As I prepare for the release of my next book, DEMONSTRA, this year, some ask why much of my poetic work is centered on horror, compared to other writers who escaped the Southeast Asian civil wars of the 20th century. Many use their poetry for memoir, typically to wax loftily about pursuing the American Dream and the Old Country, tragedies of war and loss, love, desire and the human comedy. This has its place, but it’s not the only place we should linger.
Formally speaking, Lao poetry stretches back at least to the 1300s including many epics, such as the tale of Phra Lak Phra Lam, a Lao iteration of the Ramayana. Our folklore traditions are filled with stories of spirits, weretigers, titanic magic serpent kings, shape-shifting giants, and the like. But truly terrifying Lao horror poetry, as we might recognize horror poetry in the 20th and 21st century, is still almost non-existent after 600+ years.
Instead, good invariably triumphs over evil in the works most of our community preserves.
But, without horror poetry, those happy endings lull us into taking the triumph of good for granted. It promotes an unhealthy sense of fatalism and destiny. Horror poetry makes you double-check that assumption.
A lack of horror literature, especially poetry, builds dead ends for a society. A stagnating culture where only ‘good trumps evil’ destroys possibility. It strangles surprise. It constructs a body of literature composed only of the expected and the safe.
With monotone, predictable endings, the roads to the last page of any literary work may be prettier or rougher, longer or shorter, but it is still the same destination. Our audiences would have no incentive to wonder, to anticipate, and ultimately, to return to Lao writing with any meaningful sense of curiosity.
In my view, when curiosity dies, so does the culture.
Every language should strive to convey their culture’s range of emotions well. When a tale is joyous, it should be delightfully joyous. If we need to tell a ghost story, let it fill a soul with a new understanding of terror that echoes across generations.
A culture benefits developing a robust tradition of horror poetry. Done well, it is a hallmark of a vibrant modern society’s expressive capacity. A writer constantly pushes themselves to explore and discover what is truly unspeakable. What is there truly no art, no word for? And in understanding this, we gain an understanding of the world, word by word, inch by inch, line by line.
We grow stronger as a people when we can imagine encounters with the strange and alien, and remain firm in our own values and identity. Cultures that cannot? They wither and go into the grave.
As we’ve seen in the United States, Europe, Japan and elsewhere, well-written horror can be an effective way to explore the values of a culture. Like the grand trickster traditions, horror challenges our sense of ordered propriety and shakes us out of our sense of certainties.
Good horror poetry helps us avert a road of extremes, demonstrating what happens when something goes too far, or gets too forgotten. Horror poetry teaches us to recognize unfounded and irrational fears. It reduces stress and anxieties, often showing us worst-case scenarios so extreme that our present-day concerns seem petty in comparison: “I’ve got a big workload ahead, but at least I’m not trapped in my apartment during a zombie apocalypse while giant atomic lizards are rampaging across Cannibal Island.”
Or, per Jay-Z, “I’ve got 99 problems but being bit isn’t one of them.”
At the present moment, the biggest gap in Lao poetry around the world is the poetry of the imaginative.
We have de facto hallmark cards aplenty, raps of the hard times, and superficial songs of beautiful men and women.
But when was the last time you saw something by Lao writers to consider next to the enduring work of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jorge Luis Borges, or Isaac Asimov? That is tragically still a vast frontier for us even 40 years after war’s end. Where are our dreams for the future?
Considering all of the horrors that the Lao community has endured during the 20th and 21st century, I think there’s a great deal to learn from what we now understand to be truly terrifying. What is our concept of evil, of chaos now? What do we now truly consider corrosive and corrupt? What are true threats to what we value most?
Do we dare make art from the horrors of our experience? Or just hold it within? I fear the consequences of silence.
We see Picasso’s “Guernica” or Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” the dystopias of “Planet of the Apes,” or “Dawn of the Dead,” where we have a chance to critique the worst within humanity. In “Pan’s Labyrinth” the elements of horror augment a critique of fascist Spain. In Carolyn Forche’s poem “The Colonel,” we address horrors in El Salvador. Societies take many different routes to confront traumas of their history. How do we approach ours?
To date, those of us with the most freedom and latitude to express our inner and collective history have barely uttered a word. Figuratively speaking, we can see the demons of that choice of silence consuming our future.
Horror poetry and art, like any art form, is not the only solution. But it is part of the process. So, scream on.