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.

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.

Brain mush: Mind odysseys

"Paper Clips!" by Tyler Howarth

Got 10 minutes (in addition to the ones you were going to spend reading this post)? Make a list of everything you can do with a paper clip. No, seriously. We’ll wait for you here. Then read the first footnote.* (You should also know, in the interest of metablogging, that I threw this in here after completing the rest of the post, to justify the image.)

Udeitha: “I don’t think blogging is going to make you any more coherent.”

Yes, well, I don’t think another four hours of reading case studies and industry analyses will, either.

Work was a bit of a struggle for the first half-hour today; I was working with a student one-on-one on a draft of a short story that’s due Thursday — a story she’s been actively not writing for the last two weeks. We’ve made a ton of progress lately on varying sentence structure and incorporating more details, but for 30 minutes as I was working with her on fleshing out her main character, she become borderline nonverbal.

“Why is she going to miss her friends?”

“Because she likes them.”

“Why did she like them?”

“They were fun.”

“What makes them fun?”

“They’re not boring.”

“OK, think about your best friend. What’s your favorite thing about her?”

“I’ve known her for a long time.”

“How does that make you like her?”

“She’s fun.”

(I’ll let you guess what makes her fun. We finally broke out of tautology fun time after we discovered that the main character’s hobby was photography. She takes pictures of “everything.” Because it’s there. She takes pictures of leaves because it’s pretty.)

This is a 13-year-old who can correctly define words like “sardonic” and “impecunious,” but says “That’s weird” about everything. I have taken to saying “new adjective” every time she says “weird,” and we’ve probably cut usage by about 80 percent (down to 2-3 times/hr).

As a word junkie, I found today’s session excruciating, for myriad reasons,** and beyond doubting my abilities to engage youngsters, I was more than a little concerned with whether we (the education system, society, a not-quite-bibliophilic culture) are hampering our collective and individual abilities to articulate ourselves. As I worked in journalism and attended conventions of varying levels of nerdiness (ACES wins, on so many levels), I had the pleasure of hearing multiple experts remind us that readers have short attention spans. No one has the time or inclination to read complex analyses of issues. Lies. All lies! Everyone within a culture actively contributes to it, and pandering to shorter attention spans also creates them.

During my walk home — which was lovely, since I was heading west as the sun was tinging the clouds and contrails pink — I also started worrying about whether public education (or culture, or visual media, or whatever else) squashes creativity.  My friend Jessica, who works at the same academy, mentioned that her second graders freak out when presented with free-writing time. I loved free writing, and one of my favorite memories of elementary school is being part of an Odyssey of the Mind team in the fourth grade. I can’t remember what the activity was called, but we did a warm-up at some of our sessions where an adult would hand us an ordinary object, and we would pass it around the circle making up different explanations of what the object was. (Think “Props,” one of my favorite improv games.)

Now I’m wondering if I love improv, logic problems and lateral thinking puzzles*** because I’m just that type of nerd, or whether I was just inculcated with a love for challenges as an impressionable child. (And if that’s the case, if that’s possible, I am a complete advocate for breeding it in all children.) When I was about 7, my mother went back to Taiwan for a few weeks, leaving my older brother and me under the care of our engineer father, and I distinctly remember him tucking me in at night and asking me logic and math problems in place of bedtime stories.****

I suppose I’m a little anxious about the future and kids these days, as the prematurely old coot that I sometimes am. More than that, though, I’m disappointed, because I’ve seen the tremendous capacity for creativity that young people have, especially when they are given the opportunity to express themselves and placed in an environment of high expectations. We aren’t doing enough to foster divergent thinking, and it’s weird.

Update (completed about 20 minutes later): Speaking of creativity and the need for innovative solutions, I just read about this program: “Wash and Learn” stations student-teachers in laundromats in low-income neighborhoods to encourage young children to read or get homework help while their parents do laundry. (The student-teachers also gain one-on-one teaching experience, the parents get a little bit of quiet time, and the laundromat owner gains added value.) Also, this quote is just awesome:

For example, when Rodney Pearson, 6, walked in with a shy demeanor and a pair of drumsticks, Mrs. Smith asked him if he wanted to come over and read and he shook his head no. Then, as the boy was walking away slowly, she asked if he wanted to read about dinosaurs. He pivoted around and was soon sitting on a lap, lost in a tale of meat- and plant-eaters.

* I first heard of this exercise at a corps member-led CY session about rethinking public education, also how I learned of RSA Animate. (Watch this video of Sir Ken Robinson discussing new educational paradigms; it’s awesome.) Nick wanted to kick of the session by having all of us consider divergent thinking. Researchers did a longitudinal study, asking different groups to come up with all of the possible uses of a paper clip. Kindergarteners are able to come up with hundreds of uses, and as you move upward in age brackets, people come up with fewer and fewer responses. As Nick put it, highly divergent thinkers are less likely to restrict themselves by limiting the size of the paper clip — it can be a giant paper clip statue! I had my copy editing students (about 25 19- to 21-year-olds) start with this exercise last week, and the majority had fewer than 15, with only two who had more than 20. (It was earlyish on a Sunday, and they stopped trying after about 7 minutes.)

** Such as, for example, my student nonchalantly drawing on a textbook cover with a pen. (It’s hers, she had to buy it, so that makes it OK! I suggested that she resell it, but her dad donated last year’s books back to the tutoring academy … because he’s weird.) She was also manhandling a paperback against the edge of a table, until she realized I was cringing at her. (I just spent a few minutes trying to find that FoxTrot strip where Paige uses a paperback as a spitshield because her mother is raving about literature, and Andy stops, wipes her mouth and asks “Did you break the spine of that book?” That will be me, future children.

*** The childhood Christmas present I remember most clearly was a set of three books of lateral thinking puzzles.

**** He did also tell bedtime stories, for the record. There was an amazing one about an animal sneezing into an over-peppered bowl of noodles, which ends up as a wig on a hippopotamus — I guess you had to be there.