Tag Archives: writing

Dream Notes

Dreams from the last 7 months

  • A younger Asian American poet asks me for help with getting their work published. I help somehow and remember the feeling.
  • A body lies on the ground. A body sits near it. The sitting body begins to levitate. I am the one sitting.
  • I was working for the ACLU and hosted a social/work party.
  • I explain the Asian American class to Rushi. I play a video about it.
  • Dreamt that I visited Ian, Elizabeth, and Dannon (former housemates). Ian had a long, complex poetic letter for me. I felt weirdddddd.
  • Sid is on a talent show like American Idol, but the skill is cooking. I’m there to support him, which means I make out with him. For the finale, his parents are there too. I’m sitting between the two of them.
  • I visit SF but end up accidentally going on what seems like a date with an Indian man, the wrong one. He was a man sitting next to me at the bar in a restaurant while I was waiting for my real date. The man invites me to dance. I dance and on the dance floor, Sid shows up. I dance with with Sid and it feels so good, so right. I want to be with him, not the stranger. The other man notices and I explain who Sid is. The man leaves. I want to spend time with my real date but he is upset as well. He storms off. I cannot reach him. Eventually I do, but he avoids the topic. I go to see him and knock on his door late at night.
  • I got married to a Viet guy I didn’t know as well as I wanted to. But he was great. The wedding was interesting… like we posed for pics at the altar. We had great sex in the courtyard honeymoon suite of the hotel. I was surprised.
  • I am in a science fiction/alien movie, but the Black/POC version. Mostly, the dream devolves into me and Tony Jack walking around and eating gluten free cookies while analyzing why the department is not as successful as it could be. People are beginning to run away, maybe there are predators after all. I’m afraid.
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The time I met Jericho Brown but didn’t know he was Jericho Brown

It was a warm day in March earlier this year. I was in Miami at AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), the largest literary gathering in North America. Writers were everywhere. I remember taking a break in the conference hall, curled up in a nook and charging my phone. My eyes widened as I saw Ross Gay 20 feet from me, just catching up with Danez Smith, Fatima Asghar, and Franny Choi. Getting to listen to, interact with, or just stare at Tyehimba Jess, Bich Minh Nguyen, Patricia Smith, Don Mee Choi, and so on and so on.

So I should have expected to meet writers everywhere.

On the first day of the conference, at 8AM I was at an acai truck, because healthy foods help me feel better and more grounded when I travel. I leaned my uncorrected proof copy of francine j. harris’s poetry collection play dead against the metal siding of the truck as I put away my wallet. A tall, athletic man with dreadlocks, who had just pulled up in a sporty car with a woman, leaned in to look at the book. Squinting at it, he asked, “Is this yours?” I said no and explained how I ended up with the proof copy of the book. He asked to look at it and if I liked it. I started to talk about how harris came out of Cave Canem and Cave Canem writers have a reputation of being top-notch. He nodded and said he’ll look into the book. I got my acai bowl and left for my first-ever AWP session.

Fast forward two days. It’s Friday night and I’m at the Lambda Literary X Copper Canyon reading to support friends and for the hot writing. Poet Jericho Brown is last to read, and I’m happily surprised by his short poems and direct, tender lines, a style I feel contemporary poetry is moving away from. (Also, in all fairness, it was reassuring to hear poetry that resembled my poetry a little.) I also loved how casually he sat on the stool, reading and bobbing along with his lines, sometimes almost falling off.

When the event ended, Jericho quickly left to make it to another reading. I turned to him to say thank you and to tell him I appreciated his poetry. He shook my hand, smiled, and said, “Have we met?”

I was very certain we hadn’t and onto our separate nights we went.

Months later though, this moment still bothered me. I’m usually the person who recognizes familiar faces before they recognize me. I might not remember names or how we’ve met, but I always always remember faces. So, how come Jericho Brown thought we met, when I couldn’t recall him?

Obviously, I put it together that Jericho Brown was probably Mr. Acai from that first morning. But again why didn’t I remember his face?

I have to admit to myself that I did not remember him later, because I read him as a stereotype instead of looking at him fully when we first interacted. I wrote him off because of the sporty car, his Nikes, the joggers, and just how fit and attractive he is (y’all, Jericho Brown is the hottest). I also want to believe that race wasn’t a part of this. It would be easy to say that I don’t think of writers as athletic, attractive men. It is more difficult and important to say that I don’t think of writers as black, athletic, and attractive men. Was it the combination of these qualities or explicitly race itself that activated my implicit bias? I’m not sure, but I remember this initial moment with Jericho Brown and remind myself of all the races and colors of writers, all of our complexities– the shy awkward parts, the extroverts, the capitalist-in-us, the spiritualist, the revolutionary, even the athletic parts, and the shades of in-between that make living possible. I remember to hold myself responsible. I remember to reflect and confront my unconscious stereotypes and internalized racism.

You can read more of Jericho Brown’s work here and here.

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What I am learning

1.

TENABLE. IMMUTABLE. INDEXICAL. PHENOMENOLOGICAL.

How often I want to visit social media. And the call to be a “voice,” or something.

I see your phenomenological. I raise you EPIPHENOMENOLOGICAL.

How to decide what is worth your time, energy, and money.

How to use the phrase “ephemeral archive” as much as possible.

Trust yourself. Trust yourself. Trust yourself. There is nothing left.

How fraught these spaces—and really all spaces—are with our personal and professional expectations and desires. And the underlying social, cultural, historical, raced, classed, gendered expectations for behavior.

And the ensuing silence.

 

2.

Direct from the horse’s mouth, or bastardizations of what poetry professors have said–

-Make collages.

-Some people write with music, but I need to write with words around me. I find words.

-Then using a number system, I went through and killed poems.

-I would ask my dates, “Are you happy with your job?”

-Cut this word out.

-Image cul-de-sac.

-This voice feels authentic.

(This last one bothers me.)

 

3.

By showing up, I inherently pressure the Institution.

Better get used to it.

 

4.

I realize my life is rather “boring,” that most of the time I am looking for ways to spend time somewhere writing or with people talking about writing or listening to people read or perform writing. That when I look around Boulder, there is not much I feel drawn to do. (Mostly, one has the choice of school, the mountains, shopping. Boulder in three words.)

I think the secret now is to embrace this. How much more time can I reserve for writing– without becoming a complete recluse?

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Where is There freedom?

I begin this essay at the beginning of my second day of my MFA program. One orientation week and one day in, I am showered with opportunities to learn, to create, to publish. I am reminded that almost every hour I have here may be used as a choice– to study, to write, to play, to rest. Though I am a Teaching Assistant, I am utterly privileged to do essentially whatever I want with my time. While I relish in this, I also find the disparity of opportunities like these in institutions like these compared to what is available to the everyday working person, shameful. An MFA graduate once called his program’s financial support and outcomes an “embarrassment of riches,” though I think I am emphasizing a literal definition of “embarrassment” more than the writer.

Yet, in some ways, I came here for this, for learning, for tools, for writing time, for freedom. I reflect on how my applications to programs last fall discussed the value of protest poetry and literature as well as its trap. How do we speak to people? Move them? How do we maintain accessibility and become artists who break boundaries? How do we free ourselves from their and our expectations? When we write for freedom, do we find ourselves in another kind of trap?

Yesterday, I was given a sign that these are the right questions when I came across Ravi Shankar’s interview with Gregory Pardlo, where Pardlo says that Callaloo’s Creative Writing Workshops “have a more catholic conception of diversity. And in terms of the theoretical constructs of identity that you are talking about, I think we interrogate identity in a way that a simple statement ‘I am a black writer’ or ‘I am a white writer’ reduces me to a two-dimensional concept. There’s no way that term can contain the breadth of my worldview and my sense of myself. And yes, it is a kind of shorthand that we use to trade between people in order to arrive at some brief and quick understanding of one another, but if the conception of myself that I bring to the page is merely that ‘I am an X writer’ then it could be that I am limiting myself of that I am acquiescing to the bureaucratic logic of the very institutions I would oppose.”

Pardlo goes on to say, “The world on the page is not the world outside. The rules that apply in our social world, and yes, we need community, whether hyphenated or not, these shorthands are very useful out in the world, but on the page, my imagination needn’t be delimited by a particular worldview or cultural imperative.” Shankar replies, “Of course, your experience will be inflected by that perspective of being a person of color, but you’re saying that it doesn’t need to be overtly manifest. Not unless you want it to be.”

As much as our identities are important, we may be limiting ourselves when we write. Shankar and Pardlo discuss the importance of choice. What are you choosing to do? Can you weld writing intelligently– as a tool– with precision? Can you put down the tool and choose to write for some other purpose? Some other kind of freedom?

I hope so, and honestly, I write this today to reaffirm that amidst crazy-making interactions with a housemate; the very white and wealthy town I live in; and the perceptions of undergrads, peers, and professors, I can make choices. I am not only in a physical location I realize, but also in a new psychological moment (as well as a historical moment nationwide). A moment where I am checking how I present myself against how others may perceive and receive me. A moment where I remind myself I may want to hold my cards closer to the vest. A moment where my whole self may not be welcomed. A moment where my mistakes may alienate me further personally and professionally. “Further” as in beyond how my gender and race already push me aside or erase me. I have experienced these moments before, but now they come in a package called Graduate School.

But now I come with more experiences, insights, and tools to make choices.

I reaffirm to myself everyday and every night who I am. For the breaths I have the right to take. I reaffirm I can choose who will know me fully. I reaffirm my desire to approach the page for personal freedom. I reaffirm my desire to work and write for collective freedom. I know this is not some ideal of freedom, but I get to make some choices. I will not let it trap me– not protest literature, not this institution, not this place, nor this moment.

Lift up your head and keep moving, (keep moving)…

Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart

On my sleeve, let the runway start

You know the miserable do love company

What do you want from me and my scars?

Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence

How many times my potential was anonymous?

How many times the city making me promises?

So I promise this, nigga

And (I love my myself)

When you looking at me, tell me what do you see?

(I love myself)

-Kendrick Lamar

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Update: Write. Right? Right!

Hola mi gente. It’s been a minute, and I have news and reflections to share. First off, I’m going to graduate school! *Insert celebration here.* Not much to say about it except that it’s been a long time coming. As I turn 30 this year, there is nothing greater I could have done for myself except this radical act of self-acceptance.

Second piece of news– I wrote almost everyday in April for National Poetry Month. It was amazing how much came out of me. I didn’t like all of it, but much of it I did like. It even became overwhelming at some points to edit and transfer my writing onto the computer because there was so much to do. The good news is that I am writing, and it’s not stopping. The bad news is that I will probably always be playing catch-up with journals that need to be typed, poems that need to be edited, and collections of writing that want finalizing.

Third– I am committing myself to finishing a poetry collection in July before I leave the Bay Area for school. It will give me something to focus on this summer– as if preparing for an interstate move wasn’t enough to fill my time. It will also mean closing out a period of writing between my chapbook in 2012 and now. Just like graduate school, it is time, and I have more than enough material to shape.

So about this… I have at least two books worth of poems, at least. I also know that some poems are not worth publishing– whatever that means. How does one make peace with this? Decide that some part of you is worth more than another. What do you think? There is the organized and anxious part of me that wants to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and that I have consciously decided every word and not “lose” anything. Impossible. I suppose selecting poems is an exercise in humility, an acceptance that some things are not shaped in a way that is ready to share with the world. Or it’s an act of marketing, selecting the things one knows will sell or connect with readers? Or this agony is a part of art-making, the process in which one crafts a unit and deems it beautiful?

Either way, I am happy to have gleaned clarity and acceptance that I have been writing about two central subjects. I write about home, family, and being Vietnamese. I write about love and sex– think Sandra Cisneros’s Loose Woman. (I guess that’s five subject, oh well.) All of this, I imbue with ethnicity, race, gender, politics– obviously, memory, the body, place. 

It makes me envision what else I want to write. There are so many stories about Vietnamese or Vietnamese Americans connecting to a sense of two homelands and– of course– the Viet Nam War. I see this even more clearly now with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books. I see the value in the topic, and I have read and will continue reading these writings. But where are the stories about second or even third generation Vietnamese Americans? What if the duality of two cultures no longer exists or at least isn’t felt consciously? I want to change our place in relation to immigration, not because the connection isn’t there, but because some of us are heavily “American.” And this means our language, our culture, the people are diverse. Where is the hip-hop in our stories, the activists marching with Bayan, the girls dating Mexicans? (Quick side note, I’ve been thinking too about Asian American “protest literature.” I don’t know what that looks like or if it already exists. Some may not consider it art, but it’ll be important to envision, both for writing it and escaping it.)

Okay, wrapping up. I am grateful to be where I am. I am excited. I am nervous too. At the end of the day, I am writing, and I am thinking about writing, all the time. I mark that as a win. It makes sense that entering an MFA program has allowed myself to claim my writer/creative identity even further (even if I held my breath last night when a friend introduced me as a writer). I am entering graduate school with a sense of what I write, what I want to write/read, and a deepened connection to writing. Awesome, right?

 

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Love and its Recent Journeys

In it




Love makes me a hotbed of tears

I am a prayer turned inside out

A god with fire

A holy crown swallowed

I am here




the most constant and stable of flames

-July 2016

 

I journaled this summer: “How lucky can a person be to love deeply, take risks, and follow their hearts. One of my greatest fears in life is to not be able to follow my heart, to not be true to who I am. 2016 has already provided countless, unexpected opportunities to do what’s right for myself, break my own heart, fall in love, and follow my feelings in scary and challenging ways. Tears come to my eyes to think about what a lucky human being I am. I am so grateful to be in community with people who support my big, heaving heart. What did I do to deserve so much goodness?”

This year has included ending a relationship that truthfully had been unhealthy. Not in some big way, but unhealthy in the small, repetitive ways we lower expectations and accept a love not big enough for our whole selves. I accepted less time. I accepted waiting. I postponed my own happiness. Somehow I reached the hump in the hill, and on the other side I was strong enough to say no more. He agreed.

Months later, suddenly in a new relationship and yet in another country investigating my feelings for someone else, my new love wrote me that he trusted me. Essentially, be safe and do what you need. I trust you, he said. I cried so hard. How could I possibly be hurting someone and their response be that they love me, that they believe I will be who I need to be, that they accept me. Even now, I cannot write this without tears in my eyes.

This old friend whom I was visiting was the subject of strong, unspoken dreams and feelings that had lasted 6 or 7 years– concentrated by the force of distance, time, and mystery. You can only imagine how haunting these feelings are to a romantic like myself. Unrequited and silenced love is unacceptable, so I made this journey over countries and seas. And yet, dare I be bold to say, I knew my feelings quickly. I knew who’s loving I was going to choose. This didn’t make my trip easy, of course. I needed a chance to feel the dimensions of this relationship. My friend and I struggled over how to spend time together. There was laughter, silent looks, and our usual good conversation. There was a reconciling of my understanding of who he was with who he is. And ultimately we left it at “I’ll miss you” and once again those unspoken words, which I could understand now. Upon leaving, I cried so hard and in a way so involved that I missed multiple announcements about my flight and almost missed it altogether even though I sat at the gate.

All this had happened, testing and building my strength and courage, reminding myself I could tear apart– even in my own hands– and still be whole again. Now back home, in conversations with me and my many feelings, my man tells me it’s okay. When I judge myself, he is still there. With this radical acceptance, I try to hold my heart gently. Again, it has not been easy and has already been the work of my almost-29 years. Yet, his consistent presence and strength makes it simple enough. I try hard to accept this love and to love him even better and harder. I know it is changing me.

So I write this now for myself, to mark my feelings. And maybe I even write this for the heartache of others. I do not make any promises or offer advice. I just intend to celebrate my hardiness and to do for you what I want for myself– to hold you gently and love you fiercely.

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Against the Myth of Easy Achievement (esp. on Social Media)

I had to write this to do justice for myself, for other writers, and just living, breathing people who know what it’s like to struggle and to have dreams. (Not to mention it’s been more than three months since my last blog post. Why not?)

So recently, I was accepted into Voices of Our Nation’s Artists (VONA/Voices), a writing workshop focused on nurturing writers of color. The program is now housed at the University of Miami. (You can donate here to get me there!) A solid 30 hours after the high of my acceptance notice, I was feeling like myself again– critical. I remembered that a friend’s old facebook post about being accepted into another workshop years ago showed up on a search that day. It was typical of the status posts on social media, especially those of facebook. It was excited and celebratory. It reeked of a sense of achievement. Good for her. I had no reason to feel frustrated; I had even helped to edit some of her poems for another writing program.

Like I said, 30 hours later, I began to understand my feelings. My friend’s post is an example of the way we share our lives in this modern world and therefore, a sign of how we live it. Our connections are brief, often shallow and limited by the medium of social networking. For example, how many times have discussions of race, class, gender, queer issues, and transphobia been discontinued, because social media has been restrictive to our communication (granted, this would be helped if people were better writers and regulators of their expression of emotions).

Social media is the equivalent of the question “How are you?” in U.S. culture. Although the question is asked, cultural norms require that you reply with something brief and relatively up-beat. When I’m not doing well, I pause and lie, “I’m… O.K.” Getting into specifics of– for example– your great-aunt’s death is not socially accepted, for the most part. I even have friends who consciously ask people three times, “how are you?” so they challenge the speaker to open up beyond what is socially accepted. Also, some writers punctuate this question with a period, not a question mark. “How are you” in this culture isn’t a question. Just a passing statement.

Social media postings are similar–brief, often shallow and limited. They say “Hey, how are you,” post a grinning picture, tweet a 140 characters. Rarely do people detail their life’s journey through grief, uncertainty, or other struggle. It is culturally accepted that we refrain from sharing how depression affects the way we get up, how we work through relationship blocks, or how grief-ridden we feel after a death. The mothers posing with happy toddlers don’t share about custody battles that lay behind the facade. Teachers don’t rant daily about their long hours and labor contract infractions. The list goes on. Sound happy. Show your achievements. Stay in the social norm. I’ve even noticed this norm affecting people posting about their elderly parents passing away. The posts may be upbeat or end with a remark about the life lessons learned. While these feelings could be true, what do we lose when we rush to hide our difficult emotions or grasp for wisdom that needs more time to ripen?

Diving even deeper, how does social media perpetuate beliefs in a post-racial, meritocratic, and arguably worst– a classless U.S. society and world? When achievements seem to spring up for people around us, one can feel that achieving in our society must be easy, must not be tainted with systemic oppression. Status posts, tweets, and even this blog offer no deep, consistent window into people’s lives. You don’t know from my facebook the changes that I have made in my life to invest in writing. Or how I feel on days when I have nothing to say. Or how the choices I make are financially difficult, let others down, and still offer no guarantee. What is shared on social media is brief, often shallow and limited. The palpable disconnect between our lives and social media (others’ lives as represented) can bring up feelings of rejection, questions about self-worth, and perpetuate this already free-flowing myth of easy achievement.

While there exist examples disproving what I’m describing, for the most part social media users accept these cultural norms. This begs us to ask, how will our children grow up in this world, especially buttressed by the “How are you” culture of the U.S. and neo-liberalism worldwide. Or– even closer to home– how are we faring? What happens when we don’t have a culture that can grieve together? That demonstrates and embraces the real time and labor it requires to achieve something. That can step back to appreciate and question all the different types of risk involved.

As I write, I remember the many leftist thinkers and their thoughts on how technology can be used. I’m hopeful because of writers, thinkers, and activists like those at Jacobin magazine, whose current issue explores technology’s dialectical relationship to revolution. Older thinkers like Ivan Illich, in De-Schooling Society, envisioned a world where essentially the internet helped us form webs of connection for skill-sharing and self-education. Social media is already a part of what we can and are achieving for ourselves. (Heck, it will help me get to VONA.) These achievements, however, aren’t easy and offer no guarantees. We won’t get there unless we keep an eye on goals we would like to achieve with social media and technology, rather than give into the ways these potential tools dominate us, obscure our humanity, and produce culture counter to our highest good.

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