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.

Dear 23-Year-Old Jenny

Grace Bonney of Design Sponge wrote a letter to her 23-year-old self back in August which inspired me to write one. I was finally able to write it now that I’m on a short break from writing Yappie: A Musical Comedy. In some ways it feels like a letter to my current self and maybe that’s what I need.

Dear 23-year-old Jenny,

2007 is a big year for you. You self-publish your very first chapbook and organize a chapbook release party in two different states. Enjoy it—really take it in and be grateful for the folks who support you and come through for you because the moment fades quickly but the people do not.

When you move back home to MD, it’s going to be a tough transition. You’re going to rack up a lot of miles on your car and a lot of debt doing what you love: performing spoken word and leading an arts organization for AAPI artists. Trust your instincts and stand up for yourself. Own your decisions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

You’re also going to put yourself out there for the first time and be hurt. You’ll write a lot of poems out of it, but editing is going to be your best friend. It’s okay to write just for you; you don’t always have to write for public consumption.

You’re going to make one of the hardest decisions you’ll ever have to make: leave the organization you co-founded. You’re going to know it’s the best and right decision. But you’re also going to know fear and doubt in deeper ways than before. You’re going to stop writing, stop performing. You’re going to be lost for a while. You’re going to think that the best of what you can do and offer the world is in the past. It’s not. You have so much more to give and you don’t have to prove it to anyone.

When you get to your mid-30s, you’re going to weigh at your heaviest yet look and feel your best. Take care of your body and your mind and heart. Ask for help (but your friends are not therapists). Apologize when you’ve messed up. Go outside even though you want to stay in bed. Let people love you. You’re going to fall for people you shouldn’t and you’ll question your own worth. But you’re already loved as you are by a community of people, and you already matter to them. Keep those people close and give them the best of you.

Lastly, allow yourself the space to feel whatever you’re feeling and the time you need to heal and grow. Keep being brave. Continue to be open to experiences and people that come your way. Become better at managing your finances. And always remember that you are a writer and that you are more than worthy.

Love,

35-year-old Jenny

Workshop Performance of YAPPIE: A Musical Comedy

Two months ago I officially signed on to write the book and lyrics for an original musical about Asian Americans. As of today, we are 11 days out from the workshop performance of Yappie: A Musical Comedy.

Hours before rehearsal last night I started to get nervous. My leg was twitchy; I felt my heart rate rise; I tried to control my breathing. The magnitude of this project and the urgency to get it ready by October 4 finally hit me. I’ve spent most of the past two months writing dialogue and lyrics; thinking about dialogue and lyrics (which come at the most inopportune time, like when you’re in the bathroom); editing scenes; reading scenes out loud; discussing scenes, themes, and dialogue with the creative team; reworking the storyboard; calling my sister at random times throughout the night to ask if a scene, situation, or line is funny; doubting my own sense of humor and ability to write humor; and staring at the blinking cursor on Microsoft Word for long, excruciating minutes.

I knew October 4 was coming, but I was focused on the script, trying to let a story unfold. A story I wasn’t too sure of when I first began to write it. A story I wasn’t sure I could write given my inexperience with writing plays and songs.

At some point in rehearsal last night, I hit my stride. I heard the actors breathe life into two new scenes I wrote this week, and I let myself be proud of it. I was proud of my work. Scratch that. I AM proud of my work.

Sometimes I don’t give myself enough credit. I know a lot of women who don’t; we just do the work and keep doing the work, praise or no praise. That’s not a cycle I want to continue, so I am taking up this space. I am embracing the compliments and assurances the creative team and cast send my way. I am owning this story and this experience and everything that comes with it. I’ve been full of excitement; I’ve been frustrated; I’ve been upset; I’ve silenced myself; I’ve procrastinated on grad school assignments because all I want to do is write this musical; I’ve let the doubts take over my day; I’ve been happy. And I am always grateful.

I am beyond fortunate to work with and be supported by the dream team of Roger Wu Fu + Bobby Ge + Donna Ibale. So many factors in our individual lives converged to bring us together. When I think about it, the machinations began last summer: an arts organization focused on AAPIs was in the works in which Donna was a founder; Roger and Bobby started their graduate program at Peabody; I quit my job. None of us thought we would be here right now, days away from the premiere of an original musical (maybe Donna). But here we are. And it’s exactly where I want to be.


Yappie (a combination of YAP, a young Asian professional, and yuppie) follows the story of Grace, a young Asian professional living her best life in the corporate world. Or is she? Passed over for a promotion, Grace finds herself in the unlikeliest of places: auditioning for a musical. Having spent most of her life living up to the expectations of her family, Grace begins to question who she is, what she wants, and what it means to be Asian American. Yappie: A Musical Comedy promises to be a fun journey asking hard questions about identity and stereotypes with tons of empathy, warmth, and lots of laughs. 

Story by Roger Wu Fu, Jenny C. Lares & Bobby Ge

Book & Lyrics by Jenny C. Lares | Music & Lyrics by Bobby Ge

Directed by Donna Ibale | Produced by Roger Wu Fu & Donna Ibale

Tickets: $8 General Admission, $5 for college students, Free for JHU students/faculty/staff