Grant, Minnesota State Arts Board. 2007 Career Initiative Grant, Loft Literary Center. 2005 Minnesota State Arts Board Cultural Collaboration Award with Mali Kouanchao. 2002 Minnesota Playwrights Center Many Voices Artist-In-Residence. 1994 Otterbein College Quiz and Quill Poetry Contest, First and Third Place. 1994 Otterbein College Quiz and Quill Walter Lowre Barnes Short Story Contest, First Place. 1994 Otterbein College Quiz and Quill Roy Burkhart Religious Poetry Contest, Second Place. 1993 Otterbein College Quiz and Quill Personal Essay Contest, First Place. 1993 Otterbein College Quiz and Quill Roy Burkhart Religious Poetry Contest, Second Place. 1991-1992 Otterbein College Quiz and Quill Poetry Contest, Second Place. 1991 James E. Casey Memorial Scholarship. 1991 Otterbein College Ammons-Thomas Award. 1991 National Honor Society Debra Kolander Service Scholarship, Saline High School. 22
  23. 23. Partial Publications List: 1999-2011BooksBARROW, Sam’s Dot Publishing, 2009Tanon Sai Jai, Silosoth Publishing, 2009Winter Ink, MN Center for Book Arts, 2008On the Other Side of the Eye, Sam’s Dot Publishing, 2007My Dinner with Cluster Bombs: The Tuk-Tuk Diaries, Unarmed Press, 2003Touching Detonations, E-book, Sphinx House Press, 2003Magazines, Journals and Anthologies“The Spirit Catches You and You Get Body Slammed,” et al. How Do I Begin?, Heyday Books, 2011“Khop Jai For Nothing, Farangs,” National Endowment for the Arts Writers Corner, 2010“Home Is To Box As To Leave Is To Free,” et al. Kartika Review, Spring 2010.“The Last War Poem,” Culture and Customs of Laos, Greenwood Publishing Group, March 2009“Selves,” “Voyage,” Grinding Up Stones, Spring 2009.“Planting,” Cha, February 2009.“Burning Eden One Branch At A Time,” Language For A New Century, Norton, 2008.“Departures,” “Capital,” et al. Journal for SE Asian American Education and Advancement, 2007“Riding the 16,” “Modern Life,” St. Paul Almanac, 2007.“from five fragments” In Our Own Words, Vol. 7, 2007.“Dream,” “Rebellions,”“Zaj,” “Ntsuag Sings the Blues,” Unplug, April/May 2007.“Stairways In Luang Prabang,” “Nam,” “Sai Lao,” Bakka Magazine, April 2007.“The Deep Ones,” “Before Going Feral,” Illumen, Spring 2007.“To A Chinese Horse Behind Minneapolis Glass” Papertiger: New World Poetry, Fall/Winter“Boun,” “Jaew,” and “The National Library In Laos,” Bakka Magazine, October 2006 23
  24. 24. “Daughters of Barrabas,” Poetry Midwest, Summer 2006“A Question of Place” Whistling Shade, Summer 2006“Soap,” “An Archaeology of Snow Forts,” and “Homonculus,” Tales of the Unanticipated #28“Imperious,” “Whorl,” Hyphen Magazine #9, Summer 2006“The Kaiju & I” 8-Poem Series, G-Fan Magazine #75, Spring 2006“Evolve", The Outsiders Within Anthology, 2006"To A Chinese Horse Behind Minneapolis Glass,” and "Babylon Gallery," Kaleidowhirl, Summer 2005“A Hmong Goodbye,” Poems Niederngasse, January/February 2005“A Few Unexpected Sights at Tuol Sleng,” Ithuriels Spear, February 2005“Song for a Sansei,” Big Bridge #10, February 2005“Snakehead,” Peaks^ Literary Journal, January 2005“The Shape,” Paj Ntaub Voice Hmong Literary Journal, Winter 2004, p. 1"Dog Soldier Haiku," Mastodon Dentist, December 2004“The Hermit Crab, Copacetic" and What Tomorrow Takes Away,” Pedestal Magazine, November 2004“Poultry” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, October 2004"Kingdoms" Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry #28, October 2004“Midwestern Conversations,” Out of Line, 2004“Verbal Rorschach,” Speakeasy Magazine, September 2004“Insomniacafe,” Real Eight View, October 2004“The Big G,” and "Secrets" Defenestration Magazine, September 20, 2004“Questions,”" Discoveries," and "Understanding" Banned On These Premises Exhibition, August 2004“Democracia,” “Perspectives,” “Riding The 16,” “The Talk,” “Iai” Other Voices Intl Poetry Project, 2004.“Enso,” Arbutus Journal, Winter 2004“Kobe Hotel,” and “Oni,” Big City Lit, February, 2004“Mischief In The Heavens” Defenestration Magazine, February 2004.“Chances,” Defenestration Magazine, January 2004.“Today‟s Special At The Shuang Cheng,” Mid-American Poetry Review, 2004, p. 46. 24
  25. 25. My Dinner With Cluster Bombs (The Tuk-Tuk Diaries), Unarmed Press Chapbook, 2003, 16 pp.“A Song of Bangkok,” Cascadia Review, December 2003“Tetragrammaton,” Stirring Journal, December 2003“Champassak In January,” Rock Salt Plum Journal, December 2003“Surprises In America,” London Ghetto Poets, December 2003“Cocktail Napkins,” Muse Apprentice Guild, December 2003“Maidens of Sivilay,” and “Phonsavan,” Mad Poets of Terra, October 2003“Khaosan Road, 2003,” and “A Blessing Or A Curse.” Whimperbang, Oct. 2003“Little Bear,” Astropoetica, Fall 2003“Gallery 16: Zen of the Mouth, 2003,” Urban Pioneer #4, Vol. II., 2003, p. 11“The Temples,” Paj Ntaub Voice, Summer 2003, p. 58“The Spirit Catches You, And You Get Body Slammed,” Paj Ntaub Voice, Summer 2003, p. 60“History‟s Game,” Paj Ntaub Voice, Summer 2003, p. 73“Voices,” Urban Pioneer #2, Vol. I., 2002, p. 4“Japonsime, Laoisme,” Asian Pacific American Journal, Winter 2003, pp. 124-126“Genesis 2020,” Whistling Shade, Summer 2002, p. 3“Incantation of a Hooligan,” Unarmed #31, 2002, p. 6“The Last War Poem” Bamboo Among the Oaks, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002, p. 98“Fury” Bamboo Among the Oaks, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002, p. 100“Wisdom” Bamboo Among the Oaks, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002, pp. 101-104“Modern Life,” Unarmed #29, 2002, p. 9“The Serpent Under The Rainbow,” Unarmed #25, 2002, p. 3“Futura,” Paj Ntaub Voice Hmong Literary Journal, Summer 2001, p. 14“GPS,” Paj Ntaub Voice Hmong Literary Journal, Summer 2001, p. 17“Quixote‟s Jihad,” Unarmed #23, 2001, p. 1“My Autopsy, Thank You,” Journal of the Asian American Renaissance, Winter 2001, p. 26“Half The Battle,” Journal of the Asian American Renaissance, Winter 2001, p. 45 25
  26. 26. “Visual Silence,” Paj Ntaub Voice Hmong Literary Journal, Winter 2001, p. 1“Fury,” Paj Ntaub Voice Hmong Literary Journal, Winter 2001, p. 45“N‟est Ce Pas Olympus,” Whistling Shade, Winter 2001, p. 5“Heresy To Shining See,” Unarmed #20, 2001, p. 15“Smoke Coil 2001,” Unarmed #18, 2001, p. 4“Naked,” Paj Ntaub Voice Hmong Literary Journal, Summer 2000, p. 60“Writers at War,” Paj Ntaub Voice Hmong Literary Journal, Summer 2000, p. 66“Raven Remembers,” USAF Forward Air Controller’s Website, Spring 1999Selected Short StoriesWhat Hides and What Returns, Historical Lovecraft, Innsmouth Free Press, 2011A Model Apartment, Innsmouth Free Press, Issue 4, 2010The Dog at the Camp, Tales of the Unanticipated, Autumn, 2006The True Tale of Yer, Bamboo Among the Oaks, MN Historical Society Press, 2002A Dream of Laaj, Paj Ntaub Voice, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2000 26
  27. 27. Selected Performances, 2005-2011Common Ground 1 Year Anniversary, VAALA Center, Santa Ana, CA, August 4th, 2011Slice and Spice of Asia Storytelling, Brookdale Library, Brooklyn Center, MN, May 14th, 2011Beyond the Pure: Writers of Color Series, Intermedia Arts, Minneapolis, MN, October 26th, 2010Lao Artists Festival, Elgin, IL, August 20-21st, 2010Lao American Writers Summit, Minneapolis, MN, August 15th, 2010Twin Cities Dragon Festival, St. Paul, MN, July 11th, 2010Family Style Open Mic, Asian Arts Initiative, Philadelphia, PA, May 21 st, 2010Otterbein College, Westerville, OH, February 25th, 2010Birchbark Reading Series, Birchbark Books, Minneapolis, MN, January 13th, 2010Kulture Trust Benefit, Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis, MN, June 10 th, 2009International Lao New Year, San Francisco, CA, April 11th, 2009Verse and Converse, Todd Boss Poetry Series, Nina’s Café, October 1st, 2008UCSB Diversity Lecture Series, University of Santa Barbara Multicultural Center, Santa Barbara, CA, May 20th, 2008.Association of Asian American Studies Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL April 17-18th, 2008.American Intercultural Center Asian-Pacific-American Heritage Festival Celebration, UW-Green Bay, April 10th, 2008.Viterbo University, April 9th, 2008.Rhymefest, University of California, San Diego, CA, February 12, 2008.Un-Named Series of Hmong and Lao Writers, Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis, MN, January 23, 2007.Giant Lizard Theater, Convergence, Minneapolis, MN, July 6, 2007.Tripmasters: Hmong and Lao Writers on a More Global Minnesota, Normandale Community College, March 28, 2007.Special Guest Speaker, Diversicon 14, Minneapolis, MN, August 11-13, 2006.Giant Lizard Theater, Convergence, Minneapolis, MN, July 6, 2006.Art And Diaspora Festival, Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, April 12, 2006.Keynote lecture, Taste of the Mountains Hmong Cultural Night Dinner, UW-Stevens Point, December 3, 2005. 27