poems (transcript of “Art As Healing” @ JANM set) 

I am posting these poems (many in first draft stage) for a set I will be performing this evening without live interpretation. The live zoom event will be recorded and uploaded with closed captioning within a week, and I will add a link once the event is live. I apologize that the final part of my set, an improv story, will not have a live transcript.

content notes: dysphoria, grief, loss, ideation (implied)

4.28.20 (excerpt)
the things we cherish
tell us who we are
our love tethers us
to one another

4.2.20
in times like these, return to what you know
the memory of breath, clean air flowing through you
every time you have expanded, unfurled, and grown

the certainty of your own body, how it has loved and
carried all of you, how it is all of you, home for your spirit
and all the wisdom you have gathered

return to yourself, to the comfort of knowing you are held
by love, in love, by the many who have needed you
and the ones who came before but had to go

you are never alone, even now
our bodies longing for touch
to be carried through

whatever comes next
let hope be your vessel
may your breath fill your sails

4.4.20
the beauty of this life is
you are writing yourself into existence.
you envision yourself (in a dream,
in a breath) and become

keep creating, uncovering, honing in,
making a body of yourself, creature finding
home in skin. you are this wondrous imagining,
the unafraid seeking of truth made flesh.

you are alive.
what could be more beautiful?

5.20.20 (excerpt)
how much grief can a body hold, a collective?
before saturation–before too much of too much
that temptation to let go, tempered only by
not wanting to add another name to the litany
of whispered words, the tender things we called
one another become our quiet prayers,
a chant, a praisebook, a memorial of all of us
who dared to live

how much is too much, a desert of our hearts,
parched from the shedding of so many tears,
the salt water wrung from us even as we gaze upon
past joys, see our own smiles captured forever,
the flimsy celluloid, pixels arranged in pleasing shapes
can they truly tell our stories?

too much, too much, too much of too much–
like what they have always said about us, our brilliant
eccentric, extraneous bodies, twisting under florescent lights,
the audacity. how dare we love one another,
let alone our own broken, sinful bodies?

it is not them, or us, but the grief that will kill us.
swept away, at last, after fighting so hard and for so long,
our bodies remembering what it feels like to get lost
in the tide, that sweet surrender to anything
more powerful than the tiny, beautiful dramas
of our tired, exhausting lives. the ocean of it, the beyond:
total and dark and deep, how we can pull it over our bodies
like a blanket–a blanket, comfortable, heavy, enveloping
us into rest–peace at last

how much grief_20.05.20

image description: a sheet of paper lays against a light brown hardwood floor. the page contains a typewritten poem with marginalia and notes added in blue handwriting. (the text of the poem is the piece titled 5.20.20 above, with some edits and shifts in line breaks)

I think I mentioned this in my last blog post, but composing poetry on a typewriter has been a really fun approach/challenge — I find myself paying more attention to structure and form (in a loose way, often this is about the shape of words or a piece as opposed to formal structural choices or experimenting with established poetic forms). I also like the feeling of permanence that typing a draft creates, and then being able to make edits directly on the text, seeing my own thinking/revising as part of the process. (A caveat: the vast, vast majority of the Xing out in these pieces is from typos, not me revising as I’m typing.)

poem: when we watch mulan

When We Watch Mulan
for Cayden

how we are and are not our fathers
these Chinese men we do and do not know
we will talk about

the stories we may never know
cherish the ones we know how to tell
about how we so often talk about our feelings,

our manhood, how we dress as who we see
— looking in the mirror, we
know these reflections as our true selves

forged and shaped, like her father’s sword
nurtured and watered, like the flowered comb
she leaves behind

we strive to fill these footsteps
trace ourselves in the curves of their jaws
the shape of our hair

out of what do we make
our manhood, dark-moon mystery
they left behind

we will talk about
all of the times we cried
looking in the mirror

all of the times we might cry,
looking in the mirror —
that man, staring back at me

—————————————————-

I typed this piece on a friend’s typewriter that has been doing a home stay with me. It’s been interesting to explore form in different ways by typing poetry: I notice myself paying more attention to visual layout, and there is also a different tempo, pace, soundtrack, and physical interaction with writing — it takes a lot more finger and wrist muscle than writing by hand or typing on a laptop, and it creates a significant amount of very vigorous typing noise. I also find applying this permanence to first drafts really satisfying.

This poem was one of those that happened very quickly and also feels like maybe it has been years in the drafting. Cayden and I had planned at the beginning of 2020 to watch the live action Mulan together in April and cry a lot and feel all of our trans feelings — I still hope we’ll be able to do that together in the nearish future.

I feel a piece brewing called “Being Trans at the Funeral,” but I haven’t been able to start putting it into words yet. Right now it’s a lot of feelings, including being grateful to be so held in trans community, but also wishing that we all had a little less practice navigating grief.

This poem is also featured in the fourth edition of the Loves Me | Loves Me Not zine, curated by jenevieve ting + nikita lamba.

love poems for dysphoria 

[content notes: dysphoria, sex mention, dissociation]


I came like a panic attack:
quickly, silent at first,
body surrendering

that flood of chemicals
rushing through bloodstream
leaving me breathless, gasping

so dizzy
with the thrill of it
that I
could not stay
in this body,
not yet

oh god, please
sensations ebb
at last

to faint tingles
and
a promise
of more to come


haiku: depression

not speaking his name
didn’t stop Voldy, either
i speak, & i fight


pull on your favorite tank top
strap on the hand-me-down watch
ticking from a comrade’s wrist to yours
paint eyeliner over swollen lids
anything can be armor if it keeps you safe

ask your lover to remind you
of the ways your body is beautiful
tell them exactly the words you need to hear
swim into the space they pull open
repeating your truths back to you

fill your pockets with stones
reread every affirmation
drink deep from the jar of moon water
sitting cherished on your altar
watch that gif on a loop until flux turns it orange

honor the ways your trauma has made you softer
you flowing salt water back to shore
the depth of your sadness
the wholeness of your breaking

remember that even stars
were once clouds of dust
collapsing inward

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

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).