Poem recognize poem

Oh, hey there. It’s good to see you again. I really appreciate the feedback on the last post; it’s led to a lot of great follow-up conversations, and I can’t begin to quantify the healing power of knowing that I can surround myself with people who understand both the stakes and complexities of social justice issues.

This post is decidedly more upbeat, as it’s about the joys of that surrounding effect — definitely a related topic. Whereas the last post was all about the distinction between being nice (and/or polite) and being good, it is quite nice to know that I get to spend a hearty chunk of my time with nice, polite, wonderful — and good — people, working for, toward, and through social justice.*

Last night I stage managed Tuesday Night Cafe (time-lapse!),  fulfilling a decade-long dream of getting to introduce myself to people as “stage manager.”** I suppose I could introduce myself as anything, to anyone. And maybe I will. Anyway, it was a fantastic experience, learning and otherwise. I particularly enjoyed the moment where we were in our pre-show circle and I realized that one of the artists was missing — you know, one of those minor details that just magically works itself out. (He showed up, like, two minutes later.) This was our second collaboration with Common Ground, an excellent group of excellent people.

Look at all these beautiful artists! Posing post-show on May 1 in the JACCC courtyard. Sorry this is such an obvious FB screen cap. Not fixing it! Photo by Steven Lam.

As I was sitting back and soaking in the third set, Claudia (a totally dope poet, check her out with Duende!) caught me off guard by dedicating her second poem to me, because it was inspired by one of my poems. I will note that this is not a humble brag — it was an entirely humbling and inspiring moment, and it was exactly what I needed after all of the nonsense I mentioned in my previous post.

Two posts ago, I wrote about how excited I’ve been to be around live poetry and music, and to be spending chunks of time with artists who constantly surprise and challenge and inspire me. Two Wednesdays ago, I came home from a MidTones Open Jam at Bar Nirvana, and I could not go to bed because I was so excited about how excited I was to be alive at that moment in the exact place where I am  in my life, having spent the day working at a nonprofit I love, followed by a meeting with the aforementioned surprising/challenging/inspiring artists, followed by a couple of hours of musicians rocking out and having fun. (I will also admit that I realized, “Wow, my life right now is cooler than I thought it would be.”)

Anyway, long digression. Back to poems. Also a few weeks ago, I was at LAnguage, a spoken word show at The Last Bookstore curated by Mike the Poet (co-curated that Sunday by Traci Kato-Kiriyama, of Tuesday Night-founding fame), and a bunch of poets I admire were reading poems about their fathers.***

As Traci was reading “Rain,” I started scribbling a few lines of what I hope will some day grow up to become a deeply personal account of my relationship to my own father. Right now it’s an awkward teenager and doesn’t want you to look at it. Unfortunately for poem, I need to share this part of it:

Two of my favorite poets read about their fathers today
with words that reached straight into some part buried within me
striking chords
reminders
echoes

I panicked for a moment, felt guilty

When you go, what pieces of you will I hold tight to?

Claudia’s poem includes the stanza (among other, excellent stanzas, which I have! Because she let me keep the copy she read last night!):

I told my mom I heard a poem once
About a girl who was ashamed to be ashamed of her culture
I told her I felt like that was me
That’s why we have to keep it alive, she said
That’s why I still practice this language with you
This isn’t the same poem, but
Today my heart will send a postcard to my mother
Because love and apologies transcend these zip code barriers

The last three times I saw Claudia perform, I a) wanted to call people up and say, “Hey you need to see this!” and b) wished desperately that I had a teleporter so I could whisk people in to experience it for themselves. This time, I was just trying to keep it together, not just because I was moved by her dedication, but also because there is something profound about having another person articulate the secret parts of yourself that you are still searching for.

Art is a bridge, and a mirror, and a whole host of other metonyms about seeing self and others and connecting. It is also, wonderfully, a catalyst for change, dialogue, questioning, and more art. I have said it before, and I will say it again. I am so damn lucky to get to be part of this community of artists. Thank you for reminding me that I love people.

* I apologize that I keep lumping together complex, intersecting issues under the broad umbrella of “social justice,” without having really defined how I’m using it and my own relationship to the term. Topic for another post. (“Topic for another post” being a strong contender for tagline to this blog.)

** Once, in high school, I was offered a stage manager role for the spring musical, but then the drama teacher found out that I was also in mock trial. Sigh, art and law — never the twain shall sit down for a cup of coffee and hash out their differences.

***(Hey, also, you should buy Cara Van Le’s “A Roof & Some Refuge.” I can’t find a public link and don’t want to post her contact info sans permission, but maybe if you think really hard about chapbooks, she will appear in front of you with one in hand. Ordering information!)

Number of tabs opened while writing this post: 15. Number of references I decided to save for another post: 2.

homecoming: poetry and/or prose

I considered performing this piece on Tuesday, but ended up cutting it so that I could deliver the three poems I was performing at a normal human pace, as well as stick a bunch of haiku in my pockets and pull them out at random moments. This piece started as prose, but came out kinda poetry-like, and then I eliminated some sentences and worked on the cadence a little as I thought about performing it.

I originally wrote this piece on November 27, as U.S. troops were leaving Iraq. I had also just learned that my friend’s brother was in all likelihood going to miss the birth of his son.

(It was jarring to have been contemplating this piece for the last two weeks, then to wake up today to this LA Times article on U.S. soldiers posing with Afghan corpses.)

“Homecoming”

When he comes home, we will greet him with arms wide open. We will fold him back into the family he fought to protect. We will cook him his favorite dishes and remind him of all of the favorite things he longed for while he was away.

We will smile and laugh and cry tears of joy. We will secret our worry away, we will smile bigger to hide that we are concerned. We will watch for the signs and symptoms. We will take turns on guard at night, listening for fitful sleep that would be the warning. We will make sure he is enjoying the things he used to enjoy. We will work extra hard to make the transition smooth, but we will hide our efforts. We will not want him to sense any hint of doubt that he will reintegrate seamlessly.

When he comes home, we will have prepared. We will have tidied his room. We will have sat down the children to remind them not to ask rude questions. We will have removed the careworn toys of war we once naively placed in the hands of our baby boy. We will have practiced our smiles. We will have carefully considered the yellow ribbon on the family car. We will have debated whether this is a symbol of our support and love or a reminder that we will never comprehend what he experienced.
We will tell the neighbors that he is returning. We will have the camera on, trained on his reaction. We will capture the video of dog greeting master, happy whining and jumping all over and wonderful unconditional puppy love. We will analyze the footage and check for any cracks. We will be inwardly vigilant, outwardly relaxed.

We will place his son into his arms. We will snap pictures and we will say congratulations, so that we will not hold our breath. We will smile bigger and cry, but only tears of joy, so that our faces do not betray us. We will tell him that his son has his strong jaw. We will look away politely if a tear rolls down his cheek, and we will wonder later whether that tear is good or bad. We will wonder when it is appropriate to show him the video that he has waited so long to see. And we will watch him watching.

When he comes home, we will be a family again. When he comes home, we will start being a family again. When he comes home –

When he comes home, will it be him who comes home?

* When I first posted this, my friend Christine pointed out that a lot of imagery echoes Andrea Gibson’s “For Eli,” which I have listened to a ton. I don’t disagree that there are echoes.

Three things I’m thinking about: bowling leagues, poetry, making things

Oh hey, remember when I used to blog? Easing myself back in with a “three things” post.

1) Bowling leagues

At our all-staff meeting last Thursday, we had  a guest speaker (as we often do) Bill Parent, Associate Dean at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. For a three-hour lecture on the state of the nonprofit sector in Los Angeles, I could have done with a little less on the history of the United States as it relates to civil society. (It was really interesting, but that part lasted beyond the first hour, and there was some really interesting data at the end that we flew through. If you’re curious about nonprofit funding and growth over the last decade or so, check it out here.)

The middle portion of the lecture was about social capital and effective civil society, and Bill brought up Robert Putnam’s study of Italian cities. He assigned students to walk into a police station and say that they thought they had a broken arm, then timed how long it took for them to receive treatment. There was a strong correlation between the amount of time to get treatment and the number of choral groups in the city. (Bill said the number “correlates perfectly,” but I’d want to see data before repeating that claim.)

Putnam concluded that the number of choral groups is a strong indicator of deep community ties, as well as a way for people to “get together with a purpose.” That intentional group membership correlates with higher trust levels, increased civic participation, and “things working,” as Bill put it. Putnam repeated the study in the States, by analyzing the density of bowling leagues* (and the decline in membership nationwide) and concluded some things about people caring about each other and being in communities and stuff.

Anyway, at our next department meeting, we discussed the all-staff, since a lot of the discussion was around nonprofit funding, and as the development department, knowing about that kind of thing is important. Boss lady asked us to write down all of the groups we belong to now, had belonged to in college, and had belonged to in high school, and to rank them based on level of participation. She asked us whether our periods of highest group membership correlated with stronger feelings of community engagement. Then we went around the table and answered the question “Is LA a community?” Seven nos, most of them definitive, a few with an asterisk (along the lines of “LA doesn’t feel like a community, but neighborhoods do/I belong to sub-communities.”) The only yes was from our newest staff member, who moved back to LA from San Diego last weekend. So … yeah.

It was interesting to hear my co-workers describe the ways they make LA feel like home for them, though; I love that I work with people who say things like “I felt disconnected, so I started a writing/cooking group.” My list for current groups also made me happy; I think this is the most intentional I’ve been about group membership ever. In college, the Daily Bruin and the rowing team were the two big groups I was part of. In high school, I was in a ton of groups formed around extracurriculars, and I felt deeply engaged within the community, but it was a narrow school- (and for a year, district-) based community.

Now, though, I have strong ties to the people I served with during my City Years, I have a tight circle of roommates and college friends (plus an affinity member) that work at spending time together, and I have Tuesday Night Project, which is a constant reminder that there is good and art in the world. Also some other groups.

2) Poetry and self-reflection, etc.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” — Joan Didion

Traci asked me to open for the upcoming Tuesday Night Cafe, in celebration of National Poetry Month. Actually, she asked if I have any new pieces, and I replied that I have two in progress, and I agreed to take the set, hoping that the deadline would force me to finish these poems — I’ve been working on one of them for, like, six months, and it’s driving me crazy. Four days later, poems are done. (Thanks in large part to Syd, who is crashing in our living room and has been subjected to me reading poem fragments and drafts at her from Tuesday to Thursday nights. THOSE ARE THE PERILS OF COUCHSURFING, OK? Captive audience!)

Anyway, poems. I was going to read this piece, “Homecoming” that I wrote during Session 26 of The Undeniables, plus a haiku and two new pieces and “native tongue.” Then I had the epiphany pictured below.

This is the first time I’ve worked on two pieces at the same time (the second piece was born out of trying to give up on the first), and now I’m practicing all of them together and realizing that there’s a ton of imagery about going home, not being able to go home, feeling rootless, and not being able to sleep. I just saved myself three years of therapy. Thanks, poetry!

3) Making things

Other awesome perks of Syd crashing here:

  • Conversations
  • She makes things
Last weekend, we all sat around with the front doors open, reading and listening to music and enjoying the weather. Then other people came over, and there was some quality porch-sitting. Syd picked and squeezed lemons from the backyard, and I harvested some of the lavender that is overtaking the front walk, then everyone consumed snacks and lavender lemonade and ironic self-deprecatory comments about our bohemian hipsterhood. Mason jars were involved.
I brought lavender lemonade to work a few days last week, and my mason jars are currently the only watertight containers I have, so I’ve had a nice porch-like week all week. Also, Syd has been cold-steeping coffee and leaving it in jars in the fridge, and on Thursday I came home to baked tofu and asparagus.**
I can’t really remember what this section was going to be about. Mostly mason jars and finally getting around to harvesting lemons and lavender. Also, cooking, or something. I am done with this post, because the kitchen smells like fresh-squeezed lemons, so I’m going to go make some simple syrup and make Arnold Palmers with the iced tea I’ve been steeping. Mason jars will be involved.

Communities and groups and stuff. Comment about it.

* Bill asked us to guess what the American counterpart of choral groups would be, and of course two of us said “bowling leagues,” because we’d read the study and are competitive and like to ruin everyone else’s fun in the interest of winning. I love that about my co-workers. (We’re actually competitive in a friendly way, just very intensely so.)

** Unfortunately, she said no when I asked her to marry me.

native tongue: poetry and prose

I’m calling this a then and now, but it’s probably closer to a translation. I remember reading a list of writing exercises (in middle school, I think), that suggested writing poetry, putting it away for a few months, then turning it into prose, putting that away, and turning that piece back into a poem. It has taken me just over a decade to try this. [For the record, I am choosing to see this not as a sign of some inherent need to procrastinate, but of (a) having an excellent memory and (b) setting really long-term goals, then following through.]

Anyway, as I mentioned before, I’ve been writing through The Undeniables since the beginning of November. (See the terrible first piece here. Or read a piece I’m actually a little proud of.) Coming up with topics has been kind of a struggle, the same struggle that has been a really convenient excuse not to write fiction for the past two decade or so. (I was a very prolific author in early elementary school.)

Today, I forced myself to submit a piece to a lit mag, something that has been on my calendar for the last three months (long-term goals, not procrastination). Instead of pulling together some of my Undeniables fiction (procrastination, goal fail), I ended up turning in a spoken-word piece, and I was going to cheat and post it to my Undeniables blog, too, but pretty much the only requirement of the Writers Workshop is that you write every day, so instead I turned the poem into prose. Fin introduction.

native tongue
(April 25, 2011)

It’s that ‘compliment’ that I know is going to make me angry:
‘Wow! You speak English so well. You’re so — eloquent! Where did you learn to talk like that?’

Where did I learn to talk like that?
Motherfucker, I was born here.

I study poems like the lines of my hands, devour novels like short stories, curl up at night with the Oxford English Dictionary tucked under my pillow –-
Actually, that was hyperbole, exaggeration used as rhetorical device.
Have you seen the Oxford English Dictionary? It’s, like, real real big

If you slept with the OED tucked under your pillow, you’d wake up with a crick in your neck and a spine as stiff as the one you pressed your cheek against.

That was wordplay, asshole.

I do double entendres, too.
I have earned my poetic license,
spent my hours behind the wheel,
passed your accent tests, too.

You — do you know what this language has cost me?
I am first-generation Chinese illiterate.
I cannot read my grandfather’s poems.
I live 6,776 miles away from the ashes of my grandmother’s bones.
And I am still searching for a way to write the word ‘home’ in a tongue that feels like my own.
I am still searching for cracks in the concrete to sink my naked roots in.

Maybe that’s why the word ‘diaspora’ depresses me.
Every time I hear it, I think of dandelion seeds blowing in the wind.

They can’t go home again.
I can’t go home again.
And I know I will write this poem again.

I know I will write this poem again
So maybe my rage is displaced —
I am aiming my anger at easy-target bigots
Instead of facing the fact that sometimes I resent my parents, for turning their backs on Taiwan,
for leaving behind tea and rice for Coke and Big Macs,
for the pursuit of an American dream built on San Francisco railroads,
built on Chinese workers backs.

Maybe I’m tired of seeing the banana in the mirror,
yellow on the outside, white on the inside,
split between a culture I’m surrounded by,
and one I don’t even really know.

Maybe I’m afraid to face my disappointment in myself,
for choosing to study French instead of Chinese;
I cannot read the stories my grandmother told to her four children.

And maybe I’m embarrassed by my shame,
embarrassed to be embarrassed when strangers mispronounce my name,
the way I mispronounce the phrases my parents spoke as schoolchildren,
the phrases they would speak if they went home again.

They can go home again.
But I — I can’t go home again
And I know I will write this poem again
In English,
which I speak
so well.

native tongue
(December 22, 2011)

Every time someone comments on my writing or the way I speak, I feel myself controlling my reaction. Most times, I accept the compliment at face value, but I’m always aware of undertones, or of the way faces register surprise. These days, most people are sophisticated enough to know they’re not supposed to ask where people “are really from,” but the question is still there, their faces comical as they desperately try to control their expressions and mask their curiosity.

Once, when I was on vacation in China, I overheard an older white couple struggling with chopsticks and trying to figure out if they could procure other utensils. When I offered to help, in fluent English, the woman practically jumped, like I was a secret agent sneakily blending in with the locals. (For the record, no Chinese person ever mistook me as a native, even before I opened my Coke-drinking mouth.)

The woman carefully pulled her eyebrows back to their normal resting place, thanked me for the offer, stuttered a bit, and finally settled for commenting on how eloquent I was.Eloquent. I hate that these strangers have imbued such a beautiful word with the dark stain of their own ignorance. I imagine running into that same woman on a street in California, wonder if she would speak slowly and loudly to me, then jump the same way at my rapid-fire, unaccented response.

During that same trip, I cursed my own inability to blend in, the way my tongue felt clumsy trying to wrap around the sounds my ears were used to hearing; there was some kind of disconnect in my brain that I just couldn’t get around, a physical metaphor of the vast gap between how I’d imagined my return to the Motherland and the hourly reminders that I was a foreigner here, too.

I jotted down fragments of thoughts in a notebook I had shoved into my back pocket, composed a few lines of what later became a spoken-word piece grappling with hyphenated identity. At the time, though, I was bitter that even my sense of loss was expressed in English, that I couldn’t document the things I was feeling in the language I grew up with but had never mastered. As a poet, being functionally conversational is not much better than not being able to speak a language at all; the nuances of words, of their tone, the complexities of their accreted meaning — all of the things that make language beautiful — are swept away when you’re using words as crude tools, enough to get by on. I wanted art. I wanted poetry. I wanted to be able to read the poems my grandfather composed during his own twenty-something existential crises.

The word “diaspora,” from the Greek for “scattering, dispersion,” has always had a haunting quality to me. All I can think of is people being thrown to the wind like dandelion seeds, incapable of finding their way back to their roots. My own parents’ journey to the States was already an echo of their own parents’ migrations: China to Taiwan to San Francisco, following the paths of so many others who, to the bai ren, all look the same. Even the stories start to sound alike, so that the second-generation kids, eager to bust out of another family history lesson and rejoin their American friends in pickup football, start to conflate the details into one shared narrative. We gave up our family to come here. To make a better life for you. To provide you with opportunities. So you could vote. So you could be free. So you could have a career, daughter. Get an education. Study hard. Make our sacrifice worthwhile.

For them, the storytellers, fate has already been sealed. Their greatest fears are realized when they finally understand that they, too, have lost the poetry of their native tongue. Their American schoolchildren do not hear the melody of their words; their alphabet-blinded eyes cannot recognize the beauty of delicate brushstrokes, the visual puns and secret messages waiting to be discovered. What use, then, is it to speak in metaphor, to imprint their daily banter with idioms?

The irony is deep, generational. I have taken the poetry of Chinese away from my parents, robbed them of an audience; they, my birthright voice, by surrounding me in a culture that promised success and demanded perfect diction as its price.

Somewhere, floating above our heads, dandelion seeds are being tossed in air currents, desperately seeking fertile soil to sink in shallow roots.