10 years later: Tracing remnants of an artist life

The first Sulu DC show. Basement of St. Stephen’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, Washington DC.
November 21, 2009.

Two weeks ago I was part of the 10 Year Tribute + Retrospective of the AAPI Community of the DMV presented by DC APA Film via YouTube live. Christian Oh, President of the Board of DC APA Film and co-founder and former Executive Director of Kollaboration DC, reached out to me in August about recording a video for the event. (At the time, Kollaboration DC was the DC branch of the Asian American talent competition.)

We’ve known each other for 10 years now, first meeting in person at a restaurant near George Washington University’s campus. I was co-director of Sulu DC at the time and he had just started Kollaboration DC. Both organizations had similar missions and visions—to nurture artistic growth and to increase the visibility of Asian American artists. One was a talent show competition, the other a monthly showcase of artists in a variety of artistic disciplines. Cousins, you could say. Our audiences went to their shows—I even performed in the first one as a guest performer along with spoken word poets, Gowri K and Alex Cena, who is also a Sulu DC co-founder. Quite a few performers from the competition eventually featured at Sulu DC shows.

That period of time from 2009-2013 was truly extraordinary. You could sense the urgency and the hunger for spaces in which we could bring our whole selves, build community, and just have a grand old time. For many DC transplants, especially those from the West Coast, Sulu DC was a little bit of home. For those from the rest of the US, Sulu DC was a home they didn’t realize they had been searching for.

I’ve been reflecting on these years a lot in the past year. First, when I was writing my application essay for graduate school (MA Arts Administration), and then in leadership class my first semester. There are times I am weary of always thinking about it because it’s been so long since I was immersed in it and let’s be honest now, memory can’t be trusted completely. Even in this post I get the sense that I’m romanticizing that time.

One particular night stands out in my memory. It’s not from a show, but a year or so after I left the organization. I was drinking wine outside a bar with a friend in Fells Point. I shared what I had been thinking for a while but didn’t want to admit: I don’t want the best of what I have to offer to be behind me. The fear that I wouldn’t somehow do bigger and better things after Sulu DC consumed me for a while. It’s part of why I didn’t write and perform for years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I tuned into the live stream. Within a few minutes I found myself squealing in my room at remembering certain performances from the first Kollaboration DC competition. We were all so young. We believed we could make a career as artists. The world felt so open and endless then.

Prior to writing this post I took a look at my twitter account, which I last updated in 2015. Aside from photos and Facebook statuses, it’s the only evidence of my life back then. I stopped writing in a journal during that time and I lost all the blog posts when I discontinued my website (I know, I’m still very sad about it). What a busy little bee I was! In DC 2-3 times a week, a Sulu DC show here, a college show in Georgetown, rehearsals and meetings, hosting open mics. (Oh, and I was terrible at twitter. It was a bunch of tweets about “en route to the city” like anyone was that interested in where I’d be next. Who did I think I was? A rock star?) I was living that artist and artist manager life. I wasn’t tired yet, just eager to share my poetry and do whatever needed to be done to produce our shows. I certainly had the heart, the drive, leadership instincts, and some skills. Even more important, I was surrounded by such a supportive network, who were still there even after I left.

Now 10 years later, I am a lot more intentional, more self-assured, more forgiving especially of myself, and still angry. In the video above you’ll hear my response to what I hope to see in the next 10 years for AAPI communities. Here’s what I didn’t say but I’m saying it now. That we never have to hear the question, “Where are you from?” ever again.

“Where Are You From” written and performed by Alex Cena, Gowri K, and Jenny C. Lares. 2010.

Reading until the sun rises

A few days ago I started to read Randy Ribay’s novel, Patron Saints of Nothing. I was about half-way through when something compelled me to read even though it was already way past a decent hour to go to bed. I ended up reading the novel to the end, closing the book as the sun started to rise, beams of light chasing away the need for a lamp light.

I couldn’t stop reading it. In my hands was the first book I had ever read that mirrored the experiences I, myself, could not write. About the times I went back to the Philippines, the contradictions many of us who were born on the archipelago but grew up in the US feel but can’t describe. The guilt we feel sometimes, the judgments we so easily think and speak, the times we fall silent, the awkwardness as we try to connect with cousins whose life experience feels so separate and strange from our own. The recognition of—or is it the yearning for—belonging in a place we barely remember. I cried and not just because of what actually happens in the novel, but because of how real it was to me, how it took thirty years to read about myself. (Let me confess now: I do have shallow tears when it comes to films, but not with books.)

It was similar to the first time I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. I was in high school, I think. My sister had brought the book home after reading it for a college class. I connected to it as an Asian American woman, fighting battles with your family, finding the worth of your own voice. But Patron Saints of Nothing hit me on another level. I’m still trying to find the words to explain. Maybe I don’t have to. I know how much it means to me. I know the moments I stopped briefly, to nod in acknowledgement. Yes, this happened to me too. Yes, I felt this way too.

I will carry this novel with me for a long time. I will carry it with me.

One Year Later

Public Workshop Performance of Yappie: A Musical Comedy. Cohen-Davison Family Theatre, Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, MD. October 4, 2019. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography

Today marks one year after the workshop premiere of Yappie: The Musical (well, half of it. We also changed the title shortly after the workshop performance.) Yappie is a creative project I’ve been working on since July 2019 with composer, Bobby Ge, and producers, Roger Wu Fu and Donna Ibale. I had never written lyrics up until last summer, and I never imagined I’d ever write a musical.

The night before I remember feeling nervous and strangely confident. I was nervous about how it would be received by the audience. Would they find it funny, endearing, irrelevant, terrible? I hoped they would enjoy it at least, but I knew deep down that no matter their reaction, I was proud of my work. Proud that I pushed myself to be a better writer even if there was a great (and very public) chance of failure. (I mean, who writes half of a musical in 2.5 months? Apparently we do.)

The night unfolded better than I could have imagined. The cast was brilliant, the audience laughed, and so many friends came out to support us. My mom and sister sat right in the center, second row from the stage. My former co-workers came together, my former students-turned-friends-for-life brought their friends, a few friends from the DC area made the trek to Baltimore (on a Friday night nonetheless!), and my dear friends from undergrad who have witnessed my writing and performing career from the beginning were there once again to see me embark on a new one. My heart grew exponentially that night. I wasn’t sure I deserved all that support. But I was and am so very happy to be surrounded by such amazing people.

Fast forward a year, and here we are, the arts in a precarious position because of a global pandemic, an economic downturn, and the very necessary uprooting of racism in arts and cultural institutions and organizations.

We were slated to premiere the complete musical in May this year and decided at the start of the pandemic to postpone the premiere to the fall. We will not be staging this production any time in the near future; however, we will be sharing a part of it with you soon. I can’t share in what form yet, but know that we’re working on it and are excited to release it into the world! 🎵🎵🎵

I know our creative endeavor was one among many that had to be delayed, change course, or shelved indefinitely. The pandemic gave me more time than I ever thought I’d have to write the lyrics and script. It also made it incredibly difficult to write. To write about anything other than missing putting on shoes, missing in-person conversations, missing any sort of contact, missing wandering the streets with no destination in mind, missing sitting at a bar drinking a pint, missing being immersed in a live performance with people in a room—an experience that really can’t be replicated. It also pushed us to flex our creative muscles and think of ways to produce a version of it with everyone’s safety in mind.

For this time around, I’m not nervous at all.

Check out the Events page and follow us on Instagram: @yappiethemusical for updates.

Color Scavenger Hunt + Haikus

In early April, a few weeks after lock down started in Maryland, I came across the color scavenger hunt, an activity idea for kids via The Color Factory and party expert, Darcy Miller. The idea is simple: Gather items of a specific color in your room or house, lay it all out, and then take a picture. What was an idea for kids became for me, a fun, necessary break from my computer and being online, and surprisingly, a chance to flex my haiku writing skills. Not to mention I got a chance to look through all my stuff. An abbreviated version of tidying, so to speak.

I discovered that a few colors are well-represented in my possessions. Others, while I wear a lot of the color (like gray), were surprisingly lacking in numbers. I found items that are relatively new, ones I had forgotten exist, some I rarely use, and others that have been with me for decades. Items that have stories of their own.

I realized how our styles evolve and how some stay the same but are a bit more curated. This evolution is closely tied with growing older, as I’m trying to not have as much stuff and love the stuff I do own. As I am more drawn to classic patterns and neutral palettes now, I do love pops of color and I hope I always will.

At some point the captions for these posts on Instagram turned into poems—mostly haikus. A few I wrote after I shared the photos, so here are all the haikus in their colorful glory:

red wax pools 
seals my heart within until
you come and break it

*

yellow metro card
a record of where i've been
where shall i go next? 

*

brown, color of earth
natural--but darker hues
exterminated
condemned as less than
when they/we hold the power
of a thousand suns

*

together we can
rule galaxies--worlds full of 
and beyond color

*

the white bone folder
has creased thousands of pages
my life wrapped within

*

i am brilliant.
i am bright and beautiful. 
shine, shine like the stars. 

*

a feast for the eyes
every color imagined
in play, in contrast

Keep it moving

If I’m honest I’ve neglected this blog for the past few months. If I’m honest it’s because I’ve been scared to write. Even privately. Especially publicly. Instead I’ve been devouring other people’s words. Words they’ve already bled out. Words they’ve tripped over. Words that carry hopes and intent and truth.

So when I was asked to create a soundtrack of my journey to arts administration as a self-introduction for a two-week graduate course on public policy and the arts, I felt a lightness I haven’t felt in a while. To be able to share who you are, what you’ve been through, what you believe in, without the critics waiting to ponce on your imperfections. I’ve never been good at making playlists but I’m really proud of this one.

For now I’ll borrow other’s words. Soon, I will make myself again in my own words.

noypi by Bamboo

We Belong by Magnetic North + Taiyo Na

연필깎이 by Epik High (feat. Kebee)

(title translation: Pencil Sharpener)

No rest for the weary by Blue Scholars

Are We There Yet by Dumbfoundead

Bleed by Epik High

Adrift at Twilight by The West Fjords

Joe Metro by Blue Scholars

Us by Ruby Ibarra

Puso by Sponge Cola

(title translation: Heart)

Fierce Women I Know

Today I woke up angry, annoyed, frustrated–at waking up late, not being able to sleep earlier than 4 am, for procrastinating on grad school assignments, at being corrected in a work email by someone outside of my department whom I’ve never met, for not cleaning the house. For feeling so out of control of even simple, daily behaviors like sleeping early or reading a book out on the deck for 30 minutes.

I turned to writing and performing to calm myself. To channel energy into something positive and good and worthwhile. To remind myself of a time in my life when I was surrounded by an incredible community who helped me find my voice and sense of purpose. A community I’m not sure I still have as I have not nurtured it or been part of it for a while. A community I’m hoping is still there somewhere.

So here’s a little poem I wrote ten years ago that I rediscovered just last week. I wrote it for Creative Explosion, the first show I curated and hosted, and which celebrated Asian and Pacific Islander women.

The Fierce Women I Know

The Fierce Women I know
have fled countries carrying nothing
but the memory of their homeland on their skin.
 
They have outlived world wars
been bought, enslaved, persecuted
and denied the right to an education.
 
They have engaged in battles for their bodies
witnessed power corrupt their families
and felt the force of a fist against flesh.
 
The Fierce Women I know
have survived history's attempts
to break us down and wipe us out.
 
They use their strength to rewrite
what's miswritten about us
fighting slogans and stereotypes
stamped across our chests.
 
They roar from rooftops and cages
from City Hall to the steps of Congress
demanding equal access to resources.
For everyone.
 
Fierce Women know their own minds.
They call you out on your ignorance
and love you at the same time.
 
Fierce women know their own hearts
though doubts may set in once in a while.
We take on too much
but we take care of one another.
We cry out in unison when our spirits are broken
and wander alone, together until grown enough
to return home.
 
Fierce Women may hold grudges
but we remain critical and conscious
knowing the movement's beyond us
and the time and space we occupy.
 
My Fierce Sisters and I misbehave and play outlaw
Bound to nothing and no one but to who we are.
We are survivors, community organizers, lawyers,
students, poets, movers and shakers.
We are mothers, daughters, sisters, partners
Holding up the sky.

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center also released CARE PACKAGE today, to help us all heal and live throughout times like these.

National Poetry Month: A Throwback to the 2000s

Happy National Poetry Month!

To celebrate, I decided to travel through time and read my very old poems. Poems I wrote in high school when I was a writing machine. In 2001, I wrote 45 poems. 45! Are they any good now? Who knows. Probably not. It doesn’t really matter if they’re any good or will not stand the test of time. What I’m taking away from looking at old work is that I kept writing. And writing consistently. I wasn’t afraid of what ended up on the page. That’s a feeling worth reclaiming.

I was incredibly emo at the time, but then, who wasn’t at that age? Many of the poems are about crushes (one-sided), not feeling seen, defying expectations of beauty and femininity, and wanting to claim my life for myself. Themes that, looking back now, at times still permeate my recent and current work.

So come on this journey with me, as I dig deep and try to remember what inspired some of the pieces below.

Driving down I-95
 
Windows rolled down
Stereo volume at its zenith
Trees blur as we speed down I-95.
You play our favorite CD
Sound waves penetrate the silence.
The lyrics roar from my mouth
And you bang your head
Words form on your lips.
Cars drive past, glances linger
Two young women sputtering nonsense
We laugh at how they gawk
And turn the volume knob clockwise.
 
I grip the wheel, reluctant to let go
And you don’t dare touch the door handle.
How we both desperately wish
That somehow
We could drive forever
With the wind rumbling
The volume near the point of deafness
The trees smearing past
As far away from home
To escape suffocation
From a life not our own.

(c) 2001

To this day I remember the moment that inspired this poem. I was in the car with my sister, windows rolled down, both of us wishing we could drive forever instead of going home.

Grace foreign to my body
 
Her hair swings past her eyes
Gliding across her face
As if the wind gently lifted the strands
And kissed her forehead.
I, walking beside her
Am tumbled down by the fierce wind
Stomped upon by the grace
Foreign to my body.
Her miniscule feet never really touch the ground
My gargantuan toes crack the floor I step.
A magnet, attracting metal
A net capturing friends
My magnet is split in half
There are holes in my net.
She speaks lyrics
I roar slogans.
Trifle with her
She will smile.
Trifle with me
And I will crush you.

(c) 2002

Did you ever have that friend who reminded you of all the things you wanted to be but weren’t? Yea, this one right here. I learned a lot from that failed friendship.

This last one is a precursor to my spoken word career. It was inspired by a book of the same title I picked up at the bookstore. It was bright green and I was yearning for an explanation as to why I felt different from others, growing up in a predominantly white county.

Yell-oh girl
 
Do I look Chinese to you?
My miniscule almond eyes
Dominating the take-out industry
With lo mein and fried rice.
 
Or maybe I’m Korean
Adopted like all the rest
Fresh off the boat, twinkie
Americanization at its best.
 
Do I look like Japanese?
Sakura, Hiroshima, Tamagotchi
Animation freak, techno geek
Devouring shark, seaweed, sushi.
 
Do you know where I come from?
Or do you automatically assume
I originate from another third world country
Where mail-order brides bloom.
 
Have you witnessed Pinoy power
Defiant frail bodies against an armored truck
The pride of a nation never faltering
Never sinking in the muck.
 
An archipelago
Its people engulfed by the sea
On a map can you spot it?
You will, once the world is done with me.

(c) 2001

These poems will never be published (aside from this blog right here). They are not monumental, life-changing, award-worthy pieces. But they are precious to me. They are my own time capsule. Proof that writing has always been there for me, even when I abandoned it at times.

Today

It’s been a while since I’ve written a poem that wasn’t a song.

I haven’t really been processing my feelings about the global pandemic and its repercussions on our daily lives, aside from its impact on Yappie the Musical.

I think I was hiding behind the musical, convincing myself that I was ok, too.

So here’s my attempt at making sense of the tangled thoughts and emotions from the past few weeks.

Today
at the store
I walked between shelves
hands in pockets
practicing decisiveness. 
Perusing, holding weight
between my fingers
was yesterday. 

Today
I float through space
wave to you from two aisles down
fist bump the air. 
We smile. 
Because it's funny. 
This new normal. 

Today
only air will brush past my arm. 
I won't feel the heat on your skin
sense your heart beat in a hug. 

Today 
the distance between us is thick
choking on cries for contact
to know we're alive. 

Creativity in the time of crisis: An update on Yappie The Musical

Rehearsals for Yappie: The Musical were supposed to start last week. Then we heard from Johns Hopkins University & Peabody that all performances and events were canceled and that the college and conservatory would be transitioning to online classes until April 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I was trying to finish up the script when we scheduled a late night FaceTime meeting to discuss our options. It took some time to wrap my head around what limiting access to JHU/Peabody might mean for our musical. Knowing that so much was out of our hands, we decided to move forward with the table read but to move it to Sunday. A few days later, we decided to suspend rehearsals until further notice.

I’m not sad or disappointed with where we are with Yappie: The Musical. To be sad or mad would be short-sighted on my part. My work will still exist regardless of what happens. If we can’t share this musical with you in May, we are determined to find a way to share it with the world somehow, some time.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been a challenging/difficult/interesting past few days. I promised to send the draft of the script to the cast. I am trying to maintain some kind of momentum. Let me confess now that I haven’t had the head space to finalize the script.

I think about my parents who are in their 60s and 70s, my sister who is alone in another state, my neighbors who have chosen not to practice social distancing, headlines and graphs and data on COVID-19, and my family in the Philippines who are in a lockdown right now. I think about my own privilege: ability to work from home, internet access, a comforting home. I think about how it feels to not be able to breathe when my asthma hits because of cold air, stress, or exercise, and wonder if that’s how it would be without a ventilator. I’ve suppressed these thoughts for days now, choosing instead to focus on finishing the script. But to no avail. So I’m releasing these thoughts, letting them mix with the rest of our anxieties as we reconfigure our lives not just for the temporary, but for the long-run.

I am also trying not to kick myself for not being “productive” during this time. Do I have a whole host of projects/tasks I’ve wanted to work on for a while? Yes, of course I do—filing my taxes being one of them (if I get “nothing done” let my taxes be something I do get done). I am reminding myself that it’s ok to take a few days to process, that there is no requirement to pivot as quickly as others do, and that I will finish this script.

Hopefully we’ll be able to share Yappie: The Musical with you in some way this spring. Thank you so much for supporting us thus far. Be well and see you soon.

Another revolution around the sun

Last week I celebrated another revolution around the sun.

I wouldn’t say I feel a year older. Quite the opposite, really. I don’t know what it is, but a few of my friends and I feel 10 years younger than our actual age. We feel healthier; we feel more at peace with who we are and our past; we feel like we will take over the world this time but do it with more sleep and less drama.

We have a clearer vision of what we want, the flexibility to get there, and the wisdom to truly enjoy the process. It feels like my 26-year-old self is back but more self-assured, more forgiving, less stressed, and more fun.

Around this time last year I was at an “intermission of sorts,” figuring out where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, who I was, and who I wanted to become. Did I answer those questions? Most and more. I knew I wanted to be in grad school (and I am), but I never imagined I’d be writing an original musical. I had only set my sights on writing and performing my poetry on stage again. It really is quite a wonder how the universe works sometimes.

Where will the next revolution around the sun take me?

I’ve got some ideas.