the walrus and the lighthouse keeper

“my heart hurt like a million leagues of ocean pressing up”
– Bushra Rehman, Corona

said the lighthouse keeper to the walrus:
your skin is slicker than mine
the waves roll over you like caresses,
bathing you in salt and brine,
but never breaching through
seeping into pores

when I swim the ocean she changes me
pulls the liquid in me out through my skin
we call it osmosis, with our scientists’ tongues
our cells seek balance
and they send forth an offering of water
desperately seeking salinity

the ocean changes me, walrus
though she is vast
leagues and leagues stretching beyond
my fragile skinbag of bones
yet I seek to offer this tiny drink of water
to become a part, a piece

I want to become the ocean

do you know, my dear tusked friend
at night when you doze upon the rock
I lay awake on my boat bed
hard as the planks of my shorebound ship

dreaming of the days when she tossed me in her arms
when I rode her waves to their crescendos
enveloped, caressed, held
as she rocked me into slumber

now
keeping vigil at my table
or stalking the deck of my tower
my beam of light beckoning her other ships away
to shore

I know I am betraying her
calling other men to land, to stand on firm ground

and my heart aches inside its cage
yearning toward open water
I am a traitor
I have betrayed my lover

but some nights,
dear walrus,
on some of these nights alone
as she beats herself against my home

I feel her running down my face
and taste her salt on my lips
and remember
the ocean lives within me
I will never be alone

 

revisions

I seem to have taken to only posting before poetry shows now, since I know that organizers and event pages will be linking to my blog. I haven’t been writing a ton recently, but I do have a few poems up at well-adjusted queer kids. Also, you can see Syd’s comics, which are excellent.

Speaking of Syd, they also linked me to this article about blaming the revision process on Modernists, which I just skimmed. It is actually helping with my pre-show nerves. (As I’ve mentioned, thinking about performing makes me freak out.)

I’ve been meaning to write a post about metadata and poetry (i.e. that tagging poetry on social media allows poets to create an additional layer of meaning, relating that to poets who translate their own texts, but also all writing is a translation of personal experience, and also all reading is filtered through subjective experience, can you see how this would be a long blog post and also how this parenthetical kind of works like a tag?), but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

In the interim, here’s an excerpt from the article by Craig Fehrman:

What first got Sullivan thinking about revision was encountering a version of Ernest Hemingway she’d never seen before. While a first-year PhD student at Harvard, Sullivan visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and its Hemingway collection. She marveled at the famous author’s archive—his letters, his family scrapbooks, even his bullfighting materials. But one thing in particular stood out to her: the typescript of his novel “The Sun Also Rises.” It showed Hemingway changing his book dramatically from one version to the next. Monologues vanished, entire plot points disappeared, and, in the end, he arrived at the terse, mysterious novel that became part of the American literary canon. “The Hemingway style that’s so familiar to us wasn’t in the first draft,” Sullivan says. “It was a product of revision.”

Hemingway’s method reminded Sullivan of the way T.S. Eliot had trimmed down “The Waste Land” from pages and pages of manuscript to the final, elliptical 434-line poem. She realized that these authors shared a profound commitment to the power of revision, and that this commitment was itself worth studying. While plenty of literary scholars had examined the way individual authors edited their own works, they rarely compared their findings between authors, or from one period to the next. By making these comparisons, Sullivan identified the Modernists as the first to practice our contemporary form of revision. She also learned how revision contributed to their distinct literary technique. “We often assume that style comes out of nowhere,” she says. “But style is produced in revision, and revision is not something writers do naturally.”

tl;dr: Revision is unnatural to writers, but it’s how they produce style.

How this relates: I’ve been revising the piece “23” (read: thinking about this poem and wanting to change it) for quite some time, and I finally cut a bunch out and am going to read a much shorter poem tonight. It still doesn’t feel done, but art is a process.

untitled poem

I’m performing at UCLA for the first time tomorrow. I started writing poetry just after graduating. (More specifically, I wrote and performed one piece once in the summer of 2008, then didn’t do any other poetry things for almost two years. And then I wrote some more poems.) It’ll also be the first time I’ve gotten to attend a TN on Tour. I love the idea that we can bring the specific community magic of Tuesday Night Project into college campuses, and obviously, there is so much symbolism because it’ll be at UCLA, and I used to go to there. We also have a sweet lineup. Are you around tomorrow night? You should swing by Sunset Village.

Thanks to the Asian Pacific Coalition for inviting us. The theme, loosely, is “sisterhood.” The only piece I’ve chosen to read so far is one I wrote during National Poetry Month for a friend from the Daily Bruin.

Edit: I was about to hit publish, and I just remembered that I performed “native tongue” during the workshop I facilitated during the ITASA West Coast Conference in April. Still. Symbolism.

yes, your body betrayed you
tucked secrets within itself

secrets hidden like plastic eggs
nestled across a once-pristine landscape
secrets growing silently
fed on flesh and blood 

and the lawn is trampled now
the hunting doctors having reached with gloved hands
into each corner and quiet dark place
searching out every last prize 

will this metaphor hold?
i think it has been two days now
tomorrow will you rise again
your body wrapped in white
reborn 

will you shake off all the shadows
clothe yourself in newness
laugh with voice of golden honey
gently brush your hand against my cheek
tell me i was silly to worry
that you knew all along this was just a test
your eyes, holding sadness overcome,
will remember you had felt forsaken 

but even your scars
will have faded
will be white and new
jagged holes filled in
the covered gaps a metaphor nested in metaphor
of a tomb filled, sealed, emptied, sealed over again

panorama

panorama

sometimes, i think,
we think
about perspective shifts
as changing focus
reframing the image before us

but perhaps
we can also imagine
that the world is wider than our narrow gaze can gather in a single glance alone

instead of closing your eyes
to what is in front of you
instead of trying to forget what you have already seen

maybe you,
maybe i,
could try
to expand our views

fears and aspirations

Happy Year of the Snake! Had dinner with family and friends at my aunt’s house last night, and we ended up going in a circle around the table introducing ourselves, then each sharing one fear and one aspiration. (Yes, this happened.)

Found out that my cousin sees herself as pretty conservative; she has a fear of taking risks, because she’s a perfectionist and she wants to be able to control things. Her brother has a fear of not living life to the fullest, so he actively tries to make the most of every day. And it all comes from the same place — wanting to succeed and fearing failure, and wanting to embrace possibility. The fear I shared was being held back by fear (a meta-fear, as it were) — I’m afraid of letting fear win and not experiencing new things.

Over the past few years, I have pushed myself to embrace failure, to see that not being good at something isn’t really that scary. Sometimes, you just have to do things that are terrifying. Important life skill. Every time I go on stage, I’m scared. And every time I finish a set, I get to have that moment right after when I realize that I’m still alive. And everything is going to be OK.

I did a few shows this week. Performed “native tongue” for my co-workers at our all-staff meeting, and I started by saying, “Wow, I didn’t realize I was going to be this nervous.” After, our CFO’s wife, who was facilitating a training on self-care for that meeting, thanked us (other co-worker covered a Taylor Swift song) for sharing something and being vulnerable. And then later that day, I got to hear from co-workers who connected with the piece and have gone through similar experiences.

Thursday night was [common ground], and I performed “23.” I knew it was going to be difficult; it has taken me weeks to get it to a point where it felt done. But a few other queer artists went before me, and then we had the Partnership of LGBT Organizations speaking about being excluded from Santa Ana’s Tet parade. I ended up revising my set right before I went on to include more love poems. It felt right, and it was what I wanted to share with the audience.

23 excerpt

Saturday, we held a mini-TNC for students from the Claremont Colleges who were taking a day-long tour of Little Tokyo to talk about art and activism in our communities. The staff shared about our relationships to the space, and also our views on art. I said something along the lines of seeing poetry as a way to move beyond academic writing and to find a way to be more honest with myself. And I write love poems because I want to share a celebratory view of the queer experience. I want to celebrate love and being able to live fully, more honestly.

This feels like it’s going to be a good year. Thank you to all of the organizers and audiences who are providing spaces for people to share and heal. Here’s to a year of being honest, embracing love, and striving to take risks and push past fear. Gong xi fa cai, friends.

seven days

mossy rock, kyoto

well,
it’s been a week now
since the world didn’t end

which means,
i suppose,
that we can get back to destroying it ourselves

or maybe
we can stop treating
armageddon as
some sort of personal and collective responsibility
or mutual goal
towards which we are all working

and maybe we
can start working on
some beginnings instead

i think i would like that

23

at 23
i believed
that if i could just forget the taste of my first girlfriend’s lips,
i might still turn out OK

that if i could just meet a nice boy,
settle down, start a family
i might not lose my family

that wasn’t so long ago
and some days i still forget that i’ve moved past that now
i am like cotton in an overstuffed couch;
i am always coming out

when i was 23
i spent 40 hours a week with middle schoolers
who did not quite understand the violence of uttering ‘that’s so gay’
kids who cleverly told me,
‘miss, miss, “gay” just means “happy”’
you know,
i wish it did
i really wish it did

try to explain that gay means happy
to the 12-year-old kids
who keep notes on the inside of their arms
whose wrists bear the scars of tally marks
of how many other 12-year-old kids called me ‘faggot’ today

the year i was 23,
i met a 17-year-old boy named James
when he was 14, James was shoved back into the closet
by too many locker room boys

a year later,
James tilted up his chin and strode back out

two years later,
James stood in front of vermont’s house and senate judiciary
and let them know
he’d like to meet a nice boy some day,
settle down, start a family

you see, James told me,
he’s a romantic
and one day, he wants to be proposed to under the stars

and we both knew then
and we both know now
we are fighting for so much more than wedding rings
matching tuxes
hers and hers towels
— but it’s a start

and maybe one day, all of this means that we’ll be one step closer to easing the tear-jerked pain of saying, ‘I’m gay,’ for the first time.
maybe one day, we won’t have trans kids bartering bodies for rocks on the corner
maybe one day, wives will be able to hold the hands of their wives as they’re wasting away in hospital rooms
maybe one day, wives won’t be wasting away in hospital rooms
[health insurance, etc.]

i’m not 23 anymore
but my mother still asks me sometimes
if i wish i were born a boy
for what it’s worth, i don’t
no matter how fucking amazing i look in a three-piece suit

but that’s not the point
because i loved a boy, once, who wished he were born a boy
who grew up girl
but still became one of the strongest men i know
— a good man —
some little boys grow up to be strong women, too
but we have to let them grow

so many of us may wish we were born into different lives
but please
do not take that next step toward reincarnation

please
do not take the razor blade to your kite strings
i can teach you how to fly
and bridges, you know,
were built for crossing troubled waters
not for leaping into them

stay, please.
this life needs you
James and I need you
please,
stay

bridges can be so alluring
when the world is screaming, ‘faggot, you will never learn to fly’
and maybe all of this is cliche

but I want to tell you this:
It gets better.
you get better
stronger
braver
less afraid to love

it’s gonna get better
we’re going to get there
some day
stay
please
stay
turn your back on bridges, on rope, on razors, on shame

stay,
please,
stay.

you learn,
eventually,
to shield yourself from pain

your toes,
they learn
— how to curl for balance
at those moments when you are poised on the ledge
your toes
will grip
for balance,
for staying

please
draw your limbs into yourself
water the roots of your own tree
please
grant yourself permission
to nourish your own dreams
pull everything you have into the safety of your own embrace

this is hard
i know.

it is still hard,
for me,
three years after 23

how
do we learn
to let go again?

but i am learning
that i am done with shields and walls
no more
cradling my heart
like bruised fruit

no more fear
or, at the very least,
no more letting fear win

i am here
to stay

stay here with me

and if you
are still crouching in the closet
please
use that time
to find sight in the dark
because i know a boy
who’s waiting for you
under the stars

“starlight”

someone I know is dying
actually, I guess,
everyone I know is dying

is hurtling, recklessly, toward the inevitable
we all are — falling — startling one another,
in moments, we collide
when we are young, beautiful, bright

and do not know to blaze
against the dimming of our light
have not learned
that we may fade

my grandfather, now,
hair thinning back
to downy head of babes
his fingers, still,
though growing stiff with age

he curls them still
— and still holds tight

friends of mine, too,
have met with some surprise
the flickers in their flames
breathe more deeply, then
to stoke the embers of their names
burn bright, young friends

the youth we shared
the days we spent
weep not now for unsaid prayers
for years that came and went

On passing and privilege

I’ve been kicking around ideas for a post for a few weeks now, some grand statement on coming out on the Internet, and what that means. As I’ve not gotten around to writing it (n.b. I choose to describe this not as procrastination, but as the deep, meditative period that is an essential part of the writing process), what I wanted to write about has shifted. On some level, I think, I wanted to write this post but was already bored by it. I have come out so many times, to so many people, and have read about so many other people coming out, that I feel like it’s a moot point.*

But it isn’t. Because I have come to discover another level, the one that is still holding on to fear, closets, shame, internalized homophobia, and privilege. I’m fairly certain that most people I’ve met post-college, those who are at least familiar enough to be considered acquaintances, assume or know I’m queer. I cut my hair last year, after I stopped working in middle schools, because I was tired of passing. As straight. The unexpected consequence, one that I’m still getting used to, is that now I don’t always pass (or, more precisely “read”) as female.

A few weekends ago, I was in line for the women’s restroom at the David Henry Hwang Theater in Little Tokyo. A woman tapped me on the shoulder and informed me, “The men’s restroom is on the other side.” In that split second, I experienced not anger and frustration, but confusion and violation. (Don’t worry, anger and frustration came into play later.)

A few days later, as I was still figuring out my reaction(s), I brought up the incident with a queer friend who has a different relationship with gender and passing. I was trying to explain why I was upset, and our conversation centered on the moment of misunderstanding. My friend suggested that the incident was upsetting because the woman in the bathroom made assumptions about how I identify and tried to determine and impose where I belong, and not upsetting because of the gender policing, per se. I disagreed, but couldn’t articulate why I found both problematic.

The next day, my friend brought the conversation up again and said that one thing I’d repeated stuck out: “I identify as female.” His experiences with gender, sexuality, passing — and danger — are different than mine, and, he said, he was interpreting my experience through his own.**

Having that second conversation helped crystallize what I was feeling. In the moment, I felt violated — to have been touched, labeled different, confronted by someone else’s assumptions. And I also felt violated because I know where every bathroom in that building is; I stage manage in the courtyard outside of the Union Center for the Arts, and I drink a lot of water.

But I also felt that powerful mix of shame and fear that too many people in too many communities know far too well, in the moments when a dominant group, in the most subtle (or not at all subtle) of ways, leverages its reminders about who is in power, what is considered normal, acceptable, morally correct. I am almost certain that the woman who tapped me on the shoulder thought she was doing me a favor. In spite of the fact that I was in the middle of a very crowded line of very femininely-dressed women. In spite of the fact that the men’s restroom is closer to the theater exit, so we had both walked by it to get to the women’s restroom. And in spite of the fact that I was wearing heels and holding my clutch, oops, JK, that’s not my Saturday night outfit of choice. I felt fear. And I felt powerless. In that moment, the best I could come up with was stammering “I’m female,” in something that was far closer to an apology than I care to admit. Because it wasn’t just about that moment. It brought back the first time I experienced transphobia in a very real, very public way and felt, to my bones, physically unsafe. It brought back the smirk of the man on the bus who took the aisle seat and kept edging closer to me as I shrank against the window, until I finally got up to stand by the driver, and the anger I felt when I took off running for my friend’s place, knowing that he had gotten off at the same stop and was nonchalantly, smirkingly, sauntering in my direction. It brought back the time I was in Grenoble with my friend Liz and we were surrounded by a group of teenage boys who wanted to know what kind of Asian we were, where we were from, where we were going, as they kept circling closer and taunting us, with just enough edge of threat in their voices to make me start trying to figure out which one looked weakest, how to edge closer to the wall to close off the circle and keep them all in front of us. It brought back the painful memory that the first time a girlfriend held my hand in public, my first thought was not about us, but about our safety.

People who don’t fit in to dominant culture learn how to make these calculations, learn how to identify escape routes and the quickest way to safety, learn to look for recognition and disapproval in the eyes of strangers. It is a violation when someone exerts their power over you, whether as a threat or as a reminder. 

I’m putting in a subhead here to transition back to talking about being out
Originally, I wanted to write a version of this post because I needed to submit an artist bio for Common Ground OC, for their July 5 show. As the deadline approached, I realized that I had yet to announce on the Internet, “Hey Internet, I identify as queer!” And I hesitated. Not, like, got-back-in-the-closet-considered-dating-men-exclusively-grew-my-hair-back-out hesitated, but there was a definite pause. A moment of reflection, I suppose.

I was downloading Paintbrush for Mac, but then I got bored of waiting. Imagine that I drew boxes around my name and “queer” and added an arrow and something snarky. Also, sorry that all of my blog images are actually just screen caps.

My mind came back to the idea of “rational outness,” something one of my queer professors had brought up in class as a way of explaining that awkward moment when the practice of being out in some spheres (where it’s safe) and not being out in others (where it’s not). Funny thing is, those spheres kind of overlap a lot. At the time I learned the phrase “rational outness,” it was a blessing. It gave me a way to view coming out as a step-by-step process, one that I had control over and could share with people as I chose to.*** But now, here, four or so years later, I’ve realized that “rational outness,” for me, emphasis on “me,” and this being about my experience, is a copout. It’s a way for me to stay partly in the closet, because I’m afraid of losing something — safety, yes, but also privilege, authority, power, relationships.

One of my former co-workers, who identified as queer, sort of, but really chose not to identify, explained that she didn’t want to identify as queer, publicly, because she was able to make a stronger case for equal rights when people considered her a straight ally, just like she was able to do anti-racist work as a white person. Something about this, also, feels like a copout. And I recognize that I am viewing her personal decisions through the lens of my own experience, and my own decisions about when to be out. But for me, here, now, rational outness isn’t enough. I can’t help but think of the shared root in “rational” and “rationalize,” as in “attempt to explain or justify with reasons, even if those reasons are not true.” As in, find excuses to stay in the closet and benefit from heteronormative privilege.

To put it simply, and I am quoting from a wise, wise friend here: Fuck that. Fuck THAT.

I am done with hiding, with being 97.03% out of the closet, done with glossing over gender pronouns out of respect for elders, out of fear of upsetting people, out of wanting to protect family members from uncomfortable conversations. I am done with wondering whether I should keep my hair so I can find a respectable job. (Turns out, not a big deal. I have been dissuaded, however, from getting a fade with my nonprofit’s logo in the back of my head.) One of my mentors (“gay den mom,” really) asked, more than once, “Why would you want to work for a place where you couldn’t be yourself?” I don’t know, why would I? I wouldn’t. I don’t. Done with that.

I want to make this clear: I get to write this from a place of privilege. I am lucky to be able to work at a place that fully embraces women, people of color, queer people, people who stand in different places on the gender spectrum, people who have experienced mental health issues, violence, homelessness, and a system that has tried to break them. I am lucky to work for an organization that believes, to its core, in empowerment, at the level of every individual human who comes through our doors. I don’t have to choose between being able to be fully myself and being able to support myself. We should all be so lucky.

As important as it is to have straight allies, to have male feminists, to have white, anti-racist activists be part of our conversations and struggles for social justice …

It is absolutely critical that people speak for themselves. To stand up for their identities, whether as a quote-unquote marginalized voice, or as a member of a historically underrepresented group, or as an out, proud, queer, female-identified, Taiwanese-American (but ethnically Chinese), second generation poet/nerd/blogger.

Having a voice matters. Using your voice makes a difference. Embracing who you are and how you choose to express yourself is a way to live each day more fully human.

I am a poet. I write from multiple perspectives. Being queer, being Asian, being second-generation, being an English major, being really into puns, being human — and, sometimes, being deeply afraid — all of these perspectives influence my work.

They also inspire it.

* Although, of course, it’s apparently possible to be too blasé about coming out; once, I kind of just slipped it into a conversation with a friend while we were in line for the bathroom at a bar. She almost fainted. She claims it was the heat and her low alcohol tolerance. I think she got the vapors.

** For anyone taking notes on this kind of thing, I believe this is a pretty damn good example of what “decent human being” means. Like, for real, how many people that you know seek you out after having reflected on a conversation you had in passing to apologize for an assumption they later realized they made, and to make sure that you’re OK? Also, hey, now that you’re flipping through your mental Rolodex identifying those friends, how ’bout you give them a call and tell them they’re awesome?

*** Except, I guess, for the time when the news editor yelled across the newsroom of the Daily Bruin, “Audrey, are you a lesbian?” I am calling you out, Anthony J. Pesce, not cool. His justification: It led to dates (mine).

“bittersweet”: seven poems 

I was going to write a blog post tonight, but then I didn’t. Here are some poems I wrote on Sunday during a potluck/writing time session. (We did six 10-minute sessions, mostly with one-word prompts. It was fun; try it sometime.) N.b. These are first drafts.

1.
I tried to start a food blog once
played with the idea of calling it bitter/sweet
slashes in words are fun like that
can split a whole into smaller, fractured wholes*

2.
artichokes are like a metaphor
for … something
the way they condition your tongue for bitterness
making everything that comes after taste bright, sweet, whole
maybe heartbreak
or love, itself
the moment of finally finding sweetness again
Is like reaching the heart of an artichoke

3.
why are artichoke hearts
preserved in pickling liquid
they’re bitter enough all by their own selves

4.
chocolate melts on tongues
the way my heart puddles into my toes
when you flash your dimpled smile
and I try to remember recall how to speak

5.
espresso, dark, complex
bitter tang that lingers
inviting you to hold a sugar cube on your tongue

6.
lemons from my backyard
what a luxury
we found a house, here, that has a lemon tree
but the fruit doesn’t taste the same
not as tart, or bright
not like the lemons from home
I cut the lemon curd here with the juice of a lime

7.
bittersweet, as word
makes me think of lovers gone
and, also, lemons

Pick a favorite! Mine’s the haiku. Bonus points for posting a poem in the comments. (Bonus bonus points if you stick to the time limit.)

Update: Thanks to Colin for suggesting “recall” for No. 4. Poem,now less clunky!