This is how you say fire in Lao

Anything that has light must acknowledge that first fire

Fie mie is fire when it’s burning something down

A house burns down, a forest, a city

Fie sang is flashlight

A man-made object, a thing you take out into that not-knowing

Fie fa is thunder

That scrawl of light in the shape broken things first take

Fie mot is what happens when you’re not expecting it to

A power outage, a burnt bulb

Mot fie is when you do something to light

It’s a far reach, set above you, a calling out of place

It’s a turn, a switch in the wall you go to find

Fie mot

Mot fie

Questions and Answers

Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?

It changes all the time. One moment might be stronger than another, or might not mean anything at the time, but then means so much later and becomes so definitive.

What inspired or motivated you to write this poem? How does/doesn’t the poem reflect this inspiration or motivation?

The Lao language. I don’t know how to read or write it but I speak it with my family. It was the first language I knew and I think it informs how I think and look at things. The English language is the language so many of us come to with a second one. In learning English, some of the things we long to say cannot be said because of how we are asked to put it together. I wanted to remain in the English language but to think in Lao—in the language I first knew, and to get a reader to think in the same way. My motivation, though, was deeply personal. I wanted to speak Lao—to anyone who was listening. I missed my family and I wanted to speak the way we all did together. And I wanted to write about light—how in Lao you acknowledge that first light, that first knowledge you have of light and you carry it into all the words you make that describe a thing with light. Except the one time you don’t. I wanted to write about that one time you don’t acknowledge it first. The poem moves slowly and is put together as if discovering for the first time how a language works. You can see the “thinking” happening. And to underline the idea of “first” and “language,” I positioned the Lao words in the beginning and then the English words stretched and crawled along from it.

What did you find particularly challenging in writing this poem?

I thought about how a reader, not knowing the language, would not know how to pronounce the Lao words themselves. Even if they don’t know, I feel a reader would know this visually the way a linguist might look for patterns in the building of a sentence and can kind of see how bits and pieces come together. I also thought about the tone in the Lao language—how that needs to be explained or marked down but I felt it would take away from the pace and the visual clarity of the sentence and left that out. The point was to “see” it happen and to experience in the looking. I also wanted to leave a reader to want to hear this poem read live–the way you would want to see a singer hold a note or turn a phrase in their particular way. This is why I didn’t give directions or explain or footnote how to do it.

This poem “Fie” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 66.

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