Admissions

IMG_3068I admit that I’m struggling today, and have been struggling for a little while. I enjoy admitting things, which is likely why I titled my first book Admission Requirements— admitting things requires a lot from us, a lot of grief, a lot of trauma, particularly in regards to ongoing violence, colonialism, the poverty of the spirit and of the body. In that book I wanted to explore how much it cost myself to admit that I did not fit in to the image of Canadian multiculturalism, and how much it costs our national imaginary to be constantly cloaking itself in the myth of its origins and the rhetoric of multiculturalism and diversity.

Since the outbreak of the corona virus in China, I felt the weight of the social silencing that attempted to muffle the doctor who first sounded the alarm of the virus. Like most people outside of China the deaths, the quarantines and the pain felt distant and removed from our daily lives and I couldn’t quite let myself admit that the virus would reach us, though of course in the back of my mind I knew it would have to. It was easier to go about my day to day routine, to take the subway to the work and to greet the students I tutored, to enjoy dinners with friends and long walks on unseasonably warm February days that felt like a surprise package delivered to the door.

The closure of the university where I work, the social distancing, and the city wide closures have happened so quickly that I still feel at times I’m living in an alternate reality, yet I’m anxious that they haven’t happened quickly enough. While I’m already used to working from home, particularly when I had deadlines to meet and manuscripts to edit, those long weekends when I sequestered myself indoors were always a choice, and the thought that I would be able to leave the house after the work was completed always buoyed me. At the moment, I feel as though the deadline is interminable. I constantly have the sense of something unfinished.

Last month I finished a new manuscript of poetry and sent it to my publisher. As usual, the completion of a project leaves me feeling accomplished, but also bereft. What I love most is to be inside of a project that is consuming and immersive, because the act of creation is the best kind of distraction. Yet it’s possible that for years, I have relied on writing to not confront other griefs and difficulties. The fact that I’m currently without a manuscript to work on, and also am unable to take part in the social interactions at work and with students which has, since I started to tutor and teach several years ago, functioned to keep the looping thoughts at bay, combined with the isolating circumstances that the COVID-19 virus has imposed on us, means that I’m floating in a vast tank of restlessness and unease.

IMG_2937Many of the things I would usually do to relieve my mind and to destress are currently unavailable– visiting my parents, taking a day trip, booking an Airbnb on the edge of Gatineau park or Montreal, visiting museums, galleries and libraries, seeing live music, reaching out to friends for a drink or a bowl of noodles, going for coffee with an emerging writer, dating someone new, lingering in parks with a picnic. It’s only been a few weeks, so it’ll take time to find new routines and new ways of finding resilience. My rituals now feel fractional and tiny– cooking meals and washing dishes, journal writing, knitting rows after row of a never-ending sweater, watering the office plants I took home from me, short walks along the Humber, washing my hands, rearranging my apartment, doing yoga on the floor, reading through my stack of unfinished books, logging onto online meetings, giving feedback to the folder of manuscripts on my desktop, taking my vitamins, enjoying a square of chocolate, watching yeast rise– things that I’m comforted to think that everyone else inside with their doors locked are also doing, and which explains the dearth of any kind of flour from grocery shelves. The paucity of activities allowed to us makes each one have more texture than it usually might.

Yet I admit to scrolling endlessly through social media, shopping websites and news, to sometimes sleeping in until past noon, to not answering text messages or calls, to lying on the couch until my back aches. I admit to not doing any of things I know will make me feel better, almost as if the idea of productivity at this moment somehow offends me. Productivity, for once, is taking a back seat to the panic-stricken focus of driving through the upended visions of our lives towards the uncertainty of hope and the belief that our futures will be there when we reach it. That our work, our commitments and our relationships will still be intact when this virus has taken the toll we so despairingly allow it.

At the same time, there is an anxiety over what the world will look like when we can emerge from our isolation without trepidation again. Because things going back to how they were before, while it may be a deep inner and understandable desire, is also impossible and unbearable. The unpreparedness, the hubris, the wage gaps that reflect our social hierarchies, the racism and discrimination, the class stratification, the vulnerabilities in our housing, the old inefficiencies and bureaucracies, and the inaction around climate change cannot continue.  The very same governments who are protecting us now and who are closing borders and encouraging renters to withhold rents also sent RCMP into unceded Indigenous territories, made massive cuts to education and student loans, and cut health care funding. So the anxiety that life in our first world countries will not resume in the ways we’re accustomed to and that it must necessarily be altered lays bare the inequities that I and other citizens have tacitly accepted, even when we felt there was no choice but to participate in the cult of productivity and the capitalist systems that engender our livelihoods. As taxpaying, employed and debt-carrying citizens, it is our privilege to critique these systems and to protest the disparities and infringements even as we continue to advance in our careers, pay rent and mortgages and teach our children to navigate flawed institutions.

“In This Together” were the words that inscribed a bedsheet tied to the front of someone’s porch and that I read while crossing the street to avoid a few older passerby with their beagle on a leash. I heard a father shout to his kids as he tossed them a baseball from an empty schoolyard. I’m struggling to imagine what my routines and what this city will look like when we can resume normality, the very normality that, even on sunny days, I have trouble getting out of bed to meet.

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A Year of Healing

I’ve been simultaneously stalling on and anticipating reflecting on 2019, this rocky, unsettled beach of a year. I’m the same way with writing– approaching it with trepidation while knowing how satisfying it’ll feel to unblock thoughts.

Whenever I stay with my parents in BC for the holidays, I find it difficult to reflect and to write. It’s a beautiful but small apartment, part shop, part studio, and part living area, and since I only see my parents once or twice a year, we pack in the conversations and activities. My mom and I just got back from two days in Victoria, and the ferry rides, gallery visits, dinners out, and long seaside walks were simply extended excuses for talking. When the weather allows, we take the bus up to Lynn Valley or the salmon fishery, or the UBC Endowment Lands, and walk trails until our boots are muddy and our minds tumbled with memory and future plans.

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Yellow chairs, glazed with rain, Lonsdale Quay

The theme of this year has been one of healing, consolidating, and collaborating. 2017 was a launching and culmination of many years of labour, leaving me feeling extremely thankful but also dissociated from myself and my body, while in 2018 I continued to  receive attention for my writing and editing while working full-time, and eased up on doubting myself. Yet the years preceding these were just as hectic and hard on my body, and with each passing year into my 30s I could feel the slowdown– headaches, alcohol intolerance, increase of anxiety, erratic weight loss and gain, iron and vitamin deficiencies, and simply, a lower tolerance to social interaction with longer times needed for my immune system to restore itself. In other words, clear signs of borderline burnout.

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Solidifying Occupations

Like a wheel, a writer’s career turns and rotates back on itself from years of incubation, to its publication and reception, slowing back down to a new period of gestation. I have felt the past few years pulling me up towards the public, towards the highest point of my first book’s success, though it was relief when the months cycled me away from that hecticness and back towards the quiet and depths of new manuscripts and projects.

In 2019, two years since Admission Requirements was launched, my book has gone into its third printing, sold just under 1500 copies (from what I can understand on Penguin Random House’s author portal stats), and been taught in university literature classes. This year saw my first international publication, in the Danish-based Sindroms magazine. In February, I received a commission from Diaspora Dialogues to write a Toronto-specific poem based on the text of an emerging writer, for Hello, Neighbour, and the podcast of the event, hosted by Hana aha Duncan, can be heard here.

As well, my poem, ‘Two Tea Bowls’ was set to a music by composer Tawnie Olsen and performed by the Orpheus Choir for a Diaspora Dialogues’ concert on International Women’s Day. Raising Her Voice commissioned four new choral works by four female composers, all of which used a text by a female Canadian poet. I also wrote and recorded some food-specific poems as a part of a light-hearted CBC podcast, Personal BestPersonal Best, on an episode titled “How to fall in love with the culinary arts.”

In the spring, I attended MagsWest 2019 to moderate a panel on Supporting Asian Canadian Writers with Yilin Wang, Anna Ling Kaye and Shazia Hafiz Ramji, and also to give a talk on Building Good Working Relationships with Emerging BIPOC Writers, and my invitations and participation at MagsWest wouldn’t have been possible without the support of both Yilin and Sylvia Skene, MagsWest’s Executive Director.

Also in March, I visited UNB in Fredericton and Dalhousie University in Halifax to give readings– many thanks to the efforts of Rebecca Salazar, Triny Finlay, Ross Leckie, Annick MacAskill and Erin Wunker for organizing, finding funding, and marshalling warm bodies into seats on my behalf. Annick and I were at last able to read together, along with local poets Nanci Lee and Katie Clarke, and despite a last minute venue cancellation we gathered for an amazing evening at the Nova Scotia Writers Federation and collected funds in support of a local youth arts association, iMove.

Later in spring brought some events to promote the two anthologies I appeared in last year, Refuse: CanLit in Ruins and What the Poets are Doing, and local readings at Art Bar, Tartan Turban, the U of T alumni reunion, and a panel on the role of the writer in radical times in Hamilton.

Throughout the fall and spring, I visited fifteen elementary and high schools to run Poetry in Voice workshops, working with approximately 300 students and 20 teachers in Toronto, Thornhill, North York, Markham, Richmond Hill, Georgetown, Brampton, Holland’s Landing, Oakville, Hamilton, and Owen Sound via Skype. The long treks on regional buses definitely added to my back strain (not to mention the numerous books and rolls of poster paper I hauled with me), but for these school districts it was really meaningful to have a guest visitor from the city, and I was able to improve my classroom projecting voice at the same time (though some teachers took pity on me and hung a portable mike around my neck during really rowdy times. If you think students don’t get rowdy over poetry, you’ve not seen them reciting Wayde Compton or Rita Joe or Walt Whitman’s ‘Beat, Beat Drums.’)

It’s very easy for me to forget what I have been doing, maybe it’s a kind of survival instinct to not look back. Summarizing it here, I’m overwhelmed, as if seeing myself moving in a blur, like a roadrunner cuckoo. Yet I’m also grateful for the clouds of dust, or in this year, papers, emails, invoices, calendar notifications and new faces that sweep across the vista of days with a flurry that leaves me without any thoughts except where I might find my next coffee, bathroom break, repose.

In the spaces in between, I have found the blank pages and tentative lines of new poems, stories and essays, and also the outline and shape of my now permanent role at OCAD U. This fall with bring more travel and rushing about, but also I hope, stillness, as in when a force lifts the body away from the earth in a few moments of suspension before it returns it back to its berth.