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Liner Notes: “The Lies You Learned”

1941 poster of the Great Levante, a magician
1941 poster of the Great Levante (via National Library NZ on the Commons)

I started writing “The Lies You Learned” on a plane ride back to Columbus from California in January. The first line took root in my mind; mesmerized, I opened a new document and began typing, wanting to know more.

But it took me a number of drafts to get the poem to where I wanted it to be. It was originally a poem about diaspora, about losing your mother tongue and having it supplanted by an oppressor’s tongue—but the poem started veering in other directions, so I scrapped that premise.

Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that that premise transformed. It became less about positioning a mother tongue against an assimilated tongue and more about how we learn to speak about ourselves, and about our position in relation to others. How we come to understand ourselves as racialized subjects, and how that understanding intersects with explorations of sexuality and self-worth, two separate concepts that too often get tied together in unfortunate ways.

The draft sat there for a while, speaking only of the kinds of lies that white supremacy and sexism place on people. But there was a spark, a circuit to the logic, that was missing.

I’m grateful to Alyssa Wong for pushing me to take “The Lies You Learned” one step further: “We see what the illusionist gets from the apprentice,” Alyssa said, “but what does the apprentice get from the illusionist?” That question stuck with me, because it’s not as simple as having lies imposed on us. Sometimes, we can work them to our benefit, use them to play up images that appeal to others, to gain a superficial kind of power.

But it’s never satisfying. It’s never true. It leaves a wrenching in your gut, an ashen taste on your tongue. But if you try to strip yourself of those lies, of white supremacy, or sexism, oh—it’s not easy. It’s a process. And I deliberately left readers with the narrator at the beginning of that journey.

Because the journey never truly ends. But we can still take that first step with others, learn to unravel those lies with other apprentices’ support. Even if I consider myself further along in that journey than I was before, I still find myself falling back into lies and traps, only ever being extricated through the help of friends who can see through to my truths.

This poem is very dear to me and was at times difficult to write because of how personal it was. But I hope that it speaks to others, whether or not you’re racialized in the same way, or gendered in the same way, because the truth is that we all learn lies that need to be excised.

My betas for this piece were Sonja Natasha, Alyssa Wong, and Nicasio Andres Reed. Thank you for your time and support 💓

Liner Notes: “Particularities” and “Consistencies”

Particularities (postcard)I grew up in Southern California, where, as I like to say, there are only three seasons: hot, hotter, and fire. Wildfires are a common occurrence; I even had one encroach close to my childhood home, though thankfully firefighters were able to stop it before it did any damage.

Particularities” was based on a real experience I had: My family and I were driving on a freeway—I now forget which one—when the sky became orange. Somewhere up ahead, there was a wildfire that was throwing enough ash into the air to mess with the sunlight. When I later saw photos from the massive dust storm that happened in Australia in 2009, I was struck by the resemblance to that day in the car.

Then, before inkscrawl submissions opened, wildfires in Canada cast enough ash in the air so that sunlight in Ohio was just barely orange. I was perhaps the only one out of my friends who noticed that the color of the light had changed, and I’d only noticed because of my own experiences that they’d never shared. I found myself struck by the fact that this, of all things, made me miss Southern California.

When it came time to write a poem about atypical weather, all these factors coalesced into this tiny poem about Mars and the strange things that spark nostalgia.

My betas for this piece were Kathleen Banks, Gabby Reed, David Howcroft, and Sonja Natasha.

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Consistencies (postcard)Consistencies” came about via an entirely different process. I was contemplating classical Chinese couplets and thinking about how I might translate not only the content, but the form itself into English. As I said to Bogi Takács in my submission to em,

Chinese couplets have a number of restrictions, and Classical Chinese poems like Du Fu’s “Winding River (1)” are composed of sequential, thematically related couplets. I have kept the thematic relation between couplets in my poem, and wanted to mirror the incidental rectangular shape of fixed-length Chinese poetry by making each line exactly 42 characters long—(5 characters for the average length of English words + 1 character for spaces) × 7 units, to loosely mirror a Chinese fixed-length line of 7 written characters. Another way to “translate” the form from Chinese to English would be based on syllable count and stress patterns, but, for this poem, I stuck to the character count restriction.

I was concerned that the gimmick of the poem was more interesting than the poem itself, so I sent “Consistencies” to a number of readers to see if it had artistic value beyond what I saw as its cool factor. The response was unanimous: people loved the poem and found it interesting and beautiful, so, reassured, I sent it off to inkscrawl, where Bogi Takács also enjoyed the poem.

My readers for this piece were Sonja Natasha, Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, Rachel Kronick, Gabby Reed, Stephanie Dering, Roger Que, and Kat Hsi.

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These poems stand alone, but I like to think of them as a diptych: one speaks of fire and earth; the other speaks of water and air. (And a little bit of earth.)

The titles mirror each other as well. “Particularities” conjures for me not only the literal definition of the word—the differences, here between two places—but also the particles of dust and ash that are so prominent in the poem. “Consistencies,” meanwhile, echoes the similarities between the two places, the fact that the narrator measures the consistency of water, and the rigidity of the form.

(That’s right, I slipped puns into my titles, and no one noticed.)

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The images I’ve included in this post are postcards I’ve created with both poems overlaid on my photography. The photo for “Particularities” was taken at Antelope Canyon in Arizona, and the photo for “Consistencies” was taken at Olympic National Park in Washington. If you’d like, you can purchase a postcard at my store.

Thank you for reading.