Hello! I have some new pandemic-flavored poems published as part of an exhibit for the Singapore Writers Festival. So I wanted to write about my relationship with poetry over the years.
Here’s the earliest poem of mine I could find in Google Drive. It was my first-ever high school English assignment. Perhaps you’ve been assigned something similar.
Where I’m From
I am from paint smears,
From pencils and paper.
I am from the smell of newly cut grass
Tangy, sweet, like a fresh Saturday morning.
I am from leafy bamboo clusters swaying above me
Tall and slender like a French ballade
Constantly written, never finished.
I am from cheesecake and sushi,
From ramen and barbecues.
I’m from the drama queens and art junkies,
From stop and smell the flowers to imagine the possibilities.
I am from radios blaring and pop music,
And no, it is not too loud.
I am from sunny mornings and fluffy clouds
From moonless nights and shooting stars
The sky swallowing up all worries with deep sapphire streaks
Hopes drifting underneath sparkles of light
Flourishing behind silver and gold no one can see
I am from memories—
Scattered glimmers I must walk away from—
Like most fourteen-year-olds, I didn’t have much exposure to poetry. The poems I’d read (mostly a few Shakespearean sonnets, maybe some contemporary pieces from a brief unit in sixth grade) had convinced me that poetry had rules: the line breaks and stanzas had to be even-ish, every line had to start with a capital letter, it was important to incorporate nature and color imagery.
Fiction was always my first love, and after I won a national prize in tenth grade for a short story, I discovered a teen writing community where poetry reigned. Most high school creative writing contests focused on poetry, not prose. So I tried to write some poems, including this quintessential break-up poem.
after the symphony’s final note
What I remember most about those months
are the rose-colored melodies, underneath
a milk-lit sky that always seemed to be
I like to think
it was the classical violin that drew me in;
arpeggios that sang of forever,
I can’t listen to Paganini’s Caprice No. 24
anymore. In every pop song about disaster,
I manage to find your name.
I still wander the streets, pretending
I’m going somewhere,
with hands crumpled inside coat pockets so
nobody else might see how they shake—
see, I never knew this until you left, how
radio static can be so desperate.
I suppose the nice thing about getting dumped by a musician is that the poems turn out quite pretty.
The cool thing about poetry, I discovered, was that it didn’t require character or plot, only feeling. It was this wonderful opportunity to wander about in my high school angst. Teenagers (especially teenage girls) get an unfair reputation for melodrama, but in retrospect, I think that this magnification of emotions lent me clarity and self-awareness. Even now, I’ve often found that I don’t know what I’m really thinking about until it comes through on the page.
Still, I wasn’t sure if my poems mattered to anyone other than myself. Mostly, they lived in Google Documents that I shared with few friends.
Then my high school held a poetry slam. I’d never read a poem out loud, and I had zero performing skills, but I entered on a whim. To be honest, I was pretty terrified. This is the poem I read.
Six Things You Will Learn About Being American-born Chinese:
When you are seven and the kids at school pull up the outer corners of their eyes, call you chink or gook, you will not get it. You will not understand why they sneer at your lunches and your clothes and your punctured speech. You will not comprehend and that may be a blessing.
At eight your favorite after-school television cartoon will feature a Mandarin-speaking character but the voice-actor only speaks gibberish, with the subtitle “Speaking Chinese” in bold underneath, as if that’s good enough to fool you. You learn this is how your language is perceived: a string of nonsense.
You are nine and your mother still stumbles over vowels, cannot spit out her words without dipping them first in foreign tones, and you are embarrassed. Don’t be. Be proud of the courage it took for her to cross an ocean into a foreign land which told her she didn’t belong, which told her to go home. Be proud of the tenacity it took to survive the winters of food stamps and one-room apartments for three, days of clipping coupons and sifting through Goodwill racks, all for the American Dream.
In middle school you will rebel against the stereotypes that seem to hold you hostage. You will quit the piano, sweep away your love for math and science, bring home report cards with C’s. Model minority, pfft, that’s a good one. You will hate the color of your skin, the heavy clunk of your last name, the food your parents cook, and you will keep wishing to be less—less of an outsider, less of a string of expectations you fail to meet, less, less, less.
But here is the thing. It is impossible to extinguish the burning flame that is your ancestors’ home. You will find yourself loving China—the constant buzz of Beijing streets, the proper way to haggle at the markets, echoing temples that sing of yesterday, flecked city smoke and salt and light. A nation more than what you have been told, more than rice paddies and cheap knockoffs and swollen crowds. It is something breathing and bright.
Your heritage is more than an exotic enigma. It is more than Yellow Fever, it is more than studious Ivy-League-bound kids with tiger parents, it is more than pork soup dumplings and a language that sounds like pots and pans and it is more than everything you were scared of.
This poem might not be anything groundbreaking anymore, and it feels limited in scope and understanding, but this was years before Crazy Rich Asians came out. Fresh Off the Boat had only started airing weeks earlier, and the only mainstream Asian-American representation I remember engaging with while growing up is Amy Chua and her book about being a Tiger Mom. My school was in the heart of Portland (one of the least diverse major metropolitan areas in the United States) and it was 80% white. After the schoolwide competition, several Chinese-American students came up to me and told me that the poem had spoken to them.
I won first place and represented my school at the citywide slam, which I didn’t place in. Afterwards, my debate coach said, “It’ll be hard to make anyone care. You were the only Asian student on that stage tonight.”
But an entire auditorium had heard my voice, even if it trembled into the mic. For two minutes, I implored them to understand not just me, but the community I came from. Poetry could startle others into empathy. So much of my adolescence was spent biting my own tongue, because I didn’t think I had anything important to say. But in that moment, I resolved to be brave, loud, and honest for the rest of my life.
My relationship with poetry is ever-shifting. In my early college years, I held this deep conviction that poetry was supposed to be abstract. I wrote some very strange stuff that I thought to be deep and insightful but was probably just pretentious. Lately, I’ve decided that I want my work to speak to a wider audience, so I’ve moved away from more experimental stuff. And, of course, my first love is still fiction, and I’m currently knee-deep in novel revisions, so I seldom write poems these days, although here’s a reminder that you can check out my latest in the Letters from Home to Home exhibit.
Even if you’re not a big fan of poetry, I hope this blog post was fun! If you write a poem, feel free to post it as a comment.