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International Programs
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 335-2026

Release: Immediate

UI Cambodian writer-in-residence available for poetry readings in libraries, senior centers

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Public libraries and senior centers in Iowa are invited to participate in a University of Iowa outreach program that brings international writers to communities throughout the state. UI International Programs is hosting one writer-in-residence this spring--U Sam Oeur, a Cambodian poet, who is available to conduct poetry readings, lectures and workshops for libraries and senior centers across Iowa.

Born in the Svey Rieng province of Cambodia, Oeur received his MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1968. Upon returning to Cambodia he was elected to the National Assembly in 1972 and in 1973 was appointed Secretary General of the Khmer League for Freedom.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge drove Oeur and his family, along with 2.8 million citizens of Phnom Penh, out of the city. During the next four years the family survived life in six different concentration camps.

Oeur survived four years in Pol Pot concentration camps, feigning illiteracy. His early days growing up on a farm also gave him valuable survival skills and a plausible "cover." After the country was "liberated" by the Vietnamese in 1979, U Sam Oeur decided to remain in Cambodia. He did this largely because he had taken vows (starting at the age of 16, and updated periodically) to stay in Cambodia until democracy was established.

In the 1980s the government began a campaign of harassment against him because of his outspoken support of democracy. His property was confiscated, he was regularly threatened, and he was forced to resign from his job. Oeur has been granted political asylum in the United States and now lives in Minneapolis. However, even in the U.S., he continues to receive death threats.

Oeur is available to do poetry readings and conduct workshops on a variety of topics, including: "the art of storytelling," "using metaphors to tell your story," "the author's public and private selves," "life and culture in Cambodia," "why I write what I write," and "writing my story for groups over 50 years old." He will be in Iowa through May. Oeur was chosen from among 30 participants in the UI International Program last fall.

Oeur first reads his poetry in English and then chants the poetry in a song-like fashion in his native language of Khmer.

"Through my poetry presentations, I hope to teach people about the history, geography and the life in Cambodia," says Oeur, "as well as to tell them why we struggle for the freedom of democracy."

Translations of Oeur's poetry have appeared in "Artful Dodge," "The Iowa Review," "Nebraska Humanities Review," "Press, "No Exit," "ECP: Cross Cultural Poetics," "Manoa," and "Modern Poetry in Translation," and in the anthology "Voices of Conscience: Poetry from Oppression."

His most recent volume of poetry is entitled Sacred Vows, which retells the recent terror of Cambodia and the beauty of its culture. Oeur says he hopes to inspire young Cambodians to reacquaint themselves with their heritage and make it once again vibrant. Using myths, stories, prophecies, history and tradition as ironic counterpoint to Cambodia's present-day situation, Oeur foretells freedom's return.

"This is a rare opportunity to hear, first-hand, someone who has survived the horrors of concentration camps in Cambodia," says International Programs outreach coordinator Jocelyn Cullity. "He brings a message of hope and survival through his poetry, and everyone who hears him will feel informed and inspired."

Oeur's three-month writer-in-residence program is funded by The Stanley Foundation-UI Support Organization, a Title VI National Resource Center grant from the U.S. Department of Education and International Programs at the University of Iowa. Oeur is based in the International Center on the UI campus during his writer-in-residency stint.

International Programs consist of a number of offices, centers, degree programs, academic programs, research projects and services. Organized under the associate provost and dean for International Programs, these units serve to further internationalize the campus and community and promote global scholarship, research and teaching.

(Editor's Note: If you would like to do a feature story on Oeur in conjunction with a reading in your local community, please call Jocelyn Cullity at (319) 335-0637. Pronunciation guide: "Oeur" rhymes with "tour".)