April Halprin Wayland’s “Immigrant”

It’s amazing how much can be communicated in a few short lines. Take this stanza from April Halprin Wayland’s poem, “Immigrant”:

When we finally ran, when we caught the train,
when the giant came,
when the rain rolled in.

We are thrilled to perform this piece on June 17 at Our Stories, Ourselves, our Third Thursday show hosted in partnership with the San Jose Museum of Art.

April Halprin Wayland, named UCLA Extension Writer’s Program Outstanding Instructor of the Year, is the author of an award-winning YA novel in poems, children’s poetry, and picture books, which have been praised by The New York Times, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly.

Her novel in poems for young teens, Girl Coming in for a Landing (Knopf) won the Myra Cohn Livingston Award for Best Poetry Book, Penn State’s Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor Award for Poetry, was nominated by the American Library Association both as a Best Book for Young Adults, and as a Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers. It was selected for the California Collections by California Readers, and is a Junior Library Guild selection.

Her poetry has been published on the Poetry Foundation website and in over 50 anthologies for children, including over 50 poems in Cricket Magazine, which invited her to write a poem for their anniversary issue. She’s one of six children’s authors on the blog, TeachingAuthors.com, through which she connects to the vibrant universe of children’s poets in the Kidlitosphere, and Poetry Friday. For over ten years, she has written a poem a day. Her tagline? 1/2 author, 1/2 poet, 1/2 not good at fractions.

She was kind enough to answer a few questions before our June 17 show.

urselApril Halprin Wayland

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

Geez! My practice has gone through many stages…waves. Wild riptides that nearly pulled me under, others that pulled me far, far away from who I wanted to be. Right now, my writing is a soothing bath. I write a poem every day and let it take as long as it needs.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

It means my DNA is a passport, permanently stamped in the Ural Mountains of Russia, in Galicia (a territory of the Austrian Empire that existed from 1772 to 1918), in Argentina, Canada, Ohio, New Jersey, Northern California and Southern California, and that I have an invisible number tattooed on my right shoulder. 

What else should we know about you?

I was hatched in a beautiful bird’s nest built by my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, who were deeply committed to making our world better. My sister and I, our spouses and children proudly make good trouble in their names.

Also that I have turned into the woman you remember from your childhood who had all those animals. My zoo includes 8 pond turtles (adult and babies), 3 tortoises (adult and babies), a box turtle, a goofy, galumphing dog and a hilarious kitty.

Take a class with April:

  • I’m teaching a 3-hour class on Writing Poetry for Children in UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program on July 17th noon-3pm PST. Register here.
  • I’m teaching a 10-week class on Writing Picture Books for Children in UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program beginning September 21st noon-3pm PST. (Registration opens July 26th)

check out more of her work:

join us june 17 to see us perform april’s work.

Keiko O’Leary’s Recipe for Hamburgers

While the kids at Keiko O’Leary‘s school ate McDonald’s hamburgers, her mom made teriyaki hamburgers at home. We love her poem, “Recipe for Hamburgers, 1985,” and look forward to performing it on June 17 at Our Stories, Ourselves, as part of San Jose Museum of Art’s Third Thursday series.

Keiko first tried non-teriyaki hamburgers in fourth grade. She writes short pieces, including poetry, fiction, and marketing copy. She is also involved in a new online writing community, Prolific Writers Life. A fellow writer from San José, Lorraine Haataia, started the initiative with the vision of a writing community that’s always there when you need it. Writers can share their expertise by offering workshops and events, and they can benefit from the expertise of others by attending. 

POWSJ fans will remember Keiko from our New Year, Nouveau show, in which Alex Draa performed her piece, “The Golden Beauty of Carlina Johansen, Author of Milliner’s Dreams.” She was kind enough to answer a few questions for us in advance of our June 17 show.

Keiko O’Leary

How did you hear about Play On Words?

Wow, it’s been so long. I feel like you’ve always existed. I’ve been involved in San Jose’s literary community for many years. Maybe I heard about you through the Flash Fiction Forum, or the San Jose Poetry Slam, or the Santa Clara County Poet Laureate program, or Poetry Center San Jose … It’s wonderful that we have so many vibrant literary organizations, including ones focused on performance. 

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

I’ve experienced a deep change during the pandemic. I still do mostly the same activities, but my relationship with them is completely different. 

I used to view my creative practice as something I needed to force myself to do more of. I was forever trying out new routines and challenges in an effort to conform to some ideal work level that I could never reach. 

During the pandemic, with my kids at home, I lost all my professional time. At first, I tried to make the sacrifice gracefully, but I failed. 

I came to realize that the only way I could be a good parent was if I made time for self-care. I’m not talking about baths and pedicures. For me, self-care is writing, teaching, making art, giving workshops. Now I view my creative activities as vital to my health and my family’s happiness.

I still do challenges and try new routines, but I approach them with joy instead of with a whip.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

I’m fourth generation on both sides: all eight of my great-grandparents were immigrants to the United States. But they didn’t all come from the same place. 

I grew up in a multicultural family, so switching from culture to culture seems normal to me. But when I was a kid explaining sushi to my friends at school, I hoped that one day I’d experience being part of a group where everyone was the same. This turned out to be impossible. Even within groups I have chosen, I always find myself to be a voice of diversity: a poet among engineers or an engineer among poets. As an adult, I’ve come to accept this as normal and good, and to understand that I’m not alone in being different. 

Everyone has something unique to offer in any group they belong to.

I met Sandra Cisneros when her novel Caramelo first came out, and she gave this advice for writers: think of a group you belong to, say women or actors, and write down ten ways you are different from other people in that group. Do this for ten groups you belong to. Multiply all those differences together, and that’s the place you write from. 

I believe our differences are valuable, and we should not deny our heritage — any of our heritages. 

I claim my heritage in every line I belong to, not just as a person of Japanese descent and Irish descent, but also as an American, a writer, an artist, a computer scientist, a linguist, a woman, a queer person, a human being, a life form of the planet Earth.

What else should we know about you?

I love sending real mail, especially postcards and handmade pop-up cards. I also have an email list where I send (digital images of) handwritten letters. I write letters of encouragement and practical tips for creative people who want to improve their craft, organize their life, and see the big picture while taking meaningful action today. People can sign up at http://keikooleary.com/list/signup.html.

Join us June 17 to hear Keiko’s poem performed aloud.

Chaney Kwak’s Life as a Passenger

“No matter how hard we try to make up narratives to explain past events, history seems to me no more logical than it is compassionate,” writes Chaney Kwak in “Seventy-some Years Ago,” an excerpt of his forthcoming memoir, The Passenger: How a Travel Writer Learned to Love Cruise & Other Lies from a Sinking Ship.

Chaney’s excerpt tells the story of his father, who immigrated to his native Korea from Japan, where he had been living with his family at the time. We love Chaney’s thoughtful and incisive writing, especially given the way he contextualizes his family’s journey seven decades later, from the prow of a sinking cruise liner off the coast of Norway. We’re delighted to perform his work on June 17 as part of our Our Stories, Ourselves show with the San Jose Museum of Art.

Chaney’s work appears regularly in newspapers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, as well as magazines such as Afar, Condé Nast Traveler, and Travel + Leisure. A recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Emerging Writer Award from the Key West Literary Seminar, Chaney teaches nonfiction writing with the Stanford Continuing Studies program and lives in San Francisco.

Before San Francisco, Chaney spent six years in Berlin where he failed to experiment with drugs or get into famed techno clubs. He did discover his love for exploration by sneaking into places like decommissioned Soviet military bases and the former Iraqi Embassy on Tschaikowskistraße. He broke into the world of professional travel writing by reporting on an abandoned East German amusement park for The New York Times.

Fast-forward ten years, he was freelancing for magazines like Travel + Leisure when he boarded the infamous Viking Sky cruise ship that lost power in the middle of a storm, charging straight toward the shore. After aging considerably during the 27 hours drifting at sea, he returned to California, where he now dedicates his time to more sedate pursuits like beekeeping and writing a book.

Chaney Kwak

Join us june 17 to see chaney’s work performed aloud.

Sebastian Gomez Biggeri

“I taught myself to U the O’s, fizz the TH’s and water down the R’s. San Fernando. Los Gatos. San Hosey. Love and fear made this place real, like the vaccine scar on my arm,” writes Sebastian Gomez Biggeri, a Latino visual artist living and working in San Jose.

We were mesmerized by Sebastian’s turns of phrase in both English and Spanish and are delighted to perform a series of his short pieces on June 17 in partnership with the San Jose Museum of Art. He is currently exploring a series of vignettes comprised of short writings, drawings, and digital art, and will be participating in the Cultura Power Fellowship through Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA).

Sebastian Gomez Biggeri, photographed by Juliana Rico.

Sebastian was kind enough to answer a few questions about himself and his work in advance of the show. We are providing his answers in Spanish and English.

How did you hear about Play On Words?

My partner may have forwarded it to me, or perhaps I learned about it through the SJMA. 

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

Siempre he percibido el presente como algo muy precario, y la pandemia hasta ahora no ha catalizado ningún cambio fundamental. Al contrario, parece ser otro estertor más de la gran pesadilla que se devora a sí misma con nosotros adentro.

Pero si me ha ayudado a desprenderme de ciertas pretensiones que me demoraban creativamente. Hay cierto consuelo en la melancolía de las escalas geológicas, la certeza de que el plástico y las penas eventualmente serán otra capa sedimentaria. Un proceso mucho más lento pero no muy diferente al régimen de una cultura curada algorítmicamente, donde todo es novedad e inmediatamente sepultado para siempre bajo el flujo de información. 

Sumándole a esto un momento de verdadera crisis material donde mi interés se enfocó más en la solidaridad comunitaria y la acción política, mi práctica artística logró reconciliarse con lo efímero. El mío es un acto insignificante pero universal, como regar las plantas o caminar con una piedra en el zapato.

Our present always felt utterly precarious, and the pandemic so far hasn’t catalyzed any fundamental change. On the contrary, it only has exacerbated the ongoing conditions, one more gasp of the great nightmare that devours itself, with all of us in it.

Nonetheless, the sudden direness made obvious for me that certain pretensions had become creative obstacles.

There’s solace in the melancholy of geologic time scales. The certainty that plastic waste and sorrows eventually will be just another rock layer. A process much slower but not that different from the regime of a culture algorithmically curated where everything is novelty and immediately buried forever under the flow of information.

In a moment of true material crisis where my focus and energy turned into mutual aid and political involvement, I was able to reconcile my artistic practice with the transience of its fruits. An insignificant but universal act, like watering the plants or walking around with a stone in my shoe.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

Herencia es una palabra pesada para alguien que siempre vivió de paso, pero con los años he descubierto cosas de mi origen que atesoro. No sabría decir cuánto se debe a la nostalgia del expatriado y que otro tanto a la erosión que va revelando nuestros rasgos más fundamentales. Cualquiera sea el caso, es parte de una conversación continua con los demás que me obliga a ser honesto conmigo mismo. La complacencia de estetizar las afecciones regionales nos termina transformando en caricaturas. Me tomó tiempo entender que el exotismo es una dinámica colonial, es la sintetización benigna e inoculada de lo foráneo. El rol que me hacía sentir especial es un viejo yugo imperial. La verdadera herencia son las costumbres con las que entendemos la justicia, el amor, y la soledad. 

Heritage ended up being two faces of the same coin for me, depending where I am. As an immigrant, I can’t tell how much of it is nostalgia and what’s due to our fundamental characteristics contrasting against the foreign landscape. However it may be, it is part of a continuous dialogue with others that compels me to be honest with myself. Indulging in exotic affectations turns us into caricatures, for exoticism is the synthesis of a colonialist dynamic that inoculates what’s foreign and processes it into something benign. Partaking in the role that made me and others feel special but void is an old yoke. I see my heritage as the elusive customs through which I understand justice, love, and loneliness.

What else should we know about you?

I was born and raised in Argentina, and I’m a graphic designer by trade. Since last year I’ve been intermittently working on vignettes and short stories @gunsgermsandmemes. I’d also like to plug a new podcast by Juliana Rico that focuses on conversations about art with BIPOC creatives, @artinmotionpodcast.

Join us on June 17 for our stories, ourselves, to see sebastian’s work performed aloud.

Lyra Halprin Rescues Esther

Lyra Halprin’s mother never liked raising money for raffles. It wasn’t until many years later that she discovered why: Saralee’s family hosted raffles to earn the money needed to help their family in Europe escape persecution. Somehow, selling candy door to door just didn’t seem that important.

We were moved by the voice and narrative in Lyra’s essay, “Rescuing Esther,” which ties the story of her family fleeing Europe to Trump-era America, where she was eager to show recent arrivals to the U.S. that they were, indeed, welcome and necessary parts of the community. We’re excited to read an excerpt of this piece on June 17 as a part of Our Stories, Ourselves, in partnership with the San Jose Museum of Art.

Lyra is a Northern California writer whose stories have aired on NPR, Capital Public Radio-Sacramento, and KQED-San Francisco, and appeared in newspapers, magazines and online venues. A former reporter, she worked for 20+ years as a public information person for the University of California sustainable agriculture programs. She is working on stories about growing up in an activist family in the 1950s and ‘60s and believes the secret to living in this crazy world is having a big humor gene, a loving family and a soft dog.

She was kind enough to answer a few questions in advance of our June show.

Lyra @ Davis Central Park rally 2017 for immigrants

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

I used to meet with 2 writers every month, sending them what I was working on ahead of time. Now we meet every week, talk a little, then leaving the camera on we write.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

The dreams, fears, delights and memories we/they bring with us/them.

What else should we know about you?

A writer friend described her students stumbling into “completely unconfined, holy gears in their writing,” words that bring tears to my eyes because they explain how I often feel at the keyboard. I cherish those holy gears as I’ve been working on transforming my essays and journal entries into memoir stories about a girl growing up a feminist in California in the 1950s-70s. My stories feel more urgent in the wake of our frightening political reality.

I’m reminded that members of my family perished in the Holocaust, and family and friends were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era, but I grew up in a vibrant activist household filled with hope and optimism. I want to share that with my children, other young people, and those grappling with feelings of hopelessness to show that natural beauty, art, music, and progressive action can thrive and sustain us during chaotic times.

Join us June 17 to hear Lyra’s work performed aloud.