Writing Prompts: Lao American Poetry

There’s no one right way to write a book of Lao American poetry.

Working with the various poets of Sahtu Press, we each have our personal preferences and tastes, and over the years we’ve seen a lot of books in our community come forward. Some will become classics for our community, others, less so. But at the heart of any Lao American book of poetry is a gift to the community, an exchange, a conversation for its author's generation and those yet to come. 

But in this article, we also want to demystify this process for everyone. We caution you that a good book of poetry does not necessarily mean excessively grandiose and lofty works.

As a community, we have a great need for many more Lao American perspectives to come forward, and for many of you, the best way to present those will not be through prose. There’s a longer conversation to be had on that in the future to explain why.

How can a writer can put together a basic book of poems that might be ready for a Lao American publisher and our readership? Much in the spirit of National Novel Writing Month, we think you can create a good starting point for yourself if you try to write something a little every day. Don’t worry too much about editing or making the poem “perfect.” That comes later. What matters first is that you attempt to write something, anything down at all.

In 30 days, can you write down at least 3 new lines of your very own about something you care about from your experience, and the things you’re passionate about? If so, you could have a chapbook of haikus.

A poem doesn’t need to be more than 14 lines in many instances, as we’ve seen with the sonnet form. The current Lao national anthem is only 14 lines long, for example. The current Thai national anthem is 8 lines long. The current Cambodian national anthem is 15 lines long. A national anthem isn’t exactly the same as a poem, of course, but it does demonstrate how much you can get across with just a few lines of thought.

So: 30 days, take a half-hour out of your day, whenever you can find the time. Give up a rerun of “Everybody Loves Raymond” for example. Try to walk away with 30 new poems between 3 to 14 lines. If you’re inspired you can certainly write more. But that’s what we’ll aim for.

Ask yourself, what do you want to write about? Each day might inspire you to write about something different, but at the end of this article we’ll present some prompts considering some of the more common experiences shared by Lao Americans across the US.  But it's not an exhaustive list in any way. 

Don’t limit yourself to thinking your family is the only thing you can write about as a poet. You won't be writing the encyclopedia of your experience. Like dim sum or tapas, you’re just giving a few artful samples of something you’d like to share about your world to others. Both your inner world and your external world. How you feel, what you remember, what you might hope for, perhaps. Something that goes beyond a dry history book. This is about you and those around you.

Week 1

Day 1: Getting ready for work or school, how do you feel? What’s a part of your routine?

Day 2: What’s one of your favorite meals you remember with your family?

Day 3: Who’s one of the first guests you remember visiting you when you were growing up?

Day 4: What do you remember about the first time someone tried to show you how to wear traditional Lao clothing?

Day 5: What’s your favorite Lao recipe that you can’t cook yourself?

Day 6: What’s a Friday evening like for you?

Day 7: Looking at your old family photo albums, which photo’s story do you remember most?

Week 2

Day 8: What was your first date like? Was it what you expected?

Day 9: Who made the best tom mak hung you’ve ever tasted so far?

Day 10: How do you feel about padaek?

Day 11: What’s the secret to a good Lao barbecue?

Day 12: Finish this story: It’s not a Lao party until _______

Day 13: You’ve danced so many times, but what’s the dance you remember most?

Day 14: What’s the worst part about cleaning up after a Lao party?

Week 3

Day 15: How well can you play the khaen? Who plays it the best that you know?

Day 16: When you think of a Lao party, what’s the song you always expect to hear?

Day 17: What’s a memory from your favorite vacation?

Day 18: What does your family miss most from your old hometown?

Day 19: What’s something you can’t talk about without getting into a fight.

Day 20: What’s something an elder told you that’s stuck with you, for better or worse?

Day 21: What was your favorite game as a child? Who did you play with?

Week 4

Day 22: Who thinks they tell the best jokes in your family?

Day 23: What’s a Lao word more people should know? What does it mean to you?

Day 24: What’s a community event that bored you?

Day 25: After all of this time and everything you’ve been through, is it easy for you to pack?

Day 26: How long does it take at gathering before someone brings up a phi?

Day 27: What’s something you wish someone had taught you about our culture?

Day 28: What was your last good walk like?

Day 29: Finish this sentence: You don’t feel like you’re at home until ______

Day 30: What will make you happy?

Sahtu Press