Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris, a city close to my young heart


That's the only word right now.

I can't even process what's going on in Paris. I can't imagine what it's like to be there now, to be a resident there right now. This is a city I love.


When I was in college, I took a winter session course with one of my dearest friends that was called France and Economy, or something like that. I was an English major taking an economics class. What was I thinking? Math --at least college math-- was not my strong suit (high school math was a breeze). I got a C in Basic Accounting (Who gets a C in basic accounting?? I do. Me. The lit nerd.). And now I'm going to take a French economics course when I can't even understand my own personal economics?? What the what?

Here's the draw: I got to go to Paris and Evian during winter break!

How could I not sign up for this class? This was my chance to "go abroad" as I was too chicken to commit to an entire semester living overseas. And it was in France! The country I have loved since seventh grade when my parents signed me up for French class instead of Spanish, unbeknownst to me. I will admit that my seventh grade self was mad at this as everyone else was taking Spanish. French was just weird with all their rough throaty Rs. But after a month of classes, I loved the feel of the language in my mouth, in my throat: the softness of vowels against consonants that undulated with their own softness, alternating with occasional sharp edges. And yes, I learned to love those throaty Rs.

This was the country I fell in love with in high school when I went on a ten-day school trip, as I fumbled my way through the teenage years. To see, first-hand, the things I had studied: Versailles and its Hall of Mirrors, the Louvre and Mona Lisa herself, the Arc de Triomphe, and of course, la Tour Eiffel. It was an experience that helped shape me -- to physically connect with the abstract concepts presented in a textbook. These were actual things that helped create the very city I stood in. Of course, the Parisian reputation of being the city of love helped a little, too. When you're seventeen, everything is about love, or the lack of it.

So I signed up for this college course, under the guise of furthering my education, of branching out. Really, I just wanted to go to France with my best friend.

There, in Paris and later in Evian, there was a lot of fumbling around. Or as I liked to call it at that time: exploring.

I visited all the places I had seen in high school and then some. I checked out the Centre Georges Pompidou, the modern art museum, and found myself baffled by a piece that was simply a small canvas painted, in its entirety, a bright blue. I was blown away by the stained glass windows of Notre Dame, particularly, of course, the Rose Window. I did some shopping on the Champs Elysees and took advantage of the no-drinking-age life by having wine with every lunch and dinner I had. I felt fancy, grown up. I remember climbing the steps to Sacre Coeur and visiting Montmartre, seeing all of the artists painting and selling their work. I remember thinking, that's what I want to do: create art and sell it -- what an amazing life that must be! Yes, totally romanticized notions of the artist's life, but at the essence of that was my desire to create and to be true to one's life calling.

I loved my routine of going to the boulangerie and getting a baguette and some camembert cheese and walking around the city while eating it. Yes, I ate and walked. At the same time. Maybe this is how Parisians stay so slim despite their dairy-heavy cuisine, I thought to myself.

I loved speaking French. Because I was not white and, thus, not obviously American (at least in my mind), I tried so hard to hide my American accent when I spoke French. I didn't want to be seen as American -- this was when Parisians had the reputation of hating Americans in that snobby kind of way (as in, "You're American? I will give you a hard time."). Of course, I came to find that this was not the case as I engaged with so many wonderful, generous people, some of whom even tried to help me with my pronunciations. Sure, there were a select few who were bent on proving the snobby-Parisian reputation ("Non, je ne parle pas anglais" when I just heard you speak English to that other person!), but on the whole, I found a city full of kind people.

But the fumbling around? That's describing the interactions our group had with each other while in Paris. Various hookups and dramatic fights and plenty of drunk crying. Surprising for a group of college students, right? Funny enough, I wasn't part of that (except for maybe the drunk part) -- I was the observer. Figures. The poet and writer taking notes in her little journal, dreaming of the day that she can sit in a Parisian cafe, maybe at a small sidewalk table, with a cup of cafe au lait and, just for fun, a cigarette. Needless to say, I learned a lot on that trip.

This is why I consider Paris to be my coming-of-age city.


When I heard about the attacks in Paris last night, my skin rose into goosebumps. My body didn't want to move. As I write this, I want to stay glued to the computer and watch the news feeds on The Guardian for updates. I don't know anyone personally in Paris. I have a friend who is from there, who has family living there; I have no updates from him. I cannot imagine what he must be experiencing now, being here, in the US. 

But even though I know no one in the City of Lights, I do know the city itself as a real living presence in my life. For this to happen, for a group of people to try to put out the lights of this city, it breaks my heart. I felt so much love in Paris, so much creative energy, so much possibility that for something like this to happen, how can I not grieve?

I know that there are complex politics at play here. I know that. I am not trying to gloss over the political significance of these attacks and what the consequences will look like. I know that those consequences will not be ones that I agree with. I know we live in a world that grows increasingly violent.

I just want to take the time to grieve the loss of life, of human life, in great numbers. To honor the love that I feel for Paris. To do this before the grief turns to anger, to defiance, to questions about next-actions. Grief first. Then, maybe, when I'm ready, then love.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Post-BinderCon notes

This past weekend was BinderCon NY, a conference for women writers. It's more about the business of writing and networking, but there were a couple of workshops that addressed the act of writing ("Writing the (An)Other", "Three months, 100 pages"). I came away with a few great insights.

Insight 1: Career as writer

You don't have to be just a creative writer (poet, novelist, etc) to earn income as a writer. When you do this, you tend to have teaching as your income-generating gig -- an income that is meager if you're an average writer and not some national literary superstar. Creative writers tend to need to produce "great works of literature" in order to make money from their writing. I know one fiction writer who is desperately trying to finish her novel because that will lead to more (and possibly better) teaching jobs. She is worried she will not be able to provide for her kids (she's a single parent). (Notice that the writing of the novel is to get another teaching job, not to get paid handsomely for writing a novel.) Poets need not apply. There is no money in poetry.

Veronica Chambers, who conducted this workshop, posed the possibility of writing 100 pages in three months. What's funny is that I came away with the idea of earning income from writing and can't remember what she said about getting those 100 pages written (but I have notes!). I do remember her saying, "I didn't say they would be good pages." Anyway, she has written twentysome books --from children's books to her latest book written with Michael Strayhan. This is what she said that stuck with me (I'm paraphrasing): she "came up", career wise, with Edwidge Danticat (with whom she's good friends) and Junot Diaz -- meaning, they are peers. While Edwidge & Junot both have to write phenomenal literary books to earn income (outside of teaching) --which happens over a long period of time in which the book is being created-- she has made a profession out of writing. Meaning, she's always writing and getting paid for writing. Magazine writing. Novels. Co-authoring. Writing children's books. Writing self-help, inspirational books. Her writing knows no genre bounds!

This is something I'm chewing on.

Insight 2: Time

Where am I giving my time away? How am I spending my time?

Both Veronica's workshop and another workshop on working as a full-time artist (called "Tools for Transition") addressed the subject of time. In Veronica's workshop, she said that we needed to honor our writing like we honor appointments. So, schedule writing time. Put it down in your appointment book. This is something I do already, BUT I don't do that with reading. Reading is writing; it's part of the process. So now, I am scheduling reading and doing my best to not devalue that time I've dedicated to reading (you know how that goes: "Oh, I can read that later -- I have to do laundry now -- it's piling up!").

In this "Tools for Transition" workshop, Yolanda Wisher gave us concrete ways of seeing how we use our time. And I did not like what I saw.

First: a pie chart. There are 168 hours in a week. When you put it that way, it doesn't sound like a lot of hours. So Yolanda broke down those 168 hours into a pie chart, showing where her time was spent when she was working a traditional full-time job.  Fourteen of those hours were spent commuting. That's a lot of hours in the car. Over half --maybe two-thirds-- of her pie chart was time spent driving, sleeping, and at the job. I thought about my own pie chart (which I have yet to do on paper) and asked: is that how I want to spend my life? Mostly in a traditional job?? And driving?? Hmmm...

Second: the formula. Take the age you think you'll live to (I think I'm going to live to be a hundred) and subtract your current age. Take that number and divide by three. Take that number and multiply by 365. Take that answer and multiply by 24. The result? The waking hours you have left to live. I looked at that number and thought: holy shit! That's not a lot of hours. Not for a lifetime. And I want to live to 100! And while this might be depressing to some, it was a motivator for me. I want to spend my time more wisely. I want to be doing things that will contribute to my goal of THRIVING in this life.

And so, I'm reassessing.

How am I spending my time now? And how do I want to spend my time? What can I do to make sure I'm making the most of my time? (Well, for one: less time on FB would be helpful!) How can I balance my time between the things that I need to do, the things that are good for me (like sleep!), and the things I want to do? How do I honor boundaries? Meaning, for one, how can I make myself *stop* working all of the time? I really mean, ALL of the time.

I don't have answers but I am thinking about these questions and trying out different things. We'll see how it goes.


On an entirely separate subject, I signed up for a speed pitch session with a literary agent at this conference. Something I hesitated to do, but got some encouragement with "Why not? It'll be a good learning experience." and "Think about it like a cocktail party conversation." So, I felt confident. Yes, I said. I'll sign up, go in, talk to the agent --who I'm reminded is also an actual human being!-- and see what happens.

And what happened?


Now, as a poet, I don't need an agent. We won't get into the business of poetry business because that will just depress me. I signed up for the pitch session because I'm also working on short stories and personal essays. I went in with the intention to gather as much information about the publishing landscape for prose as I could. Good strategy, yes? Yes.

And then the appointment time completely slipped my mind.

I had lunch with a bunch of friends and got all wrapped up in various conversations. My pitch was a little after lunch. I totally forgot. After lunch, I headed over to the next session with everyone I was with. I happened to look at my watch at 2:47pm. A panic seized me. Shit! My pitch! It was at 2:45pm. I grabbed my things & left the session. On my way to the elevator, I asked myself, should I even go? It's a ten-minute pitch and by the time I get there... Shit, shit, shit. One of the staff was encouraging, saying, well, you still have time, even if it's just five minutes. She had a point. Better to go for it with whatever time I had left than to do nothing. At the very least, I could apologize so that this agent didn't think me to be intentionally rude and unprofessional. But still. How awful.

The pitch itself was a mess. After profusely apologizing, I mentioned my two projects and rambled on about the short story collection. When I realized I was doing this, I shifted my talk to questions that I had prepared for her. What's the publishing landscape like right now for this kind of project? I needed to take the focus off me. I also needed to just stop talking. And just when I was about to get some really good info from her, they called time & made us all leave. I apologized again and left, mentally kicking myself for this disaster.

The good news? Aside from being on time, I know what I need to do next time I sign up for a pitch (which I do see myself doing). I also now have some new questions for the short story I've been working on lately, which may add the depth it's been missing. We'll see. I'm just feeling slightly bad because some folks have shared good experiences with their pitch sessions, including the awesome "send me some pages". *sigh* I guess I have a lot more work to do if I'm going to be a fictionist, too.

On that note, I'd better get to writing work!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Out of the Binders

I'm going to BinderCon today! Woo! I'll post updates (if there's wi-fi) as the conference unfolds.

First up: keynote by Lizz WInstead, co-creator of "The Daily Show"

Stay tuned!

Oh yeah, and I'm one of fifty BinderCon scholars. So that's cool. :)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The frenzy of social media & racism

I think I need to take a break from social media. Heck, I might need a break from the entire internet.

Yes, we all know how quick information gets disseminated. You blink and thirty new things are posted on your FB news feed. And it's on us to discern what's worth our time. The cute kitten videos? Sure, if you want to procrastinate from grading papers. The first-person essay about some shocking personal story slap-dashed together in five minutes? No thanks. Reports on the latest act of racism? Maybe.

But that's when things get overwhelming.

In the latest display of white privilege in the US, Matt Damon, an executive producer of Project Greenlight (a reality show about filmmaking, more or less) takes it upon himself to educate Effie Brown, an accomplished film producer who happens to be a black woman, on diversity. Seriously?? Seriously. He INTERRUPTS her to say: "When we're talking about diversity you do it in the casting of the film not in the casting of the show." Are you hearing yourself, Matt?? One, you interrupt the only person of color associated with this show. Two, as a man, you interrupt a woman. Three, you're telling someone who LIVES as an Other about diversity? Seriously?? Four, diversity isn't just about "showing" it on the screen with actors. I thought you were smarter than that. Guess I was wrong.

I am so pissed off. I am so outraged by this continual bullshit we people of color experience on a daily basis. Not surprised, but outraged nonetheless. And fed up, too. It's the twenty-first fucking century, people! What's it going to take for real change to happen?

Maybe that's the problem. Maybe we've all been fooled into thinking that change has been happening. Look at the civil rights movement and how that changed history. Which is not to say that the movement didn't make change --it certainly did!! And I am ever grateful!-- but that the trajectory of that change has stalled. Big time. The difference now is that we see it for ourselves. With our own eyes. On FB, Twitter, Tumblr -- you name it, it's here. In our faces. All of the time. Change isn't happening as much as we'd like to think. Racism and the structures that support it are so deeply seated that white folks can't see it. That, or they refuse to see it because it would mean they lose their privileges.

Take a look at the Black Lives Matter movement. Once the hashtag took off, some white person (probably a man) decided that hey, that's not fair -- ALL lives matter. See what just happened there? The erasure of black lives. (Note the double entendre of that last statement.)

But there is hope. As quickly as social media put the spotlight on Matt Damon, folks were quick to respond righteously. The speed with which "Damonsplaining" was born seems promising. We are working to hold people accountable for their actions, calling them out on their injustice --whether they're aware of it or not. Is Matt truly aware of what he just did? Based on his comments later in the show ("I'm glad Effie flagged the issue of diversity for all of us."), I'm guessing not. Which is too bad.

With regard to that White Guy who put on yellowface and got into Best American Poetry, Asian American Writers Workshop put together a forum in which Asian American poets and writers have responded. And they did it quick. Check it out here.

You know what else is promising? The National Book Awards just announced their long list of nominations for poetry. The judging panel is comprised for three writers of color and two women. Hooray! The long list has 5 books out of 10 written by poets-of-color. Yesss!!! (My fave to win is Ross Gay's Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.)

So while I'm angry and exhausted by all of the bullshit that too many white folks are saying isn't racist, these other instances are showing me (and, I hope, you) that there is movement towards more significant change. And that this will incite you to help us along into growing this movement into fundamental societal change.

Friday, September 11, 2015

That poetry scandal and September eleventh

I've been wanting to write about this all week, but between trying to adjust to the craziness of back-to-school and re-entering my "regular" life after spending two weeks of just writing in the mountains, I haven't had any time until now.

In this moment, on the morning of September 11th, it is challenging to focus on the Best American Poetry debacle. (Google it if you don't know what I'm talking about. I do not want to set up links here. Most of the shit out there is too awful. But you can go here and here for two spot-on responses.) After all, what's it matter that a white guy assumed a Chinese pen name (which, it turns out, is the name of a former female classmate, making his offense even more severe) and got his mediocre poem published in an anthology edited by a celebrated Native American poet and writer?

It matters to me.

Yes, I'm offended and pissed off that some white guy decides that because his poem was rejected forty times, he would try it under a pen name. An Asian pen name. Because, hey, he thinks, minority poets and writers get published all of the time just because of their name. Right. Hey, asshole: did you ever think that maybe just *maybe* the poem was rejected because it sucked? Because, oh, I don't know, maybe it needed some REVISION?? This is what real poets and writers do. We revise. When rejection comes at us forty times, we step back and say, Hmm - what's not working? Is it the poem? Or maybe the poem doesn't fit the journal's aesthetic vision? It's called writing. Get a fucking clue.

But here's where I'm REALLY pissed off: Sherman Alexie, celebrated Native American poet and writer whose work I love, was the BAP editor who consciously decided to include the poem anyway, even *after* learning that Yi-Fen Chou was actually a white guy from Indiana. The fuck??? He wrote a whole long-ass piece explaining his decision process, a piece that was so convoluted I wondered if he was trying to convince himself that he did the right thing. It was like reading a train wreck. I'm here to tell you: he did not do the right thing. He possessed a power that few writers of color have and he gave it away. He gave it to White Guy, showing white folks that hey, you, too, can submit your work under an Asian pen name and get published even *after* the jig is up! He also showed us writers of color that despite knowing this white guy is committing literary yellowface, even he, Sherman Alexie, an activist in his own right, is subject to white supremacy. From where I'm standing, it looks like he was too afraid of what the white folks would say more so than what his fellow writers of color would say. And that's just utterly disappointing. He even admitted that he's committing an injustice against writers of color, particularly Chinese and Asian writers. Gee, thanks for the confession. Makes things all better now. Fuck that shit. Now you've got every editor questioning: is this really an Asian writer or is there a white guy behind it? I don't want to get duped. Or criticized for wanting to include writers of color. Thanks a fucking lot.

And here's another question that no one in communities of color really wants to ask in public (for fear of creating division when we need unity right now, but I want to ask because I'm pissed off as an Asian-American poet): had White Guy assumed a Native pen name, would Alexie still have done the same thing? Would he have gone ahead and published that terrible poem? My guess is no. But I'm not Alexie, so what do I know?

But it doesn't stop there.

In the past week or so since I've returned from VSC, there were two other racialized events that happened. At the Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta, two big names in feminism met up for a conversation on stage, the keynote event: Roxane Gay (who kicks ass! LOVE her!) and Erica Jong (considered a foundational figure in feminism). That conversation became awkward and uncomfortable when an audience member asked about the inclusion of women of color in feminism. Go here for a quick and effective summary of what went down.

There's also the terrible mess of Kate Gale's attempt at satire in a HuffPo post about AWP and its relationship with marginalized communities. (Google if you want to read it.) "Attempt" is the key word. Failure is the result. She, a founding editor of the respected Red Hen Press, ended up offending a lot of communities. This, coming after other acts of racist shit from AWP-affiliated white folks (Vanessa Place, for example). You'd think she would've known better. But guess what? It gets worse. Last week, an "established" (I really hate that word and all the connotations it carries: privilege, white --things like that. But that's for another discussion.) poet, Carole Muske-Dukes, came to Gale's rescue (As if Gale needed rescuing.) with her own ramblings on, again, HuffPo. (Honestly, I am so done with that place. They treat writers like shit. Meaning, they don't pay them. And they will "publish" just about anything! How the "mighty" have fallen.) This little gem of shit was clearly not edited for cohesiveness or --heck, it was probably typed up on the spot and HuffPo just clicked "publish". From a writing standpoint, it sucks. From a human standpoint, it's offensive. More so than whatever crap Gale wrote. Dukes compares Gale's critics (who are, more often than not, writers of color) to ISIS. What?? Seriously? How I can take someone like that seriously? I cannot. Clearly she is not of right mind. Either that, or she's just outright racist, thinking that all people of color can be conflated into a single terrorist group.

So what does all of this racial crap in the literary world have to do with anything?

Fourteen years ago today, a bunch of assholes attacked and killed so many innocent people to send a message to our government. After that, most Arab folks --if not all-- have been given the side eye, stopped for no reason at all other than the fact that they're brown, put on no-fly lists because of their weird-sounding names. You'd think in the twenty-first century, we'd learn something from our relatively short history as a nation. But ah, how quickly America suffers from amnesia!

What I am seeing is racism spreading everywhere (which is not to suggest that racism ever went away -- it was just better disguised. Until now.). And quickly. How many brown bodies have to die at the hands of white cops? (Did you hear about tennis star, James Blake getting tackled(!!) and arrested by NYPD? Seriously??) Divisions are popping up and in high relief. Having a black president means nothing. If anything, according to some intellectuals, it has exacerbated racism. The bottom line is: we cannot deny that something is very wrong in our country. And yet-- And yet--

I don't have any answers. I never claimed to. All I want to do I call things out for what they are. That's the job of poets and writers. You don't like it? Too bad.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Post-VSC: reminiscing

As with all good things that come to an end, I feel the need to reminisce, to replay as many moments as I can with the intent to sear those memories into my brain in order to relive them when I am feeling shitty about my writing or my process or my general calling to this vocation of poet-writer. (How's that for a long-ass sentence?)

I can sense that my adjustment period is going to come to a screeching halt. The last stages of reentry will incinerate me, but I have no control over these matters. I start teaching tomorrow. There's one big reality check. The kids begin ballet classes tomorrow (what??). School starts next Tuesday. And with it: all the extracurricular activities. My writing circle begins a week from today. Various appointments (doctors, dentists, etc.) that were made earlier this summer are now upon us (what was I thinking??). Yup. My actual life is upon me.


I still have an hour or so before I have to reckon with things like ballet leotards & slippers (do we have those? do they still fit?) and lesson plans. And so, in my refusal to let go, to really revel in my withdrawal from the magic of VSC (does that make me a masochist?), I will stroll down memory lane.

Here's what I miss: I miss writing in my studio in Maverick, the writers building. I miss the sound of the Gihon river outside of my first floor window. That huge, almost-floor-to-ceiling window. The rush of water. I miss my studio. I miss that forest green armchair with the sink-in-this cushion. Perfect for reading. And napping (with a balled up sweatshirt under the head, of course). I miss the white Christmas lights I set up to create that inviting glow, to invite the muses to come in and stay. I miss being the only one in the whole building during the early morning hours. All of that unoccupied space. So quiet. So open.

I miss the Red Mill. That place where we all gathered for meals. For mealtime announcements made with the clinking of empty glasses. Slides tonight! Reading tonight! Slam tonight! Dance party tonight! Happy birthdays! That place for midday water refills. For late night coffee and secret stashes of chips. Oh, chips! Our go-to snack no matter what time of day or night. Thank you, Mobil, for being open so late and having chips.

I miss the Adirondack chairs on Mason Green, down by the river, listening to the water rush by. I miss the bridge. I crossed it at least ten times a day. I miss Mason House. The detail on the wall in the vestibule made me feel like I was traveling through time each time I walked into that house. The hardwood floors. The fantastic library. I am so grateful to have stayed there during my residency.

I miss the swimming breaks, trips to Journey's End and the Green River Reservoir to cool off from those hot humid days in a place where air conditioning is non-existent. (Vermont, they said, has mild summers. Well, so much for that.)

I miss the art supply store. That place where I felt like a kid in a candy shop. All the wonders of visual art at my fingertips. So much natural light coming in. The pastels on the "try it out" table. The pencils, the charcoal, the markers. The paper! The paints. Yes, the paints. I didn't dare to venture to explore the paints, but I admired from afar. (Though, I may consider taking a painting class now.) I was so inspired by the visual artists --and admittedly, a little jealous of their concrete art-- that I bought some of my own supplies and engaged in visual art myself. There was such wonder in creating art on a physical, tactile level. The feel of pastels alone was delicious! (I know: who uses that word to describe feeling rather than taste? Well, me!)

I miss life drawing. To see line and shape, light and shadow in new ways --it changed my vision of things for the rest of the day. I'm not kidding.

I miss the bookstore. That fantastic independent bookstore, Ebenezer Books. An incredible selection of titles --and games! And the folks there are so smart and kind and generous. This is what all indie bookstores should look like!

I miss Lovin Cup Cafe and its unhurried pace. While it would take forever to get through a line and get my iced coffee, I was actually okay with that. Of course, that's only because I had time. I was in no hurry. And what a nice thing to experience. I miss the last-minute "let's grab coffee" talks that ranged from poetry and process to straight up gossip. What I'm really saying is that I miss the camaraderie, the community.

I have my photos. I wish I had taken more. At least more photos of the people I spent time with.

For some reason --and it could be because of the amount of time we spent together, day in and day out-- I have a feeling that I will be seeing these beautiful new friends again. At the very least --and I'm hoping-- that we will definitely stay in touch.

On that note, I should probably get on with it already and fully re-enter my actual life. Now what time does the dancer's shop open?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Post-VSC residency: attempts at decompression

I haven't written about my residency at Vermont Studio Center. Part of it is because I wanted to be present there, to be wholly present without having to worry about documenting it. The other part was that there was just too much happening, too quickly. Lots of writing. A lot. 

As I write this, I am asking myself: who is my audience? Is it those with whom I just spent a transformative two weeks at Vermont Studio Center? Is it those writers and artists who weren’t there but understand the value of a residency and its importance and its effects? Is it those who are not artists but everyday folks who are in my life regularly? I don’t know. Audience is important here because it determines how I speak about my time at VSC. What if I made the audience myself? What would that look like?

As I write this and it approaches the time when my children will wake up, I feel a subtle creeping of anticipation. A slight hint of stress. The house will open up very soon and send chaotic energy into the air. An environment which is most certainly not conducive to writing. At least not for me.

The last two weeks have been heaven. Truly. As corny as that word might be, it really was. It felt luxurious and amazingly necessary at the same time. To be tucked away from the world and only expected to create art: such a generous gift. To be surrounded by not just writers, but visual artists as well: inspiring and encouraging. To be around people who respect and understand the creative process and the different ways in which it manifests is, to me, astounding. I could get up in the middle of a meal and say that I’m onto something, that I’m on a roll – and no one would question it. No one would expect an explanation. And it wouldn’t be seen as rude. Everyone would nod as if to send me on my way. We all honored each individual’s creative process, our creative ebbs and flows.

This is not the first time I’ve spent a block of time with writers, but it is the first time that my process has been honored –and supported-- for what it is, however it is, no questions asked. It’s also the first time I’ve spent with visual artists, which has been incredible. To notice similarities in our creative processes –it seems to me we’re all looking to uncover, explore, and discover things we’re intrigued by—but also to observe the differences (many of them obvious – like medium). The difference in creative process –the concreteness of visual art—inspired me to create some of my own visual art, to explore other modes of expression which lent themselves, later on, to my writing. I love how all of these creative modes have weaved its way into me. I feel like my writing is much richer because of it.

But now that I am back in my regular life, I am having a very difficult time re-adjusting.

How do I sustain this creative energy when my VSC peeps have returned to their homes and I live in an artistic desert? I worry that I will fall back into that pit of suburban existence in which I am merely an adjunct and a taxi driver, a cook and a laundress. Of course, I have the wherewithal to not let this happen. I just have to really make it happen. To exert the energy to move forward and to be deliberate about boundaries. But in practical terms, what does this look like? Do I sign up for a writer’s circle? Do I try to schedule monthly Skype dates with writer-friends? When do I read? I struggle with this last one all of the time. Reading feels like a luxury, not like work, though I know that it is very much an essential part of my work. How do I read without guilt? (This is some big therapy work I need to do here. We won’t make the obvious connect to Catholicism, will we? Oh wait. I just did. So why not throw in the obvious Asian expectations of productivity while we’re at it? Yeah.) I don’t know any answers to these questions. I guess the best thing for me to do is to just try things out and see what happens. Better to try than to remain static.

Also, I am planning to transform my home office into a writing studio. What’s the difference? Anything that is *not* related to writing or anything creative will be purged from this space and put elsewhere. This will be my sacred space in which I can create whatever the hell I want. Or where I can just read. Without guilt. (Hopefully.) I want to follow the examples of the visual artists by having a singular space called a studio in which I create art, nothing more.

On that note, I will head off into the mid-morning to rustle up some grub for the kiddos. Maybe make another cup of coffee. Or, if I’m being honest, go take a nap as I am utterly exhausted. Creating art, writing that many solid-keeper poems in such a short amount of time is a very large emotional investment. Of course I’m exhausted. My VSC friends would agree. And they would nod, sending me off to my studio to take a nap. :)

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The C Word

A woman I know, whose kids are friends with my kids, dropped the “c” word the other day in a conversation with me and another mother. Now, normally, I am not one to censor language, though I do exercise some caution when in the presence of children. (I don’t want to be responsible for birthing the next potty mouth, especially the mouth of one of my own kids.) When this woman said this word, I jumped a little, startled. Our kids were playing in the pool within earshot of the chairs we sat on. I looked over and the kids were so involved in their own playing and their conversation that I don’t think they heard anything.

She was telling a story about how a young woman on beach patrol had asked to see her beach badge, which she did not have. She told of the brief predictable exchange of words that happens in these kinds of situations. She then turned to us story listeners and called the beach patrol woman a “college c---“. My breath caught. I didn’t see how that name-calling was necessary, especially that name. The young woman was just doing her job. (I already dislike this woman. She just made it worse.)

Normally, I don’t like giving power to a certain word. I try to use certain charged or loaded words as often as possible to take their power away, to dull the sting. For example? Fuck. Though I do not say this word in front of my children*, I say it often enough among adults that it no longer carries the forbidden weight it used to carry. I think this is the case, generally: that people are using it more often these days and as a result, has lost its shine. There are only a few words that I refuse to say. Like the “n” word. The “c” word is on the fence for me. I don’t have a problem saying it in class for a lesson on the power of language, but using it to name someone based on their behavior or on one’s opinion of a woman? That bothers me. A lot.

*(I do realize this defeats my purpose of refusing to give power and significance to certain words, by allowing this word to carry enough weight that it is stricken from my language around my kids, heck, kids in general. But hey, we’re all walking contradictions, right?)

I’ve been thinking about how language is constantly in flux, how meanings and usage shift and change over time. Will this happen with the “c” word? I don’t know. For some people, it might. For others like me, I don’t forsee it losing its vulgar sting. The hard sound of the “c” followed by the softness of the “un” and forcefully end-stopped by the short sound of the “t” – how can that NOT sting? The sounds alone are harsh. That middle softness misleads you into thinking “oh it’s not that bad” but then BAM! That “t” cuts right into you. And that’s just the sound of the word. Its meaning just adds to it. To use this word in order to relegate a woman to a thing is awful. To have a woman do this to another woman is doubly awful.

Language is a funny, odd thing. So limiting in capturing the exact emotions of our hearts, but yet it finds a way to singe us, to pierce us.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What to say about Charleston

"So it is better to speak
we never never meant to survive."
--Audre Lorde, "A Litany for Survival"

I'm reading Roxane Gay's essay collection, Bad Feminist. In her introduction, she mentions on more than one occasion that she is messy, that humans are flawed and messy. "I am just one woman trying to make sense of this world we live in. I'm raising my voice to show all the ways we have room to want more, to do better." What a relief to read this introduction, to know that here is someone, saying loudly, that she is not perfect. And yet, she still goes ahead and writes anyway. This is what writers do: we write anyway. I know that I'm not perfect, but for someone to announce this publicly, on a big stage, is really quite a relief. My thought was: hey, I'm not alone! How awesome!

This is why we write. At least, this is why I write. To make sense of the world and my place in it. To tell my stories because I know there are people out there who think they're the only ones but maybe they'll read my stories and think what I thought: hey, I'm not alone! But also to be the example I never had, to be the leader I never had. To write the books I've always wanted to read, the ones where I can see myself in them instead of on the sidelines. Who's writing stories about a second-generation Filipina from Jersey who grew up in the eighties? No one I know. Why would anyone care? Because I know there are second-generation Filipinos (heck, just people with immigrant parents!) out there now who are trying to navigate that space between our parents' world (aka the "old country") and our own "new-terrain" American world. And boy, what a relief it might be for them to know how someone before them survived (and continues to survive) it all.

But this is not what this post is about.

This post is about Charleston. This post is about race. This post is about trying to navigate the hurt, the grief, the mourning, the outrage, the disgust, the disheartenment.

At least for me.

And this post will be messy. Completely messy. Totally human.

I've been sitting with stunned silence for a week now. Not knowing what to say really. Everything that wants to come out of my mouth is nothing new. And that is the most frustrating part for me -- that I have nothing new to contribute to the conversation. Still, I know that I need to speak even if it's the same thing everyone else is saying. It's important to speak. To be heard. For the very reasons I listed above: to let others know we are not alone in our experiences, in our existence. I'm also frustrated for other reasons. I've tried journaling about it, trying to process it all. I can't even think about poems. Words seem like a failure. How do you express the chaos of emotions? Nine people are dead. Nine black people. Nine disciples of Jesus. At the hands of a man who was welcomed in fellowship and sat with them for an hour. A white man who then shot them dead. In the house of God. How do you begin to process that? How do you explain the combination of shock, grief, and --what's the word? is there a word? A word for that feeling of "nothing has changed"? Resignation? A word for feeling "we, people of color, all know and have known that nothing has truly changed despite the fact that we have a black president"? Is there a word for that?

We are not a post-racial society. Who first introduced this idea anyway? (Probably some white guy.) What does that even mean, "post-racial"? Is it supposed to mean that we're so far beyond racism that we no longer see differing races (i.e.. the myth of racial colorblindness) ? Or it is supposed to mean that we embrace and treat all races equally? Either meaning is bullshit. The trouble with the issue of race these days is that it's more subtle, which is more insidious. How many articles are out there on microaggresions? Lots. Here is one. Here is The Microagressions Project. Why more insidious? Because it places doubt in the minds of those who have been aggressed. (How terrible is that?! To be taught to distrust your instincts?) Because the aggressor downplays his/her language. There's a lot of "oh, I didn't mean it like that". Or because s/he truly doesn't understand that the language is so coded with racism that s/he doesn't know what s/he's saying -- true ignorance. Because no one would readily admit s/he is racist. Read Claudia Rankine's Citizen if you don't believe me. 

The media, predictably, has not used the word "terrorist" or "massacre" to describe the shooting at Emanuel AME Church. "Tragedy" has been the popular term. Charleston "shooting" is another. To which some have responded: this is not a tornado or hurricane we're talking about -- this is the death of nine people intentionally shot in a church. The media, predictably, is trying to humanize the shooter. [His name will not be mentioned on this blog. He does not deserve to be named.] "Mentally ill" they say, as a way to take him off the hook of responsibility. (Which certainly does no favors for the fight against the stigma attached to mental illness.) Not that there was any documentation written by his own hand about his hate for black people in this country. "Hate crime" the police say. Thanks, Masters of the Obvious (aka MOTO). And yet. And yet. Had he been a Muslim with brown skin who shot white folks in a church, I'm sure as hell they would be screaming "terrorist" and "massacre". National security would get bumped up from orange to red (do they even do that color thing anymore?). And they would paint this person as an extremist thug, dehumanizing him by talking about his blind devotion to his religion. We have all seen this narrative way too often that it has now become a cliche.

I am tired of this bullshit.

But I am also heartbroken. Death at the hands of another is still death. Is still the loss of life. The loss of light.

So what is there to say? Our country is broken. It has been for a very long time. Probably since its birth. And we are all trying to get it right. Fighting to make it right. At least the people I know. The people in power don't seem the least bit interested in doing anything that would take their power (and their money) away. So it's an uphill battle. But if enough of us speak out, if enough of us scream and demand what's right, maybe something will happen. Look at how quickly the battle flag of the south [again, a name which will not be mentioned on this blog] is becoming a discarded icon. Major retailers have immediately stopped selling it. People are calling for its removal, while a handful are holding steadfastly to their legacies, failing to see that it's a legacy of hate and violence. This is what can happen when we speak. Someone might be listening. And for those of us who were never meant to survive (which means, for me, we've got nothing to lose! so go all out!), speaking out just might change that.

Roxane Gay has written a piece in the New York Times about why she can't forgive the shooter. I am with her on this, all the way. She has articulated what I've been thinking, but haven't been able to put the words together. Thank you, Roxane, for this.

Nayomi Munaweera has also written something that has resonated me, reminding me of why we continue to write, why we must persist. Thank you, Nayomi, for this, "Writing Race the Day After Charleston".

I'm sitting here saying, hey, I'm not alone! And I am grateful.

Let us remember the names of those who were taken from this world too soon: Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Re-entry, Day 3

I started to write a different post, one about Ross's lecture and our one-on-one conference. But then I hesitated, got side tracked, asked myself: what is it that I want to say about those two things? What did I want to share? I didn't know. So I stopped.

I've had this blog for many years, but have never been really consistent in keeping its content current. (The fact that the word "content" now means something having to do with a website already bothers me--but how else to speak of the words found on a website?-- and the fact that I'm doing it now to talk about my blog gives me the heebie-jeebies.) Being at Bread Loaf Orion gave me some purpose to writing daily, reporting on the happenings at the conference, sharing some new insights. Now that it's over and I am trying to process all that I've learned and discovered, I'm self-conscious about what I put here. How much do I think aloud in a public space? How much do I keep to myself? How does that choice matter to the results of discovery? It matters. A lot. Sometimes, sharing messes with the magic. Sharing before it's ready, that is.

So instead, I will talk about re-entry into my usual routine of life. How I am reluctant to just jump right back into the harried pace of my suburban Jersey life. I have a million errands to run, some of which I should probably do today (like go food shopping... we kinda need to eat), but I am reluctant to do them. I really don't want to interact with people. I just want to hole up in my house and write. And read. There is plenty I want to read! But that is not feasible for a mother, particularly one whose children are involved in various afterschool activities. So how does one get back into the world without totally destroying the magic of Bread Loaf? Without leaving it so far behind that it feels only like a dream?

I don't know.

Time keeps moving and there are things in place that are happening, that have been planned, that are inevitable. I cannot avoid them or stop them from happening. So I guess I just have to go with the flow and see it as my return to the sea.

One thing I considered doing in order to ease this transition was yoga. I have yet to try that. Maybe tomorrow morning. The other thing: knitting. Two very physical acts that engage one on various levels: physical, emotional, psychological. Maybe that will help me get grounded and centered. Clear-minded. Maybe.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

What I haven't said

I spent this morning in my home office, writing, trying to process all that has happened during my week at Bread Loaf Orion, trying to decompress. I journaled. I wrote a letter to a friend (by hand!). I have the seeds of a new poem geminating in my head, but have yet to put it in ink. And now, I am here. With two young children (out of three) sitting with journals of their own, whispering to each other and writing. I know what it sounds like: oh, how sweet! Trust me when I say this moment will last another thirty seconds. And I want at least thirty minutes to write this post. My youngest is already moaning about being bored, about not wanting to participate in the game her sister has invented, one that involves naming letters (sounds like a modified version of Hangman). And I am back, vacillating between wanting to engage with them & their game and wanting to set cereal boxes on the kitchen table, telling them to eat, and allowing them all the television they want so I can write.

Welcome home.

I'm already missing the magic of Bread Loaf, of being among people who share in my passion of language and life, of commas and the earth. Of being in the mountains. As I reread the posts of my experiences this past week, I notice that there is a lot unsaid. What is that about? Is it about a lack of time to explore what I want to share? That's part of it. Is it about a reluctance to really be open & vulnerable to the oft-times terrible world that is the internet (namely, the trolls)? Maybe. But what I have pushed myself to do all week was to allow myself to remain in uncomfortable spaces, to venture into unfamiliar locations. To take risks. So why should a blog post be different?

Soooo, let's see...

I've been thinking about my conversation with Ross about poems, about the making of poems and their origins, about the different positionings of a speaker, about the positions of poems themselves -- coming from a place of knowing versus a place of not-knowing. And I'll tell ya: I loved that conversation, loved how I had to think (!) to really THINK and explore and examine. But what do I want to say about it here? I'm not sure. I just know that I wanted to at least make mention of it.


I think I've lost my momentum, my train of thought, due to the presence of little children, arguing over who gets to control the mouse (I have since allowed them access to, a site comprised of learning games for primary grade school children.) in the small space of my office that once was peaceful with silence. Shit. Moment's gone. Guess I'll feed us all breakfast now.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Entries and re-entries

So today is my last day of the conference. Most people are leaving tomorrow after breakfast, but I am departing after today's lunch as today is my husband's birthday and I don't want to miss the family birthday dinner!

I am reluctant to leave the amazing nurturing bubble of this writing conference but it has to come to an end sometime. But before I go ruminating on that, a recap from last night:

* Terrific morning lecture by Ginger Strand with accompanying slideshow, which was not a powerpoint presentation, but more visual aid to what she was saying, an illustration. I'm re-thinking Niagara Falls, the geography of interstate highways, the landscape of small towns in decline. She was both insightful and hilarious, playing with language in her lecture. This whole conference, in general, has been thinking and re-thinking about a lot of things, much of which I hope to retain! (Sometimes mommy brain causes amnesia. One of the side effects of motherhood.)

* Workshop! We talked about a couple of my poems --again, the folks in this group offered insightful feedback. I got some new ways to think about and approach my work. It was really helpful in giving me ways to turn the poem(s) in my hand like a jewel and look at all the facets, how the light hits each angle, and how to enter the poem in a different way.

* Lunch conversation: we talked about the written word, about how that's a commitment to making the internal external, to making it real --an actual thing-- by putting it down in ink on paper. How that makes it a concrete, tangible thing. Something you can hold in your hands. And how, usually, you can't take it back once you've put it out there. Sure, you can burn it --but it's already seen the light of day. You've put it outside of yourself. Even saying things out loud: once you put it out there, you can't take it back. Like toothpaste: you can't put it back in the tube.

* Afternoon class: a roundtable discussion with the editors of Orion magazine. Helpful information about the print publishing process, particularly knowing their 6 month lead time. It must be difficult to not get caught up in the pace of instant gratification of digital publishing. But in listening to them, they sound really really invested in putting together an outstanding magazine. And that is awesome!

* Evening festivities: they bussed us up to Snow Bowl (a ski resort) for a Friday night outing. Happy hour, dinner, live music, and if you were so inclined, dancing. It was a good time (I'll leave that to your imagination). We even took a class photo:


Now, I'm in reflective mode. Thinking about this week and all that has happened. How much my brain has stretched and reached in ways that I have missed. How I hope those pathways are strengthened and can brighten with more frequent use. A lot has happened, new ideas have been born, and to be in community with other writers is quite a thing to be cherished. One of my new poet-friends, Kate, told me that she tends to feel effusive at these kinds of things. There is a kind of love here, built through support and empathy in this journey called writing. And I will miss that. Not that this is an end--no, it's not--but that the daily-ness of this kind of interaction, of this feeling will end. I plan to stay connected with my new poet-friends, hoping this is the beginning of sustaining the growth we have all started here at Bread Loaf Orion.

(On a half-joking side note: re-entry into the regular world is going to be a bitch!)