My cousins in the Philippines sent photos of their mini gathering a few weeks ago and it made me miss them and being around family so much. That, along with friends celebrating Lunar New Year with their inherited and chosen families, inspired this free write:
At this kitchen table
This kitchen table is the beginning
and never the end.
New friends are welcomed here.
Old friends have cried here.
We yell and laugh here,
at this kitchen table.
This kitchen table
has endured coffee spills
and knife cuts.
It has heard its share of tsismis.
It holds the weight of a family bickering
about money, careers, bad behavior.
Holiday meals have been served here.
Ordinary meals, party buffets,
merienda prepared by grandparents,
the occasional snacks and beer.
Stories have been exchanged here.
Stories are being written here.
Lives are being lived here,
at this kitchen table.
It’s odd to call myself a playwright, let alone a lyricist even though I have been working on an original musical for almost two years now. I didn’t set out to be one, and to be honest, I’m not sure if I want to be one.
I look at Asian and Asian American playwrights I know or have read and I could never be on par with them. And that’s ok! There are plenty of writers, poets, and performers who are better than me. Poets and writers who have an extensive vocabulary, a way with imagery and metaphor I can’t replicate, and a discipline and persistence I’m trying to find for myself. Despite all that, I remind myself every day that I still have something to say and only I can say it in my style.
So when I joined the Yappie the Musical project back in July 2019, I was nervous and excited. I also felt a sense of freedom because I didn’t know any of the rules about theatre and musicals and songwriting so I wasn’t bound to them. One of the most emotionally draining lessons was learning about syllabification. I smile at the memory of that moment now.
I finished the lyrics to the tracks of our concept album months ago. I usually don’t have such a long period between “finishing” a piece and sharing it with the world on the blog, on social media, or in a performance (except for when I’m working on a chapbook). So I feel somewhat distanced from these songs. Did I really write them?
I try to remember what the process was like writing the lyrics. Sometimes it took 2 hours just to write one line. One line! When I felt an inkling of a line forming but it was still an amorphous blob, I learned to surrender to it, to not think too hard, and the words appeared. It was like that with part of the second verse of our single track, “One Path.” I was trying so hard to find a word that rhymed with “design.” Armed with my rhyming dictionary gifted to me by my sister when I was still in high school and several rhyme websites, I could sense I was close and the moment I let my guard down, the rest came to me, as they say. Because of that, these four lines are my favorite part of the song.
What if I try to go off-script?
A blank sheet with no design
How can you tell if you succeed
Without a course, a trail outlined
Throughout this process I’ve asked myself if writing songs is easier than writing poetry. (To be clear, I think lyrics are poems, too.) I think poems are harder to write because you can’t hide behind the music and you can’t waste words. I love so many songs more for the music than the lyrics, which may seem odd as a writer, but it’s true! My musical collaborator, the brilliant composer, Bobby Ge, and I have had several conversations about how some lyrics on their own don’t make any sense. But they sound good with the music. Some are super catchy and it sparks an internal battle of “The beat is so good but the lyrics are wack. Can I still love you?”
You may feel the same way too once you hear the rest of the concept album. And you know, that’s cool. I don’t mind. I did the best I could in that moment. I’m proud of the work we’ve done and how we managed to pivot the project. I’m grateful to the creative team, the vocalists and musicians, the sound engineers, graphic designer, and video editors for sharing their talents and time and for believing in the project (see here for a complete list).
At one of our last in-person meetings as a creative team, I shared with one of the producers that I wanted to record the songs. Not necessarily to share with the world (at this point we thought we’d have a workshop premiere in May and had yet to seriously think about its future), but something for us. A souvenir, another thing to add to our artist portfolios, proof that it happened.
The idea of a recording transitioned into a concept album that will be streamed, downloaded, and shared for who knows how long. It’s surreal to think of it that way. That even though the musical itself is still a work in progress–and it will be for a long time (Hamilton took 7 years? Hadestown took 10?)–a little piece of it is preserved in this moment. A testament to our creativity and adaptability in a time of global crises. To the enduring power of the arts.
The full concept album will be released on bandcamp on Friday, May 28.
Two poems poured out of me right when I was about to sleep. So here they are for anyone who needs it.
take care mag-ingat ka
two words that usually means drive carefully —— don’t speed watch where you walk —— look both ways before you cross
two words uttered by mothers whose children hurry to leave wave away the worry once again
two words to chase away the spirits a chant a talisman a prayer that follows us home
They’re both pretty raw, but so am I.
Tell me—— How do we protect each other? Cradle each other’s life Like our own heartbeats Hold each other tight to the chest like armor How do we make space for each other? Give without reward or recognition Unwind the strings meant to strangle us
Tell me—— How do we protect our immigrant mothers and grandmothers? Their backs sacrificed for cash and 2nd generation dreams
Will they ever tell us They had a bad day at work?
Sometimes you can only find your words within someone else’s. With so many feelings from this weekend, I turned to Vice President-Elect, Kamala Harris’, speech on Saturday night, November 7, 2020. This is a found poem from that speech.
little girl watching
little girl watching
imagine this moment--
generations of women paved the way.
they marched to victory.
tested, they proved their backbone.
overlooked, they did the good work
with heart, integrity, generosity.
their beautiful voices
delivered a new day.
little girl watching--
You won't be the last.
(c) jenny c. lares. 2020.
(A found poem is a poetic form where you take a piece of literature, circle words that resonate with you and a create a poem from those words. It’s a go-to form for me because sometimes a blank page is scary and intimidating so starting with words already chosen fuels the writing and creativity.)
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Its people engulfed by the sea
On a map can you spot it?
You will, once the world is done with me.
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.
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.
at the store
I walked between shelves
hands in pockets
Perusing, holding weight
between my fingers
I float through space
wave to you from two aisles down
fist bump the air.
Because it's funny.
This new normal.
only air will brush past my arm.
I won't feel the heat on your skin
sense your heart beat in a hug.
the distance between us is thick
choking on cries for contact
to know we're alive.